A common claim made by the Dawkins school of atheism is that the Theory of Evolution is incompatible with theories of Intelligent Design. It isn’t. Who says so? Charles Darwin, for one.

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (all quotations from the Collins' Clear-Type Press, London & Glasgow, no date) must surely be one of the most beautiful books ever written. The cogency, lucidity and pure logic of its basic argument make it irresistible. If we follow the example of the eye, Darwin explains how the organ we know today must have developed from far more primitive forms, one step at a time. With certain vital reservations, which we will consider in a moment, there is nothing irrational or unscientific or illogical in the assumption that complex things may evolve out of simpler ones. The principle applies to most areas of life, as one generation builds on the progress of another, and the idea that advantageous changes will survive should not cause too many furrowed brows even among the religious. But that is the limit of Darwin’s theory. “How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself first originated” (Chapter 6, Difficulties on Theory). Indeed, he might have added “how a nerve comes to be a nerve.” Darwin’s theory deals with the origin of species, not with the origin of life or of the actual ability to produce new organs, and at no stage does he ever pretend that it does more. He is quite specific on this subject:

“It is no valid objection [to the theory] that science as yet throws no light on the far higher problem of the essence or origin of life” (Chapter XIV, Recapitulation and Conclusion).

It may come as a shock to many so-called Darwinians to read the final sentence of this masterpiece:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one…”

Dawkins also quotes this magnificent conclusion (p. 12), but takes his quote from the 1859 edition, which did not contain the words "by the Creator". Darwin would have had his reasons for inserting them, and Dawkins certainly has his reasons for ignoring them.

It is well known that in later years, Darwin lost his faith, but he himself maintained that he had never been an atheist. He was an agnostic. And his open-mindedness manifests itself again and again. Two more examples from Chapter XIV: “I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one.” And “A celebrated author and divine has written to me that ‘he has gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws.’”

Again Dawkins omits to mention such clear indications that Darwin himself kept an open mind on the subject of origins. Anyone reading The God Delusion would imagine that The Origin of Species was Darwin’s proof that there was no designer. This is not to defend the various concepts attached by different religions to the term ‘Creator’. It is fair enough for atheists to complain if, for instance, Creationists want to teach schoolchildren that the Earth is 6000 years old, and to parade this as a scientific fact. But it is unfair and unscientific to claim that Darwinism enables us to dispense with the notion of a conscious creator.

There are, of course, flaws in the theory – one of which, the “imperfection of the geological record”, Darwin covers in great detail. Another is his belief in the even flow of the process, the gradualism which he deemed absolutely essential, but which some modern scientists (not Dawkins) have cast doubt on, preferring Stephen Jay Gould's concept of “punctuated equilibrium”. A third is its reliance on sheer chance in the form of useful but random mutations. The basis of the theory, though - common descent and natural selection of advantageous changes - remains as firm as ever, but since it provides no evidence to confirm or refute the idea of intelligent design, and since the man who formulated it remained open-minded on the subject, it should remain precisely where he left it: as Chapter 2 and not Chapter 1 in the History of Life.

Dawkins is not prepared to leave it there, however. He seizes on the Boeing 747 example attributed to Fred Hoyle (i.e. a hurricane sweeping through a scrapyard would never be able to create the plane, even if all the parts were available), and dismisses it as “an argument that could be made only by somebody who doesn’t understand the first thing about natural selection: somebody who thinks natural selection is a theory of chance whereas – in the relevant sense of chance – it is the opposite” (p. 113). Leaving aside the puzzle of what he means by the “relevant sense”, it is not the process of natural selection that is attributed to chance here, any more than the people who designed the Boeing would have thrown the bits and pieces up in the air and hoped for a happy landing. The chance element lies in the creation and combination of the materials on which natural selection works. Dawkins (perhaps Hoyle too) is comparing the Boeing to the animal at the end (so far) of the evolutionary process, but it is the separate coming into being of the living, selfreproducing primeval organisms, the hitherto unthought-of even if primitive eye, ear, nose, lung, heart, penis, vagina, etc., that presents the problem. Darwin himself understood this, and so refrained from discussing such origins.

Dawkins, however, blithely announces that natural selection explains “the whole of life” (p. 116). Even when dealing with the example of the eye, he tries to make out that something so “apparently designed…was really the end product of a long sequence of non-random but purely natural causes” (p. 116), as if the theory did not depend on an entirely random but immediately effective mutation that gave birth to the primitive light-sensitive nerve on which natural selection got to work. If you think a primitive light-sensitive nerve is simple, try to explain exactly how it works. In this context, however, it also needs to be borne in mind that the very concept of sight did not exist before that random mutation, and yet the various unconscious cells in some mysterious way “knew” that this primitive light-sensitivity could develop further, and so quite spontaneously they were able to develop new nerves and cells which eventually resulted in sight, and then in better sight. And hearing, and smell, and taste, and touch, and so on. Each one the result of an initial random mutation and an astonishing ability to improve on the original "invention".

