NPR logo Intelligent Design, No. Darwinian 'Exaptations' and More. Yes.

Intelligent Design, No. Darwinian 'Exaptations' and More. Yes.

Book specialist Alex Dove holding a first edition of Charles Darwin's - The Origin of Species that w i

Evolution is not the enemy of morality, but its first source. Danny Lawson/PA wire/AP hide caption

toggle caption Danny Lawson/PA wire/AP
Book specialist Alex Dove holding a first edition of Charles Darwin's - The Origin of Species that w

Evolution is not the enemy of morality, but its first source.

Danny Lawson/PA wire/AP

Intelligent Design has been discussed in recent blogs and comments. It is either not science, or, if grudgingly taken as science, is disproved. More importantly, I think, those of us who fear evolution need not do so.

Around the globe, 3 billion of us believe in the Abrahamic God, a billion of us do not believe in God, and some 3 billion of us are members of Eastern Wisdom Traditions. The United States is known to be the most religious among first world nations, perhaps because of the religious backgrounds of our colonies.

A large faction of Americans do not believe in evolution. For those of us who are overwhelmingly convinced of the natural origin of life some 3.7 billion years ago and the gradual evolution of the stunning biosphere, it is deeply important to try to understand the resistance to evolution, and with it, a belief by some in the recently proposed "Intelligent Design" arguments.

Some scholars of biblical history, (I don't remember who unfortunately), say, interestingly, that before Newton, Christianity often interpreted the Bible as largely allegorical. With Newton and Celestial Mechanics, there seemed nothing for a theistic God to do, and the Deistic God of the 18th Century, who wound up the universe and let it go to follow Newton's laws, became a new view of God. Others, believers in a theistic God that acts continuously in the universe, came to view the Bible as the literal word of God. If so, then there is the familiar struggle between science and religion where the two disagree. Evolution is a major case.

I suspect the fear of evolution is also based in the view of many that God is the author of our moral laws. Then if the Bible is God's literal word, and yet evolution is true, the Bible, the very word of God, is false, and our morality falls to the ground. Hence some of us hold to Intelligent Design, the idea that organisms are, as ID proponent Michael Behe wrote, "Irreducibly complex", and, as ID proponent William Demsky says, vastly improbable, so are signs of Intelligent Design.

But evolution, in fact, is no enemy of morality. I tell of a story written in an Edmonton Alberta newspaper eighteen months ago. A six month baby was outside in a rocker with the family dog. A rattle snake coiled to strike the infant. The dog stepped between the snake and dog and took six strikes. Why? We cannot prove dogs are conscious, although I am convinced, having our dog Winsor, that dogs are conscious. I think this dog knew perfectly well what it was doing, and was trying to save the baby. Happily, the dog survived.

Franz de Waal, in "Good Natured", writes of a experiment with higher primates: Two were in facing cages, unable to see one another. A third "observer" was in a cage able to see the other two. The experimenter fed one of the two well, and nearly starved the second, and fed the observer well. One day, the experimenter gave the observing primate lots of extra food. What happened? The observer gave the extra food to the starved primate. These, as de Waal says, are signs of the evolution of "prosocial behavior", presumably due to group selection.

No evolution is not the enemy of morality, but its first source.

What then of Intelligent Design?

Intelligent Design argues that complex traits such as the famous flagellar motor in some bacteria enabling them to swim, are too complex to have evolved. The probabilities of achieving the motor are too remote to have remotely occurred, ID proponents say.

Now, if we take ID to be science, one would think that the next hugely pressing scientific questions would be: who or what is the Designer? And, how does the Designer manage to achieve the designs in organisms? It is no accident that ID proponents do not ask these questions. On the one hand, no one has any idea of a natural mechanism whereby this design and implementation might have occurred. On the other hand, the quiet premise of these ID proponents of what was earlier, as the Dover trial showed, Creation Science, is that the Designer is our theistic God. But to mention God as the Designer would put ID at odds with our separation of Church and State.

How do biologists explain "irreducible complexity" such as the flagellar motor? Largely by our now well discussed Darwinian "exaptations". Other bacteria have been found, and presented in the Dover trial, that have parts of the flagellar motor. In these other bacteria, the parts of the flagellar motor play entirely different functional roles, unrelated to swimming via the flagellar motor. The transition, we believe, to the flagellar motor arose, like the swim bladder from the lungs of lung fish, via Darwinian exapatations. The flagellar motor was never selected for directly and ab initio. It arose by a succession of exaptations, like the three bones of our middle ears from three adjacent bones of an early fish. Furthermore, as I've described before, we can have no probability measure for the evolution of the biosphere into its Adjacent Possible, since we do not know all the possibilities, hence we do not know the sample space of the process, so cannot construct a probability measure. Therefore, the calculations of improbability that the ID proponents make are vacuous.

If ID were taken to be a science, it would make one prediction: Darwinian exaptations do not occur, hence cannot offer an explanation for "irreducible complexity". But exaptations arise in evolution all the time. The one testable prediction of ID that I can think of is false.

So: to all of us, those who believe in God and those who do not: We do not need ID. And to those of us who believe in our theistic God, perhaps the views of those before Newton have merit, the Bible may be partially allegorical, and we need not fear evolution.

Finally, science itself may be transforming. Adam, Frank and I all doubt the reductionist scientific belief that all that happens in the universe is entailed by the fundamental laws of physics. I will be discussing "The Open Universe" in forthcoming posts, trying to show that the becoming of the universe is partially beyond sufficient natural law. If so, we can take the natural creativity in the universe as God, and nature, with all of life, as sacred, to be treasured. And for those of us who believe in a supernatural theistic God, there is room for that God to act in such an open universe, compared to that of Newton. Perhaps a newer science and a sharable sense of the sacred can arise together as a co-evolving ecology of civilizations around the globe forms.



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