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Behe, Lenski and the “Edge” of Evolution, Part 3: Tinkering Over the Edge

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November 2, 2012 Tags: Genetics
Behe, Lenski and the “Edge” of Evolution, Part 3: Tinkering Over the Edge

Today's entry was written by Dennis Venema. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: In this series, we reexamine the claim made by Intelligent Design proponent Michael Behe to have found a limit to “Darwinian” evolution in light of recent results from the laboratory of Richard Lenski.

In the last post in this series, we discussed how the development of Cit+ bacteria in the Long Term Evolution Experiment (LTEE) took place in three stages: potentiation (necessary mutations that allowed the Cit+ trait to evolve much later), actualization (the mutation step that converted a Cit- cell to a Cit+ cell), and refinement (mutations subsequent to actualization that improved the nascent Cit+ function). We then went on to examine the details of how the actualization step took place, and noted that it was a significant “gain-of-FCT” mutation according to the criteria of Intelligent Design (ID) proponent Michael Behe.

As interesting as the details of the actualization step are, the other steps (potentiation and refinement) are even more significant when considering Behe’s claimed “edge” to what evolutionary processes can achieve. Before we consider the impact of these findings on Behe’s ideas, a thorough investigation of these details is in order.

Potentiation: setting the stage

As we noted back in 2011, the LTEE culture that eventually went on to evolve the Cit+ trait had a mutational event at around generation 20,000 that was necessary for future actualization. One of the challenges for determining the details of the potentiation step is that this mutation (or possibly mutations) does (do) not produce an obvious change in the organism that a researcher can detect at the time. The only change they produce is to allow for future rare events (i.e. conversion to Cit+), making them tricky to identify.

In any other experimental system, it would be pretty much impossible to track down these potentiating steps, or even to conclusively determine that any potentiation steps occurred at all. In the LTEE, however, we have access to the ancestors of the future Cit+ bacteria, since they were frozen down and saved for later studies. This allowed the Lenski group to thaw out selected ancestors from various generations, re-run the evolution experiment from these selected time points, and watch to see if the Cit+ trait would evolve again. In the re-run experiments they observed numerous Cit+ actualization events, allowing for a statistical analysis of the results. These results, combined with extensive sequencing to place the various Cit+ cells from the re-run experiments into groups, demonstrated that at least two separate potentiation mutations occurred in the original LTEE, and that these mutations were separated by a few thousand generations. Once these two potentiating mutations were in place, cells were able to become Cit+ through the actualization mutation event we discussed in detail in the last post in this series. As we noted back in 2011, however, this actualization step produced only a very weak Cit+ ability. Further mutations that improved Cit+ function would soon follow.

Refinement: honing a new function

Once the (albeit very poor) Cit+ ability arose in the LTEE, it provided only a very slight selective advantage. These first Cit+ cells, when placed in competition with their descendants, are easily outcompeted – indicating that an additional mutation, or mutations, improved the nascent Cit+ trait. Work by the Lenski group showed that later, more robust Cit+ cells had duplications of the original tandem mutation that lead to the original Cit+ cell – effectively increasing the copy number of the new citrate / succinate transporter gene with its altered regulatory DNA. As the refinement process proceeded, the Lenski group found cells with three copies, four copies, and even nine copies (!), all of which most likely increased the amount of the citrate / succinate transporter made under aerobic conditions. Cells later on in the refinement process settled on a four-copy system, which the Lenski group hypothesizes to be more stable (based on research on tandem arrays in other systems). This switch from a predominance of high copy number cells (i.e. nine copies) back to cells with a more moderate number (four) predominating suggests that additional mutations are arising that allow the four-copy cells to outcompete the nine-copy cells, and find a balance between (unstable) high copy number and the Cit+ function derived from each copy. Some candidates for these additional mutations identified by the Lenski group include mutations in the citrate / succinate transporter itself, and two enzymes involved in citrate metabolism. Future work will be needed to determine if these mutations were the ones that had a significant effect on the Cit+ refinement process, or if other mutations were responsible.

