Monday, July 5, 2010

Should a Christian Be a Darwinian?

Some six years ago, Professor Michael Ruse of the University of Guelph in Canada published a book with the title: Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? Intrigued by the title, I bought the book, and was duly introduced to the views of a scientist/philosopher who believed that certain aspects of Christianity were not incompatible with the Darwinian theory of evolution. ("If one's understanding of Darwinism does include a natural evolution of life from nonlife, there is no reason to think that this now makes Christian belief impossible.")

But now I have finished a book by another philosopher/scientist, and it has convinced me that Professor Ruse dangled the wrong question in front of his readers. Instead of "Can a Darwinian be a Christian," the question ought to have been stated: "Should a Christian Be a Darwinian?" And the resounding answer which this book gives is: "No, there is absolutely no reason for a Christian to take up Darwinian views of evolution -- at least, in order to explain the origin of life."

Now, I realize this is a controversial topic, but then again, I am a curmudgeon, who is no stranger to controversy. In fact, I thrive on it, so let us get right down to brass tacks.

The book to which I have reference is Professor Stephen Meyer's Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. It is a book, I predict, which in time will be as fully epoch-making as Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. For what it does is two things: (a) it replaces the function of Darwin's book, insofar as that book has been touted as the natural explanation for the origin of life on earth; and (b) it says what is as plain as the nose on your face, in no uncertain terms: "Of all the theoretical possibilities that could be offered, the best explanation for the origin of life on earth is that it was the product of design by an intelligent mind."

"Oh, dear -- oh, dear", I hear people saying. "The Curmudgeon has gone off the deep end, and joined those crazy Christian fundamentalists who believe that the earth was literally created in just six days, and is only 6,000 (or so) years old." (And if I have done so, then so has The Constructive Curmudgeon, Douglas Groothius, who got to the book some nine months ahead of me.) Even some atheists will no doubt point, and exult: "See what Christianity gets you? Look at the Anglican Curmudgeon -- he has let his Christian beliefs trump the rational facts of science, and ended up as the fool." (Prof. Meyer, the author of Signature in the Cell, is also a Christian.)

Not so fast -- not so fast. The great foundation stone of Darwinism is random evolution by means of natural selection. What that means, in a word, is that the evolution of species on earth is a random process, with nothing guiding it to any specific goals. Random changes in the DNA of living organisms, called mutations, result in modifications which mostly disfavor, but in some cases favor, the survival of the creature with the mutated DNA. Given enough time, the theory goes, those mutations which are favorable will accumulate and determine the course of evolution, because they statistically will aid the "survival of the fittest [to evolve]."

However, for natural selection to operate as an evolutionary mechanism, there must already be DNA in existence -- because it is the DNA which must first mutate to produce a favored genetic variation. Thus the entire structure of Darwinism depends on the pre-existence of DNA, because otherwise, natural selection has nothing upon which to operate. So where did DNA first come from?

Ah, and there's the rub. Scientists currently have no idea how DNA could have evolved from (a) a random agglomeration of molecules in a primordial soup; or (b) a random agglomeration of molecules in superheated vents in the ocean floor; or (c) a random agglomeration of molecules in any other location at any other time in history. The facts which they have "are stubborn things" (to quote John Adams). According to the best current measurements, the earth formed approximately 4.5 billion years ago, and the simplest forms of life itself were present on earth about only seven to eight hundred million years later.

Eight hundred million years sounds like a long time; in fact, it is 2.523 x 1016 seconds. And the inconvenient fact which Stephen Meyer points out in his book is this (p. 212):
. . . [Thus] the odds of getting even one functional protein of modest length (150 amino acids) by chance from a prebiotic soup is no better than 1 chance in 10164.

It is almost impossible for me to convey what this number represents, but let me try. We have a colloquial expression in English, "That's like looking for a needle in a haystack." . . . Now consider that there are only 1080 protons, neutrons and electrons in the observable universe. . . . With the odds standing at one chance in 10164 of finding a functional protein among the possible 150-amino-acid compounds, the probability is . . . a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion times smaller than the odds of finding a single specified particle among all the particles in the universe.
And even that calculation does not portray the full extent of the problem. As Prof. Meyer goes on to explain (pp. 212-13),
And the problem is even worse than this for at least two reasons. First, [the] experiments [by Douglas Axe, cited earlier] calculated the odds of finding a relatively short protein by chance alone. More typical proteins have hundreds of amino acids, and in many cases their function requires close association with [many] other protein chains. For example, the typical RNA polymerase -- the large molecular machine the cell uses to copy genetic information during transcription (discussed in Chapter 5) -- has over 3,000 functionally specified amino acids. . . .

Second, as discussed, a minimally complex cell would require many more proteins than just one. Taking this into account only causes the improbability of generating the necessary proteins by chance . . . to balloon beyond comprehension. . . .

