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Who's afraid of evolutionary biology?

Contents

Introduction

A very brief history of life

Intelligent design?

How life began

Origin of life apologetics

A blind science writer

Dennett's harmless idea

Conclusion

Introduction

Evolution is a topic that is causing lots of people to get very hot under the collar. It has got muddled up with issues that are not necessarily related and caused all sorts of strange ideas to be suggested as an alternative. The point of this essay is to demonstrate that evolution is not nearly as threatening as many theists assume it to be. Firstly, I must admit that I am writing from the point of view of a mainstream orthodox Christian. I am not a biblical literalist and certainly not a young earth creationist. But, like all Christians, I certainly am a creationist of sorts and expect that when that term is used pejoratively by certain atheists they are including me. I do believe that God created the universe (15 billion years or so ago) and did so with us, or something very like us, in mind. Another thing I'll clear up immediately is what I mean by the word 'Evolution'. Unless the context demands otherwise, it should be taken to mean evolution by mutation and natural selection. Furthermore, the mutations in question are of individual genes within DNA. Taken together, this theory is often called the neo-Darwinian synthesis as it combines classical Darwinism with genetics.

It is not my intention to explain evolution as this has been done admirably in many books. The easiest and most basic is Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker but unfortunately, it is also highly controversial due to the author's frequent and unnecessary asides about his atheism. I'll be criticising those later. Instead, I recommend John Maynard Smith's the Theory of Evolution or perhaps Jacques Monod's Chance and Necessity. These are a good deal more difficult but will ensure the reader has properly grasped the issues rather than the rhetoric.

A very brief history of life

Remarkably little is known about the early history of life on earth. All we know is that very soon after the crust had cooled, primitive life started to appear. The earliest life forms are called prokaryotes and were simple single celled organisms similar to the blue/green algae of today. These had the whole planet to themselves for billions of years until eukaryotes appeared about 1.4 billion years ago. These are still only single celled but are much, much more complicated. Each one contains lots of different sub compartments, some of which may have started out as independent of the main cell.

About 540 million years ago the so-called Cambrian explosion took place. Eukaryotes started to gang together to make multi-cellular creatures. Different cells became specialists in different functions so these new creatures could develop organs and body parts. There was a sudden proliferation of multi-cellular animals of all shapes and sizes. Vertebrates appeared in the seas and the land was colonised by plants and then amphibians. Much of the diverse life from this period was later wiped out by the greatest of great extinctions that took place about 250 million years ago and closed the Palaeozoic Era.

The subsequent Mesozoic era was dominated by the dinosaurs but mammals and birds had evolved as the era came to a close with another mass extinction that wiped out both the dinosaurs and much of marine life. The last 60 million years have seen mammals rule the land and one lineage eventually produced mankind.

Intelligent design?

Evolution supplies science with a theory that explains, given a some form of self replicating machinery, how there came to be all the wide variety of life we see around us today. Although many questions remain unanswered, experimental evidence has accumulated to the extent that very few scientists question this conclusion. Whether or not evolution was the only mechanism at work is also hotly debated. Lynn Margulis's symbiotic theories in Symbiotic Planet are gaining ground, especially as an answer to the question of how prokaryotes became eukaryotes.

Even more controversially, in his book Darwin's Black Box, Michael Behe, a biochemist, suggests that the internal structure of a cell is so complicated that it could not possibly have evolved on its own. In fact, he goes further and says that such structures are irreducibly complex which means that no simpler formation is possible. Behe's book has certainly hit a raw nerve largely because he is absolutely right in pointing out the limits to current knowledge. There is no evolutionary pathway we know of that could have led to the cell. However, I do not agree that this certainly means that no such mechanism exists. There were four billion years of evolution before any multi-cellular organisms appeared. As a bacteria can split in as little as ten minutes and given the amount of time and the number of unicellular creatures the Earth could have supported I'm not yet convinced that the wildly improbable didn't happen. Behe has his own hypothesis which he suggests in the final chapter. He believes that the irreducible complexity of cellular structures point firmly to them having been designed. This went down like a lead balloon in the scientific community because to them design means there must be a designer and the only candidate would seem to be God.

