Thomas Cole "The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge" 1829
by Walt Hearn
Albert Szent-Györgyi won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1937 for his work on vitamin C and carbohydrate metabolism. I once heard him say at the end of a lecture, "History is not just the most important subject; it's the only subject."
When I gave away my 15-year run of Annual Review of Biochemistry, I took one last look at each volume's "Prefatory Chapter." Those chapters offered distinguished biochemists an opportunity to write freely about their lives, their technical accomplishments, or both. Szent-Győrgyi's chapter (in Vol. 32, 1963) was by far the most interesting. In WWI, as a young Hungarian army medic at the front, he shot himself in the arm to get discharged in order to resume his interrupted medical studies. In WWII, he hid from the Gestapo after helping many fellow Jews escape the Nazis. When the Soviets then took over Hungary, as a liberal he had to hide again before emigrating to the U.S. in 1947.
Everybody in the “science-faith game” has a history. As a minor-league player recalling many seasons, what “strikes” me is the number of “big-leaguers” I've actually known.
Right off the Bat
I met Christ in the 1930s, through the influence of my parents and of South Main Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. At one time in my youth I attended a "youth revival" at another Houston church, featuring a prominent evangelist and apologist named Harry Rimmer. His messages were replete with illustrations and demonstrations from science (followed by multiple exclamation marks!!!). Rimmer's scientific credentials and the "Research Science Bureau" he founded both seemed suspect to me, even with my modest understanding of science. He was what could be called a "fundamentalist," intent on proving that the Bible was "scientifically accurate."
In 1942 I graduated from Lamar High School at 16 and began majoring in chemistry at Rice Institute. It had a good academic reputation, was only blocks away from my parents' home, and at that time had no tuition. With its year-round wartime schedule, I completed my sophomore year before the draft caught up with me. In 1946 I returned to Rice. There, both before and after the war, the only faculty member I knew to be a Christian was Henry Morris, who taught civil engineering and led a Bible study for Rice students in his Houston living room.
Yes, that Henry Morris, who went on to get a PhD in hydraulic engineering at the University of Minnesota and to chair civil engineering at Virginia Polytech. Eventually he moved to the San Diego area to help establish Christian Heritage College and the Institute for Creation Research (ICR).
In 1946 Henry published his first book, That You Might Believe. I have a copy somewhere, but while searching for it I turned up an autographed copy of his 1963 book, The Twilight of Evolution. The book for which he became widely known, of course, was The Genesis Flood (1961), co-authored with theologian John Whitcomb. That book put "flood geology" on the map, so to speak. Its wide acceptance in fundamentalist circles led more or less directly to the founding of the Creation Research Society (CRS) and of ICR. Henry Morris was closely associated with both organizations. For years he was also a member of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), but became dismayed over lack of enthusiasm for "flood geology" among ASA members, so he dropped his membership.
I'm afraid I contributed to his dismay. During my stint as book-review editor for ASA's Journal, I couldn't find an objective reviewer for the newly published Genesis Flood. So in March 1964 I ran two reviews, a relatively favorable one by a theologian, as I recall, the other by a geologist who shredded the book. My introductory comments tried to explain why the book was so controversial:
"Readers of these reviews who have not read the book may not realize that its authors argue not only for the Noahic flood as being responsible for essentially all stratigraphy observable today, but also for the recent creation of a "full-grown" earth with an apparent great age, and for the role of the Edenic curse on Adam as the explanation for the origin of all fossils. Having concluded that Romans 5:12 means that death and violence in the animal kingdom could not have existed before the appearance of man on the earth, the authors reason that fossil-bearing strata, filled with evidences of violent death, must have been laid down since Adam. Thus the authors have no interest in merely criticizing the time-table established by paleontology, stratigraphy, and radioisotopic dating in order to revise it or improve it; they must reject it in toto."
