The Doctrine of Creation (part 6)

October 06, 2008     Time: 00:35:20


The scientific evidence pertinent to the origin and evolution of biological complexity.

We are going to describe the scientific evidence pertinent to the origin and evolution of biological complexity.

I argued last time that the Genesis account of creation, once one moves away from the literal, consecutive 24-hour period of time interpretation, doesn’t really explain how God created life on earth. The Genesis account really doesn’t explain anything about the mechanisms by which God created. In fact, in two places, the account says that God declared “let the earth bring forth” the vegetation and terrestrial animals, suggesting that there may indeed by natural causes in bringing these things forth. So the Christian is open to following the evidence where ever it might lead. The Christian, unlike the atheist, is not committed to just one view of biological origins but rather can afford to follow the evidence where it leads.

What does the evidence indicate about the origin of life? We saw that in order for life to originate and evolve, there has to be finely tuned conditions present in the Big Bang in order for life to evolve anywhere in the cosmos. But even given those finely tuned conditions that is no guarantee that life would come to originate somewhere in the universe. These conditions are necessary for the origin of life but they are not sufficient. In order for life to originate, other conditions have to be in place which are astronomically improbable.

Most of us were probably taught in high school or elementary school that life originated in the so-called primordial soup by chance chemical reactions and perhaps fueled by lightning strikes. Back in the 1950s, a scientist by the name of Stanley Miller was able to synthesize amino acids by passing electric sparks through a methane gas in one of his experimental apparatuses in his laboratory. Now, amino acids are not alive. This is not the creation of life; but proteins are made out of amino acids and proteins are found in living things and so the hope was that somehow the origin of life could be explained. Now you might think that is a pretty big extrapolation – amino acids are constitutive proteins, proteins are found in living things, therefore the ability to synthesize amino acids meant somehow life can be originated in this way. Well, I think that is a pretty big leap. But that is what most of us were taught. In the primordial soup that covered the earth in the oceans or the pools that through the lightning strikes and the chemical reactions somehow primitive life was birthed and formed. That was the origin of life.

What the average layman doesn’t realize is that all of these old, chemical origin of life scenarios have broken down and are now rejected by the scientific community. This point has been wonderfully documented in a book called The Mystery of Life’s Origin by Thaxton, Bradley and Olsen.[1] If you are interested in the origin of life, this is essential reading. What they point out is that there probably never even was such a thing as the so-called primordial soup. Because the natural processes of destruction and dilution would have prevented the chemical reactions that supposedly led to life. Miller’s experiments were performed in a tiny glass enclosed artificial environment where the natural processes of destruction and dilution would not come into effect. But, of course, in the primordial oceans of the earth, these sorts of natural processes could not be precluded and therefore they would have prevented the chemical reactions that would have supposedly led to the formation of life.

They also point out that thermodynamics poses an insuperable problem for these chemical origin of life scenarios because there just isn’t any way to harness the raw energy of lightning strikes or energy from the sun in order to make it drive chemical evolution forward. There just isn’t any sort of mechanism whereby this raw energy could be harnessed to forward chemical evolution.

Moreover, they point out in their book there was no way to preserve any products of chemical evolution for the supposed second step in the development. The scientist can artificially isolate the products of the first chemical development and then subject them to a second step but in the primordial seas there was no way of collecting and preserving any products of chemical evolutions for the supposed next step. The same processes that formed them in the first place would serve to almost immediately destroy them again.

Finally, they point out that it was originally believed that billions of years were available for life to originate by chance; that given billions of years there would be billions and billions of chances for life to originate in the primordial soup. The problem is that we now have fossil evidence of life going back as far as 3.8 billion years ago. Primitive life forms already existing, fossilized, as early as 3.8 billion years ago. Now, when you think that the age of the earth itself is probably 5 to 6 billion years old, that means the window of opportunity between the time that the earth cooled down enough and the seas formed and then the first fossilized life 3.8 billion years ago is being progressively closed. The window of opportunity is getting tighter and tighter. In fact, Bradley, Thaxton and Olsen estimate that it is probably a window of only about 25 million years right now. Given the age of the earth and the time necessary for the formation and cooling of the seas and so forth and then the age of fossilized life, the window of opportunity during which this chemical origin of life would have to occur would be only about 25 million years which is far too short for the chance scenarios.

