Religion, Science.

Evolution + Intelligent Design = 42

Are evolutionary biology, intelligent design and the existence of God compatible? A reasonable case can be made for it, particularly if one relaxes their culture warrior muscles for a moment, and considers the argument that: science offers little tangible evidence of abiogenesis, the spontaneous creation of life from inanimate material, leaving room for God as the creator of the initial life forms;  God could just as well have created the remainder of life via the slow mechanism of biological evolution.  This is not a new argument, and finds a much larger audience than the shouters like to acknowledge. 

In the realm of human experience, religion comprises a set of beliefs based on faith. The existence of God cannot be proven, but most humans believe that some form of God exists. One can postulate a religious set of tenets that are absolute in nature, but there is no way to prove one way or the other whether they are true on false. 

Science, on the other hand, is an evidence-based methodology which allows for the construction of predictive models for various material and physical phenomena; the models must be testable (some alternatively describe this as falsifiable). Scientific models do no not with perfect accuracy explain the phenomenon modeled; they are not completely consistent; they are not complete; they are therefore in flux. Scientific models can and do change as new evidence becomes available, when changes to current models are proposed and tested, and so on.

If you are looking for absolute certainty, you will not find it in science. If you are looking for the best available explanation of some phenomena, particularly an explanation that will provide predictions about that phenomena, you will find it in science. Many of the explanations of science are very precise, and highly reliable, some are much less so. Science is at its heart tentative and at the same time progressive. Explanations in science tend to become more accurate as evidence accumulates, as models are modified to provide a better fit to observations, and so on.  The gaps and inconsistencies of scientific models are the frontiers of science, where the next efforts to extend understanding are focused.

Evolutionary biology, or in this discussion, simply evolution, is a scientific model that attempts to explain how living organisms change over time, to the point of forming other species. Evolution is NOT an explanation of the initial origin of life. Science has, for a long time now, segregated the question of the initial origin of life into its own subject, typically called abiogenesis, which is the study of how life may have originated spontaneously from non-living matter.

-CC BY-SA 3.0, Epipelagic

Evolution of armored fish, placoderms. Attrib: Epipelagic, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Evolution is a robust scientific model that provides a strong, but not perfect fit with an enormous amount of available biological, ecological and geological evidence in its explanation of the diversity of life and the dynamically changing set of species found in the deep past, and in the present. It is by no means complete or completely consistent, as expected of any scientific model.

Abiogenesis, on the other hand, does not boast of any robust models: It is highly tentative and incomplete, and much more speculative than a well-demonstrated model like evolution. Abiogenesis models postulate ways that non-living chemical systems might produce the first self-reproducing organisms and finally cells from which life would have subsequently evolved, as modeled by evolutionary biology. 

Each current abiogenesis model has huge gaps, and there is currently very little evidence or means to test the models. Why? Because there is clear evidence that life has existed on earth for several billion years, and if life indeed did arise from non-living material spontaneously, the evidence for the process by which it occurred is likely long gone, either because it was destroyed by billions of years of material change that the earth has undergone since it would have occurred, or because the processes may well have occurred under unique conditions no longer found on the earth, or . . . who knows?

-CC-BY-SA, Yassine Mrabet

Early abiogenesis experiment: Miller/Urey. Production of amino acids from inorganic precursors in simulated early earth environment.. Attrib: Yassine Mrabet, CC-BY-SA.

Employers of the scientific method will continue to look for a way to model abiogenesis, and look for evidence and ways to increase understanding of how life initially originated, and more power to them.  But as good scientists, they know that abiogenesis currently is barely science and provides little understanding. It may some day provide more illumination about how life began on earth, but for now, it is little more than a  SWAG (Scientific Wild Ass Guess).

This puts everyone in the roughly the same boat regarding some understanding of the initial origin of life: Faith is currently the only option, whether it is faith in a creation by God or in the future, not current, capability of science to ferret out a more robust predictive model.

Religion and science overlap much more than some of the more rigid adherents from each camp are willing to acknowledge. They overlap at minimum in the gaps of knowledge which will always exist. For many religious adherents, science is not a threatening replacement for religion, but a means of understanding the universe that God created. For some, on the other hand, it appears more threatening, because they believe that science has no room for God, or that their interpretation of their religious texts conflict with what science suggests about the world, and so on.

The majority of Christians, as best I can tell, accept science as complementary to their understanding of God, as a refined explanation of the natural world that God created. A popular account of this is a book entitled The Language of God, written by Francis Collins, a geneticist who directs our National Institutes of Health. The book is largely an explication of theistic evolution, which posits that God exists and created the universe and its natural laws; the universe and life unfolded following those natural laws, to include the physical Standard Model and the Theory of Evolution. (note 1) For Christians who wish to understand the basic arguments and evidence for biological evolution, and how it can coexist with Christian belief, this is an good primer.


The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, by Francis S. Collins

Collins suggests that God created the Universe, thus creating the conditions under which life would inevitably unfold, culminating in humans made in God’s image. God’s intelligent design in this argument is reflected in the rules by which the universe operates, which God created and set in motion, and here we are, still operating by his rules of ongoing creation. There is nothing today in the body of science to seriously contradict this. Collins and many other Christians believe that the language of the Genesis creation story allows for the large amounts of time for the creation of the universe and the subsequent creation of life and its unfolding evolution. Collins and other advocates of theistic evolution struggle with abiogenesis and hominization. Collins in particular skirts the chicken-or-egg conundrums of life emerging out of non-life, vaguely hopeful that science will continue to make progress in that area. He is equally vague about the problem of hominization: how under the operation of material evolution did humans evolve to be human, or more precisely, when and how did they acquire a soul as described by Christianity?

