Atheist and feminist blogger Greta Christina recently wrote an essay for AlterNet titled, Why You Can’t Reconcile God and Evolution, which has been re-published in Salon magazine under the title, The truth about science vs. religion: 4 reasons why intelligent design falls flat. The article was then critiqued by an agnostic called Andy Ihnatko and finally, New Atheist P. Z. Myers commented on both the article and the critique over at his science blog, Pharyngula.
Although I disagree with Greta Christina on many subjects, she writes well and is generally a fair-minded person, so I thought her piece deserved a reply from the Intelligent Design community. Let’s have a look at her four reasons why God-guided evolution won’t work.
Greta Christina’s Four Arguments Against God-Guided Evolution
Argument #1: God-guided evolution contradicts a central principle of the theory of evolution
Greta Christina writes:
According to theistic evolution (the fancy term for “God made evolution happen”), the process of evolution is shaped by the hand of God. God takes the processes of mutation, natural selection, and descent with modification, and uses them to direct life into the forms he wants – including the form of humanity.
But in evolution, there is no direction… There’s no direction: there’s no selecting for life to take any particular form at any point in the future.
Is the fitness landscape of evolution a product of intelligent design?
I’d like to respond to Greta Christina’s objection as fairly as possible, by staying on-topic. So I won’t be discussing the weaknesses of evolutionary theory for now – I’ll hold my fire until I get to her second argument. My aim here is a strictly limited one: I intend to show that even if we assume that Darwinian evolution (or something like it) is true, evolution could still have a direction. This is a view articulated by leading Intelligent Design advocate Dr. William Dembski and by Dr. Robert Marks II, in their essay, Life’s Conservation Law: Why Darwinian Evolution Cannot Create Biological Information. Dembski and Marks argue that contrary to popular perceptions, Darwinian evolution can be viewed as a teleological process, and that the fitness landscapes within which evolution takes place have themselves been intelligently designed so as to make evolution possible. Citing the work of the Swedish mathematician Olle Häggström (no friend of Intelligent Design), they point out that in order for evolution to work, fitness landscapes need to possess a number of evolution-friendly features such as “geographical structures,” “link structures,” search space “clustering” [meaning that similar DNA sequences will tend to produce similar fitness values] and smooth surfaces conducive to “hill climbing.” Dembski and Marks add: “Darwinian evolution, as it plays out in real life, could potentially look into the future (and thus be teleological) if the fitness it employed were … ‘programmed with insight into the future.’ And how do we know that it isn’t?” (p. 32).
Dembski and Marks’ claim that evolutionary fitness landscapes need to be intelligently rigged for evolution to work remains highly controversial (see here for a critique by Professor Joe Felsenstein and see here for a response), so I’d like to move on, and discuss other arguments supporting the claim that the course of evolution is indeed directional.
“Favored forms” as evidence for directionality in evolution
Greta Christina’s assertion that there is no direction in evolution rests upon an unstated assumption: that having a direction means being oriented towards some long-term goal. However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that if evolution has a direction, there has to be selection for long-term future outcomes. Another possibility is that there are certain “grooves” that living things tend to fall into – certain “favored forms”, if you like. These “favored forms” would constrain the direction that evolution might take in the future, without requiring selection for specific outcomes. Instances of these “favored forms” are rife in the natural world, as the “Nature by Numbers” video, produced by Spanish graphic designer Cristóbal Vila, beautifully illustrates:
Developmental biologist Richard Sternberg, who chronicles his intellectual odyssey in his essay, , uses the term “neo-Pythagorean neo-Platonism” to describe his current views on design in nature. Steernberg states that he envisages forms in nature as being “like the equation for a triangle – with every realized triangle realizing that formula.” He believes that while these structures transcend the physical world, “we can apprehend them through logic, mathematics, and the scientific analysis of empirical phenomena.” One of Sternberg’s favorite examples is the fact that “a few simple and beautiful mathematical rules can account for the entire panorama of seashells we find in nature.” The butterfly wing pattern ground-plan is another example:
Not only does this abstract nymphalid groundplan express pictorially the genetics and ontogeny of wing patterning, but it has even been formalized in such a way that predictive computer models have been generated. So from a scientific analysis of the panoply of butterfly wing spots and stripes, and through logic, a sort of periodic table of patterns is discernible that has more than just a heuristic value.
Sternberg adds that he sees “no incompatibility whatsoever” in subscribing to “neo-Pythagorean neo-Platonism” and at the same time “holding that the structures emanate from Nous (mind) or Logos (intellect).”
Convergent evolution: is the course of evolution determined in advance?
Convergent evolution offers a striking confirmation of Sternberg’s view that evolution proceeds along predetermined paths. Hundreds of examples are documented in impressive detail at the Map of Life Website. Simon Conway Morris, Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge, co-ordinates the Map of Life project. Morris has argued that the pervasiveness of convergent evolution among living organisms shatters the widely held myth that the course of evolution is unpredictable. Documented examples of convergent evolution in beetles – ranging from bioluminescence to plant pollination to animal agriculture to social behavior – are particularly striking.
Perhaps the best-known example of convergent evolution is the Thylacine, a carnivorous marsupial from Tasmania, Australia, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the wolf, despite the fact that the two animals last shared a common ancestor more than 160 million years ago. The animal is thought to have become extinct, but the following footage of the last known Thylacine, shot in 1933 (courtesy of the Archives Office of Tasmania, the BBC Natural History Unit and Youtube) vividly displays the animal’s astonishing similarities to canines.
(A longer video, courtesy of the Thylacine Museum, can be viewed here.)
Convergent evolution extends not only to anatomical and behavioral similarities that have arisen independently in different groups of organisms, but also to surprising similarities at the genetic level. A team of scientists at Queen Mary University of London recently compared the genomes of bats and dolphins, which developed echolocation independently of one another, and found evidence for convergence in nearly 200 different regions of the genome – mostly regions related to hearing. The scientists’ findings were published in Nature last year. One of the scientists involved in the study, Dr Joe Parker, voiced his surprise at the team’s findings: “We had expected to find identical changes in maybe a dozen or so genes but to see nearly 200 is incredible. We know natural selection is a potent driver of gene sequence evolution, but identifying so many examples where it produces nearly identical results in the genetic sequences of totally unrelated animals is astonishing.”
Now, it would indeed be astonishing for an unguided process to generate such an extraordinary number of similarities at the genetic level in animals as different as bats and dolphins. However, if evolution were an intelligently guided process, such convergence is precisely what we would expect to find.
Does evolution show an active trend towards complexity over time?
Professor Simon Conway Morris also makes the controversial claim that the evolution of complex life-forms on Earth was a fore-ordained result. If Morris is correct, then the commonly held view that evolution has no direction is no longer tenable: at the very least, it is oriented towards an increase complexity. Many scientists have disputed Morris’ claims, arguing that the increasing prevalence of complex life-forms over the course of geological time can be explained through a passive process, whereby the degree of variance in complexity among species increases over time but the most common level of complexity [i.e. the mode] does not change: even after four billion years of evolution, most species of organisms are believed to be prokaryotic bacteria, rather than the more complex eukaryotic organisms such as animals, plants, fungi and protists. But what this explanation overlooks is the fact that even the simplest modern organisms are staggeringly complex. Take size, first. The smallest known parasitic bacterium, Mycoplasma genitalium has a molecular weight of 360,110,000 daltons, where one dalton is roughly equivalent to the mass of a typical hydrogen atom. The smallest known free-living bacterium, Pelagibacter ubique, is more than twice as massive, while the number of atoms in an E. coli bacterium is around 7,000,000,000. But there’s much more: living things also contain an astonishing level of complex information, relating to the biological functions that their components have to perform. As Paul Davies puts it in his book, The Fifth Miracle, “Living organisms are mysterious not for their complexity per se, but for their tightly specified complexity.” In living things on Earth today, much of this information is digitally encoded in DNA and also contained in proteins whose shape enables them to not only fold up properly but also carry out specific tasks within the cell. Even the simplest bacteria require at least 250 proteins – and not just short proteins, but also large, complex proteins containing hundreds of amino acids. The information stored in the DNA of bacteria is no less awe-inspiring: the DNA letters of the genome of Mycoplasma genitalium, for instance, would span 147 pages, if they were printed in 10 point font. Evolutionary biologists realize full well that the chances of such complex structures arising from the primordial soup via an undirected process are astronomically low, so they hypothesize that the first living organisms must have been much, much simpler, to make the emergence of life more probable. After that, they say, natural selection would have taken over. Here’s the thing: if they are right, then all life-forms have shown a marked increase in complexity over time, at the biochemical level. That being the case, we can indeed speak of evolution as having a direction: an active trend toward complexity over the course of time.
