Calculating God (Part 2 of 2)

Hey, folks!

In Part 1 of “Calculating God” earlier this month, I began by talking a little about my reading habits, including science-fiction, and introduced the reader (assuming you/they weren’t already familiar with him) to the Canadian author Robert J. Sawyer. His novel Calculating God (2000) is the source for the title of these two posts and the excerpts cited within. In particular, I found it intriguing that the argument for Intelligent Design was made by an atheist (Sawyer), via an alien, to an atheist (“Dr. Tom Jericho”).

In this excerpt, Dr. Jericho is having a bit of a crisis of faith in his atheist belief system. He has been speaking a lot with his friend, Hollus, the spider-like extraterrestrial scientist who, like the rest of his species (and at least one other) is a theist. Based on his respect for his friend and the many evidences of design seen in biology, physics, and other areas of study (including coincidental extinction events on several worlds), Jericho is reluctantly realizing that he may need to alter his worldview….

painting of scene from "Inherit the Wind" (1960)“When I first saw Inherit the Wind, I’d laughed smugly at the way Spencer Tracy demolished Fredric March, reducing the fundamentalist to a gibbering idiot on the witness stand. Take that, I thought. Take that.

I used to teach evolution at U of T. When Darwin first proposed his theory, scientists assumed the fossil record would bear it out: that we would see a gradual progression from form to form, with slow changes accumulating over time, until a new species emerged.

But the fossil record doesn’t show that. Oh, there are transitional forms: Ichthyostega, which seems intermediate between fish and amphibians; Caudipteryx, a melange of dinosaur and bird; even Australopithecus, the quintessential ape-man.

But gradual change? An accumulation of tiny mutations over time? No. Sharks have been sharks for almost four hundred million years; turtles have turted for two hundred million years; snakes have snuck for eighty million years. Indeed, the fossil record is mostly lacking in gradual sequences, in incremental improvements; the only really good vertebrate sequence we’ve got is that of the horse, which is why just about every large museum has a display of equine evolution like the one here at the ROM [i.e., Royal Ontario Museum].”

NOTE: Another common example used to “demonstrate” gradualism is the supposed sequence of whale evolution. Both the whale and horse sequences, however, are somewhat misleading, since they fail to acknowledge the major problems with merely natural processes accomplishing what is needed in the amount of time available to go from earliest species A to current species Z. Of course, it’s not just new species that develop/appear. At the very least it is new genera and even, as in the proposed whale lineage, a complete change in phylogenetic Order!

“Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge responded, putting forth the theory of punctuated equilibrium — punky-E, as we say in the evolution biz. Species are stable for long periods of time, and then suddenly, when environmental conditions change, they rapidly evolve into new forms. Ninety percent of me wanted to believe Stephen and Niles, but ten percent felt it was a bit of a semantic trick, word play like Gould’s “nonoverlapping magisteria” of religion and science, glossing over a thorny issue, in this case that the fossil record didn’t show what Darwin predicted it would, with bafflegab — as though giving a fancy name to the problem was the same as solving it. (Not that Gould was the first to do that: Herbert Spencer’s phrase for the engine of evolution — “survival of the fittest” — was nothing more than a circular definition, since fitness was never pinned down more precisely than simply being that which increased the odds of survival.)

Long-term environmental stability? In February, Toronto often has temperatures of twenty degrees Fahrenheit, and the snow can lie hip-deep on the ground. The air is so dry that skin flakes off and lips crack open. Without a bulky sweater and a down-filled parka, a scarf and a tuque, you could easily die from exposure.

Six months later, in August, temperatures in the nineties are common, and breaking one hundred is not unheard of. The air is so laden with humidity and just standing still is enough to cause sweat to pour out of you; the sun is so bright that even a few minutes without my clip-ons and a hat brings on a splitting headache, and the radio often urges the elderly and those with heart conditions to stay indoors.

The theory of punctuated equilibria says the environment stays stable for extended periods of time. In much of the world, the environment isn’t stable for months at a time.

But I soldiered on; we all did — all of us who taught evolution. We incorporated punky-E into our lesson plans, and we shook our heads condescendingly when naive students asked us about missing links.

It wasn’t the first time we’d been smug. Evolutionists had arrogantly folded their arms across their chests back in 1953 when Harold Urey and Stanley Miller created amino acids by putting an electric discharge through a primordial soup — what they thought, then, Earth’s early atmosphere might have been like. Why, we were halfway to creating life in a jar, we thought; the final triumph of evolutionary theory, the proof that it had all started through simple, natural processes. If we zapped the soup just right, full-fledged self-replicating organisms might appear.

