Science in Christian Perspective



Responses in Specific Fields [to The Christian View of Science and Scripture]

From: JASA 31 (September 1979): 192-195.

Anthropology, Astronomy, Chemical Evolution, Evolutionary Biology, Uniformity of Nature



Although many of the data which Ramm used in discussing human paleontology would have to be revised, the problems which he saw in correlating the Bible and the fossil record are still valid. The major problem is still the relationship of the antiquity of man to the advanced state of culture depicted in the 4th chapter of Genesis.
A number of changes in data would need to be made. He placed the antiquity of man at about 500,000 years (p. 315), but the australopithecine forms are well over 1,000,000 years old (some even say they are over 3,000,000 years old). In addition, there seems to be good evidence that some erect us forms (e.g., the ER 3733 skull from Kenya) are also over 1,000,000 years old.

In dealing with the Genesis flood, he noted that Indians have been in the Americas since about 10,000 B.C. (p. 336), but we now have evidence that they have been here for at least 20,000 years.

His agreement with Marie Fetzer's statement that there is no evolutionary sequence demonstrable in the fossil finds of humans, and his own comment that "This observation coincides with the best scholarship today among physical anthropologists" (p. 310) can be misleading. It is true that no one is able to place all fossils in an evolutionary sequence which is both morphologically and chronologically consistent. However, the great majority of anthropologists accept the general stages of the australopithecines, the erectus forms, and the Neanderthals as demonstrating the process of evolution to modern man. Textbooks in physical anthropology are organized according to this model.

Ramm's comments on the Piltdown hoax (pp. 310-313) are still very pertinent. He argued that if one takes the position that scientists such as geologists and anthropologists cannot be trusted, then their exposure of the hoax cannot be trusted. Unfortunately there are still some Christians who use the frameworks and evidence of scientists to support their own position, but reject them as unreliable when they do not offer support. Probably the most common instance is the concept of uniformitarianism. For example, the same people who dismiss it as invalid will appeal to uniformitarianism in arguing that our knowledge of the effects of floods today can be used to describe what happened during the Genesis flood.

Ramm was something of a prophet when discussing the common objection that anthropologists had too few fossils on which they based their interpretations, noting that if there were a hundred Dr. Brooms, "we might well fill a museum up with prehistoric human fossils" (p. 309). Certainly the record of the Leakey family in east Africa shows that given enough time and sufficient funds, large numbers of fossils can be found.

