She Sells Seashells: A Deep-Time Story

Victorians loved their curiosities.

They were particularly fond of taxidermied animals – in fact, many of the displays we see in natural history museums are artifacts of pre-PETA days when animals were stuffed and collected as a hobby.

Amateur taxidermist Walter Potter, however, took the cake. In a peculiar blending of Victorian whimsy and Victorian fascination with death, Potter created tableaus with his handiwork:

Bunnies hard at work writing their school lessons.bunny school

Kittens at a proper tea party.kitten tea party

Card-playing squirrels.card playing squirrel single

And of course, a cat wedding

Victorians also loved to collect objects from nature. They called these prizes “curiosities”. They often displayed their curiosities in a cabinet (the “curio cabinet”) or in a special room in their home.

Lyme Regis, a seaside resort in Dorset county in England was a favorite vacation spot for those with enough money to take a holiday on the coast. In addition to the beauty of limestone and shale cliffs, the area was noted for an abundance of fossils. No one knew exactly how to explain these fossil curiosities, so they made up stories:

  • Fossilized vertebrae were called “verteberries” or “crocodile teeth”
  • Beautiful ammonites (an extinct mollusk) were called “snakestones” or “serpent stones”jurassicAmmoniteShowingSuturesNHM
  • “Devil’s fingers” or “St. Peter’s fingers” were actually extinct mollusks similar to modern squids.

“Angels’ wings”, “Devil’s toenails”, and more – the Victorians didn’t know what they were, but they loved the mystery and they loved to collect them.

The Bone Girl

Richard Anning was a poor cabinet maker in Lyme Regis. In the endless struggle to keep his family fed, he collected fossils to sell. He set up a little table in front of his shop and sold his curiosities to the vacationers – small fossils and sea shells. Fossil hunting and extracting in the cliffs could be dangerous work, but Anning’s two children often accompanied him as he searched. He even made his little daughter Mary a fossil extractor of her very own. When Mary was only eleven, her father died from consumption following a fall from a cliff. The little family edged closer to destitution.

Not long after their father’s death, Mary’s brother noticed a skull with a ring of bony plates around the eye socket – they thought it was a crocodile – but in England??

A year later, twelve-year-old Mary returned to the site and found the rest of the creature’s skeleton on a cliff high above where the head was found. Young Mary lead a group of men to dig out the skeleton – an almost perfectly preserved seventeen-feet-long reptile. It was not a crocodile: it was a 175 – 200 million-year-old marine reptile, an ichthyosaur (“fish-lizard”).ichthyosaurus

Scientists in the fledgling fields of geology and paleontology often came to Lyme Regis, but with the discovery of the pristine ichthyosaur fossil, several stars in the fields specifically sought out the teenaged Mary. And there were many more discoveries by Mary over the years: long-necked plesiosaurs (including the first two specimens ever found), more ichthyosaurs, a squid-like cephalopod, an ancient starfish, ancient fish. She even discovered the first pterosaur (a flying reptile) found in Britain.

NaturalHistoryMuseum_PictureLibrary_004719_preview dimorphodon

Dimorphodon macronyx, a pterosaur that lived during the Lower Jurassic period. Collected by Mary Anning.


During the Jurassic geologic period (about 206 – 144 million years ago), the Lyme Regis area was submerged in a vast shallow sea teaming with life, a banquet for large carnivorous marine reptiles and for the pterosaurs living along the shoreline. Mary, who travelled out of Lyme Regis only once in her life, was a smart woman in the just the right place.

The Greatest Fossilist the World Ever Knew

In class-conscious Victorian England, she was poor. She was a woman, and an unmarried woman at that. She had little formal education. Because she sold her finds to museums and collectors, she was considered “in trade”. Mary was religious and deeply faith-filled, but she belonged for most of her life to a “Dissenters” church – not the respectable Church of England. She never married, but she supported her mother and was devoted to her little dog, her fossil-hunting companion. To her sorrow, the little dog was killed in a rock slide which narrowly missed Mary.

And she worked in a field unheard of for women: science.

Although Mary had little formal schooling, she was far from uneducated. She read and educated herself in her field – particularly comparative anatomy. She was respected by the early leaders in the field of paleontology. These geologists and paleontologists and collectors regularly acknowledged her work, but never named the finds for Mary. Late in her life, a Swiss paleontologist named a fossil fish for her, but during her lifetime, no British collector bestowed this honor.

In 1835, the British Association for the Advancement of Science awarded her a modest lifetime annuity in recognition of her work – remarkable for the time, since women were not expected to be highly educated, much less scientists.

Mary died twelve years later at age 47 from breast cancer.

There is a breathtaking sun-drenched gallery hall with high, large windows in the Natural History Museum in London. Both sides of the hall are filled, floor to ceiling, with fossilized marine reptiles found in England: ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and more. On the plaques of some the finest fossils in the gallery, you’ll see the name “Mary Anning”, time and time again. Some days, a museum docent dresses as Mary and interacts with museum visitors.

NHM plesiosaur

I took this photo! July 2, 2016 Natural History Museum (London)


Have you heard of Mary Anning? Probably not. But I’m sure you’ve heard this:

She sells sea shells on the sea shore,

The shells she sells are sea shells, I’m sure,

For if she sells sea shells on the sea shore,

Then I’m sure she sells sea shore shells

This children’s tongue twister was written about Mary Anning!

Deep Time

Mary stood at a much more profound crossroad of science than she could have fathomed.

Scientists of Mary Anning’s day really could not comprehend deep time. Geology was a new field – naturalists were just beginning to understand the forces that shaped the planet. Paleontology was even newer: when Mary was born, dinosaurs had not yet been found. Dinosaurs were not identified as a group and named Dinosauria until just a few years before Mary’s death.

