A Humanist Eye Looks at Evolution

Cover for Origins Questions: Creation, Evolution, Intelligent Design, and Orthodoxy

One minor turning point, which I mention as an example of a type of humanist observation, was when I was in a doctor’s office and read a forceful “MYTH vs. FACT” for the MMR vaccine. What struck me was, “You’re fighting awfully hard for someone who is running unopposed!

Earlier, after a hostile reception on a mailing list, I wrote, The Evolution of a Perspective on Creation and Origins, and shortly after Why Young Earthers Aren’t Completely Crazy which suggests that young earth creationism drew an unfortunate line in the sand, but they were not wrong to draw a line. Origins questions have been periodically addressed in these pages; it is a very good thing if you don’t have the background to get Fr. Cherubim (Jones) Anathematized by the Canonical Autonomous True Orthodox Synod in Dissent, of the Dregs of the Dregs of Rubbish Outside of Rubbish Bins (RORB), which discusses a polarizing thinker whose bellicose followers insist that the universe is only 7500 miles in size. (I neglected to develop a corresponding “Small World Science.”) If there is one piece that I consider edifying of the lot, it is by far Two Decisive Moments.

In terms of my education, I have an M.S. in math from UIUC and an M.Phil. in theology from Cambridge (plus doctoral coursework from Fordham). I had many evolution-centric biology courses before college, though I would really not paint myself as an expert in biology; I do, however, intend to be frank about the limitations of my biological study and do my reader a basic courtesy of not presenting guesses as facts. As an undergraduate, I had a couple of advanced courses in probability and statistics; however this does not matter terribly much as the statistics I use are driven by concepts that should be reasonably presented in Statistics 101.

While I would downplay the significance of my scientific knowledge here and I wouldn’t want to overemphasize my quite limited knowledge of biology (for instance, I don’t know what are the standard lines of arguments to put the phyla of the Cambrian explosion in an orderly evolutionary sequence rather than all at once), I do not wish to downplay the status I have as an unemployed humanities scholar. One wonderful Roman priest I knew, who was conservative and could every bit say Rome’s Creed without crossing his fingers, listened to me wanting to study theology and he explained that his spiritual father wanted him to study under “the best bad guys,” and the bishop overrode his decision because a more conservative school would happen to get him graduating faster and be back in ecclesiastical action. His point in mentioning this was not in any sense that he wanted me to go liberal; he was asking me to consider, not trying to find a school that was sufficiently conservative, but that I should actively choose to study under “the best bad guys.”

My first thesis in theology, Dark Patterns / Anti-Patterns and Cultural Context Study of Scriptural Texts: A Case Study in Craig Keener’s “Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul”, was part and parcel a study of shady argument. I rightly or wrongly brought in the context of a pattern as it originated in architecture and then object-oriented computer programmers, and offered a framework to classify bad arguments. And in this study, I continued to grow some sensitivities that I had already started earlier: sensitivities to what is clean argument, and what is dirty argument. The difference matters quite a lot; clean argument is only convincing if you’re somewhere near the truth, where dirty argument “includes the gift of making any color appear white,” if I may quote Ambrose Bierce. I can count on one finger the number of times I was given dirty argument that told a truth I would have done well to heed.

I might call myself a “dislodged intelligent design member”, meaning that I don’t know how much intelligent design I accept, but evolutionary apologetics push me away.

For one example, that has happened a couple of times, the evolutionary apologist denies Darwin’s original picture of a slow evolution, but articulates a “punk eek” (formally “punctuated equilibrium”) scenario where when things are stable, they will probably be stable for a long time, but when things are chaotic, there is a much greater incentive to make big changes quickly, until equilibrium is restored. And what I failed completely to communicate is that there might have been a much greater incentive to make big changes quickly, there is no explanation offered, or at least none that would not embarrass a statistician, to say that there is an ability for a breeding population to acquire and sustain a large number of beneficial changes quickly.

