This was the question being batted back and forth on one of my favorite podcasts this week . As per usual, this radio show out of the UK was pitting a committed believer against an ardent atheist, this time on the subject of whether the standard Theory of Evolution is sufficient to explain the living world all around us.
The two antagonists had good credentials behind each…
… the former: a background in computer engineering, with detailed knowledge of programming, which he used to tackle the question of the coding and decoding of information within DNA, the topic of his recently published book “Evolution 2.0: Breaking the deadlock between Darwin and Design”.
… the latter was billed as “an evolutionary biologist and strident atheist blogger” and having many scientific publications behind his name.
What followed was a legitimate question – can Darwinism alone explain the stupendous amount of information contained within the genetic code – as well as a vigorous and somewhat emotional reply of “Absolutely yes, how can you even question that?”
The fact is that many in the atheist camp who are at the cutting-edge of science will acknowledge that the Theory of Evolution sometimes fails to explain the data at hand.
Last year I read “What Darwin got wrong”, by Jerry Fodor (State of New Jersey Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, at Rutgers University) and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini (Professor of Cognitive Science, University of Arizona). Both have published extensively in scientific journals and books. In this one, they were addressing natural selection and how it failed on so many levels.
It’s absolutely important to emphasize that Jerry and Massimo are NOT creationists. They begin their book with: “we do want, ever so much, to be secular humanists. In fact, we both claim to be outright, card-carrying, signed-up, dyed-in-the-wool, no-holds-barred atheists. We therefore seek thoroughly naturalistic explanations of the facts of evolution, although we expect that they will turn out to be quite complex, as scientific explanations often are. It is our assumption that evolution is a mechanical process through and through. We take that to rule out not just divine causes but final causes, “elan vital”, entelechies, the intervention of extraterrestrial aliens and so forth.”
Having made it unequivocally clear which side of the Creationism-Evolution debate they stand on, they go on to write: “Still, this book is mostly a work of criticism; it is mostly about what we think is wrong with Darwinism. Near the end, we’ll make some gestures towards where we believe a viable alternative might lie; but they will be pretty vague. In fact, we don’t know very well how evolution works. Nor did Darwin, and nor (as far as we can tell) does anybody else. ‘Further research is required’, as the saying goes. It may well be that centuries of further research are required.”
This book was published only five years ago, and by highly prominent, well-informed atheist scientists.
Another book I read at the time was “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False”, published by Oxford University Press in 2012. The author, Thomas Nagel, is University Professor at New York University, and was writing about the origin of human consciousness. His take home message is much the same: while Darwinism can explain certain things, there is much that it does not, or indeed possibly cannot, explain.
I really appreciate the honesty of these atheists, and many others. I fully believe that the best approach to truth is to set aside preconceived ideas, party lines, and political correctness and simply follow the data to where they lead. I try to emulate that myself.
There is much that science has been simply unable to explain to date.
The origin of life itself is one example. Despite bluster from some defenders, most scientists in the field will acknowledge that we just really don’t know.
The origin of substantial packets of new information in the genetic code, which is absolutely essential to explain the different forms of life we now have, is another example. The knee-jerk response — a reference to random mutations — can indeed explain small changes. But the vast majority of times these produce detrimental changes in function often leading to death. Sometimes they produce benign ones that exert no detectable change in function. Occasionally they will give the gene product a slightly altered functionality. One form of rhodopsin (the molecule in our retina which senses light) now responds to a slightly different wavelength of light. The olfactory receptors in our nose respond to a slightly different scent molecule. The antibodies and the neurotransmitters (or their receptors) take on a slightly different conformation leading to a slightly different specificity. Enzymes develop a slightly different specificity for the molecules they act on. These are definitely changes in function, and in some sense represent an increase in information. But only minor increments. We haven’t yet observed mutations within a given organism producing an entirely new functionality that was not already encoded before but for some reason was silenced or inactivated … a substantial increase in genetic information.
