Tag Archives: Darwinism

Mark D. Linville: does Darwinian evolution make morality rational?

A conflict of worldviews
A conflict of worldviews

Have you ever heard an atheist tell you that naturalistic evolution is an answer to the moral argument? I have. And I found a good reply to this challenge in the book “Contending With Christianity’s Critics“. The chapter that responds to the challenge is authored by Dr. Mark D. Linville. It is only 13 pages long. I have a link to the PDF at the bottom of this post.

First, a bit about the author:

Blog: The Tavern at the End of the World
Current positions:

  • PhD Research Fellow
  • Tutoring Fellow in Philosophy


  • PhD in Philosophy with a minor in South Asian Studies and a specialization in Philosophy of Religion, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • MA in Philosophy, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • MA in Philosophy of Religion, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
  • MA in Theology, Cincinnati Christian Seminary
  • BA in Biblical Studies, Florida Christian College

Here is his thesis of the essay:

Darwin’s account of the origins of human morality is at once elegant, ingenious, and, I shall argue, woefully inadequate. In particular, that account, on its standard interpretation, does not explain morality, but, rather, explains it away . We learn from Darwin not how there could be objective moral facts, but how we could have come to believe—perhaps erroneously—that there are.

Further, the naturalist, who does not believe that there is such a personal being as God, is in principle committed to Darwinism, including a Darwinian account of the basic contours of human moral psychology. I’ll use the term evolutionary naturalism to refer to this combination of naturalism and Darwinism. And so the naturalist is saddled with a view that explains morality away. Whatever reason we have for believing in moral facts is also a reason for thinking naturalism is false. I conclude the essay with a brief account of a theistic conception of morality, and argue that the theist is in a better position to affirm the objectivity of morality.

And here’s a sample to get your attention:

But even if we are assured that a “normal” person will be prompted by the social instincts and that those instincts are typically flanked and reinforced by a set of moral emotions, we still do not have a truly normative account of moral obligation. There is nothing in Darwin’s own account to indicate that the ensuing sense of guilt—a guilty feeling—is indicative of actual moral guilt resulting from the violation of an objective moral law. The revenge taken by one’s own conscience amounts to a sort of second-order propensity to feel a certain way given one’s past relation to conflicting first-order propensities (e.g., the father’s impulse to save his child versus his impulse to save himself). Unless we import normative considerations from some other source, it seems that, whether it is a first or second-order inclination,one’s being prompted by it is more readily understood as a descriptive feature of one’s own psychology than material for a normative assessment of one’s behavior or character. And, assuming that there is anything to this observation, an ascent into even higher levels of propensities (“I feel guilty for not having felt guilty for not being remorseful over not obeying my social instincts…”) introduces nothing of normative import. Suppose you encounter a man who neither feels the pull of social, paternal or familial instincts nor is in the least bit concerned over his apparent lack of conscience. What, from a strictly Darwinian perspective, can one say to him that is of any serious moral import? “You are not moved to action by the impulses that move most of us.” Right. So?

The problem afflicts contemporary construals of an evolutionary account of human morality. Consider Michael Shermer’s explanation for the evolution of a moral sense—the “science of good and evil.” He explains,

By a moral sense, I mean a moral feeling or emotion generated by actions. For example, positive emotions such as righteousness and pride are experienced as the psychological feeling of doing “good.” These moral emotions likely evolved out of behaviors that were reinforced as being good either for the individual or for the group.2

Shermer goes on to compare such moral emotions to other emotions and sensations that are universally experienced, such as hunger and the sexual urge. He then addresses the question of moral motivation.

In this evolutionary theory of morality, asking “Why should we be moral?” is like asking “Why should we be hungry?” or “Why should we be horny?” For that matter, we could ask, “Why should we be jealous?” or “Why should we fall in love?” The answer is that it is as much a part of human nature to be moral as it is to be hungry, horny, jealous, and in love.3

Thus, according to Shermer, given an evolutionary account, such a question is simply a non-starter. Moral motivation is a given as it is wired in as one of our basic drives. Of course, one might point out that Shermer’s “moral emotions” often do need encouragement in a way that, say, “horniness,” does not. More importantly, Shermer apparently fails to notice that if asking “Why should I be moral?” is like asking, “Why should I be horny?” then asserting, “You ought to be moral” is like asserting, “You ought to be horny.” As goes the interrogative, so goes the imperative. But if the latter seems out of place, then, on Shermer’s view, so is the former.