A few naturalists considered the possibility that life had changed over time, but there was no way to frame such changes given the age the earth was assumed to be.

Here’s more perspective: Mary lived, worked, and died before Charles Darwin burst onto the scene. Although she and Charles Darwin were contemporaries, Darwin did not publish Origin of Species until 10 years after Mary’s death. Mary found her first ichthyosaur twenty years before Charles Darwin boarded the Beagle for his game-changing round-the-world voyage.

Pretty little seashells on a table in front of a curiosity shop threatened no one. Small fossilized marine animals were curious – but weren’t terribly threatening. Victorians loved them and the mystery: were they medicinal? Were they sinners turned to stone?

But giant fossilized marine reptiles buried deep in the rock were threatening.

These creatures indicated that the earth was much older than anyone had imagined and that life on earth had been very, very different in the past. As Mary found specimen after specimen, the challenges to existing beliefs about creation and the meaning of the Genesis stories grew stronger. It was unavoidable: time was unfathomably deep. Life on earth had changed. Victorians loved the fossil curiosities, but could no longer ignore the implications.

This is the only portrait of Mary we have – Mary on the coast of Lyme Regis, extractor in hand, with her little dog and fossil-hunting companion, Tray.

portrait mary anning

Mary Anning: “The greatest fossilist the world ever knew”


ccat reading


The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they reveal knowledge

*****science cat explores gravity edited


The Gungor Conundrum and a Showdown in Big D (Reading Genesis, part 1)

Grammy-nominated and Dove Award-winning Christian singer/song writer Michael Gungor (front man for the band Gungor) is in hot water. A church cancelled a September gig and Ken Ham is really, really mad at him.

There have been quiet rumblings about Gungor before, but following a February post on the band’s home page, suspicions picked up steam. An on-line response by the e-magazine World to Gungor’s post quickly made the internet rounds.

According to World, Michael Gungor, creator of beautiful, deeply spiritual, award-winning Christian music, is “drifting from Biblical orthodoxy”.

Because he no longer believes in God or in Jesus as the son of God?
Because he no longer believes that the Bible is God-breathed and useful?
Because he no longer believes in miracles or the resurrection of Jesus?
According to his critics, Michael Gungor is drifting from the foundational principles of Christianity because he doesn’t believe in a literal, seven-day young earth creation or in a literal, world-wide flood.

Literalists assumed that because Gungor and his band sing a lot about “creation”, they must be young-earth creationists. Gungor’s response: “Gungor is not, and has never been a fundamentalist band seeking to spread young-earth, biblical literalism across the planet”.

It Says What It Says

Michael Gungor is in hot water and accused of unorthodoxy because he doesn’t read Genesis 1-11 as a literal, historical recounting of events. Actually, a literal-only approach to the Bible is a fairly new development in the 2000+ year history of Christianity.

Important theological writers in the early centuries of the church did not insist on a “it says what it says” approach to scripture interpretation. Of course early church writers did not recognize the conflict between modern science and a literal reading, but they still were not literalists.


Origen of Alexandria (born 184/85 AD) was a brilliant and influential voice in early Christianity. During Origen’s lifetime, the church in Alexandria emerged as a theological and intellectual hub of Christianity.

One of Origen’s most important contributions was the publication of a Greek translation of the Old Testament. Origen used the earliest Greek translation (the Septuagint) as well as newer Greek translations and older Hebrew translations in his massive Old Testament work. Origen was the first Christian scholar to deal with the variations found in multiple translations of scripture and how those variations impacted the meaning of the scripture.

Origen also taught that scriptures were multi-layered and the student of scripture must drill down and unpack all the meaning found within. Interestingly, Origen developed this approach to scripture in response to early unorthodox teachings (heresies), particularly the Gnostic teachers. It was the Gnostics (the unorthodox) who were reading scripture in a literal and “it says what it says” way. Purely literal readings of the Old Testament lead the Gnostics to teach that God was petty, erratic, and had a physical body.


Augustine of Hippo (born 354) is considered by many to be one of the most influential Christian thinkers in history. He was a prolific writer and was profoundly influential on the protestant reformers.

Augustine was definitive on this point: although God speaks to the Church through scripture, the Word of God is Jesus Christ. Like Origen, Augustine taught that scripture is multi-layered in meaning. Augustine also insisted that the original intent of the Biblical authors be considered.

Augustine and the Genesis Creation Story

Augustine wrote extensively and specifically about the creation story in Genesis.  Augustine did not read the creation story literally – not because he wanted to accommodate modern science, but because the text did not demand a literal reading.

Augustine rejected the notion that God created the universe in six 24-hour days. According to Augustine, the entire universe was created in an instant and the creation story is a metaphor describing various dimensions of creation.

Although he lived many centuries before Darwin and modern science, Augustine cautioned Christians not to harm the gospel message by imposing meanings to scripture that are demonstrably untrue. Note how contemporary this statement sounds – here’s Augustine:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics…

If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven…?

Showdown in Big D

The Dallas Morning News recently featured nine men, all Ph.D.s, all working toward the same goal: prove, using science, that the Genesis creation story is literally true – a historically and scientifically accurate account. These researchers at Dallas’ Institute for Creation Research are starting out with a belief in literalism and going on a hunt for facts to back them up. ICR

Henry Morris III, CEO of the Institute, readily admits that these professors are pariahs in their fields. Because ICR professors reject evidence accepted by virtually every scientist in the world, it’s a showdown in Big D: ICR vs. science.