Then I likened branches of science to houses inhabited by those who understand their area of science thoroughly and practice it diligently. I may have carried that metaphor too far, concluding that:
"Those who dwell inside the house of geological science have been in the process of remodeling it continuously ever since it was built. Now Henry Morris and John Whitcomb have come along insisting in the name of the Master Architect that the whole thing is on a shaky foundation and must be bulldozed to the ground. Detailed plans for the fine new edifice which should be built in its place, they claim, were found by them in the pages of the family Bible. "
Henry Morris objected to the negative review and was not amused by my wisecrack, but he and I remained on friendly terms until his death in 2006. I kept reading ICR's Acts & Facts until a few years ago, and Henry said nice things about me in his 1984 History of Modern Creationism. He recalled our friendship at Rice and said it was a tragedy that I became a "total evolutionist" after being such a "strong Bible-believing Christian as a student." My copy of the 2nd edition (1993) bears a warm inscription in his handwriting, dated 8/14/96: "With best wishes and personal regards in Christ to Walter Hearn, long-time friend and Christian colleague; Henry M. Morris. Revelation 14:6,7."
Morris's History told his side of the science-faith dialog. A much broader history was later provided in The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (1992) by University of Wisconsin historian Ronald Numbers. A thorough investigator, Numbers spent many hours interviewing Morris. Ron knew my name from examining the ASA archives at Wheaton College and also knew what Henry had said about my veering off the path. While writing his book, Ron heard that I was "still alive," came to Berkeley, and interviewed me over a period of several days. On the first day he said he wanted to know what specific thing had turned me from being a "creationist" into an "evolutionist." He was such an affable guy that I wanted to help him out, so I gave his question serious thought.
When Ron came back the next day, though, I said I might disappoint him as much as I had Henry Morris. In fact I had always accepted creation as a valid religious concept and evolution as a valid scientific one. As I matured in scientific work I kept believing in God as my Creator and Redeemer. On the other hand, even as a young Christian, I thought evolution made sense in explaining how a lot of things came to be. Henry had been wrong about a big shift occurring in my life, but of course he defined the terms differently. Ron Numbers could understand that, despite his own radical shift from the Seventh Day Adventism of his youth to the agnostic position he says he now holds.
Hits, Runs, and Errors
I've heard colleagues say of their success, "Besides that, I was in the right place at the right time." For graduate work in biochemistry, the University of Illinois was that place for me. I got there through remarkable (read: "providential") circumstances amid a huge influx of other veterans at the end of WWII. I lived off-campus, but housing was so tight in Champaign-Urbana that the university turned its ice rink into a barracks-like dorm for nearly a thousand students. I had saved all my GI Bill educational benefits for grad school, which meant that my final month of eligibility could pay for typing my dissertation. After a quarter of teaching freshman chemistry, a research assistantship helped speed things up. With lab space at a premium, after three years I was more or less shoved out the door with a PhD.
As a grad student I learned about the American Scientific Affiliation, joined immediately, and began reading its journal, which I still do. On my way to a post-doc at Yale, I was able to attend my first ASA meeting, at Shelton College in New York. The "fellowship of kindred minds" there was so nurturing that I was hooked. That summer my father had suffered a debilitating stroke, so on a trip home to see him during Yale's Christmas break, I walked into the Biochemistry Department of Baylor University's College of Medicine and said I needed a job in Houston. That's not the standard way to move up the academic ladder, but that time it worked. The dean wanted to bring in younger researchers to complement the department's clinical orientation, and I fit the bill. Soon I was mentoring my first grad student, Richard Hendry, who also became a lifelong ASA member.
Dick Hendry and I were fascinated by Stanley Miller's 1953 report of producing amino acids from simpler compounds under simulated "primitive earth conditions." We were joined in many of our discussions by another grad student, Joan Oró, who later made a name for himself in that field and was once president of ISSOL (International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life).
My interest in life's origins led to some early papers in the Journal of ASA and an invitation to contribute a chapter on the subject to ASA's Darwin Centennial volume, Evolution and Christian Thought Today (1959). That book was edited by ASA stalwart Russell Mixter, a much admired professor of biology at Wheaton College, who became a good friend through ASA meetings as he became more and more tolerant of evolutionary thinking. Writing a chapter on "The Origin of Life" with Dick Hendry led to many adventures, including a dust-up at a 1960 symposium at Wheaton College. That (mis)adventure led to a cameo appearance in 2001 in the final segment of an eight-hour PBS-TV series on Evolution.
