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On the Miracles of Physiological Design

Neil Thomas
Photo credit: Brian Matangelo via Unsplash.

Shortly before coming to the recently published volume Your Designed Body, by systems engineer Steve Laufmann and veteran physician Howard Glicksman, I had happened to be reading an old interview with eminent medical academic Sir Roger Bannister (the first under-four-minute mile runner) whose specialism had been the autonomic nervous system. Said Bannister to his interviewer:

You have probably not heard of that system but it regulates the heart and circulation. These are functions of the brain which it probably thought wise to exclude from voluntary control. Are you with me? We don’t want to know what our heart is doing, we don’t want to know whether we are breathing or not. This part of the brain does it all for us.1

Neither history nor the wider context of the interview records what agency Bannister might have had in mind to account for the formation of this finely discriminating design feature, but it is a question which advances to front and center of the new Laufmann/Glicksman volume. A good part of the book is devoted to explaining the finely engineered features of human anatomy, and after reading those some three hundred dense and clearly illustrated pages I defy any open-minded reader to accept the old canard of Lucretius, David Hume, Darwin, and their modern apologists to the effect that the sublimely detailed and integrated structures of our bodies represent only the appearance of design (see discussion in Laufmann/Glicksman, pp. 20-21).

Such features, the two authors point out, must ultimately be the work of a designer-engineer transcending all observable dimensions and conventional categories of understanding (see esp. pp. 439-41). By comparison, we are obliged to come to the humble conclusion that human efforts at artificial automation and prosthetics, whilst being entirely commendable, are puny by comparison. Some few readers may remember the 1960s BBC TV series called Tomorrow’s World in which it was predicted that we would have biddable mechanical servants by the 1980s. Such hubristic prognostications were of course silently dropped as the decades wore on and we were left to ponder how organic creation must have occurred at some level we cannot even begin to fathom. 

Not the Same as Generating

The authors are particularly good at unmasking the immoderate claims made for “natural selection” as a force with the power to shape the whole organic universe. Such claims, they point out, are “short on engineering details” and, most fundamentally, the authors point out that selecting is not the same as generating. This is a truly critical distinction and they point to the work of Gerd Műller of the University of Vienna whose research has led him to state categorically that neo-Darwinism simply has no theory of the generative and therefore no innovative capacity: nothing in Darwin’s theory can generate any nontrivial innovations (p. 370). 

Darwin, furthermore, should have known this. The authors point to the letter he sent to Charles Lyell in September 1860 in which he concedes that “natural preservation” would have been the better term to have used because selection in the way that intelligent animal breeders operate could not possibly be part of an unintelligent process (contrary to what Darwin had once insisted against the well-meaning counsels of friends and colleagues). Whether Darwin permitted himself to realize it or not,2 his concession to Lyell invalidates his claim that natural selection could produce innovation (new body parts/plans/species), hence the grand biological pathway from microbes to man is thereby invalidated. By every logical criterion, his rowing back on that point was absolutely fatal to his macromutational claims and this should by rights have stopped the accelerating Darwinian bandwagon dead in its tracks in the Fall of 1860.

An Interesting Hypothetical

It would make an interesting historical hypothetical to consider how history might have developed had Darwin and his legatees had the logical acumen or even fundamental honesty to acknowledge that the letter to Lyell signaled the logical death-knell of the theory of natural selection. Alas, that is not how things panned out as Darwin and his successors colluded to throw verbal smoke screens round the issue. He and his supporters were clearly too committed to the hope of natural selection coming through as a deus ex machina to provide a (claimed) mechanism or vera causa to justify the idea of evolution developed by Erasmus Darwin (alongside sundry 18th-century French philosophes). For more than a century that theory of evolution had been greeted with considerable skepticism by the generality of people and so it was vital to talk up the supposed “scientific” credentials of natural selection as a (claimed) bona fide mechanism. Only in that way would it be possible to rescue the idea of evolution from the scorn and ultimately the oblivion to which it was heading before 1859. Only in that way would it be possible to secure acceptance for the new, secular myth many wished to promote. 

The two authors chance their arm by advancing what they see as the probability that the sheer pressure of data will soon topple the Darwinian house of cards (p. 367, note 12). It should perhaps be added that this collapse would be more probable if we were dealing with dispassionate science — but we are not. If such were the case, then all those who read Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (UK 1985, USA 1986) and followed Denton’s “formal disproof” of Darwin’s work would have been forced by sheer weight of evidence to conclude that a major revaluation of evolutionary thinking was an urgent requirement. However, in Darwinism we are dealing not with science but with what anthropologists and folklorists term a “mythic universal” — in this case taking the form of an apparently ineradicable, millennia-old Lucretian thoughtway about the origin and evolution of the world. In its modern guise the narrative has of course reinvented itself by hitching a ride from the perceived prestige of science to strengthen its mythic force.

Nadir of the Irrational

The sequel is, of course, history. The Epicurean/Lucretian conjecture, which had chosen to see the world as a mindless collocation of atoms assembled by nothing more than chance, was regarded for literally thousands of years as the very nadir of irrational absurdity. Newly decked out in its now “scientific” livery, on the other hand, it has been able to deceive the beau monde for more than a century and a half under its portentous guise of “natural selection.” It is that wholly irrational belief system which would have to be overcome amongst a group of people who are not willing to leave the matter to the proper adjudication of hard evidence. That is the essential stumbling block we face. In the upper echelons of academic biology we are up against a protective screen of professional unity superintended by what has been memorably termed “the secular inquisition.”3 The result is that open dissent of the sort shown by such as Michael Denton and somewhat more recently by Michael Behe is rarely encountered (and even more rarely from the ranks of the untenured). 

