Life, Hope & Truth

Science and the Bible: Do You Have to Choose?

If you believe in the Bible, do you have to reject science? If you follow science, does that exclude belief in the Bible? Can you study both?

Bill Nye and Ken Ham’s highly publicized debate on whether Young Earth Creationism is a “viable model of origins” generated quite a bit of excitement in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. (Bill Nye, of course, is the famed public television “Science Guy” and Ken Ham is the founder of the Creation Museum.)

Despite how important the topic of science and the Bible is to me, I privately dreaded a media circus and the caricatures it would paint of each side.

Where should you get your information on the origins of life and the planet? A debate like this one tends to reinforce the popular view that there are only two options:

a) Study only the Bible and Christian sources. Reject any study that implies evolution or a very old earth because it conflicts with your understanding of the Bible; or

b) Look only to scientific textbooks and journals. Reject a literal reading of the Bible because it conflicts with your understanding of science.

It seems society expects you not only to choose sides, but also to be as dogmatic and exclusive as possible.

Left out?

So when I heard a radio ad inviting Cincinnatians who were “feeling left out by the Nye-Ham debate” to attend a lecture on intelligent design, I called to reserve tickets.

The evolutionary advocate in the debate, Bill Nye, had come to this same venue, the Schilling School for Gifted Children, to talk with the students on his way home from February’s debate. Looking for a speaker to challenge and “continue the discussion” with their analytically minded pupils, the faculty decided to host Michael J. Behe on April 6, 2014.

Dr. Behe is a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania researching “evolution of complex biochemical systems,” and has become controversial enough that he gave us a cheerful “official disclaimer” before beginning his presentation: His ideas do not represent the views of his university; and in fact, most of his colleagues disagree with him.

Identifying the dilemma

Dr. Behe summarized the flaw he sees in both combatants: Both are letting personal bias determine which scientific arguments they accept and which they overlook. One side relies on religious texts and ignores independent, empirical, verifiable studies. The other side ignores consistent scientific patterns because of philosophical preferences like materialism and because they are uncomfortable with where this reasoning will lead.

A quote from Dr. Franklin M. Harold’s 2001 book, The Way of the Cell, gets at the crux of the controversy. He writes, “We should reject, as a matter of principle, the substitution of intelligent design for the dialogue of chance and necessity; but we must concede that there are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculations” (p. 205).

In other words, though there is no scientific evidence that any molecular machine developed by chance, many scientists are unwilling to consider the possibility that they were designed.

However, rejecting ideas that fit the evidence solely on “principle” is not the way science is supposed to work. “Science should lead wherever the facts go,” Dr. Behe protested.

Examine both the scientific data and the Bible

Generally, people allow their philosophies to influence their science because they fear the data might compromise their beliefs.

But, taking what Dr. Behe says to heart, let’s add another option of where to get information on origins:

c) Study both the scientific data and the Bible on their own merits.

You may be surprised to find that they don’t clash after all!

Consider a few examples from the realm of scientific research specific to the field of genetic mutations.

Stopping malaria hijacks the circulatory system

You could say that the essential claim of Darwinism is that random mutations are sufficient to explain all of the diversity we see today. So how does the evidence stack up?

Mutations that protect against disease have been studied extensively. For example, malaria creates tremendous selective pressure on humans in some parts of the world, and has for a long time. As Dr. Behe put it, “If someone were born with a variation that helped them resist malaria a little bit better, they would pass that gene on in Darwinian fashion.”

So have there been advantageous genetic changes? Yes; in fact, researchers have referred to these handful of mutations as the “best examples” of evolution at work in human populations.

The most familiar of these mutations, HbS, involves a small “point mutation” in the gene for hemoglobin. As long as you also have one normal copy of the gene, having this mutation can help your body withstand malaria.

However, having two copies of the mutation causes a malformation of the red blood cells that creates “traffic jams” in the circulatory system. In countries with limited access to medical care, people with this sickle-cell disease typically die before reaching age 10, Dr. Behe explained, adding, “It’s not what you would call an elegant solution.”

HbS and the other “best example” mutations do not create any new protein tools to help the immune system destroy invaders; neither do they build on one another in a series of gradual steps towards fitness. In fact, each mutation destroys part of the normal function of the red blood cell in a different way.

When even the best examples of mutations can have deadly consequences, it’s worth examining the role of mutations further.

Shutting out HIV invites in WNV

The race to cure AIDS means that, as with malaria, any mutation associated with HIV demands extensive study. Research has identified a mutation that confers resistance to the virus, called CCR5-delta 32. While HIV is typically able to enter T-cells by interacting with eight proteins on the cell surface, a deletion of a portion of the CCR5 gene means that one of these proteins does not work. The cell is thus harder to infect.

Individuals with the mutation are generally healthy; however, the normal receptor helps protect against West Nile Virus. In other words, once again having this “beneficial” mutation puts an individual more at risk for another disease.

50,000 generations of bacteria

Despite the extensive research on mutations affecting human health, the length of human generations makes it hard to study how genes may change over time. On the other hand, Richard Lenski’s ongoing E. coli experiment (LTEE) presents no such problem. Growing the bacteria under scrutiny since 1988, the scientists have witnessed over 50,000 generations! (That many generations would require around 1,000,000 years on the human scale!)