Passive versus active trends in the evolution of complexity. Organisms at the beginning of the processes are colored red. Numbers of organisms are shown by the height of the bars, with the graphs moving up in a time series. Image courtesy of Tim Vickers, Fvasconcellos and Wikipedia.
How strong is the evidence for undirected evolution, anyway?
At this point, the question arises: do we have any positive evidence that evolution is an undirected process? The most commonly cited evidence relates to the randomness of mutations. Evolutionary biologist and New Atheist Jerry Coyne, who has written several posts arguing for the unlikelihood of God-guided mutations (see here, here and here) in response to philosopher Elliott Sober (who defends the feasibility of these mutations on scientific grounds), is careful to point out that when scientists speak of mutations as being random, they do not mean “uncaused”: what they mean is that mutations “arise irrespective of whether they’d make an individual more or less fit.” Coyne writes: “Experiments have repeatedly showed that mutations do appear to be random: we don’t jack up the probably of an adaptive mutation by putting an organism in an environment where such adaptive mutations would be useful.” Nevertheless, Coyne acknowledges that while this evidence “rules out the possibility that mutations could be massively nonrandom,” it does not preclude the possibility that “some rare ones might be caused by God,” although he adds that such a scenario invites the obvious retort: “Why would God do it that way, rather than just bringing new species or complex adaptations into existence de novo?” That’s a fair question, which I’ll address later in this essay (hint: I think terra-forming has a lot to do with it).
More tellingly, Coyne, in a recent interview with Nature magazine, titled, Predictable evolution trumps randomness of mutations, freely admits that although mutations occur at random, nature has a habit of finding the same solution to the same problem, over and over again. Commenting on recent experiments conducted on separate populations of bacteria which show that the same changes in the environment often trigger the same genetic solutions, Coyne declared that these experiments can tell us “how much constraint there is on evolution,” adding that other organisms also show evidence for constraint in their evolution: separate populations of insects often evolve resistance to insecticides through the same mutations, as well.
To sum up: the best evidence for the lack of direction in evolution consists in the observed fact that the frequency of mutations is unrelated to their adaptiveness. However, this observation in no way precludes the possibility of evolution being intelligently guided by intelligent rigging of evolutionary “fitness landscapes”, or through the imposition of constraints on evolution (as shown by the existence of “favored forms” and the phenomenon of convergent evolution), or via a gradual, active trend in organisms towards increasing complexity over time. Intelligently directed evolution thus remains a live option.
Argument #2: There’s not a scrap of evidence for God-guided evolution
Greta Christina writes:
When we look at the fossil record — and the genetic record, and the geological record, and the anatomical record, and every other record from every branch of science that supports the theory of evolution and investigates how it works — we don’t see any signs whatsoever of outside intervention. What we do see is exactly what we’d expect to see if evolution were an entirely natural process, proceeding one generation at a time.
Now, some adherents of theistic evolution think … God set the entire process in motion, four billion years ago at the dawn of the planet, or 13.7 billion years ago at the dawn of the universe…
But there’s not a scrap of evidence for this, either. If your god is so non-interventionist that he’s entirely indistinguishable from physical cause and effect — what reason do you have to think he exists?
In reply, I’d like to point to five phenomena which unequivocally point to the need for an Intelligent Designer of nature.
(a) The existence of life itself is evidence for an Intelligent Designer
Overview of the translation of eukaryotic messenger RNA: diagram of RNA translation. In molecular biology and genetics, translation is the process in which cellular ribosomes create proteins. Image courtesy of Kelvinsong and Wikipedia.
The first retort that sprang to my lips when I read the passage above was, “What about the existence of life itself? Doesn’t that count as evidence?” I’ve discussed the origin of life at length in my essays, It’s time for scientists to come clean with the public about evolution and the origin of life and The dirty dozen: Twelve fallacies evolutionists make when arguing about the origin of life, so I’ll be very brief here, in order to avoid repeating myself.
Let me begin by quoting from the work of Dr. Eugene V. Koonin, a Senior Investigator at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, which is part of the National Library of Medicine, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Maryland, USA. Dr. Koonin is also a recognized authority in the field of evolutionary and computational biology. Recently, he authored a book, titled, The Logic of Chance: The Nature and Origin of Biological Evolution (Upper Saddle River: FT Press, 2011, ISBN 978-0-13-262317-9). I think we can fairly assume that when it comes to origin-of-life scenarios, he knows what he’s talking about.
In Appendix B of his book, The Logic of Chance, Dr. Koonin argues that the origin of life is such a remarkable event that we need to postulate a multiverse, containing a very large (and perhaps infinite) number of universes, in order to explain the emergence of life on Earth.
The reason why Dr. Koonin believes we need to postulate a multiverse in order to solve the riddle of the origin of life on Earth is that all life is dependent on replication and translation systems which are fiendishly complex. As Koonin puts it:
The origin of the translation system is, arguably, the central and the hardest problem in the study of the origin of life, and one of the hardest in all evolutionary biology. The problem has a clear catch-22 aspect: high translation fidelity hardly can be achieved without a complex, highly evolved set of RNAs and proteins but an elaborate protein machinery could not evolve without an accurate translation system.
Dr. Koonin claims that the emergence of even a basic replication-translation system on the primordial Earth is such an astronomically unlikely event that we would need to postulate a vast number of universes, in which all possible scenarios are played out, in order to make its emergence likely.
To justify this claim, Dr. Koonin provides what he calls “a rough, toy calculation of the upper bound of the probability of the emergence of a coupled replication-translation system in an O-region.” (That’s an observable universe, such as the one we live in.) The calculations on pages 434-435 in Appendix B of Dr. Koonin’s book, The Logic of Chance, are adapted from his peer-reviewed article, The Cosmological Model of Eternal Inflation and the Transition from Chance to Biological Evolution in the History of Life, Biology Direct 2 (2007): 15, doi:10.1186/1745-6150-2-15. Dr. Koonin stresses that his model “is not supposed to be realistic”; however, the assumptions it makes are generously biased so as to favor the emergence of life. Even in Koonin’s life-friendly toy model, the probability of life emerging from non-living matter via stochastic processes is astronomically low, in the observable universe (or O-region) that we inhabit:
In other words, even in this toy model that assumes a deliberately inflated rate of RNA production, the probability that a coupled translation-replication emerges by chance in a single O-region is P < 10-1018. Obviously, this version of the breakthrough stage can be considered only in the context of a universe with an infinite (or, at the very least, extremely vast) number of O-regions.
Dr. Koonin’s 2007 paper, which contained the above calculations, passed a panel of four reviewers, including one reviewer (Itai Yanai) from Harvard University, who wrote that “despite much ingenuity and effort, it is fair to say that all origin of life models suffer from astoundingly low probabilities of actually occurring.” He continued:
…[F]uture work may show that starting from just a simple assembly of molecules, non-anthropic principles can account for each step along the rise to the threshold of Darwinian evolution. Based upon the new perspective afforded to us by Koonin this now appears unlikely.
Dr. Koonin is not alone. In December 2013, science reporter Suzan Mazur interviewed Dr. Steve Benner, director of the Florida-based Westheimer Institute at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, in a report for the Huffington Post. Mazur asked Dr. Benner several questions about a conference that he was going to chair in January 2014, called the “Origins of Life / Gordon Research Conference.” In the course of the interview, Benner referred to four major hurdles confronting any theory for getting from simple chemicals to a Darwinian replicator, such as RNA. Dr. Benner admitted that the track record to date in overcoming these hurdles has been one of unmitigated failure:
We have failed in any continuous way to provide a recipe that gets from the simple molecules that we know were present on early Earth to RNA. There is a discontinuous model which has many pieces, many of which have experimental support, but we’re up against these three or four paradoxes, which you and I have talked about in the past. The first paradox is the tendency of organic matter to devolve and to give tar. If you can avoid that, you can start to try to assemble things that are not tarry, but then you encounter the water problem, which is related to the fact that every interesting bond that you want to make is unstable, thermodynamically, with respect to water. If you can solve that problem, you have the problem of entropy, that any of the building blocks are going to be present in a low concentration; therefore, to assemble a large number of those building blocks, you get a gene-like RNA — 100 nucleotides long — that fights entropy. And the fourth problem is that even if you can solve the entropy problem, you have a paradox that RNA enzymes, which are maybe catalytically active, are more likely to be active in the sense that destroys RNA rather than creates RNA.