So for all of these reasons and more, the old chemical origin of life theories have broken down and abandoned. There is no new theory on the horizon. The origin of life on earth is literally scientifically inexplicable as it now stands. It is scientifically inexplicable how life came to originate. Francis Crick, who was the co-discoverer of DNA, has said that the origin of life on earth is “almost a miracle.”[2] In fact, Crick was driven to the hypothesis that the origin of life on earth is so improbable that it was probably seeded from some other planet located elsewhere in the universe and came here on meteorites and then sprang up[3] which is of course an unfalsifiable hypothesis.

Sometimes people will say, well, if the universe is infinite in size then no matter how improbable the origin of life is it will originate somewhere by chance. Given an infinitely large universe then, no matter what the odds, somewhere on some planet life will have to originate. The problem with this objection is that it could be used to explain away any improbable event no matter how improbable the event is. You could say, “Well somewhere in an infinite universe it will happen.” Rational behavior will become literally impossible. No matter how improbable something is, it could be explained away by saying that in an infinite universe it would happen somewhere by chance. For example, can you imagine the following dialogue taking place on a poker table in a west Texas saloon:

[in a surprisingly good, but stereotypical, Texas accent]

Slim: “Tex, you’re a dirty, cheating skunk. Every time you deal you gets four aces!”

Tex: “Well, Slim, I know it looks a mighty bit suspicious that every time I deals I gets four aces, but you gots to understand that in this here infinite universe there’s an infinite number of poker games going on somewheres. So chances are that in some of them the chances of me getting four aces every time I deal would come true. So put up that shooting iron and shut your yap and play cards!”

Now, do you think old Slim would be stupid enough to sit down for another hand? I don’t think so. This kind of reasoning would render rational behavior impossible. In fact, on this view, we could never have any evidence that the universe is infinite, because if it is infinite, it would become impossible to assess the probability or improbability of the evidence. Because given that it is infinite, improbability becomes meaningless. Everything will happen in an infinite universe. So you could not even have any evidence that the universe is infinite if it is infinite. Thus the objection is ultimately self-defeating and cannot be rationally affirmed.

As I said, the Bible doesn’t say how life originated. It just says God said, “Let the land bring forth vegetation, let the waters swarm with fish and other life.” The Bible isn’t a science book. It doesn’t tell us what means God used or whether he used means to create the origin of life. But I think we can say that the scientific evidence is certainly consistent with the origin of life being, in Francis Crick’s words, a miracle. That is to say an event which was supernaturally brought about by God. So minimally we can say that science and the Bible are not in contradiction on this point. In fact, if anything, I think that the scientific evidence is actually clearer than the Bible that the origin of life is due to some sort of miraculous intervention on the part of a Creator God.

What then about the evolution of biological life forms and complexity? Given that life has originated, how did the complex life forms that we observe today develop? Where did they come from? As I have said in previous classes, this is an issue on which Christians have different viewpoints. Some take Genesis 1 to describe a literal, six consecutive day creation week that took place around ten to twenty thousand years ago. On the other hand, I pointed out that there are a number of non-literal interpretations that would suggest that this is not to be taken as a consecutive, six day creation week. We noticed in Genesis 1 that it says with regard to the creation on the third day that God said let the earth bring forth the vegetation and it did so. Plants yielding seed after their kind; fruit trees bearing fruit after their kind. It is hard to imagine that the author of Genesis thought of this being like time lapsed photography – a film being run on fast forward. So it seems to me that it is very plausible to think that the author of Genesis imagined life coming about over long periods of time and many of the church fathers and early rabbis also held to this as well. If that is the case, then Genesis really doesn’t tell us anything about how God made the plants and animals. Did he create them out of nothing so that they just magically appeared on the scene? Did he create them out of pre-existing life forms? Did he use evolution to produce them gradually? All of these are scientific questions which the Bible doesn’t address. The main point of the Genesis narrative is to tell us that God is the creator of the world. The sun, the moon, the stars, the animals, and the plants are not deities – they are just creatures. God made them. But how he made them is left open.

