What Evolution Cannot Explain

imagesMy recent blog posts have resulted in dialogue regarding what conclusions we can draw from the existence of the “order” and “fine-tuning” we observe in the universe. Christians argue that they reflect the work of an intelligent and powerful Creator – God – whose intelligence and power are reflected in this vast creation, from the laws of physics that govern the universe as a whole down to the molecules of DNA which form the “blueprint” for the production of life.

This understanding of “order” is a key dividing line. If order does in fact exists, and only an intelligent creator can provide it, then we would be wise to seek out the Creator, to learn why he created and what he may want – or expect – from us. If, by contrast, all this arose naturalistically – a universe with no beginning and no designer – then we can go about our lives without worrying that we may be missing the most important thing of all – clues about our future destiny.

The skeptic I was conversing with takes the position that “order” is simply the byproduct of evolution, the consequence of vast periods of time operating on nature in such a way as to produce what we see as order. I used, as an example of order, a modern aircraft carrier. His response was that bacteria are even more complex than aircraft carriers, and they are attributable to evolution. He summed up:

“As far as we can observe, highly ordered systems such as bacteria and aircraft carriers come into existence by one of two paths, or some combination thereof: either they slowly evolved from simpler precursors, utilizing energy to create more order, or they are the products of such evolved creatures. God is neither of those, and thus seems a pretty unlikely Being to exist, based on our experience. I’ll still go with admitting I don’t know why there’s anything at all rather than nothing, and not have to have recourse to magic.”

I’ve encountered this response many times in the past. It has considerable surface appeal, because it is apparent that “evolution” explains to some degree the variety of life we see on Earth, and the development of life over periods of time. But the skeptic here is glossing over the crux of the issue. Evolution does not “create” anything. Evolution is simply a process by which things change over time. When we note, for instance, that cars have “evolved” over time, we are making a statement about the changes we perceive in the systems they possess; we are not implying that they accomplished this transformation on their own.

Let’s take a closer look at the “two paths” that, in the skeptic’s view, account for complex living systems. The first is they “slowly evolved from simple precursors.” But what were these “precursors?” If these precursors were living, then evolution may indeed explain why they changed. Specifically, they changed because the DNA which directs the assembly of protein into new forms has undergone a change which commands that new result. But this does not answer the question, for we cannot start with the existence of life as a given. The existence of life – the first appearance of life on this planet – is the thing that must be explained. From what we know of molecular biology, even the most primitive life consisted of millions of lines of DNA. If DNA is indeed similar to computer programming, this would require the skeptic to conclude that these millions of lines of programming just happened to come together to allow for a fully functioning living thing to emerge. Anyone who has ever spent time with a computer knows that the odds of self-assembly of a working computer program from random inputs are zero. It simply does not happen that way, and there is no reason to suspect that life, which is even more complex, could have arisen in that fashion.

The skeptic glosses over the very thing he must explain: how did life first arise? How did the component molecules of the first strand of DNA combine into a meaningful –i.e. information rich – whole? How did the first two strands of DNA find their way together and then join with the millions of other strands that are required to code for even the most primitive form of life? How did replication systems, to allow for DNA to be copied and transmitted, first arise? Why do they work reliably so that the copies made are accurate? None of this is even remotely plausible based on randomness, and saying that they evolved “slowly” is saying essentially nothing at all. Put inanimate object next to each other and a million years from now they will still be inanimate objects, if they are here at all. Time – and entropy – may degrade or destroy things, but they do not operate in reverse. They do not move from simple to complex, disordered to ordered, unless… something with intelligence and power acts upon them.

This “thing” that operated on the early earth may not be the God of the Bible. Perhaps something else explains our origins. But whatever it was, reason and logic require us to accept that at the beginning point, someone acted. Insisting that “no explanation” is just as satisfying as beginning to search for the One who left us behind… is an exercise in denial.

