Discomfort With Messiness of Science at BioLogos

7 posts were split to a new topic: Swamidass and BioLogos, April 2017

I know this is split off from Patrick’s thread, but the issues are similar. It’s difficult to talk about the “BioLogos position” on science with certainty, because many with whom one interacts there, including scientists, are not officially BioLogos, yet reflect its zeitgeist. It takes an “insider” like Joshua, interacting with the “insiders” who makes decisions, to clarify where the boundaries lie.

On the other, despite the stress on being scientifically orthodox, many of the key staff are not scientists, and of those that are few are in the biological sciences… and those that are may reflect the biases within their particular specialties.

But I noticed very quickly when I came to BioLogos in 2010, both under the original regime and the subsequent ones, a desire to see the science as “cut and dried”, and the theology as negotiable (to be polite - or mere opinion, less charitably). As much as anything else, the job spec was to get Creationists to accept “the science” by adjusting their theology. “The science” being some settled body of indisputable facts known to be incompatible with classical theology.

This has its roots partly in the “divine action” programme behind theistic evolution thought, in which there was a very heirarchical idea of knowledge: theology depends on psychology, which depends on biology, which depends on chemistry, which depends on physics, which is primary. You’ll see that biology is up there almost among the hard sciences, biochemistry (= genetics) even more so. So theology, well downstream, is as arguable as politics, but the firm base is science.

The fault in that reasoning goes back to our “limitations of science” discussions - in particular, science is messy because the people who do it are the same messy people who unreasonably vote for the other party or support the wrong football team. And theology, conversely, has its more fixed points and its outliers. Science has its heretics, its conservatives, its factions, together with its original and logical thinkers - just as theology has its bigots and its geniuses.

But it seem psychologically hard for BioLogos to accept both theology AND science as moveable feasts. Consequently, one notes a complete failure to engage with interesting alternative things in biology. Not only is ID flat wrong simply for not following some “consensus”, but it’s not worth discussing Third Way, or forgotten historical paths (not least the very different shape of theistoic evolution in Darwin’s time), or really anything that’s Non-Darwinian (despite the claim not to be “Darwinist”). There’s even a tendency to revert to simplistic adaptationist models after paying lip service to neutral theory - it’s hard to see how Deb Haarsma’s highly law-driven model that delivers mankind on time and to order can play out when due weight is given to neutral evolution.

So, wanting to avoid arguments on the science seems to mean that, having decided on what “science” has authoritatively decided on, say, Adam, anything else must be pseudoscience, and therefore probably ID, or Creationism, or Southern Fundamentalism trying to re-establish the colour bar.

I guess I might summarise my extension of Patrick’s thesis by saying that the BioLogos problem needs to be seen as the messiness (or otherwise) of science in relationship to the messiness (or otherwise) of theology - and of course, in the individuals who reach certain positions on that.

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A classic example of this is the peculiar obsession with insisting that “human = Homo sapiens.” That is not tenable in philosophy, theology or science as a settled claim.

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@jongarvey

I think your observations are quite sound. However, I would add one little qualification:

Theology is definitely a moveable feast, but Peaceful Science is attempting to provide special accommodation for the American Evangelical fixation on what I consider “hobbled theology”:
the unique role of Adam & Eve.

It is only through Joshua’s work that I can feel safe accepting
the conventional American Evangelical position on Adam

As for “Science”, it may well be immoveable - - but it is the Peaceful Science position that
can provide assurances that while Science is (or “may be”) cut-and-dried, if we are clear that
a Christian Scientist can hold to the idea that the miraculous can and should be accepted
as part of a person’s confession of faith, it has no bearing on how a scientist practices science.

THIS is the sticking point with those who are adamantly I.D. in their approach. They don’t
appear to allow for the last part of the sentence!

"…a Christian Scientist can hold to the idea that the miraculous can and should be accepted
as part of a person’s confession of faith, it has no bearing on how a scientist practices science."

In America, owing to its unique constitutional history, this is a fatal flaw in the I.D. position
which will bring them frustration and disappointment (personally), and foment societal unrest
and discord (politically).

If there is an I.D. proponent reading this, I welcome your views on how to resolve the current
impasse this represents!

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@swamidass,

I have to think that it is best if we left this one of the “optional planks” on your buffet cart!

If you try to resolve every contentious point, you will have fewer supporters rather than more.

I am preparing a summary of “core” Peaceful Science planks, vs. a list (and schematic!) of
those optional positions that can be plugged into the core view.

I think the goal should be to have as “small a core as possible” - - to minimize the hurdles for
any particular Christian to accept it … with a broad “tree” of many possible optional branches.

I’m confident that you agree we are not here to convert someone from one denominational
inclination to new or different denominational inclination. This is the one piece of wisdom that
I think BioLogos has quite right.