Taking stock

With these details in hand, we can now improve our accounting for the number of mutations involved in the entire process, from potentiation, through actualization, and on to a certain point of refinement (which remains ongoing in the LTEE):

The first potentiation mutation (total = 1)
The second potentiation mutation (total = 2)
The actualization mutation (total = 3)
Duplication of the Cit+ tandem array (at least once, more likely twice) (total = 4 or 5)
Mutation(s) to improve Cit+ function with moderate copy number (at least one, likely more) (total = 5 or 6, or more)

As we can see, at a minimum the entire process involved at least 5 mutations, and more likely 6 or more. An additional important point to note is that these mutations did not occur simultaneously, but were spread out over thousands of generations.

Implications for Behe’s “edge”

In the last post in this series, we noted ID microbiologist Ann Gauger’s response to Lenski’s results. Two features are important to note: the number of mutations she claims are postulated for the Cit+ transition, and her reasoning that this transition is within Behe’s “edge” of what evolution can accomplish:

“When is an innovation not an innovation? If by innovation you mean the evolution of something new, a feature not present before, then it would be stretching it to call the trait described by Blount et al. in "Genomic analysis of a key innovation in an experimental Escherichia coli population" an innovation…

The total number of mutations postulated for this adaptation is two or three, within the limits proposed for complex adaptations by Axe (2010) and Behe in Edge of Evolution. Because the enabling pre-adaptive mutations could not be identified, though, we don't know whether this was one mutation, a simple step-wise series of adaptive mutations, or a complex adaptation requiring one or two pre-adaptations before the big event.

Presumably, Gauger is counting only potentiation and actualization and omitting refinement altogether. As we have seen, the entire process requires at least 5 mutations, and probably more. Even more interesting, however, is that she generalizes Behe’s “edge” beyond the formation of protein-protein binding sites (the focus of Behe’s claimed limit to evolution) to a number of mutations needed for a new function. This might seem odd, but in fact this generalization is absolutely in keeping with Behe’s model. Behe’s calculation for his “edge” is an estimate based on simultaneous mutations – in other words, Behe proposes a limit to the generation of protein-protein binding sites as a specific application of his general rule that multiple, simultaneous mutations are vanishingly rare. For those interested in a detailed discussion of how Behe’s model is based on an assumption that simultaneous mutations are required for the evolution of new protein-protein binding sites, I have discussed it at length in a previous series. The point here is a simple one: Gauger fails to note that Behe’s edge is based on simultaneous mutations. If indeed all five (or more) mutations needed for this transition to Cit+ in the LTEE were required simultaneously, we could be confident that the trait would never arise.

Put more simply, Behe is right that numerous mutations occurring simultaneously are too rare to expect in evolution. What he has not demonstrated, however, is that evolution must proceed only by numerous mutations occurring simultaneously. With the LTEE, we have direct evidence of what Behe defines as a “noteworthy gain-of-FCT mutation” occurring step by step, without the need for simultaneous mutations.

In the next post in this series, we’ll explore Behe’s ideas further, and examine the second source that Gauger cites as a limit for complex adaptation – the work of ID biologist Douglas Axe.

For further reading:

Blount, Z.D., Barrick, J.E., Davidson, C.J. and Lenski, R.E. (2012). Genomic analysis of a key innovation in an experimental Escherichia coli population. Nature 489; 513- 518.

Michael J. Behe, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (New York: Free Press, 2007).

Michael J. Behe (2010). Experimental evolution, loss-of-function mutations, and “The first rule of adaptive evolution”. The Quarterly Review of Biology 85(4); 419-445.

Dennis Venema is professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. He holds a B.Sc. (with Honors) from the University of British Columbia (1996), and received his Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia in 2003. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signaling using the common fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism. Dennis is a gifted thinker and writer on matters of science and faith, but also an award-winning biology teacher—he won the 2008 College Biology Teaching Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers. He and his family enjoy numerous outdoor activities that the Canadian Pacific coast region has to offer. Dennis writes regularly for the BioLogos Forum about the biological evidence for evolution.

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Bilbo - #74101

November 3rd 2012

Dennis: “ If indeed all five (or more) mutations needed for this transition to Cit+ in the LTEE were required simultaneously, we could be confident that the trait would never arise.
Put more simply, Behe is right that numerous mutations occurring simultaneously are too rare to expect in evolution.

Thanks for finally admitting that there is indeed an edge to what neo-Darwinism can accomplish.

Dennis:  “What he has not demonstrated, however, is that evolution must proceed only by numerous mutations occurring simultaneously.

Agreed.  However, neo-Darwinists haven’t demonstrated that all of evolution has been able to proceed by step-by-step single mutations.  I would suggest that they make the greater leap of faith.

