At Last, Common Ground for Atheists and Intelligent Design Advocates
Atheists have a problem. When they look at life on earth, every last trace of it — from single cells rife with complex microstructures, to the eagle’s eye and biologist’s brain — looks like the product of design. How do we explain the exquisite precision required for every biological action? At every level. From the careful production of just the right proteins to fuel each living cell and reproduce itself, to the stunning symbiotic relationships we see among species.
My favorite: The Pitcher Plant. Yes, the whole group of species, which deal with the lack of nitrogen in their soil by luring and catching insects. But even more a single, eccentric species. One which seems to have gone vegetarian. Instead of attracting bugs, it lures in bats. They are eager for shelter in the heat of the day. The plant gets its nutrients (you guessed it) from their poop. How does it attract them? By fashioning its flower to reflect the sounds they use in echo-location. In effect, the plant seems to say: “Central Air Conditioning, and Clean Restrooms.” Like some shiny roadside truck stop.
An Atheist’s Act of Faith
But someone committed to atheism — usually for personal, not intellectual reasons — sees hints like these not as a promise but a threat. They’re fingerprints of a jailer. Propaganda signs for a tyrant. And the “argument from design” is one of the oldest and strongest arguments for God.
The atheist needs to find an alternate explanation. As Darwin did, after his daughter’s death drowned his Christian faith in grief. Stephen C. Meyer, author of Darwin’s Doubt, recounts that Darwin admitted the apparent evidence for design. He wanted to find an alternate explanation. So he looked at the carefully tended, selectively bred varieties of domesticated animals. Human intervention had developed, in a few thousand years, thousands of new kinds of animals.
Just look at dogs. A single species runs the gamut from tiny, needy pugs to happy, demented beagles. From imposing Sicilian Mastiffs to aquatic rescue Newfoundlands. In the past six decades, we’ve seen a Russian scientist work wonders with arctic foxes. He carefully chose and bred only the tamest specimens. Now sure enough, he has a whole population of foxes that cuddle like Basset Hounds. They even have the floppy ears and piebald fur of domestic dogs; it seems that the genes for tameness are also those for dappled things.
Nature’s Selective Breeding Machine
If man’s intervention and choice of which dogs could breed yielded such a wide variety, surely Nature itself might be responsible for the gradual change in species. So Darwin argued. He looked to random chance to produce tiny, incremental changes among the animals. Then the harsh, relentless mechanism of natural selection to take the place of that Russian scientist. Animals who’d randomly turned up with “positive mutations” would have an advantage breeding, and that was that. With a simple, elegant argument, Darwin offered an option for atheists. Indeed, New Atheist publicist Richard Dawkins has said that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
So what was “Darwin’s Doubt” from which Meyer took his title? Namely the almost total absence of evidence for the most expansive claims of his theory. The nineteenth century saw the astonishing discovery of massive troves of fossils. Naturalists unearthed countless species no longer with us, and apparent older versions of creatures we see today. They even found primates that scientists could reconstruct, to look like proto-humans. All this was immensely exciting, of course. It helped nail down the age of the earth, which is massively greater than almost anyone had expected.
Just One Hitch: No Evidence
Do you know what we haven’t found? Those intermediate species which would have borne out Darwin’s theory. Not for most types of animals, not at all. Darwin worried about this, especially about the vast geological period called the Cambrian. In it, we find the sudden appearance of more than dozen whole new types of animals, as different from each other as shrimps are from squid, as cockroaches are from earthworms. They all seemed to crop up at once, and in Darwin’s day there wasn’t a trace of any ancestors who bore out his idea of slow, gradual changes from one common ancestor. Darwin put his faith in the ongoing search for fossils, admitting that if they weren’t found they posed a grave threat to his theory.
We still haven’t found them. What we have found, however, is how genetics work. We’ve learned how exquisitely complicated the simplest protein is. (It seems … designed, just like the eye, the wing, and the brain.) And we’ve invented computer science. We’ve seen that the code we write to run our computers is quite analogous to the code of DNA. And as Meyer explains in his rich, well-argued book, it was computer scientists who first raised the serious question: Is it really possible that random changes in DNA code would generate new structures and species? Because that never, never, never happens with computer code.
Not Bad Odds, Impossible Odds
So biologists, duly chastened, set out to discover what were the odds of useful proteins (instead of junk) resulting from random mutations. It turns out the odds are tiny. So tiny that the time since life began on earth is hardly enough to account for even a trivial percentage of the massive, totally random mutations that it would take to move from amoebas to earthworms, much less to man. As Meyer illustrates, it’s more likely that a burglar who found a bike lock with a ten number code would guess the right one within a few hours. (In fact, it would take him countless centuries.) And that just accounts for one mutation, out of millions required for evolution to work.
But things get worse. Biologists committed to scientific materialism have no way to explain how whole new body plans could emerge, and result in surviving life forms. That’s because the genes (and epigenetic controllers) that govern body plans work at the very beginning of life. When an embryo has only divided a few hundred times. The odds are far worse than astronomical that random mutations could produce new, successful body plans — instead of crippled monsters, like the flies with wings in their heads that are the best scientists have managed to create in laboratories.
Design Is the Only Plausible Hypothesis
No, the vast, exquisite hierarchy of life looks much more like computers, cars, airplanes, and other products of intelligent design.
But scientists committed to atheism will not entertain such arguments. Even though Darwin himself was striving to explain the apparent “design” he saw in nature, they now keep the question closed. They do so through blatant political pressure, shunning, and career-ending attacks on colleagues who dare to question their basic premise. That is, scientific materialism. Harvard’s Richard Lewontin was stunningly candid on this topic:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.
It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
Think Like Us, or You’re One of Them
Does that sound like science to you? No, of course not. It’s sheer ideology — a preconceived dogma motivated by something other than evidence. But following it is excellent career advice for any aspiring scientist, as Meyer will tell you.
If you dare to even consider the idea of design cherished by Kepler, Newton, Pasteur or the Catholic priest who helped prove a cosmic beginning, you’re not a scientist anymore. You’re an enemy. If you even try to speak at a university symposium, angry 20-year-old atheists whipped up by middle-aged tenured atheists will try to close down your talk. That happened to Meyer. It has happened to many others. People will slam shut their minds really hard to keep that Divine Foot firmly out.
A Modest Proposal: Aliens
So I have a suggestion. It might help find common ground between the advocates of Intelligent Design, and committed scientific materialists. Here goes:
How about we stipulate this? All the evidence piling up that random mutations couldn’t possibly have planted and grown the Tree of Life does not point to the God of the Christians and the Jews.
Instead, it points to the design of some higher, alien species. Say, a race of brilliant beings who live in Alpha Centauri, who have learned how to travel by wormholes. No, there’s no evidence for that, but there’s equally little evidence for the “Multiverse.” That’s a favorite fiction of atheists eager to escape the religious implications of the Big Bang. But that didn’t stop Stephen Hawking from touting it.
Okay? It’s not the “Divine Foot” of Yahweh we’re letting in the door. It’s a mysterious alien green foot of a purely natural being. One who doesn’t impose morality on us. Or care if we sleep with our much younger lab assistants.
You can relax. Life is still meaningless. Our ethics are still completely arbitrary. The Green Men in Alpha Centauri don’t care what we do. They haven’t built us a heaven or dug for us a hell. We’re still free to dig that ourselves, right here on earth. Will that do, Professor Lewontin?
Perhaps if intelligent design advocates stipulated such alien designers, they’d hit much less resistance. Biologists wouldn’t work so desperately hard to avoid the evidence of their eyes.