Tag Archives: Evolution

A Case Study in Creationist Quote-Mining

To a Christian, few things are more aggravating than when someone pulls a Bible verse out of context to prove a pet point, especially if that point runs counter to the larger purpose of the text.

When I read creationist literature, I assumed its authors, as fellow conservative Christians, were being just as honest with their quotations from scientific literature as they would be with the Bible. After 40 years of granting creationists this favorable assumption, it took only a few weeks of reading actual scientists’ work to see how unfounded my trust had been.

A sentence we saw in an Answers in Genesis online textbook two posts ago is a case in point.

Harold J. Morowitz, professor of biophysics at Yale, has calculated that the formation of one E. coli bacteria in the universe at 10-100,000,000,000, or one in 10 to the power of 100 billion.

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The Evolution of Molecules and the Origin of Life

Last time, I promised that I would say something about the evolution of molecules as Step 1 in the origin of life. The creationist organization Answers in Genesis says it’s impossible for molecules to evolve, much less to evolve into life:

Natural selection cannot be the mechanism that caused life to form from matter as it can only work on a complete living organism.

Is that true? Can natural selection only operate on complete living organisms?

This post is part of a series on creationist arguments that I encountered while studying the creation/evolution issue. I wanted to learn the truth, and creationists did not help their cause as they asserted so many obvious falsehoods. Answers in Genesis’ statement above is a case in point.

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Probabilty and the Origin of the First Cell

What do you think of these arguments against the chance origin of life?

From an Answers in Genesis online textbook (Chapter 5):

Harold J. Morowitz, professor of biophysics at Yale, has calculated that the formation of one E. coli bacteria in the universe at 10-100,000,000,000, or one in 10 to the power of 100 billion. Sir Fred Hoyle has offered the analogy of a tornado passing through a junkyard and assembling a Boeing 747, “nonsense of a high order” in his words. Natural selection cannot be the mechanism that caused life to form from matter as it can only work on a complete living organism.

…The many distinct interactions within living systems clearly point to the presence of a designer, the God of the Bible.

And earlier in the same chapter:

[Evolutionist Thomas] Huxley suggested that, given enough time and material, six monkeys could type the 23rd Psalm simply by randomly punching the keys. … So what is the answer to Huxley’s argument of time and chance?

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Did God Guide the Evolution of Morality?

About a third of Americans believe “humans have developed over millions of years from less-advanced forms of life, but God guided this process.” That sounds like a solution that will please everyone, doesn’t it? The scientist’s theory of evolution is accepted and the believer’s God has a central role. *

Few people on either side of the debate would find that position threatening. It’s a different story when we talk about the evolution of morality. Somehow a naturalistic explanation for our moral sense strikes closer to home than a naturalistic explanation for life itself. In some ways, our moral sense is a more important and cherished component of our identity than our physical bodies.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis pointed to our shared moral sense as evidence of God. We yearn for right rather than wrong; how could we long for something that does not exist? We thirst for water, which exists, rather than for an imaginary liquid. In the same way, our thirst for righteousness strongly suggests that there is such a thing.

Let us agree, then, that there is such as thing as right and wrong. Could evolution, rather than God, account for our sense of it?

I have heard it argued as recently as this morning that evolution could not have been the wellspring of morality. The competition-to-the-death that drives evolution could never result in anything like the moral sense we all have. Evolution could only produce creatures more and more efficient and ruthless. By now, we should all be Nazis. The atrocities of the Islamic State should be the norm.

Before responding, let’s be sure we understand the assertion. It is that no purely physical (i.e., godless) mechanism could possibly produce the moral sense we share. If we were to inspect the process without allowing God into the picture, it would not hold together.

That makes it unlike theistic biological evolution. The adherents of God-guided biological evolution say that he nudged mutations at key points so they were not random, although his work was subtle enough as not to be obvious. If I flip a coin five times and the outcome is heads every time, you might suspect that I cheated by “guiding” the process, but you would not say it’s impossible for a five-heads sequence to occur all by itself. C.S. Lewis and others who make the argument from morality are saying that it is impossible for the moral order we observe to occur as the result of a purely physical process.

