Evolution v. Creation Metaphor Watch: Charles Darwin’s Description of Life as a “Great Tree”

Given that most people do not have advanced degrees in mathematics or the sciences, debates and discussions surrounding evolution and creationism appear in the public square in the form of competing metaphors, similes, and extended analogies.

In other words, we use metaphors, similes, and extended analogies to simplify and grasp issues that might be otherwise inaccessible to us.

Hence we can keep a look-out for the ways in which our use of language, especially metaphorical language, frames and structures discussions of evolution and creationism.

Today’s metaphor comes from the end of chapter 4 of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), and concerns Darwin’s description of life as “a great tree.”

A tree or plant that confers long, or even eternal, life upon those who eat of it has long associations in Western cultural history—going back, in Mesopotamia, to the Epic of Gilgamesh, and in the Levant, to the Book of Genesis (2:9).

In the New Testament, the writer of Revelation makes a promise, in the voice of Jesus, to persecuted Christians:

To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God. (2:7)

In all cases in ancient Western literature, access to life-giving plants or a “tree of life” is allusive. The tree of life is not something that one is a part of, or embedded in, but something to which one is outside of, and strives toward, in the hope of gaining its fruit.

It is thus ironic that Charles Darwin’s metaphor of life as a “great tree” should be built on death and mass extinction, and implicitly embed humans, whether we like it or not, into one of its branches.

Darwin’s metaphor of life as a “great tree” thus marks a stark break from traditional Western cultural and religious associations of trees with life.

But Darwin’s extended analogy of life on earth with a great tree is extraordinarily beautiful, arguably the most beautiful passage in all of his Origin of Species, and Darwin even suggests that the simile so closely matches the actual reality of things that it should be taken literally; that is, as the substantial truth regarding the way things really are. Here’s Darwin’s passage in full:

The affinities of all beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth. The green and budding twigs may represent existing species; and those produced during each former year may represent the long succession of extinct species. At each period of growth all the growing twigs have tried to branch out on all sides, and to overtop and kill the surrounding twigs and branches, in the same manner as species and groups of species have tried to overmaster other species in the great battle for life. The limbs divided into great branches, and these into lesser and lesser branches, were themselves once, when the tree was small, budding twigs; and this connection of the former and present buds by ramifying branches may well represent the classification of all extinct and living species in groups subordinate to groups. Of the many twigs which flourished when the tree was a mere bush, only two or three, now grown into great branches, yet survive and bear all the other branches; so with the species which lived during long-past geological periods, very few now have living and modified descendants. From the first growth of the tree, many a limb and branch has decayed and dropped off; and these lost branches of various sizes may represent those whole orders, families, and genera which have now no living representative, and which are known to us only from having been found in a fossil state. As we here and there see a thin straggling branch springing from a fork low down on a tree, and which by some chance has been favored and is still alive on its summit, so we occasionally see an animal like the Ornithorhynchus or Leidosiren, which in some small degree connects by its affinities two large branches of life, and which has apparently been saved from fatal competition by having inhabited a protected station. As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.

The conclusion of this passage is particularly jarring, for Darwin equates the tree’s dropped off branches, overlaid with soil and sinking into the earth, with the fossil record—and calls this process of creation and destruction “beautiful.”

It is thus difficult not to hear in the conclusion of the passage a sly attempt by Darwin to trigger pleasurable associations of death and eros, as in the frequent Victorian artistic portrayals of the dying away of beautiful maidens, such as Shakespeare’s Ophelia and King Charles’s fourteen year old daughter on the Isle of Wight.

And Darwin’s actual using of the phrase “Tree of Life”—set in capital letters—allowed his analogy to carry with it, at its climax, all the religious and traditional associations—and counter-associations—that one might be tempted to make with it. 

This passage thus shows that Darwin was not just a great scientist—he was also a skilled writer who knew how to use language to powerful rhetorical and emotional effect.

In the 21st century, Darwin’s once potentially scandalous analogy has reached the status of cliche—and it is difficult today not to think of life in this manner.

Darwin’s tree simile is part of the basis, not just for evolutionary thinking, but ecological thinking.

And when first pointed out to us, it is hard not to respond with recognition, as if encountering a revelation:

Of course life is interconnected and like a branching tree. How did the world miss this observation for so long?