Why invoking the multiverse won’t help the atheist
As we have seen, Dr. Koonin invokes the multiverse in order to render the emergence of life on Earth more probable. Given an infinite multiverse, some planets had to get lucky sooner or later, and ours must have been one of the lucky ones – or we wouldn’t be here today. But despite its ingenuity, Dr. Koonin’s multiverse scenario suffers from two fatal defects. First, as fine-tuning expert Dr. Robin Collins points out in his ground-breaking essay, The Teleological Argument: An Exploration of the Fine-Tuning of the Universe (in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, edited by William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, 2009, Blackwell Publishing Ltd.), a multiverse “must have just the right combination of laws and fields for the production of life-permitting universes,” which pushes the fine-tuning problem up one level: who fine-tuned the multiverse, so that it could generate life-friendly universes like ours?
Second, as physicist Paul Davies argues in an article titled, A Brief History of the Multiverse (New York Times, 12 April 2003), the multiverse hypothesis actually implies the existence of intelligently designed universes, since technologically advanced alien civilizations could easily design virtual worlds of their own inside their computers, and these worlds would be indistinguishable from the real ones, to the conscious beings living in these worlds. Professor Davies concludes:
Far from doing away with a transcendent Creator, the multiverse theory actually injects that very concept at almost every level of its logical structure. Gods and worlds, creators and creatures, lie embedded in each other, forming an infinite regress in unbounded space.
So my question for Greta Christina is: if you reject Dr. Koonin’s estimate of 10-1018 for the probability of even simple life-forms (such as “a coupled replication-translation system”) emerging on Earth, on what basis do you do so?
(b) Even the simplest life requires proteins that are too complex to have formed by chance
Scientists now agree that only a very small proportion of all possible protein sequences has the property of being able to fold up and create a stable 3D structure. This finding severely undermines the claim that proteins could have arisen by an unguided process, as Dr. Ann Gauger explains in a post titled Protein Evolution: A Guide for the Perplexed:
…[T]he problem is that the number of possible protein sequences that could exist is very large, occupying a very large potential sequence space, but the number of proteins that do exist is much smaller, and they are widely scattered across sequence space (perhaps — in fact, that is one of the things being debated). The potential space is so large that a purely random search for rare functional proteins would spectacularly fail. So unless functional sequences are easy to find (very common), and/or are clustered together (easily reachable from one functional island to another), explaining current protein diversity without design is impossible.
Now let’s consider a protein made up of 150 amino acids – which is a fairly modest length. If we compare the number of 150-amino-acid sequences that correspond to some sort of functional protein to the total number of possible 150-amino-acid sequences, we find that only a tiny proportion of possible amino acid sequences are capable of performing a function of any kind. The vast majority of amino-acid sequences are good for nothing. So, what proportion are we talking about here? An astronomically low proportion: 1 in 10 to the power of 74, according to work done by Dr. Douglas Axe. When we add the requirement that a protein has to be made up of amino acids that are either all left-handed or all right-handed, and when we finally add the requirement that the amino acids have to be held together by peptide bonds, we find that only 1 in 10 to the power of 164 amino-acid sequences of that length are suitable proteins. 1 in 10 to the power of 164 is 1 in 1 followed by 164 zeroes. The Earth has been around for 4,500,000,000 years, but it should be obvious to the reader that that’s nowhere near enough time for a protein to form as a result of unguided natural processes. (I might add, by the way, that Dr. Axe is a highly qualified scientist: after obtaining a Caltech Ph.D., he held postdoctoral and research scientist positions at the University of Cambridge, the Cambridge Medical Research Council Centre, and the Babraham Institute in Cambridge. He has also written two articles for the Journal of Molecular Biology – see here and here for abstracts – and he co-authored an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an article in Biochemistry and an article published in PLoS ONE.)
In his article, The Case Against a Darwinian Origin of Protein Folds (BioComplexity 2010(1):1-12. doi:10.5048/BIO-C.2010.1), Dr. Douglas Axe argues that we should be looking well outside the Darwinian framework for an adequate explanation of protein fold origins:
Four decades ago, several scientists suggested that the impossibility of any evolutionary process sampling anything but a miniscule fraction of the possible protein sequences posed a problem for the evolution of new proteins. This potential problem-the sampling problem-was largely ignored, in part because those who raised it had to rely on guesswork to fill some key gaps in their understanding of proteins. The huge advances since that time call for a careful reassessment of the issue they raised. Focusing specifically on the origin of new protein folds, I argue here that the sampling problem remains. The difficulty stems from the fact that new protein functions, when analyzed at the level of new beneficial phenotypes, typically require multiple new protein folds, which in turn require long stretches of new protein sequence. Two conceivable ways for this not to pose an insurmountable barrier to Darwinian searches exist. One is that protein function might generally be largely indifferent to protein sequence. The other is that relatively simple manipulations of existing genes, such as shuffling of genetic modules, might be able to produce the necessary new folds. I argue that these ideas now stand at odds both with known principles of protein structure and with direct experimental evidence. If this is correct, the sampling problem is here to stay, and we should be looking well outside the Darwinian framework for an adequate explanation of fold origins.
Excerpt from the paper:
“Based on analysis of the genomes of 447 bacterial species, the projected number of different domain structures per species averages 991. Comparing this to the number of pathways by which metabolic processes are carried out, which is around 263 for E. coli, provides a rough figure of three or four new domain folds being needed, on average, for every new metabolic pathway. In order to accomplish this successfully, an evolutionary search would need to be capable of locating sequences that amount to anything from one in 10^159 to one in 10^308 possibilities, something the neo-Darwinian model falls short of by a very wide margin.” (p. 11)
To get round this difficulty, some scientists have hypothesized that maybe Nature has a hidden bias that makes proteins more likely to form, but all the evidence suggests there isn’t any such bias – and even if there were one, that would need explaining too.
Other origin-of-life researchers have attempted to argue that although the probability of finding a functional protein sequence by chance is very low, it is not astronomically low, and that there is sufficient time during the Earth’s history for such a sequence to have arisen naturally, without the need for any intelligent guidance. Keefe and Szostak managed to isolate four ATP binding proteins from a library of 6×1012 proteins, and concluded that the proportion of all possible protein sequences that are actually functional might be as high as 1 in 1011, or 1 in 100,000,000,000, and that functional proteins could therefore have arisen by an unguided, stochastic (i.e. random) process. (Their 2001 paper in Nature 410:715-718 can be accessed here.) Another team of scientists (Taylor et al., 98:10596-10601, 2001, doi:10.1073/pnas.191159298) estimated that a random protein library of about 1024 members would be sufficient for finding one chorismate mutase molecule, making the problem of unguided natural processes hitting upon a functional sequence difficult but by no means impossible (see here for their article). Dr. Cornelius G. Hunter is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he earned a Ph.D. in Biophysics and Computational Biology. In a recent personal communication, Dr. Cornelius Hunter explained to me why these estimates of the probability of finding a functional protein sequence by chance are wildly over-optimistic, and pointed out that a more realistic estimate would be 1 in 1060, or 1 in 1 million million million million million million million million million million:
“First, Keefe and Szostak is not relevant as they were not seeking functional proteins, but merely mild ATP binding. Second, Taylor, et. al. deals with a simple, helix only, protein (homodimeric AroQ), biased the sequence toward helix forming amino acids and sequence patterns, did not fully randomize the sequence but only randomized regions, and is vague about how they arrive at their 10^24 tries required. Even if their calculation of 10^24 is reasonable, you’re dealing with a pretty simple protein… AroQ is toward the simple end of the spectrum… And finally there are several studies on slightly more complex, challenging proteins, all of which come in at around 10^60 – 10^80 attempts required.”
