A Month of Studying Evolution

by Justin on May 17, 2013

Evolution of humans from monkeys

I was raised Christian, and first believed, as I was told, that God created people.

When I was old enough to start reasoning, I heard about evolution as well as many of the holes that people try to poke in it (for example “Imagine a hurricane going through a junkyard and accidentally assembling a Boeing 747. That’s the kind of random chance required by evolution – it’s nuts!”)

The idea that random chance caused all life on earth did seem to me like a crazy idea. But an all-powerful God sitting outside the universe pulling invisible strings seemed like an equally crazy idea. I realized it didn’t make sense to reject one crazy idea (evolution) only to replace it with another crazy idea (God) for which I had no evidence.

So for a long time my opinion on how we came to exist was an agnostic “I don’t know.”

A Brief History of Everything

Cover of "A Brief History of Everything" by Ken WilberThen a few years ago I read the book “A Brief History of Everything” by Ken Wilber which had a different explanation that I’d never heard before.

Wilber acknowledged that life did change gradually over billions of years (the evidence is undeniable). He also acknowledged that random chance alone can’t account for the sudden leaps in complexity seen in the fossil record, or for life as complex as humans evolving over only a few billion years.

So, Wilber wrote, there must be some sort of creativity behind the evolved complexity that we see. “Creativity, not chance, builds a Kosmos”. But he described “God” or “Spirit” vaguely – as a creative force that both permeates and transcends the material universe, always driving it forward towards higher levels of complexity and consciousness, perhaps evolving itself along with the matter that it is influencing.

The epiphany related to evolution that I got from Wilber’s book was that the “God” that “created” life doesn’t have to be anything like the God described by any particular religion. Those Gods came with far too much religious and mythological silliness for me to take them seriously – thank goodness I didn’t have to!

As Wilber wrote, there’s a creative force behind the universe…

“…but it does not follow that you can then equate creativity with your favorite and particular God. It does not follow that into this void you can postulate a God with all the specific characteristics that make you happy – God is the God of only the Jews, or only the Hindus, or only the indigenous peoples, and God is watching over me, and is kind, and just, and merciful, and so on. We have to be very careful about these types of limited and anthropomorphic characteristics, which is one of the reasons I prefer “Emptiness” as a term for spirit, because it means unbounded or unqualifiable. [...] There is a spiritual opening in the Kosmos. Let us be careful how we fill it.”

Aaah, finally I could reject the “random chance” theory and the “Omniscient Christian God” theory – neither of which seemed reasonable to me, and I could replace them with this new idea that was open and vague enough that I could cautiously accept it. I say “cautiously accept” which is true, but I found those pages of the book so enlightening that I must have read them at least 10-20 times. It was the best explanation I’d heard so far.

Wilber used two examples of sudden leaps in complexity that couldn’t be explained by the random mutations of evolution – the appearance of the wing and the eyeball. Both, he said, needed to appear fully formed in order to be useful. There’s a theory that wings evolved gradually from forelegs. But with an appendage that is half wing and half leg, you’re screwed and would be naturally selected out of existence, so an entire wing could never form gradually as required by evolution. Same with an eye. (How cool it must have been, I thought, when the first eye opened and the universe looked out upon itself for the first time.)

Then a year or two ago I watched an interview with Richard Dawkins where he explained a plausible-sounding theory of how the eye actually could have developed gradually.

Richard’s explanation made me begin to wonder whether Ken Wilber’s ideas were correct, and I decided that sometime I’d have to study evolution in more detail so I could form a more educated opinion. That time was last month (and some of the previous month).

The Books

I read 3 books on evolution, all with different (opposing) perspectives. I found all 3 books fascinating, and would recommend them all. As tempting as it is to jump into a detailed analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments within each book, I’ll refrain – I’d have to write a book myself to do that. Instead, here’s a very brief summary of each one:

Cover of "Darwin's Black Box by Michael Behe“Darwin’s Black Box” by Michael Behe: Like Ken Wilber, Michael Behe accepts the fact that life changed gradually over billions of years, and like Wilber he thinks that there were creative jumps too great to be explained by chance. Behe is a biochemist, so rather than using examples like the wing and the eye, he discusses biochemical systems within cells that are incredibly complex and can only function if all of their parts are in place. These systems, he concludes, could only have been created by an intelligent designer.