Those who would sabotage your efforts (intentionally or not) would seek to reverse the approach:

a) Insisting on an enlarged set of “core criteria” (as in "if you don’t accept these 50 points, you aren’t
really on board with Peaceful Science"; and

b) Insisting on having fewer optional or contingent positions (by moving them into the core category)!

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@jongarvey ( & @swamidass )

We don’t even have to decide on what Science says about Adam - - other than to say: “Science says
nothing that denies the miraculous in connection with Adam and Eve”. That’s it. Period. Full Stop.
Nothing more.

This is already the position on Science regarding the virgin birth, and the other well known miracles
regarding Jesus, Moses or whomever.

Trying to make Science say anything more than this is either “fuzzy thinking” or even "malfeasance"
(please note that I put quote marks around “malfeasance”).

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5 posts were split to a new topic: Miracles, Science, and Methodological Naturalism

Nope. People of faith do science and it gives them drive, while offering them the prospect of making orderly and elegant discoveries that convey significance beyond the mere mechanics. Just for fun, I’ll throw some fuel on the fire, here:
https://evolutionnews.org/2018/06/which-scientists-get-to-have-free-speech/

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Agree that scientists of all faiths and no faith do excellent science. Also agree that all scientists must be allowed to publish peer reviewed research results and to speak about their results. And their results must be able to be reproduced, confirmed, extended, or falsified by any other scientist.

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Agree. Defining what is human behavior and what is not strictly human behavior is not even close to being settled in science. Behavioral differences between different species of the genus homo over the past million years is making it very difficult to claim any kind of homo sapiens exceptionalism until after 40,000 years ago when Homo Sapiens was the only species left.

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Agree Patrick, but if such things were agreed, they would be a scientific convention, not a theological one.

Here’s a for instance: suppose it were agreed within anthropology and biology to restrict “human” to H. sapiens, but deep in the Congo a race of pygmies were found who turned out to be a different species (capable, let’s say, only of vanishingly rare hybridization with us, like Neanderthal).

The United Nations decides they deserve democratic representation under Human Rights conventions , since they are very intelligent and care about such things. That doesn’t necessitate scientists changing their definitions (though they probably would, given the political sensitivity of the issue - but the criteria would then be social more than biological).

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Just a side note in the light of another thread where we talked about perceptions of what is and isn’t “racist.” I remember when daring to use the term “pygmy” when discussing humans was considered an egregious faux pas if not outright racist. (I remember when the reasoning was that “pygmy” was a descriptive label appropriate to describing animals but never for humans, because it, allegedly, implied an inferior if not outright sub-human status.) But more recently I have been informed by some African colleagues that a number of indigenous people groups have reclaimed the term as a self-label of proud identity.

I guess these matters are a continual reminder that being sensitive to people’s perceptions on potentially painful subjects requires a lot of alert attention to ongoing developments!

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Except in this case @jongarvey is meaning “humans” that are not Homo sapiens, a like preserved population of H. Nadeli to be discovered in the amazon forest (fictionally) next year. Such a finding is not going to happen, but that is not his point. By your terms, @AllenWitmerMiller, pygmy is a nonexistent category, a fiction. And you are correct, because “pygmy” in our world is just Homo sapiens.

Instead, @jongarvey is creating a fictional world where “pygmies” really do exist, as a distinct “human” species. Of course, most likely we would all be racist sons of Adam, and destroy them with our disscontempt. \He is imaging the challenge of making sense of this, in a way that might ultimately avoid racism. Such a solution would not come from science, nor would it require changes to scientific taxonomy, or follow from taxonomy either.

It would be:

They would be social, moral, ethical and legal changes required. Science could change, but that is really missing the point.


The difficult here this is that we have lost our language for talking about biological differences between different groups “humans” without making value judgements, and without allowing for exceptions. Differences exist and they are real, and they may or may not be related to biology.

Talking about differences does not imply making an inference to value judgment about said differences.

An interesting conundrum - can one be guilty of racism when talking about non-existent non-humans? Was David Bowie guilty of cultural appropriation as Ziggy Stardust? Are horror-writers spookist to call ghosts “hideous”? It’s a moral minefield out there…

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This year, more than ever, I’ve wondered if it is providential that I am an Indian, for this very reason. Even though people keep dropping the race card on me, the reality of who I am exposes the absurdity of the race game here.

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@swamidass

The next time someone accuses you of racist distinctions because of the proposal for one group of humans made by Evolution, and another group started by de novo creation of Adam and Eve, can’t you just say:

“If the 2 chapters of Genesis used for this scenario both refer to the resulting humans as made “in God’s image”, and if by the time of Jesus everyone is a descendant of de novo Adam, how can there be any issue of racism?”

If you answer their charge with a Question, all of a sudden they have to explain how their version of racism would apply?

