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Biological Complexity: Design Necessity or Chance?


Summary: In a startling turn of events, modern science has called into question the Darwinian theory of evolution. But what will become of the model? Will it survive? Here, we show how science itself put evolution by natural selection on the endangered species list. Click here to subscribe to future posts.


The Watchmaker Argument

In his remarkable book, Natural Theology, apologist, William Paley penned his most famous argument. Roughly a contemporary of Charles Darwin, Paley wrote defending the concept of Intelligent Design. Describing the regular movements of the planetary bodies, he compared the gestures of our solar system to those of a great clock, arguing that creation had been been intentionally crafted and set in motion through the hand it’s Maker.

The book begins thus: “In crossing a [pasture], suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how [it] came to be…?” [1] In response, Paley replies: “I might possibly answer that for anything I knew…it had laid there forever…” [2] Paley then inquires: “But suppose I had found a watch, upon the ground, and…should be [asked] how the watch happened to be…” [3] Paley then writes: “I should hardly think of the answer I had [given before], that the watch [had] always…been there.” [4]

Paley’s argument carries an unmistakable point: The watch, more than the stone, requires ingenuity. No other explanation is able to account for the specified complexity of its design. Simply put, in the words of Paley, the “inference” is inevitable—the watch must have had a Maker. [5] Today, Paley’s argument is considered a staple amongst the wider array of arguments for the existence of God.

But that of course doesn’t mean that Paley’s views are uncontested. The annals of history record a nearly endless litany of critiques. Numerous detractors have sought to debunk the theory—in some cases, even vilifying Paley’s narrow claims. For example, out-of-print British journal, The Athenaeum, once infamously sought to pin Paley with the charge of literary plagiarism! [6] And Charles Darwin himself would later dismiss the argument altogether, stating, “The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley…[now] fails…” [7]

So then what is the prevailing opinion of Paley's arguments today? Do they truly succeed in countering popular Darwinist beliefs? The answer (as one might anticipate) is a resounding “no” being heard from notable members of the scientific community. A short list of retractions would include such titles as The Blind Watchmaker—a book passionately authored by Darwinist champion, Richard Dawkins. The volume colorfully chronicles the case for evolution while rendering numerous arguments against the Christian faith.

Tall Claim. No Proof.

Some time ago, I happened to spar with these arguments personally. I was asked to visit a college to lecture on science and faith. I had just concluded a talk on human-ape relations and had now begun to engage in active Q + A. The presentation I had delivered showed the lack of fossil evidence required to prove our present theories of common descent. It was then that a student responded with an objection that struck me as profoundly welcoming of my previously stated case.

He said: “I think I can agree with some of your points! The proofs from fossil evidence are largely unconvincing. But there is still a greater problem which you have failed to mention—namely, the evidence from biological declination. Let’s face it—it doesn’t matter if various fossil proofs are scarce—the evidence for evolution will still win the day. This will always happen because proofs from nature naturally favor the case that Darwin made.”

Hearing the student’s objection, I recognized it immediately. For Darwin himself had taken precisely the same stance. Apart from having fossil evidence, Darwin determined that future fossil finds would one day prove him correct. “The crust of the earth is a vast museum…” he opined. [8] “[T]he record [is] incomparably less perfect than is generally supposed.” [9] Undoubtedly, Darwin’s confidence sprang from his belief that evolution by natural selection was already a settled fact.

Quoting from his work, the naturalist wrote: “Can it…be thought improbable…that variations…should occur…? [And] [i]f such do occur, can we doubt…that individuals having any advantage would have the best chance of surviving…?” [10] On the other hand, Darwin argued, “any variation in the least degree [inferior] would be rigidly destroyed.” [11] Thus in Darwin’s mind, natural selection was merely consequential to life lived in the context of a randomly ordered nature.

To date, few ideas have enjoyed such vast success. In fact, Darwin has exerted his influence far beyond the grave. As noted British author, Philip Moore has mentioned, Darwin is now hailed as “…one of the greatest Britons who ever lived.” [12] Today, two universities bearing the title “Darwin College” carry on his legacy at both Oxford and Cambridge. But what have various advances within the fields of natural science demonstrated regarding the feasibility of his claims?