This is the power of metaphorical language.

Below is the image of a tree in which an artist has carved animals. And beside it is a more traditional image of the Tree of Life, from Assyria, early in the first millenium BCE, in which two divine beings guard the Tree of Life:

In thinking about these two images, it occurs to me that science attempts to explain to us why we are part of one tree, and religion attempts to explain why we have been excluded from another one.

The great human existential quest is how to move from the tree of Darwinian life to the tree of eternal life (or some form of immortality).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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33 Responses to Evolution v. Creation Metaphor Watch: Charles Darwin’s Description of Life as a “Great Tree”

  1. Rob Willox says:

    I know what Darwin meant; but what point are You making?

  2. santitafarella says:


    That Darwin’s metaphor of the Tree of Life marks a distinct cultural and intellectual break from the Tree of Life as conceived in the Western cultural and religious tradition.

    I’m sorry if that was not clear.


  3. Ken says:

    I think your point here is powerful. As you have written here, Darwin has changed the metaphor of the tree of life. I had not thought about that before. As I think about it now, I remember Whitman’s poem, This Compost, in which he imagined something similar – life, beautiful life, emerging from the earth which holds within it so much death and decay. I think Whitman’s use of the compost metaphor in that poem connects with the ancient regeneration myths of our culture, with myths in which life is ever renewed in Spring. I have imagined that Darwin’s metaphor was consistent with those myths in which life transcends death. But your observation makes me reconsider that apparent consistency, and makes me think again about Whitman’s expression of terror in his poem.

    I guess I have been thinking that in Darwin’s writings, as in modern ecology that is built on his metaphors, that the story is told that life and death are woven together in the cosmos. As Darwin wrote, there is grandeur in the cosmic vision he gave us, and yet, to me, the grandeur is associated with terror. I think your observation here explains why.

    The narrative of life that Darwin has given us terrifies me because it says that life, my life and the lives of the people I have loved and who have loved me, is rooted in a history, in a cosmos, that is marked by indifference to life and death, to kindness and cruelty, to joy and suffering, to love and hate. And beyond that it says that my life owes itself to such indifference – I am here because of that indifference. In spite of my gratitude to be alive, Darwin’s narrative fills me with survivor guilt and makes me wish I had never been born.

    I am not sure it is fair for me to call this Darwin’s narrative. I think he heard this narrative from others and used it to construct his argument about the origin of species. But he is the great narrator of the story.

  4. santitafarella says:


    Survivor’s guilt is an interesting way of thinking about it. How can one be happy knowing that so much wreakage has made your happiness possible? Recalling your theological metaphor from a previous post (about The Origin of Species as a form of theodicy), it seems akin to wondering how a religious fundamentalist might imagine himself or herself happy in heaven—even as billions are suffering in hell.


  5. Ken says:

    That may be one reason that so few people today believe in hell – we feel guilty.

    For centuries, the belief that goodness would be rewarded in heaven and evil punished in hell, if not on earth, sustained our hope that living a moral life was worth it and that the wrongs in this life would be made right in the next. Even Socrates believed that goodness would be rewarded. Plato wrote something in The Republic similar to Paul’s theodicy – that in the end God works all things for good for those who love him.

    If what Darwin has written is true, then there is no basis for such hope. If chance and necessity are the authors of life and the cosmos, good and evil do not matter and suffering has no meaning – it just hurts.

  6. Metaphor is certainly a powerful tool and in particular the combination of animal and plant metaphor provides us with a “systems thinking” perspective, in that we can use them to observe relationships as a whole set and not just at the individual behaviours within the environment.

    In the book The Organizational Zoo A Survival Guide to Workplace Behavior, Shelley argued with the editor for a long time about the necessity of inclusion of Quercus Robur (the Oak tree) as a metaphor for the inspirations chairperson who brought great value into the organization to contrast the other characters who were all animals and by definition consumers. Fortunately Quercus remained and has been a real feature of dicussions around how to best balance behaviours in the workplace. And so it is with any evolutionary change, the prevailing forces shape who we are and what the next generation behave and how they survive. Darwin himself was reported to say “It is not the strongest species that survives, not the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change”.

