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Adam and the Genome and Naïve Theology

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We’ve been reviewing biologist Dennis Venema’s book Adam and the Genome, but we’re not alone in doing so. In his own review at The Gospel Coalition, medical doctor and theologian Hans Madueme writes:

According to Venema, that [non-evolutionary] view renders God a deceiver since the evolutionary and genomic evidence give the appearance of common descent. Intelligent Design strikes him as a God-of-the-gaps argument, one that fails each time science fills in more gaps in our scientific knowledge. He asks us instead to view evolution “as God’s grand design for creating life” (90).

This is indeed how Venema often argues. Venema’s approach is one of naïve theology. On science and faith issues, it seems to go like this:

  1. He first assumes that the evolutionary perspective on a given topic is the only possible way to see the issue.
  2. Having ignored other options, he begins to think that an evolutionary interpretation is so correct that there is no way that God would have set up the evidence as it is unless He intended to indicate that evolution was the correct answer. To say otherwise would imply God is being deceitful.
  3. Venema thus concludes, on the basis of his unwarranted confidence in evolution, that unless God is lying, evolution must be true. The reader, accordingly, is under a something of a veiled threat, which we interpret as saying: “You better accept evolution, or else you’re calling God a liar. Come to think of it, that would make you a liar, too.”

But how did Venema reach this conclusion? He reached it because he ignored or diminished reasonable non-evolutionary interpretations. If those non-evolutionary explanations are correct, then God would not be lying. And you would not be a liar, either (nor calling God a liar), in registering doubts about the evolutionary explanation.

For those familiar with Venema’s style of arguing, it’s a lot of been there, done that. Venema habitually misses obvious non-evolutionary explanations for the data that are often just as good as his evolutionary explanations, if not superior to them.

In Adam and the Genome, it’s striking how frequently Venema relies on what comes down to an assertion that (our phrasing) “God would never do it this way.” How does Dennis know this? Trust him: he just does. We’ve seen this repeatedly. You may recall:

  1. Whale fossils, where Venema told God that He could not create species in a consecutive pattern in the fossil record that showed “intermediates.”
  2. Human-chimp genetic similarities, where Venema tells God that He must not create their genomes to be too similar unless He wants to indicate to people that they evolved from an ancestor shared with chimps.
  3. The gene p24-2, where Venema claimed that it is so similar in sequence and location to another gene, Éclair, that God would never create it like this, and thus it must reflect the gene’s unguided evolution.
  4. RNA binding affinities of certain amino acids, where Venema suggests to God that He would not have allowed these affinities to exist if the genetic code was not evolvable.

In cases (2) and (3), there could be legitimate functional or logical reasons for a designer to design the system as we see it. In case (1), we saw that the abrupt appearance of fully aquatic whales in the fossil record precludes an unguided evolutionary explanation. And in case (4), we saw that huge obstacles to the RNA World hypothesis indicate that binding affinities don’t necessarily point to an RNA-based code. Evolution is not the only possible explanation, and God is not deceiving us if blind evolution is not the right answer.

Ann Gauger, Ola Hössjer, and Colin Reeves have a fine response to Venema’s position in their chapter “Genetic Evidence for Human Uniqueness” in the book Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique:

The designer as a deceiver. This argument goes something like this, “If there is an intelligent designer, then why did he make it look like things evolve? That makes him a deceiver.”

There is a logical flaw here as well — it is stated as fact that things look like they evolved by natural processes. But things don’t look like they evolved. As has been shown, many good reasons to believe things were designed are found in molecular biology. There are also many examples from the design of larger scale structures like the eye or a bird’s wing; even the complementary and interlocking nature of the biosphere all give evidence of design.  In fact, biologists are continually told that they must remember that things only look designed — they really aren’t.  That clearly means the designer is not a deceiver. He has made it so that everyone can detect his design.

That’s exactly right. Venema assumes that things look like they evolved. Yet even Richard Dawkins has said that “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” It’s almost as if Venema is trying to cut the debate off before it starts, saying, in effect, “See, it looks like it evolved so if it didn’t, then God must be a liar. You don’t want to say that about God, do you?” Such an argument, which amounts to bullying or guilt-tripping his audience, discourages a serious conversation about what the evidence says.

Venema needs to let the scientific debate happen and leave God’s truthfulness and the morality of Darwin-skeptics out of it. The evidence will speak for itself, and whatever it says is the truth.

Moreover, to claim that God “must” or “must not” design things a certain way is to speak for God and risks putting words in His mouth. That is not recommended.