Suddenly, Augustine doesn’t sound so fourth-century.

According to Morris, the very principles of Christianity are at stake:

If God really does exist, he shouldn’t be lying to us … And if he’s lying to us right off the bat in the book of Genesis, we’ve got some real problems.

Morris and ICR are laying down the law that a literal Genesis is a requirement of real Christianity.

That’s also why Ken Ham is mad at Gungor:

Gungor’s recent statements are particularly damaging because they may mislead youth and discourage them from accepting the Gospel of salvation.

The Two Books of God

Mark Mann, writing at BioLogos, called creation and scripture the “two books of God”.

The book of Creation reveals God, and declares his eternal power and divine nature.
The book of Scripture reveals God’s relationship with human beings.

Mann writes that the two books of God can and should be read together in harmony:

Ultimately, they cannot contradict each other because the source of both of them is the same God and if they seem to be in contradiction it is because we have misread one or both of them…


I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.




What is the Fine-Tuning of the Universe?

Apparently the universe knew we were coming.


Freeman Dyson, one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century, said this about the physical laws of the universe:

The more I examine the universe, and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the Universe in some sense must have known we were coming (The Language of Science and Faith, p. 195).

The physical laws of the universe appear to be designed precisely to support life. In addition, the beginning of it all – the Big Bang – appears to have transpired precisely in a way that would result in life.

Nobody debates this fact – the universe is finely tuned to support the appearance and the development of life.

What is the “fine tuning” of the universe?

There are a myriad of constants in our universe. These constants are numerical values that always hold true – for example, the speed of light.    speed limit of light

There are also forces in nature: the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, the electromagnetic force, and the most familiar of all, gravitational force.

If any one these myriad factors – the constants or the forces – differed even slightly from their actual values, life in the universe would be impossible.

Fine Tuning – Three Examples

carbon  The most important building block of life is the element carbon. Carbon, present in all living things and absolutely essential to life, is a highly improbably element.

But before we talk about carbon – the building block of life – we need to first talk about stars.

Most of the heavy elements in the universe were formed in stars through a process called fusion. Fusion happens when two or more atomic nuclei collide at a very high speed to create a new, heavier element. When fusion occurs, energy is released. Fusion is what fuels the stars and makes them shine:

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star 
I know exactly what you are 

 Opaque ball of hot dense gas 
Million times our planet’s mass 
Looking small because you’re far 
I know exactly what you are 

Fusing atoms in your core 
Hydrogen, helium, carbon and more 
With such power you shine far 
Twinkle twinkle little star 

Stars are primarily composed of the lightest element, hydrogen.

In intensely hot stars, two hydrogen atoms fuse to form helium. Two helium atoms fuse to form lithium, two lithium atoms fuse to form beryllium, and so on as we march across the periodic table.

  periodic table  .

Some fusions are much more improbable – carbon is one example. In order for carbon to form, three helium atoms have to collide and fuse. And if that wasn’t hard enough, energy levels in the colliding atoms must match up in order to form carbon. If three helium atoms happened to collide under normal circumstances, the energy levels would not match up. The helium atoms wouldn’t stick together and the atoms would fly apart before they could actually form an atom of carbon. In the production of carbon, the strong nuclear forces and the electromagnetic forces collaborate in a delicate-just-so dance, working together in a collaborative way that allows an improbable window of opportunity for the helium atoms to stick together and form an atom of carbon.

The slightest change to either the strong or electromagnetic forces alters the relevant energy levels, resulting in greatly reduced production of carbon. And carbon, of course is essential to life, so reducing its production dramatically reduces the probability that the universe will turn out to be habitable (p. 182).

Fred Hoyle, one of the twentieth century’s most renowned scientists, called this phenomenon the carbon resonance.

A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and there are no blind forces worth speaking of in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question. (Language of Science and Faith, p.182).

hoyle    (Here’s an interesting side note to the Hoyle quote – Hoyle was an agnostic and in no way wanted to invoke God as an explanation.)

Gravity is the force that attracts you to the surface of the earth (and vice-versa). Gravity is the force that keeps the moon in its path and keeps planets in orbit. Gravity is the force that attracts everything in the universe to each other.

Immediately after the big bang, all matter was randomly distributed – no stars or planets – just individual atoms swirling about in the darkness of space.

Enter gravity.

As matter expanded, gravity began to tug on matter, clumping it into bits, then bigger bits, and bigger. Eventually, matter clumped together as stars and galaxies.

If the force of gravity had been just infinitesimally greater, gravity would have pulled everything back together again, crashing in on itself.   If the force of gravity had been just infinitesimally smaller, matter would have been scattered throughout the universe so loosely that stars would have never formed. Without stable stars like our sun, there can be no habitable planets capable of supporting life.

Paperclip-300x200  Just how exact must the force of gravity be in order to have the universe we have? A paper clip weighs one gram. If gravity was changed so that you weighed one-billionth of a gram less or one-billionth of a gram more than you do now, our universe would have no stars, galaxies, or planets.


No planets, no life.

Goldilocks and the Big Bang. Just after the bang of the big bang, things proceeded in a way that would pave the way for life. For example, if the rate of expansion had been greater, matter would have been so diffuse (spread out) that gravity would not have been strong enough to gather matter together into stars and galaxies. If the rate of expansion had been any slower, gravity would have pulled everything back into a black hole. The expansion rate was “just right” – just like Goldilock’s porridge – not too fast, not too slow.

goldilocksCan We Explain Fine-Tuning Without God?

Because humans exist, the laws of nature are obviously conducive to life. Otherwise, no one would be around to notice.