The different options Ramm discussed in dealing with the origin of man are still those basically held: fiat creation a few thousand years ago, fossil forms as pre-Adamites, a metaphorical interpretation of the creation account, theistic evolution. My personal impression is that today not as many fundamentalists "treat theistic evolution like the plague" (p. 323). Although there are notable exceptions, many who would not personally hold that position are willing to accept as fellow Christians those who do accept it.
Ramm realized that there are problems with any viewpoint and concluded that "if we were to reject all views with serious problems, then no view could be held" (p. 343). He maintained that the Christian interpretation is the one which best accounts for the most facts.
In the past, most of us would have agreed with Ramm's statement that "until we get further light from the science of archeology, we must suspend judgment as to any final theory of the harmonization of Genesis and anthropology" (p. 330). The problem is that the most recent archeological
evidence has confused rather than illuminated the situation. It is not possible to discuss the problems here, but some of them were noted in Journal ASA 28 (4):l55-l64, (1976).
Unfortunately, we seem to be even farther from a correlation between Genesis and the fossil record than we were when Ramm wrote.
Claude E. Stipe Associate Professor of Anthropology Marquette University Milwaukee, Wisconsin
The astronomical issues addressed by Bernard Ramm-such as Joshua's long day and the Star of Bethlehem-were a vital interest to Kepler and Galileo in the early seventeenth century, to me when the book appeared in 1954, and probably to many people now. That these problems, and those of creation, are as perplexing today as they were in 1610 or 1954 attests to their depth and complexity. What impresses me now is how Ramm's careful research and referencing on these questions has stood the test of time.
When Ramm was preparing his book, the steady state cosmology had only just been introduced. According to that view the universe had no beginning and hence no moment of creation; it had lasted forever, always expanding, and with the continual ex nih i/o creation of enough hydrogen to maintain a constant density. Ramm never mentions this challenge to a harmonization of science and Genesis.
In the meantime, as a result of discoveries of the 1960's,
the steady state cosmology has totally fallen by the wayside, despite occasional attempts at revival. Observation of the 3 K background radiation and its interpretation as the redshifted light from the primeval fireball, plus the everincreasing data on the non-uniform distribution of quasars in time, have pretty well demolished the steady state theory as a viable world picture.
In fact, the remarkable agreement between the astronomical picture of the abrupt creation of dense radiation energy and Genesis' "Let there be Light!" has driven an agnostic astronomer such as NASA's Robert Jastrow to express his unease publicly in his God and the Astronomers. His book has sparked enough interest for Time magazine to take up the subject in an essay, which in turn has brought further attention in the media, but astronomers as a community do not seem particularly exercised by the issue.
Of greater moment to cosmologists just now is the question of whether the universe is open or closed, that is, will it expand forever into a ever colder, more tenuous set of cinders, or will it collapse once more into a fiery cataclysm? For years the observational material has favored the former cosmology, but some recent evidence looks as if it might tilt the balance the other way. Christians have always sought for a definite beginning, a moment of Creation, but they have tended to be more indifferent as to whether the world ends with a bang or a whimper. Even a final bang would be
so far in the future that the sun itself would long have extinguished its nuclear furnace. In any event, the scriptural apocalypse seems far more likely to involve the nuclear arsenal on the earth than in the sun.
Owen Gingerich
Astrophysicist, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory Professor of Astronomy and the History of Science Harvard University Cambridge, Massachusetts
Chemical Evolution
There have been tremendous advances in our biochemical knowledge in the past twenty-five years. We have progressed to the point where many protein molecules of defined sequence and with defined biological activity have been synthesized in the laboratory. Also, in the past ten years, some polynucleotides of defined structure and with biological activity have been prepared. In each case, the synthesis of these macromolecules has been the result of the application of human intelligence. The syntheses of these complicated structures are the culmination of planning and experimentation by hundreds of scientists over a number of years. Yet, even today, we are some distance (both in achievement and probably in time as well) from producing life in the laboratory.