    My point? I am reinforcing the original authors point that Darwin, like many writers use metaphor to simplify our understanding. This enables others to enter the discussion and therefore we get greater diversity of dialogue leading to better solutions. The world needs open conversations up if we are to find the best approaches going forward together. We need to listen more and tell less if the human race is to survive on this unique planet.

  7. Pingback: The Two Trees: Darwin’s and that Mesopotamian One « Prometheus Unbound

  8. rwstracy says:

    I’ve often wondered why Darwin’s theory is not tested by taking it to its logical conclusion. If the tree branchings are all blindly striving for dominance, should not something like an omnivorous monster that consumes everything until its species expires eventually evolve? You cannot explain it by saying that such an eventuality would not serve it’s ultimate survival. Evolution presumably has no such goal. Some would say that we are that monster species but the evidence does not support that conclusion.

    • KevinOfSamuraiMindset says:

      We have eaten our planet into a plastic covered trash wrapper tightly strangling almost everything around us down to the finest molecule, so that now we are ingesting tons of it yearly. We have spread oil throughout the seas and brought macdonalds to every possible shore. We’ve filled our land with mountains of garbage that will never dissolve between the layers of metal and plastic surrounding it, and we have babied ourselves to the point that even a sniffle needs 4 kinds of medicine so that collectively, our immune systems are likely incapable of fighting anything seriously new nature or even space may throw at us in the future. We are a fat, lazy, mean spirited, warloving, cash and carry and toss away tribe eating and crapping this planet out as fast as we can. So you say there’s no evidence WE are that monster? Mankind is but a single page in the history of this earth in terms of time, but look what we have done in such a short time. The path to me is clearly marked for doom from what I can see. We are the collective enemy of the earth my friend.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Where in the worle is this carved tree, what country, what city?

  10. conservative says:

    Santi, where is that topic you had about William Lane Craig and your conversation with Dawkins about Craig and your blog? I wanted to say something about it.

  11. conservative says:

    Santi, the atheists are not willing to admit that the theory of evolution relies more on wishful thinking and speculation, rather than science.

    Where’s the scientific evidence or even simple common sense, in saying that reptiles evolved into birds or fish into land animals over a period of millions of years? For one thing, a gradual transformation would not change the DNA of a reptile or a fish completely and quickly enough, so that it can have all the attributes of a bird and be able to fly or the attributes of a dry land animal and be able to live on dry land. Let’s say one generation of reptile-birds, after some mutations, are halfway through. They have some features of a bird, but not enough to be a bird. In that situation, those mutants would not be able to function properly and even survive to produce new generations, because they are neither fully reptile nor fully bird. Any scientist can tell you that if all the genetic changes are not in place, the animal can’t function properly. So you can’t have a half-mutant reptile on its way to becoming a bird. It’s never going to happen. “God made them from the beginning according to their kind”. That makes more sense when you observe animals as each kind is distinct from each other. Horses and zebras are the same kind of animals, cats and lions, and so on. They are not the same species, but the same kind.

    David Berlinsky, a PhD in biology, he taught at Columbia university, rejects evolution.
    “The idea that evolution is rejected only by Christian fundamentalists is obviously proven wrong by me. I’m neither Christian, nor fundamentalist. The fact is, there are many scientists who reject the Darwinian theory because of lack of evidence. Von Neumann, the great physicist of the 20th century laughed at it, he hooted at it. It’s just a lack of evidence that make some scientists skeptical of it” says Berlinski.

    Since gradual, slow genetic mutations don’t make sense, the evolutionists came up with another theory, even more weird. Punctuated equilibrium. They claim evolution happened in a quick leap. So in a matter of seconds or days, the fish turned into a land animal. That’s even more ridiculous but it shows that they are willing to come up with anything, in order to deny the obvious truth, that God is the true Creator. They hate God, that’s the bottom line. It’s a philosophical and personal thing for them, it has nothing to do with science or common sense. And yet, they claim to be logical ones. 🙂

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      You’ve got an either/or mentality about this, and I see a middle position.

