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Department: Great Escapes
Article originally appeared in
Dr. Fazale Rana is the executive vice president of research and apologetics for Reasons to Believe, an organization dedicated to defending the rational and scientific viability of the Christian faith. Dr. Rana completed a Ph.D. in chemistry, with an emphasis in biochemistry, at Ohio University, and previously worked as a senior scientist in product development for Procter & Gamble. In this interview, he describes his development as a scientist, his rejection of the evolutionary paradigm, and his journey to faith.
At one point you believed in Darwinian evolution, but then you changed. Why did you initially accept the evolutionary paradigm, and how did you come to change your mind?
When I was in my undergraduate courses in chemistry and biology, the professors essentially taught that life's origin and life's history stem from evolutionary processes. So they were teaching the standard fare. I admired them and accepted what they taught uncritically. It seemed pretty natural to me, but I was essentially an agnostic at that point. I didn't grow up in a Christian home, and I wasn't a Christian as an undergraduate.
The change began when I went to graduate school to study biochemistry. As I began to develop an appreciation for the elegance of the chemical systems that constitute life, I became fascinated with how these systems operate, and also with the question, "Where do these systems come from?" And as I looked at the origin of life explanations that were being offered, I didn't feel that those explanations had merit. So it was at that point that I became convinced that, at least with respect to the origin of life, there had to be a mind that was involved. That then led me over the span of about six months on a journey that culminated with me converting to Christianity.
Did you speak with anyone about your questions or your doubts?
From a scientific perspective, no. There wasn't really anyone I could talk to about those things. My wife, Amy, is also a biochemist, and she and I went through undergraduate training together and then also through graduate school together. She actually rededicated her life to Christ after we got engaged. We were separated by a year in school, so I was in graduate school as she was finishing up her undergraduate degree. She told me about rededicating her life to Christ, and we had a few conversations, butAmy would have been the only person I ever talked to about that. The view I held at that point was that the origin of life required a mind, but once life was in place, evolution kicked in, and it really wasn't until about ten years after my conversion that I began really seriously to question the evolutionary paradigm.
What was the most important reason that made you think that the origin of life required mind?
Well, one reason would be just the elegance and sophistication and cleverness of how biochemical systems work. They look like they're the product of a mind. Also, in a sense, I had an intuition very similar to what you see Michael Behe argue in the idea of irreducible complexity, although I was thinking in terms of life itself rather than biochemical systems. So, for example, I could easily imagine how one could argue that a particular enzyme emerged out of a primordial soup that could catalyze a particular chemical reaction that may have biological utility. But that enzyme in isolation is not going to persist, and it's only going to be meaningful if it's working in combination with other enzymes to carry out a much more comprehensive task. But then again, that set of tasks is not going to be meaningful unless you have an entire cell that's performing other activities.
So in other words, it seemed like you had to have life or no life—it was all or nothing. It's the irreducible complexity idea. I could never have articulated it as well as Michael Behe did, but I had this intuition that just said, "This doesn't work." I've been a skeptic of the origin of life since that time. The more that I've studied this problem, the more I've been convinced that it's an intractable scientific problem.
So what happened to your agnosticism during this -period, when you started to think about the possibility of mind?
Well, I began to go down a path of Universalism. I would have argued that the different religions of the world were different ways that this mind revealed itself to people. And that idea was interesting to me, because my mother was from a Catholic background and my father was from a Muslim background, and maybe that was some way to try to make psychological sense of that.
This is where my relationship with Amy had an impact, because she re-dedicated her life to Christ and began to share with me. We were getting ready to be married, and so the pastor who was going to marry us wanted to meet with us. He didn't bang my head with a Bible, but he said, "Look, what do you think of the Bible?" "I've never read it." "Don't you think you ought to read it? You should be open to trying to evaluate whether or not this is true." So I thought, "Well, he has a point." Amy had just become a Christian again, and so I thought, "I owe it to her to at least be open to this."
So it was when reading through the Gospel of Matthew, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, that I would say I had a religious experience, where I think Christ was revealed to me through the pages of Scripture in a supernatural way. I had this conviction that Jesus is exactly who Christians claim him to be, that there's something distinct about Jesus, something unique about Jesus, something very attractive about him; a conviction that what he's teaching here is true, that's how I want to live, and there's no way I can live this way.
I felt this strong presence as I was reading that passage. It was like there was someone there in the room with me. I've never had that strong sense of presence at any other time in my life as a Christian. I didn't reason my way to embracing Christianity. I reasoned my way to the existence of a creator, but I didn't reason my way to Christ at all. It was God being revealed through Scripture, so I would say the Holy Spirit was there. That's the only way I would know how to describe it.
You said you didn't question the evolutionary paradigm until about ten years after your conversion. Was it a ten-year process?
