The Theological Dilemma of Evolution, Part 2

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March 5, 2010 Tags: Creation & Origins

Today's entry was written by Gordon J. Glover. 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.

The Theological Dilemma of Evolution, Part 2

In part 1 of this post, we looked at the theological consequences that would arise from evolution being true. But now we must look at the other side of the dilemma: what are the theological consequences that would arise from evolution being false or physically impossible?

Consider this argument: If God created all living things as separate and distinct species by supernatural acts, then His creativity would not have been subject to any physical constraints. That’s the very definition of a miracle. You see, ordinary physical processes governed by the laws of nature impose limitations and restrictions on what can and can’t be created. And when things are created naturally, specific patterns emerge based on the physical properties of the raw materials. For instance, you can’t turn ordinary water into wine without the right kind of grapes, some yeast, and plenty of time to let it all ferment. And if you want a specific wine, you have to use a specific grape from a specific region. You can’t start with a Merlot grape and end up with a Cabernet, or vice versa.

These are the types of patterns that emerge when creating things using ordinary cause-and-effect. But God, on the other hand, can create wine directly from water without the limitations or restrictions inherent with the use of pre-existing material. And since God is a completely unconstrained creator, His supernaturally-created wine can be a Merlot, a Cabernet, a Shiraz, or something altogether new – it doesn’t depend on anything pre-existing.

Now let’s bring this back around to biology. As Christians, we believe that God created each and every one of us. Yet, because he used a natural process called sexual reproduction to accomplish it, there are certain patterns inherent to every person. For instance, a person is male only if they have a Y chromosome. So all males should have the same Y-chromosome as their fathers – where else would they get it? And children should have the same mitochondrial DNA as their mothers because sperm cells pass on no mitochondria from the father. However, if God were to create people from scratch using a supernatural process, He would not be obligated to follow these or any other rules.

In other words, if God created the first living things simply by speaking them into existence, He would not have been bound by any physical constraints. Being completely unconstrained, God would have presumably been free to design and create species without following any discernible patterns. Or He could have chosen to mix and match different patterns according to His pleasure. Either of these scenarios would have been unmistakable evidence of special creation. So the fact that we do find very specific patterns in nature should interest us greatly. What is God telling us?

Well when it comes to things like the distribution of anatomical features between the species, the distribution of species around the globe, the distribution of fossils throughout the geologic column, and the distribution of genetic information between the species – God seems to be telling us that the creation of living species was dominated by ordinary processes. Not only do we find very clear and specific patterns in each of these independent sets of data, but amazingly, they seem to all converge onto the exact same scenario of natural history – a scenario that has come to be known in the scientific community as evolution, or common descent.

Now remember, when God creates by supernatural means, He is under no obligation whatsoever to design creatures according to specific patterns normally associated with natural cause-and-effect. And given the inherent theological challenges we face if evolution is true; combined with the infinite number of non-evolutionary patterns God could have just as easily used, we have absolutely no reason to expect that God would carefully design each creature such that it fits the precise patterns required by common descent. But that is exactly what a survey of the created world reveals! So if the opening chapters of Genesis are presenting a scientific and historical account of origins, why would God intentionally infuse the cosmos with coherent data suggesting that an entirely different creation scenario is true?

This is a huge theological problem for those of us who take both science and the Bible seriously. And it’s a fairly new problem in the history of our Christian faith – one that is only getting worse as we learn more about the world we inhabit. Take for example the apparent fusion of human Chromosome #2 from two non-human primate chromosomes discovered in 2005 (see video below for more). Things like this just don’t add up unless common descent really took place.

The theological dilemma of evolution is not something that can be solved by scientists working alone in their laboratories, or by theologians pouring over ancient texts and medieval commentaries. We need pastors and theologians looking into this together – which is why I am so encouraged by the BioLogos workshops that seek to bring leading scientists together with leading pastors and biblical scholars.


Gordon J. Glover holds degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Ocean Engineering and is the author of Beyond the Firmament: Understanding Science and Creation. A veteran of the U.S. Navy, he now resides in the Washington, D.C. area where he works and runs the popular blog, "Beyond the Firmament".

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Glen Davidson - #5865

March 5th 2010

If it’s a miracle, why don’t organisms appear more miraculous?  If it was design, why don’t we see the heavy cross-over of solutions and processes that we see in real designed objects?

