an atheist viewpoint

thoughts from a non-theist

Christadelphians, Still Failing to Understand Evolution

Under the title ‘Blind chance – or intelligent design?‘ a West Midlands fundamentalist group has, once again, proved that they haven’t a clue where to start with evolution.

The more you learn about the natural world, the more complex you realise it is. From the genetic code in the DNA of every cell in your body to the finely-balanced ecosystems that global warming puts at risk, life is intricate, complicated and awe-inspiring.

Science tells us that this complexity came about by a gradual process of evolution – chance changes, followed by “the survival of the fittest”.

That’s a very poor explanation, failing completely to take the actual mechanisms of natural selection, reproductive selection, and various environmental pressures into account. I note also that they’ve used ‘survival of the fittest’ instead of ‘natural selection’, this always gets pulled out by Creationists when they’re wanting to attack evolution – use a phrase that seems to indicate that ‘might is right’ when it comes to our origins and you’re more likely to get your audience onside – ‘how crude! We’re far more civilised than that!’

It should come as no surprise then that these particular believers jump straight to probably the most common Creationist fallacy, that of Paley’s Pocket Watch, almost immediately –

Normally when you see a complicated machine – an aircraft, a Formula 1 car, even a slick piece of software – you don’t imagine it came about by chance. You admire the design. And you admire the designer.

Many believe life is like that. The product of intelligent design – the work of a master designer. 

Wow, where to start? Well, firstly evolutionary theory is regularly applied in engineering, with software running ‘natural selection’ simulations to improve design – a widely known example of this is the turn up at the end of aircraft wings, developed via software that ran natural selections algorithms to present solutions that the engineers hadn’t even thought of. Looking at the rest of the Christian’s statement – no one believes that complex things like cars, software, or aeroplanes can appear by chance, everyone understands the processes that lead to the finished product.

What did the very first aircraft look like? Was it a fully formed 747? No, it was a basic, fixed wing glider, without power – nothing more than a wing and something to hold onto. Over time, through gradual improvement it became what we recognise today….the improvements will continue though, and the aircraft of the next century, and the ones after that, will probably make our modern jets looks as primitive to our descendants as those early Wright brothers models do to us.

The same can be said of the other examples given by the Christadelphian author – Formula 1 cars have changed almost beyond recognition from their early models, as evolutionary processes of natural selection (in this case selecting for speed and grip) have pushed racing cars into a shape that’s more reverse aircraft than automobile. The processes that have led to this complexity are purely evolutionary, there is no ‘chance’ involved, and surprisingly little conscious design – small alterations are made each racing season, and these have accumulated over time, exactly the way natural selection works in nature.

Exactly the same principles apply to computing – the very earliest computer I owned was a ZX Spectrum, a machine with almost nothing in common with modern computers. Sinclair Research didn’t develop a fully functioning MacBook Air, or Samsung tablet, or iPhone, – no, all these things evolved slowly over time, building on what already existed. There’s an interesting parallel with natural selection in computing – the keyboard. Originally the QWERTY layout was designed to minimise the risk of typewriter keys causing the mechanical parts to jam (something you can recreate if you mash the keys of a manual typewriter), it wasn’t designed to aid speed of typing, in fact it is horribly imbalanced for that. However, because the QWERTY layout has becomes so ubiquitous it is now extremely unlikely that another layout will ever replace it. As a result computer designers and users are forced to work with what’s available – I can type quite quickly on a QWERTY keyboard, but I’d no doubt be able to type far faster on a Dvorak version…..but I don’t have the time or inclination to completely relearn how to use my computers, especially when I’d just have to switch straight back if I wanted to use someone else’s machine.

We’re stuck with what we’ve got as the basic design, and we have to work around that – much as we’re stuck with various faults that were evolved into us many millennia ago, nerves that makes round trips many feet longer than they need to be, lower backs poorly adapted for an upright stance – we can’t go back and redesign the keyboard, just as we can’t redesign our backs, or jaws, or eyes, or any other part of our bodies that have ended up where they are through compromise or the hand of the ‘blind watchmaker’.