Dr. Hunter also poured scorn on the suggestion, voiced by some experts, that the first proteins may have been relatively short, making their emergence by random processes far more likely. He wrote:
“Proteins are by no means created equal. They occupy a wide spectrum of size and complexity… Nor is there reason to think that evolution could live with the shorter, simpler ones at first, and then later somehow the larger, more complex ones would evolve. The larger ones appear to be needed, and there are not obvious gradual pathways to forming them.… We’re still not close to the more complex proteins.”
The walking miracle of kinesins
Kinesins are a class of complex proteins found in eukaryotes (animals, plants, fungi, and organisms commonly known as protists) sharing a common motor domain of 340-350 amino acids. Kinesins are motor proteins powered by ATP. Prokaryotic cells (such as bacteria) do not have these proteins. Masterpieces of microengineering, kinesins are motorized transport machines that move cellular materials to their correct locations in the cell so they can perform their functions. Kinesins have two feet, or “globular heads,” that literally walk, one foot over another. Known as the “workhorses of the cell,” kinesins can carry cargo many times their own size, as the following video illustrates:
So where, you might wonder, did such exquisite proteins come from? Dr. Kjell J. Tveter M.D., Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Surgery and Urology at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences. After watching the new animation in Discovery Institute’s series on molecular machines, “The Workhorse of the Cell: Kinesin”, Dr. Tweter shared his comments with the Institute, from which I shall quote a brief excerpt:
For me personally the mere existence of kinesin is convincing evidence of intelligent causation of life’s processes.…
Kinesin walks along microtubules that build up the cell’s skeleton. It is essential for life. Malfunction of kinesin may be disastrous.
To perform its task adequately, kinesin must receive detailed information telling it where to go to pick up cargo, and where to deliver it — and in some miraculous way it is able to do exactly that. If the cargo is heavy, two such intracellular workers may join efforts and help each other, an activity demanding intelligent communication.
Please, after seeing this video, take the opportunity to reflect on whether nanomachines produced for specific purposes could arise by chance when they depend upon detailed information both for their making and their function.
Other scientists also voiced their enthusiasm with the Discovery Institute’s latest video. “I open my cell biology course with a video on the cell, and the kinesin molecule is always the star of the show,” said Ralph Seelke, professor of microbial genetics at the University of Wisconsin, Superior. “Discovery Institute’s video shows it in its full glory; and the inference of design is very strong.”
“Congratulations to Discovery Institute,” said Tobias A. Mattei, a neurosurgeon at InvisionHealth. “As an epitome of the remarkable set of high-efficiency intracellular machinery, kinesin constitutes another example of the delicate and fine-tuned balance required for sustaining even the simplest living forms.”
Greta Christina sees no need to posit an Intelligent Designer. Does she know something that these learned scientists don’t?
I might add that although kinesins are nowhere to be found in prokaryotes (such as bacteria), researchers have now confirmed that the last common ancestor of all eukaryotes (LCEA) already possessed these complex proteins. The researchers wrote that their work “demonstrates that the microtubule-based cytoskeleton of the LCEA was surprisingly highly developed in terms of kinesin motor types, but that domain architectures have been extensively modified during the diversification of the eukaryotes.”
So we are left with the unsolved question: where did these complex proteins come from, if they were not intelligently designed?
What about the RNA world?
Finally, I’d like to address the currently fashionable suggestion that maybe another molecule – RNA – formed first, and proteins came later. But the same problem arises for RNA: the vast majority of possible sequences are non-functional, and only an astronomically tiny proportion work. Robert Shapiro (1935-2011) was professor emeritus of chemistry at New York University. In a discussion hosted by Edge in 2008, entitled, Life! What a Concept, with scientists Freeman Dyson, Craig Venter, George Church, Dimitar Sasselov and Seth Lloyd, Professor Shapiro explained why he found the RNA world hypothesis incredible:
… I looked at the papers published on the origin of life and decided that it was absurd that the thought of nature of its own volition putting together a DNA or an RNA molecule was unbelievable.
I’m always running out of metaphors to try and explain what the difficulty is. But suppose you took Scrabble sets, or any word game sets, blocks with letters, containing every language on Earth, and you heap them together and you then took a scoop and you scooped into that heap, and you flung it out on the lawn there, and the letters fell into a line which contained the words “To be or not to be, that is the question,” that is roughly the odds of an RNA molecule, given no feedback — and there would be no feedback, because it wouldn’t be functional until it attained a certain length and could copy itself — appearing on the Earth.
To sum up: the origin of proteins, and in particular, the long, complex proteins which are required by every living thing, poses an insoluble problem for scientists wishing to argue that life on Earth arose via an unguided process.
(c) There’s not enough time for unguided Darwinian evolution
In 2010, a paper by Herbert S. Wilf and Warren J. Ewens, titled, “There’s plenty of time for evolution”, was published in the Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) (doi: 10.1073/pnas.1016207107). The aim of the paper’s authors was to demonstrate mathematically that “there has been ample time for the evolution that we observe to have taken place.” At the time, the article was given wide publicity, and it was featured prominently over at Professor Jerry Coyne’s Website, Why Evolution is True, while Professor P.Z. Myers claimed the paper provided “a guide to short-circuiting the invalid assumptions of creationists.” Sadly, very few people read about the devastating rebuttal of Wilf and Ewens’s paper by Winston Ewert, William A. Dembski, Ann K. Gauger, Robert J. Marks II, in a paper titled, Time and Information in Evolution, in BIO-Complexity, Volume 2012 (4). The authors concluded that Wilf and Ewens’s paper did not accurately model biological evolution, firstly because their model included “implicit information sources, including the equivalent of a highly informed oracle that prophesies when a mutation is ‘correct,’ thus accelerating the search by the evolutionary process,” and secondly because the model makes “unrealistic biological assumptions that, in effect, simplify the search.”
Now, however, it seems that the scientific community is finally starting to come clean about the fact that Darwinian evolution is nowhere near capable of generating the diversity of life-forms we see on Earth today within the time available (four billion years).
Edward Frenkel, a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, recently reviewed a book titled, Probably Approximately Correct: Nature’s Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World (Basic Books, 2013) by computer scientist Leslie Valiant, in a report for the New York Times (Evolution, Speeded by Computation, September 30, 2013). The following excerpt conveys the gist of Dr. Valiant’s conclusions:
The evolution of species, as Darwin taught us, relies on natural selection. But Dr. Valiant argues that if all the mutations that drive evolution were simply random and equally distributed, it would proceed at an impossibly slow and inefficient pace.
Darwin’s theory “has the gaping gap that it can make no quantitative predictions as far as the number of generations needed for the evolution of a behavior of a certain complexity,” he writes. “We need to explain how evolution is possible at all, how we got from no life, or from very simple life, to life as complex as we find it on earth today. This is the BIG question.”
The criticisms being made here of the Darwinian theory of evolution are pretty devastating: not only is it far too slow to generate life in all its diversity, but it’s also utterly incapable of making quantitative predictions about the time required for a structure of known complexity to evolve, by natural selection. And there’s no reason to believe that the “nearly neutral theory of evolution” espoused by biologists such as Professor Larry Moran would fare any better, in this regard.
So what is Dr. Valiant’s alternative? He proposes that natural selection is supplemented by ecorithms, which enable organisms to learn and adapt more efficiently. He claims that not all mutations are realized with equal probability; those that are more beneficial are more likely to occur. It sounds as if Frenkel is advocating some kind of teleological, or purpose-driven evolution. That’s fine, but it raises a deeper question: who or what made evolution capable of achieving its goals within only a few billion years? Is the evolutionary process fine-tuned?
(d) Developmental programs found in organisms are evidence for an Intelligent Designer
Four views of a shell of the land snail Arianta arbustorum. Image courtesy of Tom Meijer and Wikipedia.
