A life-changing challenge: As a scientist, could I also believe in God?

Readers of this blog have already been introduced in an earlier guest post to Dr. Peter Dodson, Professor of Paleontology in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at the University of Pennsylvania and Professor of Gross Anatomy at its School of Veterinary Medicine. In the following series of further guest posts, Dr. Dodson tells his  story in greater detail. This series is based on the talk he gave entitled “Fossils and Faith” at the 2016 Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania. It is shared here with his permission.


I am a geologist, paleontologist, veterinary anatomist, evolutionary biologist, and a lifelong Christian. I am extraordinarily privileged to teach in a superb research university, and I have been blessed with a succession of excellent students with whom I have traveled the world. I have been even more greatly blessed with the companionship of my wife of 48 years, Dawn, with whom I have two children and three grandchildren. These are the three great priorities of my life: family, faith and fossils.

As a child, dinosaurs fascinated me. While most children grow out of this fascination, I simply never did. I lived in northern Indiana until I was 11. My older brother, Steve, was an amateur naturalist and astronomer. He taught me to love collecting fossils. My father, Edward O. Dodson, was an evolutionary biologist who taught at Notre Dame. When I was 11 he moved our family to Canada, where he taught at the University of Ottawa for the rest of his career. He encouraged my scientific interest in dinosaurs and in natural history. He raised me in the Christian faith, and he also taught me to appreciate evolution as a natural biological process that played out in the immensity of geological time. There was no conflict between Christianity and evolution in his mind, nor is there in mine.

I completed my Ph.D. in geology and geophysics (actually paleontology) at Yale in 1974. Since that time I have spent my entire professional career teaching gross anatomy to veterinary students at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, while also supervising undergraduate and graduate students in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

In the first two decades of my scientific career, I confined my research to Canada and the United States. My first new discovery was a small horned dinosaur from south central Montana, which in 1986 I named Avaceratops lammersi. A skeleton of the dinosaur is on display at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (now the Academy of Natural Sciences of
Drexel University). This animal is named not after my wife, but after Ava Cole, the wife of the man who first found its fossils on the Careless Creek Ranch owned by the Lammers Family (hence the species name). It took me another 19 years to repair this serious marital faux pas.

All of my subsequent discoveries have been made and published with my students. In 1999 and 2000, we collected a long-necked (i.e., sauropod) dinosaur from southern Montana. Six months later we were in Egypt, where we collected remains of a very large sauropod. The humerus (upper arm bone) measured 5 feet 7 inches in length. At the time of this discovery at Bahariya Oasis in the Western Desert, it was the second largest humerus ever recorded in the fossil record. In 2001, we named the dinosaur Paralititan stromeri, meaning “Stromer’s giant from the swamp,” honoring the German paleontologist Ernst von Stromer who collected legendary dinosaurs from Bahariya Oasis before the First World War. In 2004, graduate student Jerry Harris and I wrote about the Montana sauropod, which we called Suuwassea emiliae. This was an ingenious name devised by Jerry, derived from the Crow Indian language. It means “Emilie’s ancient thunder,” a tip of the hat to the famous but discredited name of “Brontosaurus,” the thunder lizard.

A new chapter in my research life began when I attended a scientific meeting in Beijing in 1995. There I met an impressive young Chinese man who had just completed his master’s degree and was looking to continue his studies. I invited You Hailu to come to Philadelphia and study with me. He followed me to Penn, where he completed his Ph.D. in 2002. He then returned to China and named Magnirostris dodsoni (“Dodson’s big nose!”) in my honor. More importantly, he invited me to come to China and work with him and his collaborator, Li Daqing, in Gansu Province in northwest China. This has been a very fertile collaboration and has resulted in three more University of Pennsylvania Ph.Ds. In 2005, we at last honored my wife Dawn with a small horned dinosaur from Gansu, which we named Auroraceratops rugosus (“Dawn’s bumpy horned face”), which was the subject of Eric Morschhauser’s Ph.D. dissertation. My current Chinese student, Liguo Li, worked with me to name another sauropod from Gansu, Yongjinglong datangi (ẛMr. Tangẗs dragon from Yongjing County”). We also named a two-legged plant-eater Gongpoquansaurus mazongshanensis (“Gongpoquan reptile from the Horse Mane Mountains”).

This is a brief summary of some of my activities around the world as a dinosaur paleontologist aided by grants from the National Science
Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and other agencies. Projects presently on my desk include working on a new horned dinosaur from northern Mexico and an interesting specimen from the Hell Creek Formation of Montana. I have spent much of my career studying horned dinosaurs, not because of careful planning but rather by virtue of serendipitous discovery. I have called myself a paleontologist for nearly 50 years, but I have yet to call paleontology a career. I take my science and my role as teacher and mentor very seriously.

I also take my Christian faith very seriously. I had never attempted to integrate my Christianity with my life as a scientist until I was explicitly challenged to do so. The challenge came in the form of a seminar that I attended in December 1988, given by Cornell University biologist and historian of science Will Provine. This seminar, entitled “The Evolution of Human Morality,” literally changed my life. Citing the authority of modern evolutionary biology, Provine invited his audience, scientists at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, to face what he claimed were the consequences of evolution: there is no God; there is no soul; there is no life after death; there is no such thing as free will. We make hundreds of choices every day, Provine explained, but these are all the result of either our genes or our environment. Scientists who claim to believe in God are hypocrites who must check their brains at the back of the church.

Moreover, Provine claimed that most evolutionary biologists do not believe in God. In fact, he opined, those that do could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. Wow! What a stunning expression of scientific naturalism. I admit that I have led a somewhat sheltered life, primarily in the company of fellow Christians. I was not so unaware that I failed to know that some scientists were atheists, but none had espoused to me the view that a scientist cannot believe in God. I was rocked to my core by Provine’s compelling presentation. The seeming approval of Provine’s sentiments by my colleagues caused me to slump in my seat. I was left literally speechless. Although I disagreed with every word he uttered, I could summon neither the words nor the courage to respond.

As this event occurred only ten days before the celebration of the birth of Our Lord, I left Provine’s seminar feeling rather depressed and lonely. Part of his message was the implicit taunt that anyone in the audience who did not share his views belonged in the closet. In a few days my depression changed to anger and resolve. I sat down and composed a four-page letter to Will Provine registering my various complaints and disagreements with his presentation, and maladroitly expressed my views on the history of science and the significance of religion. He generously replied in five pages. Although he did not suffer fools gladly (and indeed I was foolish in my ignorance of history), Provine concluded his letter with an invitation for me to come to Cornell and to debate him on his stage. I am not a debater by inclination, least of all when I lack confidence in my base of knowledge on the topic. I replied to him in six pages, politely declining his invitation to come to Cornell, where I was certain I would have been slain in the lion’s den. There our correspondence ceased.

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