This is Part II of my reply to the self-described Christian creationist Anne Jones. In Part I, I addressed her version of the well-worn “argument from fine tuning”, and her rather odd claim that the existence of the placebo effect is evidence for Cartesian dualism. In the final part of her blog post, Jones turns at last to evolutionary biology, and repeats a few unhelpful creationist talking points. It is to these that I shall now turn.
Us creationists and Christians also get accused of by many atheists (including you in your book) of:
They are completely dishonest, for one main reason: their claims have failed to stand up to serious testing
I don’t think the case is as open and shut as you guys claim. I tend not to spend a great deal of time advocating for ID, and ID is not part of why I believe in God. I’m okay with the idea that evolution may have played a significant role in our present complexity. I do not accept that it happened alone, and I draw that conclusion for two reasons:
1. Scientific studies pointing out that the age of our solar system is not old enough for unguided evolutionary processes alone to have been responsible for life’s present complexity
2. The absence of any explanation for how life sprang into being out of non-life
As regards the first of these objections, Jones does not name any of the “scientific studies” to which she refers, so it is difficult to know what exactly her argument is based upon. I shall attempt to respond as best I can, nonetheless.
She does not say whether she agrees with the scientific consensus as to the age of the Earth, so I shall assume that she does. The consensus view is that the Earth is around 4.55 billion years old; this date is based on, amongst other measures, radiometric dating of material from meteorites. Among rocks on Earth, zircon deposits in sandstone from Western Australia have been dated 4.2 to 4.3 billion years old. Primitive unicellular life on Earth may have existed as early as 3.5 billion years ago, as evidenced by the presence of stromatolites. In short, the scale of geological time is vast, and evolutionary processes have had no shortage of time in which to take place.
To her credit, Jones is not making any of the more obviously silly creationist arguments here. She is not, for instance, denying the existence of transitional fossils, or denying the molecular evidence for evolution, or drawing a distinction between macroevolution and microevolution and arbitrarily declaring the former to be impossible. Nor does she seem to be denying, as many creationists do, that all life descends from a common ancestor. Her objection is a weaker one: she does not believe evolution could have occurred in the manner that it did without some outside, supernatural, influence.
This objection, however, has no substance, and amounts to an argument from incredulity. In reality, natural mechanisms adequately explain the diversity of life, with no need for any supernatural intervention. The basic principles are simple, and are set out beautifully in Richard Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker; I would also recommend Sean Carroll’s The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution. In short, genes mutate, by a number of mechanisms, leading to genetic variation. And if an organism with a particular mutation survives and reproduces, that mutation is passed on to its offspring. Genetic mutations are not rare, and the observed rates of mutation in modern species match well with the predictions of evolutionary theory. Contrary to creationist claims, it is not true that most mutations are harmful; in fact, most mutations are neutral, while some are beneficial and some are harmful. Whether a mutation is beneficial or harmful depends substantially on the organism’s local environment, as illustrated, for example, by Bernard Kettlewell’s famous study of peppered moths. An organism with a beneficial mutation is more likely than others to survive and reproduce, making that trait more common in the population; an organism with a harmful mutation correspondingly less so.
It is important to understand that evolution, contrary to the common creationist canard, is not a random process. No one suggests that the diversity and complexity of life came about by pure random chance, which would indeed be implausible. Although genetic mutation is random (to certain definitions of “random”), natural selection is far from random: by definition, it selects for traits which enhance an organism’s ability to survive and propagate. As such, Fred Hoyle’s famous analogy of a tornado blowing through a junkyard and assembling a Boeing 747 entirely at random is utterly misplaced. Rather, selection pressures – which are not random – explain how complex organs, well-adapted to an organism’s environment, can come to evolve in a series of gradual steps. An example is the evolution of the vertebrate eye, wrongly believed by many creationists to be “irreducibly complex”.
This is far more than conjecture. We can observe evolutionary change happening around us today. E. coli bacteria in the laboratory have evolved the ability to metabolise citrates. Antibiotic resistance in bacterial strains, as in the dreaded superbug MRSA – short for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – is likewise a commonplace (and terrifying) example of evolution in action. And contrary to common creationist claims, speciation – the evolution of a lineage into a separate species – has been directly observed, too. In short, modern evolutionary biology offers a convincing and well-evidenced natural explanation for the diversity of life; as Dawkins puts it, “never have so many facts been explained by so few assumptions.”
Of course, I will be the first to admit that none of this is proof of the non-existence of a supernatural creator. Evolutionary theory has nothing to say either way about the existence of deities, and, indeed, some of the world’s foremost evolutionary biologists – Ken Miller and Francis Collins, for instance – are devout Christians. But there is no reason whatsoever to think that the process of biological evolution requires any supernatural intervention in order to work.
And, as an aside, if life were in any sense the work of an intelligent designer, we might expect Him (or Her, or Them) to have done a better job. Nature is cruel and bloody: most organisms either starve to death, are eaten alive by predators, or die of infections. And every part of nature is profoundly flawed: for instance, the process of genetic mutation, fundamental as it is to evolution, also causes cancers and genetic diseases. We are naturally prone to all manner of ailments, from bacterial, viral and protozoal infections to mental disorders: we can live comfortable lives only with the extensive aid of modern science and technology. This reality seems inconsistent with any kind of intelligent design, and far more consistent with the hypothesis that there is no designer.
Jones’ second objection does not concern evolution at all, but abiogenesis – the question of how life arose from non-life. It is admittedly true that this remains an uncertain area of science. Given that these events must have occurred more than 3.5 billion years ago and that no direct traces of them remain, it is not surprising that we are left with a certain amount of conjecture. But the absence of certainty about this subject does not justify leaping to the assumption that the only answer must be a supernatural one. The claim, advanced by many creationists, that life arising from non-life by natural means is wildly improbable is wrong in several respects, and rests on a misunderstanding of modern theories of abiogenesis: no one proposes that the first bacterium emerged fully formed from simple chemicals. Again, there is no need to posit a supernatural explanation.
Since this post has become excessively lengthy, I shall for the sake of brevity omit to discuss Jones’ claims about near-death experiences here. I originally planned for this to be a two-part post, but it now seems that a Part III may be appropriate.