Creation and Evolution (Part 20)

September 02, 2013     Time: 00:37:04

For the last several months, we have been on an excursus exploring the relationship between creation and evolution. The last time I argued that the explanatory mechanisms that are offered for Darwinism seem to me to be inadequate to explain the grand evolutionary story of life. The mechanisms of genetic mutation and natural selection have not been demonstrated to have the sort of power to produce grand evolutionary change that the theory envisions. Therefore, I tend to be skeptical about the neo-Darwinian theory with respect to the mechanisms. I suspect that there is more at work here and that the full story of the origin of biological complexity has not been told.


Question: In the mechanisms of Darwinism, we see all around us adaptation all of the time. The general population says, “Yes, we see the peppered moth” and all of that. When the environment changes, certain aspects of those animals are advantaged and therefore it appears that they adapt. But all of that is not adding information. The information was already there. I have never heard anyone say in evolution that information was added. It is very apparent that the information in DNA was already there, the animals have lots of DNA from which to adapt and the adaptation is loss of information, not added information.

Answer: Thanks for that comment. Not being an information theorist myself, I have nothing significant to add to that. The question I suppose would be whether or not mutations could produce additional information that isn’t there originally.

Followup: (off-mic) There is not one mutation that has been identified that added information. That is what I heard.

Answer: All right.

Question: Where I think Darwinism is weak is when you talk about when life first appeared you also need to have the first replicator – the ability to reproduce. Also, the Cambrian Explosion is something I don’t think you have mentioned but it is difficult to explain through Darwinism.

Answer: We have separately treated the question of the origin of life and the evolution of biological complexity. The point you were making about the mystery of the first replicator as you put it – the origin of life itself – is something which remains utterly unexplained by contemporary biology or chemistry. There just isn’t any viable origin of life theory on offer today. There have been many suggestions but none of them have been able to explain this. In fact, we saw the sort of more than astronomical improbability of this happening by chance. Now, the Cambrian Explosion would seem to me to be relevant to the thesis of common ancestry. I did not raise it when we talked about that. In the Cambrian rocks, you have all of the contemporary phyla, or major groups, of animals, appear. In fact, and this kind of goes to the earlier point in a way, not only do all of the extant phyla appear in the Cambrian fossils, but there were additional phyla that have now gone extinct. So it is not as though over the course of time additional phyla have evolved – additional groups of animals. If anything, there has been a winnowing.[1] All of the phyla of the animal kingdom appear in the Cambrian and then there has been a winnowing as some of these have gone extinct. In the pre-Cambrian rocks, there are very few fossils. There is nothing, by way of anticipation, of things like the trilobites which are incredibly complicated animals. Someone once said that if you were to find a rabbit, say, in the Cambrian that would be a disproof of evolution. But an animal like a trilobite is of comparable complexity and yet it just appears in the Cambrian. The answer that is often given is that the animals that existed in the pre-Cambrian were soft-bodied and therefore didn’t leave many fossils. But a good many people would find that answer to be implausible. Things like trilobites and these other sorts of animals must have had some sort of ancestors if they weren’t special creations. They couldn’t all just spring immediately from soft bodied creatures. So the so-called Cambrian Explosion would be a challenge to the thesis of common ancestry that all living organisms descended from some original primordial ancestor. What the creationist might say is more plausible would be that God has created a multiplicity of origins of life and that then these evolved so that you would have a kind of forest of trees rather than a single sort of evolutionary tree. You are right, that would be relevant I think not so much to Darwinism as it would be to the thesis of common ancestry which I have distinguished from Darwinism.

Question: I just wanted to make a quick comment regarding the soft bodied creatures. Some of the creatures within the Cambrian Explosion are themselves soft bodied. One example would be sponge embryos which are sort of the ultimate soft bodied creature and yet it is just slightly below the Cambrian era. So if there were all these soft bodied creatures before the Cambrian, why is it somehow we preserve all these sponge embryos but we don’t seem to preserve all the other soft bodied creatures.

Answer: Right, they do leave fossils, don’t they?

Followup: They do.

Answer: OK!

Question: I was hoping to clarify your point that you made about bacterial mutations. It was pretty complex and it sounded really interesting but I just wanted to make sure that we all understood what you were getting at. My understanding was you were saying that even though there are millions of mutations in bacteria, we never see a transition that leaps to different bacteria. Was I completely wrong?

