The pursuit of discovery
Harvard Ph.D. pushes back against evolution
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Since many leading universities are steeped in scientism and evolutionary theory, some Christian students shy away from pursuing a science degree at a secular school. Nathaniel Jeanson was not one of those students.
Jeanson, homeschooled through the eighth grade, gained a Ph.D. in cell and developmental biology at Harvard in 2009. A husband and father of four, he now serves as a research biologist with the creationist organization Answers in Genesis and has authored Replacing Darwin: The New Origin of Species.
Jeanson entered Harvard with a burning desire to find a cure for cancer. He emerged with a determination to push back against evolution and help people struggling with science-religion tension find their way back to Biblical truth. Here are edited excerpts of our interview.
You majored in science at the University of Wisconsin–Parkside. Was that hard to do as a Christian? It really wasn’t. Nerd that I was, I took my chemistry book home in high school to read over the summer, but I also read Christian science and intelligent design materials. By the time I entered college I had heard the evolutionary arguments before and nothing took me by surprise or caused me to doubt. Also, I had a strong support base praying for me, and a strong local church.
The cell and developmental biology Ph.D. program at Harvard accepted you. What was that like for you as a Christian? The biggest issue, because I went into medical research, was that one of the main tools in human disease research is a cell line taken from an aborted fetus roughly 50 years ago. It is a useful tool that produces viruses very well, but I didn’t feel like I could use it in good conscience. So the hurdle I faced was to design an experiment without having to engage those cells.
‘As we learn more about genetics, we are finding that many of the predictions based on evolution don’t work.’
What did you do? For the experiment I was working on I needed to genetically alter mouse cells, and that would typically be done with viruses produced in those fetal cells. I found a different way to alter the mouse cells.
Was there ever a time, with so much saturation in secular science, that you started to question your faith? No, it was more the opposite. Growing up in a Christian home, I took the gospel for granted. I had heard it my whole life, so for me it became the old news rather than the good news. But the process of reading and investigating these questions during my years at Harvard sent me diving into Scripture. Suddenly the gospel became good news for me for the first time.
You worked hard at Harvard to achieve a Ph.D. so you could pursue a career in medical research. But you ultimately chose a different path. Why? During my time of spiritual searching at Harvard I began to rethink my career. I realized that what I really wanted was to discover the cure for cancer and win the Nobel Prize. In theory that’s a noble goal, but it can easily be contaminated by selfish ambition. That was true in my case, so I started asking myself what I could do differently. After I graduated, I accepted a position with the Institute for Creation Research because it allowed me to use my education but to use it for Bible-based research.
You have said evolution is a cultural Goliath that keeps the people of God cowering in fear—how so? Many secular professors try to convince students that faith is for the ignorant. I remember sitting in a calculus class and the professor drew a graph on the wall with a curve going up. He was trying to demonstrate how our knowledge has increased over time. And then he turned and smiled at the class and said, “See, we don’t need God!” I thought, How does that follow from discussing calculus? But if this is what professors are doing in math classes, how much more so in fields of science that directly relate to the Bible?
But scientists overwhelmingly accept evolution. Interviewers often say, “Ninety-seven percent of the scientific community disagrees with you. Do you think there is a scientific conspiracy or do we just need to throw out science altogether?” They are insinuating that no reasonable person would disagree with 97 percent of scientists. That can be intimidating.
Do the 97 percent want to discuss this? Many evolutionists now refuse to engage in serious discussions with creationists. I just did a debate with an evolutionary biology professor who was extremely condescending and didn’t even try to engage in the actual arguments. I discovered, after the fact, that he had written a blog post called, “In Praise of Ridicule.” The point of the post was that to debate with creationists makes creationism look like a legitimate idea, so it’s better to just ridicule than to debate. Who wants to face that? This isn’t just a dry scientific issue: This is a spiritual battle, and there is great pressure to conform.
What is the biggest challenge to evolutionary theory? Darwin took a massive risk 160 years ago when he wrote On the Origin of Species. The question of origins is fundamentally a genetic one, and we didn’t have the tools to investigate genetics back then. But, now that we do: The genetic information we are gathering actually gives more scientific strength to the Biblical account of creation than to evolution.
For example, because we understand gravity, we can accurately predict that if we pick up a heavy textbook and let go, it will drop. And when we actually try it with a book, that is exactly what happens. It’s the same thing with creation science. We can make predictions based on what the Bible says and, when we check it out scientifically, it holds true. At the same time, as we learn more about genetics, we are finding that many of the predictions based on evolution don’t work.
Which ones don’t work? Predictions based on genetic mutations are the driving force of evolution. But time and again, when we measure the rates at which various mutations take place, it contradicts evolutionary expectations.
What is the focus of your current research? The major focus these days is not so much on undermining evolution, but on exploring the scientific strength of the creation model. We ask questions like: What allows new species to form and what also limits that? What stops a dog from becoming a cat? And, opposite of the origins question, what causes species to go extinct?
So you would encourage young people who are interested in science not to be afraid to pursue a career in the field? Oh, absolutely. There is still so much we don’t know about the world. Scripture is the absolute truth. It provides very explicit statements about the natural world. There are things in which Scripture is very clear. It is clear that the origin of the universe and the first creatures were by divine creation, not natural selection. But there are also all sorts of open questions. And what’s exciting is you discover new answers along the way that you never anticipated.
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