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Report from the GRI Conference on Teaching Origins [UPDATED]

This conference was a forum for Seventh-Day Adventists involved in North American higher education, especially science instruction, to explore practical issues impacting their effectiveness as teachers and mentors. It represents a direct response to one of the recommendations of the Organizing Committee for the International Faith and Science Conferences (2002-2004) that, “Increased opportunity be provided for interdisciplinary dialogue and research, in a safe environment, among Seventh-day Adventist scholars from around the world” (Adventist Review, November 11, 2004, p 12-15). The total attendance (approaching 100) included staff from the Geoscience Research Institute, but was primarily composed of NAD science teachers and smaller contingents of theologians, behavioral scientists, philosophers, students, and a few family members of the other attendees. Only a handful of attendees with responsibilities centered outside of North America traveled to Canada to participate in the proceedings.

Three days (July 28; August 1-2) were devoted to field trips to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, the Burgess Shks were limited to 15 minale, and Banff and Jasper national parks. Over 40 talks were presented on Friday and Sunday (July 29, 31). With the exception of keynote addresses, these talutes – 12 for presentation, 3 for discussion. This format did not facilitate the detailed development of complex arguments but did enable the introduction of a broad range of perspectives and issues that could then be pursued informally by interested parties during meals, field trips, etc. All invitees had been requested to submit abstracts for presentations around the theme, “Encouraging Faith while Discussing Science/Religion Issues”. Apparently, all who responded to this invitation were given opportunity to present, without prior censorship or editorial review. In spite of the disparate viewpoints represented in the talks generated by this process a cordial tone prevailed throughout the meetings.

Conference organizers emphasized the importance of confidentiality in the proceedings: presentations represented the personal views of their authors and should not be construed as official positions or policies of any organization; unguarded statements made in the course of fruitful discussion may not accurately characterize the values and intentions of an individual; and mere participation in a “Faith/Science” conference could be used to stigmatize some participants, professionally. In keeping with this priority, the present report is designed to maintain the anonymity of the participants, with the exception of those with overall responsibility for its conduct or who have specifically consented to be named.

Notes from July 28-29 and August 1-2 have been posted previously by Ken Wright. I will attempt not to overlap his reporting.

Saturday, July 30

Sabbath morning presentations were devotional in nature, though following the theme of the conference. They included personal testimonies of faith development and a report on science and religion issues in Brazil. These accounts illustrated the dynamics of faith as a process independent of scientific argumentation, as well as showing how faith development can be affected by participation in the methods and modes of science. These same topics often appeared in the other presentations and discussions that took place throughout the conference.

In the Sabbath keynote talk, Jon Paulien addressed what he identified as the basic issue in teaching science in an SDA school: Is there more than one right way to think? He suggested that the early pioneers would probably have said “no” but Adventist history, especially as evidenced in the early, relatively unmanaged editions of the Review, suggests “yes”. That is, even as development of Adventist doctrine progressed, discussion was fragmented into a variety of individual viewpoints. This is not so different from the way the gospel story is developed in the New Testament: four inspired accounts, each a unique and creative expression of the gospel, each tailored to a specific audience.  In the book of Revelation, the personal testimony of Christ to the seven churches is similarly developed. In chapter one, Jesus is presented in a metaphorical physical description encompassing several different aspects of his person: eyes of fire; feet of brass; voice like waters; etc. In the individual messages to the seven churches that follow in chapters two and three, however, Jesus presents himself to each church in terms of only a few of these same qualities – the ones particularly suited to the circumstances of that church.

This characterization of the pragmatic diversity of Scriptural perspectives then continued into the book of Daniel, from which Paulien developed a more detailed view. He began with the parallel but very distinctive visions given to a heathen ruler and a Hebrew prophet recorded in chapters two and seven; and emphasized that the mode of communication between God and man (visions) is described identically in both cases. From the differing views provided through this common means, God conveyed distinct messages appropriate to each dreamer’s cultural context and spiritual challenges. Paulien tracked how the idolatrous context of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream stages a powerful assertion of God’s ultimate authority and how this context is transformed, in Daniel’s view, into a promise of Adam’s dominion restored. He then described several close parallels and specific references to the Genesis creation account that form the context of the prophet’s vision.

After thus emphasizing the value of diverse perspectives within the faith experience Paulien identified two distinct perspectives in Adventism, which successive terms of employment at AU and LLU has highlighted in his experience. He characterized one perspective as “apocalyptic”, emphasizing: preaching; a Great Controversy perspective; exclusivity; and the importance of denying the world in exercising faith. The second perspective emphasizes: teaching and healing; a Ministry of Healing perspective; inclusivity; and the importance of affirmation in encouraging faith and of science in constraining its expressions. Paulien urged his audience not to be too quick to marginalize the perspectives others find meaningful and suggested that we have too long indulged competitive strategies in resolving tension between these differing views, pitting one perspective against the other.  He concluded by challenging his audience to establish a new dynamic and an integrated Adventist vision that can more effectively impact the world for Christ at the end of time.

