Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Creation and extinction

The late William Provine was a leading evolutionary biologist. More substantive that Richard Dawkins. Here he explains why he thinks the impression of design in nature is illusory: 

Understanding evolution does not undermine many beliefs in god: deism, gods that work through natural phenomena, gods invented from tortured arguments by theologians or academics, and many others. Understanding evolution is, nevertheless, the most efficient engine of atheism ever discovered by humans. It challenges the primary, worldwide, observable reason for belief in a deity: the feeling of intelligent design in biological organisms, including humans.
The feeling of intelligent design disappears in the perspective of evolution…So, of the 50,000 or so species, all but twenty-five went extinct…Even with all the exquisite adaptations that smack of an intelligent designer, these vertebrates were poor survivors.  
Natural selection is not a mechanism, does no work, does not act, does not shape, does not cause anything…Natural selection is the outcome of a very complex process that basically boils down to heredity, genetic variation, ecology, and demographics (especially the overproduction of offspring, and constant struggle). The adaptations that evolve we call "naturally selected"…The process also virtually guarantees extinction when the environment changes sufficiently, which it often does. The intelligent design apparent in the adaptations has no inkling of environmental change. The pattern of extinction, however, is precisely what one would expect of the causes of natural selection.   
Every organism that has become extinct (about 99+ per cent of all species that have ever lived) was jam-packed with adaptations. Some of those adaptations became detriments to the organism when the environment changed and caused the organism to become extinct. The better an organism is adapted to a particular environment, the more certain it is that it will become instinct when the environment changes. Adaptations are hopelessly tied with extinction. The feeling of intelligent design in organisms must thus be tied to extinctions, too. That is why evolutionists give up on the feeling of intelligent design.  
The second reason why understanding evolution precludes the feeling of intelligent design is that evolution also shows no hint of progress. 
Each of these infectious agents has evolved as long as humans have existed. I can see no hierarchy whatsoever in the productions of evolution. Any deity that would work this way seems perfectly awful to me. The process that produced these very different pathogens and humans just happens, and speaking as if evolution "cared" about its production is unintelligible.  
These two reasons to reject the feeling of intelligent design in biological organisms are just a sample of compelling reasons. The famous evolutionist George C. Williams has written an essay on the evolution of social behavior, and concludes that social behavior in animals is nothing less than ghastly, and any hope we have as humans to have a decent moral world is to fight fiercely against the selfishness that evolution has produced in us. "Evolution, Religion, and Science" The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (2006).

i) On thing that's striking about this is how much is just a variation on the so-called problem of natural evil or so-called problem of animal suffering. A standard theodicy which fields that problem will already cover most of this ground. By the same token, most of this isn't uniquely evolutionary. 

ii) In YEC, God creates all the nature kinds at the outset. They diversify from thereon out. In OEC, God introduces natural kinds is staggered fashion. YEC is more synchronic, OEC is more diachronic. But in both cases, once made, natural kinds are subject to adaptation. Creationism allows for adaptation and microevolution. 

Mass extinction due to overspecialization and environmental change is not at odds with YEC or OEC. Even if organisms are divinely designed, they will vulnerable to extinction if their environment changes too fast or too drastically. Although evolution implies mass extinction, you can have mass extinction apart from evolution. Absent providential protection, you can have mass extinction even if evolution is false.  

iii) To take a comparison, our hitech civilization is utterly dependent on electricity. Our technology is junk without electricity. A natural disaster could render our technology useless. But it would hardly mean our technology wasn't designed.

iv) It's true that there's a tradeoff between specialization and adaptability. It's unclear why Provine supposes that's inconsistent with design. To be a creature is to have built-in limitations and inherent vulnerabilities. Even omnipotence can't make an unlimited creature. 

Different organisms exemplify different possibilities. Each design has distinctive advantages and corresponding disadvantages. That's not a design flaw. That's a necessary tradeoff.  

Variety is not inconsistent with divine design. Indeed, theists who espouse the principle of the plenum think variety is a virtue. God creates the greatest compossible variety. 

v) Perhaps Provine imagines that mass extinction is inconsistent with divine foresight and/or divine benevolence. To begin with, it is unclear, as a matter of principle, why the extinction of a species is problematic for theism but the extinction of an individual is not. A species is just a collection of individuals.

What if most organisms are temporary by design? God never intended for most organisms to be immort. And most organisms don't know what they are missing. They lack consciousness. In Biblical theism, immortality was never the common property of most lifeforms. 