In the past quarter of a century, the scientists engaged in origin of life studies, who have depended upon chance (and some limited applications of intelligence), have produced some of the building blocks of biological macromolecules, In each case these building blocks (amino acids, etc.) are mixed with a wide variety of compounds that have no significance to living cells.' With chance as a guide, these investigators have also produced some macromolecules from known amino acids in their origin of life experiments. These macromolecules are heterogeneous mixtures of polypeptides, with the components varying markedly in molecular size and physical properties. No polypeptide of defined sequence has been isolated from the products of these experiments. This is not to say that there are no polypeptides of defined sequence in these mixtures. There are undoubtedly many different molecules (possibly 10°° or more), but each is formed in such infinitesimal yield that isolation of one would appear to be a hopeless task. Contrast this with the synthesis of a specific polypeptide using the machinery of the living cell. For example, let us consider the alpha chain of the hemoglobin molecule. The information for the sequence of this polypeptide resides in a specific messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA). The sequence of this mRNA in turn has been enzymatically transcribed from a complementary sequence of DNA. The enzymecatalyzed translation of the information from the mRNA to the polypeptide is so perfect that each alpha polypeptide molecule that is released is identical in every respect (chain length, type of bonds, sequence of amino acids, etc.) with every other alpha chain of the globin molecule. There are no wasted by-products, there is no accumulation of inactive macromolecules, the errors in sequence are infinitesimal,
and the rate of production of the alpha chain is carefully controlled to meet the needs of the cell.
Scientists, by the application of human intelligence, have unravelled many of the mysteries of the living cell. These scientific studies indicate that in order to function, the simplest living cell must have a wide variety of nucleic acids (DNA, ribosomal RNA's, transfer RNA's, messenger RNA's), a wide variety of proteins (enzymes, structural proteins, etc.), and other types of compounds (carbohydrates, lipids, etc.).' Each of these macromolecules is of a specific defined sequence, has a unique biological activity, and is made up of a limited number of building blocks, each with a definite chemical structure. Many of the enzymes have unique non-protein groups (coenzymes) that are essential to their function as biological catalysts.
With these facts in mind, the words of Bernard Ramm written in 1954, are still very appropriate, "It is further conceivable that when the biochemists tell us the fairly complete story of the chemistry of the human body, we will bow our heads in holy reverence and admit the only feasible accounting of this is the work of an 'Omnipotent Wisdom'."'
'Dickerson, R.E., Chemical Evolution and the Origin of Life, American Scientist, 239, No. 3, 7086 (1978).
'Dillon, Lawrence S., The Genetic Mechanism and the Origin of Life, Plenum Press, New York, 1978
'Ramm, B., The Christian View of Science and Scripture. Eerdmans PubI.
Co., Grand Rapids, pp. 181-183, 195 (1954).
Gordon C. Mills
Professor of Biochemistry University of Texas Medical Branch Galveston, Texas
Evolutionary Biology
Those whose lives have included a healthy interaction with books can no doubt recall many times when a book has given them something they desperately needed at a most critical time. It was that way for me, when I first read Ramm's The Christian View of Science and Scripture.' I was trying to cope with evolution. With a background in fundamentalism, I was in graduate school in biology at Harvard, the capital of evolutionary thought. Ramm's analysis of evolution, from Chapter 7 (Biology), is just as refreshing to read today as it was 20 years ago. His insight cut the issue open to the bone. The following encapsulates some of his thought. The most serious problem is whether evolutionary thought is antithetical to Christian doctrine. Where it isphilosophical evolutionism, for example-scholarly Christian apologetics should be applied (and Ramm did this so well). As a scientific theory, however, evolution is a probability statement. Here forthcoming evidence can play an important role-to strengthen or to weaken the status of the theory. Ramm concludes (p.280):
evolution may be entertained as a possible secondary cause or mediate cause in biological science. But to raise it to a metaphysical principle or as the all embracing key or category or scheme of Reality and to cancel out the metaphysical worth of all other possible clues is improper science and doggerel philosophy.
Ramm's analysis helped me to avoid the kind of schizoid thinking that can so readily separate science from faith, and often can prove destructive to one or both. Indeed, I was encouraged to think that there was the potential for reconciling evolutionary theory with Christian doctrine. I had become impressed with the weight of evidence favoring evolution, as I encountered that evidence in my graduate work. Sixteen years as a professional biologist has tended to confirm those graduate school impressions. It is probably safe to say that the deeper one goes in an openminded investigation of evolution, the more one is driven to the conclusion that the evidence is strong, and it is convincing. Hence, there has been and still is the need to provide a scholarly argument that shows why one can accept both evolution and the historic Christian faith.
The years since the publication of Ramm's book have seen some immense changes in the biological sciences. In the sense of Ramm's "forthcoming evidence," it is fair to say that the evolutionary theory is much stronger today than it was 25 years ago because of the new information in biology. Occasionally one encounters articles in popular or Christian periodicals to the effect that the evolutionary theory has been proven impossible on, e.g., mathematical or philosophical grounds. This "news" is not to be taken
seriously. In a recent issue of Scientific American devoted
