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Evolution, Myths and Reconciliation: A Review of “Why Evolution is True”, Part 1

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May 4, 2011 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Robert C. Bishop. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Evolution, Myths and Reconciliation: A Review of “Why Evolution is True”, Part 1

Jerry Coyne, a well-known biologist at the University of Chicago, is also one of the outspoken militant atheists (more on that later), and his book Why Evolution Is True is a title likely to raise your blood pressure, with a name seemingly smacking of propaganda more than science. Here, one needs to understand the scientist’s conception of truth: “All scientific truth is provisional, subject to modification in the light of new evidence. There is no alarm bell that goes off to tell scientists that they’ve finally hit on the ultimate, unchangeable truths about nature” (p. 16). Coyne explores the evidence currently supporting the scientific judgment that evolution is a provisionally true framework for understanding the natural history of organisms. Indeed, the history of evolutionary theory is no different than that of any other major scientific theoretical framework–one of constant modification and refinement as we learn new things.

The breadth and clarity of Coyne’s explanation and discussion of the evidence supporting evolution is impressive. Christians who have even a passing interest in science should give what he has to say careful, prayerful reflection. However, the significant level of Christian misunderstanding of evolution makes reflection on the theory difficult. Coyne’s book is helpful for addressing the distorting myths so characteristic of Christian discussions of evolution. In Part 1 of this review, I want to lay out some of the key myths and indicate how Coyne’s discussion can help Christians get a more accurate understanding of what evolution says and does not say. In the remaining parts, I’ll explore Coyne’s problematic approach to science and faith.

Myth: Random Variations Are Uncaused

Christians (and most atheists) often characterize evolution as excluding God because the variations at the heart of evolutionary theory are “random” or “unguided.” They take such terms to imply that genetic variations are uncaused or ungoverned. However, as Coyne explains, “The term ‘random’ here has a specific meaning that is often misunderstood, even by biologists. What this means is that mutations occur regardless of whether they would be useful to the individual” (p. 118).

Consider an analogy with games of chance. Dice don’t land snake eyes because that would benefit the gambler. Yet there is an underlying set of causes as to why the dice landed snake eyes on that particular roll (even though we refer to the outcome as random or undirected). Similarly, there are underlying causes as to why particular offspring in a population of organisms received the particular genetic variations they did.

Moreover, the biological notion of random or unguided mutations doesn’t even rule out God as the possible cause of the variations. All biologists mean by such terms is that the underlying causes are left open by evolutionary theory because mechanisms like natural selection can work with any variations handed to them, whether those variations are due to genetic copying, cosmic rays or God. Consider the dice analogy again. That the dice landed snake eyes on this particular throw is fully consistent with there being an underlying law governing the dice or that God somehow determined the particular outcome of the throw (the latter idea lies behind the Old Testament practice of casting lots). Similarly, that some organisms in a particular population received a particular genetic variation increasing their likelihood of surviving and reproducing is fully consistent with there being an underlying law governing genetics (a reflection of the regular, ongoing activity of God), or that God somehow determined the particular variation through supernatural intervention.

Myth: Everything in Evolution Happens by Chance

It’s typical of Christian discussions to attribute everything in evolution as due to chance. In contrast, as Coyne points out, although there is a technical sense in which a variation in an organism is random, “the filtering of that variation by natural selection that produces adaptations...is manifestly not random” (p. 119). Variations received by organisms are indifferent to the needs of the organism, but the filtering out of harmful variations is anything but random. That filtering–natural selection–promotes survival and reproduction, a clearly nonrandom outcome.

Myth: Evolution Works Solely Through Natural Selection and Random Variations

Most all Christian discussions of evolution assume that the theory only uses natural selection acting on random variations to explain biological change. I suspect this overly narrow view of evolution is largely inspired by Richard Dawkins, who early in his career described evolution as working through only natural selection. Although Coyne focuses primarily on natural selection, he helpfully points out that there is much more to evolution than natural selection acting on random variations (e.g., pp. 3, 13, 122-124, 170, 177).

