An Atheist Reads I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist
Chapter 6: New Life Forms: From the Goo to You via the Zoo?
- The chapter begins with a summary of the film Contact, based on the novel by Carl Sagan. Geisler and Turek tell us how the scientist played by Jodie Foster knew that she had received an intelligent extraterrestrial signal by the fact that it contained a series of prime numbers. If a simple series of prime numbers in a radio signal indicates intelligence, Geisler and Turek reason, then how is it the much more complicated information found in living cells doesn’t?
- They go on to quote Sagan from Cosmos, describing the human brain as containing the equivalent of twenty million books of information — a far more complex machine than anything humans have ever been able to produce. Then, Geisler and Turek ask the question:
- “If intelligent human beings can’t create anything close to the human brain, why should we expect nonintelligent natural laws to do so?” (Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I DON’T HAVE ENOUGH FAITH TO BE AN ATHEIST, p. 139)
What About New Life Forms?
- Where do new life forms come from? Can natural selection really account for the diversity of life we observe on Earth? Geisler and Turek take a moment, before addressing these questions, to ridicule scientific attempts to explain the origin of life. They repeat their assertion from the previous chapter that all evidence points to an intelligent designer, and that scientists who reject God’s involvement resort to “just so” stories that “magically” give them the first life arising from nonliving chemicals.
- Overlooking the fact that their explanation is literally a magical one.
- “The Darwinists’ position is even more problematic when you consider that they don’t even have an explanation for the source of the nonliving chemicals.” (p. 140)
- This is an especially silly thing for Geisler and Turek to say, considering how much better the naturalistic explanation for the origin of chemicals is than their “God did it” hypothesis. We know that elementary particles emerged from the Big Bang and hydrogen and helium, the lightest elements, formed soon after, and every element heavier than boron — that’s from carbon all the way through the rest of the periodic table — was formed by nucleosynthesis in the cores of stars or during supernovae. We have very, very good, empirical, scientific reasons for thinking this. If Geisler and Turek think that’s not where the chemical elements, including those that make life possible, came from, then I would be very interested to hear their proposal. If the chemical elements weren’t produced by the processes I just described, but by God, what did God do? Specifically. How did God do it? And I would expect Geisler and Turek to demonstrate the validity of their explanation with lots and lots of good, solid evidence. Afterall, as they themselves say on this very same page:
- “Suggesting a possibility is not enough — they have to present evidence if they are going to be scientific.” (p. 140)
- Wow. I could not have said that any better.
- Geisler and Turek examine the difference between Microevolution and Macroevolution.
- First, Geisler and Turek challenge the term “natural selection”. Since no intelligence is supposedly involved, they say, no selection has taken place. The fittest creatures survive. This doesn’t strike Geisler and Turek as a meaningful observation.
- Geisler and Turek acknowledge the occurrence of microevolution — for example, the survival of resistant bacteria following a dose of antibiotics. They deny the occurrence of macroevolution, however, since, as they say, “bacteria always stay bacteria.”
- Geisler and Turek claim that scientists make no distinction between microevolution and macroevolution, but this isn’t true. It is true that microevolution and macroevolution are considered to be the same process, but there is a distinction. That distinction is one of time. Macroevolution is microevolution operating on a geological time scale.
- “Natural selection has never been observed to create new types.” (p. 141)
- There are a few things wrong with this. First, as Geisler and Turek have already said themselves, natural selection doesn’t actually create anything — it’s the name we give to the phenomenon of the fittest organisms surviving to perpetuate their genes through their offspring. New species really begin with mutations.
- Second, new species have absolutely been observed. Typically, speciation takes much longer than a human lifetime and can’t be observed, but there are exceptions to that rule. To cite one example, new plant species have been observed appearing in a single generation through polyploidy — when an organism is born with more than two sets of chromosomes.
- But why, according to Geisler and Turek, can’t natural selection result in macroevolution? We get five reasons.
“Notice that no new life forms came into existence (they always remained finches); only the relative proportion of existing large-beaked to small-beaked finches changed. Notice also that natural selection cannot explain how finches came into existence in the first place.” (p. 144)
- Genetic Limits. What do they mean by genetic limits? They mean the barrier that prevents one species from becoming another. They use the example of dog breeding — dogs might come out all shapes and sizes, but they’re always dogs, no matter how they’re manipulated by breeders.
- I challenge this example. The fact that dog breeding only ever produces dogs doesn’t strike me as a very strong point against natural selection, since the goal of dog breeding is to produce dogs.
