By Charles Rulon
Improbability arguments re: design in nature
Creationist: “Look, if I found a watch on the beach I would obviously know that all of its parts didn’t fly together by accident. I would know that there had to have been a watchmaker. Well, the human eye is much more complex than a watch. So is a beautifully camouflaged butterfly, plus millions of other species. All of this design obviously proves the existence of an unbelievably intelligent and enormously powerful designer.”
Response: It sure looked that way….until 1859. Then came along Charles Darwin and On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Over the years that followed, scientists increasingly demonstrated that God was no longer required as an explanatory factor for all of the design in nature. Instead, life on Earth turned out to be a four billion year old story of random genetic errors followed by an automatic, blind selection of the more fit and extermination of the less fit. With this natural selection process, all the so-called “design” in nature was not purposeful design, but instead came about through a no foresight automatic sifting process.
Today, rejecting our biological evolution is like rejecting the fact that the sun gives off heat. It requires rejecting major chunks of biology, anthropology, geology, biochemistry, genetics and physics, plus essentially the scientific method, itself. Every major scientific organization in the U.S. and in most of the world has published statements supporting the fact of our evolution. That roughly 40% of Americans still reject evolution in favor of ancient creation stories speaks volumes.
Improbability arguments re: cows turning into whales
Creationist: “Based on a few fragments of bone, evolutionists are now claiming that whales evolved from cows or hippopotamuses. What could be more ridiculous or scientifically impossible?” (In the 1960s and 70s, creationists would show a cartoon slide of a half-whale-half-cow to the audience to loud laughter.)
Response: Since the 1970s an ever increasing number of fossils have clearly documented the evolution of whales from a four-legged land mammal. In 1989 a 45 million year old whale fossil with small hind legs and feet was found in the sands of Egypt. A short time later a 50 million year old semi-aquatic pre-whale fossil named Pakicetus was found in Pakistan with both mammalian forearms and hind limbs. Molecular evidence now indicates that the closest living relative to the whale is the hippo, with the whale lineage splitting off from the hippo lineage about 54 mya. A quick web search reveals many sites documenting numerous fossils and the story of whale evolution.
Improbability arguments re: the origin of life
Creationist: “The probability of amino acids randomly hooking together to form even the simplest enzyme protein is so small as to be essentially impossible. No enzymes, no life. Therefore, an Intelligent Designer was essential for the creation of life.”
Response: First, since no one can know how life actually began or what form it took, all such improbability arguments by creationists are meaningless nonsense. Second, “impossibility” claims of amino acids hooking together to form functional proteins was actually proved wrong over 50 years ago. Amino acids spontaneously attach to one another in a somewhat non-random fashion and form small chains as determined by their individual molecular structures. Furthermore, once these small chains have formed they will often automatically self-replicate and double in length. Indeed, many of the molecules found in living organisms today bear evidence of having evolved in exactly this way.
In the mid-l950s, Dr. Sidney Fox, a specialist in protein biochemistry at the University of Miami, and his colleagues heated a mixture of amino acids. The amino acids automatically hooked together to form chains of from 30 to l00 amino acids long. These “proteinoids,” as Fox named them, were strikingly similar to true proteins and, according to Fox, could have served as the raw material from which life evolved. Furthermore, when these proteinoids were exposed to water they automatically formed little spheres which have many properties similar to living cells. Today there are numerous published researched reports showing that many modern proteins appear to have been derived from a few such ancestral proteins. The error made by creationists is to require that a specific protein enzyme form all at once and give perfect results. They omit the gradual improvements of usable, but imperfect enzymes by natural selection and the fact that many amino acid sequences may give the same enzyme function.
Improbability arguments re: the existence of living cells
Creationist: “Living cells are the simplest components of life. Yet, they are much too complex to have evolved, for unless all of the cell components are present at the same time, cells can’t function. The probability of this happening is vanishing small without intelligent intervention.”
Response: First, microscopic fossil evidence indicates that ancient cells were far simpler than most cells found today. Second, cells are not the simplest components of life. In fact, there never has been a clear-cut distinction between what is obviously alive and what is not. Instead, a continuum exists.
For example, there are viroids which are just short circles of genetic material. Then there are viruses, which consist of genetic material surrounded by a protein coat. Viruses are not considered alive by most (but not all) scientists. Recently there was the discovery of a truly monstrous virus known as Mimivirus and which is much more genetically complex than a number of parasitic bacteria. With the Mimivirus, the boundary between viruses and bacteria became officially blurred. There is now considerable evidence that viruses were involved very early on in the evolutionary emergence of life. Most of the genetic material on this planet is viral. Their ability to interact with organisms and to move genetic material around makes viruses major players in driving the evolution of new species.
In addition to viruses, there is a major branch of life composed of an ancient line of microbes without a nucleus known as the Archaea. The Archaea may make up as much as one-third of all life on earth. Then there are simple bacteria without a nucleus and more complicated bacteria with a nucleus. By 1993 scientists had succeeded in creating “creatures” that looked and acted very much like living organisms. They grew, ate, reproduced, mutated, fought with each other and died—and they did all this spontaneously, without interference or help from their human creators.[i] The scientific evidence currently supports the hypothesis that life gradually appeared through an accumulation of genetic typos committed by hordes of mindless microscopic “replication machines”.
Furthermore, the more scientists have learned about living things, the clearer it has become that all of life’s processes, from fertilization to the evolution of the human brain, appear to be based entirely on chemical and physical laws. No laws of nature have been bypassed or broken. No extra miracles or “vital forces” seem to be required. It just doesn’t seem necessary (and hasn’t for a long time now) to posit supernatural interventions for the origin of life, or for that matter any aspect of human evolution.[ii]
Improbability arguments from irreducible complexity
Creationist: “All living cells contain complex microscopic biochemical machines which have many parts that must all be present at the same time for these machines to work; they can’t function if even one part is missing. Since the parts do not have any survival value by themselves and since they could not possibly have come together all at once through any known natural evolutionary means, these biochemical machines must have been abruptly designed by an Intelligent Designer.”[iii]
Response: All of the examples of supposed irreducible complexity have been scientifically refuted.[iv]
People who make the existence of their gods stand or fall based on improbability arguments regarding still unanswered scientific mysteries risk having their gods destroyed in the wake of scientific advances.
Charles Rulon is an Emeritus, Life Sciences, at Long Beach City College
[i]Levy, S., Artificial Life: The Quest for a New Creation -1993.
For current updates, see: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-real-promise-of-synthetic-biology
Also follow Craig Venter’s progress: http://biosingularity.wordpress.com/2010/01/31/craig-venter-talks-about-creating-synthetic-life/
[ii] Key web sites for progress on the origin of life problem: <users.aol.com/chinlin3/home.htm>: Devoted to the astronomical, chemical and biological aspects of the origin of life problem. <eis.jpl.nasa.gov/origins/index2.html>: This is NASA’s “Origins” program page. <www.sciam.com/askexpert/biology/biology15.html>: A “Scientific American–Ask the Experts” site where concise, up-to-date information on what we know about the origin of life is given.
[iii]Behe, Michael, Darwin‘s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (1996)
[iv]Why Intelligent Design Fails by physicists Mark Young and Taner Edis (Editors). For extensive web material dealing with the flaws of Behe’s argument, see: <www.world-of-dawkins.com/catalano/box/behe.htm>. Also <www.miller andlevine.com /km/evol/DI/Design.html> and <www.antievolution.org>