That's only clearly reserved for humans and angels. It's possible that God will resurrect some animals–perhaps animals dear to sainted Christians. 

vi) Perhaps Provine thinks it would be pointless for God to create organisms that become extinct. But isn't there a sense in which everything at present becomes extinct when it becomes history? The past is what was, not what is. There's a sense in which the 19C is now extinct. It went extinct when it slipped into the irretrievable past. It no longer exists–at least not in our current timeframe. (This could also devolve into a debate over the A-theory and the B-theory of time.)

But does that mean history is pointless. It wasn't pointless to people at the time. It wasn't pointless for them

Is Provine viewing it from a retrospective standpoint? Is he suggesting that looking back on the past from our vantage-point, it is pointless? If so, what makes our perspective normative? What privileges the present perspective? Suppose you were to view it from a prospective standpoint. There's a sense in which the future is irrelevant to me. The year 2100 is irrelevant to me, if I'm dead by them. But the future is hardly irrelevant to people living in the future. 

vii) If there was no afterlife, then Provine would have a point. But natural history doesn't speak to that issue. 

viii) Provine fails to make allowance for the Fall. Humans are liable to illness, aging, and death due to the Fall. I agree with him that those conditions always existed in nature. The world at large was never Edenic. Life inside the garden was sheltered from those asperities.

Obviously, Provine doesn't believe in the Fall. But my immediate point is one of consistency. The phenomena he documents don't count as evidence against Biblical theism, for that's consistent with life outside the Garden. 

ix) Yes, the social behavior of animals is often ghastly by human standards, but that's because different species have different natures. What's morally decent or indecent is, to some degree, indexed on the nature of the creature. 

x) I agree with him that the evolutionary narrative is not progressive. But there's a sense in which creationism is not progressive. YEC is essentially cyclical. God creates natural kinds, which thereafter reproduce after there kind. Although there's some progression in the initial series of creative fiats, once that's complete, once the ecosystem is put in place, it continues as is. Periodicity rather than progressivity in the natural order. Yet that's hardly antithetical to divine design. 

In OEC, there's some progressivity. Creation occurs in stages. God initiates one stage at a time. After that plays out, that's replaced by the next stage. That's in part because they can't all coexist. Some organisms requires a different biospheric conditions. 

In OEC, natural history is analogous to human history. Just as you have distinctive periods in human history, with distinctive successive cultures, natural history is analogous. In OEC, man is phased in late in the curve, as the culmination of the process. After than you have the eschaton. It's like a transgenerational novel. If YEC is more cyclical, OEC is more epochal. In addition, although they diverge on the distant past, they converge on human history.


  1. Can you recommend 2 or 3 of the top YEC scientists to read?

    1. In terms of bloggers:




      In terms of books:

      John Byl, God and Cosmos: A Christian View of Time, Space, and the Universe

      Jonathan Sarfati, The Genesis Account

      Andrew Snelling, Earth's Catastrophic Past

      Kurt Wise, Faith, Form, And Time

    2. Another YEC who comes to mind is Paul Garner (e.g. The New Creationism). Todd Wood is sometimes interesting too.

    3. Also Jason Lisle (astronomer) and (although he's a Seventh Day Adventist) Sean Pitman (pathologist).

  2. If it's true all life as we know it today has descended from natural kinds (either on YEC or OEC), then what seems to have become extinct is not necessarily natural kinds as such, but rather their many descendants down through the ages who have adapted per microevolution. It's sort of like saying it's true Commodore computers are no longer around today, but it's not necessarily true computers are no longer around today.

  3. I'm reminded of the following passage in Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

    "It is the old forests of Malacandra," said Augray. "Once there was air on the harandra and it was warm. To this day, if you could get up there and live, you would see it all covered with the bones of ancient creatures; it was once full of life and noise. It was then these forests grew, and in and out among their stalks went a people that have vanished from the world these many thousand years. They were covered not with fur but with a coat like mine. They did not go in the water swimming or on the ground walking; they glided in the air on broad flat limbs which kept them up. It is said they were great singers, and in those days the red forests echoed with their music. Now the forests have become stone and only eldila can go among them."
    "We still have such creatures in our world," said Ransom. "We call them birds. Where was Oyarsa when all this happened to the harandra?"
    "Where he is now."
    "And he could not prevent it?"
    "I do not know. But a world is not made to last for ever, much less a race; that is not Maleldil's way."

  4. These objections are as predictable as they are silly. Begin with methodological naturalism, conclude with no design.

    It's like, "duh!"

    But he's convinced now, unfortunately for him.