The book explains in detail how certain complex cellular systems work,  and points out that scientists have almost no clue how they could have developed gradually- it certainly looks like they couldn’t been created through random mutations.

Cover of "Why Evolution Is True" by Jerry Coyne“Why Evolution Is True” by Jerry A. Coyne: As you might guess from the title, this book outlines the evidence supporting the idea both that evolution happened, and that random mutation and natural selection account for everything – no intelligent designer required.

Jerry Coyne doesn’t spend much time attempting to refute the “intelligent design” of the specific cellular systems that Michael Behe talks about, but he does provide overwhelming evidence supporting the rest of evolution. He argues convincingly that chance and natural selection can account for all life (including wings & eyeballs) even if some of the steps haven’t been figured out yet. After reading this book I have no doubt that if I follow my family tree back far enough I’d find cavemen, and then monkeys, and eventually fish, and so on.  And that it’s likely that no God played any role in that development.

Cover of "Finding Darwin's God" by Ken Miller“Finding Darwin’s God” by Ken Miller: Ken Miller is a biologist and a Catholic like Michael Behe, but he agrees with Jerry Coyne that no intelligent designer was required to meddle with the natural process of evolution. The reason I read this book is because despite his conviction that evolution is true, Miller still believes in the Christian God, and in this book he tries to reconcile God & evolution.

Before discussing his belief in God, Miller spends most of the book attempting to refute the ideas of creationists & intelligent design advocates. He dedicates an entire chapter to dealing with Michael Behe’s claims head on. Although Miller certainly makes a few dents, he doesn’t come close to providing the detailed step-by-step evolutionary explanation of certain cellular systems that Behe demands.

But I think what Ken Miller does argue successfully is that Behe’s God is likely just another God of the Gaps. Even if some aspects of the world baffle scientists today, he says, it never makes sense to attribute those gaps to God (just look at how many times in the past seemingly impossible gaps have been figured out).

BTW another reason not to assume that God is the cause of anything in the material world is because doing so discourages discovery, as Neil Degrasse Tyson explains in this talk.

Anyhow, I found that Miller’s refutation of the arguments against evolution was quite strong. His justifications for holding a belief in God were, in my opinion, pretty weak. Too bad – I was excited to read what he had to say about God.

Interesting fact – In 2005 there was a trial in Dover, PA about whether intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution in schools. In the trial, Miller and Behe were both expert witnesses for opposing sides. The school board (for which Miller was a witness) won, and intelligent design is not included in the curriculum.

Young-Earth Creationism: In case you’re wondering why I didn’t also read any book defending the “young earth creationist” perspective that the Book of Genesis is literally true and that the universe is about 6,000 years old, it’s because I think that seriously considering that perspective would be like seriously considering whether the small earthquake the shook my apartment today was caused by the god Poseidon slamming his staff into the ground – which is what the ancient Greeks used to believe caused earthquakes.

Conclusions

As you’ve probably guessed by this point, I now think it’s likely that random mutation and natural selection alone account for our emergence from the earliest life forms. Ken Wilber’s idea that there’s a transcendent creative force driving evolution forward has all but lost its hold in my mind. Darn. I liked his theory. I may have to write him another letter, since that’s what I do now.

It’s slightly sad – in the same way I suppose that a child might feel sad to discover that Santa Clause isn’t real, or the slight sadness that I feel when I hear Christmas carols and know that the special meaning they once had was based on a myth.

