Imagine for a moment that someone claims to you that the Origin of Life was an incredibly unlikely event. So unlikely, in fact, that the fact that it happened even once in the entire universe is itself quite a feat. What position would you expect that person to be taking?
Sounds like Intelligent Design proponent talk, doesn’t it? So let’s take a look at the brief thoughts by and statement of Jacques Monod…
From the Wikipedia entry for him:
He was also a proponent of the view that life on earth arose by freak chemical accident and was unlikely to be duplicated even in the vast universe. “Man at last knows he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he has emerged only by chance,” he wrote in 1971. He used this bleak assessment as a springboard to argue for atheism and the absurdity and pointlessness of existence.
Of course, nowadays some scientists claim to be more optimistic about the origin of life. Rather than an unfathomably rare freak chemical accident, it may be an expected, more common result of time, fine-tuning, nature and law. Why, life – microbial life, at least – may even be common throughout the universe. And intelligent life? Possibly common enough to worry Stephen Hawking about an invasion.
Now, I won’t get into the greater debate of whether and to what degree this modern optimism is unfounded and forced. Instead, I’ll just note that once upon a time a prominent atheist considered the (then-considered) dramatically unlikely origin of life to be a support for atheism – that we’re a freak accident, singular… and thus this is evidence there is no God overseeing things. And now that the popular speculation is that the origin of life is more likely, and that intelligent life may be vastly more common than Monod ever thought, this change of science is taken as… well. A support for atheism. Now we’re nothing special, all too common, a dull outcome. Even, according to some (Hawking again, I believe), a bit of chemical scum on an otherwise uninteresting planet.
I bring all this up to make a pretty mundane point. Despite the assumptions changing drastically, the conclusions remained the same between Monod and many modern design critics. Yet a number of ID proponents set out to show how dramatically unlikely any origin of life event (sans a designer’s influence and intervention, of course) is, seemingly with the hope that if they establish this unlikelihood they’ll go a long way towards convincing people that the Origin of Life was designed. But, if the reports are accurate, Monod believed the Origin of Life was dramatically unlikely – and opted for a non-design response anyway. Francis Crick, having a similar belief about the Origin of Life at one point, opted for a kind of quasi-intelligent design in the form of Directed Panspermia (with, presumably, the origin of the life of directors being unexplained).
This serves to illustrate one limitation of the greater ID project. If the apparent radical unlikelihood of an origin of life event not actively orchestrated by an intelligence can be swallowed the way it was in the past – if the response was simply to shrug and say, ‘That just shows atheism is correct. What a completely freak accident.’ – then really, what can’t be? Note that I’m not at all saying Monod or Crick’s replies were intellectually reasonable or very defensible. Assume that they weren’t for the sake of argument, and it just goes to show how quickly reasonableness can be dispensed with. Even if it’s granted that neo-darwinian processes are tremendously unlikely to have produced what we see in the natural world, even if it’s granted that our universe exhibits some kind of tremendous fine-tuning, even if you grant arguably the whole suite of ID claims with regards to the probablistic resources of this or that coming into being without an intelligent agent’s direct intervention, you still can have – and I suspect, would often get – the Monod response. Arms crossed over chest and a stern, “Freak accidents. Chance did it.” I’d also note that an individual atheist claiming ‘well, Monod may say that – but I wouldn’t!’ doesn’t do much to affect my point here, since that would be a statement of individual psychology. I’m speaking to possibility here.
This isn’t at all to suggest that the ID project can’t be or isn’t successful – far from it. But it helps to appreciate the live possibilities when it comes to how people reason. If nothing else, Monod and (to a degree) Crick provide historical case studies in how people committed to a belief that the universe or life or what-have-you were not designed react when they even concede that the odds of such a thing taking place without design are vanishingly small.