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Jesus, History and Mount Darwin: Part 7

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December 30, 2011 Tags: Education
Jesus, History and Mount Darwin: Part 7

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

In part six, Kennedy reflected on the messiness of the natural world and the inability of scientific models to fully reflect it. Today, with the daunting site of Mount Darwin in front of him, he reflects on the writing of two of the most influential reductionist thinkers in today's world--Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.

Mount Improbable?

At Blue Lake we had lunch and rested. The boys were happy. Dave and I chatted. Eventually we gathered our gear and started walking again, Matt up ahead with Steve and me in back. The trail was now less steep.

Richard Dawkins, in Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), creates a parable of a mountain climb to answer the mathematical problem that troubles Darwinian natural history. The mathematical problem of Darwinian natural history is portrayed in Dawkins’ book as a steep cliff that blocks climbers from getting to the top. Dawkins recognizes that genetics may have found DNA and people can watch in laboratories the process of variation and sexual selection, but he also acknowledges a problem with the mathematics. There does not seem to be enough time in earth’s history to allow enough random variation through sexual selection to create complicated things like the human brain. The math in natural history is a daunting problem that he depicts as a steep cliff.

There are various ways to handle this mathematical problem. “Chaos theory” posits the possibility of fast spurts of variation and selection. Theories of multiple universes allow us to spread the mathematics broader so that the calculations of random variation work. The idea that Dawkins likes best emphasizes algorithms. In Dawkins’s parable, an easy trail, the algorithm, winds up the back of the mountain, avoiding the mathematical cliff. The randomness in random variation is not really random, because variation is affected by algorithmic “pressure.”

Daniel Dennett, in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), describes Darwinian evolution as “algorithmic sorting processes which take the probabilities or biases that are due to fundamental laws of physics and produce structures that would otherwise be wildly improbable.”

An algorithm is a closed information system in which infinite possibilities are honed into a finite form by the action of a recurring set of rules. Algorithms domesticate wildness. Modern computers, the World Wide Web, and hopes for continuing development of artificial intelligence are rooted in the wonders of algorithms. Probably nothing in mathematics is so inspirational to futurists as the idea that algorithms seem to make simple the complex. David Berlinski, in his breathless The Advent of the Algorithm: The Idea that Rules the World (2000), writes that after Newton’s calculus, the algorithm “is the second great scientific idea of the West. There is no third.”

Limited time is a problem for natural history. Louis Agassiz, whose mountain namesake is appropriately not in the Evolution Range, could not accept Darwinian evolution because he thought the islands of the Galapagos were geologically too young for the mathematics of chance variations being sexually selected. Dawkins points out that “if Darwinism were really a theory of chance, it couldn’t work.” Dawkins believes “Darwinism is not a theory of random chance. It is a theory of random mutation plus non-random cumulative natural selection.”

The possibility that algorithmic pressures affect natural history solves some problems but raises others. Not the least of these problems is: how did the algorithm get started? If algorithms work from rules, where do the rules come from?

Huffing my way up to Mount Darwin, I was dealing with the real earth and a real mountain. I found little to hold on to in Dawkins’ parable. Sure algorithms might guide selection. Who knows the fullness of creation? As an academic historian, I take heart in Dawkins’ stretch to algorithms. It shows a major problem in natural history that can’t be answered easily. Historians like to remind ourselves about the weakness of our thinking.

Out there on the trail up to a real Mount Darwin, I was free to let my mind wander. Time is a wonder. Math is a wonder. Evolution is a wonder. On the other hand, Steven was having trouble with gravity. He was still having a tougher time getting up the mountain than I had expected. He wasn’t up front as he normally was on backpack trips. He started backpacking when he was five years old. His backpack held only his teddy bear. He and Matt have always been unstoppable. But now he was holding us back. I began to doubt whether we would be able to make it to the top of the mountain. It was cold. The air was getting thinner. We were moving slowly. Time was not on our side.

Base Camp

We arrived at Midnight Lake at 3 pm and found a site for base camp on a rise at the northeast end about twenty five yards from shore. We were alone above tree-line with steep granite all around us except for the canyon through which we had just hiked. We slumped our packs against a rock and surveyed the lake in its rocky basin. Steve hit me with a snowball. I told him he would sleep in fear. The sun would soon be falling behind the high western ridge, so by 3:30 pm I started boiling water while Dave and the kids set up the two tents. After organizing his gear, Dave took over the cooking duties.