One might thus observe that if morality is anything at all, it is irreducibly normative in nature. But the Darwinian account winds up reducing morality to descriptive features of human psychology. Like the libido, either the moral sense is present and active or it is not. If it is, then we might expect one to behave accordingly. If not, why, then, as a famous blues man once put it, “the boogie woogie just ain’t in me.” And so the resulting “morality” is that in name only.

In light of such considerations, it is tempting to conclude with C. S. Lewis that, if the naturalist remembered his philosophy out of school, he would recognize that any claim to the effect that “I ought” is on a par with “I itch,” in that it is nothing more than a descriptive piece of autobiography with no essential reference to any actual obligations.

When it comes to morality, we are not interested in mere descriptions of behavior. We want to know about prescriptions of behavior, and whether why we should care about following those prescriptions. We are interested in what grounds our sense of moral obligation in reality. What underwrites our sense of moral obligation? If it is just rooted in feelings, then why should we obey our moral sense when obeying it goes against out self-interest? Feelings are subjective things, and doing the right thing in a real objective state of affairs requires more than just feelings. There has to be a real objective state of affairs that makes it rational for us to do the right thing, even when the right thing is against our own self-interest. That’s what morality is – objective moral obligations overriding subjective feelings. I wouldn’t trust someone to be moral if it were just based on their feelings.

The PDF is right here for downloading, with the permission of the author.

Greg Koukl debates Michael Shermer on God, atheism, meaning and morality

Two tough rams butt heads, and may the best ram win!
Two tough rams butt heads, and may the best ram win!

The full transcript of a debate between Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, and Greg Koukl, president of Stand to Reason. This debate occurred on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, and was moderated by Hugh Hewitt.

HH = Hugh Hewitt
GK = Greg Koukl
MS = Michael Shermer

Here is a 32-page PDF with the full debate transcript.

And here’s an excerpt:

GK: Right. Actually, the big question here, Hugh, is whether it’s possible to be good without God. Now I’m not talking about whether it’s possible to be good without a belief in God. I certainly think that’s possible, but be good without God. And the answer to that question hinges entirely on precisely what you mean by good. And so I was going to give an illustration. So a man drags a young girl into the alley, he sexually abuses her, strangles here, and tosses her into the dustbin. Is that act wrong? Now I think everybody listening is going to admit it is wrong. But here is the real question. What do we mean when we say that that act of rape and abuse and murder is wrong? Are we describing the action itself, the object? Are we saying that the object, the rape, the murder, has a quality of being wrong, and therefore, wherever that rape goes, the wrongness follows it, just like your height, 6’ 2”, or whatever it is, is an objective quality of you. Wherever you go, your height follows you in the same way. Does the wrongness follow the rape? Well, if it’s a quality of the rape, if it’s an objective quality of the rape, then it does. And it doesn’t matter what people think about it, or what cultures decides, or what your evolutionary conditioning is. The rape is still wrong. The other alternative is that you’re not talking about the rape. You’re talking about yourself. You’re talking about your genetic conditioning. You’re talking about your culture’s decision about that kind of thing. And if that’s the case, then the truth of the wrongness of the rape is simply in the individual or the subject. And this is why philosophers distinguish between ethical objectivism and ethical subjectivism. Now there’s lots of different subjectivisms in ethics. But simply put, if you’re an ethical subjectivist, you’re a relativist. And actual ethics don’t exist. Ethics are an illusion. If you conclude that ethics are an illusion, there’s lots of different ways to explain it. Michael’s written a really great book, I think, called The Science Of Good And Evil. I’ve read most of it, and it’s well written, and it’s very compelling. But it’s a description about how the illusion of ethics has taken place. If you want to go that route, you’re welcome to go that route. But what you can’t do is you can’t then talk about morality as if it’s objective when your explanations are subjective. So this is a problem that I think all atheists, including Michael, have to solve. Are ethics objective or relative? And if they’re relative, then how can we make moral judgments that are meaningful on other people?

HH: Michael Shermer?

