Dialogue with an Adventist scientist from Australia
John Ashton was born in Newcastle, Australia, and raised with a younger brother in a nominally Methodist home. His father, who had served in the Australian Navy, was an electrical engineer, while his mother was an accomplished portrait artist. After John was baptized into the Adventist Church in 1971, he was keen to share his faith with his fellow university students and was helped by a young Avondale College-trained primary teacher, Colleen Bryan. Over the months, their friendship grew as they found they shared common friends and interests such as hiking and country living. They married about a year later, in 1974. They currently live on a small acreage near Lake Macquarie and have two married daughters, two adult sons, and three grandchildren. Colleen, who retrained in massage and complementary therapies, now runs her own clinic and is active in women’s ministries, while John regularly presents talks on creation and health at local churches.
Dr. Ashton is currently strategic research manager at Sanitarium Health and Wellbeing, one of Australia’s largest cereal and health food producers. Along with that role, he serves as adjunct professor of applied sciences at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), and adjunct professor of biomedical sciences at Victoria University. He has been involved as a senior research adviser at seven Australian universities and a research advisor to a dozen or more Ph.D. students. He is also a fellow of the Royal Australian Chemistry Institute.
John, when did your journey as an Adventist Christian begin?
I began attending the Adventist church shortly after completing my undergraduate degree at the University of Newcastle. At the time, I was working at the central research laboratory of what is now the world’s largest mining company, BHP (Broken Hill Proprietary). They had top scientists from around the world working there. But the thing that stood out was that even though those scientists had gone to some of the best universities in the world, such as Oxford and Cambridge, their lifestyle and habits indicated they led empty, unfulfilled lives. I thought to myself that there had to be something more to life than this. I had aspired to be a scientist, but there was nothing in their demeanor to inspire me.
What aspect of science interested you in particular?
My early association with BHP was as a physicist, as they had offered me a cadetship to do physics. But at the time, I could see that most of the people following that path ended up doing computer programming. So during my course, I changed to chemistry and finished up at the head of the chemistry class at Newcastle University in chemistry in 1969.
I remember thinking about it and asking myself, “Is there a purpose to life?” I was speaking to my mother about it and asked her, “How do you find out about God?” She said, “Go to church!” We were nominally Methodists, and so I went to the little church around the corner, where I heard about the gospel and accepting the Savior into my life. I knew I needed to do that, but I was shy. Even so, I wanted to find out more.
I again asked my mother how I might find out more about the Bible. Nine years earlier, my father had died suddenly, and when some Adventist people visited us, they left a copy of Your Bible and You. My mother had visited their church a couple of times, and I decided to visit there myself because they had a Bible study each Saturday morning. Amongst other things, they talked about the Sabbath, so I looked up my encyclopedia and discovered that Saturday is the seventh day. That appealed to my logical scientific mind! I felt I wanted to make a fresh start, and I prayed for God’s leading.
At that time, a Tioxide Research Scholarship was being advertised. It was the most prestigious and highest-paying postgraduate scholarship in chemistry being offered in Australia. I applied and promised the Lord I would buy a Bible and start going to church. In 1970, I won that scholarship and kept my promise: I have attended the Adventist church since that day. I continued with my university studies, attending church and studying a Bible correspondence course. I was baptized in 1971.
I understand your interest in the creation-evolution debate was triggered early in your church experience. How did that come about?
Because I was studying science, a number of church members asked me questions about creation. So I began reading the literature for and against creation and evolution. I had a friend who was studying geochemistry at the university. He had a European shovel handle that was supposedly several thousand years old, and that didn’t seem to make sense to us. It clicked in my mind that there was some major problem with the radiometric dating method. And so I began reading in that area. Incidentally, he also became an Adventist!
I believe that about this time you experienced another special event in your life.
Yes, I met a young school teacher, Colleen, who is now my wife. She is a wonderful companion and has been a great supporter of my personal growth.
After gaining my master’s degree, I lectured for a number of years at Hobart Technical College in physics and mathematics. During that period, I devoted quite some time to Bible study and applied some of my research skills to the study of prophecy and the associated historical and archeological evidence for its fulfillment.
