2009 will be the year of Charles Darwin. 12 February is the 200th anniversary of his birth, and his great book On the Origin of Species was published 150 years ago on 24th November. Festivals and symposia are already planned, and we may look forward to endless comment in the press.

We can see Darwin as the great liberator – freeing us from the superstitious burden of being created by God, and transporting us into the sunny uplands of scientific nirvana. In recent times, his theory of natural selection has become a proxy for a general view that the flora and fauna of the world have come about through biological causes, relegating the existence of God to a gratuitous hypothesis. 

On the other side of the divide is the theory of intelligent design in which God is the necessary agent intervening to a greater or less degree in the creation of the species. My purpose is to explain why this difference is born of a false dichotomy, and that neither approach conflicts, so long as our thinking is clear and we understand the limitations of each.

Evolution is an immensely complicated subject (and appears more complicated every day) but the principle is simple. In the process of reproduction many mutations occur. The great majority are harmful and so disappear. But a tiny number prove useful and give the species a small additional chance of survival in the existing environment. Those with this advantage are likely to breed more than those without, and so the advantage tends to accumulate. Over many thousands of generations, genetic mutations can result in substantial changes.

The story of the peppered moth is illustrative. Before the Industrial Revolution the light-coloured moths were camouflaged against the light-coloured trees, while the dark-coloured were an easy prey for birds. But as the tree trunks blackened through industrial pollution, the advantage switched to the dark-coloured version. And, with successive generations, the proportion of black moths increased greatly, at the expense of their lighter cousins. The survival of the fittest for the prevailing environment could be observed in action.

But this relatively minor alteration within a species is a long way from the development of the variety of complex species from the original basic life forms. And so we are right to call evolution a theory since there is no practical way in which all the missing links can be discovered. Nevertheless it is a very strong theory, supported by various different forms of complementary evidence – and recently much strengthened by deepening knowledge of DNA. Indeed this new knowledge is prompting science to explore supplementary ways through evolution may occur. There cannot be a proof, but the degree of plausibility is so high that those who discount the theory appear to be generally motivated by principle rather than by rigorous examination of the science.

Intelligent design always needs definition. The meaning can range from the literal 6-day account of Genesis to various levels of divine intervention in the evolutionary process in order to correct its course towards God’s ultimate ends. At the very least it cannot be disproved, and since satisfactory empirical evidence is not obtainable it is not a scientific issue.

Evolution in itself is a mindless process; it has no internal purpose. It works though filtered chance in which the random mutations of reproduction have to pass the test of enhancing, or at least not diminishing, the survival value of their host. One might compare it with a fisherman who uses a large meshed net. The fish that swim in are of random size but only those who pass the test of the mesh are caught. 

This makes evolution, as you would expect, untidy. So the bower bird builds a nest to attract a mate, but the nest is never used. The peacock has an unnecessarily large tail to prove his suitability as a father. We are prone to bad backs because we were not originally bipedal. The spermatic cord travels in a vulnerable circuitous loop because an ancestor had its gonads near its liver. All rather unintelligent, but because these systems work well enough they survive.

Naturally our interest is focussed on the human line. Although homo sapiens is genetically closer to the chimpanzee than the chimpanzee is to the gorilla, it did not spring into existence overnight. In fact our lines of descent diverged about 5 million years ago, and we have no evidence of any significant changes in the hominid line for the next 3 million years. Our own species is very new in evolutionary terms, appearing in Africa about 200,000 years ago. The small population (perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 individuals) began its emigration about 60,000 years ago. Neanderthals, our evolutionary cousins, spread somewhat earlier. Current evidence suggests that they sometimes lived alongside homo sapiens, and may have interbred to some degree. They declined for a variety of reasons. Fossil records suggest that they were skilled, innovative and may have had limited powers of speech.

Despite our genetic similarity to the chimpanzee (which is by no means the whole story for genes can express themselves differently and in different combinations) we are struck by the obvious differences. Our capacity for self consciousness, abstract thinking, freedom of the will, and our sense of moral obligation stand out. These faculties are not explicable through biology, although they necessarily work through the brain. For example, freewill cannot by definition be caused by the biological, and without freewill moral responsibility has no meaning.