MS: Wow, let’s just get right into it. Well, I don’t think it’s quite so black and white. That is to say I think there are provisional moral truths that exist whether there’s a God or not. In other words, it’s wrong, morally, absolutely morally wrong to rape and murder. And that would be true whether there was a God or not. In other words, if…is God saying that it’s wrong because it’s really wrong, and He’s instructing us in his Holy Scripture that it’s wrong? Or is it only wrong because He said so? And if it turned out there wasn’t a God, would that make it okay? And my answer is no, it really is wrong, whether God says it’s wrong or not. That is to say I think it really exists, a real, moral standard like that. Why? Well, because first, you could ask the person who is being affected, we should always ask the moral recipient of the act, how do you feel about being raped or murdered or stolen from or lied to. And the moral actor will tell you, it doesn’t matter whether, if I could use a current example, I haven’t any idea if Tiger Woods and his wife are religious or not. But you can just ask his wife whether it was morally right or wrong, and she’ll tell you. It doesn’t matter whether there’s a God or not. It’s wrong. And so that’s the first principle. Just ask. Ask the moral recipient of whether it’s right or wrong. But I think Greg’s after something deeper, that is to say is there something even deeper still behind the moral actor’s feelings about how they’re treated. And the answer is yes, I think so. We’re a social species. We don’t live in isolation. We live as members of a group. And as such, there’s no possible way our group could survive, be cohesive, be a unit of any kind of solidarity against other groups, or against a harsh environment. If there were too much violations of social norms, that is if there were constant lying and cheating and raping and murdering, there’s no way a social group could hang together. And as such, as we all know, we’re very tribal. We’re tribal against other groups, but within our groups, we’re very pro-social, altruistic, cooperative. We have a good and evil in our nature. So to this extent, I find myself interesting often in agreement with my conservative friends on most of the things they consider morally, moral truths. That is, we share the same moral values, even though I come at it from a different perspective.

HH: Greg?

GK: Yeah, I’m actually not after something deeper here, Michael. At least to start out the discussion, I’m trying to be as simple and clear and precise as possible, because it’s very easy to weave together a bunch of things that sound persuasive, but turn out to be different things. Like for example, Darwinian evolution, which is a materialistic process, and here I mean the blind watchmaker thesis, the neo-Darwinian synthesis, natural selection working on mutations, and a kind of a cultural evolution that Michael has just referred to as we work together as a group to survive as a group. Those are two entirely different things. One is materialistic, Darwinian, the other one is intelligent design, quite frankly, where the group gets together and makes some determinations to encourage some behavior and discourage others. What I’m trying to do is to be able to answer the question that came up initially, is God necessary for morality, which Michael denies. It’s to say well, what is it that morality, that we’re trying to describe? It is either objective, and therefore an immaterial obligation that applies to certain behaviors, or it is subjective. The things that Michael described were variously subjective, evolutionary elements, subjective cultural elements, but then he affirmed that we all have good and evil in our nature, or an awareness of that. I agree with that entirely. We all are aware of those things. That’s why even if we don’t believe in God, we can still know morality and follow it. The question is what accounts for real, genuine objective morality?

HH: One minute to the break, Michael Shermer.

MS: I’m not arguing for cultural evolution. I’m actually arguing as part of our, what you described as materialistic, natural selection, Darwinian evolution, that it’s not enough to just pretend or fake being a good group member. You actually have to believe it, feel it, and live it. So what I’m arguing is that natural selected certain moral sentiments, as Adam Smith called them, moral feelings, an actual empathy, Adam Smith talked about, we actually empathize with somebody else, we can put ourselves into their shoes and feel their pain, I’m arguing that’s very real. It’s every bit as real a part of our evolutionary heritage as our eyes and our hands.

– – – –

HH: Michael Shermer, when we went to break, you were saying that evolutionary biology has produced a real morality.

MS: Yeah, I think really, Adam Smith had it right in his very first book, The Theory Of Moral Sentiments, long before Darwin, that we actually have in our biological nature, our human nature, the capacity to feel other people’s pain. He called it empathy, we think of it often either as empathy or sympathy. That is, we really do connect to other people. A lot of good research on this now, brain scans, you can show somebody a little video of somebody they know, or have feelings for, getting pricked with a pin, and the same areas of their brain light up, the pain receptors, as in the person getting the pin prick. In other words, we have an evolved tendency to really be deeply, emotionally connected to our fellow group members. And that’s why I say groups like World Vision, where you want to adopt a child, it doesn’t help to show a picture of 10,000 starving African kids. What does affect us is one child, a picture of one child with a little biography. That’s how you get people to adopt a child to donate. The reason for that is because essentially they’re tricking the brain, our brains into making that stranger an honorary family member, an honorary within group member, which is why I argue that free trade is one of the best ways of defusing normal tribal tensions between people. It makes them honorary friends, honorary members. Well, what’s going on there is we’re tricking the brain into sort of this evolutionary rule of thumb – be nice to people that are like you and that are related to you, and that you know, and that are fellow group members, and don’t do what our natural tendency is, is to be tribal and xenophobic against those other guys. And free trade is one of the best things you can do for that. So I’m arguing that’s actually tapping something deep within us.