John, you are a person with wide interests. But please explain your special interest in creation and evolution.
I was around 40 years of age, now with children, and reasonably well established, when I felt overwhelmingly impressed to devote my attention to the study of creation, especially to the area of epistemology as it related to the sciences, and biomedical science, as this is an area particularly relevant to evolutionary theories. I was interested in examining the underpinnings of science research and why science can know. Biological science led me to explore the environmental and medical sciences and the implications of iatrogenic illness. This led to looking at a range of issues around the relationship between human action and the environment. I was interested in how science could make better predications and avoid some of the side effects.
You are also well known for your publications in the area of health. Tell us about that.
Following Hobart, I moved to New South Wales and took up employment as chief chemist at the Food Research Laboratory of the Sanitarium Health Food Company. This led to a focus of interest in food. I was invited to be one of two Australian collaborators on an international project developing a method for analyzing dietary fiber. I also participated in another international project of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemists that was looking at the toxicity of aluminum in foods. This involvement help build my reputation as a chemist. I was publishing quite a number of papers in these areas.
The research supervisor I was working with, Dr. Ron Laura, had studied at Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge. He was heavily into publishing, and we began writing books together. It was quite providential. Our first book, Hidden Hazards, which looked at the impact of technology on the environment, sold very well, and the publisher invited us to write another. So I began thinking about the main issues, and my mind settled on the subject of the impact of alcohol on the community. Nobody was speaking out about it. It was just at the time when advertisers were focusing on encouraging women to drink alcohol to increase sales. Over one period in Australia, for example, the rate of women drinking heavily had doubled. The lack of awareness of the dangers of alcohol and its impact on women in particular were disturbing. Some very good research was being done, but this knowledge was just not getting out. My publisher was taken aback at the topic, but because the first book had done so well, agreed to proceed. So I researched the alcohol book for several years. Unfortunately, the publisher thought it was too “preachy.” It wasn’t until eight years later, in 2004, that the Signs Publishing Company published it, under the title Uncorked! The Hidden Hazards of Alcohol.
When I had become a Christian while teaching at Hobart Technical College, I became interested in witnessing. I was so pleased to be associated with the Adventist perspective on health, so I began writing short articles on health, and they were well received everywhere. When I moved to New South Wales, I shared these with Ron Laura, and we decided to do some health books together. We then wrote another environment book, The Perils of Progress, published by the University of New South Wales Press. It looked at the impact of technology and food practices on the environment and human health. The book was well received and was also republished in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and South Africa. I was then invited to coauthor a book on food poisoning, titled Risky Foods and Safer Choices, and having published so many books, my desire to witness though my writing increased.
What other interests were brewing?
My mind turned again to my interest in theology, especially Isaiah and God’s declaration that He is like no other, affirming the end from the beginning. So I started looking at the historical evidence for people who saw the future ahead of time. I put that book together as The Seventh Millennium.
At the time, I really felt that I needed to follow up with material on the evidence for Creation. While I was visiting The Answers in Genesis Bookstore, a person recognized me and told me about a seminar recently held at Macquarie University in Sydney, where the curator of the Sydney Museum made the statement that no practicing scientist with a doctorate would believe in a literal six-day creation. This person went on to say that he had given that scientist my name as the chief chemist for Sanitarium, and added, did I mind! Of course I didn’t!
A few days later, as I was walking, the thought occurred to me, “Why not ask scientists with Ph.D.’s why they believe in Creation?” And that became the book In Six Days: Why 50 Scientists Believe in Creation. That book was first published in 1999, and 14 years later, it is still selling strongly. It has gone through more than 20 printings and been translated into a number of languages. Working with scientists from all around the world with rich Christian experiences was a wonderful inspiration to me.
Richard Dawkins challenged the fact that some of the contributors had studied at church-based universities like Loma Linda, for example. So I began to contact university academics who had obtained their educational qualifications and taught at secular universities, but who believed in God. I asked them about their beliefs in miracles, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and answers to prayer. That book became The God Factor, published by Harper-Collins. In the United States, it was published under the title On the Seventh Day. The publisher felt it would be a worthy sequel to In Six Days. Corresponding and working with the contributors was such an inspiration and confirmation of my own faith.