      I agree with you that it’s hard to imagine how natural selection generated the degree of complexity we see around us. I’m uncomfortable with the complexity that molecular biology reveals and the supposed power of natural selection to generate it. But the consensus of those who are experts on the subject insists that natural selection can achieve these wonders, and has achieved them. This consensus may or may not hold up over the next century. But as a lay person, I’m not going to dismiss the current scientific consensus because I find it hard to grasp.

      Add to this that there are no alternative mechanisms on proposal, and a lay person has to tread very cautiously here.

      What’s easier for me to grasp are the following claims: (1) the earth is billions of years old; and (2) plants and animals have changed over time and are related in a tree of evolution. I’m just uncomfortable with the “natural selection brought this about” part of the scientific narrative. I think the two broad points are as undeniable as that the earth is round and goes around the sun. It’s just the mechanism of natural selection that trips me up a bit.

      If God exists, it seems to me that the most sensible position is to concede that God creates by a process of evolution. She sets up laws and parameters for things to play out, and then they do so. A process of evolution (of galaxies, stars, planets, and life) is obviously how the present cosmos came into existence over the past 13.7 billion years. To pretend that this is not what the converging lines of evidence from the sciences point to is not wise.

      People who do not accept the basic narrative of an ancient and evolutionary cosmos are delaying the inevitable grappling of what to do with it (because it is a fact). If it confounds our notions of God as we conceived of him in our innocence or in eras prior to Darwin, then we better start working with them like grown-ups now. We can’t return to innocence (at least not in good conscience).

      Berlinski, by the way, is a mathematician, and he doesn’t reject the basic evolutionary narrative, just Darwinian natural selection as the chief (or only) mechanism for bringing it about. Note his emphasis in your quote of him on Darwin. Berlinski doesn’t question whether whales evolved from land mammals (or humans from Australopithicenes, or birds from dinosaurs), but how.


      • rwstracy says:

        “Add to this that there are no alternative mechanism on proposal, and a lay person has to tread very cautiously here.”

        This is patently untrue. I would refer you to the work done by Stephen Meyer. His books “Signature in The Cell” and “Darwin’s Doubt” are both scientifically rigorous and accessible to lay people.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        I’ve got both of Meyer’s books and he does not propose an alternative mechanism for how evolution came about (other than the implication that God or an intelligence, for purposes not known to us, did it). That’s not a mechanism that science can make progress with.

        The scientist wants to know HOW God evolved life’s diversity–if God exists.

        Short of random miracles and interventions by God all along the evolutionary pathways up to now, there must be laws, mechanisms, historical incidents, contingencies, principles at work. It’s not God’s finger pushing the planets around, but God’s physical laws (again, if God exists). And it’s not God’s finger presumably pushing the evolution of species around. The best mechanism on hand for life’s evolution right now is natural selection, and it’s probably going to hold up to the test of time (though the full story may prove more surprising than this as science progresses).

        And it should be noted that Meyer’s books are judged contemptible by the majority of experts–Google Donald Prothero’s scathing review of Meyer’s most recent book, for example.

        So just because one well-trained scientist (Meyer) has an opinion, it doesn’t mean, as a lay person, that you should just weigh his opinion and not carefully consider the opinions of those who disagree strongly with him. Indeed, since Meyer’s view is a minority opinion, it’s incumbent upon you as a lay person to apportion your belief to the evidence and expert consensus. At best, if you’re going to doubt evolution, you should be cautious about it (knowing that so many experts disagree with you and Meyer).


      • rwstracy says:

        I am an engineer, not a scientist but I want to understand the Science of this question, not be a poll taker. It is Meyer’s scientific arguments that persuade me, not his popularity or lack there of. Is a popularity contest considered Science to you? There are numerous theories now accepted that were once ‘not popular’ even among scientists in the appropriate field.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        If you’re not an expert in a field like biology, then yes, of course, as a lay person it is sensible to discover what the consensus of experts is on a matter. If, for example, you had 10 trained physicians giving you one diagnosis and one physician giving you another that is more to your liking, you wouldn’t just casually go with the one you like because it makes the most sense to your lay ear. You would proceed with caution and probably weigh quite heavily the opinion of the ten doctors against the one. They have expertise in the area and a great deal of collective experience. This is rudimentary critical thinking.

