How the Story Lost Its Just-So
When recast into more empirically rigorous language,
Darwinian just-so stories become engineering design accounts
Darwinism is opposite intelligent design like chance is opposite engineering. In his new book Taking Leave of Darwin, Neil Thomas retells Darwin’s frustration with critics of natural selection. Darwin was especially distraught by the defection of Alfred Russel Wallace, the “co-discoverer” of natural selection, who began doubting that unguided selection could account for the human mind. “Darwin, in contrast, held out for an evolutionary process untainted by teleology” (p. 74).
Note: Teleology need not concern God; it simply means purpose-driven or goal-directed processes. Darwin saw organisms adapting by chance reactions to changing environments, “selected” by survival.
ICR President Dr Randy Guliuzza has a cogent illustration of the difference. Say you observe a driverless car heading toward a wall. Within a few feet of the wall, the car suddenly jerks to a stop, avoiding an impact. Darwin would say the wall (the environment) stopped the car. Design thinking would realize that engineering with foresight stopped the car. This is how you take the just-so out of the story: you look for causes sufficient to account for the same observation. It’s not chance; it’s purpose (teleology).
Neil Thomas goes on to describe how Darwin and his disciples took refuge in millions of years:
He sought to support his grand ontological step-change postulate from ape-like ancestors to modern humans by reference to the idea of “deep time.” That is, given millions of years, all sorts of improbable and seemingly impossible things can happen, right?
Thomas then dismantles the notion that time can overcome impossible odds. The point at issue here is whether the environment, varying by chance and oblivious to the needs of life, is able to cause adaptation in living organisms.
The teleological approach of an engineer’s perspective is not a science-stopper, as some Darwinians have alleged. Just the opposite is true. Dr Guliuzza, observing the car stopping before hitting the wall, would suspect several testable hypotheses: (1) There must be sensors in the car that can detect obstacles; (2) There must be an interface between the sensors and the brakes; (3) There must be centralized coordination between all the parts of the car. The car survives not by “natural selection” (the Stuff Happens Law), but by teleological design. Someone saw a need and programmed the car to survive.
The Darwin just-so story is the actual science stopper. All that is necessary to explain the car stopping is a tale: “Over millions of years, millions of cars kept hitting walls and crashing. One day, by chance, a variation arose (or emerged, appeared) that stopped the car before it hit the wall. That car survived to have offspring, and all the others went extinct.” Exactly how the sensors, the interface to the brakes, and the coordinating computer all “emerged” by chance together (irreducible complexity) is left as an exercise for the imagination. Case closed; job done, move along.
Which hypothesis is more scientific? Which is more testable? Which is more likely to produce understanding? The answer is obvious: the teleological case. It might even lead to applications, like attempts to mimic the design in the car.
Here is an example in the news for a specific illustration of the difference in explanatory power of Darwin vs design.
How fish got their spines (University of Konstanz). In typical just-so story form, this headline leads to a Darwinian story involving millions of years. It presumes that the environment drove fish to evolve bony spines for protection from predators.
Many fish species evolved parts of their fins into sharp, spiny, needle-like elements – called fin spines – that function to protect the fish against predators. Such spines have evolved independently in different lineages and are considered evolutionary drivers of fish diversity. In a study published in PNAS a research team based at the University of Konstanz now shows how fin spines arise from soft fin rays and how they could emerge independently in multiple fish groups.
And yet after that Darwinian introduction, the article proceeds to give powerful hints of non-Darwinian processes for the differences between fish species with soft fins and those with hard spines.
As a first step, the team determined the genetic profiles of soft-ray and spiny fins during embryonic development. “What became clear from these first experiments was that a set of genes that we already knew from fin and limb development becomes differently activated in spines and soft-rays,” says Rebekka Höch. These genes correspond to so-called master regulator genes and are known to determine morphology in the axial and the limb skeleton. In the fish fins, these genes appear to provide a genetic code that determines whether the emerging fin elements will develop looking like a spine or like a soft-ray.
No new genetic information was detected. No heritable variation was selected. Comparing their findings to the car example, they found sensors and a computer that can flip a switch. That is not “chance variation” being “selected” by the environment. It speaks of engineering and foresight. Genes already existed that could sense the predation environment and switch on the change from soft rays to hard spines when necessary.
As the puzzle was put together, the team came to realize that a deeply conserved patterning system had become redeployed during evolution of the spiny fin. “In fact, the genetic code that determines the fin domain where spines will appear is also active in fins that do not have spines. This indicates that an ancestral genetic pattern was redeployed for making spines,” says Rebekka Höch.
This is not Darwinian evolution! The code for hard spines already existed in fish that supposedly “evolved” it “independently.” It just needed to be “redeployed” because the sensors told the onboard computer there was a need for them. But can the engineering answer explain similar appearance of hard fins in distantly-related species?
With this newly gained insight in mind the authors set out to investigate fin patterning in catfish, a group of fish of which members have independently evolved spines in the fins. Indeed, the genetic code identified for spines in the cichlid matched the one of the catfish spines. Although some differences exist between the different spiny fish species, it altogether suggests the existence of a deeply conserved fin pattern that is relied on to make spines when this is favored by evolutionary selection.
Notice a couple of points here. First, the sensing and switching mechanism already existed; it did not “evolve independently” by chance variation and selection. Second, “deeply conserved” means unevolved; nothing changed. Third, the environment did not cause the fins; the internal coded systems did. In their habitat, catfish onboard sensors detected a need for bony spines and called on the onboard computer to switch on the genes that were already present to grow them. So what did “evolutionary selection” have to do with it? Nothing!
A genetic comparison between fishes with spines from different lineages suggests that fin spines have evolved independently several times through repeated redeployment of a highly conserved genetic pattern.
The facts are completely non-Darwinian, but this statement pretends to vindicate Darwinism. It should take the e-word “evolved” out, along with its Darwinian baggage, and say, “A genetic comparison between fishes with spines from different lineages demonstrates that the existing highly conserved genetic pattern was switched on in each case.”
Now that you know how to take the just-so out of Darwin stories, try your hand at it. After all, CEH wants its readers to learn how to fish, not just hand them packaged fish. We need a generation of critical thinkers who can see the fallacies in evolutionary thinking and teach others. Here are two tests to get you started. Each claims to be a vindication of natural selection, the Stuff Happens Law.
- Bee competitive: Research reveals the impact of natural selection on nectar supply and demand (University of Sussex). “Recent theoretical research indicates that natural selection will increase existing seasonal imbalances between the supply of nectar from flowers and the demand from bees and other insects.” The article claims that “natural selection will cause flowers to produce less nectar when pollinators are abundant, and vice versa.” What is really going on here? Is it chance variation and environmental selection?
- Two groups of whales evolved massive heads for different reasons (New Scientist). This article does not mention natural selection explicitly, but it claims that the environment caused two different kinds of whales to grow oversized heads. What is the evidence, fossil or genetic? Is the cause adequate to explain the effect?
Recommended Resource: Neil Thomas’s new book Taking Leave of Darwin is valuable because the author, a former evolutionist who trusted the theory because it is all he ever learned, debunks Darwin but is neither a Christian or creationist. Like David Gelernter and Thomas Nagel, he is another in a growing number of academics willing to stick their necks out and declare that Darwinism is highly oversold. Christians need to read it in that light, not accepting everything he says (e.g., he assumes millions of Darwin Years), but profiting from Thomas’s astute dismantling of the creative power of natural selection.