With the LTEE, we have direct evidence of what Behe defines as a “noteworthy gain-of-FCT mutation” occurring step by step, without the need for simultaneous mutations.

I’ll be curious to see if Behe agrees that this is indeed a “noteworthy gain-of-FCT mutation.”

Dennis Venema - #74237

November 8th 2012

I’ll be curious to see Behe’s response as well. So far I haven’t seen any response at all - have you? I may have missed it. 

HornSpiel - #74115

November 3rd 2012


However, neo-Darwinists haven’t demonstrated that all of evolution has been able to proceed by step-by-step single mutations.

They don’t need to. Neo-Darwinism is a proper scientific theory. One solid counter-example overthrows the whole endeavor. The onus is on the doubters to provide it. ID has tried to do that by  “proving” statistically that current models are inadequate. But that will never work. You actually need to prove a negative: That evolution could never have proceeded by step-by-step single mutations. That requires a comprehensive knowledge of all possible mechanisms known and unknown and all historical circumstances that might possibly have occurred. Essentially omniscience.

What ID needs to to prove its hypothesis is a positive example of evolution proceeding in a mutli-mutation fashion that is consistent with the design hypothesis (catching the designer in the act). Or it could provide a counter example to common descent. Either would show the naturalistic neo-Darwinian theory to be incorrect.


Bilbo - #74117

November 3rd 2012

Doubters of neo-Darwinism need to prove a negative?  We need to be omniscient?  Sounds too easy.  Couldn’t you make the hurdle a little higher?

HornSpiel - #74118

November 3rd 2012

Point is ID strategy is fundamentalyy flawed. You can do it though, if you are right. You just need to prove a positive.

Eddie - #74129

November 4th 2012

Obviously it would be ridiculous to try to prove a negative.  The task would be infinite.  But why should the onus be on anyone to disprove something?  The onus should be on the person who claims to know how something in nature happens.  Their job is to provide a natural mechanism capable of explaining the phenomenon in question.  In the case of Darwinian evolution, the onus is on those who believe it to show how a major body-plan change could have occurred, not in terms of broad general causes like “random mutation” or “natural selection”—every theory sounds great when argued in terms of broad general causes—but by providing a series of specific genotypic changes that have been documented in the laboratory to produce specific phenotypic changes, and then showing that those phenotypic changes would have selective advantage in whatever ancient environments are presupposed in the discussion.  The more links in the series that can be provided, the stronger the hypothesis looks; the fewer the links, the weaker the hypothesis will be.

(I assume that you understand that I am not here criticizing the notion of common descent, but am discussing the neo-Darwinian mechanism as an explanation for how all the changes have occurred; I assume also that you understand it is neo-Darwinism and not common descent that Behe objects to.) 

The evidence we have so far is that major body-plan changes, as opposed to minor variations on existing plans, would be very hard to generate by neo-Darwinian mechanisms.  That does not mean that a detailed Darwinian explanation will never be provided.  But good science does not allow a theorist to write checks on an account which as yet has no money in it.  A theory is only as good as the evidence for it now, not the evidence it might stumble upon 25 years from now.  

I agree with GJDS below:  the scientist’s job is to doubt things, not to be a “believer” in anything.  The view of science that is often pushed here is the opposite:  that everyone ought to accept “consensus science.”  But as Michael Crichton has said, the very idea of “consensus science” is illegitimate.  I highly recommend the following address:


GJDS - #74119

November 3rd 2012

HornSpiel says, “They don’t need to. Neo-Darwinism is a proper scientific theory. One solid counter-example overthrows the whole endeavor. The onus is on the doubters to provide it.”

I have carried out research for well over 30 years and this is my first time I have come accross a ‘lecture’ on a proper scientific theory - my view (and I may add all colleagues that have discussed theories with me) commence with: “the onus is to doubt” any theory. Why would any of us carry out research, if we are told we have a ‘proper theory’ in the first place.

Neo-Darwinism has been subjected to many tests, and very often its fundamental tenets have been found wanting. For example, meta-analysis using large data bases have been used to obtain a statistical correlation between natual selection and observations of species adaptation, and the results so far have been extremely weak correlations. Some workers even refer to this as a ‘cleansing’ or ‘filter’ process instead of selection or whatever criteria Darwins disciples have used. Such results must cause significant doubt by scientists - this is not consistent with a ‘proper theory’.