I earlier pointed out how a few simple mathematical rules can account for the entire panoply of seashells we find in nature, corroborating the insight of structuralism that biological organisms reflect certain underlying forms. But the problem for structuralism is that although seashell structures may reflect simple mathematical rules, there is nothing simple about the way seashells are actually built in nature. A mollusk requires incredibly fine-tuned instructions on how to assemble its shell. What is true for mollusks is true throughout the biological world. The underlying forms may be simple and elegant, but the instructions for assembling the structures are not. To instantiate that form in a living thing requires layer upon layer of specifications that determine gene organization, how genes are expressed, how proteins interact in the cell, how cells come together in embryogenesis, and much else. So development depends not only on structures that downwardly shape the embryo, but also on a plethora of information-rich codes that spell out material components and how they can interact.
Sternberg adds that he is not a mechanist: he views organisms, which assemble themselves, as fundamentally different from machines, which need to be assembled by something else. Indeed, he even regards proteins, which arrange themselves in filaments when added to a test tube, as having a capacity for self-organization. “But,” he continues, “the very fact that these ‘smart proteins’ have the instructions and specifications for limited self-assembly built into them also provides evidence of their detailed design.”
And what is the only kind of agency which is known to be capable of generating finely-tuned, detailed instructions? Intelligent agency.
Even New Atheist Richard Dawkins acknowledges that the origin of these genetic instructions is a profound mystery, in his best-selling work, The Greatest Show on Earth (Transworld Publishers, London, Black Swan edition, 2010, p. 217):
“…[T]here is a mystery, verging on the miraculous (but never quite getting there) in the very fact that a single cell gives rise to a body in all its complexity. And the mystery is only somewhat mitigated by the feat’s being achieved with the aid of DNA instructions. The reason the mystery remains is that we find it hard to imagine, even in principle, how we might set about writing the instructions for building a body in the way the body is in fact built, namely by what I have just called ‘self-assembly’, which is related to what computer programmers call a ‘bottom-up’, as opposed to a ‘top-down’, procedure.
Dawkins goes on to say that “local rules” make it plausible that this process was accomplished naturally, over a period of billions of years. But even the simplest life-forms presuppose the existence of these complicated instructions, and Dawkins has previously acknowledged that he has no idea how life on earth began.
(e) Unguided evolution cannot account for the Cambrian explosion
Opabinia regalis, from the Cambrian Burgess Shale. The discovery of Opabinia helped spark recent interest in the Cambrian explosion. Photo courtesy of Nobu Tamura and Wikipedia.
There has been a lot of controversy in the press lately over Dr. Stephen Meyer’s book, Darwin’s Doubt, which argues that Darwinian explanations for the Cambrian explosion have failed miserably, and that Intelligent Design is the only satisfactory explanation of this event. (See here for Dr. Meyer’s responses to critical reviews.) Now, Greta Christina may be mistrustful of Dr. Meyer’s conclusions, as he is not a paleontologist, but she can hardly ignore the work of two paleontologists who are widely acknowledged as leading authorities on the Cambrian explosion: Douglas Erwin and James Valentine. Over at Evolution News, Casey Luskin recently reviewed Erwin and Valentine’s latest ground-breaking book, The Cambrian Explosion: The Construction of Animal Biodiversity (Roberts and Company, 2013). A few relevant excerpts will serve to convey the gist of the book’s central argument, which is that nothing less than a radically new kind of evolution is required in order to understand what kicked off the Cambrian explosion:
One important concern has been whether the microevolutionary patterns commonly studied in modern organisms by evolutionary biologists are sufficient to understand and explain the events of the Cambrian or whether evolutionary theory needs to be expanded to include a more diverse set of macroevolutionary processes. We strongly hold to the latter position. (pp. 9-10)
Because the Cambrian explosion involved a significant number of separate lineages, achieving remarkable morphological breadth over millions of years, the Cambrian explosion can be considered an adaptive radiation only by stretching the term beyond all recognition… [T]he scale of morphological divergence is wholly incommensurate with that seen in other adaptive radiations. (p. 341)
The pathway from sponges to eumetazoans is the most enigmatic of any evolutionary transition in metazoans. This transition occurred during the Cryogenian, almost contemporaneously with the diversification of sponges. Many biologists concerned with metazoan phylogeny have been convinced that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” and have therefore assumed that the planktonic larval stages of invertebrate phyla represented their ancestral forms. The benthic nature of sponges and the paraphyly of the major clades demonstrate that planktonic stages could not have been ancestral to eumetazoans. Further, there are no living intermediates between sponges and eumetazoans, with the possible exception of placotozoans, and no obvious hints from the fossil record. (p. 324)
To be sure, all pairs of crown phyla had common ancestors; as far as we know, however, none of those bilaterian LCAs [last common ancestors – VJT] had features that would cause them to be diagnosed as members of living phyla, although that could be the case in a few instances. In other words, the morphological distances – gaps – between body plans of crown phyla were present when body fossils first appeared during the explosion and have been with us ever since. The morphological disparity is so great between most phyla that the homologous reference points or landmarks required for quantitative studies of morphology are absent. (p. 340)
(Emphases mine – VJT.)
Summing up his review of Erwin and Valentine’s book for the journal Science, Christopher J. Lowe wrote:
The Ediacaran and Cambrian periods witnessed a phase of morphological innovation in animal evolution unrivaled in metazoan history, yet the proximate causes of this body plan revolution remain decidedly murky. The grand puzzle of the Cambrian explosion surely must rank as one of the most important outstanding mysteries in evolutionary biology.
(Christopher J. Lowe, “What Led to Metazoa’s Big Bang?”, Science, Vol. 340: 1170-1171 (June 7, 2013). (Emphasis added – VJT.))
In conclusion: Greta Christina contends that there’s “not a scrap of evidence” for an Intelligent Designer. I have presented five lines of converging evidence. I’ll leave it to my readers to decide who is in the right.
Argument #3: There’s a whole lot of evidence against God-guided evolution
A human eye, showing the iris in detail. The eye is commonly alleged to be poorly designed; however, a recent article published in Nature proves otherwise. Photo courtesy of Petr Novák and Wikipedia.
Greta Christina writes:
Sinuses. Blind spots. External testicles. Backs and knees and feet shoddily warped into service for bipedal animals. Human birth canals barely wide enough to let the baby’s skull pass — and human babies born essentially premature, because if they stayed in utero any longer they’d kill their mothers coming out (which they sometimes do anyway). Wind pipes and food pipes in close proximity, leading to a great risk of choking to death when we eat. Impacted wisdom teeth, because our jaws are too small for all our teeth. Eyes wired backwards and upside-down. The vagus nerve, wandering all over hell and gone before it gets where it’s going. The vas deferens, ditto. Brains wired with imprecise language, flawed memory, fragile mental health, shoddy cost-benefit analysis, poor understanding of probability, and a strong tendency to prioritize immediate satisfaction over long-term gain. Birth defects. 15-20% of confirmed pregnancies ending in miscarriage (and that’s just confirmed pregnancies — about 30% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, and as many as 75% of all conceptions miscarry).
And that’s just humans….
If God is so powerful that he could bring all of existence into being simply by wishing it; if he’s so powerful that he can tinker with the genetics and circumstances of evolution simply by wishing it — why would he wish it to be so clumsy, half-assed, inefficient, jury-rigged, superfluous, and brutal?
What I find amusing about Greta Christina’s list of badly designed body parts is that most of her criticisms have already been answered. Take the eye, for instance. Generations of schoolchildren have been indoctrinated into believing that the vertebrate eye is poorly designed, because the photoreceptors are situated behind the retina. Well, it turns out that having the photoreceptors at the back of the retina is not a design constraint, it is a design feature (see here for the paper in Nature referred to in the article, and see here for one scientist’s take on the story).
Or take childbirth. Are difficult childbirths due to a design flaw? Think again. A woman who gives birth in a squatting position rather than lying on her back will increase the opening in her pelvis by 28%, on average (see also here). It should also be pointed out that the narrow birth canal serves a useful purpose (h/t Rex Tugwell): it helps squeeze amniotic fluid out of the newborn baby’s lungs. If the baby were not born in this way, it might develop pneumonia. That’s one reason why the respiration of a baby delivered by Caesarean section needs to be monitored carefully.