I should mention here that I think most of Wilber’s writing is brilliant. He got evolution wrong – from the instantaneous appearance of wings & eyeballs, to the role that chance plays in evolution, to his claim that “very few theorists believe [...] the standard Neo-Darwinian explanation of chance mutation and natural selection” anymore – all wrong. It seems that Wilber fell prey to the risky business of trying to paste God into some supposed gaps of science. But most of the rest of Wilber’s material that I’ve read on other topics is highly worthwhile.

What Now?

Human life seems – although I don’t like to say it – a bit less sacred. Still sacred – yes – but somehow the randomness of evolution has shaved off a small section of the gold trim. If we rolled back the clock of evolution a billion years and let it run again, the chances that homo sapiens would eventually appear seem quite slim. Maybe some other form of intelligent life would eventually arise, but probably not now, and probably not us.

But there’s still something amazing about life, and consciousness, and the universe. I think that the fact that random mutation and natural selection likely account for our existence does not mean that the universe is purely mechanistic. I still think there is more to the universe than the tools of science can detect.

The fact that we are conscious – that at least some part of the universe is aware, is a sign of a depth beyond matter, I think. And the transcendent experiences of the mystics are another sign. I think consciousness and mysticism cannot be reduced to chemical activity in brains.

It seems that I’ve drifted off of the topic of evolution, but evolution relates to all this, which is probably why it’s the one scientific fact that so many people can’t stop trying to discredit.

Studying evolution has both added to and (just a little) detracted from my sense of wonder about life and the universe. It reinforces the amazing fact that we all happen to exist in an unimaginably tiny sliver of both space and time.

As Ken Wilber correctly wrote, 14 billion years ago “there was, precisely, absolute nothingness, and then within less than a nanosecond the material universe blew into existence.” Many billions of years later, life formed and began gradually evolving over more billions of years, until finally “a mere few hundred years ago, on a small and indifferent planet around an insignificant star, evolution became conscious of itself.”

And it is at this time, and on this planet, that we exist – amazing!

“After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked – as I am surprisingly often – why I bother to get up in the mornings.” – Richard Dawkins

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

john July 27, 2013 at 2:14 am

You say that

“The fact that we are conscious – that at least some part of the universe is aware, is a sign of a depth beyond matter, I think. And the transcendent experiences of the mystics are another sign. I think consciousness and mysticism cannot be reduced to chemical activity in brains.”

If you really believe that yet dont believe in any conscious creator than your views are inconsistent. Real atheists will tell you transcendent experiences and consciousness is dependent on chemical activity in the brain and nothing else. FWIW after years of study in many different areas with me starting starting out as a catholic(mostly in name only, lol) and becoming an atheist it is impossible for me to deny a creator even if I wanted to(and I sometimes have). Trust me there is so much that you have not researched, seen, or even thought of yet. The cause of our universe is not found within the matter in it. The saying mind>matter is correct. I’m not religous although I do believe in God. Not any religous god thoug

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Justin August 20, 2013 at 8:29 am

“If you really believe that yet don’t believe in any conscious creator than your views are inconsistent.”
- Why can’t we be conscious without there being a conscious “creator”? I don’t see the inconsistency.

“Trust me there is so much that you have not researched, seen, or even thought of yet.”
- I have no doubt that you’re right about that. If you have any material (books, etc) to suggest I’m interested in hearing about it.

“The cause of our universe is not found within the matter in it.”
- I remain agnostic about that idea. I don’t know if it’s true or not.

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Michel January 8, 2014 at 6:47 am

Hello.

I’m not from the USA, but i found really strange that there is actual debate around teaching the intelligent design on schools. Especially when the topics has a few hundreds of years old, and many philosophers have discuss on the subject already.
David Hume writed a book, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, on that in the SVIII. It’s very good, i strongly recommend it and i think it may interest you.
Anyway, i really liked your actitud of comming up with 3 books on the subject, and reading them all. I imagine you learn a lot. Well done!

Warmly,
Michel

Reply

Justin January 8, 2014 at 5:56 pm

Thanks for the book suggestion – I’ll look it up.

Reply

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