This is typically the rationale given by those in the “no God” camp. But is it a satisfying explanation?

Here’s an analogy given by philosopher John Leslie (Language of Science and Faith, p. 187): Suppose you are to be executed by firing squad. There you stand, blindfolded, and all of the guns fire. Every shooter misses, and you survive.

What do you think about your situation?

Do you think: Well of course all of the shots missed. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here to notice that I am still alive.

Or do you suspect that something’s up? Something went on behind the scenes? A plot to save you, maybe? Why might such an unlikely event occur?

Our universe appears to have something that went on “behind the scenes”. Intellectual curiosity should lead us to at least consider explanations as to why so many unlikely events converged at the instant of the big bang.

Inflation is another God-free explanation for the apparent fine-tuning of the universe, but this theory simply pushes the fine tuning back a step, it doesn’t eliminate it.

Finally, there is the multiverse explanation. This explanation says that there are an infinite number of universes with infinite combinations of conditions and this is the one we happen to live in. There is not wide-spread support for this idea. Interestingly, Stephen Hawking has said that the multiverse idea is really the only way around the apparent fine tuning of the universe.

Proof of God?

Obviously we can’t prove God, but the fine-tuning of the universe definitely points to a Designer/Creator.  Giberson and Collins (p.190) enthusiastically endorse the idea that the universe is intelligently designed (not to be confused with the “Intelligent Design theory” that opposes evolution). The numerous forces, conditions, and constants that must be “just so” provide a compelling argument that a Creator brought matter into existence, governed by finely-tuned natural laws, resulting in a universe where life could develop and thrive.

Modern scientific understanding of physical laws and constants were not what the psalmist had in mind when he wrote:

Creation is maintained by your rulings, since all things are your servants (119:89-91 JB),

nor was Paul speaking as a physicist when he described the Creator-Christ as the one who holds all creation together (Colossians 1:17).

Science can define, observe, describe and articulate natural laws; this does not diminish God as the author and sustainer of those laws.

This series is a chapter by chapter discussion of The Language of Science and Faith by Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins, with my commentary and my observations.

I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.

Why is Darwin’s Theory So Controversial?

Why is Darwin’s Theory So Controversial?

Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love recently published a new novel – The Signature of All Things. The book is fictional, but the historical setting is not. The book follows a nineteelizabeth-gilbert_72140_600x450enth century female botanist, Alma Whittaker.  Through her own observation, collection, and study, Alma, like many natural scientists of her day, came to understand that life on earth had changed drastically – evolved – over time.

Here’s the catch – the fictional Alma (and her non-fictional counterparts upon whom she was modeled) – lived and worked before Darwin.

Evolution Before Darwin

Prior to Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, the idea of the development and evolution of living things over time was widely discussed – and accepted – by scientists and natural philosophers. What Darwin did was to articulate the process (natural section) by which these changes occurred.

The vast amounts of time needed for evolution was not initially a sticking point for Christians. The idea of a very old earth was widely accepted before Darwin, even among conservative Christians. Advances in geologic science and a rapidly growing roster of fossils pointed to an ancient earth – and nobody was really upset about it. For most Christians, an old earth did not contradict the Genesis creation story.

An old earth was usually reconciled with a literal reading of Genesis in one of two ways: the day-age theory or the gap theory. Day-age theory said that the “days” of Genesis were not 24-hour days, but instead were epochs of geological time. Gap theory said that there was a great gap of time between God’s creation of the heavens and the earth and the creation week found in Genesis. In light of scientific data, many nineteenth-century Christians adjusted their reading of Genesis without widespread upset.

Reaction to Darwin – Then and Now

Initially, Christian opposition to evolution was focused in two areas.

The non-directed (random) nature of the evolutionary process was seen as purposeless and without meaning. Actually, the thought of animals and plants evolving was far less offensive to most Christians than the thought of a “meaningless” process.

The second point of opposition lay in the biblical scholarship battles of the day. Because religious modernists (the “liberals”) tended to be captivated by new science discoveries, they also tended to accept evolution. The very fact that liberals tended to accept evolution was reason enough for many Christians to deny it. Even so, by the end of the nineteenth century the evolution of species (except humans) was accepted by many Christians, including several conservative theologians.

Practically no one was arguing for a very young earth except the Seventh-Day Adventists, whose founder claimed a vision revealed to her that Noah’s flood was responsible for fossils.

Darwin, Evolution, and Twentieth Century Christians

George MacCready Price, a self-taught geologist and a Seventh-Day Adventist, expanded the flood explanation in a series of genesis flood coverbooks in the early part of the twentieth century. In 1961, the flood/fossil idea was updated and was published in what would become the centerpiece book of the young-earth-creation-science movement: The Genesis Flood. Because of Sputnik (1959) and the subsequent push for improved science education in American schools, evolution as a topic began to appear in earnest in science text books.

headline sputnik

In response, The Genesis Flood school of thought caught fire and took off.

It soon became a matter of Christian orthodoxy to deny evolution and an old earth.

Groups like Answers in Genesis and The Institute for Creation Research have advocated “teaching the alternative” or  “teaching the controversy” (young earth/special creation/fossils from the flood VS evolution) in schools.


What Are the Challenges to Evolution?

Some questions about evolution were problems at one point, but have now been fully resolved. Not long after Darwin, physicists argued that the earth was only about 100 million years old, not nearly enough time for evolution to have produced the current variation in living things. It was assumed at that time that the earth began in a molten state and had been cooling ever since. Analysis of the rate of cooling from the heat remaining in the ground (volcanoes, geysers) revealed that the earth could not possibly be billions of years old (Language of Science and Faith, p. 162). Not long afterwards, radiation was discovered. Radiation has been releasing heat into the earth since the earth began, countering the cooling process. Radioactive elements are also a very reliable natural clock – because we know the amount of time needed for one element to decay into another, we can determine the age of rocks.