No formal activities were scheduled for Sabbath afternoon or evening. The weather was warm and sunny. Most conference attendees chose to gather in small groups outside, on the trails or otherwise in closer contact with the spectacular scenery around Canmore.

Sunday, July 31

Sunday’s sessions were thematically organized: the morning session addressed issues in ecology and biology; the afternoon session was devoted to geology and philosophy; and the evening session provided introductions to various aspects of upcoming field trips and hosted a few additional talks on topics not encompassed by prior, thematic sessions.

Tim Standish set the tone for several ecology talks with his presentation of “Adventists and the Environment: Beyond the Body-temple”. After characterizing the priority healthful living has been given in historical Adventist teachings on the environment and noting that no fully authoritative statement on ecology has been produced by the denomination, he went on to trace the roots of broader ecological themes in several of the “Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists” (specifically statements 2-7; 21-22, 28). He contended that these points of doctrine “provide a specific view of nature and man’s place in it that may suggest a relationship with the rest of creation that differs from the majority opinion in our secular society”. Standish described several ways that this view may also conflict with institutional priorities and actual interactions with the environment and concluded with a challenge to Adventists to more fully embrace “the opportunities for positive interaction with the creation encouraged in their statement of fundamental beliefs”. Similar themes were highlighted by a subsequent speaker who rejected the claim that Adventists need not concern themselves with environmental issues because they believe that the world will soon be destroyed. He argued that concern and care for the natural world is implicit within Adventist core beliefs, especially the Sabbath, the state of the dead, and the second coming of Christ. He suggested that environmental stewardship is a vital component of “present truth” in this age, a position implicit in the language of Revelation, especially as it announces the three angels’ messages (chapter 14), enumerates the last plagues (chapter 15), and pronounces judgment on those who “destroy the Earth” (11:18).

Other talks on ecology articulated additional points of potential emphasis in an Adventist view of the environment. One speaker highlighted the way Ellen White’s advocacy of specific practices such as rural living, frugality, recycling, and vegetarianism accords with modern environmental activism, especially when viewed in the context of her many statements highlighting the value placed on nature in the Bible and its emphasis on man’s duty towards the earth. Another outlined a Biblical basis for the nurture of animals, beyond man’s general responsibility to care for the creation. The proverb (12:10) commending the man who “regards the life” (literally, “knows the soul”) of his animal was presented as the most succinct statement of a theme that is deeply, but less visibly, embedded within the Biblical doctrine of creation.

Transitioning to more varied topics in biology, one presenter reported on NASA’s Kepler mission to inventory the planets discernable in a specified field of view within the Milky Way galaxy. This project is using a high-resolution, planetary transit method to mitigate the bias for large planets inherent in the radial velocity technique that has provided most previous data. The new data provide a better basis for estimating the abundance of Earth-like planets in the universe. Early results indicate that both the size and distribution (position relative to the sun) of planets in our solar system is more typical than previously imagined. That is, planetary conditions favorable to life may be far more common than has recently been advertised by those emphasizing Earth’s uniqueness. In consequence, “This heightened attention to the subject of life in the universe provides a tremendous opportunity to share the Adventist perspective of inhabited worlds in which their existence is a fundamental component of the Adventist doctrine of the Great Controversy”.  

Two technical papers were presented from the field of molecular biology. The first described a “molecular fossil”, remnants of viral DNA that have been integrated into the genetic code of E.coli bacteria. Such lateral transfer accounts for up to 20% of a bacterium’s genome; so the details of this particular gene sequence were presented as a case study, not a unique phenomenon. These findings suggest that classical evolutionary views of genome development by random mutation may be much less important than was commonly believed. The second talk examined the function of two different gene sequences, dubbed “sonic hedgehog” and “lunatic fringe” that were first extracted from fruit fly DNA and subsequently identified in other organisms. Gene splicing techniques have enabled experimentation with the functional roles of these elements within specific genetic codes. Surprisingly, these genes were found to generate a far greater diversity of changes than could be accounted for by the complexity of the genes themselves. Their function varied depending on the nature of their interaction with the other genes that were present. Such research has led to “the realization that network complexity, not genetic complexity must explain the difference between organisms as different as humans and worms . . . Understanding the basis for our complexity is key to discussions that concern origins”. This statement took on specific significance in light of another presentation on genetics that gave an overview of comparisons between human and chimp genomes. In spite of the fact that great apes have 48 chromosomes, while humans have only 46, it appears that the chimp genome shares perfect identity with about 96% of the human genome. “The implication is that the chimp and the human descended from a common ancestor. What is more, several studies have suggested that humans have mutated forms of active genes seen in the apes.”  Such data are open to multiple interpretations, but additional constraints on interpretation will continue to emerge from the field of molecular biology, into the foreseeable future.