With the four of us huddled next to a rock, we discussed the decisions to be made for the next day. We needed to be back to the car before dark because we were not sure it would actually run, given the fact that it wasn’t shifting out of first gear when we parked it. Tomorrow, if we were up and hiking by dawn, we would have four or so hours to climb a little less than three thousand feet. It would be doable if the kids caught the spirit in the morning. We would leave most of our gear here, and the kids would carry nothing. While Dave continued to cook, Matt got the radio out of my pack. We had no idea whether the radio would work in such canyons, but the pre-game chatter should have started. I fiddled with the dials and could not pick up a sports station. Dave, in U.S. Navy mode, taught Matt to say in such a situation, “No joy on the comms!”

After dinner the temperature dropped fast. The shadow of the western ridge climbed the wall behind us as we looked over the lake toward the steep canyon that led up to Blue Heaven Lake, at the base of Mount Darwin. I was anxious to get to the top. I wanted to stand on the summit of Darwin and look over at the other peaks, especially Fiske, one of the few mountains named after an American historian.

Dave, who is the best of hiking buddies, full of wit and energy, wrote in my pocket notebook:

17:02 hrs: NOTE: Previous attempt at comms resulting in no joy was due to operator error. A formal investigation will be conducted at a later time, along with remedial training and disciplinary action.

Matt had found the World Series on the radio. It was now so cold we all decided to huddle into my two-person tent to play cards and listen to the game. My two sons and a good friend and I were deep in sleeping bags playing cards in a tiny tent while listening to the Giants win a well-played game. Cards and baseball are the fun of mathematics combined with the wildness of being human. We laughed and yelled. We shivered. It was great.

Rick Kennedy received his BA, MA, and Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara and is professor of history at Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego, California. His books include A History of Reasonableness: Testimony and Authority in the Art of Thinking (University of Rochester Press, 2004), Aristotelian and Cartesian Logic at Harvard (Colonial Society of Massachusetts and University Press of Virginia, 1995), Faith at State: A Handbook for Christians at Secular Universities (InterVarsity, 1995), Jesus, History, and Mt Darwin: An Academic Excursion (2008), and The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather (Eerdmans: 2015).

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #66847

December 30th 2011

Natural selection is the Achilles heel of Darwinism.  Darwin saw Malthus’ population theory as the basis NS.  This has never been established scientifically and I would submit is dead WRONG.  Nonetheless Dawkins still supports Malthusism and many scientists are trying to demonstrate how conflict might lead to cooperation.

There is a long history of dualistic thinking where change is generated by conflict, Being vs Non-Being, (which does not rally work either,) so maybe we should not be too hard on Darwinism.  However Darwinism is supposed to be science, which means that it is supposed to be based on scientific evidence, that is experimentation and/or observation.  Darwinian NS has none of this.

The result of the failure of Darwinian NS as a system leads multiple concepts of how it works, so evolution as it now stands is not a Theory, but a family of concepts, none of which are acceptable.  My own theory for why evolution is so messy is based on a nondualistic, nonlinear understanding of Reality which goes against monististic, linear scientism.  See my book, DARWIN’S MYTH.      

Jon Garvey - #66868

December 31st 2011

  As an academic historian, I take heart in Dawkins’ stretch to
algorithms. It shows a major problem in natural history that can’t be
answered easily.  Historians like to remind ourselves about the weakness
of our thinking.

I’m not sure how much heart one should actually take from that. Natural selection’s whole strength comes from being a plausible way to explain the appearance of design to be an illusion. In other words, it makes the apparently impossible easy enough to be universal.

Dawkins’ mountain was an attempt to rescue the concept of NS from


plausibility arising from the astronomically small probabilities he recognised from random processes producing life’s immense complexity. If he was wrong (for example, because as you say he gives no adequate origin for evolutionary algorithms, or maybe more likely because stepwise selectable increments just aren’t actually achievable), then natural selection remains implausible and the game’s over.

Unless, of course, Eugene Koonin’s recourse to the many-worlds multiverse is accepted: I’ve written  a bit about that here: http://potiphar.jongarvey.co.uk/2011/08/05/the-arithmetic-of-multiverses/

KevinR - #66950

January 5th 2012

“Natural selection’s whole strength comes from being a plausible way to
explain the appearance of design to be an illusion. In other words, it
makes the apparently impossible easy enough to be universal.”

I’d view natural selection as a purely mythical agent of design.

It just cannot design ANYTHING, hence it it not responsible for the designs we see around us. There is no one on earth who can demonstrate just how natural selection can come up with new materials, new structures, new functionality and new purposes out of nothing or even existing biological material. If there were such a person we’d have had the clear demonstration long ago.

