Is Evolution Full of Gaping Explanatory Holes? And Does It Function as an Ideology?

I think that these two questions, when answered with two yeses, represent the thrust of what Intelligent Design proponents are up to in their critiques of evolution, as William Dembski recently (and concisely) stated at his blog:

The theory [of evolution] purports to give a materialistic account of life’s development once life is already here, but it has a gaping hole at the start since matter gives no evidence of being able to organize itself from non-life into life. The fossil record, especially the sudden emergence of most animal body plans in the Cambrian explosion, sharply violates Darwinian expectations about the historical pattern of evolutionary change. The nano-engineering found in the DNA, RNA, and proteins of the cell far exceeds human engineering and remains completely unexplained in Darwinian terms. Darwin lovers are quick to reject such complaints.  After all, as novelist Barbara Kingsolver declares, Darwin’s idea of natural selection is “the greatest, simplest, most elegant logical construct ever to dawn across our curiosity about the workings of natural life. It is inarguable, and it explains everything.”

Dembski seems to be critiquing evolution on solid grounds here. I know he is an Evangelical, and that he is thus highly motivated to make such critiques, but my question is this: do these lines of critique, with regard to evolution, have at least some validity? I think that they have. If I’m wrong about this, what, as an agnostic, am I missing?

Dembski, in the same blog post, continues:

Any theory that explains everything and that can and must be true is either the greatest thing since sliced bread or the greatest swindle ever foisted on gullible intellectuals. The intelligent design community takes the latter view, siding here with Malcolm Muggeridge, who wrote: “I myself am convinced that the theory of evolution, especially the extent to which it’s been applied, will be one of the great jokes in the history books in the future. Posterity will marvel that so very flimsy and dubious an hypothesis could be accepted with the incredible credulity that it has.” Still, it’s easy to understand why so flimsily a supported theory garners such vast support. It provides the creation story for an atheistic worldview. If atheism is true, then something like Darwinian evolution must follow.

I’m not sure which side—the Intelligent Design side or the Darwinist side—will be laughed at, say, a century from now. I suspect that it will be the Intelligent Design hypothesis, at least in terms of its current critiques of evolutionary biology, but it’s hard for me, as a nonscientist, to say. My hunch is that the gaps in evolutionary theory that Intelligent Design currently exploit will be filled over the next century in ways that will make the evolutionary conclusion even more compelling than it appears to be now.

But notice that this is merely a prediction, a guess really. And whether you’re a scientist or not, when it comes to the future, that’s really all we have. In the meantime, a bit of humility might suit all of us—religionist, agnostic, and atheist alike. I think that Dembski often comes across as unduly arrogant and overconfident, as do, say, atheists like Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins. Everybody seems just so darn cocksure, as if the other side consisted of fools. But competing confidence poses should not be mistaken for anything other than that. Maybe at profound and fundamental levels, both sides have elements to their arguments that, a hundred years from now, will be shown to be not just wrong, but spectacularly so.

Let’s see what happens. And keep an open mind.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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7 Responses to Is Evolution Full of Gaping Explanatory Holes? And Does It Function as an Ideology?

  1. morsec0de says:

    “do these lines of critique, with regard to evolution, have at least some validity?”

    Well, let’s look at them and see.

    “but it has a gaping hole at the start”

    This is like saying the rules for playing baseball have a gaping hole at the start because they don’t explain how babies are made. I mean, you need people to play baseball, and to get people you have to know how to make babies. So obviously, the rules of baseball are flawed because they don’t explain that, right?

    Or perhaps it comes to the simple fact that Mr. Dembski thinks evolution should explain things which it doesn’t claim to explain.

    “since matter gives no evidence of being able to organize itself from non-life into life.”

    Except it does. The Miller-Urey experiment for starters, and a more recent experiment as well, showed that non-matter could form through natural means into the building blocks of life.

    Is that incontrovertible evidence? Nope. We’re still on the cusp of understanding, and there’s always the option of being wrong. But there is significantly more than the ‘no evidence’ that Dembski claims.

    But again, that is chemistry and abiogenesis. Not evolution.

    “especially the sudden emergence of most animal body plans in the Cambrian explosion, sharply violates Darwinian expectations about the historical pattern of evolutionary change.”

    Except it doesn’t. Mainly for the simple fact (and I suspect Dembski might know this because he specifically avoids saying anything other than ‘sudden’) that the Cambrian ‘explosion’ took 70 to 80 million years. Certainly sudden in geologic terms, and a bit faster than other eras, but by no means over night.