Except they never did. We still don’t know how to go from amino acids to self-replication. And we look at the cell under electron microscopes, we see things Darwin never dreamed of, mechanisms like the cilia that turn out to be so incredibly complex in their own right that it’s almost impossible to see how they might have evolved in the step-by-single-step fashion that evolution allows, mechanisms that seemed to have been created full-blown with all their complex, moving parts.

jacket cover to "Darwin's Black Box"But, well, we ignored the biochemical argument, too — and with equal smugness. I remember old Jonesy handing me an article out of his Skeptical Inquirer once, in which Martin Gardner tried to tear apart Michael Behe, the Lehigh University professor who wrote Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, a strongly presented case for intelligent design. The name Behe, Gardner wasted not time pointing out, rhymes with “tee-hee,” a titter, a giggle, a joke, nothing to take seriously. Just because we couldn’t at the moment see the sequence of steps that might have given rise to cilia — or to the cascade sequence that causes blood to clot, or to the complexity of the human eye, or to the ATP-driven system of cellular metabolism — didn’t mean that such sequences hadn’t occurred.

And, of course, we kept arguing that the universe had to be teeming with life — that there was nothing remarkable about Earth, that it was, in fact, mediocre, that planets like it were, well, as common as the dirt after which we’d named our own world.

But then, in 1988, the first extrasolar planet was discovered, orbiting the star HD 114762. Of course, back then we didn’t think it was a planet; we thought maybe it was a brown-dwarf star. After all, it was nine times as heavy as Jupiter, and it orbited HD 114762 closer than Mercury orbits our sun. But in 1995, another extrasolar planet was discovered, this one at least half as big as Jupiter, and also orbiting it parent, the star 51 Pegasi, closer than Mercury came to Sol. And then more and more were found, all from solar systems unlike our own.”

Incidentally, if you are curious about the number of non-fictional worlds being discovered and considered for habitability, check out The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia or the Habitable Exoplanets Catalog.  It’s exciting! Still, keep in mind that a) scientists are still working with a minimum of available information; b) they tend not to consider several additional fine-tuning factors that are necessary for advanced life in particular (see here and here); and c) even scientists can be overly optimistic in their predictions

“In our solar system, the gas giants — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune — orbit far away from the central star, and the inner planets are small, rocky worlds. Rather than being a normal planetary system, ours was beginning to look like a freak. And yet the layout of bodies in our system seemed to be crucial to developing and sustaining life. Without the gravitational effects of our giant moon — almost a sister planet, formed early on when an asteroid slammed into our still-molten world — Earth would wobble in an unstable fashion, and our atmosphere would be crushingly dense, like that of Venus. And without Jupiter, patrolling the border between the inner and outer solar system, sweeping up wayward comets and asteroids with its immense gravity, our world would have been hit far more frequently by such objects. A bolid impact apparently almost wiped out all life on Earth sixty-five million years ago; we could not have withstood more frequent bombardment.

Of course, Hollus’s solar system apparently resembled ours, as did the Wreed system. But, nonetheless, systems like Sol’s were extraordinary; the exception, not the rule. And cells aren’t simple; they are enormously complex. And the fossil record, fascinating but frustrating thing that it is, shows evolution proceeding by leaps rather than by the accumulation of gradual changes.

… I know evolution happens; I know it for a fact. I’ve seen the fossils, seen the DNA studies that say that we and chimps have 98.6 percent or our genetic material in common, and therefore must have had a recent common ancestor.”

FALSE! That “98.6 percent” is somewhat misleading, because those original researchers were somewhat selective in the strands of DNA they compared. Plus, after all of this, you would think Dr. Jericho would be able to admit that common design is at least as viable a reason, if not moreso. On the other hand, there are ID proponents like the aforementioned Michael Behe who also support the idea of common descent.

“Proceeding by leaps…

By… perhaps, maybe… by quantum leaps.

Newton’s seventeenth-century laws of physics are mostly correct; you can use them to reliably predict all sorts of things. We didn’t discard them; rather, in the twentieth century, we subsumed them into a new, more comprehensive physics, a physics of relativity and quantum mechanics.

Evolution is a nineteenth-century notion, outlined in Darwin’s 1859 book, a book called, in full, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. But the more we learn, the more natural selection seems inadequate on its own as a mechanism for the creation of a new species; even our best attempts at artificial, intelligently guided selection apparently aren’t up to the task — all dogs are still Canis familiaris.

And now it’s the start of the twenty-first century. Surely it’s not unreasonable to think that Darwin’s ideas, like Newton’s before them, will be subsumed into a greater whole, a more comprehensive understanding?”

Thinking-Man silohuette with gearsYup. Most, possibly all, of that stuff is true in the real world, too.

Of course, there are those who think anything that dares to question neo-Darwinism — or, more broadly, naturalism — is essentially fiction, and certainly not “science” (as defined by them, anyway). But, in fact, Darwinian gradualism is losing favor in some circles, and efforts are being made to develop other naturalistic theories that incorporate (or not) some of Darwin’s ideas. (I have heard of at least six.) But, I’m not holding my breath for anything that actually works. But, then, I’m already convinced that strong naturalism is not a coherent answer for the characteristics of, well, reality. Intelligent Design makes much more sense, and I think I know who that Designer might be….

I wonder what Robert Sawyer truly makes of all the evidence for design in our universe, solar system, planet Earth, and the life hereon. He certainly seems to be informed about many of the arguments and the facts to go with them. (Well, at least, he was back in 2000.) If I ever meet him, I hope I have a chance to ask him. I’m sure I could design a few good questions. Could make for an interesting conversation — plus, a follow-up blogpost, naturally….

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