- I should also point out that only creationists believe these so-called genetic limits exist. There is no scientifically identified mechanism that keeps genetic changes resulting from microevolution from tipping over into macroevolution. And if you think about it that way, the idea of such a limit is absolute nonsense. Geisler and Turek admit that changes can accumulate as a result of microevolution, but when those changes accumulate to the point of speciation, they just magically stop? And if they don’t just magically stop, if there is some limitation that prevents speciation, what is it? Where is it? What is happening to make macroevolution impossible?
- Cyclical Change. This is the idea that the changes produced by evolution shift back and forth within a limited range. Geisler and Turek use the example of Darwin’s finches, whose beaks changed sizes to adapt to the weather:
- Cyclical change can occur. It’s not the only kind of change that can occur — Geisler and Turek miss that point — but it can occur. As Geisler and Turek themselves said earlier in this chapter, natural selection means that the fittest species survive. Fitness is a relative thing. Attributes that make a species fit for one environment might not make it fit for a different environment. And if a species lives in an environment that is cyclical, these sorts of cyclical changes are just what we would expect to see. But cyclical change is not the only kind of evolutionary change.
- I find it incredibly dishonest to continue to cite examples where microevolution has been observed, but has not resulted in new species, when evolutionary theory doesn’t predict change on that scale in such a short time to begin with. As I said earlier, there are some relatively rare circumstances where speciation can occur quickly, but for the most part evolution works very, very slowly. The fact that Darwin’s finches didn’t magically transform themselves into macaws in the summer and penguins in the winter, which is what Geisler and Turek seem to expect, proves nothing, because evolutionary theory doesn’t tell us to expect those sorts of abrupt, major changes.
- And again, Geisler and Turek are confusing evolution and abiogenesis. No, natural selection doesn’t explain how finches came into existence in the first place. It doesn’t mean to.
- Irreducible Complexity. Geisler and Turek define what they mean by irreducible complexity by quoting one of the men most responsible for propagating the idea, Michael Behe:
“An irreducibly complex system is ‘composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.’” (p. 145)
- Geisler and Turek go on:
- “Behe’s research verifies that living things are literally filled with molecular machines that perform the numerous functions of life. These molecular machines are irreducibly complex, meaning that all the parts of each machine must be completely formed, in the right places, in the right sizes, in operating order, at the same time, for the machine to function.” (p. 145)
- A worldwide consensus of biologists begs to differ with Michael Behe — both on the existence of irreducibly complex systems, and also on how complex systems got there. Behe, of course, is a major voice in the Intelligent Design movement. He sees no naturalistic way of accounting for what he calls irreducibly complex systems. But despite the protestations of Behe, and Geisler and Turek, there are ways — established, demonstrated ways — for complex systems to evolve naturally. One of the most well known examples is the Krebs cycle, a complicated series of chemical reactions that plays a key role in cellular metabolism, the evolution of which was explained persuasively in a paper published the same year as Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box.
- Nonviability of Transitional Forms. Geisler and Turek claim that transitional forms couldn’t survive.
“For example, consider the Darwinian assertion that birds evolved gradually from reptiles over long periods of time. This would necessitate a transition from scales to feathers. How could a creature survive that no longer has scales but does not quite have feathers?” (p. 148)
- First, “birds” and “reptiles” are not species. Those are classes according to modern taxonomy. “Species” is a few levels below “class” in the hierarchy. There are thousands and thousands of species that belong to the classes of birds (aves) or reptiles (reptilia). This is something creationists often do, either due to ignorance or willful dishonesty — they use terms like “type” without defining what a “type” is. Is a type a species? A genus? A family? An order? A class?
- Second, Geisler and Turek again exhibit a poor understanding of how evolution works. The line separating a species from its immediate evolutionary ancestor is a lot blurrier than they are implying. There probably was no half-bird, half-reptile running around. And the first bird didn’t emerge, beak and feathers and all, from an egg laid by its reptile mother. Evolution is a gradual process. Even changes we see as relatively abrupt took place across generations.
- Finally, the example of birds evolving from reptiles is a bad one for Geisler and Turek’s purposes, since we know there were dinosaur species that had feathers. Geisler and Turek make the argument from irreducible complexity, that a creature with half a feather couldn’t fly, but there are other advantages from feathers besides flight. Anything that results in an advantage can be favored by natural selection — better camouflage, better protection from the elements, looking more attractive to the opposite sex — there are all sorts of possible benefits to having feathers, even a few proto-feathers (if that’s even a word), short of being able to fly.