to evolution, Ernst Mayr introduced the issue with the following words:
This issue of Scientific American deals with the origin, history and interrelations of living systems as they are understood in the light of the currently accepted general theory of life: the theory of evolution through natural selection, which was propounded more than 100 years ago by Charles Darwin, has since been modified and explicated by the science of genetics and stands today as the organizing principle of biology.'
In particular, the discoveries of molecular genetics have given rise to an understanding of evolutionary process at the molecular level. We now know that genetic information is encoded in base sequences in the DNA of the genes. We can also "read" the encoded messages. This can be done indirectly, by learning the amino acid sequences of proteins which depend ultimately on the base sequences in DNA. Or, it can be done directly, by learning the base sequences themselves. We fully understand the nature of mutations as variations in the DNA base sequences, occurring as "errors" in the replication of DNA. And we have learned that the genetic code is universal-the same base sequences are used to code the same amino acids in mammals as in bacteria. The fact that the genetic code is universal carries immense implications. It implies the strong possibility of a single original organism and common descent, and can be viewed only as powerful supporting evidence for evolution.
The amino acid and nucleotide sequencing information is now being used to "reconstruct" evolutionary relationships,' based on the assumption that a number of fundamentally important proteins and nucleic acids, such as Cytochrome C, are "living fossils," whose structures have evolved from common ancestral sequences by a great
number of small changes over millions of years. These evolutionary relationships have proven to be very similar to (but not identical with) the relationships long assumed on the basis of anatomy and embryology.4,5 This approach will no doubt be applied more extensively in the near future.
Molecular genetics has also contributed greatly to an understanding of variability in natural species. Genetic variability determines much of the potential for evolutionary change in a population. Techniques involving gel electrophoresis are able to reveal slight differences in proteins between individuals in populations.' These analyses have shown much larger amounts of genetic variation than previously expected on the basis of more conventional genetic studies. This variability provides a natural population with adaptability and a great potential for change over time,, given a selective agent (natural selection).'
Fewer major advances have come from the study of fossils in recent years, with one notable exception: the fossil hominids. Missing links are still missing, and the evolution of the invertebrate phyla is still a study in speculation owing to the scarcity of pre-Cambrian fossils.' Nevertheless, the fossil record of multicellular organisms continues to provide strong evidence of evolutionary change over time.'
It has always seemed to me curious that Ramm opened the door for a Christian reconciliation with evolution but stopped short of going through that door. He espoused the view of progressive creation, which sees God as intervening at various times by creating basic "kinds of organisms, then allowing them to radiate (evolve) into different species over time. This view has a few adherents among prominent Christian scientists,' but has never generated much support. I think it is safe to say that today the majority of Christian biologists have accepted the evolutionary hypothesis as God's creative method, and have successfully integrated it into their theistic world view. Much of the credit for this can certainly be traced to Ramm's book.
'Rarnm, Bernard. 1954. The Christian View of Science and Scripture. Wm. B. Eerdmans PubI. Co. Grand Rapids,
2Mayr, Ernst. 1978. Evolution. Scientific American 239: 47-55. 'Herman, Robert L. 1975. Journal ASA 24: 156-159.
4Schwartz, Robert M. and Margaret 0. Dayhoff. 1978. Science 199: 395-403.
'Ayala, Francisco 3. 1978. The Mechanisms of Evolution. Scientific American 239: 56.69.
'valentine, James W. 1978. The Evolution of Multicellular Plants and
Animals. Scientific American 239: 141-158.
'Cuffey, Roger J. 1972. Paleontological Evidence and Organic Evolution.
Journal ASA 24: 160-177
'Willis, David L. 1977. Creation and/or Evolution. Journal ASA 29: 68-72.
Richard T. Wright Professor of Biology Gordon College Wenham, Massachusetts
Uniformity of Nature
When I reviewed The Christian View of Science and
Scripture for the initial issue of the Gordon Review in February of 1955 I wrote that Ramm's intent was to present a creationist view of things which necessitated "a harmony of science and evangelical theology." Thereby he sought to rescue science both "from the illicit grasp of a naturalistic world" and from "an anachronistic limbo in the minds of many Christians." These ambitions were brought sharply into focus in Ramm's treatment of the uniformity of nature.
The regularity of nature is an idea with two distinct aspects which we may call ontological and epistemic. The distinction is made clear in Ramm's remarks that "reverent science will admit the creatorship of God, the activity of God in Nature, and the validity of a teleological aspect to Nature" but also that "intelligent faith will grant ample room for the legitimate inquiries of science and will not theologically dogmatize outside of its domain" [p. 172]. Ontologically the "regularity of Nature is the constancy of God, and the laws of Nature are the laws of God" [p. 85]. Epistemically, there remains the problem of discerning the means by which nature's regularities may be sought out and of identifying adequately the character of these regularities.