Posted by Al Serrato

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  1. zilch says:

    I don’t gloss over the problem of the origin of life at all. We may never know how exactly living things evolved from nonliving things. But I don’t see it as an impossibility- order does form spontaneously in the universe, powered by energy, in many ways: sand dunes, the rings of Saturn, the amino acids found in meteorites… And life itself, or evolutionary computer programs for that matter, can demonstrably get more complex, given selection, natural or unnatural. So while there are gaps in our knowledge, the basic kind of process is not unknown- and given the many trillions of suns in our Universe, it’s not that surprising that the perhaps extremely unlikely combination of chemicals, far simpler than DNA at the beginning, became the first replicators on at least one planet.

    Again, you are not explaining the order we see in life by positing a God- you are simply putting the question of where order comes from at a level that may not be questioned, and has no evidence for its existence. Like Occam, I’ll stick with the simpler explanation that explains the facts better.

    The other thing suspect about God is that people make up stories about gods all the time- don’t they? It’s a tempting story: there’s a big Father in the sky telling us what to do, and rewarding us with harps and clouds, or 72 virgins, or nirvana, after we die, if only we follow His word. I well understand the pull of this hook: as William Hazlitt said, “the long habit of living indisposeth us to dying”. But it’s just wishful, and/or fearful, thinking, as far as I can see.

    cheers from snowy vienna, zilch

  2. tumeyn says:

    The problem I see with your approach is that if naturalism were really true, then I see no particular reason to trust my own cognitive faculties. If my brain is just an adaptive feature that gives me a survival advantage, then there is no reason why it should give me an accurate view of reality. It might be giving me a (false) view of reality that just happens to allow my genes to propagate more readily. Moreover, I am just the product of a series of cause-and-effect processes and my moral intuition and my sense of free-will are just illusions. I have a destiny that is already laid out and I bare no responsibility for my actions – I was destined (by the dice of natural selection and the dice of chace) to behave in a particular way and to make particular decisions. My actions (and even my THOUGHTS) are just slaves to the laws of physics and to blind chance.

    Maybe this is true. But if so, I have no reason to BELIEVE that it is true – because my sense of reason is also just a produce of blind chance and physics.

    • zilch says:

      tumeyn- very nicely put. Although you didn’t cite him, this is of course the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, by Alvin Plantinga. The EAAN has been roundly rebutted on the internet. But my main objection to it is as follows.

      Let’s grant Plantinga for the sake of argument that natural selection doesn’t care if beliefs are true or not, as long as they provoke the appropriate reaction. One of Plantinga’s examples is the belief of an imagined caveman that tigers should be petted, and the best way to pet tigers is to run away from them. Another is an imagined frog who believes he will turn into a prince if he swallows those little dots flying by. In both cases the belief is wrong, but the action is appropriate. Why, asks Plantinga, if naturalism is true, should not all or at least most of our beliefs be likewise false?

      The trouble with this argument is that Plantinga never goes to the trouble to try to imagine what a whole body of false beliefs would look like: if we have princes for flies, and running for petting, what kind of world do we have? A totally incoherent and incomprehensible one. Our worldview is not made up of trillions of isolated and unrelated facts, but of a story that hangs together, that makes sense. And reality provides just such a story. Any fiction that provokes the same behavior in us as the real world, more or less, must also be pretty close to describing the real world- nothing else would work as well as our beliefs do. Thus, the EAAN falls flat.