Evolutionists such as Richard Dawkins are fond of citing the recurrent laryngeal nerve (a branch of the vagus nerve) as an example of poor design, because it does not take the shortest route to the larynx. Well, it turns out that they’re wrong. Biologist Dr. Jerry Bergman, who has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology at Northwest State College for over 25 years and who has no less than nine degrees to his credit, argues that the existing design of the recurrent laryngeal nerve results from developmental constraints and also serves to fine-tune laryngeal functions.
What about wisdom teeth? Dr. Bergman argues that the reasons for most third molar problems today are not due to evolutionary changes but “largely to changes in diet, namely to softer, less abrasive processed foods which do not give the teeth the workout which they require to ensure proper relationship in the mouth.”
Greta Christina thinks that putting wind pipes and food pipes in close proximity was a bad idea. Dr. Bergman thinks otherwise. In his article, Is the human pharynx poorly designed?, he argues that there are at least a dozen important reasons for its existing design, and he challenges evolutionists to design a better one.
The vas deferens has attracted much derisory mirth from evolutionists. Remember the old jibe about the sewer pipe running through the playground? However, E. van Niekerk, a creationist engineer who recently examined the vas deferens from an engineering perspective, concluded that the critics had gotten it wrong. The current design gives the testes increased flexibility to move towards and away from the body to regulate temperature, as well as providing sufficient length to build up power and mix the essential ingredients of semen, and finally, it avoids the problem of ‘ovalling’ (kinking in a soft pipe when bending).
The Pegasus fallacy
Greta Christina seems to be arguing that because she can picture a better design, therefore it must be possible. I have referred to this elsewhere as the Pegasus fallacy: the fallacy of inferring possibility from picturability. It is a mistake to assume that if something is imaginable, then it is possible. The problem with “mental pictures” is two-fold: first, they are crude, as they invariably omit the finer structural details at the microscopic level; and second, they fail to address questions relating to mechanism: they don’t tell us how the proposed design would work. We can all imagine Pegasus in our heads, but this mental picture is merely superficial, as it ignores the fundamental question of how a horse would fly in the first place. When we ask ourselves this question, we realize that the existence of Pegasus is impossible.
If Greta Christina thinks that our bodies are poorly designed, then it’s incumbent on her to propose a better design for the human body – a design with detailed biomechanical specifications, which takes full account of all the constraints under which we live, and which works better than our bodies do now.
Could God build a better world?
Perhaps Greta Christina will object that if God is omnipotent, He should be able to design a better body, and that He is not bound by the constraints we observe in nature – after all, He could have made a world with a different set of laws.
I’d like to make two points in reply here. First, even if God could create a maximally perfect world, or for that matter, a world free of suffering, God doesn’t have an obligation to create such a world. Obligations, by definition, are duties we have towards morally significant others (i.e. individuals who matter in their own right), not towards “worlds” or “possible outcomes” or “states of affairs.” God doesn’t have an obligation to end or minimize suffering as such, but rather, to help sufferers – that is, morally significant individuals who are suffering. Pain without a subject is literally nobody’s problem, as Dr. James Rose puts it in his recent essay, “Do fish feel pain?” So at a minimum, morally significant beings would have to have a rudimentary sense of self. While that rules out most animals, one could still make a good case that many mammals and birds qualify, depending on how broadly one defines the term “self.”
(I should mention that there are some “macho” theists who stoutly maintain that God doesn’t have any obligations to anyone: by what right, they ask, does the creature have a claim upon its Creator, without Whom it would not even exist? What this argument overlooks, however, is that whenever someone undertakes to create morally significant individuals, they also undertake to promote these individuals’ best interests and look after them. Ask any parent. Similarly, God commits Himself to the morally significant beings that exist in our world, in the very act of choosing to create a world where these beings can come into existence.)
The second point I’d like to make is that God only has obligations towards the morally significant individuals He actually creates, not the hypothetical individuals that He could create, which in turn implies that God could never have an obligation to create a world (let’s call it X) with this set of individuals rather than a world Y with that set of individuals. Thus we can only speak of obligations after God has decided to create a given world. This is an important point. Perhaps one can imagine a hypothetical world, with laws that infallibly prevented the occurrence of suffering. But even if we could, it wouldn’t be our world, for such a world would be so different from ours that we cannot simultaneously imagine ourselves living in such a world, from the get-go. (Whether we might end up in such a world after we die is another matter, which I won’t discuss here.) The reason is that our very coming-into-existence depends on the existence of laws of Nature which presuppose the possibility of suffering: in a world where there’s a law of gravity, as well as sentient beings with sensitive body parts, individuals are obviously going to get hurt if heavy objects are dropped on their toes. More to the point: because we are mammals who are born by passing through birth canals, it is a simple fact of life that our children – and often, their mothers as well – will die if that passage is obstructed or if it is too narrow. So we have to take the laws of Nature that obtain in our world and the possibility of suffering that these laws entail for sentient beings, as a given, since we wouldn’t exist without these laws, and we cannot coherently wish ourselves in some other world. Our very identity is determined by the kind of world we live in. Once God has chosen to make our world, the possibility of suffering follows automatically.
The real question that we need to address, then, is not whether God could design a better world, but whether God would be doing something morally wrong in choosing to make a world like ours, in which animal suffering is widespread. It is to this question that I now turn.
Argument #4: If God-guided evolution were true, God would either be incompetent or malicious
Male lion and cub, in Chitwa, South Africa, 2004. Photo courtesy of Luca Galuzzi and Wikipedia.
Greta Christina writes:
Evolution is wildly inefficient. See #3 above. It’s not just the products of evolution that are inefficient, either. The process itself is inefficient — inherently so, almost by definition. If you’re an all-powerful magical being trying to create sentient life, evolution is the long, long, long way around.
And evolution is brutal. It’s not just that the results of the process are often uncomfortable, frustrating, even painful. The process itself is inherently brutal. The process ensures that most animals die in dreadful suffering and terror: they die from starvation, from injury, from disease, from birth defects, from being torn to pieces and devoured by other animals. Of all the billions upon billions of conscious living beings that have ever existed, … [t]he overwhelming majority died brutally, in pain and fear…
If God were smart enough to know precisely how to set the parameters of existence so that billions of years later it would unfold into conscious human life — why wouldn’t he be smart enough to do it in a way that avoided the inefficient, hideously violent processes through which evolution has unfolded, and continues to unfold?
If theistic evolution were true — if there really were a god who either tinkers with evolution to create human life or who set the universe in motion knowing that evolution would eventually result in human life – then that god would either be grossly incompetent or cruelly malicious.
I have previously disposed of Greta Christina’s alleged cases of maldesign in nature. Nevertheless, some lingering questions remain: why would God choose such a clumsy process as evolution, as a way of making the world we live in? Why not just make a world fully formed, by Divine fiat? And why does there have to be so much suffering in nature?
Why God might want to use evolution to make living things
I’d like to propose that the Designer’s modus operandi can be described by what might be called an Economy of Effort Principle. Very roughly, it states that out of all the possible sets of mutually compatible intelligent and sentient life-forms that the Designer could have made, the Designer will choose to make that set of intelligent and sentient life-forms which is the easiest for Him to produce, and that He will produce the life-forms belonging to that set in the simplest manner possible, where the terms “easy” and “simple” refer to the total length of the assembly instructions for all species.
The separate creation of each and every kind of creature is one way of generating sentient and sapient life-forms, but because these life-forms share many of their genes, there’s bound to be a lot of duplication in their descriptions. If we accept special creation, then the assembly instructions for each species will have to be specified separately, because each species is created separately. Hence the recipe which provides a complete description of all the actions performed by the Designer in designing all species will be unnecessarily long, thereby violating the Economy of Effort principle. Evolution from a common ancestor makes more sense.
This “Economy of Effort” principle sheds light on another question: why would God want to make a world with a long history, instead of making the entire biosphere at once? The short answer is that the Earth possesses a large number of finely balanced systems, and creating these systems de novo in perfect equilibrium would have required a lot of tinkering and “propping up,” on God’s part. Making a universe with a long history, in which these systems could attain equilibrium gradually, would have been far simpler, from a design perspective.