In addition to these presentations on the development of genomes, two talks were given on the nature of interactions between populations (genomes) and their environments – a crucial issue in the quest to establish the limits of evolutionary change. The first provided a personal analysis of published phylogenetic data on the order Carnivora.  Examining them “to see whether there was a spike in diversification with respect to crown species. Preliminary indications indicate a post-Mesozoic diversification”, which the author interpreted as a possible indicator of the end of the Flood. The second reported original research on geographic variations in cricket song patterns in two species found in a range that extends south from Ontario into Kentucky. The authors found that up to 70% of the intraspecies variation observed in cricket songs were linked to environmental conditions: temperature; solar elevation; day of the year; relative humidity; and vegetation height. Additionally, it was found that latitude was a significant factor controlling song variation. Future studies will target the N-S range of western populations, providing data to evaluate longitudinal controls.

Another talk highlighted two artifacts of nature that are not readily explained by standard evolutionary theory: the preservation of ancient biomaterial and the existence of “living fossils”.  Though nucleic acids, proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates have been shown to have very limited lifespans under laboratory conditions, their degree of degradation in fossil materials does not correlate to the apparent age of the fossil. In spite of severe obstacles to protein longevity, for example, remnants of this material are found in fossils with assigned ages up to 150 million years. Additionally, the structural integrity of a variety of tissues from fossil remains is anomalously high. Furthermore, there is a growing list of modern organisms represented in the ancient fossil record that show no substantial changes in morphology through time. Modern coelacanths, for example, differ little from those found in sedimentary rocks dated between 100 and 350 million years old.

Another talk in this session reviewed the book, The Nature of Nature (edited by Bruce Gordon and William Dembski), a compilation of papers presented at an interdisciplinary conference on the role of naturalism in science at Baylor University, in April of 2000. This conference brought together proponents and opponents of intelligent design theory and their dialectic is preserved in the edited book. The reviewer recommended this volume as a resource for discussion material in college-level science courses.

[An update to this posting begins here]

The Sunday afternoon session, addressing issues in geology and philosophy, began with a challenge to carbon-14 dating. Criticism was based on the anomalous presence of this relatively short-lived radioactive isotope in ancient materials and on the results of original analyses of bones from the city of Nineveh whose age is well constrained by archeological evidence. The radiocarbon analyses yielded results 80-150 years older (depending on the calibration curve that was applied) than indicated by the other lines of evidence.

The next speaker addressed the fundamental issues of geological modeling: what and where. That is, in order to be successful, a geologic model must provide an explicit basis for predicting what materials will be found at which location. This requirement applies to models generated for the purpose of understanding the historical implications of the stratigraphic record as well as those designed to facilitate mineral exploration. “Testing a prediction is merely a matter of checking if the predicted What is at the predicted Where.” The next four speakers gave examples of the remarkable detail that is often preserved in the stratigraphic record – the kinds of data that constrain geologic modeling. The first gave examples of high-quality evidence for ancient processes of liquefaction and fluidization, claiming that “exquisitely preserved structures in the Navajo Sandstone provide opportunities for unusually detailed interpretations of event dynamics in the Early Jurassic”. The second described fossil stromatolites from the Eocene Green River Formation, which provide distinct evidence of a complex history of mineralogical change through time. “Stromatolites require specific conditions for growth; consequently the study of their laminae indicates environmental conditions necessary during their growth time. . . The significance of stromatolite growth and diagenesis to issues of depositional rates is important to understand when considering issues related to earth history.” The third speaker reported on abundant and diverse, extraordinarily well preserved fossils from Morocco on display at the Rock, Mineral, and Fossil show in Tucson, Arizona, remarking, “I could not help but wonder how such preservation and abundance could be preserved under normal uniform conditions.” The final speaker in this series described new occurrences of arthropods from the Miocene Barstow Formation that are exquisitely preserved in three-dimensional forms. The fossils include appendages, eggs, and resting cysts with observable submicron detail that can readily be compared with that of modern organisms. Stunning 3-D micrographs (viewed through stereo glasses provided by the presenter) highlighted this presentation.

The final five talks in the afternoon session were devoted to philosophical issues related to the conference theme. Topics included: the relationship between successful scientific theories and truth; how to teach without having all the answers; coping with difficult, unanswerable questions; Adventist theology and cognitive sciences; and resolving seeming conflicts between science and scripture. Several of these presentations were accompanied by formal papers and permission is being sought to make them available in their entirety.

The evening session on Sunday was devoted, primarily, to background information for the field trips of the following two days. In addition, several talks on diverse topics were presented. One followed up the morning presentations on molecular biology by exploring the issue of “junk” DNA. Another tied in to earlier talks on ecology, advocating an increased Adventist emphasis on creation care. A third outlined a creation education project that is preparing materials geared toward youth.  A fourth presenter proposed a strategy for prospecting Flood evidence from satellite images of landforms. The other presenter in this session returned to themes touched upon in the philosophy portion of the afternoon session. He urged Adventist science teachers to convey five key issues to their students: 1) It really does matter what you believe about origins; 2) Science is about generating ideas that have some basis in observation; 3) Scientific ideas are a progress report and must never be considered a finished product; 4) Challenges to the Biblical history of origins are balanced by challenges to the secular history of origins; 5) Decisions about belief with respect to origins cannot be based on science.

Dr. Gerald Bryant (PhD Geology) teaches at Dixie State College of Utah, in St. George, UT

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