I suggest both TE and ID re-consider just how ‘proper’ the theory may or may not be, and seek to progress towards a better scientific outlook. 

Bilbo - #74130

November 4th 2012

I agree with GJDS and Eddie.  I’m willing to doubt ID.  But I’m also willing to doubt neo-Darwinism.  Since this blog is run by Christians who already believe that there is an Intelligent Agent capable of directing evolution, I don’t see why they think we need to assume that the Agent decided never to do so, and that we must assume that only natural, undirected processes must be used to explain how evolution happened.  If Dennis wishes to make that assumption, that’s okay by me.  But if he insists that the evidence is on his side, I suggest he has a long way to go in proving it.  Until then, I remain a doubter of neo-Darwinism.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #74147

November 5th 2012

HornSpield wrote:

Either would show the naturalistic neo-Darwinian theory to be incorrect.

The key to this sentence and the whole debate is the character of nature and thus the meaning of naturalistic.

NeoDarwinists and science in general argues that the universe is physical, that is composed of matter/energy.  Based on this premise they say that the universe has no structure and thus no meaning or purpose. 

Accepting this scientific definition of nature means that God the Father did not creater the universe through God the Son/Logos. 

However if we use a different understanding of nature, if we understand that nature is matter/energy which has been given metaphysical structure and meaning, then we can say that a naturalistic understanding of life does not preclude Christianity, but points to likelihood that Christianity is true. 

The issue is, Does the universe have objective structure and meaning as Christianity affirms , or only “subjective structure and meaning” imposed by humans as Scientism?  Science has always claimed the former, but the program of some is to derationalize the universe so the latter would be true.

Another way to put it would be, Did God create a rational, meaningful universe ex nihilo, which eventually created rational, meaningful human beings , or did evolution create rational, meaningful human life ex nihilo, if at all? 

The end result informs us concerning how it came into being.        

HornSpiel - #74150

November 5th 2012

GJDS in particular, but also by extension Eddie and Bilbo,

I am mystified that you think that a ‘proper theory’ means research is no longer necessary or that doubt “is not consistent with a ‘proper theory’.” Quite the contrary. A proper theory is one that is subject to doubt. A proper theory is open to verification and modification. Doubt is what is necessary for forming new hypotheses. Doubt is the genesis of research programs to improve or correct the theory.

Can we agree that neo-Darwinian evolution is a theory of common descent? It tries to explain the fact that all life shares DNA (an/or possibly RNA) and thus appears to share a common ancestor. The theory has had great success making sense out of a wide variety of field observations as well as explaining the results of limited experiments in evolution such as the Cit- to Cit+ change.

However, neo-Darwinian evolution is a broad theory of common descent that forms the basis of many subtheories. It’s not surprising then that there is evidence (such as the study you cite) that causes scientists to doubt aspects of the theory. But the question is: What do you do with the doubt? Do you use it as the basis of a research program to improve the overall theory of common descent? Do you use it as the basis of a research program to overthrow the theory of common descent? Or do you do neither and just use it justify your own prejudices?

That is why I say the onus is on the doubter to provide positive evidence for whatever theoretical adjustments they think necessary. But ID does not do that. ID, as a movement, does not care whether the theory of common descent is improved or completely overthrown. ID does not provide an alternative theory. It’s goal is to cast doubt as a sort of apologetic against atheism. It has a sociocultural, not scientific, agenda.

GJDS - #74172

November 5th 2012


I appreciate your considered reply and on many points regarding scientific theorising and doubt, we are obviously in agreement. My interest in these discussions stems from two major points: (1) how a scientist may justify such a ‘broad theory’ as being a proper theory (I use the term ‘umbrella’ instead of broad, and claim is is used ‘to protect’ many hypothesis that would not survive on their own - but I will agree for the sake of this discussion to the term ‘a broad outlook’), and (2) how anyone of the Christian faith can justify using a religious phrase such as ‘theistic evolution’, be it the ID or the non-ID type.

Evolutionary thinking has some unique features - the common descent and tree of life, are both inferred and cannot be subjected, in the rigorous manner I am familiar, to any direct tests that provide a causal chain. I, as an onlooker, seek to understand the opinion of workers in the field, and find remarks such as ‘web of life’, ‘many trees of life’, as one example of the type of doubt I refer you to. On other matters, I am confronted with observations that, by their nature, may give rise to a number of possible routes; this gives rise to doubt regarding mechanisms. I can go on, but this is enough to illustrate my point.