Long-resolved challenges to evolution like this are now only problems for those who are not current with scientific literature or who do not respect the literature.

Some questions about evolution are not really problems at all, but are premised on misunderstandings of science. A common argument against evolution is that evolutionary theory breaks the second law of thermodynamics. The second law states that everything becomes disordered over time. We see examples in everyday life – cars don’t get newer, they rust and corrode. Fruit doesn’t get fresher, it decays. Evolution seems to say just the opposite – simple, primitive cells evolved into the brilliant complexities of modern organisms.

Here’s the important part – the part that is misunderstood: the second law says that disorder increases in an isolated system. Almost every system in nature has input from the outside. Input from outside a system can produce order.

Here’s a familiar example: green plants and the process of photosynthesis. With energy input from the sun, green plants turn carbon dioxide and water into sugars. As long as the green plant has energy input from the sun, sugars will be constructed – order is increased.

Go to any elementary school science fair and I promise that right next to the kid who investigated “playing rock music vs. classical music to potted plants” you’ll find a junior scientist “investigating” what happens when you grow plants under a box in the dark. Take away the outside input, and the plant starts to decay – it becomes “disordered”. science-fair-projects-for-kids-growing-plants

Interesting to note that as the sun produces the energy that is used by plants to become more ordered, the sun itself is becoming more disordered.

As evolution unfolds on earth the sun becomes increasingly disordered and the total order of the solar system and the universe is still decreasing (Language of Science and Faith, p. 167).

Biological systems (living things) are not isolated systems, so the second law does not apply to them.

Some questions about evolution are unanswered…so far. Probably the most concerning unanswered question is about the origin of life itself. Evolution theory explains the development of life on earth. Evolution theory says nothing about the origin of life – that is a separate question. Scientists have a pretty good idea about when life appeared on earth (about four billion years ago) but no agreement on the how.

But – just because we don’t have a science explanation for how life emerged today does not mean that we won’t have one tomorrow. It is tempting to put God in our gap of knowledge: since we don’t know how life began on earth, it must have been a special miraculous intervention by God. Then what happens if tomorrow’s headlines announce that scientists have discovered how life began? Is all lost for believers in God?


If (or when) the origins of life are found, we will not have disproved God; we will have discovered the mechanism by which God brought life about on earth.

…God’s original and elegant plan for the universe may well have included the potential for life to arise without necessarily requiring later “supernatural” engineering to jumpstart the process. In this view, God’s sustaining creative presence undergirds all of life’s history from the beginning to the present (Language of Science and Faith, p.175).

Side note: Last week, Dr. Giberson, one of the co-authors of The Language of Science and Faith, debated a young earth creationist in an event sponsored by the Center for Creation Studies.

It’s lengthy, but very interesting. Here’s the linkgiberson debate

Dr. Giberson is a very patient man!

This series is a chapter by chapter discussion of The Language of Science and Faith by Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins, with my commentary and my observations.

I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.

How Do We Relate Science and Religion?

How Do We Relate Science and Religion?

Much of the conflict between science and faith is a trumped-up contention, fed by a media (and to be fair, consumers of media) that is in love with conflict. The players have defined and consistent roles: science is smart, progressive and informed; religion is defensive, backwards and wary.

One response is to “keep the peace” by declaring science and faith to be independent, separate, and non- overlapping. Stephen Jay Gould, a famous evolutionary biologist, best articulated this view and labeled it non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA). Although the term “magisteria” sounds fancy and very royal, it does not imply majesty.

Queen-Elizabeth-II-queen-elizabeth-ii-33449729-405-304 Instead, it is derived from a Latin word that means “teacher”.  A magisteria is a domain of teaching authority. Applying the concept of NOMA, science and faith can’t possibly be in conflict because they deal with completely different topics: science has authority in its domain; faith has authority in its domain. Science is only concerned with facts and theory, the “how and when” of the natural world. Faith is only concerned with moral meaning and values, the “who and why” of the story. NOMA therefore is sort of a “live and let live” approach – put the gloves away, no need to fight, science and faith are apples and oranges.

Warfare metaphors have been a part of the science/faith discussion from the nineteenth century till now (Language of Science and Faith, p. 84). The NOMA approach has certainly moderated the dramatics that are common in perceived science and faith conflicts.

NOMA, however, has its limitations. You might think NOMA would be a happy compromise for atheists, but that is not so. Richard Dawkins has called NOMA “rubbish” primarily because he believes that religion has nothing authoritative to say in any situation. To a Dawkins-style atheist, faith is not respectable and is therefore not worthy of recognition as a domain of teaching authority.

Even to a God-believer, NOMA has its limitations. NOMA draws over-simplified lines between factual knowledge and values. Giberson and Collins (Language of Science and Faith, p. 85) illustrate this limitation: If “child abuse is wrong” is said as a statement of fact, then it cannot be a religious statement. According to NOMA, religion doesn’t have authority in fact; religion only has authority in values. However, “rightness” or “wrongness” is not the authority of science. The NOMA model cannot address this type of statement.

Another area in which NOMA is limited is how religion responds to advances in science. At one point in history, the best a Christian could do for the sick was to pray and provide comfort as best he or she could. Medical advances and drugs now offer an opportunity to treat and even cure diseases, and many Christians support and participate in medical missions in order to extend these advantages to the poor.