Richard Dawkins more than refuted this almost 40 years ago in his book, The Selfish Gene. I posted a little series summarizing the book three winters ago. To boil it down even further, the argument goes like this. The unit of evolution is the gene, not the organism, for it is the genes that are doing the mutating. The genes (not the organisms) that produce the most copies of themselves are the evolutionarily successful ones. Copies of one’s genes exist most abundantly in one’s kin, and then in one’s tribe, race, species, and genus, in that order. Therefore, genes that manage to induce in their host bodies an instinct to aid the survival of one’s kin, tribe, race, etc., will promote more copies of themselves. Cooperation becomes a survival strategy, not necessarily for the organisms but for the genes. And indeed we see great cooperation and sacrifice for family members, a strong but somewhat lesser loyalty to tribe, and so on down the line — just as a gene-centered explanation of cooperation predicts.

What is the first rule of cooperation? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That also happens to be the basis for all morality, according to Jesus himself. Voila!

A purely physical, perfectly sensible explanation for morality has been found. Believers have declared this to be impossible. Indeed some, following C.S. Lewis, have made this the linchpin of their argument for God. Will they now recant? In the spirit of truth, will they admit their error from their pulpits and in conversations with the unconverted? Will they even read Dawkins’ short book before they decide not do to so?


* – Young-earth creationists are unhappy with theistic evolution because, to them, it directly contradicts the gospel. They believe that Adam and Eve were real people and death — physical death — entered the world because of Adam’s sin. There was no death before Adam, so eons of “survival of the fittest” could not have happened. This is not a fringe view, by the way, according to the same Gallup poll cited above, just under half of Americans believe “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”

Have We Flown Evolution’s Perch?

The Moral Landscape is one of those books in which you find little gems of insight that are only tangentially related to the main subject. Here is one of them.

As with mathematics, science, art, and almost everything else that interests us, our modern concerns about meaning and morality have flown the perch built by evolution.

Is this true? Have we really flown the perch?

The Goldfinch (Fabritius, 1654)

The Goldfinch (Fabritius, 1654)

In context, Sam Harris was emphasizing that “the view of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ [he is] advocating … cannot be directly reduced to instinctual drives and evolutionary imperatives.” For example, “The temptation to start each day with several glazed donuts and end it with an extramarital affair might be difficult for some people to resist, for reasons that are easily understood in evolutionary terms, but there are surely better ways to maximize one’s long-term well-being.”

The mechanism of evolution is so simple as to be almost tautological: the fittest survive and reproduce. How could we possibly escape it? Are we not chained to our perch just as securely as Fabritius’s poor goldfinch?

Yes and no.

Evolution has bred many strong drives into us, and those aren’t going away. Harris mentions two: eating fats and sweets, and sexual desires that conflict with inbred sexual jealousies and taboos. Like it or not, most of us will be chained to perches like those for the foreseeable future.

Are we utterly stuck, then?

If we were the only ones evolving, we might be. Fortunately, we host a class of parasites that we have met before on this blog: the memes. You’ll recall that a meme is a unit of cultural evolution: a custom, an idea, etc. Like genes, memes are subject to mutation and recombination. The most successful memes drive their hosts to propagate them. An obvious example is a religion that includes a meme for evangelism.

Our bodies have evolved to the point where our privilege to reproduce (if we so wish) is more or less assured. Thanks our well-developed brains, we have pretty much figured out how to stay alive until the age of reproduction. Now, the evolution of the memes we host affects our lives more than any physical evolution we may be undergoing. Certainly our memes’ evolution is much, much more rapid than our continuing genetic evolution.

A clear example of how memetic evolution now overwhelms the physical is the fact that as women in a culture become more educated, their birth rate drops. (No disrespect to large families here. I have one myself!)

