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Intelligently Designed Evolution? Sorry, Wrong Universe

Photo: M92, by NASA, en:STScI, en:WikiSky, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Many in the intelligent design camp have considered the possibility that the evolutionary process was designed. Leading ID theorists such as Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer, and Jonathan Wells readily acknowledge that while natural mechanisms can’t produce all the complexity of life, they can produce some degree of complexity in organisms. One might even say that evolution is designed to effect small-scale changes within species. 

But theologian Rope Kojonen, at the University of Helsinki, wants to go much further. In his book The Compatibility of Evolution and Design, he offers a model in which evolution succeeds because it is intelligently designed. It’s a thoughtful book, and I regard Rope as a friendly critic of ID. According to Kojonen, mainstream evolutionary theory is true — and it’s not just “compatible” with design, as he says in the title of his book, but biological phenomena even exhibit evidence for design. Let’s take a closer look at this idea.

Serendipity Required

Kojonen argues that evolutionary mechanisms produced the complexity of life. But there’s an intriguing assumption implicit in this: on its own, blind evolution is very unlikely to produce the complex features we see in living organisms. Thus, Kojonen envisions that the evolutionary process receives help from above in the form of the fine-tuning of the initial conditions and natural laws that allow evolution to get the job done. 

Kojonen proposes that our universe might be finely tuned to allow for otherwise unlikely evolutionary events, such as life suddenly co-opting proteins to evolve new functions and evolve into irreducibly complex systems:

Suppose for the sake of the argument that Behe is partially correct: complex machinery exists in nature and is difficult to evolve. Nevertheless, suppose that his critics are also correct, and the evolution of such complexity through Darwinian mechanisms actually happened. Given these premises, a theistic evolutionist could well argue that the irreducible complexity argument merely shows how demanding the conditions for evolvability are, and how much fine-tuning evolution actually requires. In a universe designed to allow for evolution, such serendipity could be expected, rather than being unlikely. Hence, Behe’s argument could simply reveal the extent to which fine-tuning is required by evolution. 

pp. 118-119

Kojonen states that the conditions for evolvability are “demanding,” and unless there is “fine-tuning” which causes “serendipity” to be “expected,” then evolution is “unlikely.” In short, he concedes that evolution only works “in a universe designed to allow for evolution.” 

He says the same about that the evolution of molecular machines like the flagellum. That will only happen if there is “fine-tuning of the landscape of forms” which makes it possible to move from one functional state to another during a blind, trial-and-error evolutionary process: 

According to this view, then, the possibility of evolution depends on the features of the space of possible forms, where all the forms must be arranged in a way that makes an evolutionary search through it possible. This argument shows how the preconditions for the working of the “blind watchmaker” of natural selection can indeed be satisfied by nature in the case of protein evolution, despite an extreme rarity of functional forms. According to this view, then, the possibility of evolution depends on the features of the space of possible forms, where all the forms must be arranged in a way that makes an evolutionary search through it possible. This argument shows how the preconditions for the working of the “blind watchmaker” of natural selection can indeed be satisfied by nature in the case of protein evolution, despite an extreme rarity of functional forms. Behe (2019, 112) argues that Wagner does not yet solve the puzzle of evolving irreducible complexity, arguing that “it doesn’t even try to account for the cellular machinery that is catalysing the chemical reactions to make the needed components. ” However, suppose that, in the case of the bacterial flagellum, though the vast majority of possible arrangements of biological proteins are non-functional, there nevertheless exists a series of possible functional forms, little “machines” that happen to contain increasing numbers of the flagellum’s vital parts while still serving some other function. This then would allow for the seamless transition from no flagellum to a flagellum over time, through small successive steps. In this manner, by moving through such a suitable library of forms, the blind process of evolution would have the ability to produce even the most complex structures without the intervention of a designer. This is the kind of fine-tuning of the landscape of forms that seems to be required to evolve the kind of biological order described by Behe.

It seems, then, that defending the power of the evolutionary mechanism requires assuming that the landscape of possible biological forms has some fairly serendipitous properties. [Emphasis added.]

p. 122

Which Universe Are We In?

There’s a great irony here in the structure of Kojonen’s argument: He implicitly concedes that evolution is very unlikely to work in your average universe that isn’t finely tuned. He says if evolution is going to work, that’s only because natural laws and initial conditions are specially “fine-tuned.” 

Thus, the universe has some pretty lucky properties. The question then becomes: Are we in Kojonen’s universe? His argument for the feasibility of evolution requires a great degree of “fine-tuning” of nature where functional forms are “arranged in a way” such that it is easy to move from one functional state to another functional state via blind evolutionary mechanisms. Are we in a “universe designed to allow for evolution” in this manner? Or are we in a universe where evolutionary mechanisms don’t seem capable of producing the complexity of life — meaning that they didn’t

As my colleagues and I have shown both in a review of Kojonen’s book and in an occasional series of posts here, from protein evolution (herehere, and here) to the origin of irreducibly complex molecular machines like the flagellum (here and here), the universe we live in does not seem to allow evolutionary mechanisms to produce the complexity of life. We live in the wrong universe for Kojonen’s proposal. 

But there’s a problem with the structure of Kojonen’s argument that goes even deeper. 

How Do We Detect Design in Kojonen’s Universe?