There are two fairly obvious reasons why an Intelligent Designer would not have wanted complex animals to appear instantaneously, on the early Earth:
(a) Terra-forming. Complex animals have their own specialized physiological needs, to support their uniquely active way of life. Some changes in the Earth’s environment may have been required before complex animals could appear. For instance, recent research suggests that volcanically active mid-ocean ridges caused a massive and sudden surge of the calcium concentration in the oceans, making it possible for marine organisms to build skeletons and hard body parts for the first time. (See Xavier Fernandez-Busquets, Andre Kornig, Iwona Bucior, Max M. Burger, and Dario Anselmetti. Self-Recognition and Ca2+-Dependent Carbohydrate-Carbohydrate Cell Adhesion Provide Clues to the Cambrian Explosion. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 2009; 26 (11): 2551.) Geological transformations take time to attain chemical equilibrium. Lest anyone think that this calcium upsurge “explains” the Cambrian explosion: it should be borne in mind that a necessary condition is not the same as a sufficient condition. Calcium upsurges don’t explain how hierarchical patterns of protein regulation suddenly arose in animals from that time.
(b) Ecological engineering. The appearance of complex animals would have added to the complexity of ecosystems. There would have been an increase in the number of needs that the first bilaterian animals had to meet, as complex ecological interactions developed. (See Marshall, C.R. (2006). Explaining the Cambrian “Explosion” of Animals. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Vol. 34: 355-384. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.earth.33.031504.103001. ) It takes time to set up a self-sustaining food chain. Once again: ecological explanations of the Cambrian explosion are well suited to explaining why there had to have been a rapid increase in both disparity and diversity, but by themselves, they cannot explain why the “explosion” happened when it did. Nor can they explain how hierarchical patterns of protein regulation suddenly arose in animals from that time.
What about animal suffering?
That still leaves us with the problem of animal death and suffering. However, the 13th century St. Thomas Aquinas identified no less than three reasons why animals are inherently prone to death, disease and birth defects: (a) if they are capable of being generated, then they must be capable of undergoing corruption; (b) they are generated by contingent causes, whose modus operandi is inherently probabilistic, rendering them liable to fail; and (c) their bodily parts are liable to interfere with one another over the course of time, rendering them liable to break down. For Aquinas, animal death and suffering was part-and-parcel of the world we live in. (See Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, chapter 71, paragraphs 3-4, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, chapter 72, paragraph 5, Summa Theologica I, question 19 article 8, Summa Theologica I, question 65, article 1, and Quaestiones Disputatae De Potentia Dei, Question 5, article 9.) Aquinas also argues that while natural evils are bad for the creature suffering them, they may contribute to the perfection of the cosmos as a whole:
Since God, then, provides universally for all being, it belongs to His providence to permit certain defects in particular effects, that the perfect good of the universe may not be hindered, for if all evil were prevented, much good would be absent from the universe. A lion would cease to live, if there were no slaying of animals… (Summa Theologica I, q. 22, art. 2).
Now, I realize that Greta Christina might still want to argue that God would be guilty of “wrongful creation” in making a world like ours, with laws which entail the possibility of widespread animal suffering. But what Greta Christina is really saying is that it would be better if God had chosen to make nothing at all than for Him to have made a world like ours. Does she really want to say that? Does she wish she had never been born? In wishing herself out of existence, she is doing something that no sane, self-respecting human being should ever do. And in wishing the entire human race, as well as all sentient animals, out of existence, she is being morally presumptuous: she might think that on balance, the evil in life outweighs the good, but most of us don’t: suicide is rare, after all. And we don’t see animals rushing to end their miserable lives, either. Why not? Presumably Greta Christina will answer that evolution has programmed these animals with powerful drives towards self-preservation and self-perpetuation (through reproduction). Precisely. And if evolution has programmed these animals with drives, then it is logical to suppose that evolution has programmed these animals with the enjoyment that accompanies the fulfillment of these drives. Given that animals live their lives largely, if not entirely, in the present, it would be a mistake to suppose that they dwell on suffering they experienced in the past, as we do. Their sufferings, while real, are evanescent.
I might add that there is currently no good scientific evidence that animals plan for the long-term future, recent reports on orangutans’ announcing their travel itineraries notwithstanding. Animal researcher Thomas Suddendorf aptly sums up the present state of scientific knowledge in his recent letter to Trends in Cognitive Sciences (Volume 17, Issue 4, 151-152, 07 March 2013) titled, Mental time travel: continuities and discontinuities:
On current evidence, it still appears that human mental time travel is profoundly special. There are few signs that animals act with the flexible foresight that is so characteristic of humans.
We must therefore be careful of falling into the trap of assuming that animal suffering is basically much like our own. If the temporal aspect of suffering is largely absent in animals, then their suffering is likely to be quite different from ours.
Animals do not suffer as we do
There are excellent scientific grounds for believing that animal suffering is qualitatively different from that of human beings. Professor Michael Pollan addresses this point in his essay, An Animal’s Place (New York Times, 10 November 2002:
…[I]t can be argued that human pain differs from animal pain by an order of magnitude. This qualitative difference is largely the result of our possession of language and, by virtue of language, an ability to have thoughts about thoughts and to imagine alternatives to our current reality. The philosopher Daniel C. Dennett suggests that we would do well to draw a distinction between pain, which a great many animals experience, and suffering, which depends on a degree of self-consciousness only a few animals appear to command. Suffering in this view is not just lots of pain but pain intensified by human emotions like loss, sadness, worry, regret, self-pity, shame, humiliation and dread.
Consider castration. No one would deny the procedure is painful to animals, yet animals appear to get over it in a way humans do not. (Some rhesus monkeys competing for mates will bite off a rival’s testicle; the very next day the victim may be observed mating, seemingly little the worse for wear.) Surely the suffering of a man able to comprehend the full implications of castration, to anticipate the event and contemplate its aftermath, represents an agony of another order.
Stephen Budiansky, a Yale and Harvard graduate who was the former Washington editor of the science journal Nature, is the author of the best-selling book, If a Lion Could Talk: Animal Intelligence and the Evolution of Consciousness (The Free Press, 1998). In the last chapter of his book, he proposes that although animals experience pain, they do not suffer. Only humans, he argues, are conscious:
Experimental evidence suggests that there is a great similarity between the unconscious thought processes of man and other animals… [W]e experience many emotions and sensations without the necessity to attach labels to them – pain, fear, hunger, thirst, surprise, pleasure, elation.
These are levels of sensations that it seems logical and justifiable to attribute to animals. Consciousness is quite another matter, though, for whether or not language causes consciousness, language is so intimately tied to consciousness that the two seem inseparable. The “monitor” that runs through our brains all the time is one that runs in language. The continual sense that we are aware of what is going on in a deliberate fashion is a sense that depends on words to give it shape and substance…
The premise of animal “rights” is that sentience is sentience, that an animal by virtue above all of its capacity to feel pain deserves equal consideration. But sentience is not sentience, and pain isn’t even pain. Or perhaps, following Daniel Dennett’s distinction, we should say that pain is not the same as suffering: “What is awful about losing your job, or your leg, or your reputation, or your loved one is not the suffering this event causes you, but the suffering this event is, Dennett writes. Our ability to have thoughts about our experiences turns emotions into something far greater and sometimes far worse than mere pain. The multiple shades of many emotions that our language expresses reveal the crucial importance of social context – of the thoughts we have about our experiences and the thoughts we have about those thoughts – in our perception of those emotions. Sadness, pity, sympathy, condolence, self-pity, ennui, woe, heartbreak, distress, worry, apprehension, dejection, grief, wistfulness, pensiveness, mournfulness, brooding, rue, regret, misery, despair – all express shades of the pain of sadness whose full meaning comes only from our ability to reflect on their meaning, not just their feelings. The horror of breaking a limb that we experience is not merely the pain; the pain is but the beginning of the suffering we feel as we worry and anticipate the consequences. Pity and condolence and sympathy are all shades of feeling that are manifestly defined by the social context, by the mental-state attribution to another that we are capable of. Consciousness is a wonderful gift and a wonderful curse that, all the evidence suggests, is not in the realm of the sentient experience of other creatures. (1998, pp. 192-194)
Personally, I would disagree with Budiansky’s view that animals lacking language are incapable of suffering, but he surely has a point when he argues that animals do not suffer in anything like the same way as we do.
