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BioLogos and the Search for Truth

The BioLogos Foundation’s president, Deborah Haarsma, issued a statement recently that merits comment. BioLogos is the organization known for seeking to draw Evangelical Christians to the theory of unguided Darwinian evolution. Now Haarsma has announced on the group’s behalf an institutional desire to clean house.

Truth Matters

In “Truth-Seeking in Science,” she wishes to leave no uncertainty about one thing: BioLogos wants to find out the truth and communicate it to others. Dr. Haarsma writes, “We are committed to seeking out the truths in both of these revelations [Scripture and nature],” “I want to flesh out what truth-seeking looks like in science,” “how we are implementing truth-seeking,” “Part of truth-seeking…is a healthy willingness to change your viewpoint,” “A scientist doesn’t discover truth all on her own,” “we are living out our commitment to truth-seeking,” “Here are some cases where we have revised content as part of our process of truth-seeking,” “Truth matters.” These are wonderful aspirations, and we at Discovery Institute agree with Haarsma. 

But exactly how have the viewpoints at BioLogos been amended? Like a summer’s day in Seattle, it’s a bit cloudy — at least on the most interesting points. These include nylonase and whether it “show[s] rapid protein fold evolution,” intelligent design proponent Stephen Meyer and his book Darwin’s Doubt, and how population genetics bears on the question of human origins and a primordial first couple. Evolution News has covered all these subjects in detail in the past, often disagreeing with and criticizing the writers at BioLogos.

Thanks to a tip from a friend, who forwarded a link to Haarsma’s statement, we learn that BioLogos has reorganized some of their content. They cleaned up (or removed) some old pages that were in error.  

But there does seem to be something missing. Usually if a scholar discovers he or she has made a serious error (especially when attacking someone else), one expects an open acknowledgment of the error on the record. Certainly, contributors to Evolution News have had to correct figures, for example concerning estimates of the percentage difference in DNA sequence between chimpanzees and humans. It’s never pleasant to admit your mistakes publicly, and we don’t claim to be perfect in our own corrections. Nevertheless, simply deleting a serious error without specifically acknowledging and addressing what was in error is not helpful to the pursuit of truth. This is all the more the case when the error was used as the basis to attack another scholar.

Venema and Nylonase 

For example, the nylonase story was pretty egregious. Professor Venema used it as part of a direct attack on Stephen Meyer and intelligent design. Ann Gauger responded in a series of posts where she showed that the original assertion, that nylonase was the result of a frame shift mutation, was without basis, and that later papers demonstrated two mutations had produced nylonase activity in a pre-existing enzyme. At the time there was no retraction or apology for the false accusation. Now Venema’s post appears to be gone. I can find links but they lead nowhere. That’s too bad. An apology would admit what the error was and what damage it may have done. It could have been appended to the original article, or the original article itself could have been updated to acknowledge the error and state things accurately.

Why is this necessary? Anyone following an Internet trail that says Venema demonstrated Meyer was wrong using nylonase will come to a dead end, and never get the full story. That is, unless he or she finds Gauger’s articles, which are still up, but now link to nothing.

An article dealing with the vitellogenin gene by Venema has been revised, not deleted, but no one but Dr. Venema or Dr. Gauger is likely to know why or how. (Well, there was some push from others also.) It was revised because of Dr. Gauger’s criticism, but the figure that was the basis of the criticism is gone.

By contrast, note the forthright clarification at the end of what Gauger wrote in her article about Venema’s error, where she had to make a correction of her own.

Good Housekeeping

Dr. Haarsma acknowledges some clarification that is evidently thanks in part to Stephen Meyer, a “useful prompt to be more explicit in my talks, to always make at least a brief mention of the variety of evolutionary mechanisms.” But the acknowledgement is so vague that I have no idea what that is about. The same is true of the whole business about the number of individuals at the origin of humanity. Once again, some of the treatment here is obscure to me (“[we] have sometimes claimed more than that data show”), and likely to be fully unintelligible only to the people directly involved.

Meanwhile, Joshua Swamidass points out that they have taken down an article by Venema and Darrel Falk on the subject of the possibility of a first human pair. Dr. Swamidass notes, “This article was deleted without explanation from BioLogos in January 2020. This is an article of historical significance because it was the basis of an important article by Christianity Today in 2011, and it contains several major errors.”

Some errors uncorrected are relatively harmless. But others are significant and have a large impact. The Venema/Falk article was a big influence on the Christianity Today article on Adam and Eve, that in turn influenced many Christians. Is it right to just remove the offending article, now that it is clear that its science was wrong? Or should the article have been updated to acknowledge the errors?

For serious errors like these, it’s hard to see the record as truly fixed until things that were claimed that were untrue are openly acknowledged as wrong.

Photo credit: Kash Goudarzi via Unsplash.