Natural selection is a totally misleading phrase. To have the ability to select one/something needs intelligence, so where and how does “nature” get the intelligence from? What exactly is it that does the selection is such strikingly forward thinking manner as to direct development from a single cellular organism to the most fantastically complex human and other multi-cellular organisms?

Evolution is a myth of the first kind. Has not been observed, cannot be traced through history and cannot predict what comes next. It’s HUMAN beings who do not want to acknowledge God as creator [because with that comes responsibility that they do not want to fathom] that hang their hopes on such a useless god.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66870

December 31st 2011


You are right, algorithms is not an answer.  It is putting the question up to another level.

My point is that natural selection can only work if nature is not natural in the sense that Dawkins thinks it is.  

How can nature be purely physical if it is governed by laws which are not physical or material? 

If the universe is orderly and governed by laws which are inherent, but beyond the scope of the physical, then how can humans that it has no purpose?  This is particularly true because humans are a part of nature and we find purpose and meaning in life.

Monod makes a classical circular argument.  For the universe to have meaning and purpose, there would have to be a Creator to give it purpose.  Since there is no Creator, the universe has no purpose or meaning.  This conclusion has not been proven, nor can it be.   

The multiverse is a similar ploy.  It does not solve anything, except put off an issue which really does need to be addressed, namely, Does life have meaning? and How can humanity survive if it does not?          

Jon Garvey - #66875

December 31st 2011

A funny thing, Roger, how much of origins science seems intended to persuade us that the blindingly obvious is illusory. Life looks designed - illusion. The whole natural world works like a superb finely honed system - nope, it’s jerry built by near-neutral mutations. Life works by a sophisticated DNA code - nope, it’s just the illusion of a code. The fundamental constants of the Universe look finely tuned to the nth degree - nope, they’re random if you presuppose an infinite number of universes. Well, at least I know I’m a person - sorry, the mind is an illusion too. as is will and morality.

What’s strange is the contortions people will perform to maintain this insistence on illusion: hypothetical cosmic inflation and imaginary 10-dimensional strings at the cosmological level. Just-so stories at the evolutionary and psychological levels. Just to avoid the unthinkable conclusion that there’s a concerned God behind it all.

Why would that be so unthinkable? My guess is that if the Universe means something, we have to accept the meaning it’s been assigned by God. And many prefer to live with the concept of chaos and illusion, because at least then one can impose ones own meaning on it. Genesis 3 and John 3.19-20 relate, I suspect.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66878

December 31st 2011



John 3:17-20 NRSV  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.

(18)  Those who believe in Him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in (the Name of ) the only Son of God.

(19)  And this is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than Light because their deeds were evil.

It is very sad that more people do not accept Jesus Christ as the Logos, the rational Word of God.

Happy 2012 to one and all. 


Jon Garvey - #66888

January 1st 2012

My Gosh - is it 2012 already? I thought it was 1984…  I must be running late.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66896

January 2nd 2012


Maybe the calendar is off when we live in a topsy turvy world.

A place and time where evangelicals try to save the Bible by destroying its integrity and Creationists try to save Creation by destroying Christianity.

A place and time where scientists try to defend evolutionary science by making it into an ideology and try to defend the reality of Reality by making it into an illusion and the rationality of science by making it irrational. 

A place and time where the leadership of the US House tries to save the nation by destroying its economy and save itself by destroying its own credibility.

A time when wise people accept Creation, but not creationism;  the Bible, but not bibleism; evolution, but not evolutionism; science, but not scientism; ideas, but not ideology.   

beaglelady - #66891

January 1st 2012

Do Evangelicals really have a problem with cosmic inflation?

Jon Garvey - #66894

January 2nd 2012

That depends, Beaglelady.

There are undoubtedly metaphysical implications to such theories, and one often gets the strong impression that there are also metaphysical reasons for proposing them that outweigh the scientific problems they try to solve. Witness Hubble’s steady-state theory and Hubble’ stated reasons for holding on to it long after the Big Bang was well-established.

So the original formulations of the inflaton field as past-eternal implied the universe to be an eternally existent entity, with obvious theological implications (either God is the Universe, or the Universe precedes God, or there are two First Causes). Since Guth showed inflation must, in fact, be time-incomplete that particular issue disappears.

A good (if challenging) chapter by Guth on the last part of that in “The Nature of Nature” (Gordon & Dembski), and a useful general critique of both Inflation and Multiverse theories in a later chapter by Bruce Gordon.

ZeroG - #66907

January 2nd 2012

There has been more recent findings about evolution which help us climb that mountain.
I recently saw a NOVA episode where spots on fruit flies were added by simply “turning on” a switch in their DNA that activates a sequence which produces a spot.