 If I describe such faculties, as I do, as being infused by God I have no account to give about how this happened beyond the fact that the human brain must have evolved biologically into an instrument through which the faculties could work. I do not know whether Neanderthals, or other species earlier in the human line, had souls, but the evidence of intelligent activities suggests that we cannot rule this out.

If homo sapiens were purely the result of biological evolution the anthropologists would hold that descent from a single couple was extremely unlikely. But this would be irrelevant in the case of a soul infused by an act of God, who could have chosen monogenism or polygenism according to his purposes. What we do know is that we inherit a nature which is a blend of the biological and the spiritual, and that it is our inability to integrate our selfish, biological, elements with our aspirational, spiritual elements in which disorder lies.

So I do believe in intelligent design in the sense that God used evolution as his biological methodology. Whatever his reasons may have been, in human terms I recognise that the fisherman who uses a combination of the random tempered by the filter of the mesh has chosen a more economical method than picking out his fish by hand. But I need to remember that nothing, in the end, is random to God, who knows from all eternity the movement, and mutation of creation, right down to the most basic sub-nuclear particle. The outcome of evolution was known and intended in every detail from the beginning.

I also know that my spiritual faculties were created and given to me directly by God. I could not meaningfully claim truth for any proposition I have made if I were obliged to make it only through the biology of my brain. Biology could not give me a mind to judge the workings of my brain or my emotions. And I could not see how far I fall short of the life of love if biology were my only means of knowing that I should follow the good and avoid the evil. Moreover such faculties are not susceptible to evolution. For instance one either has free will or one has not: there is no halfway house.

So, as believers in a creator God, natural selection through evolution is not an obstacle but a fruitful way of exploring the wonderful way through which he most probably worked. Our celebration of Darwin’s anniversary year should be all the richer since we are able to see the methodology in its proper context.

I am aware that my account is simplistic. There is much more to say about the complexities of evolution, including some real difficulties raised by its critics. Or the part that a Catholic priest played in discovering the mechanism of inheritance. The integral intellectual connection of Darwinism to eugenics needs to be examined. The claim that the source of altruism is evolutionary advantage requires assessment. I would like to have written more about the myopic vision of the secular scientist. I would like to have looked more closely at our first ancestors and discussed the part that Original Sin played in our inheritance from them. I shall try to deal with some of this in my fortnightly Science and Faith column during the year. But I would be greatly helped by your comments and suggestions.


About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Philosophy, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

67 Responses to Evilution?

  1. Iona says:

    There’s a lot of meat in this one!

    Quentin mentions the unlikelihood (from an anthropologist’s point of view) that all modern human beings might be descended from just one couple. But I believe the genetic evidence is that we are descended, if not from a single couple, then at least from a very small group indeed. Matt Ridley says, in his book “Genome”, “we know from the genes that human beings went through a much tighter genetic bottleneck (i.e. a small population size) than chimpanzees ever did”, emerging from this bottleneck significantly unlike the common human/chimpanzee ancestor in various ways such as upright gait and body hair distribution. And language, reflective consiousness, appreciation of good and evil?

    “The part that a Catholic priest played in discovering the mechanism of inheritance”? If this is Mendel, I thought he was a monk. Maybe he was a priest as well? (Didn’t Galileo have a close collaborator who was a monk? – Strange how these researchers didn’t seem to find their faith threatened by what they discovered, whereas some others interpret the same discoveries as faith’s death-knell).

    I think Darwin had real problems with the peacock’s tail, which is of no practical use whatever, being cumbersome and difficult to manage, and probably making its wearer easier to catch hence more vulnerable to being eaten. There have recently been various radio programmes discussing Darwin’s life and work, and on one it was commented that Darwin explained the evolution of the peacock’s tail via the preference of peahens (they liked it; and the bigger and more colourful it became, the better they liked it; hence they mated preferentially with the bearers of the bigger and brighter tails). This explanation seems to undermine the “survival of the fittest” argument; the large-tailed peacock has survived and left progeny not because his tail gives him a practical advantage in life, which it doesn’t, but because some dizzy female took a fancy to it.