. . . If we assume that a minimally complex cell needs at least 250 proteins of, on average, 150 amino acids and that the probability of producing just one such protein is 1 in 10164 as calculated above, then the probability of producing all the necessary proteins needed to service a minimally complex cell is 1 in 10164 multiplied by itself 250 times, or 1 in 1041,000.
Or, as Fred Hoyle once famously expressed it, "The chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way is comparable to the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein." (Now before all the Darwinists out there cite Wikipedia's page "Hoyle's Fallacy" in triumphant refutation of these facts, let me point out that Wikipedia itself says that "This article needs attention from an expert on the subject." [Emphasis in original.] It certainly does, because even though the page's author can claim that the theory of abiogenesis does not require fully formed proteins of 150+ amino acids right off the bat, the theory fails with any smaller building blocks, because it assumes -- contrary to its claims -- a guided evolutionary process whereby each necessary stepping stone to the 150-amino-acid protein is fully retained in the environment, so that evolution can go on from there to the next step in the chain. Each stepping stone along the way is -- for some unspecified reason -- "retained" because evolution somehow "knows" it will be needed for the next step to a higher-order protein, and so on. For the definitive refutation of this argument, you need to read Professor Meyer's book, but there is a good beginning at this blog, cited earlier.)

It is Darwinism that is based on a fallacy, not the theory of intelligent design. In fact, if I could construct an analogy to illustrate the foolishness of the current debates over evolution versus design, it would run something like this:

Imagine a world in which intelligent creatures were genetically programmed to speak and understand English from the moment they could make sounds and read words. Reading and speaking English was so much a fact of life that no one questioned exactly how it came about. Instead, all of the evolutionary scientists in this world were focused on how the English alphabet could have emerged from a random start. One scientist, using a giant computer and elaborate algorithms, claimed to predict the random emergence of the letter "R" from its precursor "P", and then claimed that "B" followed after "R". Another claimed to have explained the origin of no less than six letters of the alphabet -- E, F, H, I, L, and T -- from random placements of strokes at right angles to one another. And so on and so on . . .

Then along came Professor Stephen Meyer, who asked the question: "Forget about the alphabet for a moment. How do you explain syntax, structure, grammar, vocabulary and meaning? If you have 26 letters from which you can choose at random, and if you could make 1,000 choices per second, it would still take longer than all the seconds from the beginning of the universe to produce at random the works of Shakespeare. So what explains the fact that everyone speaks and understands English?"

And that indeed is the question that must be asked. The simplest bacterium known to man, Prof. Meyer points out, "Mycoplasma genitalium -- a tiny bacterium that inhabits the urinary tract -- requires 'only' 482 proteins to perform its necessary functions and 562,000 bases of DNA (just under 1,200 base pairs per gene) to assemble those proteins." If such minimal complexity could evolve over time, where is the mechanism that would make it happen? "Natural selection" cannot operate until a self-replicating unit has spontaneously arisen, and to have a self-replicating unit requires, at a minimum, both the RNA molecules and the highly specific proteins associated with them to enable copies to be made with any degree of accuracy and an assurance of ordered succession.

All of the experiments being reported today, including the latest reports of "life created in a test tube", simply bear out Prof. Meyer's design hypothesis. For all such experiments depend for their success upon intelligent design by the experimenters. Unless the initial conditions are carefully pre-specified, and each intermediate stage is carefully controlled to eliminate destructive agents and forces, life cannot emerge from the experiment.

Professor Meyer conveniently provides a one-paragraph summary of his entire thesis at the bottom of page 341 of his book. Indeed, I could not express it any better (I have omitted the footnotes):
The inability of genetic algorithms, ribozyme engineering, and prebiotic simulations to generate information without intelligence reinforced what I had discovered in my study of other origin-of-life theories. Undirected materialistic causes have not demonstrated the capacity to generate significant amounts of specified information. At the same time, conscious intelligence has repeatedly shown itself capable of producing such information. It follows that mind -- conscious, rational intelligent agency -- what philosophers call "agent causation," now stands as the only cause known to be capable of generating large amounts of specified information starting from a nonliving state.
The evidence of intelligent design is, given the complexity of the genetic code and how it is interpreted and executed in each and every one of our billions upon billions of cells at any given moment, simply overwhelming. In fact, there seems to abound a particular (is it genetic?) defect that keeps most scientists and otherwise rational people from seeing the degree to which the evidence is overwhelming. Instead, they will fall back on Darwin's insight as though it explained everything, and no new facts were necessary. (Check out this review of the reviewers of Prof. Meyer's book at Amazon if you would like to see what I mean.) This pattern of repression and denial is, of course, well described in Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. With the publication of, and reactions to, Stephen Meyer's book, you are witnessing one more such scientific revolution unfold before your eyes.