- Molecular Isolation. Geisler and Turek challenge common descent.
“Darwinists think the DNA similarity between apes and humans, for example . . . strongly implies an ancestral relationship. But is this evidence for common ancestry or for a common creator? It could be interpreted either way.” (p. 149)
- It could, if you don’t give a shit about evidence.
- Geisler and Turek argue that the fact that all life on Earth shares a common genetic code could just as easily be evidence that life was produced by the same creator, who designed all the various lifeforms to live in the same biosphere. Sure, it could be, hypothetically, if we’re just tossing out ideas. But do we have any good reasons for thinking it is evidence for a creator rather than for common descent? Which is more likely to be the case, given the evidence? That life evolved from common ancestors via the demonstrated and well understood natural mechanisms of evolution, or that life was created by an undemonstrated, unsubstantiated, largely undefined intelligent designer? Show me evidence that this designer exists, and evidence of what, specifically, this designer did and how we can recognize it, then we’ll talk.
- Next, they claim the fossil record is actually evidence for what they call “supernatural creation” rather than evolution. They quote mine Stephen J. Gould to establish that there are gaps in the fossil record, and that species in the fossil record don’t exhibit change and seem to appear suddenly, fully formed.
- “But instead of adopting creationism, Gould rejected the gradualism of Darwinism and formulated a theory he called ‘Punctuated Equilibria’. . . . Gould had no natural mechanism by which this could have occurred, but since he was an atheist he had to explain the fossil record somehow. This is a classic case of allowing your prejudices to taint your observations.” (p. 152)
- Can these guys get through a page without projecting?
- Also: glad to see we’re admitting that intelligent design and creationism are the same thing. I know that hasn’t always been easy for you guys.
- Geisler and Turek make a big deal about this idea of species appearing “fully formed” and “at the same time” in the fossil record. They call this evidence of instantaneous creation, forgetting (or not knowing) that what appears instantaneous to us as we examine the fossil record actually took place over long periods of time. The Cambrian explosion, referenced here by Geisler and Turek, occurred over tens of millions of years. Like their Mount Rushmore analogy in the previous chapter, where they proposed allowing natural geological forces to act on a mountain for ten years and then checking to see if Mount Rushmore had been created, Geisler and Turek apparently have no understanding of the time scales involved in evolution.
- Geisler and Turek also seemingly expect to see a smooth, unbroken series of transitions in the fossil record if evolution were true. This isn’t realistic for a number of reasons. First, fossils are hard to make. There are many species that must have existed for which we have no fossil record for at all. Fossilization requires very particular circumstances, and there’s no guarantee that specimens of every species will be preserved as fossils for us to find. Though that would be nice. Second, evolutionary change doesn’t occur at a constant rate. If a species is well adapted to its environment, and the environment doesn’t change and the species doesn’t move somewhere else, it may remain relatively unchanged for as long as the conditions to which it’s adapted endure. If those conditions change suddenly, then an evolutionary transition could also occur suddenly. (Again, “suddenly” on a geological time scale, not “suddenly” as we would use the word in everyday speech.)
- Moving on:
- “Since we all have to live in the same biosphere, we should expect some creatures to have similar designs. . . . To posit Darwinism, you must be able to explain the vast dissimilarity between living things. You must explain how the palm tree, the peacock, the octopus, the locust, the bat, the hippopotamus, the porcupine, the sea horse, the Venus flytrap, the human, and mildew, for example, have all descended from the first irreducibly complex life without intelligent intervention.” (pp. 154-155)
- The theory of evolution does explain that astounding diversity of life. That is its purpose. What I find most interesting about this quote is that Geisler and Turek are claiming that both the similarities shared by organisms and the differences between them are evidence for their intelligent designer. Both of these things are well explained by evolution — the similarities are due to common ancestry, and the differences are the result of organisms adapting to their various environments. Geisler and Turek assert that both the similarities and the differences among organisms are evidence for intelligent design, but they don’t say how. Again, unless they can define who or what their designer is, what their designer did and how we know, their arguments are meaningless. They might as well be arguing that Paul Bunyan dug the Grand Canyon.
Is Intelligent Design an Intelligent Alternative?
- Geisler and Turek say they agree with Darwinists that evolution is a fact — microevolution, that is, not macroevolution. There is no natural explanation for the origin of new life forms, they say. Intelligent design is the best explanation, but Darwinists are always attacking it in order to defend their own untenable position. Geisler and Turek present four objections to Intelligent Design, and their responses.
