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Random Chance vs. Design

October 13, 2012

This is the fourth post in a series I’m writing about science and Christianity. The others were:

1. How Can A Christian Write Science Fiction?
2. The Age of the Stars
3. The Age of the Rocks

In my last few posts, I argued that our universe appears to be ancient, quite apart from the theory of evolution.  As Christians, we already have a problem with Genesis that we have to resolve. And yet, astrology and geology don’t get much press: it’s the biology that steals the limelight.

Biology hits us where it counts: in our own origins.  If we don’t think too closely about the implications, we can wave away ancient stars and rocks as part of how God created the world without feeling too much under threat.  Evolution, however, seems to attack much more central doctrines such as the uniqueness of man, the representative role of Adam and Eve, and the introduction of sin into the world, not to mention the inerrancy of Scripture.  It’s more than just the interpretation of occasional statements in the Bible.  If these foundational doctrines aren’t true, then the gospel itself is just a house of cards with the bottom story removed.

I want to cover each of those doctrines in turn, but first, let’s start with the doctrine of God’s design of creation.  The debate between evolutionism and creationism generally revolves around this question: whether plants and animals and humans evolved by chance or were purposefully designed.  The assumption is that these two possibilities are incompatible.  But are they?

Evolution is a more orderly process than many people realize.  It says that the variation in the offspring of a species means that some will be more suited for survival (and more importantly, for reproduction) than others, and the genetic code of those more suited to their environment will be passed on.  Calling this random is a bit misleading.  It’s more like rolling a handful of dice and then removing all the dice that aren’t sixes, or like filtering the small pebbles from a randomly chosen handful.  It’s randomness in a sense, but there’s a controlling process at work, insuring that only a certain result survives.

However, saying that evolution is not random doesn’t remove the basic problem.  Atheists set up a dichotomy: On the one hand, there is the option of an intelligent creator.  If creation is true, what you would expect to see is animals that have been perfectly designed for their ecological niche.  The other option is the impersonal, natural process of evolution.  If evolution is true, what you would expect to see is more like Frankenstein’s monster: animals that survive, but with haphazard, randomly-combined features that don’t exactly fit their current needs and remnants of earlier forms that no longer serve their original purpose.  As it turns out, the evidence supports this second option.

Evolution is a short-term game.  It’s a game of stepwise improvements, in which whatever tissues or organs are at hand are jerryrigged to eke out tiny survival advantages.  The “survival of the fittest” does not mean that organisms keep improving (depending on your definition of that term), but it does tend to make them more complex.  It’s like the wiring in an old building, updated over the years, until a peek behind the walls reveals a snarled and tangled mess.  It works, but it’s not how you would design it if you built the building from scratch.  Evolution is like that: it produces more complex organisms, but not necessarily “better” ones in the sense of long-term survival or simple and efficient features.  It can also produce some very odd results.

Many animals have vestigial or atavistic parts, relics from a former body plan.  Moles (and many cave animals) have non-functioning, skin-covered eyes.  Horses sometimes grow toes that don’t touch the ground on either side of their hooves.  Whales have leg bones and a pelvis.  Hens sometimes grow teeth.  Humans get goose bumps when it’s cold, which in most mammals is used to raise the fur for better insulation.  We have muscles attached to our scalp to wiggle our ears–a useful trait for mammals who need to rotate their ears to better locate predators, but not very useful for us.  And of course, we have the famous appendix, useless to us but used by herbivores to help digest grass and leaves.

These examples are dwarfed by the examples in our DNA.  DNA is like a recipe for building our bodies, and it is this that has changed, little by little, over time.  It’s like taking a recipe for chocolate cake and changing it to a recipe for chicken divan, but with the restriction that you can only alter one step at a time, and that after every change, the recipe must still produce food that tastes good.  It would take you quite a few iterations, and the recipe you ended up with at the end would make chicken divan, but it might have some odd steps in it along the way.  It might, for instance, tell you to measure out some cocoa powder but not to pour it in.  Whole groups of steps might be useless.  This is what we see in our DNA: instructions or parts of instructions to produce things we no longer need.  Dolphins, for instance, have the gene set for a sense of smell, although they now have a completely different system for sensing particles underwater.  Mammals still have the instruction set for egg-laying, even though they are deactivated in all but the platypus and the echidna.  Pangolins and aardvarks still have the genetic instructions for tooth enamel, even though they no longer have teeth.