  2. JohnBunting says:

    G K Chesterton remarked that “All arguments begin with an assumption that you cannot prove. If you could prove it, you would simply be making a different argument, starting from a different assumption”.
    It is now often asserted that evolution gives, in principle if not in detail, a complete explanation of life on earth. The unproved assumption here is that you can take as ‘given’, and unintended, the properties of matter which made evolution possible, and which cannot themselves be products of evolution. Are we to suppose that any random collection of sub-atomic particles or whatever, popping into existence spontaneously, would give rise to a process of evolution, resulting in the appearance of complex life-forms? If no deliberate act of creation took place, what is left? Nothing but pure chance, it seems to me. What then becomes of Richard Dawkins’ assertion that “Evolution is not a matter af chance: natural selection is the very antithesis of chance”. Maybe so, once it’s up and running; but the fact that it’s running at all can only be a matter of chance, if you rule out creation.

  3. Durham says:

    re Iona’s question above. Mendel was an Augustinian monk, later to be abbot. He was ordained priest in 1847 (Dict. of Christian Biography).

  4. Malteser says:

    God may have used evolution as His biological methodology (although I think the jury is still out on this, given the huge gaps in the fossil record), but we cannot, as Catholics Christians, hold that He used Darwinian natural selection as the method of evolution. This is simply because we believe that we were deliberately created by God in His image, whereas natural selection is a completely blind, purposeless process.

    In the Darwinin view, we might very well not have come into existence at all.

    It puzzles me that Catholics are so reticent in making that point. I suspect that we were so traumatized by the Galileo affair that we are now too terrified to assert anything that conflicts with the current scientific orthodoxy. Instead, we leave it to our Protestant brethren, and then deride them as ‘creationists’.

  5. Malteser is right to mention the “Galileo” effect. The problem lay not in the decision (which was quite defensible in terms of the thinness of the evidence at that time) but in the way that it inhibited Catholic scientists for long afterwards.
    I notice that in the Attenborough documentary on the Tree of Life he stressed how we were very much part of the animal kingdom, without adverting to the particular human characteristics which distinguish us from the apes. I would like to have heard him explain why he was able to make a documentary about them, while they were unable to make a documentary about him.

  6. tim says:

    I think it’s clear that apes were unable to make a documentary about Attenborough because they couldn’t get the funding. Professor Singer is investigating whether this was unjustified discrimination.

    I’m wondering if we sometimes forget that God did not wind up the universe like a clock and then go off and leave it to fend for itself. He (or His servants or agents) continuously maintain the system, and presumably guide it in ways we can’t detect. The idea that evolution, or indeed any other aspect of life, actually happens at random (as opposed to our being unable to detect that it doesn’t) seems unjustified. If (like me) you regard evolution as a well-established mechanism, you admire the ingenuity of it even more. Post Galileo, we are surely right to be nervous of relying on the Bible as a guide to choose between scientific theories.

  7. Malteser says:


    I think we can detect evidence of God’s guidance. That is precisely what intelligent design theorists have been doing for the last ten years or so, although you wouldn’t know it from the disparaging way in which they are treated in the Catholic press.

    The beauty of ID is that it does not rely on the Bible as a guide to scientific investigation; rather, it uses the scientific method to identify specific, complex information in biological and biochemical systems. The existence of this information clearly points to an intelligent source, or designer.

    Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna seems to have caught onto this, and even the Pope is making a few encouraging noises. But we don’t seem to be able to muster the courage to fully reject the blind, purposeless Darwinian alternative.

  8. Horace says:

    Chance would be a fine thing!

    “. . natural selection is a completely blind, purposeless process. In the Darwinian view, we might very well not have come into existence at all.”

    Things are not quite so simple.
    Everyday experience suggests that the future and past are different; we know what happened in the past, we can only guess about the future.
    The classical scientific approach is to suggest that, provided we know enough about the past and the laws that govern the behavior of the physical world, the future is as knowable as the past.

    Consider the toss of a coin – Heads or tails? Once the coin has landed and settled we know the answer -= “Heads!”. If we knew beforehand the exact placement of hands, the exact angle and force of the flick – then in theory we could predict the answer. But we don’t, it is much too complicated, which is the whole point.
    In computer programming we come across the function random(n); This is, of course, perfectly determinate but if we evaluate x=random(27); the procedure is too complex for us to predict the resulting value of x, which is the whole point – just like tossing a coin.

