This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/the-history-of-the-american-scientific-affiliation-part-4
Please voice questions or offer comments about this column or the whole series. I’ve enjoyed editing Terry Gray’s short history of the single most important professional organization I’ve been part of.
Nothing was as important for me in forming my thoughts on science and Christianity as the old ASA e-mail discussion list. It was an amazingly well informed group of people. Ted and Terry were two of those knowledgeable people. These Biologos forums are interesting, but I haven’t found anything to compare to that ASA internet group.
Preston, I’m delighted you found the ASA email discussion so valuable. Shutting it down was a hard decision; when things went awry it was a management nightmare. ASA has tried various newer technologies to replace it but none have taken off In the same way. Of course, some blogs and forums do seem to work. There’s lots of best practices known but I’m not sure what the secret sauce actually is. The lurker to active poster ratio was always fairly high and at any one time on any given topic there were only a few people active in the discussion, everyone else was watching to learn. Another aspect that’s not easily reproduced by blog discussions and moderated forums is that anyone could introduce a topic. Of course, that’s often what allowed things to get out of control, but in the history of the email group we only had to step in a few times.
I also think the push nature of email contributes a dynamic for some people that gives the sense of participant, rather than outside observer. For me it’s probably for the best in terms of personal discipline and time management skills that listservs got replaced. The reality is that I give much less attentiion to a site if I have to make a regular effort to go there. It’s also much more amenable to the drive-by post that you never return to to follow-up.
Now I’ve drifted far afield from the history of ASA’s engagement with evolution. Best to get back on-topic!
Perhaps a question on the ASA history can get us back on track. In my reading all the pieces were in place in the ASA–the way of reading the Bible and the openness to the science and the state of the science (especially the protein sequencing data) were all in place by the late 70s, early 80s. Why did it take Francis Collins and BioLogos 30 years later to make the splash that is now being made? Was is Dr. Collins’s fame? Was it the money he was able to raise for the cause? Was it that genome based science is really more convincing than the earlier protein based results? Was it that human genome based science was more accessible to the lay audience? Did ID and YEC need to run their course for a bit longer? Is it the “broadening” of Fundamentalism/Evangelicalism that makes the timing better?
Terry, I’m probably not very typical, but I’ll describe my experience. I had already become convinced of evolution before I discovered the ASA group - I was a biochemist and when I realized that comparative genomics had the potential to be decisive in the great evolution conundrum, I started following the literature on the subject and on transposons and ERVs during the '90s. After a few hundred papers read in detail, concentrating mostly on human/primate comparisons, I decided that common descent was the only reasonable account for what was being found. The ASA group was critical for my starting to think about how to relate that to Christianity. There was a time when I thought the evidence for evolution was now so overwhelming and simple enough to be understandable by lay people that it would just sweep evangelical objections aside and the issue would go away.
Of course, it didn’t turn out that way, and my internet experience with the ASA group and other places quickly gave me lessons in the human psychology of defending cherished beliefs. That was informative in its own way. I came away with a new appreciation for human irrationality in some areas.
I think the development of these issues goes like this. Biologists see the evidence directly and are easily convinced. Some of them that are Christians know some theologian/Bible scholars and they tell them “trust me - you all can’t ignore this any more. This is not just a hypothesis any more. You don’t need to understand it. Just trust us - you’ve got to make some response to this.” A few of them, like Peter Enns, believed what they were told, and they started to tell some preachers and famous evangelical leaders. Some could deal with it and many more couldn’t. And thus the recent struggles began. Evangelicalism faces now the need to come to terms with the fact that the Bible is not exactly what it was thought to be. Evolution is only part of the problem. Biblical criticism and archaeology are other aspects. I’ve learned enough not to try to predict how this will turn out.