HH: Greg Koukl?

GK: Yeah, basically, I agree with Mike completely here. We do have this tendency, and it seems to be universal among humankind. The question is, what is that tendency, actually? And what is the best way to explain it? And I see like a handful of significant problems with using evolution to explain morality. The first one is that evolution is a materialistic process. And here, I’m going back to an original point, and I don’t want people to lose it. There is no way that you can take molecules, and reorganize them in any fashion, over any length of time, and have pop out of the mixture an objective moral principle that’s immaterial, and that applies to human beings. All you’re going to get is a reorganization of the molecules. And what they can produce, and this is what Mike has done in his book, and he mentioned just s few moments ago, they can produce sentiments. They can produce feelings. They can produce behavior. But this leads us to the second problem of using evolution to explain morality, is that morality is more than sentiments, feelings and behavior. Morality entails things like motive and intention. I mean, you could have a guy walk into a garage, walk out with a hose, and is that wrong? Well, it depends. Is it his hose or somebody else’s hose? Did he intend to take the other person’s hose? Is he borrowing the hose? So we can see here are elements that are part of the moral thing that needs to be explained, that are immaterial, and therefore the Darwinian explanation can’t even in principle go there. It can’t do that job. But here’s the worst problem. Regardless of what our sentiments happen to be regarding moral actions, we can feel good or feel bad or whatever, the problem is that morality is prescriptive, not merely descriptive. That is it tells us not just what we did, but what we ought to have done in the past, and what we ought to do in the future. That is not something that any Darwinian mechanism can describe, because nothing about my biology can inveigh upon me to act a certain way for moral reasons in the future. It doesn’t tell me why I should be good tomorrow. This is a huge difference between these two views, the descriptive and the prescriptive. Prescriptive is part of morality, and can’t even, in principle, be explained by an evolutionary materialistic system.

HH: Michael Shermer, I’ll give you a start on that. We have about 45 seconds to the break, so you may want to…we’ll come back after the break and pick up. But what’s your start to that?

MS: Well, the start would be that again, let’s not think of evolution just as nature red and tooth and claw, and it’s nasty, brutish and short, but that in fact, we have this whole other social evolution. And I’m not talking about cultural evolution where we consciously make decisions, but subconsciously, because it’s in part of our nature to actually, seriously, deeply feel for other people and their actions, and the consequences of our actions, so that we actually have a sense of right and wrong that we’re born with, but then culture taps into and tweaks, one way or the other.

– – – –

HH: Michael Shermer, when we went to break, Greg had made the argument that the Darwinian model simply cannot explain immaterial concepts like morality, that there’s just no way you can rearrange the molecules to get there. You’re saying well, yes you can.

MS: Yeah, I think so, because if we think of morality as another suite of emotions that are involved with other people’s behaviors, the consequences of our actions, how we feel about them, how people feel about us when we do these things, that’s as every bit as important a biological part of our nature as anything else we talk about. So let’s take a real simple emotion. When you’re hungry, nobody does any calculations about the caloric input/output ratios of eating an apple versus an ice cream, although now it’s posted on the walls for us to see. But we just feel hungry, and we feel hungry for certain kinds of foods. The feeling of hunger is a proxy for something else. Evolution’s done the calculating for us. You need food, so we’re going to, your hypothalamus is going to secrete these certain chemicals that causes your stomach to rumble and so on. When you’re attracted to somebody else, a member of the opposite sex, nobody does the calculation by, let’s say, a man finds a woman attractive who has a .67 hip to waist ratio, and an hourglass figure, although that is pretty much universal. Nobody walks about with calipers taking measurements of who they’re going to want to date or ask out. You just look around, and you just go wow, I really find this woman attractive. It’s a feeling you have, okay? So those are kind of simple emotions, but sliding up the scale, the moral emotions are really no different. When I lie to somebody, I’ve violated a social norm, and they respond in a very angry, hostile way. So those emotions that we both share, guilt, shame, anger, disgust, involved a social relationship that whether it was a norm violation, those are the kinds of emotions that are just like hunger and sexual attraction that are built into us by nature, by evolution. Or, if you wish, this is how God created the moral sentiments, just like He created everything else in the universe, through a process of nature. I think that’s equally reasonable to argue. So I don’t see that it has to be an atheistic viewpoint versus a theistic viewpoint to get to our moral sentiments. Why couldn’t God have used evolution to create the moral sentiments as I’ve described them?

