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The following was originally published on July 12, 2016:
It was with a familiar longing that I turned the last page of Douglas Axe’s new book, Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition that Life Is Designed, published today. If only evolutionists would quit spinning their theory for a moment, read a serious critic, and answer him. If only! One of the most striking features of the Darwin “debate” is the signal refusal of Darwin’s defenders to register scientific critiques and offer a worthy reply.
Having read Undeniable, I think the evolutionary advocate I’d most like to hear from is MIT’s Jeremy England, hailed as the “next Charles Darwin.” Axe quotes Paul Rosenberg writing in Salon, claiming (with the customary confused deployment of the scare word “creationist”), that “[T]hings could get a whole lot worse for creationists because of Jeremy England, a young MIT professor who’s proposed a theory, based on thermodynamics, showing that the emergence of life was not accidental, but necessary.”
“Necessary” means basically a snap. As England himself puts it, “You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light at it for long enough, it should not be surprising that you get a plant.” Or as Axe summarizes the “equation”:
light + random atoms + time = living plant
England is in a long tradition of smart people in the sciences who grossly — wildly! — underestimate the challenge of developing life from non-life or complex from simple. For the layman, the temptation is simply to take this expert opinion as granted, without questioning it. That is the easier way, and at least in the media’s view, the more praiseworthy, touched by the prestige of elite opinion. After all, who am I, a non-scientist, to doubt a famous expert?
To that question, Dr. Axe’s book is the answer. Highly rigorous yet passionate, lyrical, forthright, refreshingly brief and accessible, Undeniable is an urgently needed addition to the library of books on intelligent design. It stands out in several ways. It is the book that largely steps back from technical matters, and demonstrates why all the other ID books must be right. While giving both the engineering and biology perspectives, it offers non-engineers and non-biologists the intellectual tools, without mastering technical literature, to have and defend their own well-informed view on the ultimate question of life’s origins.
I don’t mean to imply it’s entirely an easy read, or remotely superficial, so that anyone can flip through and come out prepared in a twinkling to creditably give Jeremy England a piece of your mind. But a focused reading and perhaps rereading should be sufficient.
Axe argues with England, with David Barash, with Richard Dawkins, and, very respectfully, with Thomas Nagel. The book is framed by engagement with Nagel. But Dr. Axe is not arguing for us, on our behalf. He is showing us how to do it.
Axe concludes that Darwinian explanations are not just unlikely, merely implausible, but “physically impossible.” He explains how he reached this conclusion, on a journey of his own from undergraduate days at UC Berkeley, PhD at Caltech, and on to Cambridge University where he was a postdoctoral student and research scientist, finally expelled for his association with ID. Axe is currently director of Biologic Institute.
Publishing in the Journal of Molecular Biology, he has probed the rarity of functional proteins, testing biologist Michael Denton’s earlier assertion that they “could well be exceedingly rare.” That itself was a vast, vast understatement: “I was able to put a number on the actual rarity — a startling number,” with “only one good protein sequence for every 1074 bad ones.”
But you don’t have to take Axe’s word for it, against the admitted majority of his fellow scientists who affirm the Darwinian alternative. He explains how the natural intuition of design is not only innate but intellectually, scientifically valid, confirmed by what Axe calls “common science.” It’s not true that because you don’t have a PhD and because your work, in contrast to Axe’s, isn’t featured in Nature or PNAS, you are not a scientist. Practicing science is something we all do, even if we never venture into its rarefied aspects.
The design intuition is suppressed by many of us, unnaturally so, and that is the dirty little secret of evolutionary biology. In a nutshell, evolution can “fiddle,” but it cannot “invent”:
If the invention of a working X is a whole project requiring extensive new functional coherence, then the invention of X by accidents of any kind is physically impossible. Why? Because for accidental causes to match insight on this scale would be a fantastically improbable coincidence, and our universe simply can’t deliver fantastically improbable coincidences. The fact that much simpler things can be had by accident is completely irrelevant. The only thing we need to know to reject all accounts of X itself being invented by accident is that these stories all attempt to excuse an impossible coincidence.
Invention, whether of an omelet or an orca, requires knowledge. We recognize that folding paper to devise an origami crane required knowhow, but lightly reject the same requirement in a living crane, because of “natural selection”? Axe advises “common scientists” such as ourselves to “keep your eye on the ball”:
We have arrived at what looks to be a decisive argument. In a sentence: Functional coherence makes accidental invention fantastically improbable and therefore physically impossible. Invention can’t happen by accident. This is the ball, then. To become distracted by any defense of accidental origins that doesn’t answer this argument is to take our eye off the ball.
The enigma of protein evolution alone is enough to serve as “evolution’s undoing.” But the problem, the demand for knowledge and insight as a prerequisite for invention, goes all the way up the ordered hierarchy that comprises every living creature, from spider, to salmon, to orca: “Each is strikingly compelling and complete, utterly committed to being what it is.”
Hierarchical organization is the key, and Axe illustrates the concept clearly with examples including the photosynthetic system of cyanobacteria and the “complete system,” the “functional hierarchy,” of mammalian vision.
This is all beautifully explained — Axe is a beautiful writer — in under three hundred pages that move along briskly and with great brio. “My aim,” Axe writes, is to “liberat[e] readers from their dependence on experts.” He has done that, masterfully.