Intelligent Design

Common descent, uncommon descent, and colliding universes

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A reader of The Spiritual Brain asks,

… , you write that evolution (i.e., macro-evolution, descent by a common ancestor) is a fact, given the fossil record. Do you really believe this, or this is simply a concession to the scientific establishment, in other words, a disclaimer of sorts that is making sure that your ideas in this book can be taken seriously …

Well that was grounds for a gourmet cup of coffee!

The Spiritual Brain was an enormous amount of work. Mario and I risked much to maintain what we think the evidence supports about the non-material nature of the human mind. 

Anyone who thinks we would complicate our lives by also maintaining positions we do not support … has a future in writing afternoon soaps, where life is the art of the impossible.

So I wrote back and said,

I am intrigued by the way you put your question, “Do you really believe this?”

It reminds me of the day I was received into the Catholic Church (as an adult).

But I am not sure that a question about common descent should remind me of my reception into the Church. Let me explain why:

I do not have either an emotional or intellectual problem with the idea of common descent of all living things.

As an idea, common descent is very convenient. I would like to think that all the information needed for the universe to unfold was encoded at the Big Bang.

However, convenience does not make an idea accurate to reality. What I would like to think might not be true. The true story might be messy. It might be something I will never know, and I must live with that.

There is evidence for common descent, but the so-called tree of life is such a mess now that I would be more inclined to think of it as the Lego set of life. (Don’t like it this way? Organize it that way then!)

Here is the difficulty: If common descent remains a central idea but the details often collapse in the telling, it may come to be held as a sort of “religious” position.

And that is how it often is held. As I explained in a recent book review,

… this new religious profession [of common descent] helps us understand many peculiar current obsessions of the pop science media – like trying to prove that great apes think like humans, for example.

One must ask, why would it matter so much if great apes don’t think like humans? That would not be a blow to common descent of humans and apes because no one maintains that common descent requires detailed similarity or even, for that matter, that similarity is strong evidence of descent.

After all, ravens may also think like humans in certain respects, and no one proposes reorganizing our current ideas about common descent on their account.

It would be closer to the mark to say that seeking such similarities is a religious exercise among those for whom common descent is not so much a convenient explanation of origins as an article of religious faith.

In other words, in the case of humans and chimpanzees, genetic similarities such as the vitamin C pseudogene and physical similarities are strong evidence for common descent, but similarity of behaviour or mental capacity are not.

That is why I say that obsessive pursuit of such similarities “so that we can learn about ourselves” reveals an underlying tendency among some in our society to treat common descent as a sort of religious truth – and sometimes as a crusade.

Mario and I both think that the non-material nature of the mind is easily demonstrated. If the current science establishment has difficulty accommodating that, so much the worse for the establishment. People who refuse to take us seriously will eventually have to take the evidence seriously, and we are patient people. – cheers, Denyse

And what’s all this to do colliding universes? Oh yes, also, today at Colliding Universes blog:

Will the rarity of the element lithium endanger the Big Bang theory? Maybe …

Spacetime more like simple stir fry than elaborate wedding cake?

Could life on Earth be much older than supposed?

Does Mercury really need to exist?

David Warren – further on Frank Tipler …

Call for Papers: “First International Conference on the Evolution and Development of the Universe.” (July 30 dedder)

18 Replies to “Common descent, uncommon descent, and colliding universes

  1. 1
    austin_english says:

    Ms. O’Leary,

    Reasonable response, I’d say. But why do you and your coauthor believe that mind is empirically accessible? Is it not possible to weaken science as a means of gaining knowledge by insisting that it apply to everything we want to know about?

    I have a screwdriver I love to use, but I sometimes encounter nails. Driving nails with the screwdriver handle ain’t such a great idea.

  2. 2
    O'Leary says:

    Mind is empirically accessible through its effects. The placebo and nocebo effects make a good start.

    Of course, mind may be empirically accessible in other ways as well, but the placebo/nocebo effect is already the subject of much research because it directly bears on medical practice and the public is usually willing to fund that.


  3. 3
    Frost122585 says:


    I must say you sure talked yourself around the question that was posed to you-

    “…you write that evolution (i.e., macro-evolution, descent by a common ancestor) is a fact, given the fossil record. Do you really believe this…”

    “If common descent remains a central idea but the details often collapse in the telling, it may come to be held as a sort of “religious” position.”

    ^ Was that a “yes” or a “no?”

  4. 4
    SCheesman says:

    [Offtopic] Hello Denyse. I finally got to go see “Expelled” last night, and was quite impressed, as were the friends who I took who were much less familiar with the back-story than myself.

    One thing I did notice, though, that I haven’t seen mentioned by any of the Canadian contributors here, was that the Canadian version must have been edited to remove “Imagine” by John Lennon. I can only suspect that “Fair Use” does not carry the same force in Canada, and that the Premise legal team was not willing to risk a court case here?