Answer: I think that is a little bit too strong a statement. I don’t think we would need to expect to see that sort of radical change in our lifetime. Rather, the point that Michael Behe was making was when you look at the malarial organism – it is not a bacterium, it is a little single-celled organism – and you look at the rates at which it reproduces, if natural selection and random mutation were able to achieve significant advance you would think the malarial organism would have overcome sickle cell hemoglobin in the human body which is itself a mutation in the respiratory system, not in the human immune system. The human immune system has not been able to counteract malaria and malaria hasn’t been able to overcome sickle hemoglobin. Why? Well, Behe says it is because you would either have to have multiple mutations occur at the same time or a sequence of mutations occurring in succession, both of which are just so fantastically improbable that it wouldn’t happen. He then compares that with the HIV virus which multiplies even more quickly than malaria and he says that the HIV virus over the last 50 years has replicated more than all of the cells in the history of life on this planet. They have tried out every combination of up to six point mutations and yet he says there have been no significant biochemical changes or advances in the virus. So it is not that the virus hasn’t changed into something else but there hasn’t been any kind of significant biochemical evolution at all. Similarly with regard to the Lenski experiments on bacteria which is yet a third type of organism that also replicates very rapidly. What Lenski found was that even though there were tens of thousands of generations of these, there were only about, I think, 20 or so score (as I recall) beneficial mutations and all of those involved the lose of genetic information – a degradation of the genome.[2] So his argument is that against those like Ayala who claim that the ability of viruses and bacteria to develop drug resistance through mutation is not a good argument that genetic mutation and natural selection can explain grand evolutionary change. It only shows the ability to have limited evolution through simple mutations that render these organisms drug resistant but to extrapolate that evidence to the sort of grand evolutionary scenario that would say that a bat and a sponge evolved by these same mechanisms from some primordial ancestor is an extrapolation for which there is no evidence at all. That was the point that I think Behe was trying to make.

Theological Synthesis

Now we come, finally, after so many months, to drawing some conclusions. I call this on my outline Theological Synthesis. Here I have two sub-points.

Scientific Considerations

Sub-point 1 under Theological Synthesis is scientific considerations. How might one integrate the scientific evidence that we’ve examined with the Genesis narrative? It seems to me that so-called progressive creationism would provide a nice model that would fit both the scientific evidence as well as the biblical data. Progressive creationism suggests that God intervenes periodically to bring about miraculously new forms of life and then allows evolutionary change to take place with respect to those life forms. As for grand evolutionary change, this would not take place by the mechanisms of genetic mutation and natural selection if undirected by God. Rather, we would need miraculous creationist acts of God to intervene in the process of biological evolution to bring about grand evolutionary change. So we would have a kind of progressive creationism whereby God creates biological complexity over time.

How would such a view comport with the evidence for the thesis of common ancestry? I think that this doctrine could either affirm the thesis of common ancestry or it could deny it. It would depend upon whether or not you think that these acts of intervention on God’s part would be acts of creating something ex nihilo – just out of nothing, brand new. For example, there would be a pond with nothing on it and then suddenly some ducks would appear out of nothing on the surface of the pond, miraculously created by God. I have to confess that, to me, that smacks a little bit of magic to be attractive. I noticed that when God creates in the Genesis narrative, he uses nature. He says, “Let the earth bring forth vegetation and fruit trees” and “Let the earth bring forth the terrestrial animals.”[3] When he creates man, he creates man out of the dust of the earth.[4] God uses means. So, it may well be the case that God uses preexisting life forms as the stuff on which he acts by intervention. For example, suppose God wanted to create birds. Well, to create birds God could bring about a systemic macromutation so that a bird would hatch out of a reptile egg; or else he could produce a sequence of mutations in very rapid succession to bring about a bird from a reptile.[5] Something of that sort would never occur by the normal mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection. It would be too fantastically improbable for such “hopeful monsters”[6], as they are called, to appear by accident. But God could produce a kind of system-wide macromutation in an organism that would cause grand evolutionary change to take place over time as a result. That would explain the evidence for a common genetic code in all living things as well as the traces of genetic ancestry in things that we talked about when we looked at the thesis of common ancestry. But, it would equally explain why we don’t find intermediate forms in the fossil record. Because you have these progressive creationist interventions, grand evolutionary change would not leave any fossil traces of intermediate forms. Rather, what we would expect to find would be discontinuity in the fossil record.