      I’ll accept “just” or “merely” the real world- no added ingredients necessary.

      cheers from snowy vienna, zilch

  3. tumeyn says:

    Zilch, excellent retort to Plantiga’s argument. I haven’t heard it phrased quite this way. But it doesn’t quite answer the objection I was positing. You addressed why our minds might have become reasonable through an evolutionary mechanism. But you did not address why we should trust our minds. Let me phrase it through a quote by Douglas Wilson:

    “If there is no God, then all that exists is time and chance acting on matter. If this is true then the difference between your thoughts and mine correspond to the difference between shaking up a bottle of Mountain Dew and a bottle of Dr. Pepper. You simply fizz atheistically and I fizz theistically. This means that you do not hold to atheism because it is true, but rather because of a series of chemical reactions… Morality, tragedy, and sorrow are equally evanescent. They are all empty sensations created by the chemical reactions of the brain, in turn created by too much pizza the night before. If there is no God, then all abstractions are chemical epiphenomena, like swamp gas over fetid water. This means that we have no reason for assigning truth and falsity to the chemical fizz we call reasoning or right and wrong to the irrational reaction we call morality. If no God, mankind is a set of bi-pedal carbon units of mostly water. And nothing else.”

  4. zilch says:

    tumeyn- my reply to you, and to Douglas Wilson, is that we should trust our minds because of what they can demonstrably do: enable us to predict eclipses and debate online. Sure, we’re not perfect, but we bipedal carbon units can do lots of interesting stuff. Doesn’t matter if our truths are chemical fizz, or ectoplasm, or God’s designs: they do the job. Wilson seems to think that “mere” matter is not capable of entertaining truths or meanings, that it requires some sort of extra magical ingredient. Doesn’t look that way to me: if matter is exquisitely ordered, as we are, it is capable of exquisitely complex thoughts. What exactly would anything supernatural add to this?

    cheers from snowy vienna, zilch

  5. al says:

    You say: “order does form spontaneously in the universe, powered by energy, in many ways: sand dunes, the rings of Saturn, the amino acids found in meteorites… And life itself, or evolutionary computer programs for that matter, can demonstrably get more complex, given selection, natural or unnatural.”
    But sand dunes are not ordered, at least not in the sense that I am using that word. They are the random assembly of particles of sand. Same for the rings of Saturn. Amino acids are combinations of chemicals. So, you have yet to come up with an example to support your point. Good luck with that, as order requires intelligence in addition to power. Nor does your second sentence support your position. Living things and programmed things (like computers) can operate according to their programming, including becoming more complex. The question, then, isn’t whether God is a simpler explanation, but whether the competing “explanation” has any support whatsoever. I have yet to hear how life emerged from non life without there first being an intelligent power acting upon it. Back to you….

    • zilch says:

      Sand dunes are indeed ordered, more so than a random heap of sand. And the rings of Saturn are also more ordered than a random heap of stones. With all due respect, I think you need to look into what “order” means.

      And as far as “order requiring intelligence” goes, it’s just backward: intelligence requires order. Or are rocks intelligent?

      If you tell me how God emerged from non God, I’ll tell you how life emerged from non life. Back to you…

  6. al says:

    Perhaps this analogy will help clarify my point. You see that your kitchen table is now covered with alphabet cereal. You see that some of the letters are arranged into 2 or 3 letter words. You can call this “order” but only in the sense that you, as an intelligent person, can perceive from the randomness patterns that you assign significance to. Now, let’s assume the arrangement includes “Zilch, you forgot to take out the garbage. Do it.” That too is order, but not one you are imposing on the letters. It is, instead, a message. (Yes, I know you’re name is not really Zilch)
    Sand dunes do not contain information; DNA does. That we can discern the difference is demonstrated in things like the search for extraterrestrial life. Intelligent sources can send messages that intelligent beings can decipher.
    What you are saying is that I must first explain to you who wrote you the alphabet cereal message and how that person was created (how they came to have th intelligence with which to write a message) before you will accept the conclusion that some intelligent source is behind the order (message) that you see. This is irrational.
    Why does it matter? I guess that depends on whether you really need to take out the garbage, and what the consequence of not doing so will be. After all, the person who sent the message isn’t confused about whether they exist and what power they possess.

  7. Zilch says:


    Without the roughly 3 billion character genetic code providing the unimaginably (until recently) detailed instructions for the construction of the protein parts that are joined together to build the myriad of intricately designed molecular machines that are necessary for life to exist in the single cell, life in any form is impossible.