Also consider the rapidly expanding acceptance of homosexual and transgender behavior in the First World. If ever there was a meme that was overwhelming genetic evolution’s countermeasures, that is it!

Finally, consider that the warlike behavior that most people identify with “survival of the fittest” is steadily being replaced by cooperation. (Yes, it’s true.) The memes that produce peaceful behavior and human flourishing are winning. One might cite Vladimir Putin’s recent aggression in Ukraine as a counter-example, but the worldwide outrage over what would have been considered normal behavior 150 years ago only proves my point.

I think this is pretty cool. Evolution, mindless though it may be, has made us wings and cut us free.


Information Will Find a Way

In the movie Jurassic Park, chaos scientist Ian Malcolm remarks, “Life will find a way.” The rest of the movie proves him right. A population of dinosaur clones that was supposed to be all-female manages to reproduce anyway, turn aggressive and overrun the island.

That’s not so far-fetched. It’s more or less what has happened with life on our planet, just compressed into a 2-hour plot. As I blogged in the Selfish Gene series, a sterile pool was stirred by Sun and Moon for a few million years until a molecule arose that had the curious property of self-replication, drawing on materials in the surrounding prebiotic soup. Over unfathomable eons, such molecules fell together in increasingly complex but self-sustaining structures until what we would call life emerged. The process was so gradual that an observer would not be able to say, “Here is the first life” but here we are.

To say that “life has found a way” is an understatement. Life has ratcheted its way into the hellish, sulfer-based economy of deep-sea thermal vents; has eked out an existence 2 miles underneath Antarctic ice; and feeds on ammonia on Mount Everest.

Life, based on DNA (or RNA) is essentially information.

Like life itself, information is finding its way into every imaginable intellectual ecosystem. Some habitats are inhospitable, choked with dogma and prejudice. Others are more fertile and welcoming. However, information is resourceful. Its arguments and presentation continually mutate, and will continue to mutate, until truth penetrates every culture and sub-culture.

Why truth and not falsehood? In the world of information, truth is life and falsehood is death. Eventually, falsehood meets reality and is annihilated. The bigot gets to know enough people against whom he is prejudiced, discovers that they are as good as he is, and is forced to revise his views. Circumstances eventually force the biblical fundamentalist to double-check his views and he discovers they are unsupported.

Ways of looking at the world that are dedicated to seeking truth and discarding falsehood advance; backward cultures eventually wither. To see this, one only has to compare the march of science with the retreat of superstition.

This is happening with astonishing speed for, unlike biological life, information can survive and reproduce with almost no raw materials. Furthermore, while biological life consumes what it feeds on, information builds it up: As information is implanted in people, they want more of it, and are better equipped to host it. They even invent and support new habitats for it (the Internet being only the most recent example). The result is a growth of knowledge that is even more rapid than our growth in population.

Books Added to the British Library per Year

Books Added to the British Library per Year

United States Patent Applications

United States Patent Applications

Considered as a life-form, information is unrivaled. It requires almost no natural resources, can reproduce without limit, and re-engineers its hosts to want more of it.

The world of ignorance is doomed. May Truth live long and prosper!

Since Evolution Is Blind, Isn’t Atheist Morality Arbitrary?

Since evolution is blind, isn’t atheist morality arbitrary?

In the last week, two Christians have made that claim in conversations with me: one a highly educated and intelligent engineer who was attending a meeting of a philosophy club; the other a pastor who, as such, probably has at least one post-graduate degree.

I’ll let the pastor speak for both, since I happen to have his thoughts in writing:

On the atheist rubric, integrity is an accidental byproduct of a blind evolutionary process…. There isn’t really a moral anchor for atheism, only an arbitrary preference, subject to every breeze.

Let me begin by saying that I completely understand and even empathize with the pastor’s position. It is exactly the position I maintained for four decades as an evangelical. To me, it was only the grace of God that kept the unbelieving world from descending into moral anarchy.