Returning to Dawkins’ book, The Blind Watchmaker, the world’s “most famous atheist” provides us with an answer. As seen through his own laments, Dawkins admits that Darwin’s ideas still face numerous challenges today. [13] He writes: “If you took all of the cells of a [bird] and put them together at random, the chance…[it] would fly is not, for everyday purpose, different from zero.” [14] Indeed, this is precisely the problem that faces evolution within the world of science today.

The Origin of Life

Knowing this to be true, I therefore sought to answer my objector. I attempted to help him see the problem with Darwin’s views. For the challenge to atheism, in the words of Richard Dawkins, is developing an hypothesis that explains “complex design.” [15] In simple terms, we need to know: How did such diversity arise? Where did it all come from? How did it all begin? These and other questions are at the heart of the debate which is now raising fresh doubts about the theory of evolution.

I thus began by mentioning the findings of modern science. I recounted the many frank descriptions of life arising at random. For in his book, Dawkins notes that Hemoglobin molecules defy evolution—a fact which sharply cuts against their creation by chance. He writes: “[Hemoglobin] consists of 146 amino acids. There are 20 different kinds…commonly found in living things.” He then notes that the number of ways of arranging 20 kinds of things in chains of 146 is inconceivably large. [16]

“The first link in the…chain could be any one of…20 [possibilities],” he writes. “The second link could [be the same]….the number of possible 146-link chains is [thus] 20 times itself 146 times.” [17]

This is an absolutely staggering number! As Dawkins notes, a million is a 1 with 6 zeroes after it. A billion is a 1 with 9 zeroes. Yet the hemoglobin number is a 1 with 190 zeroes! [18]

The odds against chance-creation scenarios are therefore breath-taking. To conceit impossibility here is merely to admit the obvious. Given the substantial challenges, it is reasonable to conclude that life did not arise on earth purely by chance. The reasons why are apparent, even to atheist scientists. Again, to his credit, Dawkins plainly admits this point. For he notes regarding current age-of-the-universe estimates: “…the total age of the universe is…well within the margin of error…” [19]

For this reason, current cosmology agrees with Richard Dawkins. Arguments regarding the antiquity of the universe are therefore rendered moot. For whether the universe is 6,000 years old or just under 15 billion, the age-range, by all estimates, is simply too narrow for Darwin. Christian web-site, Answers In Genesis, corroborates this point. As a young-earth creationist association, the group readily agrees: “If the universe actually were 15 billion years old, as Dawkins believes, this would give [us] about 10 to the 18 seconds.” [20]

A protracted explanation provides even further insight. For the same article notes: “…there are about 10 to the 80 atomic particles in the universe…If every second and every atomic particle were an experiment…this would amount to 10 to the 98 experiments.” [21]

Again—not enough time.

Single Step Selection vs. Cumulative Selection

So then how does Dawkins propose to meet such challenges? How does he argue for Darwin's theory of natural selection? The answer he gives is unfortunately misleading. It is every bit as slippery as it is entirely dubious. He writes: “To explain [this], I shall need to make a distinction between ‘single-step’ selection and ‘cumulative’ selection…” [22] Dawkins then offers a comparison between the two methods by programing his computer to simulate the theory of evolution.

Using a phrase taken from the tragic play, Hamlet, Dawkins sets his computer to type letters at random. Employing single-step selection, he calculates the likelihood that Hamlet’s phrase, “Me thinks it is like a weasel,” will emerge by chance. “It is the same kind of calculation that we did for hemoglobin and it produces a similarly large number,” Dawkins reports. [23] He then repeats the experiment using cumulative selection, noting, as he does, the immensely different outcome.

“We again use our computer…but with a crucial difference….It again begins by choosing a random sequence of 28 letters…It now ‘breeds from’ this…phrase, [duplicating] it repeatedly, but with a…chance of random error,” (to simulate mutation). [24] Dawkins then happily reports, “…the target [phrase] was finally reached in generation 43. A second run of the computer began with [a similar] phrase: and reached the target phrase in generation 64.” [25]

At first glance, it appears that Dawkins has solved the mystery. By creating a target phrase, lo and behold—evolution wins! And Hamlet’s famous words, “Me thinks it is like a weasel,” effortlessly appear on the screen after only 43 experiments. In reality, Dawkins’ method is merely a sleight of hand. It is accomplished by programming the computer to “look” for Hamlet’s words. But the mechanism of natural selection doesn’t function by “looking!” Simply put: That’s not evolution—that’s design!