GK: Yeah, well, you don’t actually believe that, I know, Mike, so this is kind of like adding God to the soup, you know, if it makes people feel better. But the basic argument is that evolution all by itself can do the trick. And I think if your listeners are listening carefully, what they’re going to hear is Mike has just described, and if I’m being unfair to your assessment here, let me know, Mike, that moral feelings are simply that. They are sophisticated emotions that do some work for us for survival, and even on a group level. Now there’s a name for this. It’s called emotivism. A.J. Ayer, the famous atheist, offered this description of morality. It’s a relativistic scheme of morality. Morality doesn’t actually exist, Ayer argued. There is no objective right or wrong. Rape isn’t wrong itself. What happens is, we have feelings about it, and we express it in moral language, but rape isn’t really wrong. So your listeners are going to have to ask themselves the questions. When they just survey their own moral senses, and we all have access to this, do we want to believe that scientists have figured out that really what we’re doing is feeling sophisticated, complicated emotions, and that the emotions are in us, and we are not seeing anything about the action? Or does it seem like rape is wrong? Look, when I say rape is wrong, I’m talking about the rape. When I say liver is awful, I’m talking about me. I’m talking about my own tastes and preferences. It’s interesting, as Michael has given his explanation, though, that he’s doing, and I don’t know if you are aware of this, Michael, but you’re doing the very thing that I kind of warned against. You give a description of the foundations of morality that turn out to be relativistic, but then there’s a smuggling of a more objectivistic morality in the back door, like when Michael says you don’t have to do what your nature tells you to do, in other words, what you’ve been programmed by evolution to do. You can kind of rise above that. Well, now we’re talking about a morality that isn’t dictated by evolution, but a morality that we can employ through our acts of will, to rise above this kind of brutish evolutionary morality. And that sounds suspiciously like the very thing that I’m talking about here.

MS: But I don’t mean, there’s nothing to rise above by itself. Yes, we have to say rise above our tribal instincts to be xenophobic when we meet somebody who’s a stranger, who’s different from us. We all struggle against that, particularly in a black and white America, where there’s always been this underlying tension. Indeed, so culture helps us do that – education, travel, diversity of exposure to different people. That makes you a little more tolerant. Okay, but I’m not talking about that. What I’m talking about is tapping into the good part of our nature, the fact that in addition to that xenophobic tribalism we have, we also have this other side that almost never gets discussed in evolutionary…even in evolutionary circles, you’ll still hear evolutionary biologists talking about, in a way that Huxley did, and Herbert Spencer did in Darwin’s own time, that we have to somehow struggle mightily against our genes to overcome that nasty tendency we have to want to rape, kill, pillage and destroy. Well no, actually, we have this whole other side that’s just as genetically programmed into our nature. And the point of culture – education, politics, economics and so on, is to tap into the better angels of our nature as Lincoln said.

GK: Okay, here’s the question I have for you, Michael, then. You’ve identified that really, we have good and we have bad. That’s part of, under your terms, that’s part of our genetic nature, and we can choose to tap into what you call the good side. Why ever should we do such a thing if there is not a higher standard that directs our action to the better side, your words, than the bad side, your words, if really, ultimately, they are both the result of a genetic evolution, and from outside terms, neither is better than the other. Why should we do that, Michael?

MS: Yeah, well I don’t see how entering God into the equation changes that problem at all.

GK: Well, that’s the next step. What I’m trying to show is that the should comes from the outside, and if we can demonstrate that, then we can ask…

Read the rest by click here to get the PDF.

Philip E. Johnson lectures on science, evolution and religion

Christianity and the progress of science
Christianity and the progress of science

I found this fun lecture by the grandfather of the big-tent intelligent design movement, Berkeley law professor Philip E. Johnson.

I’ll bet you guys have all heard of him, but you’ve never heard him speak, right? Well, I was a young man, I used to listen to Phil’s lectures and his debates with Eugenie Scott quite a bit. This is one of my favorite lectures. Very easy to understand, and boilerplate for anything else in the origins debate. This is a great lecture – funny, engaging and useful. You will definitely listen to this lecture several times if you listen to it once.