No. Initially, when I looked at the Genesis 1 account, I didn't see anything that troubled me scientifically. In fact, I saw a remarkable agreement between the order of events and the natural history of the earth and life on earth. And I looked at "day" as a period of time. So the simple to the complex is following the pattern of evolution. I was a theistic evolutionist, though I had no exposure to any science-faith instruction, books, or anybody I could really talk with. Everything I came up with was pretty much on my own. I thought God created through the process of evolution, and that was a view I held for almost ten years after my conversion. I'm not quite sure what triggered the change. It was a number of things all at once.
One thing would have been reading Stewart Kauffman, Steven Jay Gould, and Niles Eldredge—all non-Darwinians who argue that the fossil record shows sudden emergences, punctuation, and stasis. There was Kauffman saying, "Darwin's mechanism can explain speciation, but it can't explain the origin of life, it can't explain major innovations in biology. There needs to be another model." So he's playing around with chaos theory. I came across a book by Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Here was an agnostic pointing out these problems and talking about platonic biology, and I thought, "Wow, this is really mindboggling."
And then I read the book by Hugh Ross, Creator and the Cosmos, which was a very helpful book for me for a number of different reasons. I was surprised to see he was a skeptic of biological evolution, yet he had such a high regard for astronomy. That triggered the thought, "Well, I've always just accepted evolution as being a fact, and have always interpreted everything from that framework, but I don't know that I've ever sat down and actually looked at a rigorous defense of evolution." The only exposure I'd ever had was the standard fare that shows up in undergraduate textbooks. And I figured it was just like every other discipline—you get introductory information in your first courses, and then as you dig into the discipline, you really get all the details, the compelling, nitty-gritty, robust evidence showing that these introductory ideas are truths, and I just assumed that to be the case for evolution.
So I thought, "Okay, I'm going to roll up my sleeves, and I'm going to actually examine this question. What is the evidence for evolution?" And in about two months I came to the conclusion that there's just not the evidence here that I thought. And in fact, there are more questions and problems than there are anything else. At that point, I thought, "Is it even possible to look at this data from a design perspective?" And when I did, I thought, "This kind of fits." Not that there are no questions from a design perspective. Still, in my mind there was an alternate model that could easily account for the data.
So you rolled up your sleeves to examine evolution. What did you look at first?
The first thing I really studied was the nature of the fossil record. That's primarily where I focused, because I could see that when you're building evolutionary trees, either with anatomy or with genetic data, you're essentially creating clusters, and then you're just assuming that the cluster-within-cluster arrangement reflects an evolutionary tree. But the tree, or the evolutionary connection, is an interpretation of that data. A cluster-within-cluster arrangement fits design as well. Common design fits that model, too.
So to me, that wasn't data that one way or another swayed me for or against evolution. And I wasn't convinced that one way or another you could make an evaluation based on evolution's mechanism, because there's just so much we don't know about how body plans emerge from genetic data—the genotype-phenotype relationships we don't know.
But looking at the fossil record, I thought, "This is data." I know what pattern you'd expect when you're looking at the fossil record. Do you really see that pattern or not? Do you see transitional forms or not? You don't see gradualism; you see "punctuated equilibrium." There's a dearth of transitional forms. The transitional forms that people can point to oftentimes don't hold up. This is true with virtually every transitional series that has been marshaled. And then you also see things like convergence, where evolution presumably hits upon identical outcomes over and over again. You don't expect evolution to repeat itself, and yet, we're seeing what appears to be evolution repeating itself over and over again. And that, to me, was a pattern that didn't fit what you'd expect.
So it was the fossil record, and convergence, and the fact that you can understand the data that supposedly provides unequivocal evidence for evolution from a design perspective—that led me to conclude that evolution is an idea that is on very tenuous footing.
How did that conclusion affect your thinking?
As a scientist, you can be highly trained—but poorly educated. You don't take courses in the philosophy of science or the history of science. You just learn how to do science, and the training is basically, "Here, this is how you do science." And part of that training is the idea that you don't appeal to the supernatural. In retrospect, it's blatantly obvious, but as a scientist you are simply drinking the Kool-Aid: "This is how you do science."
Phillip Johnson's work was helpful to me in pointing out the philosophical basis for science. He shows how the philosophical commitment to methodological naturalism results in claiming that the only way you can explain life's history is through evolution. Any competing model that employs design simply is not allowed on the table. That, to me, helped build skepticism.
When I was working at Procter and Gamble in research and development, I remember sitting at a lunch table with about fifteen Ph.D. scientists, and I asked, "Why is it that, as scientists, we cannot appeal to the supernatural to explain phenomena within the universe?" Nobody at that table could answer the question. We just don't do that. And that to me was extremely revealing after reading Phil Johnson. We're just walking around, without giving any kind of critical thought to the assumptions that we employ as scientists when we engage in science.
Having embraced theism, and then Christianity, how does the world look to you now as a scientist?
I see a tremendous amount of beauty in creation, regardless of the scale, whether it's the microscopic realm, the cell, or the macroscopic structures of the earth or the universe. I see God glorified in unimaginable ways. As we learn more about how the universe works and how life works, we see more and more evidence for the creator's fingerprints. We get a deeper appreciation for the magnificence of God the Creator. Everywhere I look I see design, and I see a cleverness that's just astounding. •
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