    I argue therefore that the ‘random’ processes of natural selection could perfectly well have been used by God to create human beings. God wrote the ‘random()’ function – it is not “blind and purposeless”.

  9. Horace says:

    “I would like to have heard him explain why he was able to make a documentary about them, while they were unable to make a documentary about him.”

    Have a look at the picture http://www.hrat.btinternet.co.uk/DSCF0007.JPG

  10. tim says:

    Malteser, thanks for that point.

    I’m not well enough informed about Intelligent Design (or evolution either) to be able to assess the evidence. Even for those who are highly informed, there are fundamental difficulties. Both sides know that their explanation is the right one – given this, it is simply a question of providing a plausible mechanism for any apparent anomaly – what is sometimes known as a ‘Just-So Story’. Such stories may be beyond proof or disproof – sometimes they are capable of disproof, which can be disappointing to those who have put faith in them. Though if they are disproved, we should recognise that this doesn’t disprove the faith that suggested them.

    One example (tending against atheism, though there are plenty the other way) : the combination of values for fundamental physical constants that is necessary for the Universe to produce and support life (or at least life as we know it) is infinitesmally unlikely. However, this objection is easily overcome by the ‘many Universes’ theory: which holds (on limited evidence) that there are enormous numbers of largely separate universes (whether an infinite number or not, I’m not clear) with different physical laws. If so, then it may not be unlikely, but perhaps virtually certain, that conditions suitable for life will exist in one or more of them.

    I’m with Horace: God can use apparently random processes to create human beings. Things can appear random but not be. Example: the occurrence of digits in the digital expansion of pi…

  11. Malteser says:


    Thanks for that. Your version of evolutionary theory may well be true – and it certainly appears to be compatible with Christianity. But but the point is that this is not the Darwinian (or neo-Darwinian) version, which has no place for God writing a random function, or any other divine intervention in the process. If you are saying that Darwinism is wrong, and that God must have been involved in the process, I would agree with you – and the intelligent design movement is simply trying to provide some hard evidence for that divine involvement.


    Thanks for your response. I’m no expert either but I think that the difficulty with the multiverse theory is that there is absolutely no evidence that there are any other universes.

  12. I love Tim’s analogy with the expansion of pi. It interests me that although it is infinite (I understand that it has been computed up to a trillion places) and the sequence is random nevertheless it always gives the same digits in the same order to whoever calculates it correctly.. So it is by nature predictable although in practice our prediction can never be complete.

  13. claret says:

    Personally I am disturbed that the Vatican has now abandoned Genesis as a credible account of creation. I assume they have read it so how are they able to dismiss it so easily? To do so opens the whole of scripture to doubt.
    I heard on the radio only yesterday ( although I have yet to see anything in writing,) that the Vatican does not see any conflict between evolution ( Darwinism?) and creation.
    Well I see plenty of conflict. On one side is God and on the other is Darwin. Who do we believe and put our trust in?
    Do we put our trust in a God we believe in and who was there at the very dawn of creation and oversaw the whole process or do we choose Darwin, a man.
    God or man. Reality or theory. Take your pick.

  14. claret says:

    Sorry ,
    on last thought,
    ‘By inummerable statutes Man, only confused what God achieved in ten.’
    The same can be said for creation.
    ‘By inummerable theories man, only confuse what God achieved in seven.’

  15. Andrew Lack says:

    I have been teaching about Evolution for many years now and have never considered it ‘Evilution’ at all. To take Genesis in its scientifically literal interpretation seems entirely against the reasons and way that it was written. Science was only invented in its modern form in the seventeenth century following Galileo and Newton. Am I not right in thinking that before then there was no distinction between material truth and mystical truth? – stories were written with moral messages in mind. It is surely not saying anything too provocative to suggest that nobody who wrote Genesis was actually there at the time – unlike the historical books of the Old Testament and, of course, the New. This puts it into the category of true myth to me – a story describing a deep truth about human life, giving us a vital message but not to be taken ‘scientifically’ in our modern sense.