The MP3 is here. (91 minutes, 62 megabytes)

The Inherit the Wind stereotype

  • Many people get their understanding of origins by watching movies like “Inherit the Wind” (or reading science fiction)
  • The actual events of the Scopes trial are nothing like what the movie portrays
  • The law forbidding the teaching of evolution was symbolic, not meant to be enforced
  • The actual Scopes trial was a publicity stunt to attract attention to Dayton, TN to bring business to the town
  • The ACLU advertised for a teacher who would be willing to be sued
  • They found a substitute physical education teacher who would be willing to “break” the law
  • The movie is nothing like the actual events that transpired
  • the movie is a morality play
  • The religious people are evil and stupid and ignorant and bigoted
  • The scientists and lawyers are all intelligent, romantic, and honest seekers of the truth
  • The religious people think that the Bible trumps science and science is not as reliable as the Bible
  • The movie argues that the reason why there is ANY dissent to evolution is because of Biblical fundamentalism
  • The movie presents the idea that there are no scientific problems with evolution
  • The movie says that ONLY Biblical fundamentalists who believe in 6 day, 24-hour creation doubt evolution
  • The movie says that Biblical fundamentalism are close-minded, and not open to scientific truth
  • The movie says that people who read the Bible as making factual claims are misinterpreting the Bible
  • The movie says that smart people read the Bible for comfort and feelings and arbitrary values, not for truth

Guided evolution and methodological naturalism

  • What scientists mean by evolution is that fully naturalistic, unguided, materialistic mechanisms caused the diversity of life
  • Scientists do not allow that God had any real objective effect on how life was created
  • Scientists think that nature did all the creating, and any mention of God is unnecessary opinion – God didn’t DO ANYTHING
  • Scientists operate with one overriding rule – you can only explain the physical world with physical and material causes
  • Scientists DO NOT allow that God could have done anything detectable by the sciences
  • Scientists WILL NOT consider the idea that natural, material processes might be INSUFFICIENT for explaining everything in nature
  • You cannot even ask the question about whether natural laws, matter and chance can explain something in nature
  • Intelligent causes can NEVER be the explanation for anything in nature, and you can’t even test experimentally to check that
  • Scientists ASSUME that everything can be explained with natural laws, matter and chance – no questioning of natural causes is allowed
  • Where no natural explanation of a natural phenomenon is available, scientists SPECULATE about undiscovered natural explanations
  • The assumption of naturalistic sufficiency is called “methodological naturalism”
  • To question the assumptions that natural is all there is, and that nature has to do its own creating, makes you an “enemy of science”
  • But Johnson says that naturalists are the enemies of science, because they are like the Biblical fundamentalists
  • Naturalists have a presumption that prevents them from being willing to follow the evidence where it is leading
  • Experiments are not even needed, because the presumption of naturalism overrides any experimental finding that falsifies the sufficiency of natural causes to explain some natural phenomenon

What can natural selection and mutation actually do?

  • what evolution has actually been observed to do is explain changing populations of moths and finches
  • finches with smaller or larger beaks are observed to have differential survival rates when there are droughts or floods
  • no new body plan or new organ type has been observed to emerge from these environmental pressures
  • the only kind of evolution that has been observed is evolution within types – no new genetic instructions are created
  • in textbooks, only confirming examples are presented – but what is required is a broad pattern of gradual development of species
  • if you look at the fossil record, what you see in most cases is variation within types based on changing environments
  • the real question is: can natural law and chance be observed to be doing any creating of body plans and organ types?

What kind of effect requires an intelligent cause?

  • the thing to be explained in the history of life is the functional information sequences
  • you need to have a sequence of symbols or characters that is sufficiently long
  • your long sequence of characters has to be sequenced in the right order to have biological function
  • the only thing that can create long sequences of functional information is an intelligent cause
  • intelligent design people accept micro-evolution – changes within types – because that’s been observed
  • the real thing to be explained is the first living cell’s functional information, and the creation of new functional information

Johnson’s case for intelligent design is rooted in science – specifically in the specific arrangements of components in proteins that allows organisms to perform biological functions.

Critical response

The next 15 minutes of the lecture contain a critical response from a philosophy professor who thinks that there have been no developments in design arguments since Aquinas and Paley. He basically confirms the stereotypes that Johnson outlined in the first part of the lecture. I recommend listening to this to see what opposition to intelligent design really looks like. It’s not concerned with answering scientific questions – they want to talk about God, the Bible and Noah’s ark. It’s our job to get people like this critic to focus on the science.

Here’s my snarky rendition of what he said:

1) Don’t take the Bible literally, even if the genre is literal.

