Theoretical preferences

Physicist Ian Thompson was kind enough to agree with the recent post in which I suggested that, if we are theists, we probably ought to expect a universe in which God interacts personally in natural, as well as in human, affairs. He pointed us to an excellent article of his own in which he argues the same. I want to explore that theme further through the work of Michael Denton.

I’ve written about Denton before in a post about structuralism. He’s a medical geneticist, and interesting for thinking outside the box. His first book, Evolution, a Theory in Crisis critiqued Neodarwinian theory, kick-started the ID movement and earned him the inalienable right to be deemed as an ignorant creationist. Somehow that doesn’t seem to have prevented one of the genes he discovered being the first ever to figure in successful gene therapy.

His second book, Nature’s Destiny, was a study of the sheer extent of biophilic fine tuning in the cosmos, aiming to demonstrate that “life is a put-up job”. Given that this theme accords with the positive approach of theistic evolutionists to cosmic fine-tuning as a sufficient divine input for what we see, one is surprised how little this book has been seen as positive contribution in those quarters. The explanation is that Denton has been given the label “ID”, and worse still, is associated with the Discovery Institute. Once more we see, as Kuhn and Polanyi said long ago to deaf ears, that theory drives what you regard as “data”, and in this case the theory seems to be that ID is “bad,” even when it’s furthering your own views. (Cynical? Moi?)

Denton is now preparing a third book, and is interviewed about it here, which expands on what I referred to in the structuralism post linked above. You’ll see he explains structuralism as a lawlike process, as opposed to Neodarwinism’s contingent evolution. It was strong in the nineteenth century, Owen opposing Darwin on just this ground. Denton, noting the degree of fine tuning congenial to life we can detect, sees it as likely that similar lawlike applications of basic physical laws underlie biogenesis itself, and its evolution. Note that this too ought to please TEs enamoured of CFT, since he’s looking for patterns built into the fabric of the cosmos itself, at the creation.

The kind of observations suggestive of structuralism are persistent characteristics that show no sign of being adaptive, but are too fundamental to be accounted for by stochastic processes like drift. Body plans are the obvious example. I got into debate on a BioLogos thread a while ago about the pentadactyl limb, and particularly the number of digits. Lou Jost pointed out that a number of simple common mutations produce polydactyly, and that tribes near him often exhibit hexadactyly and no obvious problems. There were clans in biblical times combining this with great height too. Yet five digits has remained the standard since Silurian times, varying by subtraction in some cases, but never by addition or multiplication, except in isolated, and therefore abnormal, instances within species. That is remarkable, and cries out for an explanation. (Pandas and moles have extra “fingers” that are not true digits, adding weight to the anomaly rather than detracting from it).

Pentadactyl limbs are, of course, just one feature of an entire tetrapod bauplan, of which another feauture is the surprising stability in the number of cervical vertebrae, which I discussed on the same BioLogos thread in relation to the extreme case of the giraffe, and my own clinical experience in medical orthopaedics. In this case, pleiotropy is a factor, as the genetic mutations associated with addition or loss of cervical vertebrae also invariably entail serious abnormalities elsewhere. But even this seems hardly sufficient to preclude an adaptive preference for some other number being achieved somewhere in the tetrapod lineage over the last hundred million years.

If one should suspect that for some obscure reason five digits, ten carpals, radius-ulna, humerus and scapula-clavicle is the only possible adaptive configuration whether you’re a pterosaur, a theropod, a pangolin or a seal, the arthropods discount it. Insects have all had three pairs of legs since before the tetrapod limb appeared, together with their other very specific features of form. Never more, and never less, apart from pathological mutations. But spiders, in the same size range and with comparable habitats and lifestyles, manage fine with four pairs – never more, and never less. And the decapod crustaceans have had five since the Cambrian, even when they’ve shared the land with insects and spiders as land-crabs.

A completely separate example is the surprising morphological stability throughout whole suites of fossil fauna, despite the greatest climate change in 50 million years, over extended periods, noted by no less a figure than Donald Prothero. Change the environment radically – it selects the same traits. That doesn’t quite compute on the Hardy-Weinberg equation.

