Examining Intelligent Evolution

An article in Phys Org attempts to explain “Why evolution may be smarter than we thought.”

Captions like this are loaded. Since when did evolution become intelligent? And why did it take scientists so long to learn this?

I have to admit I found this to be a good, thought provoking article. Most science articles are completely devoid of God, as if natural processes are the only acceptable explanation. And in this case, the author, Richard A. Watson, is no exception… but at least he addresses creationists and intelligent design before outright dismissing them.

He begins by drawing attention to the eyes of the great horned owl. According to creationists, he says, they cannot be explained by Darwinian evolution.

Naturalistic explanations for life rely on Darwin’s theory of evolution, which many consider to be random, directionless, and “unintelligent.” Others believe that life on earth couldn’t have come about by naturalistic processes, but are rather the result of an intelligent creator- God- who created organisms to reproduce after their kind. Both groups seek to explain why organisms, like the great horned owl, appear to be well-designed.

Watson is critical of creationists for not believing that living things can evolve in increments, and for believing complex body plans must be the result of an intelligent creator. But he rejects these beliefs by claiming that a supernatural creator can’t be a “scientifically useful explanation.” Instead, he says, we should only accept evolutionary processes “without involving any higher powers”.

His statement reminds me of what evolutionary biologist, Richard Lewontin once said:

“We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfil many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

The assertion that God cannot be a useful scientific explanation is a personal bias and doesn’t have any merit. If God does exist and created the heavens and earth just as he says he did in the Bible, then it’s perfectly acceptable to credit him for the work he’s done. Don’t we credit scientists for the work they’ve done? Or do we reject all the work Edwin Hubble ever did in the field of astronomy? Or do we honor him by naming a space telescope after him? In the same way it’s perfectly reasonable to credit God for the work he’s done.

Further, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton were two creation scientists who had no problem crediting God as a scientific explanation. Francis Bacon is the scientist credited with formulating the scientific method, and he glorified God with his science.

Now that’s not to say we just throw up our hands and say “God did it”. It just means we acknowledge God’s role in everything he does. In the case of the great horned owl we believe God created a certain kind of bird, and during the course of human history we now call it an owl. It may have changed significantly from the original created kind, but its genetic makeup, as a result of natural selection, now resides in various species of owls; this is not the same as evolution. Therefore it’s perfectly reasonable to conclude that the owl’s eye didn’t evolve at all. But if an evolutionist refuses to acknowledge God’s work, then they must demonstrate how something as complex as an eye could evolve by random, natural processes.

Watson does this by relying on computer models, but computer models are only as good as the human input, and often they contain built-in bias (garbage in, garbage out). If the program is built with the assumption that organisms can evolve, then it will inevitably allow for evolution, vindicating the evolutionist. But computers don’t have the ability to determine whether or not evolution is even possible; they don’t understand the complexity and limitations found in DNA any more than humans do. So computer modeling is flawed from the very beginning.

Consider this: if the genetic makeup for feathers doesn’t exist in an organism’s population (or in previous generations), then future generations won’t have the genetic makeup for feathers, regardless of how “intelligent” evolution is. There’s no way for the DNA to organize such a complex blueprint over the course of billions of years- let alone perfect it for flight.

Nonetheless Watson is undeterred in his effort to demonstrate that evolution does have the innate ability to evolve and improve over time- something called “evolvability.” He explains that heredity, selection and variation in organisms can be altered by past evolution, and thus affect future evolution. He uses animal limbs as an example, reasoning that future generations could possess either longer or shorter limbs. And depending on whether their forelimbs and hindlimbs change independently, or are correlated, then any changes will alter the building blocks available for evolution to do its thing.

Now part of his proposal is reasonable from a creationist perspective. I have no problem accepting that changes over time may shape future building blocks, but what I don’t accept is the evolutionary bait-and-switch. It’s one thing for natural selection to act on limb length when an organism has limbs, but it’s an entirely different thing when there are no limbs to work with in the first place. Neither an amoeba nor bacterium have limbs, so “evolvability” isn’t going to help it “evolve” limbs regardless of the building blocks available. Organisms can only build off the genetic instructions available to it. In other words, pigs aren’t growing feathers just because one pig might have longer limbs than another. With all the genetic building blocks they’ve accumulated over the millennia, they still don’t have the genetic blue print for feathers.

Therefore such an evolutionary concept is built on unprovable assumptions, and Watson even admits there isn’t much of a theoretical foundation for it, yet he hopes that will come.

He insists that the “ability to learn is not itself something that needs to be designed,” but I would suggest that it does. Creationists have no problem with regulatory connections aiding an organism to better survive in its environment, but the ability to do so is a creative design by God. The Bible tells us that God’s eternal power and divine nature are clearly seen from what he has made so that we are without excuse (Romans 1:20). But here we see how some will go to great lengths to deny God his credit. The abilities inherent in gene regulation are only possible as a result of God’s design, not “an inevitable product of random variation and selection.”

So far I’ve been mostly focused on the larger evolutionary picture by Watson, but why couldn’t the owl’s eyes be the result of some kind of evolutionary change from a previous kind of bird? In order to answer that we need to understand what makes the owl’s eye so special. To begin with, their eyes are large, elongated tubes held in place so that they cannot roll or move their eyes. They have three eye lids, and have incredible night vision and can rotate their heads 270 degrees with binocular vision.

Supposedly owls have been around for at least 65 million years, and there’s no undisputed ancestor of owls, so we don’t know what kind of bird an evolutionist would have us consider as a subject to see how we’d go from ordinary bird features to owl features. Perhaps we can take a look at the falcon; it’s also a predatory bird, so maybe we could imagine how their existing beady eyes could become locked in place and become wider and tubular. It seems reasonable, right? If they already have eyes, wouldn’t it just take the right environment to trigger natural selection to favor such traits?

The problem I see is that we don’t observe any modern day birds going through such a transformation, so we don’t know for certain if something like this is even possible. What kind of environmental factors could lead to such a transformation? In order to do address this with justice, perhaps an experiment would be in order. Maybe we could help evolution along by building large bird sanctuaries where we could control the lighting and place different bird candidates in them so see how they respond. After many years and many generations we could look to see how their eyes adapt to the dark and if they evolve into owls. If there’s any validity to evolution, this would be one way to find out. It might take decades, but that might be the best way for an evolutionist to back up their claims.

In the end, I don’t think Watson is very convincing that incremental improvements could produce an eye as a result of “evolvability”. An eye doesn’t evolve simply because an organism has the ability to change the length of limbs of future generations in a correlated manner. I suggest that an organism like the great horned owl appears to be well-designed because it was.

One thought on “Examining Intelligent Evolution

  1. Pingback: Things I have read on the internet – 14 | clydeherrin

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