In fact, this isn't quite true. No lesser personage than Nobel laureate, the late Francis Crick, has suggested in his book Life Itself that Earth was spawned from space (technically called panspermia) and hence the designer could have been an alien. If this all sounds incredibly far fetched then we must wish luck to the many evolutionary thinkers who have been kicked into action by Behe and are now, finally, thinking about evolutionary biochemistry.  The major objection to Crick's ideas are that he is engaged in metaphysical speculation but seems to believe that because he is being naturalistic he is also being more scientific than Behe.  But until he produces some evidence, he is as much an intelligent design proponent as the theists.

How life began

The origin of life is another issue that troubles both atheists and theists. In the former case, it causes totally bizarre ideas to actually be taken seriously. In the latter, direct divine intervention is postulated in the best traditions of the God of the Gaps argument. The plain fact is that science has absolutely no idea how life got started. But we should not read this to mean no explanation will ever be forthcoming.

What are the various theories that have been thought up? I've come across quite a few different ideas which I list below:

  1. The pre-biotic soup in which the right reagents just happened against the odds to end up as a self replicating molecule. Exactly where this is supposed to have happened is anyone's guess. Among suggestions are Darwin's own warm little pool, sulphuric vents beneath the ocean or the slopes of ancient volcanoes.
  2. Replicating molecules appeared very easily and in the right conditions life is almost certain to arise. The only reason we haven't managed it in the lab is not having a clue what the right conditions are. This is my own hunch explained more fully below.
  3. There is a neat idea of inorganic crystals acting as the template for organic molecules. This is Alexander Cairns-Smith's theory described in Seven Clues to the Origin of Life and I find it both very clever and utterly implausible. We have no evidence for it at all and no idea what the mechanism driving it would be. Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have both written about this and managed to keep a straight face but it smacks of desperation.
  4. The earth was seeded from space. As I've already mentioned, this is Francis Crick's idea - he thinks aliens deliberately started life on Earth. The fact that this guy got a Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA doesn't mean we should take the idea any more seriously than other teleological speculation. I don't.
  5. God did it directly. Either he planted simple cells on Earth as Michael Behe would have us believe or he did it all in seven days in 4004BC. Neither explanation seems to me to qualify as scientific but that in itself doesn't exclude the possibility any more than it does the aliens idea.
  6. We seeded the earth ourselves by travelling back in time in the far future (maybe by dropping a pastrami bagel). The so called Omega point theory popularised by Tipler and Barrow in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle says something similar less flippantly. Other thinkers have labelled this the Completely Ridiculous Anthropic Principle which has a useful acronym that some say neatly sums up the theory.

Origin of life apologetics

From the point of view of Christian apologetics, I'm afraid I disagree with the fact that life got started at all being used as evidence for divine intervention. Effectively we are saying that the only way life could have begun is God fitting together the right molecules because otherwise it is just too implausible. This is both a philosophical and tactical mistake. Tactically, the fact is that this is a 'God of the Gaps' argument and they are a bad idea. Not only do they give our atheist opponents a chance to parade a victory for all conquering science if a naturalistic explanation is later forth coming, they also miss a lot of the point of design arguments. I think that we should in fact be using science as the evidence of design, not setting up design as an alternative explanation to science.

In The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins says he expects the origin of life to be an exceedingly unlikely event that only happened because the universe is so big and old. (He then hedges his bets by saying he would not be disheartened if life actually turned out to be very common which tells us a lot about the intellectual rigor of his arguments).

