Gene Pool: contest

Phase one of The Monkey Bible Teaching Evolution Contest is complete—thanks to all those who have participated. The 2 winning essays are below but the larger contest is hardly over. The challenge remains for innovators and educators—that’s you!—to come up with creative approaches to teaching evolution, in a way that is respectful to people of faith. You are invited to continue to submit essays and videos to our Teaching Evolution Contest and we’ll continue to offer meaningful prizes.

Here’s the first winning essay:


by David H. A. Fitch

New York, NY

Einstein famously declared that God "does not throw dice." He meant that the laws of the universe do not involve random chance. This idea is consistent with Intelligent Design (ID). According to ID and other creationist notions, the order that we can clearly observe-especially of living organisms-cannot be produced by random chance. This is obvious and true. However, IDists and other creationists make a mistake when they equate evolution with a fully random mechanism.

I describe here a simple classroom experiment using dice that allows students to test for themselves whether Darwinian evolution is really random or not. In the process of performing this experiment, students learn about the mechanism of natural selection, set up alternative hypotheses to test, and apply quantitative analysis (e.g. probability calculations).

This experiment uses dice to simulate the random process of mutation. The dice themselves can represent different things, depending on the context in which the teacher has introduced the concepts. In the experiment proposed here, three dice represent three genes (or traits, or characters) in the genome of an organism. Each face on a die represents an allele (or form of the trait, or character state). The combination of numbers on the three dice thus represent a genotype (or phenotype). There is an optimal (most advantageous) genotype (e.g., 1+1+1). Rolling the dice represents the formation of a new genotype (e.g. a new variant in the population, or a new generation). The number of rolls is thus a measure of the improbability of obtaining an optimal genotype.

This "model" can be used to distinguish between two hypotheses-

H1 (a null hypothesis): Evolution by selection is random.

H2 (alternative hypothesis): Evolution by selection is not random.

The prediction for the number of rolls that are expected to obtain the optimal phenotype under H1 (random chance alone) is simple to calculate. Here, random chance alone is simulated by rolling all three dice together until you get the optimal genotype (e.g. 1 1 1). Three dice with six faces each means that any particular optimal combination will be reached after an average of 63 = 216 rolls. That is, the simple probability of getting an optimal genotype is 1/216 for each roll. Not impossible, but not very probable.

For H2 (evolution by selection), we have to account for two additional things: selection and heredity. Under the Darwinian mechanism, a variant with even a slight advantage over the ancestral type is preserved (i.e. is selected) and contributes to the next generation (i.e. is inherited). In the dice model, this is simulated by preserving (not rolling) any die that displays an optimal allele (e.g. a 1) and only rolling the other dice. Under such conditions, the optimal genotype will be reached after an average of 3!/63 = 36 rolls. This means that, for three genes, selection reduces the improbability by 6-fold over random chance alone.

Roll the dice and test these predictions! Repeat the experiment multiple times. Take the averages and calculate the standard deviations between the experiments in the numbers of rolls. There are many variations on this experiment. One can use more dice, for example. It turns out that the more dice (genes) you have, the more that selection reduces improbability. With 10 dice, Darwinian selection reduces improbability by 933,120-fold! That’s only 10 genes. But the human genome contains over 30,000 genes!

This simple experiment demonstrates that evolution by selection is not random, regardless of whether or not God throws dice. In fact, selection is actually a great way to solve complex problems and is used a lot in computation-it is known as the "genetic algorithm". It turns out that if a little bit of randomness is thrown into the mix (e.g., genetic "drift"), selection becomes even more efficient at finding optimal solutions. In fact, for industries like drug manufacture, the genetic algorithm is often more efficient than designing things from scratch. If God’s plan were to find optimal solutions, He could not have chosen a better way to design things than by evolution.

The second winning essay was submitted by Megan Hoffman:

Megan Hoffman

Department of Biology

Berea College
Berea, KY 40404

Among the classes that I teach are an introductory biology course for potential biology majors and a non-majors‘ general science course that is part of our general education requirement. Both of these courses include sections on biological evolution, and the general science course also includes a section on The Big Bang Theory. Our student population includes a significant number who come from fairly conservative religious backgrounds, so these topics can be challenging to some of them. Although I briefly address the various ideas about of how the universe began and how earth‘s biodiversity came to be, including the Judeo-Christian idea of special creation, I don‘t think that a science classroom is the place for an in-depth discussion of religious views. On the other hand, while it is my duty to help my students understand the Big Bang Theory and the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, it is also crucial that in doing so I acknowledge and value my students‘ belief systems. In recognition of this, and to address an issue that is of interest to many people, I include these two activities in these classes:

1) The first activity is the science-religion essay assignment described below. It is one of several options addressing ‘science in real life‘ from which students may choose, other options being a review of a science article in the popular press, or a critical review of a science-related novel or movie. Thus, not all students are required to write the essay described below, but usually one-third to one-half of the students choose this option. As part of this optional assignment, I include essays on my own views of science and religion, so even students who do not choose this assignment can find out my thoughts if they are so inclined.