Why do bacteria and archea gene taxonomies differ so much from vertebrate taxonomies, except that sexual recombination dominates in the latter, and gene transfer is so common in the former?

Design, of course, might have constraints—although one would not think that God the designer would.  But we know a lot about human design constraints, and that is not what we see in life.  The Wright brothers (and their predecessors) copied aspects of bird wings onto materially and conceptually unrelated machines and designs, yet bats’ wings owe nothing discernable to bird wings at all—even though they come later in the geological record.

You know that if bat wings revealed any sort of non-inherited copying of the forms of bird wings, that this would be—legitimately—trumpeted as evidence of actual design, of the sort that humans effect.  How can the absence of such copying not be considered falsification of the design hypothesis?

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Glen Davidson - #5866

March 5th 2010

I should have spelled it “archaea” rather than “archea.”  I wouldn’t want to mislead anyone not familiar with its spelling, hence this correction.

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Keith - #5868

March 5th 2010

In posing similar questions to several of my YEC friends, the answer that I am often met with is along the lines of, “God intentionally made things this way so that we’d have to choose faith in Him.  Maybe He wanted humans to be able to think that evolution/ old earth age/ etc was true so that they’d have to make the difficult choice to follow Him in spite of physical evidence - that’s what faith is about!”  I can promise that this will be commonly offered as an answer to your argument.

However, this in itself raises another theological dilemma - if all of this is true, then is the God of all truth and righteousness, the God of justice and mercy, the sort of God who would lay stumbling blocks in our paths?  Is He a God who plays head games with us and tries to trick us into the possibility of following a false path so that our choice of “faith over reason” is somehow more profound?  I think not.  Jesus prayed and likewise taught us to pray, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”.  Matt 6:13.  Christians who deny the physical truths demonstrated by science with the reasoning that they are there to trip us up, must therefore consider the theological problem of God trying to lead us into temptation.


Joe Francis - #5876

March 5th 2010

How would everyone here deal with the common design or common method argument.  For instance, the bible infers that living things were made from the ground, from the elements that were made….thus they reflect this molecular “homology.”  So why would we need to postulate that creation should look non-homologous?  It is interesting that the most complex structures can be built with the same set of simple building blocks….i.e. lego blocks,  dimensional lumber etc.  Aren’t homologous building blocks indicative of some aspects of design?


jarl - #5877

March 5th 2010

Glen, your point is well taken as to the weight of evidence pointing to the absence of design. Absence of evidence, however, is not the same as falsification. I can always say “somewhere there exists a bat with feathered, bird-like wings”. You can look and look and look, and if you don’t find one and then say, well, it doesn’t exist, all I have to do is to say “well, keep looking”.  As far as I understand the philosophy of science, you need to frame a hypothesis that can be falsified with one (repeatable, verifiable) observation. So, “All birds can fly” is a falsifiable hypothesis - a penguin falsifies it. “There are some birds that can’t fly” is not a falsifiable hypothesis, since I could look and look (in North America) and not find one. All you’d have to say then, is “well, you didn’t look in the right place”.
BTW - just to clarify a point about Archaea - - Archaea are more closely related to Eukarya (which includes vertebrates) than they are to Bacteria. (several lines of evidence point to this)


Glen Davidson - #5879

March 5th 2010

Aren’t homologous building blocks indicative of some aspects of design?

Why?  We as designers are not limited to the building blocks to which life is restricted.  Much of our organic chemistry would not exist if it had to be based on the chemistry of life.  We learn from life’s structure and function, but we often switch to better materials when we “copy” life, because we designers are able to think.

And why do related organisms use similar building blocks for a function, while another set of related organisms only distantly related to the first group utilize different building blocks?  The vertebrate eye could have been used by cephalopods, and vice versa, but instead they have different developmental processes and mostly use quite different proteins.

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Glen Davidson - #5880

March 5th 2010

Continuing from #5879:

Designers can radically change designs.  Planes suddenly went from using piston engines exclusively, to many using jet engines.  Essentially, jet engines could not evolve from piston engines.  And computer chips designed for PCs end up in cars.  Vertebrates do not exhibit such revolutions, but are restricted to evolution of pre-existing parts, so that each and every vertebrate wing evolved from its ancestors terrestrial forelimbs. 

