When I reviewed Dr. Denis Alexander's book, "Creation or Evolution - Do We Have To Choose?", I somehow omitted to write-up my thoughts on chapter 4. Here it is! The online, Word and PDF editions are also updated.
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Chapter 4 - What Do We Mean By Evolution? Natural Selection And Reproductive Success
In this middle chapter seeking to explain the theory of evolution, Dr. Alexander seeks to explain the heart of modern Darwinian theory. Having discussed a little about the dating and genetics, we now get to the key idea: the combination of the continuous production of diversity, filtered by natural selection, to produce the useful improvements necessary to fill all the ecological niches of life.
Alexander explains the concept well. Three known processes (not just mutations, but also sexual reproduction and gene flow) produce variety. This variety is then put through the reality test. Those that are beneficial (in the sense of leading to longer life (and hence more time to produce offspring) or some other reproductive advantage) "survive" by being passed on to successive generations; the others are weeded out. The picture we're meant to have is well-described by Richard Dawkins as the "blind watchmaker" - there's an ever-rolling conveyer belt of possible modifications, and at the end the no-good ones are dumped in history's bin. The good ones survive, and thus the process is pretty much guaranteed to produce continual development.
Nice Story, But...
Now, though, we have to apply our own set of "reality filters" to this idea. The first thing to flag up is that creationism has no quarrel with the idea of "descent with modification". It's a truism that nobody is a clone of either parent. There's nothing innate in creationism that is against the idea even of one generation being better adapted to its surroundings than the one before. It's perfectly possible, as a concept, to believe that the Creator endowed his creatures with capabilities latent in their genes, that should only be activated or come to observable expression at a distant generation. In fact, creationists pretty much must believe this. If only a very limited number of animals survived the Biblical flood, then it has then to be believed that those animals had, within their gene-pool, sufficient potential to fill the earth again with all of its present variety.
Modification with descent, then, is not controversial. The big question is whether the modifications actually possible through this mechanism have limits or not. Put more simply - must a modified fish remain a fish, or can it eventually modify all the way to becoming a goat, as Darwinism teaches? Are the possibilities for change bounded, or unbounded? Strictly that's question that Dr. Alexander turns to in chapter 5. It's also to the point here, though, because in fact two of the mechanisms for generating variety that he describes do nothing of the kind - as concerns the kind of variety relevant to his purposes.
The Fifteen Of Squares
On page 80, Dr. Alexander complains that evolution is sometimes erroneously represented as only involving one process - genetic mutations - that creates novelty. Indeed it is so represented, by friend and foe alike - because that's the way it is. In sexual reproduction, there's a recombining of the genes of the parents - but recombination is not the generation of novelty. When a hand of cards is returned to the dealer, he shuffles and recombines them in interesting new ways, introducing a new game. But whatever happens in that game, it's still the same 52 cards, and you'll never turn over your hand to discover you've received the fifteen of squares, or that it's actually going to be a game of "Snakes and Ladders". Recombination shuffles what's there - it doesn't create genuine novelty. Alexander makes the point I've made above - that there can be apparent novelty, because the recombination could bring genes to express themselves in ways that they hadn't been able to in the old combination. That, though, is irrelevant to the point. The novelty gets expressed for the first time here - but it was generated previously. A mechanism that expresses already-existing potential is not a mechanism that makes potential: we have to go elsewhere to find that: which leaves us with two.
Gene flow is the same story. The duplicating, rearranging, inserting, etcetera, of information is a distinct concept from the generation of novel information. The question that the Darwinist cannot answer (because Darwinism is wrong) is "where does the information actually come from?" There is no problem for a creationist in believing in not just three, but three hundred million, if necessary, biological mechanisms for the shuffling of information. If you took a print-out of this review to the local copy shop, you might find that their machine has double-printed a page, or added a blank page, or output the pages in the wrong order. What you'd be a bit shocked to find would be that page 42 was now a report on the Boston Marathon, or the second act of Hamlet.