Perhaps, then, for a moment we might pause to imagine precisely how this process might work. Let us picture the primitive oojah lying beneath a tree when a bolt of lightning strikes beside it. Perhaps, in order to boost the chances of probability, there is a herd of oojahs. As a result of the shock or the powerful electrical discharge, an oojah emerges with a genetic mutation: it has a primitive, light-sensitive nerve. For some reason, this primitive nerve provides it with an advantage over the oojahs that haven’t got one, and it is lucky enough to survive and pass on its light-sensitive nerve to a new generation of oojahs. Then what happens? Neither oojahs nor their nerves have the slightest concept of vision, and even if they did, no amount of straining would enable them to develop new structures that would result in any change to their light-sensitive nerve. No matter how many generations of oojahs and light-sensitive nerves you count, by what means did they develop the additional, hugely complex structures that lead, even step by step, from light-sensitivity to vision? The atheists’ scenario, as their creatures climb Dawkins' Mount Improbable, is of a “continuous and shallow slope", evolving "by slow (or even, maybe, not all that slow) gradual degrees." (p. 124). It's a very plausible image, but it only explains what happens and not how or why it happens. Where did the mechanism of physical change spring from? The initial random mutation – an amazing invention in itself – which Dawkins attributes to luck, is followed by a vast chain of inexplicable additional mini-miracles as each new generation of oojahs…does what, exactly? They can’t consciously change what they have, any more than I can change the degree of my myopia; what they pass on is only what they already have. At what point, allowing for the gradual improvements, does a light-sensitive nerve turn into vision? Of course it all happened. But how and, since vision did not exist as a concept, why? How did the new connections, nerves, muscles form themselves? In this context of physical change, natural selection explains nothing, because although it tells us why beneficial changes survive and are perpetuated, it does not explain the mechanisms that enable such changes to take place. Dawkins, with his smooth and effortless ride up "Mount Improbable", graciously acknowledges that ignition was sheer luck, but conveniently ignores the luck that created the mechanisms that produce useful random mutations, pass them on, and even improve them.

There is one further anomaly in the Dawkins’ theory of evolution. What he calls the “jackpot or nothing fallacy”: “Either the eye sees or it doesn’t. There are assumed to be no useful intermediates. But this is simply wrong. Such intermediates abound in practice” (p. 122). He goes on to describe the eye of the flatworm (which can't see an image) as “less than half a human eye”, and of the nautilus (which can) as halfway between the flatworm and the human eye. But eyes at the "intermediate stage" still function. They would be useless if they couldn’t. There are three problems here. The first, once again, is the lucky break of a primitive, light-sensitive “nerve”, which if it did not already provide some degree of advantage – even 0.0001% of human vision – would not have survived. Secondly and thirdly, why and how is an oojah innovation passed on to and improved by a flatworm and a nautilus and a billion other species? This question lies at the very heart of the discussion, because even if you believe as I do that evolution happened, the why and the how remain wide open questions.

As far as "why" is concerned, a common theist answer is that God planned it this way, and humans are his end product. Looking at the vast quantities of extinct species, and the great range of life forms that have come and gone, even if I believed in a Creator, I would find it hard to detect a targeted plan. A common atheist answer is that evolution happened because living creatures had to adapt to their changing environments or else die. But early, so-called simple life forms (bacteria) have survived without evolving into other forms. Scientists would be delighted if they found such forms on other planets, and they don't necessarily expect to find evolved species. If life just happened, it could have survived perfectly well without evolution. And so we come to how. How did those successful, individual oojahs – for even over thousands or millions of years, the process can only develop through individuals – transmute themselves into floojahs, then flatjahs, then flatwoohs, and then flatworms? If, say, one particular oojah suddenly decided that it would go and live under the earth, and this oojah was so successful that it spawned more, where did its adaptability spring from? This again takes us right back to the beginning. Darwin’s original few forms (or one) were simultaneously brought to life, endowed with the ability to reproduce themselves, and – crucially for evolution – with the potential capability of adapting themselves to changing conditions, passing on their adaptations, and providing hitherto non-existent yet functioning organs. All these skills assembled at a stroke by sheer chance.

There is a possibility that the huge problem of innovation may be tied in with that of adaptation. Current research on epigenetics suggests that Lamarckism is making a comeback, and that perhaps the communities of cells that join together and form all living creatures have an innate intelligence of their own. Indeed, we know for a fact that our organs act quite independently of our personal consciousness, and as they go about their business of breathing, digesting, perceiving, fighting off intruders, they are making decisions without our conscious guidance. Perhaps then, as environments change, communities of cells come up with their own ideas, adapting and/or innovating. The ID-er will understandably point out that this makes the initial mechanism all the more complex, thus reducing ever further the likelihood of chance, while both theist and atheist evolutionists will surely feel boosted by the possibility that random mutations may prove to have a minor role in the great game of evolution. This is potentially an exciting new field of research, and both sides can claim that it strengthens their case!

The design argument thus relates to four things: 1) origins, 2) heredity, 3) adaptability, and 4) innovation. All four involve a complexity that beggars belief. Natural selection explains none of them, since all it can do is ensure the survival of those creatures that have already produced the relevant adaptations and innovations. It is true that most areas of our existence show that once the initial mechanism is in place, complexity may develop from comparative simplicity, but in order to show just how far-fetched the atheist scenario is, let me draw an invented parallel. The camera is our nearest mechanical equivalent to the eye. The conscious, human mind has created an instrument that can perform most of the eye’s functions. And yet for all our conscious ingenuity, we are still not able to invent a camera that is capable of spontaneously replicating itself, of spontaneously repairing its own defects, of spontaneously improving itself, or of spontaneously passing on any improvements made in itself. Apparently, only chance is capable of such engineering brilliance. Dawkins’ misrepresentation of the design argument reaches its apogee in a typical combination of two favourite themes: “Design is not the only alternative to chance. Natural selection is a better alternative. Indeed, design is not a real alternative at all because it raises an even bigger problem than it solves: who designed the designer?” (p. 121) And so natural selection, which does nothing but ensure the survival of the invention, has now somehow become the inventor. Who invented the inventor is, of course, a perfectly valid question - and ample reason for an agnostic to stay clear of theism - but Dawkins has not presented any alternative other than chance, which is ample reason for an agnostic to stay clear of atheism.

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4. The limitations of science

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