        You also would weigh the opinion of those most respected in the field. A local general practioner who gives you one diagnosis would weigh in your mind less heavily than a specialist at a major hospital like, say, Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles with a medical degree from Harvard. You would also factor into your beliefs such things as which doctors have the respect of their peers.

        With regard to Meyer, it’s not a hard call. His advanced degrees are not even in biology or paleontology (the subjects of his two books). They are in the history of science and geology. So we aren’t even talking about an expert in the fields in question. He writes well, but that shouldn’t end your weighing of the evidence (which ought to include the weighing of competing expert opinions). And you know that Meyer’s motivation is religious, which ought to make you cautious about his cherry picking of evidence and how he presents it. And you know that there are many, many religious scientists (such as Ken Miller) who accept the scientific evidence of evolution without abandoning their faith.

        In short, when you’re a lay person trying to apportion belief (high, middle, or low) to a complicated scientific matter, it’s sensible to take into account both your personal understanding of the evidence AND a fair analysis of expert opinion. It’s information that tells you a lot. And it causes doubt and lowered belief commitment, which is good if your goal is to get at the truth of a matter. Often when we believe something too strongly, we become psychologically closed off to disconfirming evidence, only reading the books written by one side.


      • rwstracy says:

        Glad to see that you have been open to the alternative views on the question of life’s origin, which is my main interest as opposed to Darwin’s Evolution. These are two different questions and evolution is unquestionably a real, observable phenomenon, so well established by the experts that you (and I) respect that arguments over it are mostly a bore. It is only the question of the origin of this incredible evolving life form on this planet that is of interest to me (and you?). To tar that interest with the label of ‘Religious’ is slander of the highest order or at least an ad homonym attack. If it Were that then we should be looking to men with advanced degrees in theology/divinity for the answers. For the most part I agree with Dawkins about the effectiveness of their advanced degrees in reaching valid conclusions in spite of the fact that he had no formal qualifications in that field. It is the application of Reason to the available knowledge and a truly open mind that I find most persuasive and far more valuable than advanced degrees in any given field. And it has almost always been an individual applying these tools and a willingness to challenge the majority expert opinion that make the most Earthshaking advances.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Well, then, we agree on a number of things. I think the four great ontological mysteries are these: the origin of the cosmos with its stable physical laws set “just so,” the origin and complexity of life, the origin of consciousness, and why, in the midst of so much suffering, there is also love and beauty in the world. It’s why I call myself an agnostic and not an atheist.

        I would make a distinction between appeals to expertise and appeals to authority. One is based on the sciences and scientific practice; the other is based on a priori belief. Comparing the consensus of scientists to theologians is comparing apples to oranges.

        And I agree with your “keeping an open mind” point. Meyer goes into the lion’s den of his doubts and faces off with the secular experts, coming out the other end with a book each time. Good for him. My guess, however, is that the average evangelical reader of his books outsources that direct confrontation to Meyer. He goes into that lion’s den so they don’t have to. How many lay doubters of Darwin have actually read “The Origin of Species”?

      • rwstracy says:

        Those four mysteries are for me the only truly interesting things for the mind to ponder. Everything else is just plumbing. I began as atheist because I appreciate science and reason and choosing a side just suits me. Science, at least when I started considering these things, came down firmly on the side of natural causes for life so that is what I chose. But the deeper I looked, the less plausible the existing science looked and there came a point where I didn’t have enough faith to be an atheist. God seemed a reasonable hypothesis. The pain and suffering vs love and beauty is a tough nut to crack. Except that the greatest examples of Love and Beauty I could find seemed to require an environment so free that Pain and Suffering were an inevitable possibility. I don’t see a way out of allowing them without losing the other. A designer’s dilemma.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        I disagree with you that life doesn’t have a natural cause that can be discovered by science. The diversity of life is certainly the product of evolutionary trial and error and the origin of life certainly has a natural mechanism (if not yet known). You may be right that God is behind these natural mechanisms, having set them up, but everything we know about the cosmos so far suggests that physical laws, not the supernatural intervention into nature of spooks or gods, account for what we see around us.

        Evolution as Darwin theorized it is substantially correct. If God exists, it’s how She did it. The Earth is old, plants and animals have changed over time, and natural selection accounts for a great deal of what’s going on with regard to the changes we see. The complexity of life may in fact suggest a deeper principle or law than just natural selection at work, but I wouldn’t downplay the very real progress that has been made in biology because of Darwin’s original insights.