Darwin thought that natural selection was the most important evolutionary mechanism, but stressed that there were other mechanism as well (e.g., sexual selection). Contemporary evolutionary biologists also explore components of evolution beyond natural selection. Genetic drift, for example is an important component in evolutionary theory (particularly at the molecular level). Exaptation is another important component in the production of new structures with new functions. It occurs when a feature that was originally adapted by natural selection to perform a particular function is co-opted for a different function and then modified by natural selection with respect to this new function. Consider feathers. It’s now known that most all of the carnivorous theropod dinosaurs (e.g., Deinonychus, Velociraptor, T. rex) were covered with feathers. Feathers probably arose under natural selection for thermal regulation of body temperature (the fossil record reveals feathered, nonflying dinosaurs appearing long before feathered flying creatures arise). It is likely that feathers then were co-opted for flight (probably gliding first with powered flight coming later), a completely different function than their original natural selection history of development. Natural selection would then have begun to refine the feathers of flying organisms for improved flight capabilities.

Myth: Evolution Always Optimizes

Almost all Christian critiques of evolution are aimed at an extreme optimizing interpretation of evolution: Natural selection acts to optimize species traits for their particular environment. However, it’s been well known for a long time that this interpretation of evolution is seriously flawed (this is one reason why most all creationist and ID attacks on evolution are unconvincing). As Coyne explains, “Natural selection does not yield perfection–only improvements over what came before. It produces the fitter not the fittest” (p. 13).

Darwin argued that evolution doesn’t optimize the traits of organisms. Rather, he emphasized over and over again that evolution produces just-good-enough solutions for making a living in particular ecological niches. For instance, the key idea of natural selection is that some organisms have a slight differential advantage in reproduction due to some variation in a trait that they received at birth, and this slight advantage is all that may be needed to more deeply penetrate an ecological niche successfully with no further modifications needed.

Myth: Evolution Is Necessarily Always Improving Organisms

Another common misconception of evolution in Christian circles is that organisms are constantly improving under evolution. Coyne helpfully clarifies that evolution doesn’t necessarily imply organisms are constantly improving (e.g., pp. 4, 13, 131-136). Darwin argued that evolution’s just-good-enough solutions were sufficient for surviving well in an ecological niche.Furthermore, there is nothing about evolutionary theory implying a necessary progression from simple to complex life forms or from lower to higher life forms.

What evolution produces are different life forms, each shaped to survive and reproduce in its ecological niche. Therefore, one should expect to see stasis in ecological niches where evolutionary pressures are minimal (e.g., sharks haven’t changed much in 25 million years). In niches where evolutionary pressures are high, such as the human body’s immune system combined with our repertoire of antibiotics, one should expect to see changes in the microorganisms causing disease and this is exactly what we do see (e.g., pp. 130-132). Moreover, there is nothing in evolutionary theory implying that species cannot devolve from more complex to simpler forms if that’s what gives them a better purchase on penetrating deeper into a particular ecological niche (e.g., organisms slowly losing their eyes when they live for many generations in dark caves).

Similarly, there is nothing in the theory implying common ancestors in the past should be driven to extinction by evolved successor species (as far too many oversimplified Christian critiques of evolution maintain). That fate depends on whether the ancestor and successor species end up competing for the same resources in the same ecological niche. If the successor species gains abilities to exploit different resources within the same ecological niche, there is no reason to expect that the ancestor species would die out or be driven to extinction.


Robert C. Bishop is the John and Madeline McIntyre Endowed Professor of Philosophy and History of Science and an associate professor of physics and philosophy at Wheaton College in Illinois. He received his master’s degree in physics and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin. Bishop's research involves history and philosophy of science, philosophy of physics, philosophy of mind, and metaphysics. Bishop is the author of The Philosophy of the Social Science and co-editor of Between Chance and Choice: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Determinism.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #60774

May 4th 2011

Very interesting.

It seems that Coyne takes the ecolgical approach to evolution that I have been recommending and rejects the Darwinian approach that Dawkins and Co. have been advocating.  Darwin did not use the word “niche,”  which is an ecological term and I have not found that Dawkins does either.  This concept is the heart of ecology and the center of Coyne’s understanding of evolution and mine.  It is a concept foreign to neoDarwinists, unless they have been converted recently. 

In some sense I would disagree on one issue.  Variation has a random aspect and it is true that there is no guarantee that inherited variations are beneficial to the individual recipient.  However it should be pointed out that variation is good for the whole, however that works out.  Very few if any inherited traits have clear cut advantages.  For instance speed can lessen overall strength. 

Change is necessary, although it is not always good.  Organisms need to be able to change to adapt to the environment.  Individual changes are not directed, but overall they are by guiding organisms in the right direction.  Changes are based on the ability to use and share resources, not in ability to monopolize resources.  

In this way one can truly say that evolution is good and is the way that God and nature guides the development of life forms on our planet.