As a concluding point, be sure to go to the Website for Prof. Meyer's book and watch the incredibly detailed animation of how DNA replicates itself for another perspective on how everything has to work together in perfect synchrony for life to sustain itself. Even with all our intelligence, we can only begin to grasp the level of the mind that worked out all the intricate details of the miracle that we call life.


  1. Mr. Haley. Thanks for posting about this unusual book and author. I was a bit surprised to find out that he is a philosopher not a Molecular Biologist/Geneticist. There are many Molecular Biologists and/or Geneticists who are Christians. That might be surprising to some but not to me as one who studied Molecular Biology and Genetics as a grad student and is also a Christian.

    His book should be very interesting reading. Hmm. put on list of books to buy. Thanks for this wonderful info.

  2. I was a philosophy student at FSU during Ruse's tenure there. Any interested parties should also check out a fascinating article by Alvin Plantinga titled "Naturalism Defeated". I think it is the best logical challenge to a strictly naturalistic worldview.

  3. It seems to me that your entry makes a common but fundamental error about Darwin. "The Origin of Species" is not a book about the origin of life; it is a book about the origin of species, of how existing life forms generate diferent life forms that eventually become separate species. "The Descent of Man" simply applied that process to the origin of homo sapiens.

    I think there's no question that a Christian can be a Darwinian. But "evolution" has come to mean so many things, and has been used to justify so many ideologies, including laissez faire capitalism, Nazism, and
    Marxism, it's almost useless as a descriptive term.

  4. David Trautman, I agree about the Plantinga article -- it is very well done. There is a similar article, "Methodological Naturalism?" -- which may be downloaded from this page.

    rick allen, the mistake to which you refer is a common one, but Darwin himself contributed to its being made, with his well-known hypothesis that life may have originated in "some warm little pond." No one understood genetics at that time, and so no one could appreciate the multiple problems one encounters in trying to solve the RNA-protein-chicken-and-egg conundrum. But that did not stop scientists such as Harold Urey from speculating that some sort of "natural selection" process led to the accumulation of complexity that is life.

    The key belief of modern Darwinian evolutionists, as I indicated with the quote from Professor Ruse at the start of the post, is that life evolved "naturally" -- that is, deterministically, as a result of multiple random collisions -- from non-life. And what Professor Meyer has shown in that there has not been time enough since the Big Bang for all the conceivable collisions in the universe to have produced one protein of 150+ amino acids, let alone ones of 400 or more. The assumption that intermediate steps along the way will remain stable long enough for further complexity to accrue is simply not borne out by the chemical evidence. (And don't even get me started on left-handed versus right-handed sugars on the DNA and RNA chains!)

  5. Mr. Haley,

    Have you read any of the many criticisms of Meyer's book? For instance, this site from a Christian biology professor at Calvin College (Grand Rapids) regularly points out the flawed premises and seeming misinformation of Stephen Meyer's work in the book you found so compelling. And of course there's also the critiques on the BioLogos website.

    At the risk of sounding snobbish, I think it's important to note that an essential prerequisite for a non-professional wishing to campaign for a view contrary to the consensus of most professionals is not only to find an articulate voice of the minority view (Meyer is that) but to also objectively analyze critiques of the minority view and find them wanting. It is not enough to dislike a view and then latch on to whatever first appears to be a compelling and popular response to that view; when you begin to digest the Christian responses to Meyer, I think you'll see that your endorsement may have been premature.

    I'm no expert myself, and I can't talk numbers, but it is a truism that being someone who affirms the need for a miraculous divine agent to spark life and being a "Darwinian" are not mutually exclusive. Also, without granting the validity of all of Meyer's data (I simply don't know), it's hopelessly premature to conclude based upon outlandish statistics that something "shouldn't have happened", given that science is but in its infancy and will almost certainly continue to close gaps in our knowledge about factors in the primordial world that will bring the statistics back down into believable odds.

  6. Steve Douglas, thank you very much for the link to Steve Matheson's blog. (What are the odds that all the people from whom I've derived useful information about the design-evolution debate in the last few weeks are named Steve?)

    What I find fascinating, as an attorney, in following the debates between evolution and design, is how the various camps seem willfully (or would it be genetically) inclined to (a) compartmentalize their opponents ("Oh, I've seen that argument before; it is species fallaciosae #327"); or (b) respond to something other than the specific argument being made. (As a trial attorney, I am well versed in the latter phenomenon.)

    I did not commend Stephen Meyers book as particularly well written (I found it somewhat didactic and verbose, but that is beside the point); nevertheless, his message came through loud and clear: naturalistic methods are incapable of ever explaining the origins of life on earth. As I noted in my post, they have a very limited time frame in which to explain the evolution, by the accumulations of molecular processes, of the DNA code which is at the heart of what we recognize as life.

