Editor’s note: We are delighted to host a new series by Neil Thomas, Reader Emeritus at the University of Durham: “The Return to the God Paradigm,” of which this article is the first entry. Professor Thomas’s recent book, Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design, is available now from Discovery Institute Press.
The year 2021 witnessed the publication of three similarly but not identically themed books which all oppose the current evolutionary paradigm with its conception of evolution as a process of largely undirected automatism. The books are Is Atheism Dead?, by Eric Metaxas; Return of the God Hypothesis, by Stephen Meyer; and God of the Details: The Scientific Cover-up of Intelligent Design, by Cristian Bandea. In a series for Evolution News I intend to write not a formal review of these books but rather to use some of their findings as a point of departure to examine issues raised by the authors in a broad perspective.
Science and Non-Science
Readily conceding that many 21st-century people will remain unconvinced of the details of the Bible and the doctrines of faith, Eric Metaxas points out that they are, on the other hand, very much swayed by modern scientific findings pointing towards a primal intelligence behind the formation/evolution of the universe. Meyer concurs, referring to the occasion when he debated cosmologist Lawrence Krauss over Krauss’s arguments for a “self-existent” universe. To argue for an uncaused universe, Meyer contends, “goes against all tenets of scientific knowledge and even reason itself.” (p. 251) Bandea too registers the most undiluted incredulity that “these universe-from-nothing, accidental life from non-life, randomly generated evolution, consciousness-as-by-product theories are all considered more intellectually acceptable than the idea of a creator of the universe.” (p. 6)
Common to all three authors is the contention that evolutionary theory is being propped up by tactically expedient arguments culled from non-science and, argues Metaxas, nowhere is this more the case than in origin-of-life speculations. Concerning the age-old chimaera of life emerging from non-life he writes:
If random processes somehow succeeded in miraculously creating a carbohydrate or another necessary compound, the random processes don’t know how to do it again. They have no capacity to “learn.” If they manage to hit it just right by accident, they have no ability to say, “ Let’s try that again.” There is no intentionality in random processes.
A Primal Fluke
Quite so, and there is surely a corollary to that contention in those evolutionary processes conventionally invoked as following on from such a (postulated) primal fluke. Mutations in living beings occur randomly and incoherently, not purposefully and incrementally: they cannot be depended upon to occur cumulatively in successive generations in a way which would build up to any one, specific goal/body part. The aimless drift of a random sequence of mutations could not ensure that anything constructive would ever get built organically. Chance can of course sometimes create things as a one-off but it is inevitable that its good work will be undone with the next roll of the dice: what was quickly created will be just as quickly annulled.
Hence time, habitually hailed as the key to the gradualist conception of evolution, may turn out to be evolution’s worst enemy when initial gains are witlessly and indiscriminately cancelled out. Not only does time not have the power to cause or create anything (as a distinguished early reviewer of Darwin’s Origin pointed out)1 but it is more conducive to dissipation than to synthesis since chance cannot “lock in” gains initially made, however much time it might have at its disposal. To achieve that outcome would require a distinct organizing purpose since a purely aleatory process could not ensure a cumulative and hence formative process of evolution.
In a clear contrast with that form of mindless scenario, what we see in the world around us are multiple organic creations each supremely fit for purpose and each having had in the course of its development enjoyed the uncanny good fortune to have been “navigated” (by undisclosed means) to just the right point to ensure organic viability and success. In another, fairly recent publication Steve Taylor has pointed out that to believe that this whole process of evolution is merely accidental is as illogical as to suggest embryological development from infancy to adulthood is something accidental: such individual, “ontogenetic” development is clearly not random.2 In fact, the language of biology both before and after Darwin abounds in often involuntary “purpose-talk” which in itself gives the lie to the purely random process being postulated.3 Natural selection as an autonomous force is quite simply not supported empirically, despite the fact that Darwinians have employed the concept as a virtually self-evident proposition and as something we are constantly leaned on to believe just must be true. By contrast, Phillip Johnson once concluded with some justice that “chance assembly is just a naturalistic way of saying miracle”4 — a fiction pressed into service by “scientists unwilling to face the possibility that beyond the natural world is a reality which transcends science.5 But as Metaxas asked rhetorically both in his earlier book on miracles6 and in his latest volume: “What if science points beyond science?”
Climbing Mount Impossible
It is in light of these considerations that both of today’s most dominant metaphors for evolution, namely, that of The Blind Watchmaker and that of Climbing Mount Improbable — both the coinage of Richard Dawkins — become immensely problematical. Natural selection by blind, baby steps zig-zagging their way up “Mount Improbable” would work only if those steps were purposeful, studied, and consistent in their direction. If such metaphorical steps were notpurposeful, they would simply career off every which way in such a manner as not even to guarantee a straight line, let alone a metaphorically upward ascent achievable only by a concerted effort in pursuit of a clearly understood aim.
In fact, if you attempt to rectify the logical lacuna at the heart of the zig-zag ascent of Mount Improbable scenario described by Dawkins, you get something resembling theistic evolution — logic demands you add a telos, a guiding steer, to the mix because chance mutations plus natural selection on their own will not do the trick. Nature is inherently blind and bereft of any sense of directionality which might aid its ascent to a metaphorical mountain top: that directional trajectory must be supplied by a fully sighted watchmaker if we are to stay within the bounds of logic. Since a generative power of some sort must be involved in both creation and evolution, to advance the thesis that this ascent could happen witlessly is absurd, rather like saying that a pauper could rise to the status of billionaire by lucky accident (unless of course (s)he won the lottery!).
Next, “Nothing New Under the Sun.”
- Professor Fleeming Jenkin’s review of Darwin’s Origin of Species was first published in The North British Review for June 1867, pp. 277-318. It is reprinted with introductory discussion by David L. Hull in Darwin and his Critics. The Reception of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1973), pp. 302-350.
- Steve Taylor, Spiritual Science: Why Science needs Spirituality to make sense of the World (London: Watkins, 2018), p. 191.
- Samir Okasha, Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2019), pp. 30-31.
- Philip Johnson, Darwin on Trial (New York: Regnery, 1991), p.133.
- Johnson, Darwin on Trial, p.121.
- Eric Metaxas, Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen and How They Can Change Your Life (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2015).