RCB - #61514

May 21st 2011

Hi Roger, I wouldn’t say that Coyne takes an ecological approach to evolution (he’s actually still quite gene-centric but I’m ignoring that for the purpose of this review). Instead, I’m simply trying to make clear that Coyne along with many other biologists recognize that the effects a variation has for an organism is always relative to the total environment (which includes body plan and ecological niche).


Jeff Fischer - #60785

May 4th 2011

I read Why Evolution is True a few months ago. As a Christian layman, I first picked it up with a bit of trepidation, but was relieved to find the book readable and reasonable from a scientific standpoint.

As Dr. Bishop is quick to point out, Coyne’s views on faith and science are indeed problematic, but thankfully, this book does not come across as pure atheistic propaganda, and I found it helpful to my understanding of evolution.


paul.bruggink1 - #60790

May 4th 2011

I also read Why Evolution is True as well as Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish for the purpose of learning more about biological evolution. I found both books to be very helpful as well as highly readable.


I did not find Coyne’s views on faith and science to be problematic, and cite the following passage from p. 225 of Coyne’s Why Evolution is True as evidence:

“Evolution is simply a theory about the process and patterns of life’s diversification, not a grand philosophical scheme about the meaning of life. It can’t tell us what to do, or how we should behave. And this is the big problem for many believers, who want to find in the story of our origins a reason for our existence, and a sense of how to behave. Most of us do need meaning, purpose, and moral guidance in our lives. How do we find them if we accept that evolution is the real story of our origin? That question is outside the domain of science.”

Julio Ibanez - #60824

May 6th 2011

Paul,

I’m not sure about the book, but Coyne’s own blog is fairly anti-religious. 

I am a frequent visitor to it as he’s a fantastic writer and I look forward to reading his book  But if not problematic, his views commonly expressed there are definitely opposed to faith. 

This does certainly does not take away from the rest of his work. I really appreciate how Robert Bishop started out by not only praising Coyne’s explanation of evolution, but by using it as a guideline to correct common misconceptions.

Great article!


Mazzeratti - #60902

May 9th 2011

Agree completely with you Julio. Regardless of Coyne’s comment in the book, (which is fantastic and I’ve passed it around to as many of my Christian Brothers and Sisters as possible), his blog, like PZ Meyers’, rails against all things of faith.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #60798

May 5th 2011

Paul,

I agree with you.  That quotation from the book is reasonable for the most part.  The one problem I have with it and it can and probably is an important one is that Coyne calls evolution the “real story of our origin.”  

In my opinion evolution is the real story of how we became biologically human.  There is another real story of how we became intellectually human, and another real story of how we became morally human.  Thus there is no one real story about our origins and evolution only give part of the whole picture.

The problem with evolution in the past has been twofold in my opinion.  The first and foremost is with those who claim that evolution is the whole picture and the second which is almost as important is that Darwin’s Theory of natural selection is incoherent and unproven.

Stories of origin important, so we need to get them right.  I much prefer Coyne’s approach to Dawkins’, but as I said just because one story is true in the biological sense does not mean other stories are not true in other senses, because humans are more than phyical bodies.  We are also intellectual and spiritual beings.    


Mike Gene - #60854

May 7th 2011

Hi Robert,

I agree with everything in this post.  However, there is nothing here to help us decide whether or not evolution and teleology are connected.  

In stepping back and considering all the corrections to the myths, what do we end up with?  Well, sometimes evolution happens by chance, sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes it works solely through natural selection and random variations and sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes it optimizes and sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes it improves and sometimes it doesn’t.   

The problem here is that this situation, where sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t, lends itself quite well to an ad hoc approach that might prop up a non-teleological perspective.  


Roger A. Sawtelle - #60855

May 7th 2011

Mike,

You are correct, because Coyne has not learned the lesson of ecology which is diversity.  Evolution is moving in a clear direction toward diversity, a more complex one system.  Christianity and democracy are well suited to a complex one, diverse world.


Mike Gene - #60885

May 8th 2011

Hi Roger,

What’s even better is that the vast array of diversity all stems from a deep universality.  And one such universal theme of life is the genetic code.  Consider the origin of the genetic code in light of these insights:

Rather, he emphasized over and over again that evolution produces just-good-enough solutions for making a living in particular ecological niches. For instance, the key idea of natural selection is that some organisms have a slight differential advantage in reproduction due to some variation in a trait that they received at birth, and this slight advantage is all that may be needed to more deeply penetrate an ecological niche successfully with no further modifications needed.