So some sort of a progressive creationist view, I think, would explain the evidence quite well. It would allow you to affirm or deny if you wish the thesis of common ancestry and it would supplement the mechanisms of genetic mutation and natural selection with divine intervention. I find some sort of progressive creationism to be an attractive view.

Again, I want to reiterate that on these issues I am like many of you a scientific layperson. I am someone who has an interest in these subjects, I want to learn and to study them further, and explore them more deeply. So these opinions are held tentatively and lightly and are subject to revision.


Question: How does this differ from Stephen Gould’s Punctuated Equilibrium?

Answer: Well, he has no divine interventions but it would be similar in the sense that one wouldn’t expect to find the intermediate forms, right? On his view, these intermediate forms would be lost because they would occur in very small populations so there would be leaps in the fossil record. But on this view there would similarly be leaps in the fossil record as a result of these interventions on God’s part. So I think it would explain the paleontological evidence just as well as his theory would but obviously his is a naturalistic account and so still has to rely upon these same mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection.

Question: Would you admit then that your theory with universal common descent might actually require more divine intervention than say direct creation apart of universal common descent. For example, we have the trilobite – if we have to evolve that supernaturally from a single celled creature as opposed to creating it directly, you need a bunch of these directed mutations and therefore more supernatural intervention.

Answer: I actually think that is right. I think that the progressive creationist might be more interventionist in virtue of thinking that all the way along this process God may have been doing things of this sort.

Followup: For example, someone like Behe’s model which is that sort of universal common descent but directed mutations by God – I think that is what you are suggesting here – as opposed to Hugh Ross’ model which has the direct creation of forms like the trilobite without ancestry.

Answer: Right. Let’s differentiate this from Behe’s view and also from the view of people like Francis Collins and so forth. The view that they will often call “theistic evolution” is now, today, being called “evolutionary creationism.” I take it that the difference between progressive creationism and evolutionary creationism is that evolutionary creationism doesn’t think that there are any interventions. It doesn’t postulate miraculous divine input into the causal process or the sequence of secondary causes.[7] The explanatory mechanisms that operate in the standard theory were simply the ones chosen by God to bring about biological complexity. So progressive creationism is not the same thing as theistic evolution which I take to be more Behe’s view. I don’t think that Behe believes that there are these progressive miraculous interventions. He will sometimes say that maybe evolution was front loaded (that’s the way he likes to put it); that it was all put in at the beginning and then it just unfolds as time progresses.

Followup: I would differ based on the book The Edge of Evolution. In that book Behe does say, “I believe in adding a mechanism to natural selection and the undirected mutation which I would call direct mutation.” That, at certain points in history, God directly created a whole bunch of mutations in certain life forms which could not possibly have been produced by natural processes.[8]

Answer: OK, that would represent a change from his earlier view. I didn’t remember seeing that in The Edge of Evolution. But in any case, that would be more progressive creationism.

Question: When I was in seventh grade science class, I learned the truth of evolution and I abandoned all my faith completely because it explained everything there was to explain. I learned about the Nebraska Man, and the Piltdown Man, and Haeckel’s embryos and all of these things that were truths of science. And then as time goes on, I learned that those weren’t truths of science and even scientists learned that what they believed back fifty years is not what they believe today. At what point do you say what we know today is truth? Or, are you doubting that at some point fifty years from now what we believe to be truth today is not truth and that the Bible is true?

Answer: I think you are raising a very good question. I don’t think anybody today would deny, for example, Harvey’s theory that blood circulates which was a scientific discovery. So there does come a point at which something is so firmly established scientifically that it is unlikely to be overthrown. But in a case like this, that is why I want to look at the evidence and simply invite the evolutionary biologist to say what the evidence is for the efficacy of these explanatory mechanisms to produce grand evolutionary change. If he is not able to give us anything more than what we’ve already seen, then I think that the theory is ripe for being overthrown. We can’t have a great deal of certainty in it. So, it is going to be on a case by case basis. I don’t think there is a sort of rule of thumb but there does come a point at which something is so firmly scientifically established by a diversity of fields and many types of confirmatory evidence that however the future of science might progress, it is unlikely that that would be overturned.