Structuralists like Denton would say that these things probably reflect laws of biology that, ultimately, are reducible to basic physical laws and the cosmological constants, in the same way that Fred Hoyle’s “monkeyed” carbon chemistry is. And he may well be right, for Darwinian theory gives no credible account of this universal principle of high-order form whatsoever.

Denton’s own interest is unabashedly theist. If the laws of nature are so specific as to favour, as he would claim, humans like us, then a divine and purposeful intelligence would be by far the most economical conclusion. I can’t argue with that aim, either, nor with the validity (if not the conclusiveness) of the inference.

But given that, whether we like it or not, our worldview will determine where we focus our theoretical expectations, should we expect, if we are Christian scientists, that Denton’s hopes would prove well-founded? Let me return you to Ian Thompson’s essay: his problem with BioLogian theistic evolution is that it is, as I also have frequently evidenced, essentially deistic. If we believe in the God of the Bible, he is the One who is intimately involved, in love, with every part of his creation. Heaven and earth cannot contain him, yet he stoops to lift the widow, the orphan and the alien from the dust. He feeds ravens, clothes lilies and counts hairs on heads.

For all the arguments of the Evangelical Neodarwinians, the God who leaves creation to create itself according to unchanging laws and contingency is a Deist God (though to be honest I’ve never heard one argue the point – instead they go strangely quiet when it is mentioned). But, I would argue, the God whom the theistic structuralist would hope to reveal in nature is actually not much less deistic, though his purposes are significantly less vague and unsatisfactory.

It would be a tremendous trick for God to to pull off if those basic laws and constants unfolded to determine not only the biologically friendly properties of water, carbon or oxygen, and not only the subtle balance of atmospheric conditions that enable photosynthesis and temperature control (read Denton on such matters – it’s inspiring), but also the specific forms of biological taxa, the development of the human brain and maybe more. But it would still be, for all that, the work of a clockmaker, and not the work of a loving Father. Fathers beget, but they also nurture and guide.

Now don’t get me, or even Denton, wrong. Our problem with evolution by natural selection is not that it’s false, but that it’s inadequate as an overarching theory of biology. That God should use the contingent features of the environment to fine-tune organisms is elegant, not to mention evidenced to a limited extent. But it won’t take you as far as it claims. It doesn’t begin to account for variation (catching lions comes to mind).

Similarly fine-tuned lawlike processes at both cosmic and biological levels have, I’m convinced, a major role in life, and Denton is right to explore what has been neglected for 150 years, because of the obsession with natural selection that’s now become sociologically, as well as scientifically, institutionalised. But not only do I feel, intuitively, that no simple natural law can account fully for the richness and beauty of the biological world, any more than natural selection can, but (to invert various atheistic writers like Thomas Nagel) I don’t want it to be like that. I’m happy to accept God any way he reveals himself to be, but given what he’s already revealed in Jesus, I expect him to be a God both near and far off. And I still favour Aquinas’s position that form, per se, comes directly from God as Logos and not from nature’s secondary powers.

Indeed, the very kind of God who would want to go to the trouble to create a universe in the way Denton envisages, honing the laws of nature to produce mankind as a genuine spiritual culmination and representation of it all, is I think the kind of God who would surely want to interact with it as fully as possible.

Same old vertebrae, same old limbs. Same old everything, really.

Same old vertebrae, same old limbs. Same old everything, really.

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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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5 Responses to Theoretical preferences

  1. Avatar photo Sy Garte says:

    Hi Jon.
    I have been following this blog for the past month or so, without commenting. But now the time has come. I dont know if you have been following the discussion threads on the American Scientific Affiliation web site about the Cosmos series with Tyson. I understand that being a Brit, you might not be a member of ASA, and therefore cannot comment. If you have been checking in to the discussion there, you might have noticed that Merv has put forward many of your thoughts and ideas related to the Biologos version of TE, the issue of Deism and God’s action in the world, including in biological evolution. I have also found myself quite swayed by your arguments, and have also discussed them on that ASA thread and on Biologos, (but I will confess not always giving you the proper credit, as Merv does).

    My friend and associate in the local DC chapter of the ASA, Keith Furman, posted a chart made by Denis Lamoureaux, showing the differences between TEs and Deists. To which Merv made an excellent reply, invoking your name and thoughts about whether such differences were more apparent than real.

