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A Forest, Not a Tree? Nelson Asks Why Universal Common Descent Needn’t “Pay” for Failures

Philosopher of biology Paul Nelson recalls the expectation, a scientific standard when he was an undergrad, that all living things would turn out to share a universal genetic code. How could they not if, as Darwin argued, there is only a single, universal tree of life? On a classic ID the Future podcast with host Brian Miller, Dr. Nelson discusses the implications of this failed prediction. Download the podcast or listen to it here.

The question is a weighty one since it has emerged that there is no universally shared code, but, instead, many variants. When evolutionists realized this, they performed a sidestep, supposing that since the prediction flopped, it must be the case that the code can itself evolve. But this deft move allows universal common ancestry a luxury that other scientific theories are not allowed: the freedom to fail without paying a price. Nelson suggests that this is a reason to revisit the options in the evolution debate. Maybe life is not a tree but, as biologists are finding to be increasingly likely, a forest or an orchard. But then what are the consequences for strict naturalism?

Broadly, Paul notes, there are four possibilities, each populated with scientific advocates, past and present: no design with common ancestry, no design with no common ancestry, design with no common ancestry, and design with common ancestry. In the last category, he mentions leading intelligent design proponents (Behe, Denton) but perhaps also, and this really intrigued me, the French paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, more typically thought of as a theistic evolutionist. That’s something I’d like to hear more about.

Paul Nelson is a great explainer, remarkably lucid in illuminating complex subjects. You will enjoy this conversation.

Photo credit: Arnaud Mesureur via Unsplash.