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Monday, 26 October 2009

My Journey from Opposing Evolution to Studying It

This is a guest post by Ryan Bebej and is the second in our series on “Evangelicals and Evolution: A Student Perspective”. Ryan is a Ph.D student at the University of Michigan in the Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology where he studies the early evolution of whales.

That I am currently studying evolution is somewhat of a miracle. If ten years ago someone had told me that today I would be earning my Ph.D. at a large public university, researching the evolution and paleontology of mammals, I would have never believed them. Why not? Well, for the majority of my life, I believed that the concept of biological evolution was complete rubbish. I was raised in a close-knit Christian family that was very active in our local church, and I had always been taught that the Bible was literal history, precluding any types of evolutionary scenarios.

These anti-evolution sentiments were indirectly affirmed even in my public high school. In the small town where I grew up, being a Christian was virtually assumed, and schools were very accommodating of religious belief—even in the classroom. I recall that the little background on evolutionary theory that I gleaned from my high school biology class was prefaced with a disclaimer that we didn’t have to believe any of it if we didn’t want to. Needless to say, I promptly forgot most of what was said about Charles Darwin, natural selection, and the like, and I continued believing what I thought almost everyone else around me believed: that God created the universe miraculously several thousand years ago and that the idea of evolution was simply not true.

My Initial Exposure to Evolution in College

However, once I got to college, things began to change; it was there that I began to seriously wrestle with evolutionary theory for the first time. In my introductory biology class at Calvin College, we read some articles about evolution by writers ranging from Phillip Johnson to Howard Van Till to Richard Dawkins. These initial readings didn’t convince me to change my views, but they did prompt me to start thinking critically about evolution for the first time.

In my second semester, I took an animal biology class that spent a good deal of time focusing on how evolution works according to population genetics. Prior to this, I had never really understood the basics of evolutionary mechanisms, and I admit that I was a bit alarmed at how plausible it seemed. Could evolution really have occurred? If it did, what would that mean for my faith? This became a crucial issue for me, and I began to read ravenously and watch anything and everything I could get my hands on that discussed evolution. Yet, despite my little obsession with the topic, if someone had asked me what I thought about evolution at that time, I would have answered with a resounding, “I have no clue.”

My Second Year: The Evidence Builds

I read a ton during the summer following my freshman year. By the time my sophomore year began, I had realized that there was an awful lot of strong evidence for biological evolution. During my second year of college, the strength of this evidence continued to grow. In my comparative anatomy course, the homology of structures across disparate animals, as revealed by their development, provided compelling evidence for common ancestry. I also took two geology courses, in which I learned about radiometric dating, stratigraphy, and how to interpret the rock record, and I became thoroughly convinced that the earth had to be billions of years old rather than thousands.

In a January term evolutionary biology class, we surveyed the fossil record, and I was completely overwhelmed by the anatomies of transitional fossils, of which I had virtually no prior knowledge. These fossils exhibited the mosaics of anatomical characteristics that one would expect to see in an intermediate form, and they came from fossil beds during the time periods between their proposed ancestors and descendents. In my mind, the evidence for the evolution of life on an ancient earth continued to grow (and this was before I even knew about the abundant genetic evidence). I became convinced that evolution was anything but false; in fact, given the weight of the evidence, it seemed to be the only coherent explanation of the past and present biological world.

Evolution and My Faith

But even as I began to accept that evolution was a real phenomenon, I still wasn’t sure how this could be reconciled with my Christian beliefs. Growing up, I had always thought that there were two positions: you were either an atheistic evolutionist or you were a Christian who was opposed to evolution—there was no middle ground. Fortunately, my Calvin professors, in both the science and religion departments, demonstrated to me that there are many people who don’t fall into these two polarized camps. There are many Christians who agree with the findings of the greater scientific community, while managing to retain—and even grow and strengthen—their faith. This revelation opened up a whole new set of doors to me that I had no idea even existed.

Since those first couple of years when I was afraid that my knowledge of evolution would lead to a crisis of faith, I have found the opposite to be true. My study of evolution as a scientist and my pursuit of integrating my scientific knowledge with my Christian beliefs have helped my faith to grow by leaps and bounds. I often wonder how my faith would have been affected had I been confronted with the evidence of evolution somewhere other than Calvin. If I had not had the support and encouragement of such understanding Christian professors who cared deeply about my personal and spiritual development, my faith might not have remained intact. But by God’s grace, I was in just the right place at the just the right time, and today I take great pleasure in studying the long history of life in God’s creation.


Eric said...


After only a quick scan of your post I believe we've actually met. A couple years ago I took the J-term evolutionary biology class from Calvin, probably with the same profs, and we went to UofM to learn about whale evolution. I'm pretty sure you're the guy who gave that lecture, and consequently the story of whale evolution is actually one which pushed me towards evolution. Thought we had a unique connection.

Eric DeVries

Ryan said...

@Eric: Sure enough, I still have the 'Thank you' card sent to me by that class, and your name is in it. :) Thanks for the comment. I would definitely say that we do have a unique connection. I hope all is well.


D.L. Folken said...

