On Seeing Intelligence in Unintelligent Design

| By Darrel Falk

By now, I hope all of our readers realize that we at BioLogos believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God. At the same time, we take the consensus of scientists very seriously, recognizing that the scientific process has been enormously successful at accurately describing the natural world.

We do not pretend that showing the two can exist in harmony will be easy. It has taken a long time to get to our current state of disharmony. Positions are firmly entrenched. Feedback related to our posts of recent weeks shows there are many who are thoroughly uncomfortable with our positions.

Large segments of Christianity believe that findings which lay at the heart of many decades of scientific investigation are deeply flawed. The real basis of this skepticism is grounded in how they understand the Bible. Because of this, we expend considerable energy exploring how to think about the Bible in a manner that doesn’t bring us into conflict with what the scientific data—in near certitude—seems to say. We are committed to our calling. We will work through these issues, maintaining our commitment to Scripture as the inspired Word of God.

We are convinced that Christianity is going to have to embrace a biblical hermeneutic which is not based upon the notion of one man and one woman being the genetic ancestors of all living humans. The data are absolutely overwhelming as we will continue to show in coming days.

We also need to deal frankly with the notion that the fundamental tenets of the Intelligent Design movement, as laid out so clearly by Phillip Johnson almost two decades ago and developed so articulately by Michael Behe and others have missed the mark. It might have seemed much easier for Christian theology, at least in the evangelical tradition, if they had been right. Our mandate, however, is not to settle on that which is easiest, but rather to pursue what is right. We are committed to doing so within the context of evangelical Christianity.

I am a scientist with a long career that has focused on teaching a wide variety of biology courses. So my task is primarily to lay out that which we biologists hold with near certainty. BioLogos will depend on a variety of experts though. We will continue to need theologians, philosophers, and biblical scholars, for example, to think along with us in coming days. Most all though, we pray for God’s guidance and we hope you will pray along with us.

To better understand the biological perspective, I highly recommend Inside the Human Genome: A Case for Non-Intelligent Design by University of California, Irvine biologist John Avise. As I mentioned in a previous post, I don’t know of anyone who lays out the biological issues that we must all come to grips with more clearly. He shows that living systems, elegant as they are, display plenty of evidence that they have been assembled through a process that is more like jury rigging than intelligent design.

As a biologist, I have spent my entire career in utter amazement at the beauty of life and the majesty of the processes that have brought its diversity into being. As a Christian, I am convinced that these are God’s processes, that God spoke them into existence and that they continue in and through God’s Presence. Still, they seem to have inherent limitations. Avise lays out these limitations especially clearly. Here are seven:

    1. Natural Selection - Natural selection is powerful, but it is never all-powerful. It is just one in a nexus of evolutionary forces. Other factors can override the adaptation-promoting power of natural selection in particular instances. When they do, the product is suboptimal. Indeed, they may even lead to detrimental biological outcomes.
    1. Genetic Drift - In small populations, prevalence of certain forms of genes, called alleles, can change rapidly in a manner that is independent of their adaptive value. Chance takes on considerable significance in small populations.
    1. Cumulative Effect - Slightly deleterious forms of genes can stay in populations since their effect is too small, on their own, for them to be eliminated through natural selection. The genome accumulates many such slightly deleterious genes. The cumulative effect of them all can be quite a burden to the genome as a whole.
    1. Piggy-backing - Sometimes deleterious forms of genes accumulate in the population because they reside in the region of a chromosome which also houses highly beneficial genes. Because of this, it is hard to eliminate the deleterious without also eliminating the beneficial neighbor.
    1. Pleiotropy - Some genes have multiple effects on the body. In such cases, even though one effect may be highly positive, another effect of the same gene on another part of the body may actually be harmful. This gene may become prevalent in the population because its good effect on one tissue, outweighs its bad effect on another. 
    1. Selfish genes - Some genes confer no advantage to the organism, but they predominate because they have replication mechanisms which enable them to thrive in the genome. They actually may cause harm to the organism, but they are not eliminated because they have developed special ways to multiply within the genome. Such genes resemble little parasites, except they are not organisms, they are simply segments of DNA. 
  1. Sexual selection - Some genes, like those which build the peacock’s tail, come to predominate, even though they confer significant disadvantages to the overall body plan. The basis of their success is solely that they cause increased success in mating. Male peacocks develop elaborate tails at a high energetic cost and risk being easily spotted by predators. So why do they still have long, showy tails? You guessed it: pea hens find them attractive.

Truly, the instruction book of every species is littered with flaws that record the process by which its genome has been assembled and passed on through the eons of time. It is by no means analogous to William Paley’s intelligently designed watch or Michael Behe’s mousetrap.

I am not a philosopher or a theologian, so I ought not ruminate about why God would do it this way rather than the way that I would do it if I were God. I hope though many will join the conversation as we think about this. Why wouldGod do it this way? We hope you will stay with us as we engage people with this question from within their various disciplines. We have much to think about. We have much to learn.


About the Author

Darrel Falk

Darrel Falk is former president of BioLogos and currently serves as BioLogos' Senior Advisor for Dialog. He is Professor of Biology, Emeritus at Point Loma Nazarene University and serves as Senior Fellow at The Colossian Forum. Falk is the author of Coming to Peace with Science.