In his own words, Dawkins writes: “Natural selection is a blind unconscious process…[and] has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind's eye. It does not plan for the future. It…is the blind watchmaker.” [26]

Conversely, Dawkins’ computer “examines” the mutant phrases and chooses the one which, however slightly, most resembles the target. [27] In this way, Dawkins’ computer “selects” the winning words by comparing them against their own future poetic progeny.

Of course, here, Dawkins would argue that it is nature itself which assumes the role of “the target” within the experiment. Hence, apart from using a target, the experiment collapses and cumulative selection becomes impossible to test. But this argument only creates an additional problem—namely the old dilemma of the chicken and the egg. For complex life forms must exist prior to cumulative selection being able to take it’s needed effect. Again, Dawkins writes:

“[L]iving things are the main examples we know of things that participate in cumulative selection. They may in practice be the only things that do.” [28] Frankly, this writer is inclined to agree. Thus cumulative selection does not explain the origin of life. Rather it assumes it—prior to it’s working. What then of Dawkins’ claim that God’s work is made redundant? In short, Dawkins’ experiment proves no such thing.

The Case For Design

I therefore concluded my argument by recommending a book. It was a Christian volume I prescribed to encourage spiritual reflection. To my delight, my objector responded extremely positively, vowing to give the book a fair and proper hearing. This is the profound fruit of apologetic discourse. It loosens the soil of the heart and gives the objector a chance to personally discover that the claims of the Christian faith can actually withstand our most hostile attacks.

In closing, it is worthy of noting that creationists have long argued that the emergence of life on earth is the result of one of three alternatives. The vast biological complexity we see is either brought on by: 1. design; 2. necessity; 3. chance. Unmistakably, Dawkins’ argument attempts to show that biological complexity is the result of the alternative of necessity. For he writes, “One of my tasks will be to destroy [the] myth that Darwinism is a theory of ‘chance’.” [30]

Yet, far from succeeding at meeting this aim, Dawkins’ argument proves precisely the opposite point. For if cumulative selection cannot prove that life arose due to necessity, we are back to single-step selection which is the alternative of chance.

Moreover, as I show, Dawkins’ experiment winds up looking suspiciously like intelligent design. Whatever the case may be, in the end, even he admits that life had to arise purely by chance. He states:

“We shall explain [life’s] coming into existence as a consequence of gradual, cumulative, step-by-step transformations from simpler things, from primordial objects sufficiently simple to have come into being by chance.” [31]

Therefore, I want to once again thank our supporters for sharing in this work with us. Your prayers and financial support make it possible to bring the gospel into secular college campuses. Know that you are in our hearts as we carry Jesus’ message to the places God leads us. And as together, we lift high the cross, may the Lord Jesus draw all people to himself. Amen. ⧉


End Notes:

[1]. William Paley; Natural Theology; or Evidences of the Existence of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature; London R. P. Faulder, New Bond-Street, Wilks & Taylor, Chancery Lane; © 1803; pg. 1.

[2]. Ibid

[3]. Ibid

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. Ibid. pg. 3

[6]. Need a proper citation.

[7]. Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (1809–1882) [need proper citation]

[8]. Origin of Species; pg. 156

[9]. Origin of Species; pg. 155

[10]. ibid. pgs. 77-78.

[11]. Ibid.


[13]. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, W.W. Norton & Company Inc. Castle House, London; 1986, pg. xi

[14]. Ibid. pg. 10.

[15]. Ibid. pg. xiii

[16]. Ibid. pg. 47.

[17]. Ibid.

[18]. Need a proper citation.

[19]. Ibid. pg. 51


[21]. ibid.

[22]. ibid. pgs. 47

[23]. Need a proper citation.

[24]. ibid. 49

[25] ibid. 49, 50.

[26] ibid. pg. 7

[27]. ibid. pg. 49

[28]. Ibid. pg. 47

[30]. Ibid. pg. xv

[31]. Ibid. pg. 16. italics mine.

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