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Obit for Famous Christian Paleontologist Peddles Warfare Myth

Jonathan Witt | @JonathanRWitt

Campbell

Renowned paleontologist Ken Campbell passed away, and a remembrance by fellow paleontologist John Long at The Conversation observes:

Ken was a religious man, in later life he became an elder of the Presbyterian Church in the ACT. Although he held deep views about his faith, he never let his personal beliefs get in the way of his research on fossils and evolution.

There are, I think, some telling confusions in those two sentences.

Professor Campbell “was an internationally respected authority on Australian geology and palaeontology,” so much so that “Ken had a dozen new species and two new genera … of fossils named after him by scientists from Australia, the United States, China and Canada.” Trilobites, crinoids, brachiopods, and more bear his name. By all accounts he was a skilled and industrious paleontologist, and a conscientious and beloved mentor.

Campbell also was apparently in the broad mainstream of modern evolutionary theory. So I take the paragraph above to mean that while Campbell was a serious Christian, he didn’t let his Christian faith get in the way of his believing in mainstream evolutionary theory.

Let’s step back for a moment and consider this.

In the Wake of Darwin’s Tree of Life

The fossil record’s pattern of abrupt appearance of new animal forms is well known. And genetic sequencing has made a hash of Darwin’s tree of life, leaving in its stead many competing trees of life. Is blind evolution a better explanation for these facts, or is intelligent design? And was Campbell open to the second possibility, or did he rule it out as a violation of methodological materialism? I don’t know. But if he did rule it out on principle, then it’s a case of a scientist letting a dogmatic rule “get in the way of his research on fossils and evolution.”

If that is the case, imagine if instead Campbell had let himself be guided in his scientific research by faith in a rational God who is both in and over the natural world, a God free to create new life forms either by common descent or in discrete acts of biological design — and if the latter, either through countless acts of discrete design or just at the most dramatic moments in the history of life (e.g., the origin of the first life, the Cambrian explosion, the Mesozoic, the first humans).

If Campbell let this orthodox view of God shape his assumptions about what was possible in the history of life on Earth, if he let his “personal beliefs” guide his investigation of the natural world in this way, he would have been comfortable with any of these origin scenarios and been free to simply follow the evidence where it led, no holds barred.

And yes, someone might protest that Campbell did simply follow the evidence and that the evidence pointed to something like common descent by blind evolutionary processes. But if that’s the case, is Campbell on record anywhere rejecting the rule of methodological materialism? Did he ever state publicly that he rejects that dogmatic rule? Did he ever publicly state that he is quite open to the design hypothesis for, say, the Cambrian explosion of new body plans, but simply finds the evidence for blind evolution of the Cambrian phyla by common descent a more compelling explanation of the evidence?

If he did, I hope someone will point me to where he said this. And I would love to see more biologists and paleontologists of faith who accept modern evolutionary theory taking that position on methodological materialism. Then we could agree to disagree about where the evidence points, but agree that if the evidence did point strongly to intelligent design, we should be willing to follow it there.

The Elephant in the Room

John Long, the obituary’s author, is assuming the old myth of the war between science and religion, a myth that cherry picks examples of religious figures attacking scientific trailblazers but dutifully ignores the ten-ton elephant in the room: the fact that it was thinkers in a distinctly Christian culture who invented science.

The idea that we live in a world with underlying physical laws that can be discovered through careful investigation was encouraged by the Judeo-Christian belief that nature is the rational and orderly work of a divine mind, a cosmic lawgiver. And that faith spurred Christians such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler to go looking for the underlying laws.

These Christians looked for those laws, and they found them. In the process, they launched the scientific revolution.

Christians invented modern science. It prejudices the matter to say that those men let their “personal beliefs get in the way of” their investigations of the natural world. “Get in the way” implies allowing fixed beliefs to obscure the truth. But their beliefs did inform their work, and thank goodness for that.

They believed in a rational creator and so they believed that nature possessed a hidden rationality. They believed humans were made in the image of God and so had some hope of discovering that hidden rationality. At the same time, they believed that God was free and so his means of creating couldn’t necessarily be worked out from first principles. That and the realization that humans were fallible creatures meant that observation and testing were essential to root out mistaken ideas. This cluster of religious beliefs allowed them to build on the work of the ancient Greeks and others, and so to make the final push that became the scientific revolution.

Rather than getting in the way, you might say that Christian faith pulled not-yet-science out of the muddy rut it was stuck in, fixed a broken wheel or two, and set it rolling on its path.

Scientist Ken Campbell is part of that tradition. What he is up to now? God of course knows. But I picture him with an astonished smile on his face as he continues that grand journey of discovery, running full stride, further up and further in.

Photo credit: Trilobites, by Kevin Walsh [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.