Now it may be the case that someone may come up with something better, or may confirm some tenets of Darwins ideas, or may prove it all wrong. I do not know - and that is my point. I do know what I believe re Faith, and I point out that I cannot give such belief to Darwins ideas - not theologically, and not scientifically.

Eddie - #74229

November 8th 2012


No, neo-Darwinian evolution isn’t primarily a theory of common descent.  It includes common descent (“evolution” implies common descent, from a few original forms or perhaps from only one), but it is primarily a mechanism for explaining evolutionary change, i.e., in terms of random mutations and natural selection (“neo-Darwinian”).

ID as such sits at right angles to common descent.  It’s neither for it, nor against it.  What ID is against is the appeal to chance and randomness and trial and error to explain the origin of complex, integrated organic systems.

Some ID proponents do oppose common descent, but since others don’t, that’s not a defining feature of ID.  What all ID proponents have in common is opposition to neo-Darwinism, and by extension to analogous “stochastic” explanations for the origin of living systems.  For an ID proponent, the kinds of changes that are required by any theory of evolution are such that they would require a designing intelligence to either steer or pre-program the process to some extent.  

It’s not ID’s job to improve the arguments for common descent.  ID’s job is to show that the design-like features in nature indicate not merely apparent design (an illusion created by the activity of natural selection), but real design.  It does this in two ways:  (1) by showing that all current explanations which exclude design are inadequate; (2) by showing that living systems have features which are exactly what we would expect if they were designed rather than the result of trial-and-error processes. 

I’m speaking here of ID as a serious theoretical perspective, not of ID insofar as it can be used as a tool for Christian apologetics.  No doubt much of the public interest in ID is connected with its potential uses for Christian apologetics.  But the arguments for ID don’t require Christian faith at all.  Try to keep this last distinction in mind.

Chip - #74151

November 5th 2012

Hello Dennis,

Since you may have missed the (very interesting) discussion triggered by Ted’s earlier post, I’m copying a little chunk of it here. 

The following is from comment 73988 if you’d like to go back and see the any of the context.  I (and probably several others) would be very interested in your reactions.  Thanks. 

For example, all of Dennis Venema’s columns on genetics and evolution are tacitly premised on the view that God never intervenes in the processes of inheritance; but when asked point-blank whether God sometimes intervenes, he appears to waffle.  But he can’t waffle—without endangering the whole structure of his reasoning.  He has to say either, “I don’t think God intervenes, and therefore all my back-projections based on pure naturalism are reliable” or else, “I think God sometimes intervenes, and I don’t know how much, so I have to admit that my back-projections are not entirely reliable.”

My question about whether and how God acts in evolution is not the high-level question metaphysical question you are making it out to be.   No one is asking for the magical secret essence of God’s power, or how spirit can affect matter, etc.  The question is simple:  God performs special actions to make evolution go in certain ways, or he acts only through natural causes, with evolution finding its way to targets—or not to any particular targets—on its own.  I would wager that every living TE has at least a provisional opinion on that, yet virtually all the leading TEs are cagey when asked the question.  And the reason isn’t the unfathomable nature of divine action.  The reason is the unwillingness of many TEs to publically state what they think on the subject.


bren - #74153

November 5th 2012

Hi Chip,

Yes, I agree, it would be interesting to hear his opinion on this.  On the other hand, I think it’s worth pausing a moment to consider what is being asked here.  It is being asked that an opinion be offered on a particular subject.

That opinion will not be scientifically grounded; since there is nothing available that could establish particular divine interventions or the extent to which these interventions have occurred in the history of life (at least nothing that will manage to win any kind of consensus!).  That opinion will not be biblically grounded; since the bible only states that God created, neither speaking of the manner in which this activity was accomplished in any great detail or with any sure interpretation, nor establishing the secondary causes or causal matrices that may have been employed in the creative activity.  That opinion will not be theologically grounded; since once it is agreed upon that at least some natural means were used (by God) in the generation of species, there is no theologically sound reason to deduce and quantify the extent to which secondary causes were used (by God) in the process, nor is there any particular reason to assume that constrained contingency cannot have been at least one of the elements in this process (and by the way, I’m pretty sure that no TE thinks that contingency on its own, which would have some serious theological ‘splaining to do, is the source of all of this biodiversity).