  5. 5
    Charlie says:

    Hi SCheesman,
    You wrote telepathically my exact comment (except I saw it a few times on opening weekend).
    The reason Imagine was edited out in Canada is because the copies for Canadian distribution were made before the litigation was settled – according to screenwriter Kevin MIller.

  6. 6
    O'Leary says:

    For what it is worth, I heard Imagine on the soundtrack at the June 26 screening in Toronto. Or I am just Imagining things?

    Most likely I saw the American version.

    By the way, I don’t know why Frost + numbers thinks I was talking my “way around” common descent. I accept it but not as a religious position. (Which is quite different from how it is treated in many “secular” (= atheist materialist) venues.)

    If someone has difficulty understanding that, the fault is not mine.

  7. 7
    mynym says:

    With respect to common descent, I don’t understand why many people accept a singularity in physics and perhaps abiogenesis but seem to have an aversion to accepting more events of the same type when it comes to biology. It seems to me that each event decreases in difficulty. Why are such events excluded in biology and no one allowed to advance evidence for them, what is the difference? The terminology is almost the same such as the Cambrian “explosion” which is evidence of a “Big Bang” in biology, yet apparently no one can argue that it really should be looked at as evidence of an event similar to a singularity.

    But if you allow for evidence of such events instead of trying to imagine it away then just how common is common descent?

  8. 8
    Rude says:

    Mr. Mynym,

    There seems to be two points here: common descent and front loading. I’m agnostic as to the first—whatever the evidence that’s fine by me. But common descent is not evidence for Darwin—it would be what his theory proposes to explain.

    But in regard to front loading, which has a strong Deistic appeal, there you make a good point: “It seems to me that each event decreases in difficulty.” I suspect that most of us here have no problem with a hands-on Designer deeply involved in all of history past, present and future.

  9. 9
    DaveScot says:


    I would like to think that all the information needed for the universe to unfold was encoded at the Big Bang.

    I suspect that’s the likely truth of the matter and you’re in fine company in holding that thought – Einstein being one of the more recognizable names to hold that belief. If conservation of information is a law like conservation of mass/energy then it is indeed the truth. Stephen Hawking recently paid off on a famous bet. He bet that he could provide a proof that information can be lost in a black hole. After years of trying he conceded that information can’t even be lost in a black hole, to say nothing of being lost by any lesser mechanism. The alternative would be that information was somehow added between now and the big bang but there’s no proven way for that to happen. Of course in the opinion of many an entity such as God which exists outside the observable universe could have imported information but it doesn’t look like science is going to be able to prove or disprove that anytime soon.

  10. 10
    Rude says:

    Dave & Denyse:

    I would like to think that all the information needed for the universe to unfold was encoded at the Big Bang.

    Such, of course, may be true—it’s called Deism. And Dave is right—Einstein was a strict determinist and (like Will Provine) he denied the existence of free will.

    But this is decidedly not the historic Judeo-Christian religion—even among its more renegade elements. I once heard Phil Johnson observe, if memory serves, that the materialists aren’t much bothered if the Deity (i.e., Design) can be pushed to the other side of the Big Bang, and so he suggested that ID would be far more provocative in biology than in physics. If there is no evidence of an interventionist God (Exodus, Resurrection …) then that’s Einstein’s God—not Moses’ or Jesus’.

  11. 11
    Clumsy Brute says:

    Denyse and Dave,

    The only problem with Deism (for those wishing to argue for biological ID) is that it undercuts the argument from information within DNA. One of the main points of this argument is that “the only thing we know in our experience that can produce meaningful information is a Mind. Therefore, a Mind must have produced the information in DNA.”

    But if the information necessary for life was encoded into the universe at the Big Bang, then the materialist can simply respond, “The universe itself can produce meaningful information. So there’s no need to posit a mind as the source of information in DNA.”

    If the universe can produce meaningful information on its own, then there’s no sense in appealling to our experience of minds as the only information producing entities.

  12. 12
    StephenB says:

    Denyse and Dave, Why is God as absentee programmer to be preferred to God as orchestra conducter?

  13. 13
    StephenB says:

    Sorry, Denyse and Dave: I meant, why is God as absentee programmer to be preferred over God as orchestra leader?

  14. 14
    Apollos says:

    Clumsy Brute wrote:

    But if the information necessary for life was encoded into the universe at the Big Bang, then the materialist can simply respond, “The universe itself can produce meaningful information. So there’s no need to posit a mind as the source of information in DNA.”

    It seems to me that if this is the case, we would be able to pin down a law or physical property of self-organization of information. However this law just doesn’t seem to exist. The only examples we have of CSI generation directly involves agency.

    If the universe can produce meaningful information on its own, then there’s no sense in appealling to our experience of minds as the only information producing entities.

    Except that we have one and only one example (without begging the question) of an information generating system, a mind.