Things get complicated for Christians, however, in other areas of medical advances. For example, reproduction control that can stem the rate of maternal death, inhibit the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and limit the problems of overpopulation is not universally acceptable to Christians. Scientific advances raise many other moral and ethical questions that must be addressed by people of faith.

I certainly believe that the idea of NOMA has value. It is a great way to frame a conversation, either with a God-believer or with a non-believer. “Science tells us the how and when of the universe; faith tells us the Who and why” is my go-to jumping off point in this kind of conversation. Understand, though, that a model of absolutely separate faith and science breaks down (1) if someone believes that religion has no value or (2) in some areas of ethical and moral decision-making.

Can Science Inform Religion in Helpful Ways?

science_vs_religion_scoreboard_bumper_sticker-r38e570329f704ce68e8e2cce9b841f6f_v9wht_8byvr_512Before the Scopes trial, Galileo’s trial before the Church Inquisition was the most famous science vs. religion courtroom showdown. Unlike the players in the Scopes trial, Galileo did not see this as a forum for science to “win” and the Church to “lose”. Galileo was not interested in defeating religion – he remained a faithful Catholic till the end of his life. Galileo represented a group of Catholic astronomers who wanted to reform their church.

Galileo did not suggest that his discoveries contradicted the Bible, but that science had offered a refinement to a proper understanding (Language of Science and Faith, p. 89).

Learning that the sun – without a doubt – was the center of the solar system and that the earth did indeed move resulted in a revised understanding of the scriptures that say that the earth does not move. The earth-not-moving psalms (Psalms 93:1, Psalms 96:10, Psalms 104:5) still speak truth, but we now understand this truth is told in a poetic, symbolic way.

Genesis is the grappling-ground for contemporary believers:

We suggest that Darwin’s theory of evolution, now that it has been confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt by science, offers the same sort of help in understanding the Genesis creation story as Galileo’s work helped his generation to better understand the psalmist’s references to the mobility of the earth (p. 89).

N.T. Wright observed that every generation must “chew through” the Bible afresh. As successive generations gain new knowledge, as cultures change, as societal pressure points change, as language changes – believers must continually work through scripture and revise understanding as needed.

New Understanding of Scripture


Is it really just that simple?

Several years ago, Mike Cope wrote a blog series about how to read the Bible. Mike outlined several simple yet deep “rules” to use when reading scripture. My two favorites are “the Bible wasn’t written to me” and “the Bible has to be interpreted”.

The Bible didn’t roll off the press in one grand printing – it was written by many authors in different languages, cultures, and time periods. We need to know what we’re reading if we want understanding. Ernest Lucas, a biochemist and theologian, summarized five questions to ask when approaching the Bible (Language of Science and Faith, pp. 91- 100). These five questions have been used since the time of the early church fathers:

What kind of language is being used? Is the passage written in a figurative, symbolic, historical, scientific or straightforward manner?

What kind of literature is it? Is the passage a historical narrative? An epic? Poetry? Law? Each of these genres has interpretive principles to help understanding.

Who is the audience? What is the cultural context of the original hearers? What were their traditions? What was important to the original hearers?

What is the purpose of the text? Was it written to teach a lesson? Was it written to correct misconceptions? Genesis, for example, appears to scholars to be a polemic – written to challenge a commonly held view or belief. In contrast to the dominant polytheistic cultures of the ancient near east that worshiped the sun, moon, and other aspects of creation as gods, Genesis presents the case for one God, outside of creation and creator of all.

What relevant extratexual knowledge exists? This is particularly useful when translating from ancient languages into modern.

Using what we know from science (or any other discipline for that matter) to readjust our understanding of scripture is not disrespectful of scripture. We are privileged to have insights others did not have, and future believers may again need to readjust.

This series is a chapter by chapter discussion of The Language of Science and Faith by Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins, with commentary and my observations.


I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.

Can We Really Know the Earth is Billions of Years Old?

Can We Really Know the Earth is Billions of Years Old?

Kids love dinosaurs. They are big and scary and growl-y and dangerous. Proud parents beam as their precocious little paleontologists recite their wealth of dinosaur facts. The trouble starts when the little paleontologists learn that dinosaurs roamed the earth between 65 – 230 million years ago, a timeline that is hard to squeeze into an earth that is only 6,000 years old.

That’s when dinosaurs really become dangerous.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that a “young earth” (between 6,000 and 10,000 years old) became a widespread belief among evangelicals. A young earth created many problems: how do you reconcile apparently ancient events with a fairly short earth history? To make the math work in the case of the dinosaurs, dinosaurs and humans had to coexist. Maybe not exactly in the way they did in the town of Bedrock, but close.

fred and dinosaur

Apologetics Press (AP) is a prolific source of Young Earth Creationist (YEC) literature. An AP published science book for children, Dinosaurs Unleashed: The True story About Dinosaurs and Humans, includes illustrations of men fighting a vicious T-Rex, baby dinosaurs climbing a ramp to Noah’s Ark, and an idyllic scene of a young girl and her dinosaur pet. Not exactly Fred and Dino, but not too far from it.

               pet dino           dinos on ark           trex

When the age of the earth is a tenet of faith, conflict arises when scientific evidence doesn’t fit the faith-required parameters. The most common response is to somehow make the evidence fit the belief.

All scientific evidence points to an earth and a universe of immense age:

There are no scientific arguments of any consequence that point to the earth being just a few thousand years old. Not one isolated piece of nontrivial data, in any form, points in this direction (p. 54).

How Old is the Universe? How Do We Know?