The earliest and perhaps most striking example I remember was, wet behind the ears, I brought up intelligent design in a forum with alumni from the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. Before presenting a conclusion, I asked a question: suppose that I claim to be able to predict lottery numbers in advance. I do it once, and you think it’s an odd coincidence. I do it twice, and you think it’s a really odd coincidence. If I continue, and we suppose for the sake of argument that I can make at most one prediction per minute, I can only predict for a forty hour workweek, and I will die of old age at 70 if nothing else gets me sooner, is there any way I could predict enough lottery tickets to convince you that I can genuinely predict lottery tickets? I was answered that yes, I could be taken to predict lottery tickets with “no more than a dozen” predictions. I then proceeded to show that at very least the production of new Cambrian life forms by mutagen exposure (I had allowed for the possibility of mutagen exposure at least for the sake of argument) was much, much more improbable than correctly predicting a dozen lottery numbers in advance by mere chance. To this I was given a response of, “There may be some things we can never know;” closing out a theistic argument at the price of not having a valid explanation was better than acknowledging intelligent design as an apparent part of the explanation. Perhaps surprisingly, or not surprising at all given the humility of greatness, the one member of the entire discussion who did not try to jackhammer down intelligent design was… a microbiology graduate student. He did not claim to be convinced, but he said, “You appear to be well-read,” which is in one sense politeness, but I believe the non-commital tone was genuine, and I further believe that if he had seen a hole or an impossibility in the argument I presented, he would have said so politely but plainly. The microbiology graduate student was the one other person in the discussion who refrained from slamming me and saving naturalist evolution at any cost. I don’t think I convinced him, but it was the one discussion partner who knew the most about neo-Darwinian evolution and dealt with it on most intimate terms who was most open to my statement that mutagen exposure does not account for the Cambrian explosion in any way that makes sense to a statistician.

If I may expose my ignorance of alchemy for a moment, rumor has it that alchemy was not originally just one more scheme to make money fast; it recalls a comment by Chesterton(?) that compared some desire to a spiritualist’s desire to see a nymph’s breasts, as opposed to the straightforward lecher’s desire to see a nymph’s breasts. In Western history, there has been extraordinarily strong incentive and desire to turn lead into gold, and while during some childhood some nuclear physicists whimsically made gold into lead by a few nuclei, even if their method were reversible the energy would be prohibitively expensive compared to old-fashioned gold mining. Today we are having a renaissance of renaissance alchemy, and we again have a very strong incentive to turn lead into gold; more broadly capitalistic economies would heavily reward, at least temporarily, someone who could turn cheaper materials into gold with revenues vastly exceeding expenses. For the transformation to happen, alchemy needs not only have incentive; it needs a live possibility, a possibility not known to exist under mainstream science.

What has been asserted to me, by naturalist evolutionists, is on statistical grounds the equivalent of there being long stretches of people steadily buying lottery tickets but rarely if ever does someone draw a winning lottery ticket, then somewhere completely off the fossil record a breeding population wins one lottery after another after another, and finally, after they have won enough lottery tickets, the environment stabilizes and the incentive to innovate recedes.

This is the assertion as it has been given to me. I knew two theistic evolutionists but I do not know their responses to such arguments (in this case, formulated after our last real conversation), because socially whenever I tried to make a point about intelligent design, they shut me down completely and prevented me from even beginning an argument. For the more forceful of the two, this was not his boilerplate behavior; when he was contradicted by someone and he knew he was right, he would let the other person fill out his argument completely, then allow the conversation to explain why the other person was wrong.

I have doubts about intelligent design as presented. I was dismayed to find out that one Orthodox brotherhood, in making a posthumous book on origins, had asked Philip Johnson to write the introduction, and the introduction reeked of having been written by a lawyer. It masterfully avoided treating the question of the age of the universe, so that young earth creationists and old earth creationists could read it and see their own reflection. However, the single, simple strongest reason to believe I was onto something in reading intelligent design materials was simply that it is the one topic of any short where I was always rudely shut down socially before I could begin to make my point. That is not the behavior of people who know they are right!

I am going to leave the example of the pepper moth itself at a brief mention. As far as the pepper moth goes, I have heard that Darwin’s version of the pepper moth example is not the image that has been copied by many hands, and so what I read in intelligent design about the pepper moth example not being an example of natural selection creating or at least making some population extinct, I’m merely going to acknowledge that people have discussed the point from different angles.

What I do not wish to be silent on, because I have seen it in living discourse in my own time, is tuskless elephants. And what arguments Johnson gives for the pepper moth are relevant here. In the case of tuskless elephants, we do not have an example of a new feature being suddenly developed. We have an example of a feature being suddenly removed. Furthermore, the feature is not new. Historically, something like 3% of female elephants have been tuskless; the proportion of tuskless elements is “only” a major shift in which individuals within a genetic population sport a feature (“phenotype”). The source I was read that ordinarily, tuskless males are unable to mate, but in these careful words it contained no assertion that tuskless males never appear. Among humans (and, for I know, elephants), until recent treatments hemophilia would make someone bleed to death, quite possibly well before reproductive age. (If untreated hemophilia allows patients to live long enough to successfully reproduce, substitute Tay-Sachs Disease.) Regarding Robert A. Heinlein’s eugenic comment that the only real cure for hemophilia is to let all hemophiliacs bleed to death, H. sapiens sapiens has been around, on some counts, 400,000 years, and hemophiliacs’ bleeding to death all that time has not removed them from the gene pool. Heinlein’s remark may be heartless, but that does not make it intelligent or show a perceptive grasp of biology: a breeding pool can and often will produce individuals with phenotypes that do not get to mate. There may be a few tuskless bull elephants; we are not told the frequency merely by a statement that tuskless males do not ordinarily get to mate.