- Objection: Intelligent Design is not science. If Intelligent Design is not science, Geisler and Turek say, then neither is Darwinism, since both fields are attempting to discover what happened in the past. If Intelligent Design is ruled out, they say, then Darwinism itself must be ruled out, along with archaeology, cryptology, and forensic criminal investigations.
- They’re answering the wrong objection, I think. When people say that Intelligent Design isn’t science, they aren’t claiming that it’s illegitimate because it’s attempting to discover what happened in the past. They’re saying it’s illegitimate because it violates the scientific method. ID advocates like Geisler and Turek begin with the assumption that God — their God, the God of the Bible as they interpret it — is real and plays an active role in reality, causing events to occur. They don’t base that on evidence — they begin their Intelligent Design argument with that assumption already in place. So they’ve reached their conclusion before they even begin their investigation. The scientific method is supposed to end with the conclusion, not begin with it. ID isn’t disqualified as a science because of what it does, but because of how it does it.
- Objection: Intelligent Design commits the God-of-the-Gaps fallacy. Geisler and Turek dispute that they are using a gap argument because:
- “First, when we conclude that intelligence created the first cell or the human brain, it’s not simply because we lack evidence of a natural explanation; it’s also because we have positive, empirically detectable evidence for an intelligent cause. A message (specified complexity) is empirically detectable.” (p. 157)
- They’re referring again to the “message” of the genetic code. As I said in the previous video, DNA is not a message; it’s a molecule. They are confusing an analogy used to help us explain and understand a thing, for the thing itself.
- Objection: Intelligent Design is religiously motivated. Geisler and Turek don’t deny this charge.
- “There are two aspects to this objection. The first is that some Intelligent Design people may be religiously motivated. So what? Does that make Intelligent Design false?” (p. 159)
- No; the evidence does. The religious motivation explains why creationists — who are of the same ilk as Intelligent Design advocates, as Geisler and Turek themselves admitted in this chapter — are willing to accept evidence, or interpretations of evidence, that they would have no reason to accept without the religious motivation.
- “Why are creationist conclusions immediately thought to be biased but Darwinist conclusions automatically considered objective?” (p. 159)
- Who says Darwinist conclusions are automatically considered objective? Any scientific conclusion, in order to be accepted as valid, has to be demonstrated. If it’s found that a given conclusion has been unduly influenced by personal bias, it will be rejected, or at the very least viewed with a great deal of suspicion. There was an article in The Onion in 1998 about an astronomer who had announced that the center of the universe was his 9-year-old son that illustrates, in an exaggerated and very funny way, how this works. The astronomer cites all sorts of data to support his conclusion, but of course it’s ridiculous because everything he says is hopelessly corrupted by his personal bias. That sort of thing just doesn’t fly in legitimate science.
- Despite using the terms “creationism” and “Intelligent Design” interchangeably in this chapter, Geisler and Turek insist that Intelligent Design is not creation science.
- “[Intelligent Design scientists] don’t say that the data unambiguously supports the six-twenty-four-hour-day view of Genesis, or a worldwide flood. Instead, they acknowledge that the data for Intelligent Design is not based on a specific age or geologic history of the Earth. . . . In short, regardless of what the Bible may say on the topic, Darwinism is rejected because it doesn’t fit the scientific data, and Intelligent Design is accepted because it does.” (p. 160)
- But that is precisely the problem with Intelligent Design: because it doesn’t make any specific claims about the age of the Earth — or anything else — it’s useless. It’s a reaction to evolutionary theory, not a theory in its own right. It doesn’t say “Here’s what happened,” except in the most general sense. Instead it looks at the theory of evolution and says, “Well, that can’t be it. What about this? And this, this, this, and this?” It’s not unlike a conspiracy theory — it makes few positive claims of its own, and is mostly intended to undermine an already established explanation.
- Also, in that quote I just read we catch another glimpse of Geisler and Turek’s fundamental misunderstanding of how science works. They say that Intelligent Design is not based on a specific age or geologic history of the Earth. But we have solid, reliable data on which to base our estimate of the age of Earth. If Intelligent Design would work just as well no matter what age we assume Earth to be, can it really be that reliable?
So Why Are There Still Darwinists?
- Why are there still Darwinists if the evidence for Intelligent Design is so strong? The actual answer is, the evidence for Intelligent Design is nonexistent, but let’s play along Geisler and Turek suggest four reasons why scientists like Richard Dawkins refuse to accept Intelligent Design (pp. 162-163):
- First, Darwinists are unwilling to admit that God, rather than they, is the ultimate authority on truth.