I began collaborating on other topics with friends in physiology and microbiology at Baylor Med while looking for a job elsewhere. I landed a good one (this time in the conventional way) at Iowa State College. There, as at Illinois, biochemistry was part of the Chemistry Department. I anticipated working with Professor Sidney Fox on abiogenesis, his term for the chemical origin of life. "Oh, didn't you know?" I was told when I arrived for my interview, "He's moved to Florida State; you're his replacement." I never did meet him. At the end of 1954 I took my fledgling research projects with me, moving to Ames from semi-tropical Houston in the month of December. Brrrr. But I survived that first winter and began building up a small research group. In 1960 Iowas Sate became a university, with a new Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics.
On the ISU faculty I met historian John Greene, whose book The Death of Adam: Evolution and its impact on western thought was published in hardback by ISU Press in 1959 before becoming a widely circulated Mentor paperback in 1961. I gave John a copy of ASA's Evolution and Christian Thought Today, which he more or less reviewed in his 1961 book, Darwin and the Modern World View. That may have been the first time ASA was mentioned in a scholarly work. John went on to have a distinguished career at the U. of Connecticut. He passed away in 2008 in an Episcopal retirement community in California.
In 1965 I was able to participate in a conference on “A Christian Philosophy of Science” in Oxford, England, where I met international Christian scholars whose writings have helped me, such as zoologist Oliver Barclay, science historian R. Hooykaas, psychologist Malcolm Jeeves, and communications theorist Donald MacKay. I already knew geologist Frank Rhodes, who had been a post-doc at Illinois while I was a student there. He later wrote a popular Penguin paperback, The Evolution of Life (1969) and eventually served nearly twenty years as president of Cornell University.
An unforgettable experience at that conference was a time of conversational prayer with John Polkinghorne, then a young "reader" in mathematical physics at Cambridge. At similar turning points in our lives, we earnestly sought God's guidance. I lost track of John after he decided to become an Anglican priest, but now he is one of the most prolific and influential contributors to the science-faith dialog. His many books include Belief in God in an Age of Science (1998) and Reason and Reality: The relationship between science and theology (2011). It's possible that my own decision to leave university research and teaching in 1972 took root in that time together.
Before I left academia, though, I shared a symposium platform at Dordt College in Iowa with Duane Gish, who became known as "creationism's bulldog" from his style of debating evolutionists. He was a biochemist who left a research career at Upjohn to join ICR as Henry Morris's right-hand man. Duane's many books included Evolution, the fossils say no! (1979). At that Dordt symposium he and I simply presented our opposite views of the origin and evolution of life without the aggressive spirit of a formal debate.
A Whole New Ball Game
By the time I “hung up my lab coat” I had begun editing ASA's newsletter and was corresponding with hundreds of serious Christians trained in science. My new free-lance editing career in Berkeley gave me more time (but less money) to attend ASA meetings. At another meeting in Oxford with our British counterparts in 1985, I got to know Francis Collins, then developing his gene-hunting approach at the University of Michigan. Now Fran is head of the National Institutes of Health and very well known as an evangelical Christian. He wrote a best-selling 2006 book, The Language of God: A scientist presents evidence for belief, and in 2007 used the proceeds to establish the BioLogos Foundation. At one meal in Oxford I even sat across the table from Sir John Templeton. We didn't get very well acquainted because the person sitting next to me was filling his ear with plans for a project she hoped the Templeton Foundation would underwrite. The Templeton Prize and the many science-faith projects Sir John supported may have made him the heaviest hitter of them all.