What was the response to all this work?
It is not surprising that some critics of the book claimed the contributors were working outside their fields. I had a young friend who was a university student and had the idea of writing answers to many of the questions challenging Adventist university students. This time, we made contact with contributors who had expertise in the related fields, and that became the book The Big Argument: Does God Exist?
As we were working on the book, it was difficult to find any academic to write on the evidence for the Exodus. Then someone suggested David Down, who agreed. He also told me he was working on a book on the history of Egypt and invited me to join him in that. Together we worked out a chronology that harmonized the Bible and Egyptian chronologies. That book, Unwrapping the Pharaohs, broke new ground when it was published in 2006.
Prior to this, when I was studying aspects of foods, I became interested in the amazing, unrecognized, beneficial properties of cocoa and chocolate. Later, my daughter-in-law worked on that with me to ensure a writing style that would engage a wider audience. This became the popular book A Chocolate a Day, published 2010.
In 2009, at the time of the sesquicentenary of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, I felt really compelled to write in the area of why evolution is impossible. We now have so much evidence to challenge the assumptions of evolution, particularly from the biochemistry angle. It is impossible for the genetic code to form by chance – that is, its probability is much less than 1 in 10150. When you consider there are only about 1080 atoms in the known universe, that’s a big number. Some have calculated that the chance of the DNA forming randomly is in the order of less than 1 in 105000! So that became my latest book: Evolution Is Impossible. I am passionate about helping our young people to see through the assumptions made by evolutionists that really can’t be backed up.
It appears that much of the opposition of evolutionists to creation is more politics than science. What is your opinion about this?
It is interesting that a number of philosophers of science are now speaking out strongly against evolution and the long ages associated with the geological column. But the issue has become so political, and anybody who speaks out against it attracts opposition and ridicule. For example, we have Dr. Stephen Meyer, who studied at Cambridge, publishing a paper arguing that the fossil record doesn’t provide evidence for evolution. There was a lot of criticism arguing that he was predisposed to his worldview of intelligent design. The paper is still available on the Internet. And then there was the paper by Jerry Fodor, “Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings.” He was essentially saying the same thing, and that caused an outcry.
But evolution still doesn’t have a mechanism to explain how new higher organisms can form. Recently, in 2012, Thomas Nagel, professor of philosophy at the University of New York, published The Mind and the Cosmos: Why the Material Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. That book undermines the entire naturalistic position from the perspective of biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology. In 2012, students and faculty at Emory University reacted strongly to Dr. Ben Carson, the eminent neurosurgeon, because of his open rejection of the theory of evolution. That is politics, not science! It is sad that scientists who are speaking out against evolution are being sacked and papers they have written being removed from circulation. These actions should sound alarm bells and draw attention to the serious nature of what is going on.
What counsel would you give to Adventist students in secular institutions and Adventist professionals in a faith-challenging work environment?
In these environments, I believe it is important to own your faith. You are entitled to your views and beliefs; when asked, be confident to explain what they are. However, in these environments I would not flaunt my beliefs. Rather, I would try to be the most helpful, generous, and thoughtful person I could be. The biological sciences are underpinned by the theory of evolution, and for everyday research in these areas – such as in microbiology and virology research – the theory works, and papers have to be written in this framework. Where the theory falls down is that it cannot explain the origin of the complex DNA genetic codes and the incredible design in nature – only creation by a super intelligent God can explain this. When challenged on creation issues, point people to resources such as the books Six Days: Why 50 Scientists Choose to Believe in Creation or Evolution Impossible or websites such as creation.com. Whatever the situation, hold on to your faith in Christ; He will never leave you or forsake you. Pray and read your Bible daily, and it will give you courage and the words to speak in season.
John, thank you for sharing your inspiring story. If you could sum up in a few words your primary motivation, what would you say?
My passion is to get this information out there to young people so that they can have confidence in God’s Word.
Don Roy (Ph.D., Deakin University, Victoria, Australia) is conjoint senior lecturer, Avondale College of Higher Education, Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org