Imagine my surprise when, after leaving my faith, I discovered that I still wanted to do the right thing! Granted, there was some inertia from my years in the church, but I also discovered an unexpected moral core in myself.

How did this come to be?

I hope to show how evolution can produce a moral sense that is far from arbitrary and, in fact, the “arbitrary” label sticks much more readily to biblical morality than to the core morality that is our evolutionary heritage.

There are just two concepts behind evolution: descent with modification, and natural selection.Those who believe evolution is a “blind” or “chance” process understand descent with modification, but have forgotten about natural selection. Descent with modification is indeed blind. That’s where random mutations happen. Natural selection is ruthlessly clear-eyed. That’s what prevents bad mutations from reproducing, and gives favor to the beneficial ones.

If we stick to the physical characteristics of creatures, it’s easy to see how far from arbitrary natural selection is. We can all imagine how selection pressures could fashion an aquadynamic body shape for fish whose ecological niche involves being good swimmers. In each generation of fish, some are born with more suitable shapes and others are doomed to a life of struggle as they push their ungainly bodies through the water. The former are more likely to eat and reproduce; the latter more likely to be eaten and die without offspring. Over time, the species’ body shape improves.

Not all fish survive by being good swimmers. Some, like this stonefish, have slid into an ecological niche that depends on their camoflauge — looking like the surrounding reef, in its case. There, too, it is easy to imagine how natural selection could, in a far from arbitrary fashion, favor those fish who descended with a modification that helped them to lurk undetected.

There are many ecological niches, but natural selection for each niche is ruthlessly non-arbitrary.

Humans may be the weakest large species there is, in terms of physical strength per pound. Our close cousins, the chimpanzees, are about four times stronger, pound-for-pound. Yet we survive. How?

It happens that the ecological niche into which we’ve slid involves using superior intelligence to cooperate with our own kind. Without cooperation, we perish, just as surely as a stonefish with flourescent polka-dots and no venom would perish.

The ability to empathize is a “descent with modification” from mere cooperation that makes cooperation even more effective. Humans whose cooperation is thus enhanced have a survival advantage.

Empathy is the basis of the Golden Rule, which Jesus said summed up the Law and the Prophets.

From an evolutionary perspective, empathy is self-perpetuating. The wish of every teenager is to be paired with “someone who understands me.” In contrast, who wants to marry a sociopath? It’s easy to see how, especially in the formative years of our species, our morality would be honed toward the Golden Rule just as inexorably as a swordfish’s body would be honed for being a fast-swimming predator.

Thus evolution begets morality, at least in our species.

A morality stemming from cooperation and empathy is far from arbitrary. That’s why nearly all cultures’ moral codes share a core that is based on the Golden Rule and its obvious corollaries. (Granted, some cultures are less morally evolved than others and still tolerate things like slavery — an moral-evolutionary way-station that we have thankfully left behind.)

What is arbitrary is a moral code established on the supposed commands of an invisible god. Examples from the Bible are endless, but just to give you the flavor of it…

  • The Bible says picking up sticks on the Sabbath is an offense worthy of death (Numbers 15:32-36), but you may use a stick to beat your slave so severely that he can’t get up for almost two full days (Exodus 21:20-21).
  • The Bible’s god says that a bride who can’t prove she is a virgin must be stoned to death on her father’s doorstep (Deuteronomy 22:20-21), but the same god gives explicit permission to rape war captives via non-binding “marriages” (Deuteronomy 21:10-14, discussed at length here).

Commands like those, sometimes literally written in stone, are increasingly revealed to be arbitrary, as the optimal shape of real morality is sculpted over time through the natural selection of the memes that form our moral code.

To close, I’d like to recommend this short video of Richard Dawkins responding to the question, “Considering that atheism cannot possibly have any sense of absolute morality, would it not then be an irrational leap of faith … for an atheist to decide between right and wrong?”