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I have no intention of legitimizing flippant charges of racism.

This last year, I just took a master class in navigating these taticts. It does not work to deal with indirectly or inductively. False accusations of racisms direct at me are usually the real problem of racism we are facing. I have no interest to in creating a safe environment for considering slander.

The good news, also, is that whenever I stop treating this absurdity like a legitimate accusation, the accusations stop.

(to be clear @AllenWitmerMiller was not making a flippant charge against @jongarvey , but just processing legitimately and appropriately what is and is not racist in this context.)

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Remember @gbrooks9, we recently had an example of a person (not to be shamed) who made that charge, but then immediately backed off it (to his credit). Genetics, Genealogies, and Racism. And to be clear, the person in question and I are obviously doing just fine with each other now. Do not anyone think I’m calling him a racist now.

[PS. Why are white people so touchy on race??]

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It’s really not restricted to any group.

  1. Some time ago, when I was in California, I used the word ‘oriental’ to indicate an ethnicity in a conversation (nothing offensive meant, just a category). I was warned by a Chinese American colleague that the term was considered a bit racist or derogatory, particularly among the Asian community. This was news to me, a Japanese American, as I’d never hear it used in a derogatory manner previously. In fact, within my family conversations such an issue never came up. I was also oblivious to “Asian Awareness” organizations or movements. It seemed needlessly counter-reactionary to me.

  2. I’m very aware of the degree of racism that still persists among many in Japan. The US still has a long way to go, but compared to some intra-Asian racial prejudices…

  3. Some of the touchiness may be due to the generally easy way which outrage can be stoked these days. That is, in a world where anyone can feel offended, it can be hard to navigate the minefields. This example will be offensive to someone, but: …Consider what it’s like to be male in a Women’s Studies course.

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Of course he is. My post was, as I wrote quite intentionally, “a side note”. I was simply commenting on the fact that the mere mention of a word (“pygmy” in this case) which at least some people associate with racism is enough to set off lots of emotions and reactions in some circles.

I made the observation because it related to the combustibility of non-racist (but potentially perceived as racist) ideas which we discussed in another thread about Easter of 2017.

Of course he is. How is that not obvious to all?

No. Certainly not. (Are you certain you carefully read what I wrote?)

I made no attempt at redefining the word. I have no “terms” of my own in the casual post. I simply anticipated that some readers—if there were a wider audience here—might immediately react to any use of the word “pygmy” as allegedly racism-tinged word. Yes, that would be an absurd charge, especially in jongarvey’s context but absurdity has never stopped emotive people from over-reactions.

As a linguist with many interesting experiences in lexicography, I’m simply looking back over a lifetime of observing the word “pygmy” go through various stages of societal acceptance.

I get the impression you were reading far too much into a brief and casual anecdote of how a word has gone in and out of favor within “polite society”.

Absolutely! Amen to that.

By the way [This is another side-note.] these topics related to the emotions which words can generate, and how they are perceived very differently by various groups, bring to mind one of my favorite examples:

Some years ago a Jewish university student got into all sorts of trouble (and huge legal costs) when a group of African-American sorority members were engaged in some sort of initiation celebration outside of his dorm window while he was studying. He opened his window and shouted at them something like, “Quiet down, you BEHEMOTHS!” He was disciplined by the university for “racism”. Of course, the Jewish student was shocked at this charge because it is quite common for a Yiddish person (for example) to use this Hebrew word (a word found in the Bible, as Ken Ham keeps reminding us) when referring to someone who is being boisterous and loud. But the sorority and the university claimed that calling the young ladies BEHEMOTH was calling them “animals” and therefore demeaning and racist. Most of all, they considered his conduct “insensitive” to the plight of a minority. One administrator even claimed that his motive was to associate the sorority members with “African animals”. This amazed more than a few people because nobody had dreamed that the BEHEMOTH was somehow uniquely associated with Africa!

Just a few weeks ago I had to encourage a senior pastor to educate his youth minister, who had told an unfortunate story during the “children’s church” portion of the worship service. The thirty-something gentleman described some incident at age 8 where he was guilty of being “an Indian-giver!” I had assumed that the Millennial generation would be far more sensitive to such terms than my own generation, but the young African-American youth minister who told the story was genuinely oblivious to the historical injustices and absurdity behind the term. (To my knowledge there were no Native Americans in the congregation and, fortunately, no ruckus resulted from the incident.)

I also recall a city council meeting in Louisiana which got a lot of news coverage after emotions erupted when some elected official made the statement that some department of the city was “a financial black hole, where money goes in but never comes out.” There were impassioned protests about “the obvious racism behind the phrase!”

I find the various emotions behind words very interesting. Determining the line between inappropriate and appropriate uses of words (and between being “rightly offended” versus being “too easily offended”) is not always easy.

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