Here at Evolution News, I’ve written about the popular public intellectual Jordan Peterson, whose political controversies have unfortunately often overshadowed his fascinating contributions to the cultural discourse on religion, science, and psychology. Although I’m unconvinced by his attempts to weave together an evolutionarily grounded unifying narrative of all these things, I’ve always admired him and always learn something from his lectures.
When I interviewed Stephen Meyer for his new book Return of the God Hypothesis, we chatted a little about Peterson and various other public intellectuals who seem to stand on the shores of theism with one foot in and one foot out. Commenting here on Jonathan Van Maren’s recent survey of these “New New Atheists” (which also included figures like Douglas Murray, Tom Holland, and Niall Ferguson), David Klinghoffer expressed his hope that this might be a new window of opportunity for intelligent design to gain a hearing in the public square.
That wish has now come true at least for the Canadian rock-star professor, who tweeted out his positive first impressions of Meyer’s Return of the God Hypothesis this weekend. “It’s a difficult book,” Peterson wrote, “well-written, densely informative. He claims (p. 211) ‘without functional criteria to guide a search through the vast space of possible sequences, random variation is probabilistically doomed.’” (This is in reference to the groundbreaking experimental work conducted by Douglas Axe.) Peterson followed up that tweet by asking his followers “Is this an accurate claim? He makes the case very carefully. It’s not often that I encounter a book that contains so much that I did not know…”
A Flurry of Feedback
It’s refreshing to see such intellectual humility from a figure with Peterson’s status. But not all his followers were thrilled. The more colorful replies dismissed Peterson’s quote from the book as “intelligent design nonsense,” “gobbledygook,” “absolute rubbish,” etc. One thanked Peterson “for making it clearer once again that you are nought but a Christian zealot.” “How are we still having this discussion in 2021?” one follower sniffed.
Others were more polite but still took issue with the claim, repeating well-worn objections. “Even rare events can happen,” replied one follower. “You just have to play for long enough or simultaneously.” Someone else echoed this, saying “the rare and improbable are happening all the time in the universe….due to its vastness. When a 1:1000000 event could happen any time and in a self propagating system you only need that one event to start the ball rolling.”
Of course, it’s trivially true that rare events can happen, but probabilistically speaking, when weighing likelihoods this is very thin gruel indeed, and that’s precisely Meyer’s point. Someone else objected, “It’s not a scientific hypothesis, unless we can test it.” To which someone else correctly replied, “Then you just got rid of history and the scientific method itself!”
Some tried a slightly more clever tack, one follower suggesting the quote is “double-edged,” since he could flip it to say “without functional criteria to guide a search through the vast space of possible sequences, random variation is probabilistically the best option for success.” He followed up that “if you assume things like the many universes theory, or cyclic time, then random variation becomes probabilistically sound.”
But as Meyer discusses in the book, those sorts of things are not insignificant “ifs,” to say the least! Indeed, they have the classic look of ad hoc assumptions, like Ptolemy’s epicycles of old. Peterson agrees, retweeting with the reply, “But those assumptions add immense complexity to what was once a theory typified by its elegance. If you have to posit whole universes to maintain the credibility of your assumptions is that not a problem?”
Open Minds, Open Discussion
Not all reactions were negative. One follower said that he had just seen a video about the immune system from Kurzgesagt and found it “difficult to believe the complexity of this system is the result of random processes.” While materialists insist science will “find answers” in time, he suggests “maybe science will lean towards the creationist argument.”
A European follower agreed that “straight forward evolution as developed from Charles Darwin…is mathematically impossible,” pointing other followers to the roundtable discussion on combinatorial explosion with Meyer, David Berlinski, and David Gelernter.
Peterson himself mentioned the combinatorial problem in a later followup tweet: “Which neo-Darwinists effectively address critiques of neo-Darwinism’s putative inability to deal with the problem of combinatorial explosion with regard to protein folding (to say nothing of DNA mutation) @StephenCMeyer?”
Needless to say, he’ll have a long wait for the answer to that question! In reply, Meyer explained:
Neo-Darwinists largely ignored the combinatorial search problem associated w/ novel protein folds. As evolutionary biologist H. Allen Orr admitted this problem was “almost entirely ignored for two decades” by molecular evolutionists. But protein scientists like the late Dan Tawfik (Weizmann Institute) called protein fold origination “close to a miracle.” He showed protein folds loose thermodynamic stability after a few mutations & long before they can evolve new folds.
Of course, Peterson was trained with the same assumptions of naturalism and materialism shared by other evolutionary thinkers. This has tended to make him reach for naturalistic explanations of everything by default. He has shown respect for theists, but like Carl Jung before him, he generally frames their belief in psychological terms, where “God” is a product of our own collective unconscious rather than a distinct, personal, creative entity. It’s not that he closes the door on traditional theism. He just hasn’t yet felt comfortable opening it beyond a crack, at least not publicly.
Now that he’s giving Meyer’s work a hearing, he may have invited a new barrage of flak. But the good doctor has already proven himself capable of taking more than a bit of heat. In my post analyzing his podcast with Lawrence Krauss, I said that it seemed Krauss was content to stop searching, while Peterson’s search didn’t seem to be over. I’m happy to have been proven right.