We continue our review of the book, Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science, by Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight . Today, Chapter 4.
In the late 1990s, Dennis was a PhD student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, studying genetics and development. Amazingly, his antievolutionary views were still intact. One very pro-evolutionary professor maintained a bulletin board he called the “Crackpot’s Corner”. Through that board Dennis became aware of Michael Behe’s book “Darwin’s Black Box” and Behe’s notion of “irreducible complexity”. Behe gave the definition as:
By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional. An irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution.
Dennis found Behe’s argument straightforward and compelling. There are many biochemical features of cells where numerous components are required to work to together to perform a function. Take away one part, and the system no longer works. Therefore Dennis thought such systems were beyond the ability of evolution to produce in the first place. They must have been directly created. However, even Behe included one caveat:
Even if a system is irreducibly complex (and thus cannot have been produced directly), however, one cannot definitively rule out the possibility of an indirect, circuitous route. As the complexity of an interacting system increases, though, the likelihood of such an indirect route drops precipitously. And as the number of unexplained, irreducibly complex biological systems increases, our confidence that Darwin’s criterion of failure has been met skyrockets toward the maximum that science allows.
Often the eye is cited as an irreducible complex organ, and of course, the bacterial flagellum; which figured prominently in the Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, et al. trial. That was the first direct challenge brought in the United States federal courts testing a public school district policy that required the teaching of intelligent design.
Behe also published a second book in 2007, “The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism.” Again, Behe argued that there are structures that cannot be produced by successive slight modifications. They must arise as unit or direct manufacture, or special creation. Behe’s arguments for design are probability arguments. If the successive slight steps are too improbable then the most probable explanation is not evolution but design.
Dennis then gives a complicated and highly technical demonstration of how a new gene arose in the genome of Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly; something that according to the irreducible complexity argument shouldn’t be able to have happened. I’m not going to reproduce the argument here; you can buy the book or look online at the Biologos blog for a series of posts Dennis wrote that explain it. Relieved, aren’t you?
Dennis then gives a second example of how the lineage leading to present day vertebrates experienced gene duplication en masse through what is known as “whole genome duplication event” (WGD). A study was conducted comparing human genes to sea squirts (animals that are chordates but not vertebrates) and puffer fish for which all three species have the entire genome sequenced. Dennis says:
The results of the study were dramatic: this subset of human genes is arranged in four groupings in the pattern predicted by the two WGD events. In contrast, when the researchers looked at duplicated human genes not shared with sea squirts, they found that these paralogs (paralogs are genes related by duplication within a genome) were adjacent to each other on chromosomes, consistent with small duplications. Therefore, the evidence strongly supports the hypothesis that many human paralogs are the result of two WGD events deep in our lineage’s past, but that some are the result of more recent, small duplications within the chromosomes.
And here’s the rub: we know that these paralogs, whether recent or ancient, have greatly diverged from each other and acquired new functions. Moreover, many of those functions are now absolutely essential for vertebrates. If Behe’s argument is correct, none of this should have been possible.
A second major argument from the ID movement is that new biological information cannot be produced by evolutionary mechanisms. In other words, evolution can affect change in existing structures but is incapable of producing new information. This is put forth mainly by Stephen Meyer, whose proposition is that evolution cannot account for “specified complex information” we observe in living systems, and that ID is the only known cause for that information. As such he argues, that ID is the best explanation for the information we observe in DNA. One major argument within ID in general, and Meyer’s works in particular, is that stable, functional protein folds are exceedingly rare—so rare, the argument goes, that evolution is incapable of producing new ones. In spite of Meyer’s arguments, however, geneticists have determined numerous mechanisms by which new genes and new functions come into being.
Two of the examples of new functions coming into being are the nylon-eating bacteria and the bacteria-evolved ability to grow aerobically on citrate in the Lenski experiments. In 1975 a team of Japanese scientists discovered a strain of Flavobacterium, living in ponds containing waste water from a nylon factory, which was capable of digesting certain byproducts of nylon manufacture. These substances are not known to have existed before the invention of nylon in 1935. Not forty years after the introduction of nylon into the environment, we observe complex, specified biological information devoted to utilizing it. Moreover, we can observe from the features of this information that it was easily produced through a well-known and probable series of mutation events. The other example is from the Lenski experiments that have tracked genomic changes in E-coli over 25 years and some 50,000 generations. Lenski and his colleagues concluded that the evolution of the citrate function in this one population arose due to one or more, earlier, possibly non-adaptive, “potentiating” mutations that increased the rate of mutation to an accessible level. The data suggested that citrate usage involved at least two mutations subsequent to these “potentiating” mutations. In other words, complex specified information arose through evolutionary mechanisms.