The more we study mutations, the more we see how unlikely Darwinian evolution is to produce just one molecular machine, let alone the incredible variety of life we see today.The test tube environments contain limited glucose for the bacteria to “eat,” but the researchers also provide citrate, a compound that would be a good energy source for the E. coli—if they could figure out how to bring it inside! “E. coli should be able to use citrate as an energy source after it enters the cell,” the researchers explain, “but it lacks a citrate transporter that functions in an oxygen-rich environment.”

The bacterial chromosome actually does contain a gene to make a molecular machine to transport citrate. However, the transporter gene is part of an operon—a cluster of bacterial genes that all get turned on or off together depending on conditions in the cell. This one is “on” when there is no oxygen in the environment, but “off” under the oxygen-rich conditions of the experiment. Nonetheless, the scientists expected that a random mutation might break this control, allowing E. coli to pull citrate into the cell even in the presence of oxygen. Such a change would give the mutant E. coli an advantage over the wild-type E. coli.

Even so, the scientists discovered that this seemingly small change was more involved than it had appeared. Over the first 30,000 generations, each of the 12 populations experienced billions of mutations—enough mutations, in fact, to have “tried every typical one-step mutation many times,” according to the paper. By sheer numbers, with so many bacteria and such rapid generations, evolutionists would have expected a change much more quickly.

Yet, under unchanging conditions, it took nearly 31,500 generations for one of the populations to produce a variant to rise to this seemingly small challenge. A segment of DNA containing the transporter gene was repeated, essentially moving a copy of the gene into a different operon. The new location changed the gene regulation of the transporter gene so that it would stay “on.” A couple other mutations appear to have increased the efficiency of citrate use by disabling related genes. In other words, a few mutations over tens of thousands of generations allowed E. coli to “change the rules” for how it used its existing genes.

But if even this sort of transformation takes so much time, what would it take to evolve a new function? Scientists have found no new genes for any new molecular machinery in more than 50,000 generations of bacteria.

The more we study mutations, the more we see how unlikely Darwinian evolution is to produce just one molecular machine, let alone the incredible variety of life we see today.

Summarizing the scientific research

So what can we learn from carefully examining the current research in genetics and natural selection?

  • Research reveals countless examples of mutations “breaking” old genes (so that they no longer create a functional molecular machine). However, we have no evidence of a cell developing functional molecular machinery that wasn’t already coded in its genes.
  • Very few possible mutations help an organism survive, and even these typically have some harmful consequences. Moreover, it is extremely unlikely for advantageous changes to build on one another, which would be necessary for the evolution of completely new species to occur.

In short, scientists have only observed changes within the limits of the genetic code—not the development of new code. The research does not give a reasonable account for how the complex molecular machinery of our bodies came about in the first place.

Neither can it explain why we are here.

Let the Bible speak for itself

These answers are outside the scope of science; however, they are addressed in the Bible. The Bible is not intended as a scientific textbook and does not replace one. Yet, while science studies exclusively what can be measured and compared in the natural world, understanding the supernatural or, as the Bible puts it, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (1 Corinthians 2:13) comes only from God. (To learn more about the limits of science, see “The God of Uncertainty.”)

But remember: There is an option “c.” We don’t have to just assume anything about science or the Bible based on hearsay. The Bible encourages us to examine the facts for ourselves (Acts 17:11; 1 Thessalonians 5:21).

Investigating the biblical answers to the following questions is a good place to start:

The biggest questions

What about some of your burning questions—the ones neither science nor religion seem to be able to answer?

If the answers to your questions could change how you live and think, you cannot just put them aside. Take heart if you wonder:

The Bible does have life-changing answers to these questions, and you can begin to explore them by clicking on the links.

What about the unknown?

However, recognize that both scientists and students of the Bible alike struggle with what they cannot know or don’t know yet. Like spotlights aimed from different corners of a vast, dark stage, science and the Bible converge upon our central questions. Each illuminates part of the set, but all around is the dark unknown.

We may not yet see how everything in the Bible and in science fits together, but what we do see confirms that there is no conflict between Scripture and true science. Still, the Bible tells us that faith is “the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). With faith in God and earnest study, our understanding of His Word will continue to deepen even as science continues to explore.

Going forward

We understand that science and Scripture are two different types of knowledge, each with a unique purpose and application. While the Bible mentions scientific principles on occasion, it was created for “instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), not a technical study such as population genetics.

Likewise, the interpretation of scientific results may sometimes point in philosophical directions, but good research must not be based on bias. It should simply follow the data. The examples we’ve seen help demonstrate that science and the Bible are not in conflict after all.

On the other hand, we recognize that we have to cope with an incomplete picture no matter what we study. So where do we go from here?

  • Dig deeper than the headlines. When the next scientific discovery is plastered all over the Internet, remember that the provocative article titles may not capture the actual findings. Read the original journal article if possible. (If it is not published in a scientific journal yet, feel free to be skeptical. The journalist jumped the gun.) Stay hungry to learn and be ready to do your own research. Unless you have your own lab, you probably won’t get answers to your “what if…?” questions right away, but you probably can find out “what is…?” with an Internet search.
  • Search the Scriptures. Above, we suggested six questions you ought to investigate for yourself. Pick one to tackle first. The links in this article will get you started. Pray to be grounded in understanding and faith so that you can weigh any argument against the Bible without being blown off course (Ephesians 4:14).

Remember, you don’t have to choose one or the other. Marvel at the intricacy of the natural world and strengthen your faith in the Creator—study science and the Bible!

Explore this subject more in the related article “God and Science.”

About the Author

Life, Hope & Truth Contributor

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