“God of the Gaps,” Revisited

Meanwhile, in case there’s any lingering sympathy out there for intelligent design, Venema tries to head off the design inference by claiming it is a “God of the gaps” argument. Oh please, not again. This accusation is a classic debate tactic among evolutionists. At the beginning of his Chapter 4, Venema quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

…[H]ow wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know; God wants us to realize his presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved.

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, May 30, 1944, Letters and Papers from Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge, translated by Reginald H. Fuller, Touchstone, 1997)

It’s ironic to find Bonhoeffer cited by Dennis Venema. By that measure, intelligent design is not in fact a “God of the gaps” argument! ID does not find evidence of design by any intelligent being in “what we don’t know” but rather “in what we know.” The design inference is fundamentally grounded in our experience-based observations that high levels of complex and specified (CSI) information come only from intelligence. We find evidence for design in what we know about the causes of new information. Intelligent design is a solution to the question of the origin of information.

Well, what if ID were a “gaps”-based argument? What might it look like? Something like this:

To put it another way, a gaps-based argument for design would say, “Natural selection and random mutation [NS] cannot produce new information, therefore intelligent design [ID] is correct.”

But there’s a crucial difference between that and the actual case for intelligent design made by ID proponents. A genuine argument for intelligent design goes as follows:

In other words, “Natural selection and random mutation cannot produce new information. Intelligent agency, uniquely in our experience, can produce new information. Therefore intelligent design is the better explanation for the information we see in life.” This is not a gaps-based argument. It’s a positive argument for design, based upon finding in nature the type of information that in our experience only comes from intelligence. Stephen Meyer frames the basic logic here in Darwin’s Doubt (p. 351):

Major premise: If intelligent design played a role in the Cambrian explosion, then feature (X) known to be produced by intelligent activity would be expected as a matter of course.

Minor premise: Feature (X) is observed in the Cambrian explosion of animal life.

Conclusion: Hence, there is reason to suspect that an intelligent cause played a role in the Cambrian explosion.

That’s not a “gaps-based” argument. For more on how ID is not a God-of-the-gaps argument (from which some of the above was adapted), please see:

The real issue, as Steve Meyer and Paul Nelson have discussed in the past, is methodological naturalism. When theists adopt methodological naturalism, they insist that God must always use secondary material causes, and He is never allowed to act in nature in a primary, scientifically detectable way. A commitment to methodological naturalism is the best way of understanding why Venema consistently rejects reasonable non-evolutionary explanations for the data at hand.

The reason ID proponents critique naturalism (whether methodological naturalism or otherwise) is because it presupposes materialistic answers to all questions about how life arose and diversified. That is bad empirical science.

Theistic evolutionists claim their position is the only viable one and that all other positions fail to grapple with the evidence and force God into the ever-diminishing gaps. Yet the truth is they are the ones who fail to grapple with the evidence in order to take an “evolution of the gaps” approach, where it is assumed that all gaps in our knowledge will be filled by evolution. Unfortunately, in Adam and the Genome, this seems to be the exact methodology at work.

Update: Venema argues that things don’t look designed — and if you think they do look designed then you are evidently calling God a liar, since He designed things so that they don’t look designed. This stands in stark contrast to the position of Dawkins, noted above. Though Dawkins thinks blind natural selection did the designing, his observation that living systems appear designed is nonetheless a straightforward, sensible one. Yet theistic evolutionists would move us from Dawkins’s reasonable position to an incoherent one, which effectively says, “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of NOT having been designed for a purpose, even though we take it on faith that they were.”

They might even add, “And if you think the conclusion of design can be reached by anything other than faith, then you’re calling God a liar because He designed things using evolution so they would NOT look designed.” Steve Meyer aptly comments on the irony and absurdity of the theistic evolutionary position:

[Theistic evolution] implies that the appearance or illusion of design in living systems results from the activity of an apparently undirected material process (i.e., classical and neo-Darwinism) except that this apparently undirected process is itself being used by a designing intelligence — or at least it could be, though no one can tell for sure. Or, to put it another way, we have moved from Richard Dawkins’s famous statement “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose” (Dawkins 1986, 1) to the proposition that “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose, though that appearance of design is an illusion (classical Darwinism), even though there may be an intelligent designer behind it all — in which case that appearance wouldn’t be an illusion after all.” This tangled — indeed convoluted — view of the origin of living systems adds nothing to our scientific understanding  of what caused living organisms to arise.

(Stephen Meyer, “Evolutionary Creation Critical View,” Zondervan Dictionary of Science and Christianity (2017), pp. 256-257)

Tangle and convoluted — yes, that about sums it up. And we, for our part, are about to wrap up and summarize this review of Venemas book. Coming up next.

Photo: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (NOT a naïve theologian), via Wikimedia Commons.