Performing surgery upon evolutionary thinking
Jonathan Sarfati interviews pediatric surgeon Dr Ross Pettigrew
Ross Pettigrew trained in Christchurch, New Zealand. His career includes Senior Lecturer at the University of Otago (New Zealand) School of Medicine and consultant surgeon at Dunedin Hospital, researching surgical nutrition and surgical audit. He is responsible for most of the pediatric surgery at Dunedin Hospital, which includes operating on newborn babies. Dr Pettigrew is still a clinical lecturer at the University of Otago, and has a private practice, operating at Mercy Hospital in Dunedin.
Surgeon Dr Pettigrew has long had an interest in faith and science issues:
‘My interest in biological matters goes back to school days, with the stories of the “Jungle Doctor”. I was brought up in a Christian home, coming to faith at age seven and believing that God created this fascinating world we enjoy.’
Christianity vs evolution
But what about evolution teaching? Dr Pettigrew encountered it very early, and first thought that compromise was the answer:
‘Like many in the 60s, my faith was assaulted by the uninhibited teaching at school that evolution was a proven fact. In seeking to find some compromise with what my teachers were saying and the first few chapters of Genesis, I found a book which seemed to be the answer. It was called Creation’s Amazing Architect and I studied how the six days of creation could be fitted into the “facts” of evolution. I remember creating charts and feeling that I had it all sorted out.’
However, as soon as he reached university, he found that this compromise solved nothing:
‘My first day at University, pursuing a medical school entry, was quite a shock. My lecturer in biology walked in with a Bible under his arm. He opened it at Genesis chapter 1 and proceeded to demolish any hope of a compromise. “The birds are out of order”, he proclaimed. The sun was formed after the plants which needed the sun for photosynthesis, and on it went.’1
So, like many people on the fence, Dr Pettigrew found that the position was unstable and would tip one way or the other. Fortunately, like Joshua, he chose to follow God’s Word (Joshua 24:15):
‘I was stunned! I had to make a choice. I decided that if the Bible is as it claims to be, the Word of God, then it alone can be relied upon. In my studies, I was encouraged to see that scientists had been wrong in the past and had changed their theories but I had yet to find the Bible wanting once all the facts were known.’
However, having made this choice, it was tough in such an environment, ‘especially in the “behavioural sciences” where there was a constant attack on belief systems that did not accept evolution.’ But he found encouragement from other sources: ‘Many parts of the Bible which had been criticized in other disciplines were being discovered to be true. Historical problems with Luke’s record in the Acts, and other supposedly fictitious characters from the Bible, were being shown by archaeological studies to be true after all.’
Science vs evolution
Francis Bacon (1561–1626), the Christian who is regarded as the ‘father of the scientific method’,2 famously said,‘A little philosophy inclineth man’s minds about to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds to religion.’ Ross found in his own field a parallel to this saying, as he relates:
‘As I advanced in my medical career, I began to see a number of areas where the theories of clinicians were being contradicted by the facts. In my surgical training, I continued to marvel at the human body. The more I studied, the more I was convinced that this was not a chance happening but designed by someone of far greater intelligence.
‘The recent discoveries of molecular biochemistry and genetics have shown the incredible complexity of even the simplest organism. What Darwin considered as a basic modification of form has turned out to be incredibly complex. Furthermore, the molecular processes to construct even the simplest cell are amazingly precise and complex, with all the hallmarks of design. Each new discovery reinforces my belief in a creator.
‘While I would gladly take the credit for successful outcomes of my operations, I knew that without the incredible processes for healing and repair that the human body possesses, I would not have a job. I only had to operate on a patient with a tiny protein called factor VIII missing from the blood stream to realize that I needed that blood coagulation system to be complete to be able to do anything.’