Question: What were you saying about The Edge of Evolution? Does Behe say something like junk DNA is really functional to front end load the process?

Answer: When I heard Behe initially when I first met him in Cambridge, he was saying when pressed on what his theory of intelligent design would be that maybe this information was all front loaded into the cell at the beginning and then simply unfolds over time and junk DNA, though he didn’t mention it, might be an example of that. It turns out that it is not really junk after all but it plays an important role in the genome. So, at least at that time, his view was that you didn’t need to have these kinds of interventions along the way; it could have been as he put it front loaded.

Theological Considerations

All right, those are the scientific considerations relevant to crafting a theory that would integrate the Biblical material with the scientific evidence. But now I want to address secondly some theological considerations. So sub-point 2 is theological considerations.

I have found that theological considerations are, in the minds of many people (both Christian and non-Christian alike), just as important or even more important than scientific considerations in assessing a progressive creationist model such as I have suggested.[9] There is today a sort of unholy alliance between Young Earth Creationists and naturalistic evolutionary biologists aimed at invalidating any sort of account that would try to integrate God and evolutionary biology. Creationists and naturalists alike agree that theism and evolutionary biology are incompatible. Creationists conclude that evolutionary theory is therefore false whereas naturalists conclude that therefore theism is false.

So, what are the arguments that convince both of them that a progressive creationist account cannot be true? Well, it turns out that these are basically version of the philosophical problem of evil. Not the problem of moral evil, but rather the problem of natural evil. Two aspects of evolution are thought to be incompatible with God’s existence: first, the flaws in nature and then secondly nature’s cruelty. Let’s talk about both of these.

First, let me say a word about design flaws in nature. Here, the evolutionary biologist or detractor of design will point out that the designs, so-called, in nature are imperfect and flawed in various ways. For example, the panda’s thumb is not really something designed to be a thumb but it is a sort of finger or digit that has evolved to work something like a thumb. Or in the human eye – because of the optic nerve penetrating the retina, human beings have a blind spot in our visual field where we cannot see because of the hole in the retina created by the optic nerve. There are all sorts of these design flaws that are typically pointed out by naturalistic evolutionary theorists.

Well, I think there are various ways in which the Christian theologian might respond to these. First, he might challenge the assumption that these alleged flaws aren’t really flaws at all. Take for example this common claim that the placement of the optic nerve in the human eye is flawed. Might God in fact have a good biological reason for so designing the eye? Well, as it turns out, yes indeed. As Michael Denton, the New Zealand microbiologist explains, the difference in the placement of the optic nerve in the human eye in comparison with the cephalopod eye, which is a camera eye in squids. It is very similar to the human eye but which doesn’t have the visual blind spot because the optic nerve doesn’t go through the retina. The difference in the placement of the optic nerve in the human eye compared with the cephalopod eye is because of the need for a greater supply of oxygen in warm blooded animals. So it actually turns out that this alleged flaw is not a flaw at all. It is something that is a benefit to warm blooded animals like ourselves. Over and over again scientists have found that what they had first thought were flaws in nature’s design turn out with greater understanding not to have been flaws at all.

But, let’s suppose that there are flaws that seem to be the result of natural selection. Fine! That is not a problem for the progressive creationist. Even though the special creationist will usually hold that the different kinds in Genesis were specially created by God, say, on the order of the family or the order biologically, they grant that evolution took over from there. So, for example, they might say that God created the common ancestor of the Ursidae, or the bear, family. And from that primordial ancestor of bears the different species of bear have evolved. There are today eight different species of bear. It is hardly surprising that one of these species would have evolved the so-called panda’s thumb which is sometimes touted as a design flaw.[10] It hardly needs to be said that theologians don’t need to embrace special creationism but if they accept the thesis of common ancestry then they wouldn’t be at all surprised that organisms would bare the design imprint of their ancestors.

So I don’t think that this argument from design flaws is a very serious theological objection at all. Many of these so-called flaws turn out not to be flaws and, even if they are flaws, they are not a problem for the progressive creationist or even for the special creationist who imagines evolution taking place within certain kinds.