On the other hand, I expect that under the right conditions, life is going to be a dead cert. Why? Because we know God created this universe precisely so that it should have sentient life in it. So life is built into the very fabric of the cosmos - it is the very thing that the laws of physics were designed to produce. How much more amazing that God's work makes the utterly improbable, absolutely certain. Philosophically, I think that we Christians do science and indeed love it because it tells us so many wonderful things about God's great creative work. So, when scientists find out how life started (which I expect them to do) far from being a victory for naturalism, it will be the final nail in the coffin of the preposterous idea that this universe wasn't specifically put together so we could grow and live in it.

A blind science writer

Unfortunately for everyone concerned, there are atheists who insist on using evolution as a justification for their lack of faith. It is, of course, Richard Dawkins who is most famous for this. His most popular book, The Blind Watchmaker is also his most basic and it is sad to think that people might have had their world view affected by reading it. That this author thinks that evolution makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist suggests he has a very narrow view of the world. We all know that he is fantastically arrogant and dismissive of anyone who doesn't share his point of view, but I do so wish he would come out and admit that science has nothing to do with his lack of belief. He simply hates religion. The existence of the dichotomy between evolution and atheism is never demonstrated in any of Dawkins' books. Big questions about how and why the universe came to be are totally ignored except to recommend fellow atheist, Peter Atkins', derisible book Creation - now mercifully out of print.

Dawkins makes various snide and unnecessary asides about what he thinks of religion like mentioning how he saw it coupled with UFOs on a bookshop's shelf, or using a waving statue of Mary to say we should never look for a supernatural explanation. Actually, the main problem with Dawkins is that far too many Christians actually agree with him. Instead of realising his point of view on religion is both irrelevant and rubbish he has persuaded lots of normal people that there really is a conflict between science and faith. So, given the choice of either rejecting those nasty atheistic theories or their entire way of life, religious people have become more hostile to science. Like so many successful demagogues, Dawkins has made his opponents appear extreme.

Kenneth Miller, who gets a walk on part in Behe's book, has responded to anti-Darwinian arguments in his book Finding Darwin's God. Miller is a devout Christian and a highly respected biologist who has never had any trouble reconciling neo-Darwinism with his faith. Extremists on both sides have found this book hard to swallow but it just goes to show that even the most knowledgeable expert on evolution doesn't feel the need to buy into atheism. He finds the attitude of Dawkins and others both patronising and offensive.

Dennett's harmless idea

Other writers on evolution are more thoughtful. Daniel Dennett in his magisterial Darwin's Dangerous Idea, does an excellent job of focusing on exactly what the philosophy of scientific materialism actually means. Of course, he is a proponent of naturalism and the mutual appreciation society he forms with Dawkins does at times get rather embarrassing to the reader. But he performs a valuable service in his book by demolishing every attempt by his own side to make his philosophy vaguely acceptable. He is writing against scientific materialism's heretics, rather than infidels like me and for that reason doesn't even try to justify his basic views. That a machine can be fully conscious is justified simply by claiming that we are just machines and conscious. A naturalistic explanation for the origin of life must exist because naturalism is the only game in town - likewise for the origin of the universe. He is also happy to admit that Darwinism doesn't really help with morality which is a relief after the botched attempts from others.

Conclusion

In summary, I would say that Christians need to stop getting so worried about evolution. Some of our opponents are happy to encourage us to reject science but they cannot be allowed to set the agenda. One thinker who has taken part in many debates with both Dawkins and Atkins is Keith Ward, Oxford University's Professor of Divinity. His book God, Chance and Necessity is an academic counter argument to the triumphalism of scientific materialism and shows how evolution is not only compatible with theism but also further enlightens us about the divine plan. It is just a pity that it is not better written.

We theists also have a duty to ensure that scientific enquiry does not take place in the moral vacuum some would like. Just because we can do something never means that we should. But science has been of enormous help to mankind and now even to religion. The evidence for the design of the universe that science has given us has reinvented teleology in a way that we could not have dreamed of a few years ago. Indeed, my the intellectual underpinning of my own conversion came directly from what I learned doing a physics degree.

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James Hannam 2003
Last revised: 08 December 2009