A life of ups and downs
David Catchpoole chats with tree physiologist Dr Geoff Downes
Dr Geoff Downes holds a B.Sc. (Hons.) from Monash University, Australia, and a Ph.D. in tree physiology from the University of Melbourne. He is a Principal Research Scientist with Ensis, a joint venture between Australia’s CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) and Scion (New Zealand Forest Research). Based in Hobart, Tasmania, Geoff’s research primarily concerns wood quality issues in plantation forests, particularly in regard to climatic/environmental effects on wood formation. He is leader of the Material Knowledge group of the Ensis Wood Quality business unit and manages seven scientists in Australia and New Zealand. Geoff has authored more than 40 peer-reviewed journal publications, over 50 conference papers, one book and several book chapters. He was part of the 2001 CSIRO Chairman’s medal team (development of SilviScan® technology). In October 2004 Dr Downes and colleagues received the Joseph Umdasch award for international collaborative research in Forestry from BOKU (Agricultural University of Vienna), Austria.
Geoff Downes is a true believer in bringing every thought captive in obedience to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). But it hasn’t always been easy—there have been many ups and downs along the way.
Growing up in a Christian home, Geoff gave his life to Christ when he was 13.
Shortly after that, Geoff won a scholarship to a prestigious (non-government) high school run by a mainline Protestant church denomination.
‘Genesis is a myth’
However, Geoff says, ‘It wasn’t long before I’d decided that it was too hard to be a Christian in that environment.’ He recalls the Year 11 Biblical Studies course being particularly destructive. ‘The school chaplain taught the JEPD hypothesis.1 He worked through Genesis, and taught us that it was just a myth. I just assumed the chaplain knew what he was talking about. But always in the back of my mind was the thought that this was inconsistent.’
During this time Geoff did not attend church much at all. ‘I didn’t want the responsibility of living up to the name of “Christian”. I decided I would revisit the whole issue again after I finished high school.’
‘God is merciful to our human frailties’, says Geoff. Towards the end of high school, Geoff and a friend ‘began attending a local church youth group because of the good-looking girls there.’ He remembers how, at a youth group camp at the end of Year 12 one of the leaders ‘kept annoyingly challenging me about my faith’.
‘He would often come alongside and say: “Geoff, you can’t keep putting it off. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to face the issue.” Which was basically: “Does God exist and are you going to submit to Him?” I’d love to meet that guy again so I can tell him how God used his perseverance, and that I committed the rest of my life to serving Christ.’
‘I was a reluctant theistic evolutionist’2 , says Geoff. ‘A theistic evolutionist because I’d been taught that Genesis was a myth and evolution had been ‘scientifically’ proven. Reluctant, because I knew that, without Genesis, I couldn’t really defend the Gospel. So I didn’t evangelize. I was uncomfortable in my Christian faith.’
However, the turning point was an entropy lecture at university. ‘The lecturer was teaching how the universe as a whole proceeds from an ordered to a less ordered state. I thought to myself, “Where did the order come from in the first place? Evolutionists are not consistent—they can’t explain everything. So why then do I as a Christian feel that I have to be able to rationally understand everything Scripture teaches before I am willing to accept it?” I remember coming to a realisation that, given the massive inconsistencies in evolutionary thinking, why shouldn’t I assume that the Bible is true? From that fresh starting point, I went to my other lectures and re-examined the evidence. I saw that the young-earth biblical position fitted the facts at least as well as evolutionary theory did. And now, 26 years since making that paradigm shift, I’m overwhelmed at just how a biblical framework explains the evidence so much more, and an evolutionary framework so much less.’
While doing his Ph.D., Geoff was instrumental in bringing creationist speaker Dr Gary Parker onto the campus3 to present a seminar. Geoff was delighted that many of his secular academic friends/colleagues attended, but was surprised to find that they didn’t challenge Dr Parker, despite this very public opportunity to do so. Says Geoff: ‘I suspect they could see that a strong case had been presented, and wanted to ignore any implications, i.e. if there is a Creator, where do I stand?’4
Wanted to give up
Half-way through his Ph.D., though firmly grounded intellectually in the faith, Geoff became angry with God. His wife, Ellen, was often laid very low with severe illness (M.E.—myalgic encephalomyelitis) and Geoff was busy with local church responsibilities, the demands of doing a Ph.D., and raising an active firstborn son. All weighed upon Geoff to the point that he even considered giving up on Christianity. ‘But God is merciful’, says Geoff, ‘and He showed me that I could not deny the scientific evidence that God existed; He created the world; the Bible is true. After 10 days, I finally rebuked myself: “I can’t deny God is Sovereign! Stop moping around, and get on with it.”’
And so he did, successfully completing his Ph.D. research into the nutritional effects of copper deficiency on lignin content of wood from pine trees. The major focus of his current work is to understand the effects of climate and local environment upon variability in wood properties. This has major ramifications regarding commercial applications and industrial uses of the wood.
Making a difference
I asked Geoff about being a research scientist known by his colleagues to be an outspoken creationist and Bible-believer. He said, ‘Very few scientists speak up much about evolution—I suspect that many of my colleagues don’t actually accept a fully naturalistic evolutionary position!’ Geoff reckons that if you surveyed practising scientists and asked ‘Is naturalistic evolution sufficient to explain all that we see around us and how it came to be?’, the results would be eye-opening.
‘Evolution doesn’t really impact constructively upon operational science,’ he says, ‘but, in contrast, bringing a Christian perspective to one’s research makes a colossal difference.’ Geoff highlights two areas.
‘Firstly, my research is about the physiology of wood formation. Because I’m a creationist I don’t expect living systems to be simple. And they’re not. Whereas there’s a tendency in evolutionary research to think that “this evolved by chance—it can’t be too complicated.”
‘Secondly, I try to treat people differently than I would if I was not a Christian. I want to lead by serving. Because I am a Christian I want to walk humbly before my God, recognising that God will give me any credit He needs me to have in order to do what He has called me to do. Twenty years ago I realized that all scientists struggle at some point with both pride (e.g. deriving from their qualifications/achievements/status) and doubts about self-ability. I have the privilege of working with some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met, and when I see their special talents, it is easy to feel envious. But I know that at any time, God—whom I now recognize as the Master Scientist—can give me the answers I need to any problem, and the insight I need into any system I’m studying, to achieve all that He wants me to achieve. Consequently I’m better able to relax into the role the Lord has given me.’
So how does Geoff make the Bible his starting point in every area, including his research?
‘We are called by God to exercise dominion over His creation, so it is important that we understand how living systems work, how we can manage living systems sustainably, to the benefit of His Kingdom. Even non-Christians recognize that the whole issue of plantation forestry today is to grow wood in a more commercially and environmentally acceptable manner—they don’t realize (or perhaps care) that this view is consistent with Scripture! How we grow and manage these forests is part of the dominion mandate that God has given us, and that brings the Gospel into everyday life. So it’s an all-of-life issue—the way we live our lives, the way we manage our resources, the way we work out our culture, is all part of our Christian witness.’
References and notes
- Also known as the ‘documentary hypothesis’, and is easily refuted. See Grigg, R., Did Moses really write Genesis? Creation 20(4):43–46, 1998, <creation.com/jedp>; and Holding, J.P., Debunking the Documentary Hypothesis, Journal of Creation 19(3):37–40, 2005, <creation.com/documentary>. Return to text.
- A ‘theistic evolutionist’ acknowledges a Creator, but also accepts evolutionary theory. However, such ‘God used evolution’ ideas rule out the God of the Bible. See <creation.com/theistic>. Return to text.
- The Creswick Campus of the University of Melbourne, near Ballarat, Victoria. Return to text.
- I.e., logically, if there really is a Creator Who made us, then we were created to serve Him (Matthew 22:37). Return to text.