As you can see, it is 10 years after the Dawkins and Dennett articles mentioned in the blog post. My mouth dropped open when I saw this on NOVA as I had worked with genetic algorithms in the mid 1990s (I am a computer scientist). I immediately thought how this takes the efficiency of genetic algorithms to a whole new level. It keeps living organisms from having to regenerate a successful sequence. Instead it just carries around the successful genes, considered “junk”, until some mutation of the switch turns it on.  

We have advanced gene research quite a bit since 1996.  I didn’t like this blog post. Not because of the outdated references, but because of the overall premise is ID based. It just smells ID to me. I don’t know what it is but I know it when I see it. It just seems like instead of trying to solve the problem of the mathematical cliff, the article just throws up it’s hands and say, “Hmm…it must be a designer”.

Actually, while breifly reading the article “Climbing Mount Improbable”, I found that Dawkins does a good job of capturing that source of that ID smell.

R Kennedy - #66908

January 2nd 2012

Sorry you smell the ID.  My interest is in the difference between the assumptions and methods of natural history and ancient human history.  The next blog, when we actually start climbing, is mostly about ancient human history.

ZeroG - #66909

January 2nd 2012

Maybe I was pre-mature in forming an ID conclusion. Ancient human history is fascinating to me. Can’t wait to read the next one.

I guess I got into this series near the end. The “Base Camp” part confused me. It didn’t seem like I was reading the same blog. Can you explain the connection between the first part of this blog post (Mount Improbable) and the second part (Base Camp).

Darrel Falk - #66911

January 3rd 2012

Zero G,

I think you would find it a great use of your time to spend 30 minutes or so catching up by going back to the first article of this series and then reading them all (see side bar for the links).  Rick is on a hiking expedition to Evolution Ridge in the high Sierras.   He is a historian who has a broad knowledge base in both the sciences and theology.  He is also a follower of Jesus who loves the Bible in the B.B.Warfield sense.(see http://biologos.org/blog/evolution-and-our-theological-traditions-calvinism-part-10 ).  The ramifications of  his unique perspective and his skills as a writer beautifully permeate this entire series.

Regarding your comment about “smelling like ID:” anyone who has spent much time on the BioLogos website knows that BioLogos considers the science of the leaders of the ID movement to be deeply flawed.  However, good scientists question their algorithms.  This is especially true when one moves to a discipline as complex as biology.  (I hope you’re reading BioLogos’s Monopolizing Knowledge series also.)  Everyone interested in the science/faith discussion should read the 1996 book by Dennett, which was summarized briefly in this blog. Dennett, like Dawkins, let’s his atheistic philosophy shape his algorithm without acknowledging that the shaping has been influenced  not solely by scientific presuppositions, but also by a personal ideology that is not grounded in scientific methodology. This is the true danger in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.  

If the “odor of the ID movement” is a healthy skepticism about jumping to conclusions before they are warranted, then may we all become ID theorists. But healthy skepticism and unhealthy skepticism are two different things and  the hallmark of a good scientist is  being able to successfully tell the difference between the two. Science at its best is humble initially; but science at its worst is remaining skeptical when the facts are staring you in the face.

KevinR - #66951

January 5th 2012

“but science at its worst is remaining skeptical when the facts are staring you in the face.”
So just what are the facts? According to who are those facts THE facts? All so-called “facts” need interpretation.
So the atheists prefer to interpret things to mean that there is no God, according to their own presuppositions. They come up with evolution as the be all and end all of everything we see around us.
In contrast Christians interpret everything as pointing to having its origin in God the creator, according to their presuppositions.

So which “interpretation of the facts” are you referring to?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66954

January 5th 2012


You are right.  It is the presuppositions that color everything.

Then it would seem that it would be best to begin with those aspects of science that most people can agree with.  Many creationists make the distinction between macro- and micro-evolution.  They accept micro but not macro. 

Dawkins agrees that there is design in nature, but says that the universe as a whole is not designed.  He too accepts micro but not macro.

Both sides accept micro, but not macro, basically because the facts clearly support micro, but their ideology denies macro.  In my opinion Christianity does support macro-evolution when it is understood not in mechanistic Darwinian terms, but organic ecological terms.  This is the topic of my book, DARWIN’S MYTH.  

On the other hand rational design is not inimical to science,  In fact science is based on the view that the universe has a rational structure or design.  To me this implies that the universe has a Creator, but it does not dictate that it does, so the question is open.

If people can agree on these two basic aspects of science, evolution or change and design, we can still argue whether there is a God or not.  However the real problem is the philosophical intellectual understanding of reality which supports this dynamic complex/one worldview.  

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