One of the potential strengths of Kojonen’s thesis is that he wants to join evolution with design. And it’s very important to his argument that he preserves our intuition of design in nature because he wants to attract what he calls the “theist on the street” to his position. See Stephen Dilley’s article yesterday on that. Kojonen says that the “theist on the street” rightly looks at life and sees that it was designed. I would say that life contains a form of complexity that this average theist knows, from experience with the world, does not arise by on its own and requires the input of intelligence. 

Kojonen differs with me. He seeks to preserve and defend the theist on the street’s intuition that life was designed. But in his mind this is not because natural processes are incapable of producing life. In fact, he thinks they are capable of that. That is, while evolutionary processes are inadequate on their own, natural processes in general are capable of producing life. Kojonen thinks this reflects the fact that the laws of nature and the initial conditions of the universe themselves are fine-tuned and designed to make the origin and evolution of life possible — by natural processes. 

But if natural processes are capable of producing the complexity of life, then isn’t the “theist on the street” wrong to conclude that life was designed in the first place? On what basis can this theist know that the natural laws are “fine-tuned” to allow life to evolve? The theist must have some background knowledge that natural laws can’t produce living systems. But if Kojonen’s thesis is correct, then in our universe the theist ought not to have such background knowledge. After all, natural laws are capable of producing such complex systems! 

A Gambling Analogy

In our paper “On the Relationship Between Design and Evolution,” responding to Kojonen’s thesis, we present an analogy from gambling that helps explain the self-defeating nature of this method of fusing evolution and design:

Imagine a jury being asked to try a court case about an allegedly fraudulent casino that was accused of rigging slot machines to yield winning jackpot combinations far less than they should, statistically speaking. On these particular slot machines, there are four reels with 10 symbols on each reel. The machines will pay out a jackpot when the symbols on all four reels line up with an identical symbol — a cherry — something that should happen, on average, 1 in every 104 spins, or 1 in every 10,000 spins.

The prosecution presents evidence that the casino’s machines are producing jackpots far less than they ought to. In fact, the prosecution’s team of experts tested the slot machines and found they only pay out a jackpot 1 in every 100,000 spins — an order of magnitude less frequently than they should.

The defense then takes its turn and makes a counterargument: “Actually, we live in a very special universe where the physical laws that govern slot machines (and their statistical odds) are fine-tuned such that things always happen about an order of magnitude less frequently than you’d expect. In fact, the ‘weird’ behavior of these slot machines proves our theory is true!”.

But how did the defense know that in our “special” universe, “things always happen about an order of magnitude less frequently than you’d expect”? They could only know this based upon background knowledge of how often things ought to happen (in this case, that there ought to be a win 1 in every 10,000 spins) and then, on this basis, compare the behavior of the slot machines to show that winning was occurring actually far “less frequently than you’d expect”.

The problem for the defense’s argument is that if we if we really lived in their universe, then all our knowledge of physical laws and statistics and slot machines would be based upon our experience in that universe. And if the defense’s argument was true then, based upon our experience in that universe, we should “expect” a win 1 in every 100,000 spins — not 1 in every 10,000 spins — and thus the slot machines at stake in the case should appear to be behaving perfectly normal. Thus, in the defense’s universe, we could never know that things were happening “an order of magnitude less frequently than you’d expect”.

The defense must answer this question: If we lived in their universe, how could they possibly “know” that the slots were producing wins less likely than they should? In their universe, the slot machines should behave exactly as experience would suggest — so they could never argue that things were behaving in a weird way. But the fact that the slots are behaving weirdly suggests that the defense’s “fine-tuned universe” argument cannot be true.

Damaging Design Detection

Kojonen wants to preserve the ability of the “theist on the street” to detect design — but we explain in our paper that this doesn’t seem possible even if we did live in his universe: 

This analogy invites us to consider the epistemological effects of living in a universe described by Kojonen’s model (in which evolution is true, design is confined to the advent of the laws of nature, and biological data are in view). In this universe, it is not clear that humans (including theists on the street) would have the basic epistemological dispositions or beliefs that Kojonen believes undergird our ability to detect design in biology. For example, people who grew up in this universe would not likely believe that nature (i.e., non-agent processes) have only limited ability to build biological complexity. After all, in this universe, the continuity of non-agent processes across the advent of everything from bacteria to blue whales seems to suggest that non-agent causes are quite creative. Similarly, people who grew up in this universe would not likely believe that our own experience of creating complex things is at all relevant to the claim that ‘minds have greater creative power than nature does’. Instead, they would likely believe that our minds are simply a manifestation of nature’s creativity (or the creativity of non-agent causes). A similar line of thinking applies to the other elements of design detection discussed above. The bottom line is that human cognition would likely be significantly different in Kojonen’s universe than we actually experience it to be. Conversely, the fact that we have the particular cognitive dispositions and beliefs that we currently possess — instead of the ones we’d have in Kojonen’s universe — suggests that we live in a world notably different than captured in Kojonen’s model. Thus, in a particular sense, Kojonen’s model is inconsistent with the lived experience of some humans, including some theists on the street. This seriously harms the plausibility of his proposal, including its defense of everyday theists.

Thus, even if Kojonen’s argument were correct and the laws of nature were capable of producing living systems, then his “theist on the street” should not be able to detect design in living systems in the manner he suggests. If the laws of our universe are rigged to produce life, then such an event would be fully natural and should not trigger a design inference. We would see no reason to invoke anything other than normal natural processes to explain life’s complexity. The very fact that life does trigger a design inference for Kojonen’s theist suggests that our experience teaches us such events don’t happen due to natural laws. That means Kojonen’s thesis is self-defeating and cannot be true.