Darwin argued that evolution’s just-good-enough solutions were sufficient for surviving well in an ecological niche.

Given its universality, the code completed its evolution prior to LUCA.  It then becomes very interesting to note that what was “just-good-enough” to meet the needs of some primitive, simple cell-type entity living in a particular ecological niche over 3.5 billions years ago turned out to work exceedingly well for the next 3.5 billion years, allowing for all the diverse, complex, and sophisticated life forms that currently exist.  Since, according to conventional thought, the code was not selected as a solution for the needs of mammals or flowering plants, I guess it was just luck (wink) that it never needed to be tinkered with to allow for the emergence of such life forms. 

Just-good-enough was good enough for the next 3.5 billion years.  Sounds like more than just-good-enough to me.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #60901

May 9th 2011

Hi Mike,

You are right.  Humans and the earth are very “lucky.”   

“Just good enough” hides complexity and sophistication beyond our imagination.


tragicmishap - #61246

May 15th 2011

“Almost all Christian critiques of evolution are aimed at an extreme
optimizing interpretation of evolution: Natural selection acts to
optimize species traits for their particular environment. However, it’s
been well known for a long time that this interpretation of evolution
is seriously flawed…”

Yes “almost all Christian critiques of evolution” are somehow unaware of the argument evolutionists constantly make against design.  We simply have never heard evolutionists say that things in nature are not optimal and therefore can’t be designed.  We do however hear it when evolutionists say things like:

“Natural selection would then have begun to refine the feathers of flying organisms for improved flight capabilities.”

“Similarly, there is nothing in the theory implying common ancestors in
the past should be driven to extinction by evolved successor species…”

Oh really?  That is a strong claim.  “Nothing in the theory” implies that? 

“At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes … will no doubt be
exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be
wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro and Australian and the gorilla…”

- Charles Darwin, Descent of Man


RCB - #61515

May 21st 2011

This quite from Descent of Man isn’t about the theory of evolution. It’s about what humans are capable of and what in fact we were doing in Darwin’s day (e.g., big game safari hunts, colonialism, slavery, just to name a few).


Roger A. Sawtelle - #61252

May 15th 2011

It seems to me that in order to correct “myths,” Coyne has tried to create new myths.

It also seems that since no one can agree what Darwin’s Theory is, no one can say that it true.

Until someone including BioLogos points out this real mess, it will not get straightened out.  How on earth can anyone say that this 150 year old Theory is settled science if no one can say what it is? 
 
The truth is that evolution the fact is not a natural law like Newton’s Law of Gravity as Darwin hoped.  It is a natural historical process much more complex than Darwin thought and Dawkins maintains.  When we distort reality by misunderstanding a biological organic historical process as a physical inorganic ahistorical natural law we corrupt science and our understanding of life and Christianity.      


nedbrek - #61260

May 16th 2011

Y’all knew I was reading this book, then went and reviewed it before I was done :(

I just finished it, and was sorely disappointed.  Mostly because I am looking for Coyne’s theology (as that is what really matters).  As best as I can tell, he is simply not a deep thinker in this regard (although he manages to avoid sticking his foot in his mouth, ala Dawkins).

Coyne gives up the argument on page 224 (quoting Pearcey): “all the percieved evils of evolution come from two worldviews that are part of science: naturalism and materialism” and “Now, science cannot completely exclude the possibility of supernatural explanation.”

As Christians we must reject nat-mat (or deny the resurrection).  Having denied it, we are free to consider any possible explanation.  Now, nat-mat is a hot iron for the searing of the atheist conscience (Coyne is aware of this aspect, see page XV) - thus, we should reject it out of hand.  To syncretize in this regard can only be seen as foolishness on our part.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #61289

May 16th 2011

Nedbrek.

I am not quite sure what you mean by rejecting materialism/naturalism.  For the most part it does work for science.  The only problem is that it reduces nature to matter/energy, when matter includes order, which is rational, and purpose if we believe that the Logos is the basis of nature.  Thus matter/energy is definitely a part of nature, but it is not the extent of nature.  

This of course would require a totally new understanding of the nature of nature, and that is the difficult impasse in which we find ourselves.  

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is of course a miracle, and miracles are sui generis, one of a kind events that in that sense do not need explanation except God.  Of course it is true that if God does not exist, miracles cannot happen, but if God does exist we cannot use miracles to explain ordinary events.  Miracles have spiritual significance, not scientific.    


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