    Steven Matheson makes some very telling critiques of Prof. Meyers' arguments, and points out a number of howlers in the text that should have been caught by a careful edit or peer review before publication. Such errors are unworthy of the messenger, and serve only to make his message the more easily discredited -- and thus contribute to the miscommunication which is occurring.

    Where I find the divergence in communication most telling is in Prof. Matheson's invocation of Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker (in particular, ch. 3 and its associated computer program) to refute Prof. Meyers. Someone as obviously knowledgeable as Prof. Matheson should have been able to explain that Dawkins was talking about evolution after life already came into being, while Meyers is addressing the explanations of how life came to be in the first instance.

    [To be continued in the next comment.]

  7. There is an enormous -- and I mean literally, enormous -- amount of scientific investigation documenting the workings of evolution and natural selection in the natural history of the earth's creatures. I do not mean to disparage those results in the slightest, or to question their validity.

    What I question -- and what Prof. Meyers' book questions -- is the application of evolutionary reasoning and processes to the origin of life in the first place. I have yet to see a purported explanation of the origin of life using natural selection as the mechanism which does not end up in a minimizing, or trivialization, of the substantial chemical and physical obstacles to such an occurrence.

    Using Dawkins' explanation of complexity once life exists to explain the origins of life itself is just as objectionable and intellectually dishonest, in my poor opinion, as is the waving of a creationist wand to explain life's origins. And let me be clear: I fully agree with Prof. Matheson's dictum that "design is the question, not the answer." To posit "intelligent design" as the explanation for the origin of life is scientifically inadequate, since (in science's terms, at least) the designer is left unexplained.

    But the point is precisely not to "explain the designer", but to recognize the fact of design, as opposed to the result of undirected processes. To take another context, which is equally controversial: the mechanism by which the image came to be an inseparable part of the Shroud of Turin has never received an adequate scientific explanation -- although scientists remain confident that one day, such an explanation will be found. To me, it is a far more satisfactory solution (in light of all the other evidence pointing to its authenticity) to accept that the Shroud is genuine, and to humble oneself to accept that if that is the case, then the explanation of how the image came to be there is likely beyond our means, and is in any event beside the point. To say that God produced a mystery for humans is to say nothing about either God or humans.

    And so I acknowledge Prof. Matheson's ultimate critique of Prof. Meyers: design is the question, not the answer. But I would dearly like to read a genuine refutation of the argument that intermediate byproducts in the chain of (assumed) protein/RNA/DNA "evolution" would always have been chemically and biologically stable long enough in order to function as the next necessary (and intermediate) platform for evolution/random mutation to work its magic. That is what I find missing on all the Darwinist websites. If anyone can point me to such a treatment of the evidence, I would be most grateful.

  8. Fair enough. I must say, I think those of us most involved in the debate find it most efficient to first identify and eliminate previous PRATTs (points refuted a thousand times) dressed in new garb, so that will account for your comment about "species fallaciosae #327".

    For instance, your summary of Meyer's argument, that "naturalistic methods are incapable of ever explaining the origins of life on earth," is easily identifiable as a God-of-the-gaps pitfall. It's merely an assertion and, as a negative, cannot be proved; the worst part of God-of-the-gaps arguments are the fact that they stake out some ground and say, "Sorry, science, nothing to see here. Move along!" It's scanning the view from one room's windows and, upon failure to glimpse the thing sought, concluding that the thing sought after does not exist, followed by lowering the blinds, shutting the door, and proclaiming the futility of further inquiry.

    Whatever "design" is or what/Who is responsible, it did not begin only after life and DNA formed; it is also responsible for that first life. Non-ID scientists see no reason to think that gaps in our knowledge, even when great, are insurmountable. To say that design might be explained via science all the way back to the first life forms but "never", not ever before that point is arbitrary, if not willfully naive.

  9. the question ought to have been stated: "Should a Christian Be a Darwinian?" And the resounding answer which this book gives is: "No, there is absolutely no reason for a Christian to take up Darwinian views of evolution -- at least, in order to explain the origin of life."

    I agree.

    And I suppose that the Anglican Curmudgeon is aware that one of the founders of Intelligent Design is also a lawyer: Phillip E. Johnson, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley.

  10. Mr Haley,
    Thank you for your helpful comments about Dr Meyer's book which I have read and enjoyed. You have summarized the point well.
    May I add a coincidental note that my wife (Dr Caroline Crocker, featured in the movie "Expelled" with Ben Stein) has just published her book "Free to Think - Why Scientific Integrity Matters" which describes her story - the attempt to teach the controversy and how academia reacted to that, and why this should matter to us.

    Richard Crocker

  11. Richard Crocker, thank you for that pointer to your wife's book. I now have it, and am reading it with great interest. It is a firsthand account of what can happen when young, idealistic academics dare to try to bring some objectivity to the discussion of Darwinian evolution as applied to the question of life's origin.