A certain subset of Christians, often Evangelical fundamentalists, believe that the Bible is inerrant to the point where they read the Genesis creation story as literally occurring in seven days, and that the Bible via Old Testament genealogies shows that the world is roughly 6,000 years old. Many of these same people are advocates of Intelligent Design (ID) – note the capitalization, representing a specific opinion about how God operates to more directly design each species rather than accept the idea that species have slowly evolved.

Yet the world is clearly not 6,000 old, but several billion years old, based on repeatable scientific measurement, and there are fossils of extinct biological species dating back for a good part of that time frame. There are alternate interpretations for a Biblical timeline that support the current scientific understanding of the age of the universe and the age of life: Collins above provides a common one in his book or website.

Young Earth Creationists (YEC) and their cousins the Intelligent Design (ID) advocates present their Biblical interpretations as the primary source for their ideas, and offer little credible science to defend their own views, while making claims that their models of Creation are indeed supported by science. At the same time they attempt to belittle the science of evolution without careful foundation.

In my interpretation, they do so in multiple ways. A description of the more common ways? First, they routinely misapply their desire for certainty and for fixed explanations to the tentative and changing scientific models and explanations. Many ID and YEC arguments are of the kind that scientific models have changed from say, Darwin’s time, and so how can they be right if they keep changing their mind?  Yet of course, scientific models change routinely as a better understanding develops. Second, many of their arguments arise from an incomplete understanding of the science involved, or a misapplication of a scientific understanding in one field to another where it is not applicable. Third, they point out the gaps which are inevitable in all scientific theories. Strong theories like that of evolution are correct in many, many situations, so they are useful there. Where they are inaccurate or incomplete, they are not useful or less so. Those situations in science represent the frontiers of knowledge, to be probed for better understanding; science is by design mutable. Too many ID arguments attack the gaps as if they alone invalidate the body of evidence that supports the Theory of Evolution. Again, this is fundamentally NOT how science works.

There is no easy way to “validate” whether evolution or ID is the better explanation for the diversity of life, but an excellent exercise is to take a few of the claims made about evolution by ID advocates, look at how they justify them, and then compare the scientific responses to those claims.You will at least come away with a better feel for the disconnect between the two approaches. In my estimation, they are epistemologically like two ships passing in the night: that is, they approach understanding, and critically, the limits of understanding, in different ways. In particular, science founds its understanding of the universe on available evidence, and its models are incomplete, mutable, and must be testable, leaving it at odds with an understanding founded on the idea of the primacy of sola scriptura, scripture alone, and founded on a claim of certainty.

The Talk Origins website is a superb resource, one that is is organized to provide a scientific response to thousands of questions raised by ID/YEC, and has a good section on the models of abiogenesis, also. The site is particularly valuable because it provides a real contrast between the evidence-based approach of science, and the ID tendency towards narrowly construed arguments and search for certainty. Talk Origins is not right and ID wrong on any given question of biological evolution, per se, but Talk Origins represents the practicalities of scientific thinking applied to the questions of evolution. I have not come across an argument on Talk Origins that claims certainty about any one aspect of the Theory of Evolution, but the Talk Origins site insists that evolution is demonstrably robust scientifically and provides highly referenced explanations defending that proposition. I have also found it more likely that aspects of ID claims will be acknowledged on Talk Origins, but see little evidence in ID literature of the same thing.

Science does not and cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, no matter what the rationalist shouters say, and no matter what some of the religiously devout fear.  Our understanding of science and of God are significantly limited, if by nothing else the limits of human abilities to understand, or to collect sufficient evidence to fully validate any understanding.  Most Christians recognize that scripture requires interpretation, another way of saying that even if the Bible is the unalloyed word of God, we humans are incapable of fulling rendering, much less understanding fully the thoughts and rules and desires of God. Many have found reasonable interpretations of scripture that allow the limited understanding of science to help them to see the beauty of God’s  creation, without requiring them to make a Hobson’s choice between scientific understanding and the Bible, or their understanding of God.  


The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

For those who nevertheless insist on building a false wall between science and religion, there is always the profundity of Douglas Adams to consider. In his post-apocalyptic religious text The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,  he revealed the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything to be: 42.

 

Notes

1. The supporting website for this book is called BioLogos. The book is also a typical Christian testimonial, a weak apology for Christianity, derived almost exclusively from C.S. Lewis’s works, and a mild evangelical appeal to non-Christians to join the faith.

One thought on “Evolution + Intelligent Design = 42

  1. Hi Thomas, I am not sure if my first reply went through. I am trying to locate descendents of Stella Ferguson Wood. I inherited photos and documents of Walter Wood. His son Robert Wood died in WWII and there were no blood heirs left. Walter seemed to have all family stuff from John and Anna Wood. I would really love to talk to Cindy and see what she might be interested in and if you are the right family. My email is kristin.guin@gmail.com.

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