The Cambrian Explosion, in which Earth saw a profound change in the many types of forms of life is another example. (this is a much bigger question/problem than just the change in different species.)
The origin of consciousness.
The origin of all the matter and energy in the universe.
In these examples, and many others, we can say “We just don’t know“, and that frees us up to keep looking. But, more often, theists and atheists respond in ways that stifle productive dialogue on this subject.
Theists, on the one hand, often settle for God-of-the-gaps thinking: if a naturalistic explanation can’t be found, then “it must be God, and we can stop looking for answers”. They need to realize that there are not only two possible answers to this question, such that if one can show that the answer is not “A”, then it must be “B”.
Many theists are guilty as charged. But not all. Some, by definition being theists and therefore believing that God exists and was involved somehow, will still want to look for the naturalistic mechanism(s) that He might have used. Sir Isaac Newton – the one credited for giving us calculus (there’s a whole story there, but this isn’t the time for that), a whole new understanding of the physics and mechanics of the cosmos, and an entirely new understanding of light – is perhaps the best example.
Atheists, on the other hand, should not be too quick to point fingers. They are sometimes equally guilty of a “naturalism-of-the-gaps” mentality. They have no idea how a certain phenomenon can be explained, but they’re absolutely convinced that science will one day prevail and find a purely naturalistic mechanism. They may be right. But the truth is we don’t know yet. And until we do make those crucial leaps in our understanding, we should be honest enough to admit that our faith in an ultimate answer is just that: a belief. And we should allow questions and challenges of the latest pet theory. In this case, Darwinism.
I won’t be the least bit surprised if someday we find a complete naturalistic explanation for the origin of life, and the origin of genetic complexity. That won’t negate the existence of God. But we won’t get there as long as challenges against the standard Theory of Evolution are met with howls of derision, ridicule, ostracism, calls for dismissal, and other forms of censure.
Newtonian physics explained quite a few very challenging problems, from the trajectories of cannon balls to the orbits of celestial bodies, and more. But many other things just couldn’t be explained until it was augmented by an entirely different theory: Quantum Theory.
Maybe, if we remain open to legitimate challenges to Darwinism, we might eventually find an entirely new and completely unexpected theory which augments our current understanding of the origin of life and genetic complexity, and in so doing witness profound developments in this area.
Finally, back again to the theists. We too need to upgrade our latest theory. For millennia we went with a theology that was largely built on Adam & Eve and the Fall in the Garden six thousand years ago. The Apostle Paul builds a major argument centering around “the first Adam” and the inheritance he left for all humanity: original sin and death. “We’re fallen creatures”, many will now say.
But the simple fact is that we now have mountains of data that tell us humans did not originate from one primal pair, and certainly not six thousand years ago. Instead, an abundance of genetic data tell us that humans never numbered less than a few thousand. They also tell us that we’re unambiguously related to Neanderthals, Denisovans and Homo Heidelbergensis. They even tell us we’re undoubtedly genetically related to the great apes. And the anthropological data — fossilized bones, stone tools, cave drawings, ceremonial burials, and so forth — tell us we’re related to Homo naledi, Homo australopithecus, Homo erectus … the list goes on and on. The data also tell us that death, predation and diseases like cancer have been around for millions of years. In fact, long before humans were ever around.
Not wanting to believe that doesn’t change the fact that we have mountains of data telling us as much.
Unfortunately, accepting those facts as simply that — facts — is also too often met with howls of derision, ridicule, ostracism, calls for dismissal, and other forms of censure.
We can do better.
We need to do better.
Theists and atheists alike need to be open to challenging long-held ideas. See how they don’t explain all the data on the table, and look for new explanatory mechanisms that make complete sense.
Let me know what you think …
Leave a comment at the bottom of the page.
Check out my Archive for previous posts on other topics in the Faith-Science dialogue.
“Follow” my blog posts here (lower right corner) or on Twitter, or “Friend” me on Facebook.
And please share this article with your friends (links below).