2) The second ‘activity‘ is also optional: I open my home to my students for an evening of conversation about science and religion. Near the end of our investigation of evolution, I invite any student who is interested to come to my house for dessert and an open discussion of science and religion. The only rules are that everyone be respectful of others, and that there be no thumping nor bashing of Bibles or science books. On average, I have had 10 to 25% of my students attend these discussions, and they often bring friends with them.

Over 15 years of reading my students‘ essays and talking with them about their varied views, I have learned a great deal about how they approach conflicts and connections between their religious upbringing (or lack thereof) and their awakening understanding of biological evolution and the history of the universe. I think these activities have been helpful for my students - I know they have been wonderful for me, as I develop my own understanding of how science and religion shape my worldview.


Class Assignment: Essay on Science and Religion

Each of us has our own understanding of nature, often by mixing what we have learned from many sources: experience, scientific knowledge, religious sources, etc. We all balance those different sources of knowledge in different ways. Some of us rely heavily on one or another of these worldviews, while others seem to be able to weave them all together into a single vision.

Read at least one of the sample essays evolution and creation (see list below). For this assignment, you may either (A) write a response to one of the essays OR (B) write your own version, explaining how you view nature, or “Life, the Universe, and Everything” to quote the late Douglas Adams. Instructions for each of these options are listed below.

Essays available to students:

1) Megan Hoffman, Associate Professor of Biology, Berea: My Scientific and Religious Life [see below]

2) Keith Miller, Professor of geology at Kansas State University and an evangelical Christian: An Evolving Creation: No Oxymoron

3) Natural History Magazine, A written debate for and against Intelligent Design (read the entire series): Intelligent Design? evolution/nhmag.html#introduction

4) Chet Raymo, Science writer: Pathways to God

5) Roy Scudder-Davis, Professor of Biology at Berea College, and teacher of the Biology majors’ Evolution course: God and Nature

6) Megan Hoffman, Associate Professor of Biology, Berea: Knowing God through Science (Homily for Berea Chapel Service, Jan 2006) [see below; published on the webpage of The Clergy Letter Project]

Sometimes essays written for this assignment by former students are also included in this essay packet. Recent students have requested that I include some essays that are written from a point of view other than that of the Christian faith. I intend to do this for upcoming classes.

Instructions for Option A. Response to a posted essay:

1. Provide a proper citation for the essay (title, author)

2. Summarize the essay in your own words. Use direct quotations only when absolutely necessary, then cite accordingly. The summary should not be more than 350 words in length, and should concisely summarize the main points. Enough detail should be included that someone who didn’t read or view the original essay could follow the main points and understand the issues you raise in your discussion and critique.

3. Discuss and critique the essay.

a. Note any arguments, points, or comments that you found particularly compelling or weak, and explain why you found them to be so.

b. Point out any inconsistencies, gaps in logic, or factual errors that you notice.

c. Suggest changes or additions that would strengthen the essay.

d. Note any questions that are raised for you by the essay.

e. The discussion and critique portion should be at least 1200 words long.

Your essay will be evaluated based on the following rubric [100 points total]:

Citation for essay [5 pt]

Summary of essay:

350 words maximum [10 pt]

Accurate summary [10 pt]


Compelling or weak arguments [20 pt]

Inconsistencies, gaps, errors [15 pt]

Suggestions [15 pt]

Proper length (at least 1200 words) [10 pt]

Instructions for Option B. An expository essay on your views of science and religion

1. Describe your personal worldview as it relates to science and religion, including any feelings or concerns it raises for you.

2. Include details of the basis of your worldview, i.e. what experiences and/or teachings influenced its development.

3. Science might contribute, contradict, or in some other way intersect with your worldview: be sure to describe how it does this. Include as many scientific details in your description as possible.