- I don’t find this persuasive. Even if there were evidence for the existence of God, we would still need science to explain what’s going on. As I’ve said before, “God did it” is not a sufficient explanation for anything. What did God do? When did he do it? How did he do it? How do we know this? These are all questions that we would still need to answer if we wanted to truly understand how the universe worked.
- Also, we are the ultimate authority on truth, whether God exists or not. Not because we’re above God; because we are all trapped within our perceptions. No matter what external evidence or authority we are basing our conclusions on, ultimately it is we who believe or disbelieve, we who determine what we find plausible and what we don’t. We all do it, theist and atheist and everyone else. We can’t not do it.
- Second, admitting the existence of God would mean giving up the ability to account for events with natural explanations.
- This would seem to be a problem for theists as well, unless the theist in question just doesn’t care whether reality is comprehensible. If you’re willing to accept that God is directly responsible for some things, why can’t God be directly responsible for everything? Why recognize the existence of natural laws, or uniformity, or logic at all? How do you tell the difference between a natural event, and a miracle made to appear as a natural event?
- Third, Darwinists risk losing financial rewards and professional admiration.
- This is true only because Intelligent Design is such a joke. If a scientist were to find compelling evidence leading to a comprehensive, persuasive, working theory of Intelligent Design that actually accounted for things better than the theory of evolution, that scientist would be a legend in his or her own lifetime. Anyone who discovered evidence that overturned evolution, the unifying theory of biology, would be celebrated on the same level as Newton, Galileo, Einstein, Darwin — there is absolutely a financial and professional motivation to rejecting Darwinism and embracing Intelligent Design, if you can back it up. So far, it’s not looking good.
- Fourth, Darwinists would be admitting that they don’t have the authority to define right and wrong for themselves.
- “By ruling out the supernatural, Darwinists can avoid the possibility that anything is morally prohibited.” (p. 163)
- What does moral theory have to do with whether or not you accept biological evidence? I suppose every scientist who accepts evolution does so because he or she is willfully rejecting God’s moral authority.
- Rejecting the supernatural doesn’t require rejecting the concept of an external moral authority. I don’t believe in the supernatural. And I believe morality is 100% man-made. But that doesn’t mean I make my own rules. I appeal to moral standards that exist outside of myself. I don’t think they come from God; they come from other people, from a moral consensus of which I am a small part and in which I am a constant participant, but I don’t just arbitrarily decide what is right and wrong for myself. That sounds more like something Geisler and Turek’s asshole God would do.
- “This is not to say that all Darwinists have such motivations for their beliefs. Some may truly believe that the scientific evidence supports their theory. We think they get this misconception because most Darwinists rarely study the research of those in other fields.” (p. 164)
- I might say something similar about creationists, only I’d say that most creationists rarely understand the research of those in legitimate scientific fields.
How Important Is the Age of the Universe?
- Not very important, apparently, since Intelligent Design doesn’t bother to consider a specific age for Earth.
- Geisler and Turek say that the age of the universe isn’t that important to their argument. What really matters is their larger claim:
- “We can debate how long the days in Genesis were, or whether the assumptions that are made in dating techniques are valid. But when we do, we must be sure not to obscure the larger point that this creation requires a Creator.” (p. 165)
- Yes, as long as you believe God made everything, details like what God did, how God did it, how long ago God did it, and how we know God did t, don’t matter. SCIENCE!
- Geisler and Turek conclude the chapter with a proposal that Intelligent Design, as they’ve presented it in the last several chapters of this book, be taught to public school students alongside evolution.
- “Why don’t we give our children all the scientific evidence — pro and con — and let them make up their own minds? After all, shouldn’t we be teaching them how to think critically on their own? Of course we should. But Darwinists will go to great lengths to ensure that that doesn’t happen. Darwinists would rather suppress the evidence than allow it to be presented fairly. Why? Because this is the one area where Darwinists lack faith — they lack the faith to believe that their theory will still be believed after our children see all the evidence.” (p. 167)
- They want to gain acceptance for Intelligent Design not by presenting their theories to trained, professional scientists and persuading them, but by teaching it to children, who lack the skills and knowledge to evaluate it, as though it were true. Indoctrinating children who don’t know any better to accept baseless claims as the truth. If you needed any more evidence that Intelligent Design is fundamentally rooted in religion, there you go.
Next: Chapter 7: Mother Teresa vs. Hitler