    The Darwinian story, with its emphasis on natural selection, makes such irrefutable common sense (the famous T.H. Huxley quote when he first heard it sums it up: ‘How extraordinarily stupid of me not to have thought of that.’) tells how life must have evolved. The trouble is it has to have evolved – it is still evolving and I know of a few evolutionary changes that are now well documented, even within my own lifetime. But I am completely with Quentin when he says that the interesting aspects of human life – free will, the capacity for religious knowledge, abstract thought – take us away from our evolutionary past in a way inherently unexplainable by science. Science involves predictability, natural laws etc. I feel as if God was almost forced to intervene and have a ‘dialogue’ (not really the right word but I cannot think of a better) with us, because we crossed that line to self knowledge, and once crossed there is no going back. But of course this is beautifully and poetically described in Genesis, (although I can have slight problems with the misogyny!). The writers understood the problem.

    ‘Creationism’ does seem unfortunate and I feel does its followers no favours, allowing the vocal atheists the perfect ‘Aunt Sally’. Sadly I am putting ‘Inteligent Design’ into the same category – Son of Creationism really. But this of course does not deny a genuinely intelligent design in what we can now see as human life.

  16. claret says:

    If we discount Genesis because the writer wasn’t there then we have similar problems with at least two of the gospels, most of the Acts of the Apostles, some of the letters of the NT, and the vast bulk of the OT.
    The Church teaches that scripture is the inspired word of God. Why is this not good enough for Genesis?
    When Jesus speaks of adam is he speaking figuratively of some fictional character to make a point or does he believe Adam existed as the first man?
    There is enough science in Genesis to keep any scientist busy enough for a lifetime. It follows the evolutionary pattern but God calls it creation.
    The ‘days’ that cause so much problem for some people were called ‘days’ by who? God or man? Answer: It was God who defined ‘day’ not man. Its contained in Genesis.

  17. CamillaGorilla says:

    “Despite our genetic similarity to the chimpanzee (which is by no means the whole story for genes can express themselves differently and in different combinations) we are struck by the obvious differences. Our capacity for self consciousness, abstract thinking, freedom of the will, and our sense of moral obligation stand out. These faculties are not explicable through biology, although they necessarily work through the brain.”

    Well, since we have been different species for more than 5 million years, its no wonder we’re different, however one is equally struck by the similarities than by the differences. Homo Sapiens is so childish in its need of feeling superior, it would be sweet had it not been so damaging..

    To call evolution a theory is not right in this context. You present it as though evolution and I.D are two equally, opposing theories, which is preposterous! Evolution is a scientific theory, which is a well supported body of interconnected statements that explains observations and can be used to make testable predictions. Evolution is also a fact*, as opposed to the theory of intelligent design, which is a theory by the colloquial definition: “theory” can mean a conjecture, an opinion, or a speculation that does not have to be based on facts or make testable predictions.

    So, ecolution is a scientific theory and a fact, and I.D. is only a speculation. Not even a good one, for if there is an intelligent designer, who designed him or her? For he/she could not have come into existance by chance, I take it?

    *Evolution is a fact in the sense of it being overwhelmingly validated by the evidence. Frequently evolution is said to be a fact in the same way as the Earth revolving around the Sun is a fact.- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution_as_theory_and_fact

    Evolution as fact and theory:


  18. Horace says:

    Chance is still a fine thing.

    I cannot agree that “the Vatican has now abandoned Genesis as a credible account of creation”.

    Read Genesis 1; verses 1 to 31, and you have a perfect example of how modern theories of planetary formation and of evolution can be explained to a primitive people (and even perhaps to children today). This is how I was taught as a child in school.

    After this in Genesis 2,3 etc things get a bit complicated.
    For example 1:24-25 (before man is created) is apparently contradicted by 2:19 (after man has been created).
    I am not sufficiently skilled in exegesis (or even simple ‘bible study’) to comment further, except to say that this seems to me simply a way of looking at the same things from a different aspect.

    Evolution is a scientific theory (or fact but remember that in science, ‘fact’ can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.”) but as Cardinal Ratzinger once wrote, “. . the controversy has not come from the theory of evolution as such, but from the turning some of its elements into a universal philosophy, in order to explain all of reality”.

  19. claret says:

    But why or how would the writer of Genesis know that they had to give a ‘perfect example of how modern theories of planetary formation and of evolution as an explanation to a primitive people’ even needed to be given some ten thousand years or so before Darwin.
    They could have cut it short!
    The writer could not have known anything about the order of things in how earth was created with such accuracy ( as now supported by evolutionary theories,) without such knowledge having been imparted by the creator.
    I am chastened to discover though that Wikepdia is the binding authority on creation!
    Personally I prefer the authority of the Bible to Wikepedia.