4. Your essay should be at least 1500 words long.

Your essay will be evaluated based on the following rubric [100 points total]:

Description of your personal worldview [30 pt]

Details of the basis of your worldview [30 pt]

Discussion of how science intersects with your views, including details of the science involved [30 pt]

Proper length (at least 1500 words) [10 pt]


My Scientific and Religious Life April 16, 2002

Megan M. Hoffman

Many years, and many people have contributed to my current understanding of how my religion fits with my scientific understanding of the world. Most thanks go to my husband Charlie, my colleague Roy, my pastor Alan, my parents, my children, and the students who have been willing to question and discuss. I have shamelessly stolen ideas from each of them, and woven them into my constantly deepening view of nature.

When I was eleven years old, I experienced a painful intellectual conflict between my scientific self (which was clearly already in place), and my religious self (which had been nurtured throughout my childhood). I think this crisis would have hit me at some point, but it came so early because of one twist of fate: my fifth-grade reading and math teacher, Miss Spencer, was also my Sunday School teacher at the Presbyterian Church. She was an authority figure in many ways: smart, tall, physically powerful, greatly loved and respected, and a bit intimidating. In our reading class, she introduced me to many of my most beloved stories and helped me find ways to express how I felt about literature. But mostly, I remember her as my math teacher, and as I grew to love mathematics for its precision, logic and beauty, Miss Spencer became my authority for what was logical, right and true (how black and white we are as children!!).

The conflict arose in Sunday School, as Miss Spencer taught us stories from the Bible in the same authoritative manner that she taught us math. My budding logic could not accept these inspiring stories as literally true and undebatable in the same way that I could accept my times tables as true and undebatable. As an adult, I still do not accept these passages as literal truths, but can now see the moral lessons that they are meant to convey, and I can understand them as ways of explaining confusing natural phenomena with the comfort of a deity. As a child, this was not possible for me – they had to be either true or not true, and given their stark contrast to the mathematical truths I was learning, I had to conclude that the Bible stories were not true. This was a crushing conclusion for me. I still remember the day I decided I could not go back to Sunday School, and I still feel the pain of that young girl and what was lost to her.

For many years, I struggled to find a way back to church, and to find “sense” in a religious view of the world. As I grew older, I realized that we don’t have to view everything through a scientific lens, and this realization was nearly as upsetting as was my earlier realization about the Bible. I was secure in science and its logical, methodical, detached means of viewing the world. I was comforted by the (usually) neat array of facts, and of the logical way in which a handful of theories could explain a universe full of observations. I didn’t want to move from this precision to the intangible world of beliefs and spirituality. I had never lost my faith in God, but I had stopped trying to fit Him into my scientific world view. My faith and my approaches to the world were separate, and I was incomplete because of that.

Luckily, age brings, if not wisdom, at least a growing comfort with the gray area between the blacks and whites of youth. As I learned more about our scientific understanding of life on Earth, and of the origin of the universe, I was comforted by the methodical underpinnings of our knowledge, but was confronted by the immensity of the process. The feeling was similar to one I remember as a child, trying to struggle with the first book of Genesis, and the idea that “In the beginning, there was nothing.” Nothing, but God. Where was He? How long had He been alone? My mind could not encompass the infinity of time and space. Now, I feel the same bottomless feeling as I try to visualize the size of the universe, and what existed before the Big Bang. (While physicists tell us that time began with the Big Bang, my Earth-based mind still insists on a “before.”) Now, I can start to see the places where my religious beliefs and my scientific understanding parallel one another. I am re-learning my religion, as I am becoming better versed in my science. I have enough of an understanding of both to try to look for the meeting points, without having to subjugate one in accepting the other.

At one point, I was content to say that from the Big Bang onward, science was in charge, but that God was the one who started the whole thing rolling. But as I grow spiritually, I don’t want my God to be a God of the Gaps (to fill in where science can’t explain). I am now struggling with how God plays a role in the continuing evolution of the universe and of life on Earth. I don’t think He is a fiddler, nudging here and tweaking there. I still think He set up the system In The Beginning, and has stayed out of the process as it unfolds. But I am now considering the idea that because God transcends time, He saw the current state of the evolutionary processes on Earth, even as He was starting them. So while He didn’t “plan” to create humans as we physically are today, He saw that humans would be one of the creatures that would come of the process, and He chose us to be in His image.

