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Denis Lamoureux on the God-of-the-Gaps Fallacy

Denis Lamoureux

I previously pointed out the dangers of Denis Lamoureux’s proposed synthesis between Darwinian evolution and religious belief. Today, I will correct his error that arguments for design in life fall into what is referred to as the God-of-the-gaps fallacy. The basic claim is that people of faith, particularly Christians, have often argued that some phenomenon which was not currently understood in nature (e.g., the complex motion of the planets) could only be explained by God’s direct intervention. They were in effect inserting God into the gaps of the current scientific understanding. However, future discoveries eventually demonstrated how natural processes explained the phenomenon, thus obviating the need for God. Therefore, scientists should not make the same mistake today by arguing that many features of life appear designed. For, in the future evolutionary explanations will inevitably explain what was once attributed to a designer. 

This argument appears compelling at first, but it actually demonstrates a misunderstanding of trends in scientific discovery over the past several decades. 

The God-of-the-gaps fallacy has only applied to natural processes related to common matter and energy. It has never applied to life. Living systems and their components represent arrangements of molecules that cannot be comprehended primarily in terms of their physical and chemical properties any more than the arrangement of parts in a car can be understood in terms of the material properties of metal, rubber, and glass. Instead, they can only be fully understood in relation to the purposeful functions they were designed to perform. As a consequence, attempts to explain the origin and development of life purely in terms of natural processes have constantly fallen into the materialism-of-the-gaps fallacy — evolutionary and other materialist narratives that seem plausible at first consistently topple as science advances.  

Origin of Life

The trend is perhaps most pronounced in origin of life research. Advances in organic synthetic chemistry have increasingly demonstrated the implausibility of any undirected process on the early earth producing life’s complex building blocks. And, nearly every step in the development of the first cell appears increasingly intractable as the underlying physics and chemistry are better understood. For instance, the forming of a functional cell membrane had long been assumed to be one of the easiest steps, but it now represents yet another insurmountable hurdle. At an even more foundational level, the thermodynamic challenges have grown increasingly problematic with advances in our understanding of non-equilibrium systems. The obstacles now appear so severe that arguing for a purely materialist account for life’s origin represents a modern day version of the quest for a perpetual motion machine. 

Evolutionary Narratives

Similarly, attempts to envision evolutionary narratives for the appearance of complex adaptations consistently collapse with advances in our understanding of the underlying biology. For instance, biologists once claimed that they had constructed for the evolution of the vertebrate eye a “detailed step-by-step” description. However, each stage in this cartoonish story proved increasingly implausible with new discoveries in the developmental biology of eye formation. For instance, the undirected origin of the lens requires a series of initial mutations to allocate undifferentiated tissue in front of the photoreceptors. This tissue must have then accumulated more mutations to eventually evolve into a fully functional lens. However, the tissue’s first appearance would have severely degraded the animal’s vision, so the  early mutations would have been strongly selected against and quickly removed from the populate. 

In addition, the lens would not have become even marginally functional until a complex network of developmental genes emerged to complete its formation. Such a feat would have required hundreds of coordinated mutations, not to mention numerous changes beyond the developmental network, yet the allowable time would have been sufficient for only two or three, even if negative selection were ignored. Therefore, accumulating even a tiny fraction of the needed changes in a feasible timeframe would have been next to impossible. Other evolutionary scenarios for major transformations also fail upon similar analyses. Those which seem plausible only do so because the underlying biology is not well understood, or simply ignored, and rigorous mathematical calculations of required time scales have been avoided.  

Fossil Record

Evolutionary theory has also faced increasing challenges from the fossil record. Even if one assumed that common ancestry were true, the timescale allowed by the record for the appearance of new complex innovations has typically decreased to within geological instances. In addition, once a species appears, it remains essentially the same throughout its tenure on earth. This pattern is most clearly seen where the fossil record is most complete. Copious documentation of these trends was collected by Walter ReMine in his book The Biotic Message. One particularly illustrative example is from Derek Ager’s The Nature of the Stratigraphical Record (Ager, pp. 16-17, as cited in ReMine, p. 314):  

Peregrinella … is one of the most distinctive brachiopods in the whole record and it has internal structures which make it clear that none of the abundant brachiopods in the strata above or below could possibly be classified as even distant relations. …. In other words, we have fossils that just suddenly appear around the world at one moment in geological history and ‘whence, and whither flown again, who knows’? … the Mesozoic brachiopods are now very thoroughly documented in every stage and the relations of these large and distinctive forms can hardly have been missed.