        The innuendo-style hatchet job that Jonathan Wells et. al. has attempted to do on Darwin and contemporary evolutionary biology is unconscionable. Evolution is in accord with reality, so it really doesn’t matter. The truth outs, and continues to do so. Anti-evolutionists, with each passing decade, appear more and more ridiculous and idiotic, rightly bringing contempt upon themselves from the broader scientific community.


      • rwstracy says:

        “The diversity of life is certainly the product of evolutionary trial and error and the origin of life certainly has a natural mechanism (if not yet known). ”

        There is a certain circular logic to your ‘certainty’, not the open ended search that science requires. Your conclusion is reached before the evidence is in and examined. You seem to be saying that regardless of how unlikely life is to arise out of natural causes, life did arise therefore it was from natural causes. I’m just open to other explanations. Same story with the origin of the universe. We don’t have a natural mechanism for that either, but you conclude in the absence of evidence that it had to be natural causes.
        Agreed, everything else outside of these four conundrums (plumbing) appears to have natural causes. But that is not proof that these do as well. The origin of life and the universe is damn near a smoking gun pointing toward the existence of something outside of ‘natural causes’.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        First, it is perverse to reject evolution outright, and natural selection in particular, as not playing a key role in the diversity of species. Darwin was largely right, and people who try to reset science to pre-Darwinian assumptions are engaged in folly.

        The converging lines of evidence from numerous scientific disciplines point to the fact that we live in an an ancient and evolved cosmos that is unfolding according to laws and mechanisms, not the whims of spooks hopping in and out of it from supernatural realms.

        In my view, the intelligent design inference (if you are prepared to make it) should thus be for the cosmos as a whole (God set up the laws and conditions from the beginning for the evolved cosmos we see). We can then, by science, discover the intricacies and details of the mechanisms set up. Otherwise, anything goes and science is run into a ditch.

        It’s one thing to posit that an intelligent agent set up the cosmos as a whole, and another to posit that intelligent agents (gods, devils, angels, or aliens) jump into the gaps wherever scientific explanation runs up against a difficulty. History suggests that such a leap is not wise.

        A god that hops into the cosmos at key moments to create things out of nothing, to move things about, and to violate natural law is a worthy assumption for the 13th century, not the 21st century. It’s not that such an assumption isn’t logically possible–there are lots of things that are logically possible, but not true. It just kills science to start with such an assumption. It cannot be tested, it provides no rationale (“God works in mysterious ways”), etc.

        In critical thinking, there is the concept of abduction. First proposed by Charles Sanders Pierce, it means “inference to the best explanation.” It’s not enough to generate a theory, you’ve got to compare it to all the other theories on offer. What is your alternative theory that accounts for what we see around us as well as (or better than) the theory that we live in an ancient evolutionary cosmos with the diversity of life forms seen around us the result of trial and error natural selection and genetic drift? Does your alternative theory make predictions? How is your theory tested?

        An example of the success of evolutionary prediction is Tiktaalik. Neil Shubin staked numerous of his summers hunting for a transitional fossil between fish and land dwelling animals in strata that evolutionary theory suggested should be the place such a fossil would most likely be found. He found one.

        What alternative theory yields such a striking example of prediction, success, and powers of explanation?


      • rwstracy says:

        You keep running to Evolution as if it was a security blanket that protects your position from all arguments. I have already stipulated to evolution as being true, so why keep defending it? The question is, what was the origin of the first self replicating organism capable of evolution.
        An example of predictive power for an alternative view, Intelligent Design predicted a function for so called ‘junk DNA’ long before research turned up evidence of it. Prior to science discovering that evidence, Neo-Darwinists pointed to junk DNA as proof that Evolution explained everything.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        That’s not a very good prediction, then, because the intelligent design argument would seem to hinge on the idea that there is no such thing as junk DNA at all. This, of course, is ludicrous. It’s akin to saying that there are no truly vestigial organs or atrophied functions in evolved organisms, which is also ridiculous, as such things as goosebumps, appendixes, blind deep sea fish, the penguin’s wing, and embryonic body hair possessed by whale and human fetuses attest. A percentage of what was thought to be junk DNA is now known not to be junk, but not all of it. It still appears that there is a goodly amount of junk DNA. It’s not a retired concept.

