Yes, it’s true. No surprise that certain creationist groups have long been the loudest voices against it, but now the criticism of Darwinian Evolution includes a growing number of atheists with impeccable scientific credentials.
But that doesn’t mean what one might think it means.
One thing it certainly doesn’t mean is that if Evolution Theory “fails” then theistic creationism “wins.” Some have been too quick to raise their arms in victory, while others have become too defensively hostile. There’s been too much misinformation and misinterpretation. Let’s clear some of that up.
Again, yes, even some high profile, highly-credentialed, well-informed, staunch atheists are criticizing Darwinism. In a recent blog, I quoted two very prominent scientists who make it absolutely crystal clear that they are NOT creationists before introducing their book as “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.”
They’re not alone. There are many others, some of whom are mentioned in an article forwarded by a FB friend in response one of my own postings. You’ll need to visit my previous blog if you want to find out who these highly prominent, well-informed atheist scientists are, and about their book (which is a great read by the way).
There’s so much to unpack here, but I’ll focus on one or two things just to keep this blog to a manageable length.
One reason for the growing doubt is not that Naturalistic Evolution doesn’t explain anything, but rather that it doesn’t explain everything.
It works very well at explaining a new trait like resistance to a certain drug, or the ability to metabolize a new food source (like the bacteria found to be able to “eat” nylon), or the ability for color vision, as I blogged a couple weeks ago. But it fails to explain much bigger phenomena like the rapid co-evolution of mixtures of traits that produce entirely new families of organisms (such as the Cambrian explosion), or consciousness, or the interconnectedness of whole ecosystems.
But we’ve seen this kind of thing happen before.
I’ve mentioned before how [Isaac] Newtonian mechanics explains every kind of large scale trajectory, but utterly fails to explain interactions at the atomic scale. Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, is great at atomic levels but is useless at larger scales. We don’t throw out either theory just because they fail under certain conditions: we recognize their limitations and the conditions under which they perform fabulously.
Likewise for Darwinism.
Picture a cell that wears certain proteins on its outer skin that act as detectors for food molecules. Duplicating copies of the gene(s) for those detectors, then allowing those genes to mutate, could lead to molecules that don’t just simply detect those molecules, but also transport them into the cell: a great feature if the molecules were some form of food or valuable cellular resource.
Further gene duplication, mutation, and natural selection sees these transporters turned into detectors and transporters of certain molecules that carry an electrical charge (“ion channels,” which I study in my research): a great way for the cell to generate electrical signals. This electrical communication is crucial during the fertilization of an egg by a sperm cell, or the detection of light in your eye, or a long list of other functions. All great adaptations for cells so endowed, and explainable by Darwinian evolution.
Other adaptations bring several of these electrically-active cells together to do more complicated functions, such as a light-sensitive receptor cell “talking” to a motion-producing muscle cell via an interconnecting nerve cell, all of them communicating and working through electrical mechanisms. Again, great adaptations leading to ever more complex functions providing increasing competitive advantages.
We can see the same sequences of modifications – from simple changes in individual molecules to reorganization of groups of cells – leading to increasing complexity in other parts of the body. For example: food absorption in the stomach … fluid-handling in the kidney … the immune system … the development of a fetus … and so on.
But as we continue across that spectrum of increasing complexity, we eventually hit a wall. Let’s return to the nerve cell analogy I started above …
As the number and diversity of the types of nerve cells increases, and the number and diversity of the points-of-contact they make with each other increases into the millions and billions, a whole new phenomenon begins to emerge: consciousness. Just think of a Venus fly-trap plant that senses a fly having landed on it and closes its leaves around it, or a clam shell that does much the same thing, and then a fish with more complex brain circuitry, and then a dog, and then a primate, and finally a human. Each of those organisms show increasingly complex electrical circuitry, which can be explained well by Darwinian evolution, producing an emergent property – consciousness – that isn’t explained well by Darwinian evolution.
In the same way, Darwinism is easily used to explain a simple predator-prey relationship, or the simple ecological interactions going on inside an aquarium, and can make predictions of what will happen when you introduce a change to either of those systems. But it really can’t explain the entire biodiversity and stability of a rain forest, nor predict what will happen when you remove one of the many different species in that rain-forest, or introduce a new one.
That’s what our staunch atheists quoted above are writing about: emergent properties such as consciousness, love, morality, large-scale ecology. The big and important things in life. We don’t yet have easy naturalistic explanations for those.
Of course, some will then immediately step forward and declare “God did it.” Maybe he did, but that becomes a God-of-the-gaps explanation (about which I’ve also blogged a year ago), and that strategy has simply never worked well. That kind of God has only ever become smaller, and eventually ended up being explained away by a naturalistic mechanism that we hadn’t yet discovered.
For example, the Book of Job talks about God’s storehouses in the sky full of lightning bolts, rain, snow, frost, and dew, and God blowing winds from his nostrils, but we’ve since learned how to fully explain and predict weather using references to solar energy being injected into the planet’s atmosphere and surface, and then redistributed by the winds and the water cycle.
For millions of years only God could fly, until we learned how to do that at Kittyhawk.
Only God could create matter, until we built the Large Hadron Collider.
Only God could restore life to a dead body, until we developed CPR and other medical procedures and tools.
There are just so many other examples of things we’ve now learned to do that previously were solely the domain of God: curing diseases … test-tube babies … interstellar travel … weather prediction … global communication …
That doesn’t make God irrelevant, nor non-existent. But that’s a topic for a whole other blog post (this one’s already too long).
Yes, Ken (and others), atheist scholars are growing increasingly critical of Darwinism. But only because we’ve learned that it alone is not enough. Just like Newtonian mechanics versus quantum mechanics, each one being stunningly useful for explaining things at certain scales where the other utterly fails, Darwinian evolution is great at one end of the spectrum of biological evolution, but not at the other end. We just haven’t yet discovered the biological equivalent of quantum mechanics or General Relativity.
Likewise for the origin of the first cell, another question which Darwinism can’t possibly answer (you can’t talk about natural selection when you don’t yet have living cells). But we are getting some intriguing insights, including this latest one which essentially sees life as a heat exchanger (or more precisely an entropy exchanger).
I’m looking forward to when we do find the “Quantum Theory” or “General Relativity” of biology, to complement our existing “Newtonian Mechanics” of Darwinism.
And to the theological questions that they will raise.
As always, let me know what you think …
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