It is an old and dismal story which need not be pursued any further here. On the plus side, the optimism of the two authors may be justified by the frequent whispers we overhear about some evolutionary scientists harboring private reservations about the truth-value of dogmas which they are constrained to defend ex officio. Laufmann and Glicksman mention the Viennese scientist Gerd Müller, but he is by no means the only one. I encountered further exceptions to the strictly policed omertà rule in the shape of a volume published under the conventionally respectable aegis of the New Scientist publishing house. I refer to the volume of collected essays entitled Chance,4 organized in a largely viva voce seminar format which appears to have encouraged a refreshing degree of candor from its distinguished contributors. I shall give a brief notice of that volume and its relevance to the issue at hand. 

Chance, Necessity — and Conjecture

Now as ever, the mystery of life having somehow appeared on earth in the midst of a dead outer cosmos remains a perennial enigma (cosmologists have the candor to admit that they can provide no empirically defensible pathway for our emergence). There has been exceedingly broad-brush speculation on the issue but nothing with any serious claim to empirically testable truth status. As noted in regard to the formation of life by one of the contributors, Paul Davies, it is not just the basic chemical ingredients of life which have proved unfathomable: even more challenging has been “the logical structure and organization of the molecules … which implies a certain sort of organized complexity.” He goes on to pose the still unanswerable question:

How did stupid atoms spontaneously write their own software, and where did the very peculiar form of information needed to get the first living cell up and running come from?

p. 16

Bracketing off the unknown means and modalities by which life may have originated, Professor Nick Lane proceeds to the next question:

THEN what happens? It is generally assumed that once simple life has emerged, it gradually evolves into more complex forms, given the right conditions. But that’s not what happens on Earth … If simple cells had evolved slowly into more complex ones over billions of years, all kinds of intermediate forms would have existed and some still should. But there are none.

p. 16

Between the simplest and the more complex forms of cell life there is a gulf of billions of years since “simple cells just don’t have the right cellular architecture to evolve into more complex forms” (p. 29). Hence, Lane concludes, the emergence of complex life must have hinged not on slow Darwinian progression but on a single, fluke event:

This means that there is no inevitable trajectory from simple to complex life. Never-ending natural selection, operating on infinite populations of bacteria over millions of years, may never give rise to complexity. Bacteria simply do not have the right architecture.

p. 32

Davies concurs with this verdict when discussing the perennial riddle of abiogenesis: 

Darwinism kicks in only when life is already under way. How can we appeal to natural selection in the prebiotic stage?

p. 19

Dr. Bob Holmes then jumps in to continue the theme and support the opinions of other participants:

Surprisingly, natural selection may have little role to play in one of the key steps of evolution — the origin of new species. Instead it would appear that speciation is merely an accident of fate.

p. 33

Citing the work of Professor Mark Pagel, Holmes points out that Darwin, despite his chosen title of Origin of Species, offered no concrete suggestions as to how speciation actually occurred. What is more, even the discovery of Mendelian genetics has brought us little further enlightenment:

With the benefit of genetic hindsight, which Darwin lacked, you might think that they [modern biologists] would have cracked it. Not so. Speciation still remains one of the biggest mysteries in evolutionary biology.

p. 34

This conclusion, he points out with some understatement, “is a disquieting one for evolutionary biologists” since “the unexamined view of natural selection leading to large-scale innovations is not true.” (p. 35) Concurring with Lane and Davies, he sees speciation as little more than “some single, sharp kick of fate that is, in the evolutionary sense, unpredictable. Speciation has nothing to do with natural selection since it can only shape existing species, not spawn new ones.” 

Not Minor Objections

The above views are not minor objections. Instead, cumulatively they point to the fact that humanity must go back to the drawing board to study the issue of its provenance and development on planet Earth. As of the present moment in time the contributors freely confess their ignorance. To ascribe something to mere chance, for instance, can only be accounted a major evasion. So how did animal and human life emerge? A decade ago Thomas Lessl wrote with some justice:

To declare that “Nature did it” without any information about HOW is hardly any more rigorous than than to assert that “God did it,” absent any scientific means for testing supernatural causation.5

The operative word in that sentence is “information,” for at the end of the day Darwinism gives us speculation rather than hard information. It is precisely the failure of any “scientific means” to provide convincing explanations of how Nature really functions that is increasingly preventing the full acceptance of Darwinian explanations by a modern populace educated to reject empirically ungrounded conjectures. This resistance to Darwinian theorizing typically proceeds not from any theistic bias or untutored “argument from incredulity” (as is often tendentiously implied) but rather from an extreme logical unease about Darwinian postulates and would-be explanations. The book under review is a splendid and uniquely well-informed contribution to the debate about what is by all available indices a theory in deep and quite possibly terminal crisis.

Notes

  1. William Deedes, Brief Lives (London: Pan, 2004), pp. 22-31, citation p. 24.
  2. Darwin was not good at facing up to the truth even when it was staring him in the face, as was shown in his reluctance to face the fact that there were few if any intermediate fossil forms to back up his theory of the slow transmutation of species from microbes to man.
  3. Melanie Phillips, The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle over God, Truth, and Power (New York: Encounter, 2010, pp. 97-120.
  4. Michael Brooks (editor), Chance: The Science and Secrets of Luck, Randomness, and Probability (London: Profile/New Scientist, 2015).
  5. Rhetorical Darwinism (Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2012), p. 245.