    “The nano-engineering”

    He would have to give an example of what he means by this. I suspect, and could be wrong, is that he merely means it looks complex, and therefore must have been done by somebody.

    “And Does It Function as an Ideology?”

    No more than the theory of gravitation does.

  2. creationbydesign says:

    “Sudden” here means, “without any evidence of ancestors or gradual transitions from one form to another”. It’s not a measure of time. It just means that the Cambrian fossils appear without continuity with the older forms — they appear “suddenly”.

  3. santitafarella says:

    Morsecode:

    I think that the Cambrian point that Dembski is making has to also do with the startling fact that all major phyla appear at that point when a Darwinian view might infer that huge differences in body plan would take time to evolve more gradually (and that we might still see major body plans emerging today, which we don’t).

    As for the origin of life, I think that the Intelligent Design people are playing a strong card here. I don’t think evolutionists are having much success getting to the complexity of the first cell from nonliving matter.

    As for complexity, and accounting for complexity, a just-so story is different from a demonstration.

    —Santi

  4. brooks says:

    santi, really. “evolutionists”? (evolutionary) biologists would be a better label. perhaps use the former in reference to dawkins or coyne, who take biology/science as their metaphysics; but there are plenty of other scientists out there – religious ones, even – with no particular axe to grind, who simply prefer that science stick to what it does best, i.e., empirical evidence and parsimonious naturalistic arguments.

    i agree, the quasi-religious ‘skeptics’ err when they make claims about the universe that exceed what science has shown; but just because their arguments are full of holes doesn’t mean their science is as well.

    and as far as biological complexity and its preludes– what about viruses, prions and viroids, self-replicating proteins and the like? perhaps we need to quit asking silly dualistic questions about when life “begins”, anyway. (i personally believe that the whole shebang is ‘minded’ anyhow, but that’s me *not* doing biology– see?)

    and if you think that darwin believed that evolution couldn’t happen very quickly (geologically speaking), you simply haven’t read your copy of “Origin of Species” very well. whether Gould & Eldredge did or didn’t intend Punk Eek as an alternative to “gradualism”, a thorough reading of darwin reveals he was not naive on that count.

    philosophical speculation may generously allow for a God of the Gaps – gods know, i myself am not a strict materialist – but in science, it hasn’t a use outside of functioning as a coat-rack on which to hang one’s favorite theology.

  5. santitafarella says:

    Brooks:

    Your distinctions are well taken. I fully accept the distinction between Coyne and, say, Ken Miller. Evolutionary scientist is a better term.

    —Santi

  6. Matt says:

    Hi Santi,
    The main problem with Dembski’s argument (apart from the excellent points made by morsec0de above) is that it’s a simple false dichotomy.
    Dembski frames the argument as evolution-by-natural-selection vs intelligent design as if these are the only two options … with no justification whatsoever.
    Dembski makes no positive scientific arguments for intelligent design, merely negative arguments against evolution by natural selection.
    Every scientific theory is, and should be, subject to this kind of analysis. But pointing at ‘flaws’ in a theory (some real, most imagined in this case) does not allow one to simply substitute a pet fantasy as an alternative.

  7. santitafarella says:

    Matt:

    I agree with you that Dembski (and intelligent design proponents generally) are playing “King of the Hill.” They’ve seized an easy territory to inhabit—critique the largest difficulties in evolutionary biology—but fail to offer a testable or precise alternative hypothesis.

    But the fight, really, is between strict materialists (all things in the universe can be explained nonteleologically) and “second worlders” (there’s a second intelligent world outside of this one world of material objects that is guiding and making our world possible). Both sides have inferences that they can make in their favor, and both sides have gaps in their theory.

    But evolutionary biology has reasonably established that: (1) the earth is old; (2) plants and animals have changed over time; and (3) plants and animals appear to share a common ancestor. The most credible intelligent design people don’t dispute these things, but they are insisting that a blind mechanism (natural selection acting on mutation) cannot reasonably account for the full diversity and complexity that we see. They may be right about this, but they offer no scientifically testable alternative mechanism, and God, like a UFO, has yet to land at the White House lawn (or in Jerry Coyne’s bathroom) to tell us how, then, he or she did it. Wouldn’t it be cool if, like some Moses and burning bush moment, God appeared to a prominant scientist, beamed him or her up to a UFO or heaven, and just told him or her the secret?

    Why, if God exists, doesn’t he or she just fricken tell us what’s going on?

    —Santi

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