What does it mean to be in God’s image? I can’t believe that God looks like a human. He doesn’t have two arms, two legs, pink (or brown or red or yellow) skin and flowing white hair. He has no physical presence that defines him. He came to Earth as a human in the form of Jesus Christ, but that says to me that His being is not normally in that form. God transcends physical entities, just as he transcends time. So what does it mean to be “in God’s image?” I believe it means to have a spiritual presence, not just a biological body. It means we have a soul. As a neuroscientist, I can explain how our brains make us walk and talk and learn algebra, but I cannot imagine how a collection of transient cells in our heads gives us a spirit, a holiness, and, I believe, an eternal part of us that lives on after we are gone. That is not nature, it is super-nature, it is of the supernatural, of God. I believe that to make us in His image, God gave us a soul. Perhaps, as He watched evolution unfold, and watched to see what sorts of creatures emerged from His primordial soup, He noticed the appearance of humans among the other primates. As humans continued to evolve and become increasingly different from the other apes, we began to show the capacity to reason, to learn right from wrong, to think beyond ourselves. When this began to happen, God was pleased, and He chose us to receive a part of Him, to be in His image, to receive a soul. We were not physically better than the other organisms that had come of His beginning, but He approved of us, and we became special because of that gift. I am made in the image of God, not because I am a Caucasian hominid with 1400 cubic centimeters of brain, but because I have a spiritual presence that is distinct from my physical body. This is much more permanent and comforting than thinking that I look like God in the same way that I look like my mother.

I am still struggling with the meshing of my scientific core with my spiritual understanding. I hope I never stop struggling with it, as it is the means of both spiritual growth and scientific enlightenment. If I ever feel I have The Answer, I will have reached a bleak dead end. I am constantly excited about new scientific discoveries that must be worked into my understanding of the world, just as I am thrilled by new ways of looking at Biblical scriptures and the life and teachings of Christ. I find meaning in both of these ways of understanding the world, and I think I am the better for it.

© 2002 Megan M. Hoffman


Megan Hoffman

Homily for Berea College Chapel Service, January 2006

Knowing God through Science

[I] believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…

[I] believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, …of one Being with the Father.

[I] believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

One God as Three… and Three as One. How are we to understand that complexity? How can we get our puny human brains around that concept? How can we understand God? While I can’t fully grasp the depth of meaning in the Trinity, the three sides of God - Father, Son and Holy Ghost – help me approach some aspects of God more easily than if I tried to do it all at once. The Father is the Creator part of God, the source of all; the Son is the Redeemer, the part of God that came to earth in human form to save us; the Holy Spirit is the Giver of life, the part of God in each of us.

These thoughts give me three angles from which to view God, three keyhole glimpses of the vastness. I can’t hope to understand God in his entirety, but each glimpse I have of Him helps me to understand a bit more.

Of course, there are more than these three approaches to God. A good friend of mine, a biologist, opened a door for me in my attempts to learn more about God. He argued that we can’t comprehend God in His entirety: that truly is beyond our abilities. However, we can try to understand him by any means available to us. By studying the Bible, we can learn about God through the recordings of His words and actions. Through prayer and quiet contemplation, we might come to know another view of God. Yet another way to learn more about God is to study his creation, to study the natural world. In other words, we can learn about God through science: science is, after all, a careful observation of nature. The more we understand about nature, the more glimpses we have of the Creator. In fact, early scientists held this as one of their goals: science was a pursuit of knowledge, and for some like Newton, knowledge of God. Even the vilified Darwin ends his treatise on evolution with this thought: “There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Now Darwin, and most modern scientists, myself included, are not studying nature in order to learn more about God, we are studying nature in order to improve medical treatments, or invent new technologies, or expand knowledge for its own sake. Many people see science (and scientists) as diametrically opposed to God and religion. They see science as a means to denigrate belief and chip away at God’s role in our modern world. But there’s another way to see science – as Newton saw it – a means to appreciate God and bring us closer to Him.

For instance, decades of research in developmental biology allow us to explain in great detail how our bodies form. We understand how our chromosomes multiply and distribute themselves into each of our cells. We know how our fingers form via chemical gradients and programmed cell death, how our hearts twist into shape, how our nerves grow out in intricate patterns and unerringly make their proper connections. We could celebrate the biochemistry that underlies our body plan and acknowledge that there is no need for God to act in forming each of us. Or perhaps we can see the hand of God in the fact that in the vast majority of babies those thousands of steps occur in just the right way, in just the right order, in just the right place?

Astronomy, probably the oldest science, has taught us about how stars form, mature, and die. This information could lead us to conclude that the Star of Bethlehem was a supernova – the spectacular, exploding death of a star. Does that make this guiding Star less awe-inspiring, or the birth of Christ less of a miracle? If life on Earth, and the Earth itself, have been coming into being over the past 4.6 billion years, are they somehow less of a gift than if they were made in six days? Jesus, with his Godly power, healed the blind with his touch – is it less of a miracle that a mere human being can heal the blind with a microscope, antibiotics and a corneal transplant?