Dr. Alexander glosses over that critical distinction, and it's a weakness that surfaces several times in the book. The genetic code is a code, and as such can be analysed by the mathematical tools used to analyse codes. It is information, and as such falls within the boundaries of information theory. Throughout the book, Alexander either pretends that information theory doesn't exist, or when he addresses it tries to argue that it shouldn't be allowed to apply to biology, or that a special version should be allowed for dealing with biology. In this chapter he takes the "behave as if it isn't there" approach, and these issues are glossed over. From that angle, these parts of the chapter are simply an instance of the equivocation fallacy. There's no real distinction between the concepts of directionless change, change within a limit, and unlimited change. I can run round in a circle: it's change, but not getting me anywhere. I can train to run faster and faster - but never so fast that I run 100m in 3 seconds, or a marathon in a minute: the change has limits.
Can We Mutate Our Way There?
Mutations, then, are the only potential source of real improvement into the genome, with other mechanisms later perhaps allowing the changes it brings to actually be expressed. Can they do the job? Alexander of course thinks they can; there's no actual mathematics in the chapter or references to it to establish the point. Again that's related to the Achilles heel - no application of information theory. If an organism has been adapted down the years (or rather, its ancestors were selected down the years) for survival, then that makes it a finely-tuned organism. It's a good match for its environment (or strictly, its parents were for theirs). What, then, is the likely effect of a random alteration to its genetic code? What are the statistics? Information theory teaches that random alterations to a finely-tuned code cannot improve it, with any likelihood that could be considered within the realms of possibility even given billions of years of attempts. The sums simply don't add up. We all know intuitively this by experience. Printing errors when running-off essays do not produce new and brilliant analyses of the topic that the author never intended. Scratches on installer CDs for a computer program don't result in brilliant new features in the code. Dropping your cheap Chinese mobile in the washing up bowl won't make it behave like a top-of-the-range Nokia. Finely tuned codes, when altered, can never produce something useful, within the limits of reasonable mathematical possibility unless the possible age of the universe is stretched by obscenely large numbers which nobody (of whatever persuasion) has ever suggested. Monkeys on type-writers won't ever produce the works of Shakespeare; it can't be done. Dr. Alexander passes over all such questions, because his take is that Darwinism is true and therefore the mathematics must work out somehow. But if your favoured theory results in two plus two equalling seventeen thousand and twenty three, you're theory is false and that fact can't be changed: the laws of mathematics don't work like that. The problem for Darwinism is that it's caught between pincers. There must be a certain average number of mutations being produced from one generation to the next. That number has to be enormously high in order to generate, amongst all the randomness, all the useful changes to take us from single-cells to man in the small number of years available for it (a billion is not a big number in the context of the complexity of the human genome). But, if the number is not very very small, then the number of dangerous mutations would mean the organism would have no hope of survival. It's an unsolvable problem. Too few mutations means that not enough of the magicly-right ones to generate the new complexity could come about. But if enough good mutations do take place in an organism, then because of the facts regarding tuned information, enough bad mutations will also have happened to be fatal.
It's telling that all Alexander's examples in the chapter are of the kind that creationists refute before breakfast. They're all of the "change within limits" kind. There are no genuine examples of true novelty in the sense of new useful capabilities through the addition of new information. There are moths of this colour or that colour, or bacteria resistant to this drug or not resistant to this drug. There are sub-sections of the population that die of malaria and some that don't because of sickle-cell anaemia. But nowhere are there fish that become reptiles, or dinosaurs that become birds. He does a good job of illustrating all the kinds of "evolution" that are not controversial - and has nothing to illustrate the kinds that are. In a book positively comparing full-blown evolution with creationism, it's a telling omission: after so many years of creationists making this criticism, if there were good answers and examples we'd have heard them by now.
More Than Genes?
Another issue that Dr. Alexander glosses over, both here and in the rest of the book, is the theological implications of this scheme. Darwinism implies that every human ability is the result of survival advantage. Whatever you possess, coded somehow in your genes, must have survived because, well, it was helpful for survival. It was a help to your ancestors to mate more, and/or have healthier offspring. That's what the filter of natural selection is. This precise observation is often glossed over by all kinds of Darwinists, not just those with a theistic evolutionary axe to grind. It's not just that feature X is supposed to be somehow useful - it's got to be specifically useful for surviving.