    It’s one thing to suggest a law, or to imagine that one might exist; it’s altogether different to demonstrate and quantify it.

    This doesn’t stop a materialist from suggesting various naturalistic scenarios for the presence of information — but until such a law can be shown to exist, it’s all storytelling.

    Just my two cents. 😉

  15. 15
    DaveScot says:

    I’m not sure the product of mind is deterministic. In other words it’s the exception to determinism in the universe. As far as anyone knows mind preceded matter in the universe. Even rather popular interpretations of Quantum Mechanics well supported by experiment state that matter exists as nothing more than probability waves until an observer comes along and causes it to collapse into a determined state. The theological implication of God as the universal observer is rather obvious. But, like Intelligent Design being the best explanation for fine tuning of the parameters of the universe, that’s something that physicists don’t like to talk about. As Richard Lewontin famously stated, science can’t afford to let a divine foot in the door.

    That said, nothing in that stops us in principle from being able to detect design. Even if life was programmed into the universe at the big bang we can still use statistical mechanics to determine the probability of certain patterns arising from chance and that includes the patterns found in living things. All it really does is pushes the design input back in time, it doesn’t make evidence of design disappear. There would be no argument about the design of life if chance worshippers weren’t so willing to wave their hands in the air with wild explanations that attempt negate the plain truth revealed by statistical mechanics. Evidence of design is everywhere from the largest to the smallest scale.

  16. 16
    DaveScot says:


    re; preferring the absentee composer over the orchestra leader.

    It just seems to be the simplest explanation and through the application of Occam’s Razor the simplest is that which is given precedence.

    I’m not sure absentee is a good term though. If the composition and orchestra are both perfect the composer can just sit back and enjoy the performance instead of fiddling with it (so to speak) as it is played. In that case he’s not absent he just has no reason to be actively involved.

  17. 17
    Frost122585 says:

    I don’t know… on all of this “information” origination stuff I think that it came from a “3rd realm” of which I call the spiritual. That is I don’t think that form and motion are inherent in matter at all. Ideas such as free will and determinism to me are meaningless because they seek to understand the third realm on either “ineffable” or “materialistic” terms. I agree with Locke. I think that “free will” is a misnomer. We have a certain amount of freedom and a certain “will”-that is, “that which we want to do”- but we don’t have “free-will.” We can thus chose within constraints. Yet, “the will” is a hard thing to predict and even if it could be fully charted where the will’s nature came from is not truly known. Also Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle destroyed determinism because it showed that nothing can be determined “exactly”. Thus what is determination (as a physical law) if at the deepest most fundamental level of all things, it is not detectible?

    The 3rd realm where information originated is not before or after the material universe nor is it combined with it-

    the spiritual realm is for me along side the physical world-

    what we witness as information is actually an interpretation of physical matter through the mind via the spirit- matter itself has no significance or actual form what-so-ever. Third means that questions about “the origins of information” as if it came from a particular place in matter- are non starters.

    In fact, for me, we as spirits are only limited by our spiritual constraints- that is our minds and bodies are limited by the nature of the third realm- and nothing more. Without a soul we could just imagine anything in our minds and thus there would be no reason for matter to have to exist at all! It is out drive to know true reality that brings us down from our dreams-

    So information for me is a subjective thing that objectively exists. Whoever said that “the subjective” cant also be “objective“?

    In the real world epistemology and ontology do in fact over lap and logically comprise one (the limits of the understanding should actually be objectively defined).

    So the matter is actually nonexistent on the deepest level- thus the world and it’s apparent information manifests itself to us through the faculty of the mind, ultimately because of the “significant-cognizance” that we experience due to the true nature of the prime reality of which we call “the spirit”.

    So for me the world is inside out so to speak – in comparison to the common interpretation of the world as that in which the soul is merely some little dysfunctional thing left over from Darwinian evolution trapped inside the physical of our shell.

    That is the world in which I see does not appear “out of nothing” as modern science says– but it actually objectively parallels the prime and ultimate truth. Information is an interdimensional medium between the spirit and the physical world.

    My greatest concern for science and science education is that the political left is slowly erasing the word design from our vocabularies. This would be like eliminating the word “right” or “wrong”. Such tings are objectively true states of being and to try and eradicate them away is to try and change the spiritual core of man- which is not material and so cannot be done.

    Perhaps that is the only good news. Materialism is destined to fail. Heisenberg (ontologically) and Gödel (on the epistemological level) demonstrated this sufficiently well.

  18. 18
    Frost122585 says:

    ^ and as far as what my interpretation means for the pursuit of ID- it means that our goal as IDists is an intellectual one. That is, we cannot force others to “feel” the spiritual significance of the obvious truth of the design argument as much as we do. We therefore have to approach design as an “intellectual” issue. Our most important goal is “to define design, and information and technically and manifestly sound” as possible, so that those words cannot be over looked and discarded as merely illusory or non-scientific when they are objective designations of the objective world.

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