So we need to ask ourselves, “Where does the evidence point?” What does the evidence indicate with respect to biological evolution? The naturalist, or the atheist, conclusion has already been determined in advance as I said previously. Given that there is no God, evolution is the only game in town. Things had to have evolved naturally. That is based not upon the evidence but rather upon naturalistic philosophy. I think that this is the real merit of Philip Johnson’s book Darwin on Trial[4] which has been one of the most influential books in our day in this whole area. What Philip Johnson, I think, clearly sees is that what we might call the grand theory of Darwinian evolution is not something that can simply be read off of the evidence but rather it is predicated upon a philosophical commitment to naturalism. What the evidence supports is what we might call micro-evolution. That is to say evolution within certain limits; that there is a development of life within certain parameters. Change within limits. But this is something that even the most conservative fundamentalist admits; since he believes that all of the human races evolved from Adam and Eve – from a single human pair – and yet look at the diversity of the races of the world. So micro-evolutionary change – change within certain limits – is really no big deal. Rather the grand Darwinian synthesis represents a huge leap or extrapolation from the evidence of micro-evolution (which everybody believes in) to macro-evolution – that is to say, that all life has evolved from a primordial ancestor by certain naturalistic mechanisms.

The problem with that kind of enormous extrapolation is that examples are very common in science where such extrapolations fail. Very often scientific evidence will support a theory within certain limits but to try to extrapolate that beyond those limits will lead to a falsification of the theory. Just one example would be the difference between the Special Theory of Relativity and the General Theory of Relativity. Einstein initially thought to extrapolate the relativity of motion in his Special Theory to cover rotation and acceleration as well in his General Theory and he was unable to do so. He did develop a theory of gravitation which was his greatest intellectual accomplishment but he did not succeed in generalizing or extrapolating the Special Theory of Relativity to all motion as he had hoped to do. The same question arises with respect to the grand evolutionary scenario. How can we be sure that the extrapolation from micro-evolutionary change to macro-evolution is a legitimate extrapolation?

In order to answer that question we need to look at the two main components of Darwinian evolutionary theory. One would be the doctrine of common ancestry which holds that all life forms are descended from a common primordial ancestor. Then secondly would be the natural mechanisms of genetic mutation and natural selection as the engine that drives evolutionary theory forward. Here I would like to recommend two books for your reading if you are interested in following up on this. The first would be Michael Denton’s book Evolution: A Theory In Crisis.[5] Denton is a microbiologist from New Zealand. He is not a Christian – when he wrote this book he wasn’t even a theist, he was an agnostic. Yet, he came to believe that the theory of evolution is deeply flawed and needs to be seriously revised. Denton’s book is, I think, the finest examination of the grand Darwinian evolutionary theory that has been published today. The second book is by Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box[6] which was called by the New York Times as one of the 100 most influential books published during the 20th century[7]. Behe is also a microbiologist and in this book he tries to show that certain cellular systems – certain microbiological systems within the cell – cannot be explained through the mechanisms of genetic mutation and natural selection.

