Photo by Dries Augustyns

Two Views of Evolution, and Why They Don’t Mix

Crossposted at Evolution News

For a year now, I’ve been discussing my book Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed with my friend Hans Vodder, who thinks I got it wrong. Although Hans agrees that life came from God, he thinks natural evolutionary processes could have been the means by which God did his creative work.

As is often the case, it has taken some time to pinpoint the root of our disagreement. Hans and I are now getting to the root, and there’s no doubt in my mind that mutual respect is what has enabled us to make it this far. If our dialogue does nothing beyond exemplifying that principle, it will have been worth the effort, I think.

In my previous response to Hans, I tried to show why all attempts to explain life as something accidental require unreasonable appeals to coincidence. Biologists have been charmed into thinking that natural selection demystifies would-be miracles by performing them a bit at a time, but brilliant invention is actually no less miraculous in slow motion.

Hans has responded with these points:

First, as God can “make” things in a variety of ways, including ways that involve natural processes, I don’t quite understand the distinction between “designing” and “making” here. Is the idea that God could not have ordered natural processes to result in the evolution of life and that He had to intervene with a de novo act of creation? 

Theologically, I am comfortable either way — God can do as He pleases! But I don’t see how probability calculations can settle the matter. If God is sovereign over nature, He can just as easily ordain the occurrence of a fantastically improbable event as create by divine fiat. 

Second, even granting (for the sake of argument) that the previous post’s analysis is basically correct, it doesn’t seem to me “that Darwin’s explanation of life has indeed been disproved” (Axe, 5/2/18). Perhaps this seems odd, but I offer three reasons for thinking so.

Historically, “Darwin’s explanation of life” has little to do with the naturalistic origins of the first living cell. In fact, the conclusion of the Origin seems to countenance the possibility that the first form(s) of life had a supernatural origin.

More importantly, as a matter of logic, if Darwinism and design are indeed compatible, then demonstrating design doesn’t ipso facto disprove Darwinism. Such a demonstration, if correct, would disprove “Darwinism without design” (no mean feat!), but it wouldn’t necessarily prove “design without Darwinism.” Awkward as it may seem, “design with Darwinism” would remain a viable (if counterintuitive) option.

For instance, one can imagine a possible case in which God fine-tunes conditions on the early earth so that the emergence of life from non-life is within the reach of natural processes, with Darwinian processes taking over after that. While this would constitute a clear case of design, Darwinism would remain intact.

A third issue, which I will only mention here, is to what extent a counterexample “disproves” an otherwise comprehensive theory. Assuming for a moment that Darwinism does nicely account for various data from paleontology, genetics, biogeography, etc., would such a counterexample necessarily dissipate Darwinism’s explanatory power? It’s not clear to me that it would.

Thank you, Hans. I think your first question gets to the heart of the matter: “Is the idea that God could not have ordered natural processes to result in the evolution of life and that He had to intervene with a de novo act of creation?”

The answer depends on your understanding of “natural.” I agree that God could have orchestrated immediate causes that would ordinarily be considered natural (wind, cosmic rays, molecular collisions, etc.) in the uncanny ways needed for bacteria to be converted into, say, humming birds. The point, however, is that the surgical skill and atomic precision with which these physical phenomena would have to be wielded to achieve such an outcome would make the overall process profoundly unnatural.

Think of it this way. If he chose to, could God use a sandstorm to turn a block of marble into a representation of the human form that would put Michelangelo’s David to shame? Certainly! And if we were to witness this, would any of us think it demonstrated the creative power of sandstorms — as though we should expect all sandstorms to produce stunning works of art? Certainly not!

There’s much equivocation among advocates of theistic evolution on this point, Hans, so I’m eager to clarify it with you. On the one hand you rightly say that God can ordain the occurrence of events that would otherwise be fantastically improbable, but on the other hand you seem to overlook the implications of this fantastic improbability — namely, that it refutes the idea that outcomes like this can be chalked up to chance or nature.

I understand why you, as a theist, are okay with God having created life either by divine fiat or by wielding natural forces the way a sculptor wields a chisel. So am I! The problem is that neither of those options is on the table in the biology departments of the major research universities. There, chance and nature (both completely blind) are the only options on offer.

As understood by their main proponents, Darwinism and design are most emphatically not compatible, Hans: proponents of design hold that living things cannot have arisen by ordinary natural processes, whereas Darwinists hold the opposite view. I understand the appeal to giving a nod in both directions, but that doesn’t resolve the contradiction. Evolution is either unguided (in which case it doesn’t work) or overwhelmingly dependent on guidance (in which case it isn’t natural). It can’t be both!

Keep in mind that the improbabilities I’m referring to are not at all restricted to the origin of the first bacterial cell. For example, humming birds exhibit high-level functional coherence that is entirely absent from bacteria. According to the argument I put forward in Undeniable, the probabilistic implications of this simple observation make it impossible for accidental processes acting on bacteria to have produced anything comparable to humming birds, whether on Earth or on any other planet. 

To your point about counterexamples, Darwin offered first and foremost a mechanism which he thought explained the origin of all modern life from some simple first life. I’m saying he was comprehensively wrong about that — not by way of counterexample but by way of argument. Specifically, I’m saying we can be very confident that the blind natural mechanism he appealed to can’t possibly be the inventor of new forms of life.

His other big contribution was the idea of all life being related by common descent — Darwin’s tree of life. That idea is separable from the question of mechanism, and I’m very willing to consider its merits (in fact, this is one focus of my current work). Undeniable takes no position on common descent.

Douglas Axe

Maxwell Professor of Molecular Biology at Biola University, Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Douglas Axe is the Maxwell Professor of Molecular Biology at Biola University, the founding Director of Biologic Institute, the founding Editor of BIO-Complexity, and the author of Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed. After completing his PhD at Caltech, he held postdoctoral and research scientist positions at the University of Cambridge and the Cambridge Medical Research Council Centre. His research, which examines the functional and structural constraints on the evolution of proteins and protein systems, has been featured in many scientific journals, including the Journal of Molecular Biology, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, BIO-Complexity, and Nature, and in such books as Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen Meyer and Life’s Solution by Simon Conway Morris.