  20. CamillaGorilla says:

    Horace wrote: “. . the controversy has not come from the theory of evolution as such, but from the turning some of its elements into a universal philosophy, in order to explain all of reality”.

    What controversy do you mean?

    claret wrote:”I am chastened to discover though that Wikepdia is the binding authority on creation!”

    Are you referring to my definitions on theory? In that case you can look it up in any dictionary, text book on scientific philosophy or whatever. What you may prefer personally is besides the point. I like alot of fiction books myself- the Bible not being one of them- as it is quite boring apart from the odd sex scenes, but Im not claiming to derive any scientific authority or moral autority from them..

  21. claret says:

    Camilla Gorilla
    Well at least we can agree on one thing , neither of us is claiming to derive any scientific philosophy or whatever from works of fiction.

  22. Horace says:

    The ‘controversy’ is between ‘Darwinism’ (i.e. what some people think is meant by ‘Evolution’) and Catholic teaching.

  23. CamillaGorilla says:

    claret: To get things right, my referance to wikipedia concerns the definitions of theory and fact, not creation. To quote myself:
    “Are you referring to my definitions on theory? In that case you can look it up in any dictionary, text book on scientific philosophy or whatever.” What I mean by this is that if you do not feel that Wikipedia gives the proper definitions of theory and fact, then you can look it up in any dictionary or encyclopedia. (I did however put another link there in case of that, actually. ) So there is no need to be chastened, not over this anyway!

    You wrote: “Well at least we can agree on one thing , neither of us is claiming to derive any scientific philosophy or whatever from works of fiction.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by this. I think you may be mixing things up- or are you saying you do not believe in the creation myth? Because it seems from your previuos comment (on 14 Feb 2009 at 11:12 pm) that you do. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    Horace: History has burdened the word Darwinism
    with some unfortunate connotations, and lesson learned should be not to derive morality from science. This does however not make evolution any less fit for adding to the understanding of our reality, e.g., human behaviour.

    I would think evolution it self would be in conflict with religious teaching of any sort- not because it simply makes a far better explanation on how we got here than any religious myth and so makes creation and creator superfluous- but because it is science; and science is based on rationality as opposed to religion..

  24. AMDG says:

    Camilla Gorilla “I would think evolution it self would be in conflict with religious teaching of any sort- not because it simply makes a far better explanation on how we got here than any religious myth and so makes creation and creator superfluous- but because it is science; and science is based on rationality as opposed to religion..”

    One of the objections which the Catholic Church has to “Evolutionism” is precisely that it seeks to elevate itself beyond the arena of science into a belief system. Science exists to discover the laws and principles that govern material phenomena by means of the empirical testing of theories by experiment. Science is not a belief system nor moral code and neither can it claim to have any jurisdiction over phenomena (whether it admits or their possibility or not) which are non-material. For it do so it must adopt the belief system of “Materialism” as a first principle and simply deny that they exist.

    Evolution and religion (at least religion grounded in reason) need not be in conflict provided each respects the territory of the other. Thus evolution may explain the process of “how” matter in the Universe slowly evolved into the matter which today makes up human beings, and may even suggest randomness in this process. What it cannot do is account for how the end result of homo sapiens is greater than the sum of its material parts (free will, moral duty, self-awareness and perhaps most puzzlingly unnecessary language, art and music). Science can explain the physical process of how a thought about the moral rightness of an act is transmitted within the brain but it cannot answer the question “what is that thought?”

    It is not accurate to say that science is based on rationality (reason) while religion is not. For both seek truth. if an eternal unchangeable truth (God) does not exist what is reason and how does it exist outside of a material Universe in order to exact a guiding influence on it? If it is a product of the material Universe, how can a material thing (the Universe) make something non-material (reason) and if so what is reason made of?

    Claret “The Church teaches that scripture is the inspired word of God. Why is this not good enough for Genesis?”