“Over the course of my personal journey away from ID, I came to an uncomfortable conclusion: ID seemed strong only where there was a lack of relevant evidence. Though ID proponents strenuously deny the charge, I came to view ID as a God-of-the-gaps argument… Moreover, as I reflected on what the Scripture says about creation, I came to view ID as counter to its witness. In Romans 1 Paul declares that observing creation bespeaks a creator. This was something that any first-century individual could observe and deduce, though they be Jew or gentile, slave or free. Importantly, Paul was not speaking to unexplained features of the created order, but rather to its functional integrity and glory. The idea that one would need a DNA sequencer or an electron microscope to discover unexplained phenomena and thereby declare the cosmos as the work of the Creator is far removed from what Paul is saying. Creation reveals the Creator, and we are without excuse. Learning more about how that creation works only deepens our wonder. To paraphrase Bonhoeffer, Paul calls us to see God in what we know, not in what we don’t know—and as science reveals ever more about creation, we know more and more about how God chose to bring his creation into being.”
I am inclined to agree with Dennis, here. Too many Christians view evolution and design as opposites. If it evolved, God’s not involved. Evolution is a way atheistic scientists explain away God so they don’t have to acknowledge him. After all, Richard Dawkins famously said: “Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist”. Dennis’ point is that why couldn’t evolution be God’s chosen design to bring biodiversity to the earth. You never hear Christians griping about embryonic development as atheistic. If they can accept a natural biologic process was the means of creating them personally, then why not a natural biologic process to create the species as a whole?
Still, I admit I was intrigued by the ID movement for a time. Part of the problem with theistic evolution is that it tends to be long on the evolution part and short on the theistic part.
There used to be a number on commenters in the early days of Biologos that took them to task for this. One of the critics was Jon Garvey, a medical doctor in the UK. Jon still blogs at The Hump of the Camel . Lots of food for thought on Jon’s blog.
To Biologos’ credit, they took that criticism to heart. It is part of the reason they coined the term “evolutionary creationist”. As they now say in their “What We Believe” section:
“We believe that God created the universe, the earth, and all life over billions of years. God continues to sustain the existence and functioning of the natural world, and the cosmos continues to declare the glory of God. Therefore, we reject ideologies such as Deism that claim the universe is self-sustaining, that God is no longer active in the natural world, or that God is not active in human history.”
The ID movement to their credit were trying to suss out the degree to which God sustains the world through the natural laws. How much “tinkering” is God required to do? That question has been around at least since Leibniz took Newton to task for asserting God “tinkered’ with the orbits of the stars, comets, and planets:
“Sir Isaac Newton and his followers have also a very odd opinion concerning the work of God. According to their doctrine, God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion.”
Leibniz, first letter to his friend Caroline of Ansbach, in Alexander 1956, p. 11
Biologos also states in that same section:
“We believe that God typically sustains the world using faithful, consistent processes that humans describe as “natural laws.” Yet we also affirm that God works outside of natural law in supernatural events, including the miracles described in Scripture. In both natural and supernatural ways, God continues to be directly involved in creation and in human history.”
That’s a great statement, and I fully agree with it. But it does raise the question; how do we know that is true? The natural laws we examine by use of methodological naturalism i.e. we do science. But go back up to Dennis’ quote above: “Moreover, as I reflected on what the Scripture says about creation, I came to view ID as counter to its witness. In Romans 1 Paul declares that observing creation bespeaks a creator.” How do we examine and affirm the miracles, the supernatural direct involvement of God in creation and human history. What is the real apologetic? Well, oddly enough, I agree with Behe and ID; it’s a probability argument.
I find the Anthropic Principle, or “Fine Tuning” persuasive. The observation that life would not be possible anywhere in the universe if the values of various physical constants differed by small amounts. I know most atheists and skeptics and not a few Christians don’t find it persuasive, but I do. Bear with me; let’s look at a “Poker Analogy”. Suppose I take a deck of cards; I tell you that unless I shuffle them and deal you a royal flush of hearts (one try) you’ll die– and then I do just that… The way I see it is that there are 3 competing explanations:
- If I didn’t deal that way, you’d be dead, and we wouldn’t be talking about it, so no big deal.
- There are an infinite number of universes, in most of them you died, but there is an infinitely large subset in which you lived.
- The dealer cheated so that you would live.
Most skeptics hold to the first two—I hold to the third as the most probable explanation.
