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Of Tree Rings and Humans

Tree rings.jpg

Professor Joshua Swamidass teaches in the Laboratory and Genomic Medicine Division at Washington University. On his blog he posed a challenge on an apparent theological conundrum having to do with human-ape common descent (“Evidence and Evolution“). To this, highlighting scientific issues raised (or not raised) by Swamidass, our colleague Cornelius Hunter responded here. Swamidass replied in a second post (“Call for Response to the Tree“) that did not address any of Dr. Hunter’s points.

He did cite criticisms of Hunter’s article posted by another ID advocate, Vincent Torley, at Uncommon Descent. Hunter has now responded to Dr. Torley.

This is all kind of interesting. ID advocates hold differing views, including on common descent, and seek to hash those out candidly. That’s healthy — and in contrast to the idea-policing that goes on in some others quarters among our evolutionary and theistic evolutionary critics.

Dr. Swamidass is a scientist but he emphasizes a theological question. In my experience, nine times out of ten, scientists trying to address theology produces disappointing results, much as I get ready to wince whenever I see that a priest, pastor, or rabbi wants to talk about science. Speaking across disciplines is great, but it takes a special gift. Scientists generally don’t go into science because they’re gifted in thinking about religion, and clergy don’t go into their field because they’ve got a head for science. Even when it comes to thinking broadly in their own area — science or religion — these professionals are often less than faultless guides, which is why in the end, a layperson has to think for himself.

That having been said, Swamidass begins his first post with a charming parable. It’s about a tree:

This story is meant to reduce the fear some feel when encountering evidence that might contradict their understanding of the Bible. This is the story of the scientist, the theologian, and the 100 year-old tree.

Let us imagine that God creates a fully grown tree today, and places it in a forest. A week later, a scientist and a theologian encounter this tree. The theologian believes that God is trustworthy and has clearly communicated to him that this tree was created just a week ago. The scientist bores a hole in the tree, and counts its rings. There are 100 rings, so he concludes that the tree is 100 years old. Who is right? In some senses, both the scientist and the theologian are right. God created a one week old tree (the true age) that looks 100 years old (the scientific age). Moreover, it would be absurd for the theologian to deny the 100 rings that the scientist uncovered, or to dispute the scientific age of the tree. Likewise, the scientist cannot really presume to disprove God. Instead, the theologian should wonder why God would not leave clear, indisputable evidence that this 100 year-old tree is just a week old.

I tell this story because it might encourage some religious thinkers to fearlessly approach the very strong genetic evidence for human evolution. Currently, it appears that, for some reason, God chose to create humans so that our genomes look as though we do, in fact, have a common ancestor with chimpanzees. If we allow for God’s intervention in our history, it is possible we do not share a common ancestor with apes. Adding God into the picture, anything is possible. Still, even if evolution is wrong, God did create us to appear as if we do have a common ancestor with apes.

He asks:

Ultimately, even if errors in the scientific account are uncovered, the theologian is left with an important question: why didn’t God make it clear and obvious, in our genomes, that humans did not evolve from apes?

There are a number of problems here.

Frankly, I’m not interested in policing anyone’s tone, any more than I am their ideas. Let our critics say what they want, how they want, so long as they get around to addressing the relevant science. But since Swamidass seems to be aiming for a disarmingly winsome, irenic style, it may be worth pointing out that assuming your interlocutors are in “fear” of your evidence, or your theological question, comes off as a bit patronizing:

This story is meant to reduce the fear some feel when encountering evidence that might contradict their understanding of the Bible.

I tell this story because it might encourage some religious thinkers to fearlessly approach the very strong genetic evidence for human evolution.

Nobody around here lives in “fear” of evidence for universal common descent, or feels afraid of any scientific ideas at all. In the wider circles I’m familiar with, religious or otherwise, no one cowers in terror of science. Those are media stereotypes.

More significantly, while he seeks responses to his tree parable and offers to publish them on his website, Swamidass sets some rules: “What is not allowed?” For one, “Responses focused on the science alone will be rejected.”

For another, he rules certain thoughts affirming intelligent design as out of court, on principle:

What about Design? All papers will be rejected if they simplistically conclude that “design” explains that humans and chimps are similar. This completely ignores the question, and is considered non-responsive. To be accepted, design papers might explain why humans and chimpanzees are more similar than other species they agree share common ancestors. The best papers in this category will move beyond just raw similarity to explain the patterns in the linked articles (like egg yolks, GLUC, chromosome 2, and more). Or maybe they might explain why God designed us to be like apes? Or why He designed us to confuse the scientist?

Defining certain ideas or approaches as disallowed, by fiat, is his right on his own blog, of course. But I wouldn’t recommend it. Debate and disagreement are all to the good — witness the tangling of Dr. Torley and Dr. Hunter. We’ve published our sharp critics here, and been turned down by other foes of ID whom we solicited to contribute dissenting posts, criticizing our arguments. More critics beg off than agree.

But put all that to one side. Swamidass says what he really wants is to rap about theology, not get “Distracted by Science,” as he puts it in a subhead in his second post. “Not surprisingly, many people read the word ‘evolution’ and fixate on the science, instead of thinking of the theology,” he says, going on to provide links to Cornelius Hunter’s article. But “fixating on the science” is a fair summary of our mission statement.

And his question about the tree is flawed. He wants to know: If the tree really is to be scientifically gauged at 100 years old, yet was planted last week, then why did God do that? Swamidass, as I said, solicits essays to publish on his blog in reply to this problem. He should consider republishing the speech out of the whirlwind from the Book of Job. But all this assumes that everyone knows — everyone who’s not a fool or coward, that is — that the “tree” really is 100 years old, or that it was really planted last week. With a tree, a bore into the rings is enough to end the scientific uncertainty. Common parentage between humans and apes is not as simple as that, as Cornelius Hunter tried to remind Dr. Swamidass.

The ID community includes some smart and well-informed people, scientists and other scholars, who find the evidence ambiguous at best. We’ll have more to say on that, touching on specific claims endorsed by Joshua Swamidass, next week.

The best policy may be to avoid mixing up theology and science. Engaging in theological speculations based on faulty scientific assumptions is not time well spent. Set aside theology, and drill down to the bottom of the relevant science. Let’s have that conversation. Or more fundamentally, let’s talk about the positive evidence for design in nature, and about the profound problems with Darwinism as an explanation for biological novelty.

Image credit: © alexeyborodin — stock.adobe.com.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.