That opinion will not, in sum, be grounded in anything at all, aside from some predisposition towards an explanation of how God “must have done it” given some other personal perspective on God or nature.  So why ask for it?  I suspect: in order to hear the words “God did not intervene in the evolutionary process” and to possibly (mis)construe that as meaning that God had no say in the ultimate outcome and is not, ipso facto, the true Creator (taking this as a logical consequence of the statement).

But what would this sentence (“God did not intervene in the evolutionary process”) really mean?  Would it mean that the respondent does not, therefore, believe in miracles?  No.  Would it follow that he thinks God was a hands-off demiurge with no involvement in a closed process (note that “intervention” refers to outside meddling as opposed to intimate involvement throughout)?  No.  Would it mean that God was written out of the account in some fundamental way?  No.

Could it be that God orchestrated front-loaded secondary causes in such a way as to produce convergent pathways to results that are essentially predictable? Maybe.  Could it be that he redirected the process at key junctures?  Maybe (although this does sound a bit like Newton’s explanation for orbital anomalies, but hey, why assume it couldn’t happen in biology if not physics?).  But who knows?  We are in no position to be doctrinaire on these things.  Either way, it seems a bit off color and unreal to center on this question as litmus test for orthodoxy or as anything other than a question that is both asked and answered in the dark.  Just my 2 cents on an otherwise interesting question.

Dennis Venema - #74239

November 8th 2012

Hi Chip, 

I’ve said before (in a published article no less) that I would find a scientifically defensible design inference argument fascinating. So, I’m open to evaluating what others suggest to be examples of God using “non natural” (whatever that means) causes. So far I haven’t seen anything that I find convincing. Behe probably represents the “strongest” such argument, but it’s built on the assumption that evolution has to have multiple mutations happening together. As I once asked Doug Axe in person, when comparing the human and chimpanzee genomes (species separated by millions of year and many other species in between) what do you see that requires multiple, simultaneous mutations? So, I think Behe is trivially right (multiple mutations are too rare to expect) and fundamentally misguided (his view that such events are needed). 

I also don’t think that a complete rejection of the miraculous is needed in order to have confidence in a scientific theory. The fact that I accept the miraculous, and have even experienced what I consider personally to be supernatural events (though not the sort of thing that could be subjected to empiracal tests) does not mean that science is not a reliable enterprise. After all, the ground-floor reasoning that gave rise to western science was the notion that the creation would be intelligible since it proceeds from a mind (i.e. a Creator). 

Dennis Venema - #74240

November 8th 2012

Obviously my spelling is not quite back up to speed - grace appreciated!

Roger A. Sawtelle - #74152

November 5th 2012

HornSpiel asked:

Can we agree that neo-Darwinian evolution is a theory of common descent?

It may be a theory of common descent, but unless we are debating with creationists, this is not the primary issue.  ID and other responsible anti-Darwinian positions take issue that evolution takes place in a random non-directed, non-teleological manner.  That has nothing to do with common descent.  

Dawkins & Co. want people to say that Darwinism is a theory of common descent and because common descent is true, Darwinism in all its details and implications must be true.  That is a false trick.  

Yes, Variation is basically true and this involves the DNA and common descent, but that is only have of the story as I have said.  If you want to say that neoDarwinisn Variation is true with assorted modifications, that is fine.

But it is false and misleading to say that evolution is a theory of common descent based on DNA.         

Chip - #74159

November 5th 2012

For some reason I can’t reply inside of a particular thread, so I’ll do it here. 

Bren (@74153):

Thanks for the post.  A couple quick responses if I may: 

there is nothing available that could establish particular divine interventions or the extent to which these interventions have occurred in the history of life (at least nothing that will manage to win any kind of consensus!)

I agree.  But I wasn’t asking for a consensus—I’d happily start off with just one idiosyncratic opinion.  Additionally, I wasn’t asking for particular interventions—as if we’re capable of finding God’s fingerprints at this or that step, as he “meddled” in the process—which, by the way, is an interestingly negative choice of words.  If he acts in some way, he’s “meddling.”  If he’s hands-off, he’s “intimately involved throughout…”  But to me, intimacy is usually associated with engagement, and meddling with attempting to influence an activity for which one doesn’t have legitimate authority.  Certainly, such a description can’t rightly be ascribed to God’s interaction with the created order, but since you seem to have turned these conventional definitions on their head, maybe you could clarify. 