Here’s another: Carbon is made inside stars. How? Nuclear Fusion. One way:
He4 + He4 + He4 → C12
Unlikely (3 He have to meet.) Another way:
Step 1: He4 + He4 → Be8
Step 2: He4 + Be8 → C12
Better, but the rate for the 2nd step is too low, unless… Fred Hoyle (an atheist) made an anthropic argument. We’re here, so somehow C12 gets produced. What would help is an unknown energy level of Carbon. Hoyle predicted the level on the basis that we are here. The state was later discovered. Hoyle also reported that his atheism was “greatly shaken” by the discovery that carbon just manages to form and then just avoids complete conversion into oxygen.
“A superintellect has monkeyed with the physics, as well as the chemistry and biology.” (Fred Hoyle, Astrophysicist, The Universe: Past and Present Reflections”, Ann. Rev. Ast. and Astrophys. 20, 1982, p. 16.)
Testify, Brother Fred, testify, uhhhh huh… can I get a witness?
Speaking of witness; what about the resurrection? It is attested in four, count ‘em, four historical documents as well as the letters of Paul. Not good enough for you? The resurrection from the dead is so improbable that almost any other explanation is considered more likely, you say? But what is the probability of explaining the actions of the apostles and the first Christians in another way? Many will die for what they believe to be true; who is willing to die for what they know to be a lie? The probability sword cuts both ways. Many reputable historians, not even Christian, acknowledge that the apostles and early disciples sincerely believed Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them. That belief was the most probable explanation for their behavior. Historical verification is a regression to the most probable explanation. I think the apostles were probably right. And I accept the unbroken testimony of the Church from the beginning to today as truth.
But what about you, today, Mike? Are you just a “fideist”? Well, let me tell you two stories. The first is the story of my friend, Tara Hendrickson. Tara had kidney disease. It was killing her. She is a Christian, and prayed for healing; but it didn’t seem to come. She had one kidney removed. Then the remaining kidney started to fail. She was put on the waiting list for a replacement, but it was obvious it wasn’t going to come in time. She was at a church service being conducted by a visiting minister with a reputation for healing gifts; but she didn’t go up for prayer. She was tired and sick and ready for death to take her. Then the minister said, “There’s somebody here who’s given up and is ready to die; but the Lord wants to you to trust him just one more time.” So she went up and was prayed for. She felt better, the remaining kidney seemed to be working, then she felt better still, she went to her doctor and he did a CT scan and she had TWO, count ‘em, TWO functional kidneys. Here is an excerpt of the letter from her doctor:
If you email Chaplain Mike and request it, he’ll send you the complete pdf file. So, let me ask you, what’s the probability there is some other explanation other than a miracle? Did she naturally grow a new kidney? Can you look a miracle in the face and still doubt? Sure you can. Didn’t Jesus say, in Luke 16:30-31 “And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” How about Matthew 28:16-17, “Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted.”
Story number two. In July of 2005 I had an intestinal obstruction; basically nothing was passing and the pipes were backing up, so to speak. I went to the ER and was admitted. They put an NG tube down my nose into my stomach (God, how I hate that procedure!!) and kept me pumped out. After 3 days I seemed to get better so they sent me home. I walked around for a whole year feeling run down and poorly most of the time. The next summer the obstruction returned and I went back to the hospital, same damn NG tube again. They ran a CT scan and the surgeon said my appendix looked “funny” (exact quote) and he wanted to take it out. Well, after four hours of surgery, I came to and found out my appendix had burst—A YEAR AGO!! Yeah, I walked around for a year with an untreated burst appendix. So you tell me, what’s the probability that I would contract sepsis and die vs. the probability that I would survive? Lucky break? Remarkable coincidence?
Oh, one more thing. I used to ride with a Christian motorcycle group; we’d do jail and prison ministry. We had some friends in north Georgia that did a similar thing. Sometimes, on labor-day weekend, we’d take a trip through the Smokies and visit them. The leader of that church in Georgia also did prison ministry and he would publish a newsletter for the inmates he ministered to. I told him my story and he published it in his newsletter. A women incarcerated in the Georgia State prison for women told him, after reading that newsletter, that she was awakened one night in her cell in July 2005 and she said Jesus told her to pray for “Michael” who was having “stomach trouble”. Coincidence? A women in a prison in Georgia, a man in a hospital in Indiana. What’s the probability that she had the name, the symptoms, and the time right?
So here’s what I think. I think the fact we have evolved a mind that comprehends the vastness and majesty of this universe, a mind that ponders the mystery of this existence, the existence of God, and we argue about God and speculate and wonder. That we are living beings that love, and have art and music, and we reason and that reason provides us with a true view of reality… all that to me is prima facie evidence that we and the universe we inhabit were intelligently designed. That we are here and we comprehend it is the apologetic.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
He is Risen.
He is Risen, Indeed.
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Other posts in the series: