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The Doctrine of Creation and the Making of Modern Biology

Posted by Jonathan Bartlett
Jonathan Bartlett
Jonathan Bartlett is the director of The Blyth Institute, a nonprofit organizati
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on Tuesday, 28 June 2011
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The popular science press may be on the cutting edge for bringing us the latest and greatest news from laboratories around the world, but when it comes to integrating historical and philosophical ideas into our modern conversations, it is woefully shallow.

Of particular note is the venom afforded to the doctrine of creation in modern biological thought. The doctrine of creation is represented by a number of different groups in modern America, including young-earth creationists, old-earth creationists, and Intelligent Design proponents. Each of these groups includes top-notch scientists, yet the popular science press pretends that they are non-existent.

Michael Zimmerman, for instance, wrote in the Huffington Post that the notion that there are scientific challenges to evolution is "utter garbage.” He says that the idea of Intelligent Design is "scientifically and religiously bankrupt,” which is an interesting assertion coming from an atheist. Paul Hanle, writing in the Washington Post, says, "Proponents of 'intelligent design' in the United States are waging a war against teaching science.” Lawrence Krauss, writing in the New York Times, compared belief in the doctrine of creation to belief in UFOs.


Contrary to popular opinion, the doctrine of creation is not antiscientific. It is not a recent invention of fundamentalists to try to remove evolution from public school systems. It does not put modern science education at risk in any way. In fact, the doctrine of creation has been fundamental to the development of many of the most important branches of modern biology. 

What is the Doctrine of Creation?

When many people hear about the "doctrine of creation,” most people think specifically about "special creation" - the idea that God made a multiplicity of creatures in the beginning, and their forms more-or-less persist to this day, with creatures reproducing according to their kind. This is not unwarranted (I myself believe in special creation), but it is not the whole story, either. The doctrine of creation, at its core, says that biology is primarily the result of intention, rather than accident.  
This is not to say that accidental causes have no place in biology - they certainly do. All sorts of things are the result of the accidents of history. But, in the long view, the doctrine of creation says that we will obtain better results if we start from the assumption of intention rather than the assumption of accident. Or, at the very least, that intention should be considered as one possible source of causation. 

Most people don't realize the impact that the doctrine of creation has had on the study of biology. Here we will take a few snapshots from the history of biology, and show how the doctrine of creation has led the way for new insights and understandings.

Biological Science in the Ancient World

King Solomon was considered one of the wisest people to have ever lived. Most people don't realize that one of the main topics of his wisdom was biology. As recorded in the book of Kings, leaders from around the world came to listen as Solomon "described plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also taught about animals and birds, reptiles and fish." (1 Kings 4:33)

Not much has survived about Solomon's biological knowledge. We only know that, based on other writings attributed to Solomon, Solomon believed that seeking God first was the foundation of knowledge (Proverbs 9:10).

A more concrete figure, whose writings are still with us, is Aristotle. Aristotle is considered the father of the biological sciences. He wrote about the method of investigation and the process of reasoning used for biological studies, which have lasted for centuries. He is, for all practical purposes, the founder of the modern study of biology.

The doctrine of creation permeates Aristotle's philosophy of biology. When Aristotle was writing, there was already a well-established science of physics, based largely on the work of Democritus. This did well to explain matter and movement. However, such explanations left out an important aspect of nature, especially in biology. There was a real, regular connection between parts of animals, and their usefulness to the animals. A science, which is focused on matter and movement, simply does not have the categories to describe such connections. In order to do so, one must include the idea of purpose into the description of nature.

Therefore, Aristotle was able to expand science from physics to biology by recognizing the importance of the doctrine of creation - recognizing that purpose and intention were key to understanding the world of life. One could not properly understand an embryo until one understood the final purpose of an embryo. One cannot understand most of the functions of an organism unless one understands how they function towards the final purposes of that organism.

The Birth of Experimental Biology and Microbiology


Most people don't realize that experimental biology and microbiology initially arose as a science in defense of the doctrine of creation. Spontaneous generation was a common belief by scientists and non-scientists. Francesco Redi had a firm belief in scripture, and that life only reproduces after its kind. Therefore, he constructed what some consider the first experiment in biology. He crafted an experiment to prove that flies are born from other flies, and do not spontaneously generate from decaying meat. He took decaying meat and sealed it, and was able to show that when the meat was sealed, it did not produce maggots. In addition, by adding netting over the meat, he was able to attract flies and show them laying the eggs for the maggots on the netting.

Inspired by scripture, Redi managed to demonstrate several things. First, he showed the reasonableness of the doctrine of creation against spontaneous generation. Second, he provided a template for future researchers to carry out biological experiments. Prior to Redi, biology was primarily observational, not experimental. Redi demonstrated how experiments can be brought to bear upon biological problems, and created the whole field of experimental biology. Finally, Redi had showed that the problem wasn't with the doctrine of creation, but rather with the limitations of our eyes. Thus, Redi established the existence of complex biological activity at the tiniest levels, which created the field of microbiology. Pasteur, Leeuwenhoek, and Hooke, all Christian men, further carried out Redi’s work.

It is interesting to note that Aristotle's biggest deviation from the doctrine of creation was that he believed that there were a few forms of life, which sprang up from decaying substances. It wasn't quite spontaneous generation (Aristotle believed that the decaying substances contained a "vital heat" that allowed it to generate life), but nonetheless, it was one place where Aristotle did not bring his full support of the doctrine of creation. And it was his most glaring error.

Modern Taxonomy


Scripture states that everything reproduces after its kind. However, it does not answer the quest of how many kinds there are, or what the kinds are. Therefore, one of the most interesting questions in biology for a creationist is "what are the created kinds"? This question was the inspiration for the development of taxonomy.  
Carl Linnaeus is considered the father of taxonomy. His goal was to catalog God's creations, and to find out what the "created kinds" are. He took on a role very much similar to Adam in the first chapters of Genesis, naming all of God's creatures. Linnaeus himself seems to have made this connection, saying of his own life's work, "God created, Linnaeus classified.” 

The focus on reproduction after its kind is very present in Linnaeus' work. Prior to Linnaeus, plant classification systems were based on the uses of plants in society. Linnaeus, however, believing that reproduction after its kind was the key to understanding God's creation, developed the sexual system for plant classification. While sexual reproduction does not today have the same weight as it did for Linnaeus' system, it was a tremendous step forward from previous classification systems, and represented the first major effort at an objective classification of living organisms.

Genetics

Genetics is one of the foundations of the modern biological enterprise. Few people realize, however, that it was developed as a response to evolutionary theory in support of the doctrine of creation. Gregor Mendel was a Catholic monk doing research out of his monastery. While he developed his ideas prior to Darwin's version of evolution, the idea of evolution was already very popular among biologists and was often being set against the doctrine of creation. The question was this - if we see continual change in organisms through the generations (by breeding, selection, etc.), why should we assume that there is anything in them that isn't the result of the accidents of time?

Just as Redi used experiments to show that there was more than what could be seen, Mendel wanted to show that despite the ability of plant populations to change characters over time, these changes were actually a part of the original plan. He proposed that what was actually happening in biological change was not a continuous evolution, but rather a simple shifting of static traits. Therefore, the changes in species were neither accidental nor permanent, but rather a simple shifting of pre-existing traits. 

In his landmark paper, "Experiments in Plant Hybridization," Mendel concluded by Saying:

Gärtner, by the results of these transformation experiments, was led to oppose the opinion of those naturalists who dispute the stability of plant species and believe in a continuous evolution of vegetation. He perceives in the complete transformation of one species into another an indubitable proof that species are fixed with limits beyond which they cannot change. Although this opinion cannot be unconditionally accepted we find on the other hand in Gärtner's experiments a noteworthy confirmation of that supposition regarding variability of cultivated plants which has already been expressed.

Among the experimental species ... [hybrids] lost none of their stability after 4 or 5 generations. (emphasis mine)

From this simple defense of the doctrine of creation the idea of the "gene" is born, which fuels the most profitable century so far in biological investigation.

Conclusion

As is evident from this short history, the doctrine of creation has been of foundational importance to the largest advances in biological history. The notion of purpose fueled Aristotle's investigation of biology as a serious science. Redi's defense of the doctrine of creation was responsible for the founding of both experimental biology and microbiology. The Linnaean taxonomy, inspired by the notion to catalogue God's creation, is still with us today. Finally, Mendel's defense of the doctrine of creation was the basis for the whole field of genetics, which continues to produce medical and scientific benefits.

As such, science has nothing to fear from "creationism in the classrooms" or "stealth creationism.” If the history of science has any bearing, it should be welcomed. Whenever the doctrine of creation is defended from its detractors, whole new fields of science develop. And that has been good for everyone.

 

Read Jonathan's previous articles on science:

Spirituality in Physics

Changing the Grammar of Science

Relating Science to Faith

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Jonathan Bartlett is the director of The Blyth Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to research and education in biology. Jonathan started in computer science, both programming and writing about computer science topics. His first book, Programming from the Ground Up, has been used at schools ranging as far as Princeton and DeVry. He also wrote a number of papers for IBM’s DeveloperWorks on technical computer science issues.

Jonathan’s interest in biology came from his family’s battle with genetic illnesses. While studying about genetic illnesses, Jonathan realized the tremendous overlap between computer science and biology, and how much the design patterns that are regularly used in computer science can contribute to understanding how the genome works. Toward this end, Jonathan started The Blyth Institute, and has published several papers on showing how design thinking can relate to the genome.

Jonathan recently released the book MicroSecession: Simple Ways to Liberate Yourself, Your Family, and Your Community from Government Idiocy. The book focuses on community independence, independent living, and creating value in your home that is independent of money.

Jonathan and his wife Christa have been homeschooling their children for several years, and love being a part of the Classical Conversations community. Christa teaches in the Classical Conversations Challenge program.

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