If we look at the quarter century since Ramm's extended treatment of these distinctions [in one form or another they form most of the substance of his book), it is clear that too often attempts like his at clarifying the proper premises and ambitions of creationism have been ignored or forgotten. The consequences are confusion, dissension, and a diminishing of the Christian message.
Take first the ontological aspect. It sees nature as the product of God's wisdom and work, a creative action which brings into being nature and the very time by which we give order to its processes. Thus, while we see nature with a long past as well as a future, and we can understand creation only by analyzing it into a series of events, we must recognize that the Creator is beyond the constraints of time and that creation has no past or future for God. In the truest sense creation is complete: if that is so then God's creative act is inseparable from His providence.
We will, then, be mistaken should we conceive of nature deistically as an automous realm of laws established, and as a set of self-perpetuating events begun, at some long-past occasion by a Creator. Yet that is surely what we are doing when we fail to see the Creator in every regularity and every event of our world, both the very ordinary and the extraordinary, and when we speak of the Creator intervening in nature during miracles or through "special creations" in the history of life. It is also what we do when we speak of theistic evolution as if it were a process whose end God could not see as one with its beginning. On the other hand, the naturalistic man who stands against creationism, thinking that it entails a belief in the supernatural and a rejection of science, makes an attendant blunder.
Science is a high calling for the creationist. It is so because nature's uniformity is the natural consequence of God's creativity and the study of nature teaches us of God's power and God's wisdom. And it is so because the understanding of divine providence, which the human mind
must separate in time from the divine creative act, is in large part the comprehension of natural processes and structures. Indeed, because the creationist accepts the usual and the unexpected as equally natural, his or her sense of what the uniformity of nature implies may provide a more satisfactory basis for scientific work than many another worldview.
This brings us to the epistemic aspect. Here, when we assert that nature is uniform, it turns out that we are not reporting some kind of empirical discovery but rather that we are laying down a principle of methodology or what we might call a rule of scientific inquiry. It is one which regulates our assertions about constancies in nature across time and space, one which asks that we be parsimonious in our causal agencies and economical in our scientific notions. This is a complex request and I shall not pursue it here: I shall make only two points relevant to the creationist's use of the principle.
One has to do with the claim that a science based upon the uniformity of nature, seen as an epistemic principle, cannot live with miracle. The mistake here lies in failing to recognize that the occurrence of unusual events may be as well authenticated as many normal happenings and should form a part of our account of nature. It also lies in assuming either that miracles must always remain inscrutable to science or that the scientist is somehow excluded from attempting to comprehend them. Neither is true. If the creationist does not commit these errors, surely his or her principles of scientific work will be less constraining than those of the naturalistic opposition.
The second involves the thesis that biblical teaching must form a part of the scientific assertions of creationism and must alter the content of the uniformitarian principle when
it is employed by creationists. At issue here is the extent to which biblical teaching that nature and history and ourselves are under providential control shapes the substance of what it interprets to that end and selects to the minds of those taught. Many articles in this Journal, and large portions of Ramm's book, deal with the question. Beyond the obvious caveat that we be charitable to one another's answers to this vexing puzzle, I would suggest that something like the epistemic principle that we seek as simple assertions about nature [past and present] as are possible be applied here too.
Is it not a wise creationist credo that we seek out solutions to the Bible-science relationship which allow for an accommodation of modern scientific knowledge to our theology rather than leading to incoherence and conflict? In my opinion this is seldom achieved, in areas such as geology and biology, by attempting to introduce biblical texts, as if they were scientific in intent, into current scientific discussion. The pursuit causes exegetical difficulties and fails to form an integral whole with other wellcorroborated scientific beliefs. It seems simpler to me, and more satisfying, to learn my science from nature and my understanding of it in creationist and providential terms from biblical teaching. Then the debate is not between science and Scripture but it is a more fundamental one between naturalism and theism: it is the confrontation of ultimate stances toward the world.
Thomas H. Leith Department of Philosophy Youth University Donnsview, Ontario, Canada