  • all opposition to evolution is based on an ignorant, fundamentalist, literal reading of the Bible
  • the Bible really doesn’t communicate anything about the way the world really is
  • the Bible is just meant to suggest certain opinions and experiences which you may find fetching, or not, depending on your feelings and community
  • if Christians would just interpret the Bible as myths and opinions on par with other personal preferences, then evolution is no threat to religious belief

2) As long as you treat the design argument as divorced from evidence, it’s not very effective

  • the latest and best version of the design argument is the old Paley argument which involves no experimental data, so I’ll critique that
  • this 200-year old argument which doesn’t rely on science has serious problems, and unnamed Christians agree with me!
  • Christians should NOT try to prove God’s existence using evidence from the natural world (as Romans 1 says), and in fact it’s “Pelagianism” to even try
  • Christians should divorce their faith from logic and evidence even though the Bible presents faith as being rooted in reason and evidence
  • Christians should not tie their faith to the science of today, because science is always changing and the theism-friendly evidence of today might be overturned tomorrow
  • It’s a good idea for me to critique the arguments of 1000-year old people who did not know anything about the cosmic fine-tuning argument – that’s fair!
  • I find it very useful to tell people that the argument from design is false without mentioning any design arguments from DNA or cosmic fine-tuning
  • We need to assume that the natural world is explainable using only natural causes before we look at any evidence
  • We should assume that natural causes create all life, and then rule out all experimental evidence for intelligent causes that we have today
  • As long as you accept that God is a personal opinion that has nothing to do with reality, then you can do science
  • The non-Christian process theologian Teilhard de Chardin accepts evolution, and therefore so should you
  • Remember when theists said God caused thunder because he was bowling in the clouds and then we found out he didn’t? Yeah well – maybe tomorrow we’ll find out that functional sequences of amino acids and proteins have natural causes! What would you do then?

3) What the Bible really says is that you should be a political liberal

Q&A time

The lecture concludes with 13 minutes of questions.

Stephen C. Meyer and Marcus Ross lecture on the Cambrian explosion

Cambrian Explosion
Cambrian Explosion

Access Research Network is a group that produces recordings  of lectures and debates related to intelligent design. I noticed that on their Youtube channel they are releasing some of their older lectures and debates for FREE. So I decided to write a summary of one that I really like on the Cambrian explosion. This lecture features Dr. Stephen C. Meyer and Dr. Marcus Ross.

The lecture is about two hours. There are really nice slides with lots of illustrations to help you understand what the speakers are saying, even if you are not a scientist.

Here is a summary of the lecture from ARN:

The Cambrian explosion is a term often heard in origins debates, but seldom completely understood by the non-specialist. This lecture by Meyer and Ross is one of the best overviews available on the topic and clearly presents in verbal and pictorial summary the latest fossil data (including the recent finds from Chengjiang China). This lecture is based on a paper recently published by Meyer, Ross, Nelson and Chien “The Cambrian Explosion: Biology’s Big Bang” in Darwinism, Design and Public Education(2003, Michigan State University Press). This 80-page article includes 127 references and the book includes two additional appendices with 63 references documenting the current state of knowledge on the Cambrian explosion data.

The term Cambrian explosion describes the geologically sudden appearance of animals in the fossil record during the Cambrian period of geologic time. During this event, at least nineteen, and perhaps as many as thirty-five (of forty total) phyla made their first appearance on earth. Phyla constitute the highest biological categories in the animal kingdom, with each phylum exhibiting a unique architecture, blueprint, or structural body plan. The word explosion is used to communicate that fact that these life forms appear in an exceedingly narrow window of geologic time (no more than 5 million years). If the standard earth’s history is represented as a 100 yard football field, the Cambrian explosion would represent a four inch section of that field.

For a majority of earth’s life forms to appear so abruptly is completely contrary to the predictions of Neo-Darwinian and Punctuated Equilibrium evolutionary theory, including:

  • the gradual emergence of biological complexity and the existence of numerous transitional forms leading to new phylum-level body plans;
  • small-scale morphological diversity preceding the emergence of large-scale morphological disparity; and
  • a steady increase in the morphological distance between organic forms over time and, consequently, an overall steady increase in the number of phyla over time (taking into account factors such as extinction).

After reviewing how the evidence is completely contrary to evolutionary predictions, Meyer and Ross address three common objections: 1) the artifact hypothesis: Is the Cambrian explosion real?; 2) The Vendian Radiation (a late pre-Cambrian multicellular organism); and 3) the deep divergence hypothesis.

Finally Meyer and Ross argue why design is a better scientific explanation for the Cambrian explosion. They argue that this is not an argument from ignorance, but rather the best explanation of the evidence from our knowledge base of the world. We find in the fossil record distinctive features or hallmarks of designed systems, including:

  • a quantum or discontinuous increase in specified complexity or information
  • a top-down pattern of scale diversity
  • the persistence of structural (or “morphological”) disparities between separate organizational systems; and
  • the discrete or novel organizational body plans

When we encounter objects that manifest any of these several features and we know how they arose, we invariably find that a purposeful agent or intelligent designer played a causal role in their origin.

