Tough Assignment: Teaching Evolution to Fundamentalists

Tough Assignment: Teaching Evolution to Fundamentalists
By SHARON BEGLEY, Wall Street Journal, Decemmber 3, 2004; Page A15 original
Professional danger comes in many flavors, and while Richard Colling doesn't jump into forest fires or test experimental jets for a living, he does do the academic's equivalent: He teaches biology and evolution at a fundamentalist Christian college.

At Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill., he says, "as soon as you mention evolution in anything louder than a whisper, you have people who aren't very happy." And within the larger conservative-Christian community, he adds, "I've been called some interesting names."

But those experiences haven't stopped Prof. Colling -- who received a Ph.D. in microbiology, chairs the biology department at Olivet Nazarene and is himself a devout conservative Christian -- from coming out swinging. In his new book, Random Designer, he writes: "It pains me to suggest that my religious brothers are telling falsehoods" when they say evolutionary theory is "in crisis" and claim that there is widespread skepticism about it among scientists. "Such statements are blatantly untrue," he argues; "evolution has stood the test of time and considerable scrutiny."

His is hardly the standard scientific defense of Darwin, however. His central claim is that both the origin of life from a primordial goo of nonliving chemicals, and the evolution of species according to the processes of random mutation and natural selection, are "fully compatible with the available scientific evidence and also contemporary religious beliefs." In addition, as he bluntly told me, "denying science makes us [Conservative Christians] look stupid."

Prof. Colling is one of a small number of conservative Christian scholars who are trying to convince biblical literalists that Darwin's theory of evolution is no more the work of the devil than is Newton's theory of gravity. They haven't picked an easy time to enter the fray. Evolution is under assault from Georgia to Pennsylvania and from Kansas to Wisconsin, with schools ordering science teachers to raise questions about its validity and, in some cases, teach "intelligent design," which asserts that only a supernatural tinkerer could have produced such coups as the human eye. According to a Gallup poll released last month, only one-third of Americans regard Darwin's theory of evolution as well supported by empirical evidence; 45% believe God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago.

Usually, the defense of evolution comes from scientists and those trying to maintain the separation of church and state. But Prof. Colling has another motivation. "People should not feel they have to deny reality in order to experience their faith," he says. He therefore offers a rendering of evolution fully compatible with faith, including his own. The Church of the Nazarene, which runs his university, "believes in the biblical account of creation," explains its manual. "We oppose a godless interpretation of the evolutionary hypothesis."

It's a small opening, but Prof. Colling took it. He finds a place for God in evolution by positing a "random designer" who harnesses the laws of nature he created. "What the designer designed is the random-design process," or Darwinian evolution, Prof. Colling says. "God devised these natural laws, and uses evolution to accomplish his goals." God is not in there with a divine screwdriver and spare parts every time a new species or a wondrous biological structure appears.

Unlike those who see evolution as an assault on faith, Prof. Colling finds it strengthens his own. "A God who can harness the laws of randomness and chaos, and create beauty and wonder and all of these marvelous structures, is a lot more creative than fundamentalists give him credit for," he told me. Creating the laws of physics and chemistry that, over the eons, coaxed life from nonliving molecules is something he finds just as awe inspiring as the idea that God instantly and supernaturally created life from nonlife.

Prof. Colling reserves some of his sharpest barbs for intelligent design, the idea that the intricate structures and processes in the living world -- from exquisitely engineered flagella that propel bacteria to the marvels of the human immune system -- can't be the work of random chance and natural selection. Intelligent-design advocates look at these sophisticated components of living things, can't imagine how evolution could have produced them, and conclude that only God could have.

That makes Prof. Colling see red. "When Christians insert God into the gaps that science cannot explain -- in this case how wondrous structures and forms of life came to be -- they set themselves up for failure and even ridicule," he told me. "Soon -- and it's already happening with the flagellum -- science is going to come along and explain" how a seemingly miraculous bit of biological engineering in fact could have evolved by Darwinian mechanisms. And that will leave intelligent design backed into an ever-shrinking corner.

It won't be easy to persuade conservative Christians of this; at least half of them believe that the six-day creation story of Genesis is the literal truth. But Prof. Colling intends to try. Of course, if it gets too tough, there's always fire jumping.