    I know that you are much more sympathetic to ID than most TEs, and I am totally in agreement with ID when it comes to origin of life, and also, (largely under your influence) quite receptive to the idea of teleology in evolution, although I do not think that the IDers examples are useful.

    So I would put your position somewhat to the left of TE and to the right of ID (which isnt on Denis’ chart, unfortunately). And here (finally) is my question. I (and probably Merv, and maybe quite a few others) now consider myself to be a Garvey follower. What should we call ourselves? (Dont say Christian, that is too easy). I think you are probably too modest to allow us to call ourselves Garveyites, but I wouldnt exclude that. Perhaps conservative TE? (as opposed to the Biologos liberal brand)?

    I am not being totally flippant here. I would go so far as to say that it might be a good time to propose a “What We Believe” statement, which I dare say would be quite different from Biologos. I invite you to consider posting such a draft and asking for input. I mean, why not?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Sy – welcome back after too long a break!

      Let me first torpedo any whiff of personality cult with an anecdote. When I first used Cambridge University Library I was vain enough to look to see if any namesakes were represented in the indexes, and the only book I found was was Garvey and Garveyism (relating to Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement, instrumental in Rastafarianism). That market being fortunately cornered already we can thankfully keep names out of it. Nevertheless I’m flattered that anyone (especially of your calibre) should think some of my ideas have traction.

      I dropped by the ASA site when the BioLogos piece on Cosmos first linked to it, and saw that it seemed to feature the same people as The Hump only with famous names like Gingerich too. Being a non-American and not a working scientist I didn’t try to register. I’ve visited some archives of its old forum and, like the equivalent UK Christians in Science, ASA seems to have a heterogenous approach to origins, but largely it seems divided between the deistic kind of TE and straight ID, with maybe a few Creationists. So maybe there’s a case for trying to formulate what it is we’ve been feeling towards here and on BioLogos and seeking positively to represent it in the public arena.

      The “What we are” page, as you know as an author here, is a “soft” manifesto that exists already. As a blog, I’ve seen The Hump (a) as having a focus on creation doctrine as a whole rather than solely the origins question, though the latter predominates, and (b) as being broader than a single-issue campaign to create a new origins “position.”

      Given the importance of the thing, though, and the issues you raise, maybe we do need to be courageous enough to define such a position – though widely enough to make it a category of approach rather than a detailed program.

      Perhaps the best thing for me to do would be to review the ASA exchanges, re-examine the discussions that happened when we revamped the site last year, and post some kind of “Starter for 10” (if you have the University Challenge quiz show there) in a new post after the weekend. That would then open up the issue to all, including those who contribute regularly and maybe any who lurk here.

      In the meantime, a name like “conservative theistic evolution”, though unwieldy, might indeed cover it (and is undoubtedly better than Garveyitism, if not Humpism), though I just wonder if it might be too specific in some ways, and lacking definition in others. One aspect is how, as Christians, we’re approaching science (theological, metaphysical, philosophical commitments). That is likely to be stable over time.

      A separate one, actually, is our preferred range of scientific outlook in the current state of our knowledge (working theory of biology, in the light of theism). Like all science not dictated by ideology, it’s subject to change – including any ideas we might have about divine action in biology.

      Lot’s to think about!

  2. Hanan says:

    I’ll start branding the T-shirts.

    (are they called T-shirts in England, or did you make up some other elitist sounding name for it?)

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      They’re still T-shirts, Hanan – the elitism comes from how rare the logo is. I had the only example of my 1985 music tour shirt (one gig listed on the back!). It would therefore be worth a fortune if I hadn’t accidentally thrown it out with the rubbish somewhere in Scotland, so I now have to alternate between the Village Vanguard one I bought in New York and a very faded Guinness advert.

  3. Ian Thompson says:

    On the question of names: I still think that “theistic evolution” is the best. If only it was not taken already to mean something rather different!

    My second choice is then “theistically driven evolution”. Actually, this is on a spectrum starting up from “theistically filtered evolution” as I try to explain in the blog post Evolution within Theism: a Summary of the Main Options recently.

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