Where a designer would adapt a wing to an organism, evolution can only modify parts. 

Design has constraints, but these are not the hereditary constraints that afflict evolution.  Why do we see the latter, but not design constraints, in life?

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Glen Davidson - #5881

March 5th 2010

Absence of evidence, however, is not the same as falsification. I can always say “somewhere there exists a bat with feathered, bird-like wings”.

Absence of evidence may very well be the same as falsification.  Had no evidence of “light bending” been seen (as predicted by general relativity) during eclipses, that could be considered to be a falsification. 

You cannot always say that “a bat with feathered, bird-like wings” exists, because you have no evidence for that.  As it happens, we have good evidence to the contrary.  But even if we did not, that would be an issue of observation, which in a number of cases may never be complete.  That is to say, induction is a problem because we often cannot make complete observations, and that’s why science is considered philosophically to be “unproven” and at least somewhat “tentative.”  Of course an instance which falsifies what seems to be the case for much of science, yet science moves on without worrying that apparently unlikely events or entities “could be found” which would falsify what we apparently know.

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Gordon J. Glover - #5882

March 5th 2010

Keith #5868,

I would also tell your YEC friends this: the scriptures refer to the earth as having features associated with “flatness” no less than 35 times.  The scriptures also refer to the solar system as having features associated with “geocentricity” at least 67 times. 

If your YEC friends are worried about believing the appearence of things over and against the biblical descriptions of things, then I’d say they are only batting 1 out of 3.  Actually, unless they also believe that mustard seeds are actually smaller than moss spores or orchid seeds, they are batting 25%!

GJG


Gordon J. Glover - #5884

March 5th 2010

Joe Francis - #5876

You make a great point: “...the bible infers that living things were made from the ground, from the elements that were made….thus they reflect this molecular “homology.”  So why would we need to postulate that creation should look non-homologous?”

However, when you dig a little deeper, the evidence for common ancestry is not based on mere commonalities and analogies.  Those can definitely be explained using common design arguments—just as we would when comparing different makes and models of vehicles for example. 

But the evidence for common ancestry is based on very specific patterns.  The reduncy of the standard genetic code and the abundence of non-encoding DNA facitlitate the accumulation of non-harmful genetic markers across various biological groups.  And the patterns of similarities and differences in these markers can only be one way if species have all descended from a common ancestor.

GJG


Glen Davidson - #5885

March 5th 2010

The last sentence in #5881 came out badly.  A fix:

Of course an instance which falsifies what seems to be the case [remains possible] for much of science,...

Now on to more of the issue of falsification: 

There’s another problem with asserting that a bat with feathered bird-like wings exists, or “might exist.”  Would we even call an organism with a bat’s body and feathered bird-like wings a “bat”?  The fact is that taxonomy always did tolerably well reflect evolutionary realities, but has been pushed even further in that direction in recent years, and an organism with a bat body and bird wings would not fit that naming system.  We’d likely call it a chimera if we found it, at least at first—and further study might clarify issues, or not.

Anyway, who’s to say that someday there will not be an engineered bat with feathers and bird-like wings?  That would not falsify evolution, though, it would just be a case of genuine design which occurred after bats and birds evolved.

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Glen Davidson - #5886

March 5th 2010

continuing from #5885:

What’s important about falsification and testing is that we must have a specific hypothesis regarding specific phenomena, and not about what someone hopes might be found.  No one I know denies that evidence for non-human design could ever be found in either the living world or the non-living world.  The point is that meaningful design hypotheses have been falsified for the life that we now know, and a (sort of) corollary of that is that ID has become meaningless in order to avoid the entailed design predictions which have been falsified.

When I wrote of design being falsified, it was not a statement that design cannot exist in the world, nor that evidence for designed life can ever be found.  It was a limited statement of the kind made in science, which points to the fact that specific design predictions have not been borne out by experiments thus far.

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Glen Davidson - #5888

March 5th 2010

As far as I understand the philosophy of science, you need to frame a hypothesis that can be falsified with one (repeatable, verifiable) observation.

Many geological, meteorological, cosmological, ecological, and sociological hypotheses are falsifiable only statistically, and not via single observations.  Did a single observation falsify the expanding earth hypothesis?