Finally, I’d like to conclude by quoting from Dr. James Rose’s widely cited paper, The Neurobehavioral Nature of Fishes and the Question of Awareness and Pain (Reviews in Fisheries Science, 10(1): 1–38, 2002):
Whereas the qualitative differences in cortical structure and function are quite pronounced between reptiles and the simplest mammals, these differences are overshadowed by the large differences in neocortical structure and function found between orders of mammals. The proportion of the mammalian brain that is neocortex varies greatly. Insectivores such as hedgehogs, which are thought to resemble the early mammals, have fairly small amounts of neocortex. Simians have 45.5 times more neocortex for a given body size than primitive insectivores and humans have 145 times more neocortex than the most primitive mammals (Stephan and Andy, 1964). This enlargement of human neocortex is accompanied by greater cortical structural differentiation and functional diversification (Mountcastle, 1998). (PDF, p. 11)
As explained earlier, the neural processes mediating conscious awareness appear to be highly complex, requiring large, structurally differentiated neocortical regions with great numbers of exactly interconnected neurons (Tononi and Edelman, 1998). What is more, the type of neocortex most essential to consciousness, the nonsensory association cortex, comprises the vast majority of human cerebral cortex, but it is a very small proportion of the neocortex in most mammals (Mountcastle, 1998; Deacon, 1992a). Consequently, conscious experience resembling that of humans would be extremely improbable for the great majority of mammals. Even great apes, having substantially less nonsensory association neocortex than humans (Deacon, 1992a), would be unlikely candidates for human-like higher-order consciousness, as their behavioral characteristics, such as inability to acquire true language use, indicate (Donald, 1991; Macphail, 1998). (PDF, p. 21)
Even among mammals there is an enormous range of cerebral cortex complexity. It seems likely that the character of pain, when it exists, would differ between mammalian species, a point that has been made previously by pain investigators (Melzack and Dennis, 1980; Bermond, 1997). Bermond has critiqued claims that non-human species can experience pain and suffering and argued that because conscious awareness of pain depends on extensively developed frontal lobe neocortex, few (if any) mammals besides humans possess an adequate cortical substrate for pain experience. (PDF, p. 22)
A strong case can be made, then, that animals suffer far less than we think they do. But what about cases where animals really do seem to suffer excruciating pain? Don’t these count as powerful evidence against the existence of an omnibenevolent God?
The atheist’s last stand: the death of a fawn in a forest fire
A white-tailed deer fawn in Winnetka, Illinois. The death of a fawn in a forest fire is often cited by religious skeptics as a natural occurrence which is very hard to reconcile with the existence of an all-loving God. In response, some religious believers (e.g. Brian Davies) argue that God is morally good, but deny that He feels any empathy with creatures’ suffering; God, they say, is only concerned with the cosmic struggle between moral good and evil, and pain as such is of no concern to Him. Other believers (e.g. William Lane Craig) argue that animals while non-human animals feel pain, they are not aware that they are in pain, so they do not suffer as we do. Still other believers (e.g. Richard Swinburne) posit some sort of after-life for sentient animals. Image courtesy of Veledan, Elfer and Wikipedia.
At this point, atheists are apt to point to some hideous instance of suffering in the animal world, such as the death of a fawn in a forest fire. And if the fawn survives the fire, but afterwards dies a slow and lingering death from its burns, then the example becomes all the more poignant. “How can you possibly justify that?” atheists ask. “Even if you were to argue that some suffering is inevitable in our world, the question still remains: what kind of God would create a world where that kind of suffering occurs?”
The argument above is sometimes called the Argument from Particular Evils, and it packs a very powerful punch. I would respond to it as follows. First, consider the question: Would it be possible for God to design a world with the same laws of physics, chemistry, genetics and cell biology as ours, in which natural illnesses or deaths suffered by animals either never caused them to suffer extreme pain? Let us imagine that the animal’s pain regulation system is governed by laws like this: “When (animal’s flesh is experiencing second- or third-degree burns) OR (animal’s body is being devoured by a predator) OR (animal’s body is being struck by lightning) OR (animal’s body is falling freely through the air at a speed in excess of 30 meters per second), then: pass out.” And now we can see what’s wrong with this requirement. There are innumerable situations in everyday life which might cause an animal to suffer excruciating pain, and no finite set of program instructions could hope to cover all these cases. (For instance, what about death by electrocution, death by drowning, or dying of thirst in the desert?) Consequently, unless we want to say that it would be wrong for God to create sentient beings in a law-governed world, some excruciating suffering in nature appears unavoidable.
Second, let’s suppose the atheist is right, after all. Suppose there really isn’t a good reason which could justify the creation of a sentient being that subsequently experienced prolonged, excruciating pain. My question is: on what moral basis do you make this assessment? It can’t be a utilitarian one, as it focuses entirely on the suffering of a single sentient animal. So you must be appealing to a non-utilitarian system of morality. But what right have you, as an atheist, to appeal to such a system? Such a system of morality, in which individuals matter in their own right and possess “inalienable rights” (including the right not to be tortured) makes sense only in a universe governed by God in the first place.
Possible reasons for animal suffering
I tend to be highly distrustful of theodicies, especially after reading David Bentley Hart’s deeply moving essay, Tsunami and Theodicy. I would like to emphasize that I am not arguing here that animal suffering serves some “greater good”; on many occasions, as the death of a fawn in a forest fire illustrates, it doesn’t. All I have argued is that animal suffering is unavoidable, if we want to have a law-governed world at all. Nevertheless, it has to be admitted that Greta Christina has a valid point: there is a lot more suffering in the natural world than we might expect, if it were the product of an omnibenevolent Deity. Why might that be?
There have been Christian thinkers down the ages who have argued that since human beings are just one of many kinds of intelligent beings living in God’s cosmos, and since many of these beings are far more intelligent than we are, it is quite likely that God has delegated certain responsibilities for the care and oversight of the cosmos to these higher intelligences. (For the purposes of this argument, it doesn’t matter whether you envisage these beings as advanced aliens or angels.) He may have even promised them a certain degree of autonomy in the way they run their little domain. In that case, it could be argued that God would be reneging on a promise – and hence doing something immoral – if He were to continually step in like an interfering “cosmic nanny” whenever these beings did something stupid or wrong, in overseeing their corner of the cosmos.
It is highly likely, too, that at least some of these “higher intelligences” are either inept, careless or malevolent, in the performance of their allotted duties. And it is quite logical to suppose that while God Himself painted the “broad brush strokes” of the course that evolution was to take on Earth, He left the evolution of individual life-forms up to some of these intelligences. What we might expect to find, then, is that the aberrant behaviors we find in the animal kingdom, which immediately strike us as sick, cruel and perverted – behaviors such as cannibalism, infanticide, killing for sport, and rape (here, here and here for examples) – occur at random in the animal world, and for no particular reason: they do not serve any “higher good”. These behaviors, I would propose, might well be the work not of God, but of finite but malevolent intelligences. The Christian hope is that creation will one day be transformed: St. Paul writes that “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22, NIV). And for the last 500 years, there have been Christian thinkers – John Wesley being a notable example – who have dared to hope that this transformation might include a hereafter for sentient animals. But if that were the case, then it would not be in an evolving world – for we have argued that suffering is a necessary accompaniment of evolution – but in a static world. And at this point, we might ask: would animals even want to live in such a world? We do not know.
It will be said that the foregoing scenario is pure speculation, and so it is. At the end of the day, the unexpected prevalence of suffering in the animal kingdom remains a mystery. Certainly, unguided evolution can readily explain the nastiness that we find in the natural world: in the words of the poet A. E. Housman, “For Nature, heartless, witless Nature Will neither care nor know.” But the evil that we find in nature is local (being confined to the relatively small percentage of species occupying the tree of life that are capable of sentience), whereas the beauty that we find in nature is global. Which is the more salient fact? That is the question we need to ask. The point I want to make, then, is that we must not lose sight of the wood, in looking at the trees. We can focus on the “ugly spots” in nature, but in so doing, we run the risk of missing out on the big picture. The really surprising thing is that life exists at all, and that sentient and sapient beings exist at all. An unguided evolutionary process is utterly unable to account for these simple but astonishing facts. Only intelligent agency can satisfactorily account for them. And that is what makes the hypothesis of God-guided evolution reasonable.