So, what I was asking for was more of a general statement or opinion:  Did God merely wind up natural selection and turn it loose, or did he do more (or maybe even less) than that?  Certainly the folks who spend all day every day in the lab unraveling the intricacies of this or that biological structure—and who claim to be theists—must have some opinion on the matter. 

I suppose the bottom line for me comes down to what seems like a simple contradiction.  TEs often use language like “God uses evolution to create”—and I interpret this to mean that He thinks, plans and intends particular results.  But mainstream advocates of evolutionary theory counter this—in many cases quite stridently—by claiming that the process to which we owe our very existence is blind, purposeless, undirected, and which can never ever guarantee any particular outsome.  Both simply cannot be true, and many TE experts have a maddening tendency to be reticent on this most important of questions.   

Bilbo - #74179

November 6th 2012

Chip and Bren,

I think Dennis could answer, “I don’t know if God intervened in evolutionary history or not.  But as a scientist, I think the evidence indicates that evolution could have happened without God’s intervention.”

Bilbo - #74180

November 6th 2012

Let me quickly add that I have no theological quarrel with such an answer.  My objection is that in order for Dennis’s belief in neo-Darwinism to be well-supported, we would have to be reasonably confident that evolution never had to go beyond the “edge” that even Dennis is willing to admit exists.  And how, exactly, would we know that it didn’t?

Chip - #74183

November 6th 2012

Hi Bilbo,

I’d agree that there’s no theological quarrel—but only if some kind of advance programming was invoked which can guarantee a particular intended outcome. 

Else, “fearfully and wonderfully made” becomes “Hey, look what happened over there while I was out playing cosmic golf.”  Stated another way, we’re left with de facto deism bolted on to an essentially Dawkensian world view, which just might trigger a theological quarrel or two

Regardless of the mechanism proposed, teleology is a non-negotiable component of any Christian theology this side of Jefferson, which is the very thing that mainstream evolutionary theory explicitly denies. 

Given this, is it so unreasonable to ask the experts whose stated aim is the “reconciliation” of science and faith to actually… well, reconcile these two seemingly contradictory ideas? 

beaglelady - #74192

November 6th 2012

Dennis Venema and his family are all sick with the flu; he will therefore be unable to return to this thread any time soon. Let’s all remember them in our prayers!

Chip - #74194

November 6th 2012

Bummer—hope they’re better soon. 

bren - #74196

November 6th 2012

Hi Chip,

Thanks for your response,

I agree that one of the keys to the whole question is teleology, and I would also agree that this word has been scientifically “out of fashion” for an awfully long time (especially for a certain brand of evolutionists) for a mishmash of sometimes flimsy and sometimes compelling reasons.  That said, I think that teleology has had some new life breathed into it in recent times and it is no longer taken for granted by all philosophers that there is no concievable omega point or telos (for lack of better terms) underlying the observed patterns.  For the record, I am personally extremely doubtful that we are likely to find ourselves in a position to unambiguously identify “God’s fingerprints” for historical on maybe even logical reasons, but who knows.

The words “blind, purposeless and undirected” are in no way a part of the fundamental makeup of the idea of natural selection and certainly not of common descent; I get the impression that they are metaphysical extrapolations that have outrun the evidence.   I think the idea is that each individual selection of a variant by consistent selection pressures may only push to a local maximum in the fitness landscape and this leads to the analogy that the system is “blind” or at least myopic with respect to the overall landscape or to any particular destination, but I wonder if this isn’t just a natural side-product of the reductionist account of the whole situation.  Each individual neuron that fires in a brain is also “myopic” or “blind” to the overall mental pattern, but it is the emergent properties of the ensemble that results in complex thoughts, plans and decidedly “far-sighted” results.  I think that teleology needs to be reconsidered without being misdirected by the loaded language that some evolutionists use with way too much liberality.

If these charged and overused words are accurate, or fair, then yes there may be a theological problem brewing, but I suspect that it is simply the case that the doctor that is advancing “blind, purposeless and undirected” diagnosis is just projecting his own myopia!