I guess I am still curious as to what evidence convinced you that it was true.

We don't have any evidence of new functional information being added to the Genome.

We only have minor variations due to natural selection taking place in nature. If you believe that evolution creates new limbs etc... then why are people not in the process of forming new limbs? If this is an ongoing process, it should be taking place right now! We should sees new stuff forming constantly. We just don't see this so I am curious as to what evidence led you down this path?

In addition, how are random mutations directed by what is beneficial? This would seem to be a contradiction since random and beneficial cannot be used in the same sentence.

Don said...

What about your family's reaction? Did they continue to hold the black/white position on evolution?

Ryan said...

@ZDENNY: Evolution is happening right now. One just needs to look at the evolution of bacteria and viruses in response to antibiotics to see evidence of that. We can even observe examples of speciation in historical times, e.g. a new species of mosquito in London’s underground (Byrne and Nichols, 1999, Heredity 82: 7-15) or incipient speciation like in Ensatina salamanders in California (Wake, 1997, PNAS 94: 7761-7767).

However, the type of evolution that you describe (with “new stuff forming constantly” and “people […] in the process of forming new limbs”) is not how ‘large-scale’ evolutionary events occur. Seemingly ‘large’ innovations, such as limbs in early tetrapods, likely did not evolve any differently than ‘small’ innovations do. They resulted from the accumulation of small genetic changes over many generations. Limbs did not evolve instantaneously! Just take a look at the abundance of early tetrapodamorph fossils that demonstrate the wide array of ‘limb’ morphologies present during the Devonian (Coates et al., 2008, Ann. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 39: 571-592) and the knowledge we now have of how fins and limbs develop (Hall, 2007, Fins into Limbs: Evolution, Development, and Transformation). There was a lot of ‘evolutionary experimentation’ going on during this transition, and only some taxa left land-living descendants. (But, of course, we do have evidence that mutations can sometimes affect development in such a way that ‘large’ changes can occur in a single generation, e.g. an extra pair of wings in fruit flies resulting from a Hox gene duplication or the recent dolphin found with external pelvic appendages, but this is not thought to be how things generally occur.)

These changes, when they were occurring, were likely not large changes, and they were not happening between vastly different levels of organisms. Using our hindsight, we have defined different taxonomic groups above the species level (kingdoms, phyla, classes, orders, families, genera, etc.), and we talk about, for instance, how rhinos, tapirs, and horses (which all belong to different families of mammals within the order Perissodactyla) evolved from a common perissodactyl ancestor. These animals are all sufficiently different from one another today, but their earliest ancestors were all very similar--likely so similar that if we were to use the same the criteria as we use for extant mammals and to assign them to groups with no knowledge of their descendants, we might include them all in a single family or genus! (See http://www.asa3.org/ASA/resources/Miller.html) The notion that ‘kinds’ have always been distinctly different from each other is simply not true; the lines between ‘kinds’ get blurred as you go back in time--even between what today are very distinct kinds, such as dinosaurs/birds, mammals/reptiles, and whales/artiodactyls--and this to me is pretty compelling evidence that strongly implies common descent. Ultimately, it was this overwhelming wealth of incredible fossils that first convinced me of life's long evolutionary history, but other lines of evidence have only strengthened my view.

Lastly, mutations can be beneficial, neutral, or harmful. Random mutations are not directed by what would be beneficial--otherwise we might expect to see beavers evolve functional chainsaws or something like that. The beneficial mutations tend to stick around and accumulate because they confer some sort of reproductive advantage, and natural selection helps them sweep through populations. But of course, there are other ways that beneficial, neutral, or even harmful alleles could become fixed in the population through various mechanisms of genetic drift, heterozygote advantage, etc.


Ryan said...

@Don: Overall, my family has been very supportive. They may have been shocked the first time I began to enunciate my views to them, but I think they realize that I have been trying to work through all of this very carefully and prayerfully. I doubt that many of family members would completely agree with me on everything (e.g. hominid evolution), but I am certain that they now understand that one need not reject modern science in order to remain a Christian.


Jordan said...

Great essay, Ryan. My story isn't too different from yours. Maybe we can catch up at next year's SVP and share our experiences. Good to know there are increasingly more Christians out there with a solid understanding of evolution.

Jordan said...

You might be interested to know that there are many constraints on evolution, including geometric, phylogenetic, developmental, and functional constraints. So evolving something like multiple sets of limbs isn't always possible. You might be interested to read McGhee's book 'Geometry of Evolution'.

Ryan said...

@Jordan: Thanks for mentioning constraints. I meant to say something about that too, but my response was getting so long that I felt like I needed to end it.

We'll definitely need to meet up and chat at some point. Were you at the meeting in Bristol this year?

Jordan said...

Yes, I was in Bristol last month for SVP. Sorry to say I missed your poster. It was just too crowded in those rooms!

Steve Martin said...