Atheists see all this and conclude that if animals were designed, they were designed badly, with lots of useless pieces, or with pieces that seemed designed for some other purpose.  (An ostrich’s wings aren’t completely useless, for instance: they can help with balance and provide shade for its chicks, but they are still clearly not being used as wings.)  The point is this: animal bodies don’t look like they were perfectly designed from scratch for the purposes for which they are being used.  They look like a recipe altered bit by bit from something that came before.  (And in many cases, scientists can trace those steps back and see exactly why the recipe is the way it is.)

In many cases, scientists can trace those steps back and see exactly why the recipe is the way it is.  Why do giraffes have laryngeal nerves that travel all the way down their long neck, loop around the aorta, and travel all the way back up to the larynx instead of taking a direct route?  It’s possible there is some as-yet-undiscovered positive value for this, but that’s not the point.  The reason for this tortuous path can be traced back, step by step, through the structures of earlier creatures.  As the body plan changed, the blood vessels from the fourth branchial arch in ancient fish moved down, little by little, to eventually become the mammalian aorta.  In its original location, the path to the throat was fairly direct.  Evolution, however, could not disconnect the nerve and reconnect it on the other side as that vessel progressed downwards.  The result, instead, is a roundabout pathway for the nerve, necessary not because of any value for the giraffe, but because of its history.  We see other examples of this in human facial nerves, and in many other mammalian body structures.

This argument against design is a compelling one, backed up overwhelmingly by evidence from the bodies of countless creatures.  Examining it closely, however, we can see that it is not really an argument against design at all.  It’s an argument against the instantaneous creation of modern animals as they are right now.  It’s an argument that says the design of our bodies has a past, a history that can be traced, just like the rocks and the stars.  The conclusion of the atheist is that since bodies have a history that determines how they look, there can be no purpose or intent in the way they are put together.  But this is where their argument falters, due to a misunderstanding of the doctrine of the sovereignty of God.

Many people see God’s actions as falling into two categories: (1) those things he did at the beginning of the world to set it going, and (2) supernatural interventions that change the course of what would otherwise happen.  But the Bible teaches that God doesn’t just intervene in occasional, supernatural ways; he continuously sustains the world and commands everything that happens.  It tells us that God causes the sun to rise and the rain to fall (Matt. 5:45), that he feeds the birds and determines when they die (Matt. 6:26 and 10:29).  It tells us that he controls the rise and fall of nations (Acts 17:26) and the choices of people (Proverbs 21:1, Daniel 1:9, Genesis 45:8).  God is even sovereign over evil choices: Joseph tells his brothers, who sold him into slavery, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20), and Peter tells those who crucified Jesus that, although their act was evil, they were serving God’s purposes (Acts 2:23).  Finally, Proverbs 16:33 tells us that what we call random chance–the result of the throw of every pair of dice–is in fact determined by God.

If this is so, then God’s command of the world is not limited to supernatural interventions, like the virgin birth or raising the dead.  God’s sovereignty covers all things, from gene mutations to the influence of climate on the survival of a species.  The doctrine of the sovereignty of God means that life on Earth can be produced through the remarkable process of evolution and, at the same time, by the command and intention of God.  These scientific discoveries of how the world works don’t reduce God’s place in the world; on the contrary, they give us a greater sense of his glory and creative genius.  After all, which is harder: the creation of specific creatures, or the creation of an intricate process by which those creatures are made?  The evidence for evolution that we see in the creatures around us does not diminish our need for God; instead, it gives us all the more reason to worship him.   This does not answer the attacks on other doctrines that evolution seems to raise, but I will address those in my next post.

Why Evolution is True, by Jerry Coyne
The Bible, English Standard Version


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