What then might we say about the second problem – about animal behaviors that strike us as cruel? Once again, even creationists who embrace evolution within broad kinds which permits organisms to change won’t be surprised at this. For example, pathogenic or disease producing bacteria were once free living organisms which evolved to become pathogenic parasites. Again, it wasn’t as though God created these parasites initially; they were free living independent organisms which then evolved into these pathogenic bacteria. Genome sequencing has revealed this to be a sort of devolution which is the result of a massive loss of genes – the loss of genetic information has produced these pathogenic bacteria. So having limited evolution could produce all sorts of activities and structures within nature that might strike us as cruel.

Now, of course, this appeal to limited evolution within various kinds won’t ameliorate the general problem of animal suffering. But here I think that something more needs to be said by way of the nature of animal suffering. In his book Nature Red in Tooth and Claw[11], Michael Murray distinguishes three levels of pain awareness in the animal world. Level 3, which is the lowest level, is simply information bearing neural states which are produced by noxious stimuli which results in aversive behavior. So this would simply be neural activities that result in aversive behavior – you poke an amoeba with a needle and it recoils. But the amoeba doesn’t have any experience of pain, it just responds to noxious stimuli. At a higher level, level 2, is a pain awareness that occurs in sentient animals. So horses and dogs and cats have an experience of pain. This would be a kind of first order subjective experience of pain that sentient animals would have. But then at the highest level would be a kind of higher order awareness that one is oneself experiencing level 2 – a self-awareness of experiencing level 2 pain.

What Murray points out is that although animals like spiders and insects and so forth exhibit the third level or lowest level of pain awareness or reaction to stimuli, there is no reason to attribute any kind of level 2 pain awareness to these sorts of organisms. This level of pain awareness doesn’t arrive until one gets to the level of the vertebrates in the animal kingdom. But even though vertebrates and higher animals experience level 2 pain there is no evidence that they experience level 3 – that self-awareness of being oneself in pain – because animals aren’t self-conscious beings. As the German philosopher Immanuel Kant nicely put it, they cannot put “I think that” in front of their conscious states as we can. An animal does not say “I think that this is my bowl of food” or “I think that I will do this or that.” Animals are not selves and therefore do not have this kind of self-awareness in level 3.[12]

So the person who is against a progressive creationist model would have to show that animals are self-conscious in order to attribute this third level pain awareness to them. But there just isn’t any clear biological evidence for this – that animals do have this kind of self-consciousness. Biologically, self-awareness seems to be connected in some way with the prefrontal cortex of the brain which is either missing or underdeveloped in all other animals except for the humanoid primates – the higher primates like gorillas and chimpanzees and so forth. Therefore, even though animals may experience pain, they are not aware of being themselves in pain. God in his mercy has apparently saved animals the awareness that they are themselves in pain.

Now this is a tremendous comfort to those of us who are pet owners because it means that even though your dog or cat, say, may be in pain, he or she isn’t really aware that he or she is himself or herself in pain. Therefore, your dog or your cat doesn’t suffer in the same way that you do when you experience pain because you have this first level self-awareness of being in a state of pain which an animal lacks.

This has tremendous implications for the problem of animal suffering, I think, as you can already see. We will talk about those implications when we come together next time. Then we will draw this entire discussion to a close.[13]

[1] 5:10

[2] 10:20

[3] cf. Genesis 1:11, 24

[4] Genesis 2:7

[5] 15:22

[6] Richard Goldschmidt originally coined the term “hopeful monster” in his 1940 book The Material Basis for Evolution. Goldschmidt argued that large evolutionary changes were caused by macromutations; that is, rather than gradual mutations occurring over generations, macroevolutionary changes were caused by a single-step, complex mutation acting on a developing embryo. His “hopeful monster” ideas were controversial in his day and, to many, still are today.

[7] 20:12

[8] “If random mutation is inadequate, then (since common descent with modification strongly appears to be true) of course the answer must be nonrandom mutation. . . . I conclude . . . the elegant, coherent, functional systems upon which life depends are the result of deliberate intelligent design. . . . although some religious thinkers envision active, continuing intervention in nature, intelligent design is quite compatible with the view that the universe operates by unbroken natural law, with the design of life perhaps packed into its initial set-up.” Michael J. Behe, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, (New York, NY: Free Press, 2007), pp. 165-66.

[9] 25:04

[10] 30:00

[11] Michael Murray, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[12] 35:02

[13] Total Running Time: 37:04 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)