    This chemical software code had to preexist any life form. You are telling me the code did not have an intelligent source?

    • zilch says:

      This is a bold statement. How do you know it is true?

      Right now, we don’t know how DNA evolved. But it seems reasonable and plausible that it evolved from simpler precursors. At least, that seems more plausible to me than simply positing the existence of an infinitely powerful and complex, but unevolved, God, with no attempt to explain it. As I said, you don’t gain any explanatory power with God, and you make what you don’t explain infinitely more complex. I don’t see what you get for it.

      • tumeyn says:

        Zilch writes: “Right now, we don’t know how DNA evolved. But it seems reasonable and plausible that it evolved from simpler precursors. At least, that seems more plausible to me than simply positing the existence of an infinitely powerful and complex, but unevolved, God,”
        A few comments:
        1) Have you taken a serious look at the process of DNA replication? If you think that this is somehow a “simple ” process that is amenable to evolution, I’m afraid you are horribly mistaken. There have been numerous valiant attempts to figure out how some of the first DNA arose, but they have fallen flat on their face. There is no well-accepted theory for the origin of DNA. None.
        2) Even if the strand itself could have arisen “naturally”, you’ve got the problem of information content. Information does not come from non-information. There is no doubt about it: DNA is a language. When you can point out a language that has arisen spontaneously from non-intelligence, then I’ll take your argument seriously. Till then, your belief is a blind-faith assertion – not an evidence-based assertion.
        3) We all know that there is SOMETHING that is eternally existent and non-evolved. It is either matter (ie matter/energy/time/space) or it is something else entirely. The Big Bang strongly points towards a definite beginning of matter/energy/time/space. Therefore, something “other” must pre-exist. I ask “who created the universe?” You ask “who created God?” Well, one or the other of those two is eternal. Either mind created matter or matter created mind. Both are faith-assertions. But one is consistent with what we know about Big Bang cosmology and one isn’t.

  8. zilch says:

    tumeyn- Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I’ll try to answer as well as I can.

    1) My understanding of how DNA works is that of a pretty well-informed layman. I never said it was “simple”. You’re right- there are no complete accounts of how life came to be, although there are a lot of more or less tentative theories- the RNA World, crystals growing on clay, lipid membranes. We may never understand exactly how it started. But that shouldn’t be surprising- Mother Nature is vastly older and wiser than we are. In any case, just saying “goddidit” is not an account at all, as long as you can’t use it to predict anything or can’t explain God’s existence.

    2) Defining “information” is notoriously difficult, because it can mean very different things in different contexts. But I would say, along with you, that our DNA is a kind of information. If that’s the case, then you are simply wrong: information can increase through evolution. Try googling “information gain genome”.

    3) I wouldn’t be so sanguine about reducing the possibilities to only two. I’m not sure our parochial sense of what time is allows us to confidently assert things about eternity or beginnings. I prefer to say that I don’t know how the Universe began, or even if the question makes sense.

    In any case, I can turn your argument on its head: in our experience, the only things that are capable of using language are evolved beings, or their products (if you count computers). That means that God must have evolved, or is Himself a product of intelligent beings. I don’t see any evidence for gods puffing intelligent beings into existence, or for gods existing at all. Until I see some reason to believe otherwise, I’ll stick with my simpler explanation, as far as it goes, and admit ignorance past its bounds.

    cheers from snowy vienna, zilch

  9. Sylvia says:

    How can “order arise spontaneously in the universe, powered by energy?” Does that mean the Second Law of Thermodynamics is untrue? Does that mean the universe is not closed, permitting additional energy to arise spontaneously? I would like to understand the science.

    The other question for me is, if evolution is true, what is the value of creativity, guilt and other abstractions? I can see the evolutionary value of intelligence evolving to manipulate/observe external data, but what is the evolutionary value of morals?

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