Evolutionists point to allegedly bad design, but Ross pointed out that they ‘were later found to be brilliant in concept. The eye being “wired” back to front was thought to be ridiculous from a mechanical point of view, but from a supply-of-nutrients point of view, it is evidence of amazing design.’3
The evolutionary idea of vestigial organs, or organs that have no use but are merely remnants of our evolutionary past, has adversely affected surgery. Conversely, treating them as though they had a function, consistent with design, has greatly helped patients. Dr Pettigrew points out, ‘The list of vestigial or rudimentary organs from 100 years ago has reduced dramatically.’ One example is the thyroid gland:
‘For many years, it mystified doctors as to its function. It clearly was a gland, from its structure, but it had no duct to send its secretions anywhere. When people had an enlarged thyroid (goitre), it was removed. In the 1870s, Theodore Kocker, the young Professor of Surgery at Bern who was the world expert, discovered that some of his patients were going insane a few years after their operation. By recalling his patients and examining his operation notes, he found that if he had left any thyroid behind, the patients did not go mad. It was not until 30 years later that thyroxine, the secretion of the gland was discovered and the essential nature of this hormone confirmed. Now not even a beginning medical student doubts the importance of the endocrine system comprising such ductless glands that secrete hormones, or the body’s messengers, into the blood.’
Another example is the thymus, ‘another gland which has had a chequered surgical history.’
‘This sits behind the breast bone in the upper chest. It was known to be relatively large and active in babies and children, but shrunk as one got older. It was removed for many reasons and considered to be redundant and an evolutionary vestige. That was until the understanding of the immunological system in the 1950s and 60s. It was found that this gland is essential to program certain blood cells (called T lymphocytes) to attack foreign tissue. While it does not function in adults, it is critical in babies. Children born without this gland sucumb to infection and die very quickly without treatment. As our knowledge advances, we have found that many of the “redundant” organs with no “obvious” function, including the appendix,4 are actually very important.’
How Christian faith benefits surgery
‘My focus as a surgeon has changed over the years. Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:1–4 describes our bodies as a tent in which we live on this earth for a few years. He describes his desire to have a more permanent house which will happen after death. My job could be seen as “repairing tents”. I see many “tents” in my job and I continue to be in awe of the intricate design and incredible repair mechanisms built into the human body. Each part has a purpose and function and they are so beautifully coordinated.
‘Yet despite it all, it is only temporary. And when the body dies, it seems so pointless, unless there is a designer who made it all for a purpose. And it is our role to find our purpose in the One who created us for His pleasure. Consequently, I have been more focused on helping those living in the tents that I repair to find their purpose for being on this earth. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:18, the things that are seen (such as our bodies) are temporary but the things that are unseen (our “souls”) are eternal.’
Ross also sees the importance of mentoring:
‘I am also involved in encouraging Christian medical students at the University of Otago to not be intimidated in expressing their faith to fellow students and even their patients. I have been involved in presenting a program I attended in the USA in 2000 called “The Saline Solution” [cf. Matthew 5:13, Colossians 4:6] which helps doctors present aspects of faith and spiritual aspects of health to their patients in an inoffensive and caring way.
‘Awareness of each consultation as a divine appointment and learning to pray with patients has been part of this process. I have run a Saline Solution course for students most years.’
Finally, he has copies of Creation magazine in his surgery. Thanks, Ross, and keep up the good work!
References and notes
- See also Sarfati, J., Refuting Compromise, ch. 4, Master Books, Arkansas, USA, 2004. Return to text.
- However, although Bacon was even a six-day creationist, he also made the tragic mistake of treating Christianity and science as separate areas. See Wieland, C. and Sarfati, J., The story behind the modern-day separation of faith and science, Creation 25(1):46–48, 2002. Return to text.
- For refutation of this common sceptical canard, see this article by an experienced ophthalmologist, Gurney, P., Is our ‘inverted’ retina really ‘bad design’? Journal of Creation 13(1):37–44, 1999; creation.com/retina. Return to text.
- See Glover, W., The human vermiform appendix: A general surgeon’s reflections, Journal of Creation 3(1):31–38, 1988; creation.com/appendix2. Return to text