Don's question is a good one. Ryan, I think you can be thankful for a family that is mostly supportive; for many, I suspect this is not the case. Another interesting question is whether to tell your family at all and if so when. For those with academic careers in the field - well, I guess there is really no choice. But for others, there may be no need to share one's ideas on science and faith. For example, I still have close family members that do not know that I accept evolution (no, they aren't bloggers :-) ) and I know they will be shocked - at a minimum - when they find out. I am prepared for the conversation if it ever occurs, but I have no plans to proactively mention it.

Jimpithecus said...

Ryan, your story is an amazing testament to the ability to think critically about evolution and one's faith. I never had to struggle with a belief in a young earth/anti-evolution model. It was long after I had a firm grounding in an old earth/evolutionary model that I came to Christ and it never occurred to me that the two would be incompatible, just as it didn't to my parents, who are archaeologists. It still doesn't. It wasn't until I got to college that I actually encountered the young earth model. I was as surprised by that as you were when you came across the evolutionary model. I am so glad that your family has been supportive. My work has been in human evolution, which really raises the hackles. Most of the people in my church would not understand, so I do not push them.

Jimpithecus said...

ZDENNY, you are looking at evolution by telescoping things. Even if we were in the process of forming extra arms or legs, it would not happen for another 200 million years or so. the tetrapod form dates to between 380-400 million years ago. We are descendants of that form. For one thing, selection obviously favors the brachial/crural arrangement since all reptiles and mammals share it.

There is a new and growing field of evolutionary development (evo-devo) that addresses evolution on larger scales, though. These sort of things involve the homeobox (or hox) genes that control development and symmetry. These studies have supported the concept of common ancestry. I would encourage you to read Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish for a good, easy to read introduction to this.

Anonymous said...

Jimpithecus, You mentioned that even if we were in the process of developing extra arms or legs, that it wouldn't happen for another 200 million years or so.I would argue that the chances ( and changes) are good that in 200 million years, we will no longer be considered a human ( Homo sapien )species.

Brian Rutledge

Steve Martin said...

Brian: VERY interesting question re: humanity changing in radical ways in the future. Christians have just begun to grapple with the fact our history can be traced into the ancient past (and that we have ancestors that were not human); very few have begun to think about the distant future (sure, Jesus may return very shortly but its already been 2000 years, who can say it won't be another 2000?). But you don't have to think about "millions" of years in the future; humanity now has the technology to change ourselves - our descendants may be unrecognizable to us in just a few hundred years. (I love science-fiction - or more accurately, speculative fiction). Hmm, that would be a good series - Evangelical Christianity and Science Fiction.

Thanks Ryan for your post and your helpful comments. Next up is Emiliano; his post will appear tomorrow morning.

D.L. Folken said...

Ryan stated, "likely did not evolve any differently than ‘small’ innovations do."

Great Ryan, I am glad your evidence is in the likely category.

We don't have any evidence for Darwinian evolution taking place on the macro-level. Your statement of faith is simply that...a statement of faith.

No one denies micro-evolution as this accounts for diversity within a species...

Jordan then recommends I read a book on how evolution works. I don't need a book because I follow the studies. The research currently being done by Lenski on E.Coli is an abject failure! He still has E. Coli. We are waiting on something other than E. Coli to be produced at this point. He has 40,000 generations and nothing. He has over 600 mutations and yet only minor changes taking place.

The fact is that the Cambrian proves that life happened suddenly and did not take billions of years to produce.

When you get some evidence, I would like to see it; however, at this time, you are gutting the Bible on the basis of faith in a Darwinian concept.

D.L. Folken said...

Jim then said, "it would not happen for another 200 million years or so" for new limbs to form.

My point exactly! Darwinian evolution is unfalsiable! It is only accepted on faith.

We should not have to wait 200 million years. We should see new knobs forming on people all the time and growing more over each generation. We just don't see this at all Jim.

Jordan said...

@ZDENNY: You cite the Cambrian Explosion as evidence for miraculous creation. How many times do you suppose God created miraculously in history? How do you account for Precambrian (e.g., Ediacaran) life forms? Were they created miraculously, too? You also appear to reject the theory that limbs evolved from fins. Do you also believe that God miraculously created tetrapods in a separate event in the Carboniferous? Is He still miraculously poofing species into existence today? I'm curious to know just how you think God acted in history.

Judy Jacob said...

Wow@Eric... I never knew that one would actually encounter a student through a blog!
Anyways, I came by to these biology flashcards which I have been suggesting to my students to help them with their course and exam prep.

Edwardtbabinski said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

It is good that you are showing others how evolution and Christianity are not contradictory. Do you know any good commentaries which exegete early Genesis from a innerrantist and evolutionist perspective?

Allan Harvey said...


It isn't a commentary, but Wheaton OT prof. John Walton's The Lost World of Genesis One is sort of along these lines. I wouldn't say his perspective is as an "evolutionist", but he concludes that evolution is compatible with Genesis.

I expect the commentary by Bruce Waltke would fit your description, but I have not looked at it. And Denis Lamoureux has a book that goes into the text and Ancient Near East context quite a bit.

Andy said...

Saw your FB post about your thesis, went to your UM website and clicked this link...so several degrees of interest later, best of luck in your final preparations and I enjoyed this post. Getting out of the B.C. has done you well.