The age of the universe is around twelve to fourteen billion years. Scientists arrived at this number because several unrelated lines of evidence converge on that number. Let’s look at two lines of evidence:

speed limit of light The speed of light: Light travels 186,000 miles per second. Our sun is 93 million miles away. When light leaves the sun, the light has to travel 93 million miles before we can see it. If you do the calculations, you will find that it takes eight minutes for light from the sun to reach the earth. When you see the sun, you are actually looking back in time. If the sun went dark, we would not know for eight minutes.

Our sun is relatively close to us, but other stars are unimaginably further away. They are so far away that it takes millions, even billions of years for the light from these distant stars to reach us. One way to estimate the age of the universe is to calculate how long it would take for the light we see from distant stars to reach us. The fact that we are seeing light from stars so far away tells us the universe  is billions of years old.

The Big Bang: Edwin Hubble (for whom the telescope was named) discovered in 1928 that virtually all of the galaxies in the universe are moving away from us. If the universe is expanding, it must have been smaller in the past. And since the universe is not infinitely large, there must have been a point in time when the expansion started from a single point – The Big Bang. (This is where you start to sing the opening lines of the sitcom Big Bang Theory to yourself: “…the whole universe was in a hot dense state then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started. Wait!”).

We know how fast the galaxies are traveling. The speed of the galaxies is measured in the same way a police officer measures the speed of your car – using radar to measure the Doppler effect. Knowing the rate of expansion and the average distances between galaxies, we can calculate how long the universe has been expanding from the starting point until now.

What if (as Young Earth Creationists suggest) God created light “in transit”?

Then what we see is not what actually is.

What about supernova – exploding stars – that are millions of light-years away? Those stars never actually existed according to YEC reasoning. Of course God could have created a universe with the appearance of age. God could have created everything ten minutes ago and placed a lifetime of memories in our brains.

Or, stars, galaxies, and supernova appear to be billions of years old because…they are.

How Old is the Earth? How D0 We Know?

As with the universe, the age of the earth has been determined using multiple, disparate lines of data that all converge at the same number. Here are some of the ways the age of the earth is determined:

Tree rings: We can determine the age of a tree by counting the rings on their trunks. The oldest living things on earth are six-thousand-year-old bristlecone pines in the Sierra Nevada. Dead trees lying nearby are almost twice as old.

Lake beds: Lake beds accumulate sediments according to the season: minerals in spring and pollens and plant materials in fall. Lake beds as old as 35,000 years have been found.

Ice rings: Similarly, glacial ice has layers that indicate changes in seasons. Ice cores have been drilled in ice as old as 740,000 years.

Using the simple skills of visual observation and counting, tree rings, lakebeds, and ice cores place the earth well past the 6,000 to 10,000 year age proposed by Young Earth Creationists. Using patterns in the orbit of the earth and patterns of magnetic field reversals, we find dates for the earth going back 30 million to 170 million years (Language of Science and Faith, pp. 62-63).

Dating methods for the way way back – radioactive clocks: In the nucleus of an atom are particles called protons and neutrons. Usually an atom will have equal numbers of protons and neutrons, and all is happy and stable in the atomic world. Sometimes, however, there are extra neutrons in the nucleus of an atom, making the atom unstable. Atoms will “throw off” the extras protons to form a more stable atom.

For example, atoms of uranium-235 are unstable. Uranium-235 will throw off neutrons until it has changed into a more stable element, lead-207.

We know how long it takes for unstable uranium to decay into stable lead. When we want to date a rock containing uranium-235 and lead-207, we can measure the ratio of uranium-235 to lead-207 and determine the age of the rock. Using the uranium-lead clock, the age of the earth is about 4.566 billion years old.


The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge

(Psalms 19:1-2)

Everything in the cosmos pours forth speech and reveals knowledge.  Do you believe the speech is true? Do you believe the knowledge is Truth? Do you believe that the cosmos actually is what it reveals itself to be?

Three Kinds of Creationists

Young Earth Creationists: Young Earth Creationists (YEC) believe that Genesis is a scientific and historical account of origins. Adding up genealogies (the begats) and assuming seven literal 24-hours days of creation, YEC conclude that the earth is less than 10,000 years old.  These assumptions are based almost entirely upon English translations of the Old Testament. Many scholars in Hebrew, Old Testament, and ancient cultures insist that the YEC position is not even close to what the text of Genesis is saying.

Old Earth Creationists:Old Earth Creationists (OEC) also believe that Genesis is a scientific and historical account of origins, but they accept scientific evidence for the age of the earth. Although OEC allow for an earth that is billions of years old, OEC believe that living things were created by direct and separate events – no natural processes were involved and they reject evolution.

BioLogos: The view of the authors of The Language of Science and Faith and many Christians who want to be biblically based and scientifically accurate is BioLogos: God’s creative activity is executed within the natural order (Language of Science and Faith, p. 72), using and respecting established natural laws.

Reading Genesis

A literal reading has not been widely accepted as the only way to interpret Genesis for most of the history of the church. Important Christian writers like Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas, although all lived in a pre-scientific time, did not support a literal reading. Even William Jennings Bryan, famous for arguing against evolution in the Scopes trial, did not believe in a young earth.

The Genesis Flood, published in 1961, was wildly popular in evangelical circles and was responsible to a great extent for defining the terms that still exist: serious, Bible-based Christians believe in a young earth and special creation. Deny any aspect of a literal interpretation, and your faith is suspect.


In an auspicious courtroom in 1633, one of the major players in the scientific revolution faced an inquisition by Church authorities. Galileo Galilei was on trial for heresy. Galileo wrote and taught that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system – an obviously false idea because it is directly contradicted by the clear teaching of scripture: The Earth Does Not Move.

