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Darrel Falk Downplays the Ramifications of the 2016 Royal Society Meeting

intelligent design
Photo: Royal Society, entrance, by Tom Morris (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

In previous articles, Casey Luskin and I have responded to Darrel Falk’s review of Return of the God Hypothesis for BioLogos (see here and here). Now I will address how he greatly downplayed the dire implications of the 2016 Royal Society meeting for the state of evolutionary biology. 

As a quick recap: the Royal Society assembled many of the leading evolutionary theorists to discuss the limitations of the standard evolutionary model (SEM) commonly known as neo-Darwinism or the Modern Synthesis and to propose how an “extended synthesis” could be developed to address the explanatory deficits. In the opening talk, organizer Gerd Müller stated that the SEM could explain the modification or duplication of existing traits, but it could not explain such key challenges as the following (herehere):

  • The origin of complex new traits such as eyes (hereherehere).
  • The consistent pattern in the fossil record of the sudden appearance of radically new organisms followed by periods of no significant change (herehere).
  • The distribution of genetic variation in species. He was referring to the fact that no genetic variation exists in any species that would allow for large-scale transformations (herehere). For instance, crossbreeding dogs will only produce dogs since dogs only have dog genes. 

Historical Perspective

This astonishing admission must be placed in its historical context for its implications to be fully appreciated. Since ancient times, philosophers and others have debated whether everything seen in the world was simply the product of natural processes or derived from the plans of a supreme intellect (hereherehere). The ancient form of the former belief is termed atomism, and it was motivated by the desire to discredit the commonly accepted view that the gods influenced the world. Mankind could then be fully liberated from the gods. The modern form is termed philosophical or scientific materialism. 

This debate was reflected in the first-century writings of a prominent Christian leader, Paul, who authored a famous letter to the church in Rome. Early in the letter, Paul states that those who deny that “the things that have been made” reveal God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature” actively “suppress the truth.” As leading scholar Craig Keener explains, Paul was affirming the Greek philosophical schools (e.g., Stoics) who argued that the clear evidence of design in nature, particularly with the human intellect, point to a transcendent mind. At the same time, he was directly challenging the Epicurean philosophers who followed in the tradition of the atomists. One of their central beliefs was that evolution and a nascent form of natural selection justified ignoring the clear evidence for design in biology (hereherehere).

Natural Selection as a Designer Substitute

The atomist tradition receded into obscurity throughout the Middle Ages. It then reemerged during the Scientific Revolution with the success of physics and chemistry in explaining natural phenomena purely in terms of physical processes. It was further bolstered by the increasing popularity of skeptical and materialist philosophies. 

The philosophy of materialism was embraced by Charles Darwin early in life. He hid this fact in his autobiography and instead portrayed himself as an honest seeker of truth. Yet his personal journals reveal that his intention from the beginning was to follow in the tradition of the atomists in purging teleology (aka design) from biology (herehere).

Toward this goal he imparted to natural selection God-like creative powers in order to replace the God of biblical tradition as the creator of life — a view widely accepted at the time — with a blind undirected process. This maneuver was clearly described by biologist Francisco Ayala: 

It was Darwin’s greatest accomplishment to show that the complex organization and functionality of living beings can be explained as the result of a natural process — natural selection — without any need to resort to a Creator or other external agent.

It allowed skeptics, like the ancient atomists, to ignore the clear evidence of design in life. This point is well articulated by atheist Richard Dawkins in his book The Blind Watchmaker:

The complexity of living organisms is matched by the elegant efficiency of their apparent design. If anyone doesn’t agree that this amount of complex design cries out for an explanation, I give up. (p. 4)

…although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. (p. 10)

But herein lies the problem. The Royal Society meeting exposed the reality, carefully hidden from the public, that leading evolutionary theorists recognize that natural selection has no real creative power. The current situation harkens back to the famous comment by genetics pioneer Hugo de Vries:

Natural selection may explain the survival of the fittest, but it cannot explain the arrival of the fittest.

Damage Control and Spin

The obvious consequences of the public learning about the impotence of Darwin’s designer-substitute required the secular scientific establishment to engage in what public relations professionals term damage control. This process typically entails a carefully orchestrated reframing of the facts, commonly known as spin.  

Darrel Falk, as one of their key ambassadors, dutifully repeated such carefully crafted statements as the following, 

The point of that [Müller’s] talk was not to suggest that the theory of evolution is in crisis, as I think he [Meyer] implies. On the contrary, the speaker was calling for an approach to evolutionary biology which is less gene-centric…

No speaker at the meeting implied there was a hole in evolutionary theory that might require “intelligent input.” Quite the opposite actually — there was a concern that the meeting’s intent might be misunderstood or misrepresented. The intent was methodological: here’s how evolutionary biologists can develop a more thorough picture of how evolution works.

In all fairness, Falk and other public defenders of Darwin truly believe these statements since they interpret all discussions of evolution through the lens of scientific materialism. In other words, they assume on faith that evolution must be true, and so identify any deficiencies in the theory as representing mere “unsolved problems.” I also attended the conference, but I interpreted the content of the presentations within the broader scope of the history I just described. Within that context, the implications of what was said, and what was not said, reveal a much different story. 

The True Story

Natural selection is the only mechanism that even in principle could mimic the activity of an intelligent agent in creating anything of at least modest complexity and ingenuity. This conclusion is highlighted by the fact that speakers at the conference showcased every conceivable alternative mechanism that could potentially help fill the explanatory deficits of the SEM. But not one shred of evidence was presented that any of the extensions could perform any feat beyond such trivial tasks as increasing a plant’s height, changing the number of digits in an animal’s limb, or performing other slight modifications to preexisting traits. 

The current state of evolution can be compared to the crisis astronomy would face if physicists discovered that gravity stopped operating beyond 10,000 miles past a celestial body. The loss of the only feasible mechanism that could explain the motion of planets, stars, and galaxies would result in absolute pandemonium and despair. 

Most materialist biologists will not so easily come to terms with their true predicament since evolution operates not only as a scientific theory but as a sacrosanct creation narrative for secular society. Nevertheless, with natural selection off the table as a designer substitute, the only sensible interpretation that remains for the overwhelming evidence of design in biological systems is that life is the product of an actual designer (herehere).