Theory, or mental back-flip?

What did Darwin actually present in 1859? I suggest it wasn’t so much a scientific theory as a plausible new way of looking at things. It wasn’t his evidence that “swept away the illusion of design” but the mental flip that suddenly enables one to see how design could happen without a designer.

Darwin presented some evidence for descent with modification, but that in itself wasn’t new but common currency in the scientific community. His Big Idea was natural selection, and the only evidence he presented for that was a comparison with artificial selection. If a breeder can select for useful traits, why should not nature itself do so? It’s so obvious that it seems undeniable. Clearly some organisms survive better than others, so what dictates that? It can only be that they are better suited to live than the others. Carry that selection on long enough, and all the diversity of life might be produced.

But compare Darwin’s theory to the origin of the Anthropic Principle for a moment. Physicists observed the fine-tuning of the Universe, and the obvious conclusion was that it’s designed for us. But there’s another way of looking at it. We all think how lucky we were to be born in such a wonderful town or nation, forgetting that we consider them wonderful only because we were born there. Supposing there were billions of different Universes, with random properties. Then ours would seem privileged simply because it’s the one that could produce us. That’s the Weak Anthropic Principle. Suddenly, the Universe doesn’t seem so unusual, and one can jettison the idea of design.

But what’s missing, of course, is any actual evidence that multiple universes exist. It may be mentally liberating (for the naturalist), but nothing concrete has been learned about reality. Darwin’s theory, similarly,  presented no actual evidence of natural selection occurring, and even less that it would transcend the strict limits found, by experience, in artificial breeding. That evidence is still gravely lacking today – not least because there is no way of measuring fitness other than survival, and no way of distinguishing survival due to chance from that due to fitness. I mentioned the problem of selecting for multiple traits in my last post, and it is still a matter of high contention whether natural selection could account in any way for the origin of species (Darwin’s subject) rather than merely for variation within species.

The lack of evidence for multiverses does not stop materialists nevertheless invoking the Anthropic Principle. And the lack of evidence for natural selection does not prevent it being the liberating, enabling and powerful mental principle it is. It’s all in the mind, though. Once in the mind, it appears to take it over completely as an organising principle. There is a radio discussion between Stephen Meyer and Keith Fox, the Theistic Evolutionist leader of UK’s Christians in Science, and a researcher in DNA. Towards the end, having repeatedly suggested that Meyer’s position on the origin of life is in essence a God of the Gaps argument, Fox suggests that in years to come we will know a lot more. “We’re inferring events billions of years ago that may have been a fluke event,” he says. He responds to Meyer’s subsequent question about the role of God in this fluke by affirming that God would be behind it. “But there’s nothing irrational or unscientific about it.”

Well, no. There’s just a different mental viewpoint. Consider what Fox’s remarks mean if things turned out the way he predicts. Suppose that no explanation from the laws of chemistry can be found for  the origin of life. Suppose that we confirm the current assumption that a self-replicating molecule of, say, RNA would have to be the the first prerequisite. Suppose that, as now, we believe that would have to be to be a long, specific, sequence of bases. If, conservatively, that were assumed to be 50 bases long, the “fluke” in question would have an astronomically low probability of 1:4^50, since it would have to have arisen by pure chance in what now appear chemically adverse circumstances.

Meyer, from his old people’s home, says that this specified, highly complex sequence indicates design.  Fox, from his, says there’s nothing irrational or unscientific about it. The assumed facts are the same – the molecule just appeared. The difference in the conclusions is largely semantic: Meyer says God did it, Fox says God was behind it but it’s natural, which means what, exactly?

Actually, though, the difference is rather more than semantic, because in every other branch of science, chance is subject to strict limits. In medicine one assesses a drug’s efficacy by standard deviations, that is by comparing its effects to those of chance. If a drug works by chance, it doesn’t work. End of research. If a chemical reaction happens 4:10^50 attempts, it doesn’t happen in real life. It’s off the curve. It’s excluded from the data.

Once you allow probabilities as low as 4^50 (or 10^150 for protein synthesis, or 10^1013 for DNA replication) to get a foot in the door of science, then the whole edifice of knowledge must collapse. How could you exclude any event in science once you concede that life began through an event far beyond the bounds of possibility? Chance at that level is indistinguishable from miracle, but without an agent. So why exclude miracle?

The only reason for so doing, it seems to me,  is that the mental habit inculcated by Darwin’s ingenious redefinition of design as illusion is hard to dislodge, once it’s in place.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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