    I would recommend that you read the Catechism of The Catholic Church for a full explanation on what the Church actually teaches about the inspiration of Holy Scripture. It is certainly not the historical literalism of which you speak. Very few scripture scholars before the Reformation read the Scriptures in the way they have been since interpreted by Protestant scholars. In that sense the Protestant Reformation has been largely responsible both for the literalism arguments which have given rise to so many competing Christian sects, but also have set up a series of “Straw Men” for so-called rationalists to knock down in their attacks on religion.

  25. Iona says:

    CamillaGorilla said (on 15th February but I’ve only just caught up with the blog) “Evolution is a scientific theory, which is a well supported body of interconnected statements that explains observations and can be used to make testable predictions”. Evolution (if by this we mean evolution through natural selection and survival of the fittest) can certainly explain many observations, but actually HAS it made any testable predictions and if so have they been tested and what was the outcome? – I can’t think of any.

  26. Iona says:

    The peacock’s tail is functionless in terms of fitness to survive, and indeed would be likely to reduce his chances of survival since it must inevitably restrict his flight, slow down his movements, catch in the undergrowth and put him at risk of being caught by anything which fancied eating him. Presumably peafowl evolved in an environment lacking in predators and supplied with plenty of food, so the tail would not be too much of a disadvantage. But that still doesn’t explain its evolution, only its persistence (having evolved). Darwin found it a puzzle, and concluded that it had evolved because peahens took a fancy to it and mated preferentially with the most well-endowed peacocks. This however is a circular argument; the tail has persisted despite disadvantages, therefore the females “must have” preferred it.

    It’s not just the peacock. There are bower-birds as well, the male of which species spends practically all its time constructing and maintaining a totally functionless bower. Evolution solely through survival of the fittest can’t explain these gratuitously elaborate developments.

  27. CamillaGorilla says:

    Iona: A hint: Multiresistant bacteria. (As for the second comment of yours, I think you may have misunderstood how evolution by natural selection works. I will however not take it upon myself to try to explain- I simply do not have the time. But I strongly recommend you read “The selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins.)

    AMDG:Well, of course the Catholic Church is working franticly to argue against the explanatory power of Darwinian evolution. It is after all the true story of why we exist, and it devastates all predeceding explanations, no matter how sincerely believed those may have been.
    If science gives us an enormous amount of evidence that bread is destroying your intestines- you think the bread industry would simply give up on keeping you buying those baguettes?

    I do not agree that science exist simply to discover the laws and principles of nature, science exist because it can. It is an inevitable side-effect of human nature, of the brain if you like- itself a product of evolution. Why should science have other purposes than to inquire explanations of all aspects of the universe, and to improve life quality of humans and other living beings.

    To say that science can only deal with matters of the material world makes no sense. The fact that science does not have all the answers, makes it no more reasonable to think that any answer(e.g. god did it) is better than no answer. To explain complicated phenomena by postulating a supernatural being is not an explanation at all- it only raises more questions which are even more difficult to explain than that of which you set out to explain in the first place. There is no shame in saying «I dont know»- it is a great answer actually- honest, accurate and it requires no faith. To accept “I dont know” is no shame, what is a shame is claiming you know things you cannot possibly know (God did it)
    To accept that you do not know is in fact a good thing, because it adds incentive to keep looking for answers. Poor attempts of explanation (i.e. «God did it»), does not. Maybe someday science will find answers to questions of the kind «what is a thought». Maybe it will not. But it certainly will keep on looking.

    It is indeed accurate to say that science is based on rationality while religion is not. It is rational to accept our best scientific theories, it is irrational to reject them, whether it is because you don’t understand them or because you claim to know better. A scientific belief system is based on critical reasoning, evidence and observations, a religious belief system claims the existence of supernatural being(s), for which there is no reliable evidence. In other words it is based on faith.

    I see science and religion to be incompatible. I do not see how they can have different territories. Science is about trying to determine and explain what is really going on. Religion also tries to explain what is going on, however it fails to do so. Religion is based on faith. Science removes faith. Religion teaches us to be satisfied with bad explanations, science teaches us exactly the opposite.

  28. CamillaGorilla’s strongly dissenting voice is truly refreshing. I find the nom de blog confusing because my daughter, Camilla, wrote the very successful “No one Loved Gorillas More” (using Diane Fossey’s letters). So we are Camilla Gorilla fans in this house. But is it not right for a scientist to lay down what characteristics a solution should have in order to answer the question?