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Glen Davidson - #5889

March 5th 2010

So, “All birds can fly” is a falsifiable hypothesis - a penguin falsifies it. “There are some birds that can’t fly” is not a falsifiable hypothesis, since I could look and look (in North America) and not find one. All you’d have to say then, is “well, you didn’t look in the right place”.

These are trivial “hypotheses,” which fact correlates with their being universal statements.  All bats can fly, so far as we know, but what of that?  I would not hypothesize that no bats will ever be flightless, and flightless bats would not change the non-trivial fact that bats don’t easily evolve to be flightless.

Suppose that we find hidden away a population of flightless bats with feathers and bird wings, which appear to be genetically engineered (with mostly bat DNA, but enough bird DNA to make feathers and bird wings).  Evolutionary theory is falsified?  One certainly thinks not, because evolutionary theory allows for that.

We do not make universalist statements that “design doesn’t exist”—clearly it does.  We say that meaningful design hypotheses are falsified—all meaningful design hypotheses would be about known organisms, not about the unknown.

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Glen Davidson - #5891

March 5th 2010

It was a limited statement of the kind made in science, which points to the fact that specific design predictions have not been borne out by experiments thus far.

Read “observations” for “experiments”  in that sentence.

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Mike Gene - #5892

March 5th 2010

Hi Glen,

How can the absence of such copying not be considered falsification of the design hypothesis?

What design hypothesis?  It sounds like you equate design with special creation.  After all, evidence for common descent hardly falsifies the hypothesis that design has somehow shaped evolution.


Mike Gene - #5893

March 5th 2010

Hi jarl,

Just a nitpick:

BTW - just to clarify a point about Archaea - - Archaea are more closely related to Eukarya (which includes vertebrates) than they are to Bacteria. (several lines of evidence point to this)

There is a school of thought that argues for this (mainly because the similarities in transcription and translation machinery). But there are also many scientists who don’t buy it.  Many think Archaea are highly derived bacteria, since they share many features with gram positive bacteria.


Mike Gene - #5894

March 5th 2010

Hi Gordon,

Your most powerful point is here:

As Christians, we believe that God created each and every one of us. Yet, because he used a natural process called sexual reproduction to accomplish it, there are certain patterns inherent to every person. For instance, a person is male only if they have a Y chromosome. So all males should have the same Y-chromosome as their fathers – where else would they get it? And children should have the same mitochondrial DNA as their mothers because sperm cells pass on no mitochondria from the father. However, if God were to create people from scratch using a supernatural process, He would not be obligated to follow these or any other rules.

It goes deeper than this.  The process that brought each and every one of us into existence was a random process.  We all should know this as fact because every pregnant woman has a 50-50 chance of having a boy or girl, and this is because roughly half the sperm carry the Y while the other half carry the X.  Which actual sperm fertilizes the egg is a random event, but it is the core, crucial event that brings each one of us into existence.  God must be using chance.


Glen Davidson - #5895

March 5th 2010

What design hypothesis?  It sounds like you equate design with special creation.

No it doesn’t.  It sounds like I equate design with actual design, you know, as intelligent agents are known to produce.  I am not interested in “design” that has nothing to do with that word’s meaning in the English language.

After all, evidence for common descent hardly falsifies the hypothesis that design has somehow shaped evolution.

Of course it doesn’t, but the lack of evidence for the possibilties afforded by design does falsify any meaningful ID hypothesis.  If the “hypothesis” is simply that some designer intervened to make everything look as non-teleological evolutionary theory predicts, it is not meaningful.

I have to wonder why you skipped everything else that I wrote in my comment which alluded to such factors, in order to respond to a mere fragment as if the context didn’t already partly address your issues.  It was more than clear that I wasn’t equating design to special creation.;

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Larry - #5897

March 5th 2010

No it doesn’t.  It sounds like I equate design with actual design, you know, as intelligent agents are known to produce.

By “intelligent agents” I assume you mean “humans”. It has always puzzled me how we could possibly detect divine design (or little green men design) when the only designers that we are familiar with is humans. This means that anthropologists and forensic scientists can detect design in their areas of expertise, but how can a biologist determine if a given biological mechanism has been divinely designed? What are the attributes of divine design? Is it just like human design? That would be strange, to say the least.


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