Bumping into Darwin: A fundamentalist Christian forced to evolve

1859 cover page of "On the Origin of Species" (public domain)

1859 cover page of "On the Origin of Species" (public domain)

Editor’s note: Edwin A. Suominen is manager at Tellectual Press and co-author with Robert M. Price of “Evolving Out of Eden: Christian Responses to Evolution.” This testimony is adapted, with permission, from a portion of that book’s introduction that originally appeared under the heading “A Fundamentalist Bumps into Darwin.”

A few years back, after spending my whole life up to that point in a fundamentalist Christianity where even theistic evolution had been called “an outrage to the word of God,” I got introduced to Darwin in a most unexpected way. I certainly wouldn’t have gone out looking to meet him, having been indoctrinated against evolution to the point where it was almost difficult to say the word without negative connotations. It all began from some research about an intriguing way of optimizing design parameters without the engineer having to explicitly specify those parameters: genetic algorithms.

It’s one form of evolutionary computation, which, as Daniel Ashlock describes in his textbook on the subject, “operates on populations of data structures. It accomplishes variation by making random changes in the data structures and by blending parts of different structures.

“These two processes are called mutation and crossover, and together are referred to as variation operators. Selection is accomplished with any algorithm that favors data structures with a higher fitness score.”

Sounds innocuous enough, right? But it’s evolution, plain and simple: the “ability to produce new forms, in essence to innovate without outside direction other than the imperative to have children that live long enough to have children themselves.” That, says Ashlock, is the key feature that evolutionary computation tries to reproduce in software, and he spends 500 or so detailed pages showing the various ways it’s been done.

After reading about evolutionary computation and playing around with demonstrations of it for a while, using readily available open-source software, I was soon hooked on its elegance and power. The software sets up an artificial chromosome with each “gene” determining a parameter for some widget you want to design. Then you run a simulation of your widget a few hundred different times, with different sets of parameters specified by random numbers in the genes of each chromosome. Each simulation produces a “fitness” metric, a value that shows how well the widget works in its simulated environment with the particular “DNA” that it was randomly assigned as a starting point.

Then, the fun starts: The widgets mate with each other, crossing over their chromosomes in the same way that those from your parents do in real life, during the production of sperm or eggs in your body. Each widget in the next generation has a randomly shuffled combination of the genes from two widgets in the first population, plus a few mutations sprinkled in. Things are set up so that only the “fittest” widgets from the first generation are likely to be parents of those in the next.

The result: evolution by a simulated form of natural selection. I had been raised believing that Adam and Eve were my ancestors and Darwin was of the devil, but now Darwin had come to my computer. What was happening on the screen before my eyes not only worked but made a lot of sense. I could understand exactly what was happening, because it was computer code — and pretty simple code at that.

I decided that I should learn a little bit about this evolution business to help give me some perspective about how to use this new engineering tool. As things turned out, it wasn’t needed for the parameter-optimization project I had been contemplating, but the hook was set in my mind regardless: It was fascinating stuff, and made so much sense out of everything! Could there really be something to this after all?

I started cautiously reading, initially feeling guilt and anxiety about leafing through evolution books as if I were over at the rack of porn magazines instead of the natural sciences section of the bookstore. But read I did, and, after a few hundred hours of study, came to the conclusion that evolution was true and Genesis 1-3 was not.

It was not an easy or welcome discovery for a fundamentalist Christian to make.

This story begins a journey that, for Ed, ended with him becoming “a reluctant agnostic.” Though he does clarify elsewhere in the intro that his reasons for leaving his fundamentalist faith included more than just the nasty realization that Darwin’s theory has some truth to it, I’d like to just reiterate that I’m an evangelical Christian whose faith was, if anything, strengthened by the deeper reading of certain parts of the Bible that accepting evolution necessitated. I agree with the Anglican cleric John Henry Newman, who wrote in 1868 that Darwin’s theory “need not then to be atheistical, be it true or not; it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Prescience and Skill.”

All the same, I respect Ed’s perspective and appreciate his allowing it to be shared here.

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