Evolution, dinosaurs and faith: Navigating the world of discovery

Published: Saturday, June 16 2012 12:00 p.m. MDT

Garrett McCoy, left, and Steven Nelson listen to their professor during an evolutionary biology class at BYU in Provo on Friday, March 30, 2012.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

PROVO — Model skulls sit in front of students in Dr. Michael Whiting's evolutionary biology lab at Brigham Young University.

"Find your chimps and find your humans," Whiting says.

The students pick out two skulls and are handed a checklist of items to compare between the two skulls, including teeth, brain size and nose.

Wearing a tieless, blue, button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Whiting roams the classroom and points out the difference between the two skulls to the students.

"You're going to forget a lot of stuff," he tells his students. "My hope is you'll remember what you learn here today."

The topic: Evolution. It's a subject Whiting has to keep up with as new fossils are discovered that provide a more complete understanding of the world we live in. His class also provides a snapshot into the intersection of science and faith and how both the learned and learning at a faith-based university develop the skills to balance science and religion in a quest for truths.

"What we try to do when we teach evolution is provide a solid course in evolutionary science," Whiting said. "There is room in LDS doctrine to believe a God who uses evolution."

New archaeological discoveries are celebrated by Whiting, a religious man teaching at a university where classes can open with prayer. And this year the discoveries keep on coming:

• In March, a foot fossil found in Ethiopia dated at 3.4 million years old was announced in the journal Nature. The fossil, scientists said, suggests a species of hominin that climbed in trees and existed at the same time as hominins that walked upright.

• The journal reviewed stone tools discovered in Salado, Texas, campsite remains in Chile and fossil dung from Oregon, archaeological evidence that challenges previously held beliefs about the timing and origins of the first human culture in the Americas.

• Earlier this month, the New York Times detailed the Open Tree of Life project. Evolutionary biologists, armed with a $5.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation, are attempting to draw a tree of life that includes every known species. The first draft is due in 2013 of a tree that will include about two million branches.

Whiting said he isn't surprised by the efforts and discoveries, saying new finds are becoming more common.

"The evidence for the ancient origin of man is only going to increase," he said, citing better technology and tools. "We've been looking harder for bones than ever before and we're finding them."

Mike Bell, a pastor for South Mountain Community Church in Draper, said he's skeptical any time scientists say they have a new discovery.

"Call me a cynic, but I feel like it's going to be the emperor's new clothes again," he said.

Bell recalled a college anthropology class where model skulls were set out in front of him as well. He said he assumed that because his professor was an academic, "she knows what she's talking about." Years later, when Bell became a Christian, he had to figure out how what he was taught in anthropology fit in with his understanding of the Bible.

"I did a little research and I found out every single thing that professor had taught had been refuted," he said.

Bell said within his church, there is a diversity of opinions on topics like the age of the earth and dinosaurs, but it doesn't cause problems.

"People have to come to their own conclusions," he said.

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