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Vanity, Thy Name is Venema

Dennis Venema condemns intelligent design as being based on "ignorance and incredulity." And if Dr. Dennis Venema says so, then hadn't we all better listen up? After all, as a biologist, he has risen steadily through the ranks to achieve the mighty distinction of being arguably the top blogger at the "Science & the Sacred" blog, on the website of our theistic evolutionary friends at the BioLogos Foundation. Venema also teaches biology at Trinity Western University (TWU) up in British Columbia, having obtained his PhD at the U. of B.C. back in 2003.

With all this going for him, he evidently made the determination that it was high time to start serializing his intellectual memoirs. And that is what he has been doing at the BioLogos site.

He has reached Part IV where, as a rising scholar at TWU, he makes his sensational and decisive break with the intelligent design movement, in favor of a theistic evolutionary view. Admittedly, no one we know of in the ID movement was aware of Venema at the time, so the drama of this was of a concealed and private kind. Until now!

Parts I, II, and III follow the young Venema thorough his British Columbia youth and college experience, including a look "behind the scenes" at a small town church where, as we learn, the congregants had easy access to some of the finest fishing and hunting opportunities in the region. As a youth Venema was at first interested in science, then lost some interest, then got interested again.

The gripping high point in the story is the day Venema read Michael Behe's 2007 book The Edge of Evolution. Up till this moment, Venema had been much taken with Behe's earlier book, Darwin's Black Box. But when he read the Edge of Evolution, he was...disappointed. Very disappointed. Why? In which arguments did Behe go astray? Curiously for an intellectual memoir narrating a break with the author's previous scientific perspective, Venema doesn't say.

Venema does indicate that he wishes in retrospect that he had a video of himself as he read Behe's book. If he had such a video, he could watch himself now as he registered his growing disappointment with Behe. "It was not long before the first suggestion of a frown would appear. Not many pages hence the frown would deepen into a furrow." Perhaps we could watch Venema too, if BioLogos were to make the video available for online viewing.

Soon the frowning and furrowing turned to even more riveting and action-packed gestures. Like putting a book down, picking up other papers, flipping pages, standing up, putting things down on his desk, sitting back down. "I clearly recall putting [Edge of Evolution] down on my desk thinking, 'What is this?'" This all took place in one reading session on one day. Venema then picked up a paper published in Nature a couple of years earlier, a comparative study of human and chimp genomes. It took him around 10 minutes to read the article.

He goes on: "I put the finished paper down on my desk, said 'Well, that's that, then' out loud to my empty office, and sat back in my chair." All the sitting and standing and shuffling papers and talking to himself, narrated in loving detail, seems to interest Venema more than any actual critique of Behe's book. Venema reflected: "As a geneticist, I was fully capable of evaluating that evidence, and it was compelling. Humans and chimps were close relatives, and I was no longer an anti-evolutionist. Game, set, match."

But wait a minute. Neither of Behe's books has anything to do with disputing such a relationship between humans and chimps, and Behe himself is comfortable with common descent. This part of the intellectual memoir, too, is somewhat opaque.

So is Venema's subheading here: "Losing My (ID) Religion." At the end of Part III, Venema had already admitted that he "knew virtually nothing about evolution or Intelligent Design; I had never seriously looked into either." This is a bit hard to square with the presentation of ID now, in Part IV, as Venema's "religion." It's even harder to reconcile with the image of a serious scientist who throws over his previous perspective on a weighty subject in one day because he read one book that, for whatever unspecified reasons he may have had, he found disappointing.

Maybe this will be clarified in Part V. We'll keep you posted.