The tuskless elephant example is brought as an example of the kind of change that powers Darwinism, and that it is not. It has suppressed what is normally a feature of elephantine anatomy; it has not created new or additional organs. We, or at least I, have never heard of pachyderms developing even stronger and tougher forms of skin that will repel poachers’ machine gun fire. “All” that has happened, as with pepper moths, is that two existing variations are being altered in their frequency, possibly permantly and possibly for a time as with pepper moths.

It used to be that Intelligent Design drew me by its apologetic arguments; it is now evolutionist apologetic arguments that repel me. I haven’t read anything new to me in intelligent design that was convincing; I have read evolutionary assertions that convincingly demonstrated flaws. I remember being the only person in a Ph.D. program to dissent from Darwinian evolution – and almost assuredly the only person in the Ph.D. program who could explain the difference between paleo-Darwinian evolution, the slow process, and neo-Darwinian evolution, the punk eek, or why, as I put it once before, “Darwin’s theory of evolution has been dead in the academy for so long that it no longer even smells bad.”

It used to be that naturalists would accuse theists of a “God of the gaps”, a God whose heavy lifting lies in the gaps of scientific knowledge. The allegation was meant to sting, but not by being impossible: in the set of all conceivable circumstances, we could have (for one non-biology example) God holding together the nuclei of all multi-proton atoms because the protons are all positive and electrically repel each other. The implication is more that you’re on the losing end of an argument if your God has to hide in the gaps of our knowledge. But now we are seeing a “natural selection of the gaps,” a natural selection that does most or all of its true heavy lifting in geological eyeblinks without direct remaining evidence of intermediate forms: it all hides in tiny areas where paleontology has nothing positive to tell us. And if tuskless elephants are given as an example of positive additions being made in a geological eyeblink, perhaps that is because evolutionary apologists do not know any better example to offer.

In addition, C.S. Lewis, before intelligent design, played the self-referential incoherence card and explained why natualist forms of evolution could not possibly be true. The basic argument he gives is as follows: romantic love can be explained away as a biochemical state, but there’s a nasty backswing to that explanation: by the same stroke as it explains away romantic love, it also explains away all explanation, including the explanation of romantic love. If mental states, including holding scientific theories, are just permutations of matter, then it is a category error to assign truth or falsehood to such a permutation of matter. Mere physical states do not rise to the dignity of error. The theory of evolution may explain why we have brains good enough to recognize food and avoid natural dangers; it does not explain why we have brains good enough to formulate a theory of evolution, or for that matter any scientific theory ordinarily deemed worthy of provisional assent. Possibly theistic evolutionists have an option of saying that God did something special when humans came forth: I would want to understand a theistic theory of evolution better before deciding whether I would play a self-referential incoherence card. However, I have not heard of a way to deal with this from naturalist evolution, and I would note that it was a matter of great consternation to C.S. Lewis, not that people did not agree with his objection, but that few people were able to see what the objection was at all. This one point is not one I’ve pulled from interactions with evolutionists, but it represents something similar in Lewis’s own observations: not, specifically, that they failed to agree with his argument that evolution is an explanation that explains away all explanation, but that people were in most cases completely unable to see a serious philosophical objection to evolution producing brains that could produce a scientific theory of evolution. He wasn’t upset that people rejected his point (they apparently didn’t); he was upset that people didn’t see what his point was in the first place.

Before intelligent design, I was a settled theistic evolutionist; afterwards, I was straightforwardly a member of intelligent design; now I am wary of intelligent design but on a humanist’s eye can’t see why evolution is true.But it is on increasingly humanist grounds that I look at a movement, I look at discourse, and I say that evolution is everywhere but it repeatedly fails to have the ring of truth. I regard neo-Darwinian (punk eek) evolution as a theory in crisis, and I stand, perhaps, as a churchman without a church.

Author: C.J.S. Hayward

C.J.S. Hayward is an Orthodox author and Renaissance man with master's degrees bridging math and computers (UIUC) and theology and philosophy (Cambridge). His most prized work is what he writes in Eastern Orthodox, Christian theology and apologetics. Readers of apologists like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and Peter Kreeft, contemporary Orthodox authors such as Met. KALLISTOS Ware, and classic authors like St. John Chrysostom will find much food for spiritual reflection.