Public lectures at Calvin College, 2002-2010

20 October 2010

    • Abstract: Is evolution true? Most scientists consider this question settled. In this lecture we'll address a somewhat different question, and a better one: How does evolution make sense of the living world? In other words, how does evolution explain the ways in which living things came to be the way they are? We will look at the many kinds of evidence and data that are explained by common ancestry so that we can understand why evolutionary theory has been so successful. We will look at points of concern for Christians and briefly discuss the ways in which Christians can respond to those worries. And there will be plenty of time for questions and answers. Come learn why evolutionary theory is such an excellent explanation.
    • PowerPoint slides
    • Handout (PDF)
    • Audio with slides, on YouTube

30 April 2010

    • Abstract: To what extent has "chance" influenced the outcomes of biological evolution? To some, the unfolding of the tree of life was so strongly contingent on early and seemingly random events that its current forms (which include H. sapiens) could just as likely have been utterly different. To others, the unfolding of the tree of life is characterized by recurrent themes that are so pervasive that its current forms were well-nigh inevitable. We will examine the ideas of the two prominent scientists who have advocated these two divergent views of the nature of evolution. The late Stephen Jay Gould made famous the "rewind the tape" metaphor: according to Gould, if we repeatedly replayed the history of life on earth, it would turn out differently – very differently – each time. Simon Conway Morris has famously emphasized evolutionary convergence, wherein similar designs arise independently during evolution, suggesting a predictable pattern. Two brilliant and accomplished paleontologists and evolutionary biologists, examining the same data, reached apparently opposite conclusions. We will discuss the fossils that formed the focus of Gould's case, look at some examples of convergent evolution that are the basis of Conway Morris's position, and consider the relevance of both sets of ideas in Christian conceptions of an unfolding creation.
    • Video with audio, on YouTube

1 May 2009

    • Abstract: Those who simultaneously express Christian belief and affirm evolutionary theory are said to espouse a position called "theistic evolution." The view holds the peculiar distinction of being reviled by both hard-line creationists (who call it "appeasement") and prominent atheist commentators (who deride it as fallacious). I argue that these critics typically fail to articulate objections that are specific to the view. Most creationist critics of theistic evolution object to one or both of these characteristics of the view: 1) its reliance on naturalistic explanation, a feature common to all scientific theorizing; or 2) its embrace of "random" causal events, a feature common to myriad scientific explanations. Most atheist critics of theistic evolution object to its openness to supernatural explanation, a feature of religious belief in general. Such criticisms, valid or not, fail to address anything specific to theistic evolution. In other words, attacks on theistic evolution are usually attacks on theism or attacks on evolution, but rarely represent specific criticisms of the theistic evolution position. To better understand the controversy surrounding theistic evolution, I propose that critiques of the position be considered in light of a lesser-known position we may (with tongue in cheek) call "theistic embryology." Theistic embryology describes the thinking of those who simultaneously express Christian belief and affirm basic theories in human developmental biology. Although the logic is indistinguishable from that of theistic evolution, the view is uncontroversial and the term "theistic embryology" is practically non-existent. I suggest that critiques of theistic evolution be subjected to the "theistic embryology test." Most critiques that claim to identify weaknesses in theistic evolution make arguments that are equally damaging to "theistic embryology" and so fail the test. Critiques that fail this whimsical test are likely to be arguments against belief, or against naturalistic explanation, and should be considered as such.
    • Audio with slides, on YouTube

16 April 2004

    • Abstract: Mammalian embryonic stem cells (ES cells) have been the focus of intense research for decades, and their use has reshaped the study of mammalian genetics and development. The utility of ES cells derives from the combination of effectively unlimited developmental potential with relative ease of use and genetic manipulation. Human embryonic stem cells were first isolated in 1998, and were welcomed with enthusiastic predictions of future therapeutic benefits along with significant ethical objections to their creation. Popular debate since then has focused on the tension between the therapeutic potential of the cells and the moral costs of generating them. Opponents of the use of human ES cells have posed challenges based on both therapeutic potential and moral costs. We will examine these two values and their scientific bases, considering the latest findings in this fast-moving field of research. Then we will examine the ramifications of a future in which neither therapeutic utility nor the current moral objections can constitute a significant barrier to the generation of human ES cells. Christians are right to be concerned about how ES cells currently are made, but that will probably change dramatically in the near future. I will argue therefore that Christians should be even more concerned about what stem cells can do, and soon will do.

11 October 2002

    • Abstract: Asa Gray (1810-1888) was already considered the finest American botanist (and perhaps biologist) of his time when, in 1860, he paused from his voluminous taxonomic work to launch a "defense" of Charles Darwin and his Origin of Species. A congregationalist Calvinist, Gray argued strenuously against various theological (and scientific) criticisms of Darwin and his theory. In addition, throughout the rest of his life, he engaged Darwin in a personal discussion of the implications of common descent with regard to the concepts of design and purpose. Reflection on Gray's ideas, and on his approach to the doubts and fears of his friend and colleague, is challenging and instructive.

[All lectures by Stephen Matheson at Calvin College.]

Other public lectures

Small GTPases are Big in Neural Development

Hope College Biology Department

7 April 2011

July 2011

    • Alien Worlds
    • Zombies on Jeopardy!

July 2010

    • Planet of the Apes (and Neanderthals, various Australopithecines, etc.)
    • The Birds, the Bees, and the Brachiosaurs

Evolution and Creation at Calvin College

Bryan College Symposium: War and Peace: 150 Years of Christian Encounters with Darwin

28 February 2009

    • "Evolution and Creation at Calvin College"
    • Recap at Todd Wood's blog.