        As to the origin of life, my point is that, if God exists, She must have created a universe out of which life and consciousness were capable of emerging by mechanisms that can, in principle, be discovered by science. If you don’t posit this as a starting point to your theism thesis, then you must posit special acts of creation along the way, completely confounding our ability to ever arrive at a scientific explanation for anything. If God hops into Her creation out of the blue to make life (or change dinosaurs into birds, etc.), then all bets are off and science locks up. You can introduce a miracle at any point along the way. Anything goes.

        Newton ought to have taught us all that conditions, mechanisms, and laws are the ways by which God moves the world (if God exists). Planets evolve and move by laws, conditions, and mechanisms. There are no angels pushing the planets about. Likewise, life started under certain conditions and mechanisms that obey natural law. The conditions and mechanisms and laws of nature that brought life into existence from non-life may end up being, in the end, evidence of design, and lead one to a design inference, but not the fact that science hasn’t discovered them yet. The error of ID, in my view, is “God of the gaps” reasoning to save the idea of miracles of the sort believed in by medievalists like Thomas Aquinas.


      • rwstracy says:

        The percentage of junk DNA started at around 97% and has fallen drastically (less than 50% last I heard) since then. And of course we may find that the final figure ends up at Zero. We can argue about the percentage of junk DNA but that’s not very interesting.
        What IS interesting is your hypothesis about how things would be if there were a God behind it all. The correct hypothesis is always the one that fits all the evidence. I agree that She would make much of the underlying mechanics discoverable (because obviously we have) but there is no reason why She HAD to make it 100%. What rule or law of science or logic dictates that? We are free to posit whatever God fits the evidence.
        In fact, I would posit that the ‘plausible deniability’ to Her existence is by design. If She exists, She apparently did not want there to be any obvious irrefutable evidence of Her tampering, so yes, ‘miracles’ would be the absolute exception rather than the rule, and always be done in such a way that there might be another explanation. If She hopped around willy-nilly doing the Impossible, free will goes out the window. And Free Will is apparently something She values very much, enough to allow for Hitler as well as Gandhi. This is what makes the exceptions so terribly interesting, sometimes for themselves, but also for the implications of Her existence.
        So here you have another prediction ID might make: The exceptions may be very non-obvious and never anything that you had to stumble over in order to live your life, but they would of necessity be non-zero for a sentient being with free will. The Origin of that first self reproducing cell and oddities like the Big Bang and the Cambrian Explosion fit that description for me.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        What I find interesting in your response is that, once you’ve come to an ID inference, you start speculating about the rationale behind the Mind at work. Thus you speculate that the Mind may have mixed design features with chance features (accounting for the contingent evolutionary aspects we see as well as the staggering information features, etc.). You also speculate that the Mind does not want to be too obvious about Her activity, for then people could not fully exercise free will in response to Her. A mind that can give HItler and Gandhi free will must think free will supremely important, etc.

        All of this is guessing about the state of mind of the Mind.

        Hume, in his famous critique of design arguments, noted that there might be ten designers rather than one, or a thousand. If two things are designed, why do we assume one designer instead of two (or a committee of designers)? There might be a whole group of competing designers for each thing in the cosmos designed. And all these competing designs are eating each other, which is odd and surprising! What’s the Mind thinking, making so many intricate molecular machines (proteins) that gather in coalitions and then set out to destroy one another in an eat-or-be-eaten multi-billion year roller derby of birth and death?

        And to make us, it sure seems like the Mind takes the long way around (3 billion years of evolution on an insignificant planet on the outskirts of one galaxy that is one of a hundred billion galaxies). So much wasted time and space if we’re the focus of Her creation, if we’re alone.

        But I wonder if there’s a way to posit intelligent design in a more conservative fashion, dropping the speculation for evidence. How might one test the hypothesis that information or mind is a fundamental feature of the cosmos (along with space, time, and matter)? Appeals to probability get you some distance, and if you could do very rigorous experiments in molecular biology that show natural selection impotent, that would start the negative case.

        But how do you move to a positive case?