I think the comparative genomics was the killer evidence that created the crisis around evolution. (I think of genomics for evolution = Newton for astronomy and the new physics. Each was absolutely decisive for the relevant issue, although Newton was much harder to understand and lay people had to just believe the experts.) Until Newton, people could just invoke their senses, tradition and the Bible. I think it was Pope who said, “God said, let Newton be, and all was light.”
Until comparative genomics, people who wanted to resist evolution could always resort to “common design” as a universal explanation. When it became possible to compare genomes of similar species in detail, it was evident that even non-functional elements like transposons and pseudogenes were strikingly similar, down to location in exactly orthologous positions. So, yes, I think Francis Collins is an appropriate symbol of the dilemma evangelicals face, since he was a big time geneticist, head sequencer and deliverer of the unwanted news to evangelicals. (I should add that, even though many evangelicals can’t recognize it, Dr. Collins, with his gracious spirit, prestigious positions and winning testimony, is one of the better gifts that God has given to evangelicals in recent times.)
Preston, you describe well what has taken place in the past decade or so. My question is why so late. The protein sequence data ante dates the DNA data by some 30 years. I was exposed to it as an undergraduate in the 70s and while I was already convinced of evolution by then (and had reconciled my evangelical faith with it) the protein sequence data was confirmational icing on the cake and a slam dunk. Also, the key Biblical moves had been made by ASA type evangelicals in the 60s. Ramm, Bube, Berkouwer, Ridderbos have been arguing for reading scripture in light of its redemptive purpose since the 60s. Seely and Bube were saying of the Bible in the 60s what Lamoureax started saying in the late 90s.
While I appreciate Peter Enns’s acceptance of evolution, I don’t at all believe you have to go where he goes on hermeneutics and even the nature of scripture and inspiration to make it work. I’m much closer to Jack Collins and B.B. Warfield. I think you can preserve much of the Evangelical doctrine of scripture by acknowledging the ideas of condescension and phenomenological language. Most inerrantists have been willing to say that the Bible is not a textbook of science (i.e. its purposes are religious). Once you really understand that then you don’t really look to the Bible to do science. Now of course there are points of contact, vis-a-vis theological concerns: God’s relationship to Creation in the doctrine of providence, the nature of being human, but science plods on according to its own methods.
Even the Adam & Eve question becomes less urgent if you allow for an evolutionary origin of human biology. It’s possible along the lines that Derek Kidner proposed to have both. Representation and Federal Headship don’t require common descent. No one represented by Jesus Christ is biologically descended from Him. But you do have to acknowledge that the Bible doesn’t speak of this (it’s not a science textbook). And I’m not sure there’s any scientific evidence would confirm or disconfirm Kidner’s view.
Terry, my guess on why it took so long is that most evangelicals really don’t want to deal with it. They postponed it as long as they could. And of course many are still postponing it. Most of the reason that it is such a volatile issue is that it threatens traditional views of the Bible and inerrancy (although no doubt some are just offended at the idea of having ape ancestors.) The weird thing is that someone’s acceptance or not of evolution in itself has no practical significance for anyone but biologists and biology teachers. So we have the strange situation of an issue that the vast majority of people have no intrinsic reason to care about, and yet it becomes incendiary entirely as a proxy for other issues.
I miss the ASA reflector as well.
Sequence data: I think we (biochemists) tend to view the data with which we’re more familiar as being the definitive evidence for the conclusion of common descent. However, I think it was really the work of the zoologists/classifiers and paleontologists that first made the conclusive case. It was the structural relatedness of organisms that tracked with time which made the case. This was also extended by the early geneticists that determined that inheritance worked by passing down discrete units. Long before sequencing was available, the linear organization of genes and relative similarities of gene order between related species was demonstrated (see also chromosome banding patterns). And even before protein sequencing there were studies of immunological epitopes that demonstrated relatedness. So, it’s been a long slog of work for which DNA sequence provides yet more confirming evidence. If that was final bit of evidence necessary to convince hold-outs, I suppose that’s fine, but I still wonder why it took even that, given there was plenty of solid work that preceded it.