The most dramatic conflict between evolutionary theory and reality is the sudden appearance of new animal phyla in the Cambrian explosion. The only cogent attempt to explain this event was presented by paleontologist Charles Marshall and his colleagues. They recognized that the transformation of body plans required the rewiring of the genetic networks which controlled the animals’ embryological development. They also understood that such changes were impossible in modern organisms. In response to these facts, they proposed that animals ancestral to each phyla had genetic networks of a completely different nature from today in that they were far more malleable. As a result, animals could transform dramatically though alterations in these networks without harm. After sudden changes occurred in each branch of the tree, the genetic networks in every phylum uniformly transformed into the unchangeable forms we see today. 

The charm of this model is that it is almost completely untestable since it revolves around groups of organisms which left no trace in the fossil record. It also has to make several rather dubious ad hoc conjectures which could never be verified. However, it does rely on one key assumption which can be studied. Namely, the model presupposes that the development of a new phylum of animal does not require large numbers of new genes, and that claim has been disproven. Consequently, the fact that enormous amounts of information appeared suddenly in the origin of most animal phyla points clearly to intelligent design since its production is only possible through a mind. 

Most design critics ignore the data mentioned above and instead attempt to defend evolutionary theory by using groups of organisms where the evidence is considerably less complete and atypical (e.g., whale series). In these cases, the gaps in evolutionists’ knowledge provide room for their imaginations to project their assumptions unto the data. Namely, they infer that groups of species/genera are connected through the gradual branching of an evolutionary tree. The challenge is that the presumed tree has no basis in reality. Even common icons such as the whale series do not represent clear ancestor-descendant relationships, but each “transitional link” is simply assumed to reside on a branch of a hypothetical tree near other links on neighboring branches. The animals are believed to be closely related due to similarities in their traits. The problem is that mounting evidence has demonstrated that similarities of every type between different groups of organisms are not reliable indicators of common ancestry. For, the similarities do not imply a consistent evolutionary tree. Instead, their distribution resembles that of an engineer or computer programmer implementing common design modules to meet similar goals.  

Imperfection-of-the-Gaps Fallacy

Another error perpetrated by many evolutionists comes when they encounter some feature of life where the design logic is not immediately obvious. They often claim that such features represent examples of poor design which no competent engineer would have created. Such claims have constantly fallen into the imperfection-of-the-gaps fallacy. The perception of poor design simply reflected a lack in understanding of the underlying biology or ignorance of engineering principles. As biologists or engineers more carefully studied the features, they consistently came to recognize that they represented exceptional design.

 For instance, biologists in the 19th century identified dozens of what were then believed to be useless organs in the human body. Nearly all have since been shown to be fully functional. Recent examples include the appendix, tonsils, and the tail bone (coccyx). Other refuted examples of poor design include many examples of junk DNA, the backwards wiring of the vertebrate eye, the laryngeal nerve, the panda’s thumb, and pelvic bones in whales. Some examples of currently suboptimal design might exist due to their having degraded over time from deleterious mutations, but such examples no more refute the argument for design in life than rust on a car argues for it being the product of a tornado moving through a junk yard. In reality, the more biology and engineering advance, the more the evidence for design in life increases.     

False Understanding of Nature

Denis Lamoureux’s invoking the god-of-the-gaps argument reflects a false understanding of nature. He conceives of the universe as a well-designed clock that should not need continuous rewinding. A more accurate metaphor is that the universe is like a musical instrument that was designed to interact with its designer. Specifically, our universe was wonderfully engineered to sustain life, but it was also designed to later manifest infusions of information in the origin of the first cell and in the later appearance of complex innovations. This choice for the structure of the cosmos has one particularly important advantage. If the universe were designed to generate and radically transform life, the information required for the first cell and later innovations would have needed to have been built into the laws of physics. The laws would have then been so complicated and intractable that the development of science would have been impossible. 

Lamoureux laments that people of faith would desire to construct sophisticated arguments from science to demonstrate the existence of God. In one sense he has a point. The evidence from life for an intelligent cause is so clear that anyone should recognize it with little effort. Unfortunately, typical science education often conditions the mind to suppress that reality. Attempting to see design then becomes like an art patron who lost nearly all of his or her vision attempting to appreciate an impressionist painting from a distance. The rigorous design arguments function analogously to high-powered glasses that help restore normal vision. Naturally, people who have completely lost their sight or the desire to see altogether will not appreciate such assistance. However, they should not attempt to rob others of the opportunity

Photo: Denis Lamoureux at TEDxEdmonton (screen shot), via YouTube.