Let’s take a look first at the doctrine of common ancestry. According to this doctrine, all life forms that exist today – plants and animals – evolved from a simple primordial ancestor. In favor of this thesis would be the fact that almost all living organisms share the same genetic code or DNA. In fact, it is striking how similar organisms are in their DNA to one another. The creationist could respond to this by saying, well, look, God just simply used the same design plan over and over again in creating biological life. But it doesn’t mean that one has evolved from each other. In the same way, Ford and General Motors could use the same sort of design plan to manufacture their automobiles but that doesn’t mean that a Chevrolet has evolved from a Ford. They simply have a similar design plan. One could say that perhaps God used the same basic design plan – namely, the same sort of genetic structure for the different unrelated organisms that he created. That is a possibility, I think, but it might seem more plausible to say that the genetic similarity of all living things is due to their being related to each other. Because of their common descent they share a similar genetic structure. That evidence I think would be one of the evidences in support of common ancestry. On the other hand, the fossil evidence stands starkly in opposition of the doctrine of common ancestry. When Darwin proposed his theory, one of its major weaknesses was that there are no organisms around today which stand mid-way between other organisms as the transitional forms between them. We don’t see transitional forms between the animals that are living today. Darwin answered this objection by saying that these transitional animals all existed in the past and eventually they will be discovered. So life is rather like a tree of branches and as you trace the branches back in time they come to some sort of a primordial ancestor that is the common ancestor of all life today. However, paleontologists have unearthed a good deal of fossil remains of extinct animals since Darwin first published Origin of the Species and they have not found these anticipated transitional forms. Instead, what they have simply found was more distinct animals and plants which have died off. So rather than being like the nodes of the branches, these extinct forms are simply like more leaves on the tree. They are just more distinct leaves but the common branches connecting them have not been found by and large. Now, certainly there are a few suspected transitional forms such as the Archaeopteryx. The Archaeopteryx is a bird which has certain reptilian features – he has claws on his wings and teeth in his beak. But if Darwinian evolution were true we are not talking about there being a few rare missing links. Rather, as Michael Denton emphasizes in his book, there should be literally millions and millions of these transitional forms in the fossil record. Think for example of all of the intermediate forms that would have to exist in order for a bat and a whale to be descendent from a common ancestor. Just think of all the transitional forms that would have to be. And yet, they are not there. And a bat and a whale are actually rather closely related in that they are both mammals and vertebrates. How would you show that a bat and, say, a sponge or a spider are descended from the same ancestor? This problem can no longer be dismissed by saying we haven’t dug deep enough. The transitional forms have not been found because, quite frankly, they are not there. So the data concerning the doctrine of common ancestry is mixed. I think the genetic evidence does lend some support to it but the fossil evidence seems to be decidedly against it.

What about the other thesis of Darwinian evolution that the mechanism of natural selection operating on genetic mutation is sufficient for the origin of biological complexity today? According to the theory, evolutionary development occurs because random mutations in the genetic structure of creatures produces new features in those creatures which may be advantageous in the struggle for survival. Natural selection preserves those features that are advantageous and so those creatures have a selective advantage and therefore gradually reproduce more abundantly and come to dominate the population. I know of no evidence at all that these mechanisms are capable of producing the sort of biological complexity that we see in the world from an original single celled organism. In fact, the evidence is positively against it. The processes operate simply too slow for this to have happened in the 3.8 billion years that life has been around. In their book The Anthropic Cosmological Principal[8], John Barrow and Frank Tipler, two physicists, list ten steps in the course of human evolution like the development of aerobic respiration, the development of the inner skeleton, the development of photosynthesis, the development of the eye, ten steps in the course of human evolution each of which is so improbable that before it would occur the sun would have gone through the whole course of stellar evolution, ceased to be a main sequence yellow star and would have incinerated the earth.[9] And yet, all ten of these have to have happened in the last 3.8 billion years. They conclude, “There has developed a general consensus among evolutionists that the evolution of intelligent life . . . is so improbable that it is unlikely to have occurred on any other planet in the entire visible universe.”[10] If that is the case then why think that it has evolved by chance on this planet? The only reason you would think that is because of a prior commitment to naturalism – that evolution is the only game in town. Because without a creator, it had to have happened no matter how bad the odds. By contrast, as I say, once a creator is in the picture, you can follow the evidence where it points.