Anyway, let’s get back to the Christadelphians where, not content with citing a thoroughly debunked fallacy as ‘evidence’, they then indulge in a spot of quote mining –

In Matt Ridley’s book Genome , he says

“Cells must frequently be given permission to divide, and must be equipped with genes that encourage division, so long as they stop at the right moment. How this feat is achieved is beginning to become clear. If we were looking at a man-made thing, we would conclude that a fiendishly ingenious mind must be behind it.”

Could Ridley have hit upon the truth there? Could there really be an ingenious mind behind the design of living things?

Sadly I haven’t a copy of Ridley’s book to hand, but as he’s an atheist and no proponent of Intelligent Design, I’m guessing that his book continues to explain exactly how the cell division discussed occurs naturally. Much like the Darwin quote about the eye which is often truncated, losing the entire pay off where he explains just how the eye has evolved, this passage only gives part of the story. It’s a dishonest trick, designed to fool other Christians into thinking that their view isn’t fringe lunacy, that it has some credence when, in reality, it has none at all.

Believing that intelligent design is at the heart of life on earth is not absurd, and it’s not a thing of the past. In fact, it might just be the only intellectually reasonable way of looking at the world.

Intelligent Design is just Creation Science rebranded – it’s been thoroughly debunked time and time again (just google Kenneth Miller and you’ll find a host of articles tearing it apart), it’s a dead hypothesis, and it’s intellectually dishonest to claim otherwise.

Science – and God?

Does that require you to believe in God – the God of Christian faith? No, not necessarily. But it does mean that believing in God as the designer is reasonable and logical – it knocks down the fallacy that science and God are in conflict. In fact, the more you look at biblical Christian belief, the more science supports faith instead of undermining it.

The writer is being very careful not to mention what he actually believes here –  Christadelphians are, for the most part, Young Earth Creationists, believing that the Genesis account of creation is literally true. Discoveries in numerous sciences have shown this to be very much in conflict with reality, to the point where it can be said with 100% certainty that the Genesis version is dead wrong.

If you examine what the Bible actually says (as distinct from what many think it says), it certainly presents God as the great Designer.

As already stated though, it presents an account of our origins that has no basis in reality. It also makes some absolute howlers, claiming that bats are birds, that some insects have 4 legs, that the Earth stands still upon pillars with the universe revolving around it, amongst many other mistakes that one would expect Bronze Age shepherds to make.

It also presents the Christian god as capricious, jealous, contradictory, swift to rage, and thoroughly murderous, but Christians try to ignore those parts.

The picture it gives of the created world is one of beauty, precision and astonishing complexity. In many respects its teaching has been shown to be completely consistent with modern scientific knowledge as more and more is known about life on earth – except that the Bible was written long before the science came along.

Yes, reality is very complex, but it’s also a complete mess. with natural form after natural form displaying all the evidence of being built upon earlier traits, often resulting in clumsy, poor, or outright dangerous ‘design’ – would an intelligent designer think that eating and breathing through the same tube was a good idea? Would that designer give an octopus better eyes than his ‘special creation’, man? Why would he give us organs that sit, like little grenades filled with poison, in our bodies, serving no purpose whatsoever? When you look at nature you see complexity, but you don’t see anything intelligently designed.

To state that ‘[i]n many respects its teaching has been shown to be completely consistent with modern scientific knowledge’ is completely untrue. Modern scientific knowledge has taught us that mankind arose in his modern form about 150,000 years ago, significantly further into the past than the Bible places the creation of the Earth! We know from science that the Earth is roughly four billion years old, and that it’s only a little over a third of the age of the universe itself. The Bible could not be more wrong in this respect.

The result is a faith based on fact, not on wishful thinking or tradition. A faith that can profoundly affect how you look at the origins of life – and much more besides. 

It’s entirely based on wishful thinking, there is almost no evidence at all to support it, whilst the facts supporting evolution grow more and more solid each passing day.

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