After all, Psalm 104:5 says:

He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.

Although Galileo eventually recanted (with fingers crossed behind his back) rather than face the full penalty of the Inquisition, it wasn’t long before his clearly observable astronomical discoveries were widely accepted by Christians.

New science discoveries, new evidence, new data – Christians were compelled to reexamine a biblical text – and faith survived.

Twenty-first century Christians are faced with the evidence that much of life lived and went extinct before humans came along, with Darwin’s discoveries, with evidence of the Big Bang, and with the genetic evidence that all species are related.

These are our Galileo moments.

This series is a chapter by chapter discussion of The Language of Science and Faith by Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins, with commentary and my observations.


I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.

The Language of Science and Faith – Introduction

The Language of Science and Faith – Introduction

It was an evolution of sorts in adhesive chrome-plated automobile accoutrement.

First there was the primitive Christian fish, simple and unadorned. The next permutation was the same little fish, but now sporting legs and feet with the name “Darwin” across its belly. The final model was the Christian fish emblazoned with “Truth” in mid-swallow of the “Darwin” fish. Ha! Top that.

darwin christian fish

The clear implication is that faith and Darwin are completely incompatible, and more than that, Christianity completely trumps, no, obliterates, Darwin.

 According to the Truth Eating Darwin model, here are your choices:

(1) Reject a vast body of science evidence or

(2) Reject God.

A common perception is that to accept scientific explanations of the origins of the universe and life on earth means a rejection of God. Serious Christians don’t believe in evolution, serious scientists don’t believe in God.

 In many Christian circles, particularly evangelical ones, scientific evidences for origins are ignored, or worse, belittled. A radio ad currently running in the DFW market (a secular, “family-friendly” station) warns:

Every time your child picks up a secular textbook they are exposed to agendas, propaganda, and inaccuracies.

 Science isn’t just wrong. Science is an enemy.

For the Christian who wants to love God with heart, soul, and mind, rejection of either science or God is an impossible choice.

In the introduction, the authors of The Language of Science and Faith make this optimistic declaration:

The good news is that we do not have to make this choice (p. 18)

 Three Beliefs About Origins

Theistic evolution is the belief that God created the universe and all life using natural processes (including evolution), within the natural order and within natural laws. On a smaller scale, almost everyone believes this idea: we pray to God to send rain, but we completely understand that rain is a result of the water cycle – a natural process. Francis Collins coined the term BioLogos, combining two key elements of this belief: bios referring to life; logos referring to the Word or rationality of God, as in “in the beginning was the Word (Logos)…”. Dr. Collins founded The BioLogos Foundation, a forum for peer-reviewed scientists to write and speak about science and faith.

 Young Earth Creationism is the belief that Genesis 1-2 are literal, historical accounts of creation. The universe and all that is in it was created in six literal 24 hour days. Ken Ham and his Answers in Genesis are leading advocates of this idea. Young Earth Creationists believe that the universe is less than 10,000 years old.

 Old Earth Creationism is the belief that most of Genesis 1-2 is literal, but the time periods (seven 24-hour days) are not. Old Earth Creationists are open to interpreting days as “geological epochs”. The organization Reasons to Believe is the standard bearer for this belief. A subset of sorts of Old Earth Creationism is the Intelligent Design movement. Intelligent Design (ID) doesn’t directly appeal to Genesis, but maintains that creation is the result of an “intelligent agent”. The Discovery Institute is the primary source for information about ID.

 A Bad Rep

Mentioning “evolution” in a vaguely positive context often evokes a trigger response of emotion and defensiveness despite the fact that the actual theory of evolution makes no direct statements about God. “Darwinism” is frequently used as a synonym for “godlessness” and “atheism”. Although Darwin’s research is considered a watershed moment in biology, Darwin was not the first nor has he been the last to contribute to the understanding of the process of evolution.

There has been no scientific discovery since Darwin – not one- which has suggested that evolution is not the best explanation for the origin of species (The Language of Science and Faith, p. 21-22).

 The implications of this statement are powerful. It is powerful particularly in the context of Christian belief: to reject evolution is to reject the bulk of accepted biological research and understanding.

God of the Gaps

Isaac Newton is credited with discovering the law of gravity. He accurately identified gravity as the reason why planets orbit the sun. However, Newton could not explain the intricacies of the mechanisms by which orbits are maintained. Because he couldn’t explain the mechanics, Newton deemed them unknowable and concluded that it must be due to the action of God. This is a “god of the gaps” argument – I can’t explain it, so I’ll put God (or the gods) in the “gap”.  A century later when the mechanics of orbits were discovered by Pierre Simon de Laplace, the “God explanation” was replaced by demonstrable physical mechanisms.

Darwin offered biology what Laplace offered physics – a natural explanation for some remarkable phenomena people were explaining by invoking God. Neither of these cases  presents an argument against the existence of God” (p. 23).

Should serious Christians be afraid to go down this track? Is it a slippery slope to eventual disbelief in things like miracles, the resurrection and other basic tenets of faith? Is it wise to do as Peter Enns suggests and meet the fear head-on?

Perhaps the way forward is not to resist the slide so much as to stop struggling, look around, and realize that we may have been on the wrong hill altogether (Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam, p. 145).

Many Christians as well as some of the new atheists claim that to accept evolution is to embrace atheism. Why do you think such opposite camps agree on this point?

Welcome to the discussion. I’ll present the high points of each chapter with commentary and my observations. Comment, discuss, “like”. Jump in!

This series is a chapter by chapter discussion of The Language of Science and Faith by Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins with my observations and commentary.


I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.