My preference with these blog posts is to cover topics beyond origins and Genesis. There is so much other fascinating science to talk about, all of which reveals something about our physical reality and by extension something about the one who created it. But I do sometimes dip into faith and science conversations elsewhere, and lots of people have lots to say and lots to ask about Genesis and origins. Many of these conversations tread and retread the same territory, but one recently stuck with me in a way that I felt merited discussion. The topic was a recent book attempting to muster genetic evidence for recent, special creation of living organisms with limited subsequent diversification. One enthusiast expressed disappointment at the medium and source of a widely referenced critique; they expected something more prestigious of the highest levels of science. Detractors reflected on the book’s lack of methodological sophistication and the volume of unexplained data, indications that the discussion was far from the pinnacle of science.
In terms of the practice of science, I’m inclined to agree that the highest standards were not being met by the book and that the level of engagement and response from the wider scientific community was adequate. At the same time, one could consider the questions involved to be the most important ones science could answer. Indeed, questions about where we come from and the existence of God are central to the human experience. And for many, the answers have deeper implications than those for questions about, say, rectangles and closed curves. So should we consider a hierarchy for science based on the types of questions, and place origins at the highest level in that sense?
From my admittedly biased perspective, I think that is one of the differences between science and some other disciplines. In philosophy and theology, the big questions have enduring significance. Part of the ongoing work in those fields is to contextualize those perennial questions for new generations, engaging with new perspectives and shifting values. Or to put it another way, the questions themselves may not change, but the people asking them do. Consequently, it is perfectly appropriate to add new layers to the answers and doing so is real and necessary work. New questions may also arise in those fields, but they add to the conversation rather than changing the subject.
In science, however, there is a real sense in which questions can be answered and put aside to focus on new ones. For example, for a long time we wondered what the basis for inheritance was. Then we identified the chemical components of cells, and we narrowed the question down to a few molecular possibilities. Further experiments determined it was DNA that was the primary vehicle for passing on genes. And so we consider that question answered. Sure, as further data becomes available we may refine the answer to include secondary means of inheritance, but we are fairly confident we don’t have to revisit the possibility that DNA actually plays little or no role. And so from a scientific perspective, while we still consider the mechanism of inheritance an important question, it would no longer be considered high caliber science to try to answer it from scratch. At the same time, we can use the process of science to uncover new questions that we didn’t even know to ask before. For scientists, that’s what it looks like at the highest level.
So for those disappointed that scientists seem unwilling to engage more deeply on questions of great significance, like those of origins, I would affirm the importance of the questions and also affirm that one of the virtues of science is to answer questions and open up new ones. I would also acknowledge that the highest levels of answers do not all come from science. Questions about ultimate purpose and meaning and about what to value as a society are very important, and the answers will be constrained in certain ways by the facts of our physical reality revealed by science, but science alone cannot fully answer them. Thus the highest levels of our broader discourse don’t have to fully align with the highest levels of science, and we don’t have to pull science in the direction of our priorities to have a conversation on important questions.
About the author:
Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two teenagers, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.