I’m glad to hear that you don’t view the divine interaction as one of individual “interventions”!  I would be curious to know how you viewed the interaction between evolutionary history and God.  If it isn’t in terms of individual interventions, then would it be in terms of a consistent biasing of the evolutionary results?  Given a certain view of life’s history, I would think that such a biasing could conceivably be identified and would look a bit like an unidentified “force” of some kind that skews the data set.  Would this be the idea?  I don’t think “hands-off” is necessarily the idea with what I was suggesting above.  The very nature of the patterns, the continuing existence of the dynamic whole, and the teleological content of the entire tapestry can be viewed as being continually implemented and sustained by God, without any need for modifications in the manner in which the divine will interacts with nature (while miracles would be more likely to involve such a modification).

Ok, I’m going to go back to trying to shorten my responses!

Bilbo - #74197

November 6th 2012

I think there are a few different ways to resolve the apparent conflict between Theism and neo-Darwinism:  Three of them: Biase-ness built into the very fabric of creation;  or God acting at the quantum level in an undetectable way, so that mutations appear to be random; or God creating multiple universes until the He gets the one He wants.  There are probably other ways.

My objection is with the idea that neo-Darwinism is a well supported theory.  Once we admit that there is an “edge”—a small, limited number of mutations beyond which neo-Darwinian processes cannot be reasonably invoked as an explanation—then we need some way of being reasonably confident that evolution never had to go beyond the edge.  How would we know that, without begging the question?

Meanwhile, my prayers are with Dennis and his family.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #74206

November 7th 2012

It amazes me that Darwinists seem to ignore a fact that most school children know and understand.  An important event in the history of evolution of life on our planet was an asteroid strike that led to climate change, which led to the eventual extinction of the dinosaurs which opened way for the ascent of mammals, including eventually humans.

Most people would expect that an asteroid strike would have negative consequences, but in the long run humans benefit from this one.  Darwinism does not take into account asteroid strikes, but there it is. 

Did God sent it?  It this one of the ways God guides evolution?  Who can say yes or no?  However this is an important real issue that as far as I know has not been considered when we are debating evolution, ID, and theology. 

Jon Garvey - #74209

November 7th 2012


Classical theism up to, including, and following Aquinas has always affirmed that natural law, chance and every other event in history is under God’s providence and therefore his governing will. So given deep time, God’s using an asteroid collision to bring about his purposes in creation would be a commonplace to Luther, Calvin or any of those guys. They took their cue from many positive assertions of God’s active oversight of nature in the Bible.

It’s the loss of a robust doctrine of providence in academic theology (Deism and its descendants) and popular theology (natural stuff just happens and God wouldn’t do nasty disasters) that has opened up any question at all about the matter.

You’re right, of course, in saying that Darwinism initially discounted catastophism, then saw catastrophes as mere epiphenomena to evolution rather than as an integral part of the story. But I imagine that’s because, officially at least, they’re not telling a story, but describing a process. In a non-teleological, reductionist process like Neodarwinism, there can be no conceivable link between astronomical one-offs and the ultimate success/outcome of that process.

If you’re doing proper theology, though, the purpose is necessary to explain the processes, which are thereby brought into interdependent harmony. In my view a Christian who doesn’t see that as important is theologically stunted.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #74225

November 8th 2012


On terms of Darwinism I would say yes and no. 

The problem as I keep saying is that Darwinian evolutionary has developed as a theory as bout Variation neglicting the other helf of evolution which is Selection.  Indeed it has minimize if not doing waway with Selection by pointing to genetic drift as the cause of speciation.

However evolution still claims to be a process of change which means that Selection is a necessary part of understanding how it works as Darwin said.  The problem again is that Malthusian Selection is not the answer and ecological Selection is. 

Asteroid strikes affect the environment which is not part of Dawinian theory.  Now HornSpiel pointed me to the Evolution 101 which does point to ecology as the basis of Natural Selection but they called it Coevolution, while still claiming Malthus for Natural Selection (even though their simplistic view of Selection was still ecological.) 

Chip, you asked experts to reconcile Christianity and evolution.  This is what can be done when we combine the teleological Selection of ecology with the Variation of genetics to come up with a Evolutionary process compatible with the Logos in John 1. 

The problem is not that science does not know that Darwinian Natural Selection does not work, but it is unwilling to accept ecology as the foundation of how and why evolution works, probably because this would result in a complete new understanding of what evolution is and how it works.

In other words the absence of the role of the asteroid in the process of the evolution of life on earth is a symptom of a serious misunderstanding of how evolution works, not some technical glitch.     

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