Recorded April 24, 2004. Approximately 2 hours including audience Q&A.

You can get a DVD of the lecture and other great lectures from Access Research Network. I recommend their origin of life lectures – I have watched the ones with Dean Kenyon and Charles Thaxton probably a dozen times each. Speaking as an engineer, you never get tired of seeing engineering principles applied to questions like the origin of life.

The Cambrian explosion lecture above is a great intermediate-level lecture and will prepare you to be able to understand Dr. Meyer’s new book “Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design“. The Michigan State University book that Dr. Meyer mentions is called “Darwin, Design and Public Education“. That book is one of the two good collections on intelligent design published by academic university presses, the other one being from Cambridge University Press, and titled “Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA“. If you think this lecture is above your level of understanding, then be sure and check out the shorter and more up-to-date DVD “Darwin’s Dilemma“.

Information Enigma: 21-minute video explains intelligent design

Can random mutation and natural selection create new functional information?
Can random mutation and natural selection create new functional information?

The video is here:

I have read and listened and watched a lot of material on intelligent design, but I have never seen so much value packed into such a short lecture. I really hope you’ll watch this and that it’s helpful to you.


  • the big question when discussing the origin of life: where did the information in living systems come from?
  • Until 530 million years ago, the oceans were largely devoid of life
  • In a 10 million year period, many new forms of animal life emerged
  • New biological forms of life require new information
  • the discovery of DNA shows that living systems work because cells have information that allows them to build the components of molecular machines: cell types, proteins, etc.
  • can random mutation and natural selection create new functional information?
  • normally, random mutations tend to degrade the functionality of information, e.g. – randomly changing symbols in an applications code does not usually introduce useful new functions, it usually renders what is there non-functional
  • the majority of possible sequences will NOT have functions, so random mutations will more likely give you non-functional code, rather than functional code
  • example: a bicycle lock  with 4 numbers has many possible sequences for the 4 numbers, and only one of them has unlock functionality, the rest have no functionality
  • if you have lots of time, then you might be able to guess the combination, but if the lock as has 10 billion numbers, and only one combination that unlocks, you can spend your whole life trying to unlock it and won’t succeed
  • how likely is it to arrive at a functional protein or gene by chance? Is it more like the 4-dial lock (can be done with lots of time) or the 10 billion dial lock (amount of time required exceeds the time available)?
  • the probability is LOW because there is only one sequence of numbers that has unlock function
  • consider a short protein of 150 amino acids has 10 to the 195th power possible sequences
  • if many of these sequences of amino acides had biological function, then it might be easier to get to one by random mutation and selection than it is with a lock that only unlocks for ONE sequence
  • how many of the possible sequences have biological function?
  • Thanks to research done by Douglas Axe, we now know that the number of functional amino acid sequences for even a short protein is incredibly small…
  • Axe found that the odds of getting a functional sequence of amino acids that will fold and have biological function is 1 in 10 to the 77th power
  • Is that number too improbable to reach by chance? well, there are 10 to 65th atoms in the entire Milky Way galaxy… so yes, this is a very improbable outcome
  • can random genetic mutations search through all the sequences in order to find the one in 10 to the 77th power one that has biological function? It depends on how much guessers we have and how many guesses we get in the time available
  • even with the entire 3.5 billion year history of life on Earth, only about 10 to the 40th organisms have ever lived, which far smaller fraction of the 10 to the 77th total sequences
  • even with a very fast mutation rate, you would not be able to reach a functional protein even with all that time, and even with all those organisms

I was once having a discussion with a woman about the research that Axe did at the Cambridge University lab. He published four articles in the Journal of Molecular Biology. I held out one of the papers to her and showed her the numbers. She said over and over “I hate the Discovery Institute! I hate the Discovery Institute!” Well, yeah, but you can’t make the Journal of Molecular Biology go away with hating the Discovery Institute. JMB is peer-reviewed, and this was experimental evidence – not a theory, not a hypothesis.

We have been blessed by the Creator and Designer of the universe in this time and place with overwhelming evidence – an abundance of riches. For those who have an open mind, this is what you’ve been waiting for to make your decision. For the naturalists who struggle so mightily to block out the progress of experimental science, they’ll need to shout louder and shut their eyes tighter and push harder to block their ears. Maybe if they keep screaming “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” over and over to themselves, they will be able to ignore the real science a little longer.