In my fourteen years of teaching science, I’ve heard many people say that we ask too many questions about things we aren’t meant to know. We shouldn’t be messing around with genetic engineering or trying to determine the age of the universe. Some things are beyond our reach, and should stay that way. As a scientist, I find this problematic, and as a teacher, I find it frightening. I hope God does want us to ask questions and learn about the world around us. When I read the chapter from Matthew about the giving of the talents, I think of the talents in the parable not as money, but as Jesus meant them: gifts from God. The word “talent” did mean money, but it took on many other meanings, including one some thousand years later: talent as the quality of reason, our intellect, our incredible brains. The parable tells me that God (the master) wants us to use the great gift of our intellect, and that He will not be happy if we bury that talent. He wants us to take what he has given us and increase it – learn more, ask more, know more. “To those who have, more will be given…” Why would God want us to search for information that might lead to our doubting His existence, or questioning His wisdom? Maybe because these same questions can help us to know Him better, and to understand His teachings more clearly.

Modern neuroscience has shown us that the front part of our brain has many functions, including controlling aspects of our personality and perceiving boundaries between ourselves and others. This area also plays a role in spiritual feelings and religious visions. People practicing deep meditation and prayer often report feelings of timelessness and oneness with everything, and neurological studies have shown that activity in the “boundary center” of the brain changes during these experiences. People with damage to this part of the brain can feel that they are god-like, or might have overwhelming feelings of connection to God. One interpretation of these scientific facts is that God is figment of our imagination, a side effect of the activity in our brain’s “religion area.” One neurologist suggested that the heavenly visions of St. Hildegarde were caused by damage to that area of her brain. To me, the flip side of that coin is that we are able to perceive God, to hear His voice, because of that particular wiring pattern in our brain; that everyday religious experiences are possible because of our neurophysiology; that at some point in our physical evolution, our brains took on a configuration that allowed us to communicate with God and him with us.

Does our knowledge of this brain area make the heavenly visions of St. Hildegarde less inspirational, or detract from Joan of Arc’s heroism? Or does our deeper understanding of our neurological wiring strengthen our wonder in God’s abilities to communicate with us through our evolved brains?

Throughout history, humans attributed powers to their gods as a way of explaining things we didn’t understand (e.g. thunder and lightening; fire; birth and death). As science in its various forms found explanations for these occurrences, the gods progressively lost their powers. Thor isn’t as much of a threat as he used to be. We no longer believe that Apollo carries the sun across the sky on his chariot, nor that a turtle carries it on his back. We know that the earth’s rotation gives the sun the appearance of rising and setting. In many ways, as science advanced, God retreated (if we look at Him only in terms of visible powers). For many, God became the “God of the gaps.” In other words, we looked to God as the cause of the things that science couldn’t explain. This does put God and Science in direct competition with one another, and leads to the “don’t ask questions” attitude. For some, there is a real fear that God will disappear entirely if we ask the right (or wrong) scientific questions.

But do you know what? God won’t disappear, no matter how much we learn. God is unchanging – our understanding of him changes, but He doesn’t change. He is the same God as he was tens of thousands of years ago when our ancestors believed that he threw every lightening bolt and planned every raindrop. How egotistical and spiritually shallow of us to think that modern meteorology somehow takes powers away from God. Rather, it gives us a different view of the rules that govern our natural world - it doesn’t change God or His power. Does our modern understanding of evolution mean that God had no part in the appearance of humans on earth? Evolution is fact, as much as the Earth being round is fact, or the presence of atoms is fact, or gravity is fact. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that contradicts the reality of evolution. Does that mean that we are untouched by God? Does that mean we aren’t made in God’s image? I, for one, can’t imagine that God has pinkish-yellow skin, myopic eyes, graying hair and bunions – am I not in God’s image? If God looks like we do, then why did the Christ have to come to earth in human form? Our bodies are from dust – evolved over of millions of years from primitive mammals that had previously evolved from reptiles. Our bodies are from dust – our souls are from God. My soul is as close as I’ll come to being in God’s image – it is the part of me that He touches and molds and guides. A good body doesn’t get you into heaven – a good soul will.

For me, science no longer separates me from God – it shows me more about His wonder and grace. I want to learn more, and I’m going to keep asking questions. I’ll ask questions in the laboratory, in the classroom, in the church and in the forest. I’ll invest my talents and hope that they increase – for my own sake and maybe to the glory of God. Amen.

© 2006 Megan M. Hoffman