A second problem with genetic mutation and natural selection is that they cannot account for the origin of irreducibly complex systems. This is the main point of Michael Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box. Behe points out that certain systems – microbiological systems in the cell, like the blood clotting mechanism, or little hair like structures on the cell called cilia – are really incredibly complicated microscopic machines. They are like nanomachines. These little machines cannot function at all unless all of their parts are present and functioning properly. Therefore, they cannot evolve piecemeal. Behe surveys thousands of scientific articles on these microbiological systems in the cell and he discovered that virtually nothing has ever been written on how such irreducibly complex systems could have evolved by random mutation and natural selection. I have seen some scientific articles responding to Behe where they have simply misread the evidence. Behe has responded in turn to these scientists and showed their mistakes. What the bottom line of this is that with regard to these microbiological systems these mechanisms of natural selection and genetic mutation have zero explanatory power.

The bottom line I think is this – what Darwinism envisages is so improbable that if it did occur then it must have literally been a miracle. In other words, evolution, if it did take place, is actually evidence for the existence of God. If evolution is true, it seems to me God must exist. If evolution is not true, God must exist. Since evolution is either true or it is not true, it follows logically that God exists.

So, how would we put all of this together? I think that at the end of the day, I am very skeptical about the Darwinian theory of biological evolution, particularly about the mechanisms. I feel very confident that the whole story has not been told here and that even if the doctrine of common ancestry is true, these mechanisms are insufficient to explain the biological complexity we have today. There is something more at work.

How might one coordinate this with the Genesis narrative? It seems to me that the so-called progressive creationism fits the evidence nicely. Progressive creationism suggests that God creates basic kinds as it describes in Genesis and then allows micro-evolutionary change to take place. But in terms of macro-evolutionary change between these kinds, this would not take place by the mechanisms of natural selection and mutation which accounts for micro-evolutionary change. Rather we would need miraculous creationist acts of God to intervene in the process of biological evolution to bring about macro-evolutionary change. So a kind of progressive creationism whereby God creates biological complexity over time. How would this comport with the thesis of common ancestry? I think that this doctrine could affirm the thesis of common ancestry or it could deny it. It would depend on whether or not you think these acts of intervention would be acts of creating ex nihilo so that, for example, if there were a pond all of a sudden out of nothing two ducks would appear on the pond swimming. I find that smacks a little bit of magic to me. That sounds rather magical. I notice that when God creates in the Genesis narrative, he uses the earth – he says let the earth bring these things forth. Let them bring forth the terrestrial animals. He creates man and says out of the dust of the earth. He uses means. So it may well be that God uses pre-existing life forms as the stuff on which he acts by intervention. So God could bring about a sort of macro-mutation so that a bird would hatch out of a reptile egg. Something that could never occur by normal mechanisms of mutation and natural selection; it would be too fantastically improbable but which God could bring about to produce a kind of system-wide macro-mutation that would cause macro-evolutionary change to take place as a result. That would explain why you would have a kind of genetic code but also would explain the fossil record why you don’t have any intermediate forms. Because you have this progressive creationist intervention that would produce macro-evolutionary changes that would leave no fossil traces. Rather, you would have discontinuity. So some kind of progressive creationism is the view that I tentatively lean toward. But again I want to reiterate, these are issues on which I have no final and fixed viewpoint. I am like you – an interested layman in these subjects and am interested in learning and studying further and exploring them more deeply.[11]

[1] Charles B. Thaxton, Walter L. Bradley, Roger L. Olsen, The Mystery of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories (Dallas, Texas: Lewis and Stanley, 1992).

[2] Francis Crick, Life Itself, Its Origin and Nature, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), p. 88

[3] This was termed “directed panspermia.”

[4] Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial (InterVarsity Press, 1991)

[5] Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, (Chevy Chase, MD: Adler & Adler, 1986)

[6] Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box, (New York: Free Press, 1996)

[7] Correction: It wasn’t the New York Times; rather, it was the National Review and World magazines that voted Darwin’s Black Box as one of the 100 most important books of the 20th century.

[8] John D. Barrow, Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principal, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986)

[9] Ibid., pp. 561-565.

[10] Ibid., p 133.

[11] Total Running Time: 35:20 (Copyright © William Lane Craig)