Beavers Help With Apologetics Formal Debate Jailbreak – Part 2


Beavers Help With Apologetics Formal Debate JailbreakI left the last post in this series on an odd note. I suggested that an overly formal approach to beaver management is detrimental because we lose something of aesthetic value—the beauty of the beaver and by analogy to apologetics the beauty of the lost soul with which we are conversing. This post will make a few further observations in hopes of helping people understand my point more accurately. The first observation is one that differentiates the biologists of the 19th century from those of the 20th century. Biology made initial steps toward scientific status with the work of Charles Darwin (and Alfred Russel Wallace). However, it didn’t come into its own until mid-twentieth century with what has been called the New Synthesis.

The New Synthesis was the wedding of Darwin’s primary mechanism of evolution—natural selection—to the burgeoning field of genetics. Theodosius Dobzhansky, Ernst Mayr, and others were able to model evolutionary concepts with the formal mathematical tools provided by population genetics. This proved extremely powerful in one’s ability to test evolutionary predictions and provided the needed empirical bite to move biology from 19th century natural history to 20th century empirical science.

What is important for my interest is that the move to population genetics entailed a subtle move away from the observational science of Darwin to the more formal mathematical modeling of organismal populations.

'Hands On' Experience Vs. Idealized Models

For instance, in relation to the beavers of my last post, biologists moved from observing individual beavers in their environments to thinking about idealized models of beaver populations. Individual beaver behavior was codified into a model tracking genetic change within a population. Thus, we learn that beavers have a mitochondrial substitution rate of .0105 per million years. This figure is related to the rate of genomic mutation rates needed to drive the evolutionary process. These kinds of facts are similar to those more familiar to our own species, “the nuclear family has 2.5 children.”

The philosophically interesting aspect of modeling of the natural world is that the models, strictly speaking, are false!

They conceptually capture a biological phenomenon, providing powerful predictive resources, but lose sight of any individual beaver that we might observe in a natural environment. Thus, in a very real sense we lose the beauty of the beaver when we start talking about mitochondrial substitution rates. One unusual aspect of the contemporary biological sciences is that one need not ever venture into the field. Much of biology may be spent in the artificial environments of the laboratory or in front of computer screens running simulations.

Beauty And The Clinical

This has lead to a very real aesthetic difference between the naturalist of old and the biologists of today. To illustrate this difference, examine the ending lines of Darwin’s famous treatise on natural selection versus the beaver study on mitochondrial DNA. Darwin concludes his On the Origin of Species with the following lines, “There is grandeur in this view of life…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” It reads almost as poetry, effortlessly conveying how deeply Darwin cared for the creation he was studying.

Contrast Darwin with the concluding lines of the beaver mitochondrial study, “In summary, our study showed that over the wide taxonomic range of glides, datasets comprising whole mitochondrial genome sequences facilitate the inference of substitution rates, phylogenetic analyses and divergence estimates.” No mention of beavers, no hint at excitement about the research, only simple statement of conclusions drawn from the mitochondrial model of beaver populations.

Of What Value?

My second observation, which may be more of a conjecture, is that the loss of aesthetic value regarding individual organisms for the simplicity of models, undergirds an attitude that the model is more valuable, perhaps more real, than the organism. More directly, the loss of aesthetically valuing the individual promotes a lack of care for the individual. Spending time in a natural environment observing organisms is a painful and time-consuming process. It requires personal sacrifice, even the ultimate sacrifice (e.g., Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter), to successfully understand individual organisms in their natural habitats. Modeling provides a certain clinical cleanliness that at once removes us from any danger of making actual observations and provides easily understood rules allowing me to represent the organism without first-hand experience with the organism.

I do not care about any peculiarities within a species as long as my model tells me how the species ought to operate.

Bringing Hope And Comfort To The Individual

As Lutherans struggle to find their footing in the apologetic landscape, we must be careful that we not let the models become more valuable than the people we engage in discourse. Lutherans are very good at system building. Whether this be in our German blood or a preservation move, we tend to alienate others according to their inability to subscribe to our system.

The formal debate model is a tempting siren’s song as it allows us to remain comfortably within the walls or system of Lutheranism. We do not have to risk getting dirty with actually getting to know non-believers, and allowing their personalities, their creativity, their idiosyncrasies, to influence us. The safety of formal models, while orderly, denotes a lack of concern for the unbeliever, where we might actually end up aesthetically and emotionally valuing the unbeliever. It allows me the courtesy of professional distance, avoiding situations where I might become friends with a person who is unregenerate.

And this is the rub with allowing models to take on more reality than the individuals with which we are called to witness: our models make us feel good about allowing our neighbors to perish as we dutifully recite our sanitized apologetic defense for the hope that is within.

Instead, I offer that we need to approach our apologetic task in the way Darwin approached the natural world, with a sense of reverence and awe at its amazing complexity. The person I am talking with is not a variable within an equation, but a living, breathing individual with hopes, dreams, anxieties and a complex natural history.

My task as an apologist is to figure out the dynamics of that natural history. This happens over numerous conversations through time, not in one-off settings as the case with debate. A close second to my primary task of proclaiming Christ, is to keep the conversation going.

Darwin spent years, as any classical naturalist does, engaging with the natural world before venturing to say he understood something of the natural world. Regardless of what one might think of Darwin and the status of evolutionary theory, one can’t help but admire Darwin's tenacity and care in attempting to understand the natural world.

Why would we expect it to be any different with the various non-Christians we meet throughout life? It takes many conversations, many points of contact, before I start understanding the person with whom I am talking. However, these numerous field observations allow me more effectively to minister to my neighbor if that opportunity is given.

One way to think about all this is that the naturalist knows what to say about an organism only after years of being in the presence of that organism. Likewise, part of an effective apologetic is proclaiming the good news of Christ from within the cognitive and emotional environments our interlocutors inhabit. In the next post in this series, I’ll provide an example illustrating what I mean about engaging in apologetics as a classical naturalist.