June 10, 2008
The Language of God-2: Theistic evolution aka 'BioLogos'
(This series of posts reviews in detail Francis Collins's book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, originally published in 2006. The page numbers cited are from the large print edition published in 2007. The complete set of these posts will be archived here.)
As I said in the previous post, Francis Collins rejects both young Earth creationism and intelligent design creationism. Instead he says that he is an advocate of 'theistic evolution', or as he wants to rename it, BioLogos. He outlines the basic premises of this belief structure:
- The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago.
- Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life.
- While the precise mechanism of the origin of life on earth remains unknown, once life arose, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time.
- Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required.
- Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes.
- But human are also unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history. (p. 264)
Collins suggests that this is a view that could be, and is, held by many Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and Christians, and suggests that people like Pope John Paul II, Maimonides (the 12th century Jewish philosopher) and Saint Augustine would have also signed onto them if they had lived today and been aware of current scientific knowledge.
Points 1, 3, 4, and 5 are unimpeachable and would be accepted by any scientist (atheist or not) as well. As we will see, point #2 hints that he is going to invoke the anthropic principle, and point #6 is where his main argument really lies.
The best parts of the book (for me at least) were chapters four and five where he deals with biological evolution and molecular genetics. This is his field of expertise and he is sure-footed and authoritative in his writing as he explains clearly the principles of these fields and how our understanding of the genome has enriched our knowledge of evolution and helped in developing medical treatments.
All the scientific evidence he marshals in these sections is used against the religious arguments of the YEC and ID people. Collins leaves no doubt that he is a convinced Darwinian, something that will cause some dismay to those who may look to him, as an eminent biologist who accepts Jesus as his personal lord and savior, to champion the anti-evolution cause. Collins says that a mass of data has provided "the kind of molecular support for the theory of evolution that has convinced virtually all working biologists that Darwin's framework of variation and natural selection in unquestionably correct." (p. 190)
Here are some other passages from the book that address many of the specific criticisms of evolution by natural selection put forward by those who seek to discredit it.
[The argument] that the Cambrian explosion is evidence of the intervention of some supernatural force . . . is another "God of the gaps" argument, and once again believers would be unwise to hang their faith upon such a hypothesis. (p. 130)
. . .
While there are many imperfections of the fossil record, and many puzzles remain to be solved, virtually all of the findings are consistent with the concept of a tree of life of related organisms. Good evidence exists for transitional forms from reptiles to birds, and from reptiles to mammals. Arguments that this model cannot explain certain species, such as whales, have generally fallen by the wayside as further investigation has revealed the existence of transitional species, often at precisely the date and place that evolutionary theory would predict. (p. 132)
. . .
No serious biologist today doubts the theory of evolution to explain the marvelous complexity and diversity of life. In fact, the relatedness of all species through the mechanism of evolution is such a profound foundation for the understanding of all biology that it is difficult to imagine how one would study life without it. (p. 136)
. . .
Some critics of Darwinism like to argue that there is no evidence of "macroevolution" (that is, major change in species) in the fossil record, only of "microevolution" (incremental change within species). . . This distinction is increasingly seen to be artificial . . . The distinction between macroevolution and microevolution is therefore seen to be rather arbitrary; larger changes that result in new species are a result of a succession of smaller incremental steps. (p. 177-178)
. . .
From a biologist's perspective, the evidence in favor of evolution is utterly compelling. Darwin's theory of natural selection provides a fundamental framework for understanding the relationships of all living things. The predictions of evolution have been borne out in more ways than Darwin could have possibly imagined when he proposed his theory 150 years ago, especially in the field of genomics. (p. 196)
He dismisses the idea, advocated by the ID people, that scientists are dogmatically committed to rejecting any alternative to evolution by natural selection, using arguments that will be familiar to readers of this blog.
Intelligent Design fails in a fundamental way to qualify as a scientific theory . . . A viable scientific theory predicts other findings and suggests approaches for further experimental verification. ID falls profoundly short in this regard . . .providing no mechanism by which the postulated supernatural intervention could give rise to complexity. (p. 249, 250)
Furthermore he says that scientific advances have steadily accumulated in the areas of the blood clotting mechanism and the bacterial flagella (ID's prized examples of alleged irreducible complexity that natural selection cannot explain) and that "each such new puzzle piece provides a natural explanation for a step that ID had relegated to supernatural forces, and leaves its proponents with smaller and smaller territory to stand on." (p. 257)
Such comments are not likely to endear him to the advocates of ID over at the Discovery Institute, which may explain why one of its members wrote a lengthy rebuttal of his criticisms.
So if Collins rejects young earth creationism and intelligent design creationism and wholeheartedly endorses Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection as the explanation for the diversity and complexity of life, how does he reconcile science with the existence of god?
That is the topic of the next post.
POST SCRIPT: Who's to blame?
One of the most idiotic spectacles in sports is the athlete in the post-game interview who thanks god for some game-winning feat. But what about the athlete who chokes and blows it?