John Wiester, David Price, and I never made it to the major leagues, but the booklet we put together in the 1980s, Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy, had a distribution of some 100,000 copies, mostly to high school science teachers. How did that happen? The three of us got together after I read John's book, The Genesis Connection (1983), and called him to express my appreciation and tell him about ASA. It turned out that he had already joined and attended the 1983 annual meeting, which I missed. There he met Dave Price and the two of them took Duane Gish on a private geological field trip to try to change Duane's mind about fossil evidence. David, John, and I, who all lived in California, began collaborating on a small book to convince ICR-types of earth's great age. We soon decided that such a book would have little effect and that there was a greater need for a guidebook for teachers "in the trenches." My participation in writing that booklet opened up many new friendships.
At First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley I became friends with legal scholar Phillip Johnson. He returned from a sabbatical in London determined to refute "scientific materialism" in university circles. When I read the manuscript of his Darwin on Trial (1991), my first question was, "Phil, do you have tenure?" More than tenure, he held an endowed professorship at U. C. Berkeley. I tried to explain that academics who had been defending evolutionary science against a pseudo-scientific "creationism" would regard his book as more of the same, but he was intent on engaging in the "culture wars."
I think it's fair to say that Phil's book marked the beginning of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. The three authors of our ASA booklet for teachers were invited to several early conferences where we got acquainted with some major players on the ID team, such as Bill Dembski, Steve Meyer, Paul Nelson, Nancy Pearcey, and Michael Behe. I already knew Charlie Thaxton from his grad school days at Iowa State and Jonathan Wells from his grad school days at U. C. Berkeley. At one meeting I even had a long conversation with New Zealand medical scientist Michael Denton, whose Evolution: A theory in crisis (1985) caused something of a stir in academic circles. Michael told me that he was not a theist but a few years later went out of his way to tell me that he had moved toward theism.
In 1990 I was in Houston for a week's visit at the time when the Houston Chronicle broke the story of Forrest Mims not being hired by Scientific American to write its "Amateur Scientist" column, evidently because of his creationist beliefs. I drove to his home in Seguin (near San Antonio) and explored his backyard laboratory filled with electronic gear. Although shy about his lack of formal training in science, Forrest had written many electronics "how to" books for Radio Shack and seemed to me to have more empirical spirit than many academic scientists I knew. With my encouragement, ASA had him speak at our 1992 annual meeting in Hawaii.
In Berkeley I came to know fellow believer John Barrow (famous for his “Anthropic Cosmological Principle,” 1986) during two different periods of his research at Cal. I met Robert Russell as he was establishing CTNS (Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences) in affiliation with the consortium of Berkeley theological seminaries known as the GTU (Graduate Theological Union). Hanging out with Bob at CTNS over the years has introduced me to many theologically inclined participants in the dialog, such as his GTU doctoral student Nancey Murphy, now a prolific author and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Ian Barbour. Ian's Issues in Science and Religion (1966) did for a wider Christian readership what Bernard Ramm'sThe Christian View of Science and Scripture had done for evangelicals in 1954. Ian used much of his 1999 Templeton Prize money to help endow a professorship at CTNS.
One day at a nearby junior high track, another jogger said she recognized me from a meeting of the Bay Area Skeptics, which I kept an eye on by attending from time to time. She introduced herself as Eugenie Scott. She was in the process of turning her Berkeley basement into an office for NCSE (National Center for Science Education), newly formed to oppose the teaching of creationism in public schools. Wife Ginny and I offered suggestions for local typesetting and printing services based on Ginny's experience putting together camera-ready copy for Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy. Over the years I think I helped Eugenie understand that ASA was not a creationist organization even if some members were creationists, just as NCSE was not an atheist organization even though it had atheists in its membership. We saw less of her after NCSE moved to larger quarters in Oakland, but we had lunch together on her retirement as NCSE Director in 2014.
The Final Score
What a roster of friends, ranging from Henry Morris to Eugenie Scott! The players I've known haven't all been on the same team, but they all had their innings. Never mind the score. Looking back, I see how exciting it is to be at the right place at the right time, as it must be for players in the World Series. But nobody begins there. In fact, in my experience, there is no better place than an ASA Annual Meeting to “get in the game.”