Is that really true? No - it's a flat denial of the Bible's doctrine of man, as made in the image of God. The image of God, with all its attendant potentialities, is not simply something that arises through the struggle for limited resources. According to Scripture, it's a special endowment from God, given for us to use to glorify him. Art, music, culture - all these things are wonderful gifts. The Darwinist viewpoint, though, is that somehow they had some usefulness in our caveman past and allowed one Og to out-club Ug and so pass on his genes. Darwin himself, in his book The Descent Of Man, goes through case after case of human faculties, to try to make plausible some kind of explanation in this region. If you allow that, though, you have fundamentally denied the doctrine of man in the Bible, and the reasons assigned there for his uniqueness. The genius of the chess grandmaster, the budding Mozart infant prodigy, the literary genius of the expert novel writer - these are not features that arose from the earth : they were handed down from heaven.
The Blind Watchmaker
It's a bit of a jolt on page 86, to read Dr. Alexander speak of this unending upwards development through natural selection having taken place "under the sovereignty of God". Cells-to-cellists evolution, as just described, is a blind algorithm. Supposing we could make the sums ad up and it were a possible, it's then inevitable. Given the unending production line of genetic change, and the continual selection of the useful changes, and given the earth environment, it's then inevitable that every ecological niche will be filled. That's what the algorithm does. That's Professor Dawkins point when he speaks of the "blind watchmaker". It doesn't need providential oversight - it's an algorithm and it does what it does. If it needed sovereign oversight, then it would be something else. Darwinism is a deistic scheme - the results are programmed by the initial conditions. Note that Darwin himself was a deist - a point rather lost on Dr. Alexander when (elsewhere in the book) he argues that Darwinism has no theological implications. The only other use of Scripture in the chapter is a rather bizarre use of the parable of the sower (Matthew 13) as an example of natural selection.
A Hostile World
Another major theological problem here is spotted when you look more closely at what's embedded in the idea of natural selection. It assumes the idea of a hostile environment. For there to be progress (in the evolutionary sense), the less-well-fitted organisms have to die out. Just because one offspring has in some way better able to reproduce is in itself not particularly significant - if his other brothers and sisters can reproduce too, then all of their genes will be passed on, not just the favoured one's. The reason why his genes survive, in the Darwinian scenario, while theirs don't, is because of necessary competition. Resources are scarce; nature is red in tooth and claw; it's a dog-eat-dog world, and only the fit will survive. The world has to be hostile for Darwinistic development scenarios to play out. If it's not, then all the genes survive, and there's no significant development. There's just endless shuffling, as a dog gains better genes and then loses them because he didn't need them: his neighbour didn't need to eat him.
That's a scenario that sits OK with the budding atheist - and it's realising the implications of that that played a part in paving the way for the horrific atheist regimes of the 20th century. (The introduction of competition brought evolution back in a meaningful way in Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany - where previously charity and compassion had been allowing the unfit to survive.) It's not a scenario, though, that can fit with a Biblical view of creation. Even if, like Alexander, you take the line that Genesis is totally theological and a-historical, yet you've got to then deal with the actual theology that's there. At a minimum, the world was a "very good" place, designed for man to live in a blissful paradise, without suffering, pain or death (these coming from sin). In Genesis, man's not in a dreadful battle for survival, a fierce competition to get the food and the girl before his brother does. Man lives in wonderful harmony with creation which is fruitful for his sake - because all is at peace under God's loving care. This isn't a question Alexander begins to face until much later in the book - and the aspect that the idea of development through natural selection inherently requires a hostile world is one he never addresses at all.
The Best Inference?
At the end of the chapter, Alexander makes an apposite statement that he never realises the implications of or gets round to applying. It is that the business of science is to make an inference to the most plausible explanation. Yes. But, how can an explanation be known as the most plausible one unless there's another theory that is shown to be less plausible? Throughout the book, Darwinism is simply described and asserted. How, though, would a creationist deal with the issues of this chapter? What does he say about natural selection and genetics? How does his interpretation of the data differ with the evolutionist one? What are his objections, and how would Alexander deal with them? Dunno. Alexander's aim is to persuade his reader there's only one game in town. If you think you hear the noise of another one over the other side, he'll simply shout louder about his one. It's only persuasive until you start to tune out the shouting and be a little more critical. Dr. Alexander is a good describer. He describes the Darwinian theory well. But he doesn't bother to allow real-life creationists to put their case, and answer their writings; he simply behaves as if they don't exist. "The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him" - Proverbs 18:17.