        I, for one, am not at all happy about the atheist conclusion, and I would very much love for God to exist. A nice God that makes all well after death would be terrific. Hurrah for dualism! I just doubt it. I’m stuck on the fence with agnosticism because neither those who make the atheist case nor those who make the theist case seem to know how to patch the holes in their respective intellectual boats.

        And so much Mind speculation on the theist side just strikes me as crazy. See here for the parallels between God belief and UFO belief:



      • rwstracy says:

        Nothing says there couldn’t be more than one designer but there seems to be too much harmony to the whole thing to support the design by independents or even design by committee hypothesis. No, if it was a bunch of random creators, one of them would have dropped the ball and left obvious clues. I think only a single designer could be this focused. As for why so long, that could well be part of the plausible deniability requirement. Leave enough time in the past for random chance to be a ‘reasonable’ explanation. Time and Evolution could merely be God’s ‘evidence’ for her own non existence. How to move to the positive case for God? If I’m right and She has hidden her identity as well as I think, there will not be a way to do that outside of ones own mind. So even if you are successful, efforts to trumpet your success will be futile. Your source of satisfaction will of necessity be a very personal one until She chooses to go public. The closest we may come to the positive case are these mysteries which appear to resist science.

        Funny you should mention the UFO religions. How it was that I came to be married to a follower of such was a tragedy but I guess I thought it showed she had an open mind (a rare thing indeed). Unfortunately, it turned out to be just the opposite. We were divorced last month.

        Sent from my iPad

    • rwstracy says:

      I’m amazed at the success of Neo-Darwinists to portray advocates of, dare I say it, intelligent design, as the nut cases that believe man lived side by side with the dinosaurs. I ‘get’ the power of natural selection (or even unnatural selection, ie dog breeders) but anyone who has ever designed anything of significant complexity just has to laugh at random genetic changes aided by natural selection as the source for humans in the short history of Earth. We have massive evidence for how fast genetic changes via natural selection can take place and the mathematics to calculate the time for random changes to account for them. It is not mathematically possible. And this ignores the apparent impossibility of that first self reproducing cell to occur by chance.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        A process of trial and error (which, under adaptive pressure, is what natural selection amounts to) is not ludicrous or laughable. Trial and error obviously can generate complexity. The question is whether natural selection is sufficient to account for all (or nearly all) of the complexity that we actually see (and, as you note, whether the time has been sufficient).

        Remember that you are here because of an unbroken line of successful trials. Not one of your ancestors died before reproducing (as Dawkins is fond of saying). There was death around every one of your ancestors, and yet they managed to avoid it. That process can certainly generate a very finely adapted, complex, and formidable organism over time. Natural selection is, at minimum, an important part of the story of how we came to be who and what we are.

        I assume that you are a lay person, not an expert in biology. As such, it’s probably a good idea to match or apportion the degree of your beliefs (whether high, middle, or low) to the evidence (as you understand it) and what experts say. As such, if you are going to doubt evolution as a lay person, knowing that the scientific consensus is against your view, at the very least you should not have a great deal of faith that you, and not the majority of experts, are right. Caution, not contempt and over-confidence, would suit you better–and would make you sound more reasonable.


      • KevinOfSamuraiMindset says:

        Chance? Self reproducing? We’ve proven you can take a primordial ooze and bake it in a lab and with only a tiny bit of electricity, just like oh say a lightening strike in nature, poof you have a living cell dividing and partying in the petri dish!

    • KevinOfSamuraiMindset says:

      We share our genetic make up with everything on this planet in terms of percentage. 96 percent man looks like a chimp. 90%? Cat. 80%? Cow. 75%Mouse….now here’s a couple things that are closely genetically linked to humans you’ll never believe……Fruit fly is 60% the same genetic make up as human beings. True. And get this one, a Banana? ….drum roll…..50% human dna. Here’s my source : http://genecuisine.blogspot.com/2011/03/human-dna-similarities-to-chimps-and.html The point is nobody hates your imaginary friend, we think he’s great! But we’d like you guys to spend a little less time talking to your friend and a little more time with us in the lab figuring out cures to cancer and blindness and starvation, ’cause frankly put, that imaginary friend ain’t cutting it so far.

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