Uncommon Descent Serving The Intelligent Design Community

From Barren Planet to Civilization in Four Easy Steps


In a recent American Spectator article “Evolution—More Certain than Gravity?” I made the point that to not believe in intelligent design, you have to believe that the four fundamental, unintelligent forces of physics alone (the gravitational, electromagnetic and strong and weak nuclear forces) could have rearranged the fundamental particles of physics on our once-barren planet into encyclopedias and science texts and computers and airplanes and Apple iPhones. In a 2017 Physics Essays article “On ‘Compensating’ Entropy Decreases,” I argued that this spectacular increase in order seems to violate the more general statements of the second law of thermodynamics; at least that you cannot dismiss this claim, as is always done, by simply saying, the Earth is an open system and order can increase in an open system.

Whether or not what has happened on Earth technically violates the second law, I can’t imagine anything in all of science that is more clear and more obvious than that unintelligent forces alone cannot produce such things as Apple iPhones. But materialists are not impressed, they believe they can explain how unintelligent forces alone could produce computers and airplanes. There are four steps in the usual materialist explanation of how advanced civilizations can spontaneously arise on barren, Earth-like, planets, without design:

  1. Three or four billion years ago a collection of atoms formed by pure chance that was able to duplicate itself.
  2. These complex collections of atoms were able to preserve their complex structures and pass them on to their descendants, generation after generation.
  3. Over a long period of time, the accumulation of duplication errors resulted in more and more elaborate collections of atoms.
  4. Eventually something called “intelligence” allowed some of these collections of atoms to design computers and airplanes, and write encyclopedias and science texts.

The first step is the origin of life: even most materialists will admit that this is a very difficult problem which has not yet been solved by science. Regarding the fourth step, we may feel that we understand how humans design and build computers and airplanes, because we see it happen all the time. But seeing something happen and understanding how it happens are two very different things, and again I think even most materialists will agree that science cannot yet explain human consciousness or intelligence in terms of unintelligent forces alone.

Darwinists claim that the third step is well understood by science, that natural selection has organized these duplication errors into higher animals and intelligent humans, even though it has never actually been observed to produce anything other than very minor adaptations (see this New York Times article.) As I pointed out in “I Believe in the Evolution of Life and the Evolution of Automobiles,” what we see in the fossil record–large gaps where major new features appear–actually looks more like the way human technology, such as software or automobiles, “evolves,” through testing and improvements. “Gaps among known orders, classes and phyla are systematic and almost always large,” writes Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson. And new organs and new systems of organs do not appear very gradually, as Darwin had expected, for the same reason that major new technological advances do not appear very gradually: gradual transitions would have to involve puzzling new but not yet useful features. Although he calls evolution “axiomatic,” University of California geologist Joseph Le Conte acknowledges in his 1888 book Evolution that in the fossil record, “species seem to come in suddenly” and that gradual transitions could not be explained by natural selection if they did exist: “An organ must be already useful before natural selection can take hold of it to improve it,” he concedes.

When I point out the similarities between the evolution of life and the evolution of human technology such as the automobile, some people have responded by saying that of course the evolution of life is much easier to explain without design than the evolution of automobiles because cars cannot reproduce, so there are no “variations” for natural selection to work with. Actually the fact that natural selection cannot act on cars is irrelevant to the main point of this comparison, which is simply that similarities between “species” (of cars or animals) do not prove the absence of design.

However, even though it is irrelevant to the main point of that comparison, let’s look at the argument that evolution is easier to explain if there is reproduction, because that brings us to the second step of the materialists’ explanation. That the third step seems even superficially plausible (until we look at it in more detail) depends completely on the second step, the fact that living things are able to reproduce, that “these complex collections of atoms are able to preserve their complex structures and pass them on to their descendants, generation after generation.” Reproduction is the most fundamental characteristic of life, we see it happen everywhere, so we may feel there is no mystery to reproduction. But again, seeing something happen and explaining how it happens naturally are two very different things. Is it really true that if cars were able to give birth to other cars—that is, if they were able to reproduce themselves almost perfectly, with occasional minor duplication errors—that would make the evolution of cars easier to explain without design? Although it is far beyond our current technology, imagine that it were possible to construct a fleet of cars that contained completely automated car-building factories inside, with the ability to construct new cars—and not just normal new cars, but new cars containing automated car-building factories inside. If we left these cars alone and let them reproduce themselves for many generations, is there any chance we would eventually see major advances arise through natural selection of the resulting duplication errors? Of course not, the whole process would grind to a halt after a few generations without intelligent humans there to fix the mechanical problems that would arise. We are so used to seeing animals make nearly perfect copies of themselves that we dismiss this as just another “natural” process; but if we actually saw cars with fully automated car factories inside, making new cars with car factories inside them, maybe we would realize what an astonishing process reproduction really is. (“How do these instruction sets not make mistakes as they build what is us?” mathematician Alexander Tsiaras asks in the video “Conception to Birth—Visualized.” How indeed?) And we might conclude that reproduction actually makes evolution even more difficult to explain without design.

Mathematicians are trained to value simplicity: when we have a clear, simple, proof of a theorem, and a long, complicated counterargument, involving controversial and unproven assertions, we accept the clear, simple, proof, and we know there must be errors in the counterargument even before we find them. The argument for intelligent design here could not be simpler or clearer: unintelligent forces of physics alone cannot rearrange atoms into computers and airplanes and Apple iPhones. And the counterargument consists of four steps, each of which–to put it very generously—is based on dubious and unproven assertions. QED.