    For example, I assume that CamillaGorilla claims to have freewill. If not his/hers views aren’t worth a light because they emerge from random causes he/she cannot, by definition control.

    So what characteristics would the source of freewill need to have, and how would they emerge biologically? I’m not asking for the complete solution (it has so far defeated the whole of civilisation) but only the criteria it would have to satisfy.

  29. Iona says:

    CamillaGorilla: – Multiresistant bacteria – meaning, scientists predicted that the widespread use of antibiotics would wipe out all bacteria not resistant to them, hence the only bacteria left would be those which randomly acquired mutations giving them resistance to commonly-used antibiotics?

    But actually, IS that what has happened? There still seem to be plenty of the old sort of bacteria around which are readily zapped by antibiotics. And was this a precise and measurable prediction, or just a vague “If we go on spreading all these antibiotics around, something’s bound to develop a resistance”?

    I also am a little short of time, and unwilling to embark on the whole of the “Selfish Gene”. Could you refer me to the specific part which will explain the evolution of elaborate and apparently functionless characteristics/behaviours?

  30. Horace says:

    ” freewill cannot by definition be caused by the biological, . . “.
    So what characteristics would the source of freewill need to have, and how would they emerge biologically?

    This is a very difficult and complex subject, which if discussed at all in this blog deserves at least one section to itself.

    I once had the privilege of having lunch with Roger Penrose (after a lecture that he gave at my alma mater UCC) and I was suggesting that, at least for now, the study of Artificial Intelligence (I am an ex-Senior-Lecturer in this subject) was more profitable than the scientific study of ‘free will’ and ‘consciousness’. He was able to convince me to the contrary; in particular by pointing out the need for a radically different view of ‘time’.

    Perhaps we should remember that God does not act in ‘time’ as we know it.
    God created time!

  31. CamillaGorilla says:

    Iona: Perhaps it is worth the while taking the time to try to understand how the ongoing process of evolution works. Theres lots of exciting controversy within the theory of evolution so you might even find it rewarding.. And it is anyway better to find out for yourself than to rely upon what some stranger tell you (sic!) (In the case of our cousins the bacterias- they are heavily studied and I should think that if you look it up you will find lots of literature on the subject, predictability included.)

    And then to the concept of free will. Whats the definition? And why must I characterise the source of it? How can you assume that such a source even exist? Horace wrote: “Quentin:
    ” freewill cannot by definition be caused by the biological, . . “.
    -Again, definition. And why can it not be caused by the biological?

    Quentin wrote: “For example, I assume that CamillaGorilla claims to have freewill. If not his/hers views aren’t worth a light because they emerge from random causes he/she cannot, by definition control.” to which I again must reply, why? We all emerge from causes we cannot control- are you saying none of us is “worth a light”? Quite cheeky, I’d say. (Not to mention your assumption regarding my claims!)

    Horace wrote: “Perhaps we should remember that God does not act in ‘time’ as we know it.
    God created time!” – how do you know this? Do you have any reliable evidence?

  32. CamillaGorilla says:

    P.S.: Iona, perhaps you will find the guardian article that I linked to in an earlier comment(on the 15th) interesting, and there is also this:


    There, I saved you a trip to the library. For now.

  33. May be we are trying to make a meal out of this. I hope that my simplification will not make matters more complicated.

    1. One object of science to to explore the causes of human phenomena, confirming its conclusions by empirical evidence.
    2. A proposed truth proposition is either entirely, if multiply, caused, or it contains at least an element of freedom.
    3. If it is entirely caused it can have no basis on which to claim that it is a truth proposition. The proponent has obliged himself to accept that his claim is based on causation and therefore outside his free control. Nothing ‘cheeky’ about that; it simply follows logically.
    4. If it is free, or has an element of freedom, then we ask how science is fitted to address the question of an uncaused human phenomenon.
    5. Science may well claim that it does not know the answer because it is outside its methodology.
    6. Science may well demonstrate that it is within its methodology, but must explain how this is so (without of course begging the question).

    Reliance on (5) is a reasonable answer, but it leads to science admitting that it is not fitted to cope with one of the key human phenomena.
    However CamillaGorilla may well be able to answer (6), which is the question I am asking.

  34. I fear that Iona’s argument related to peacocks and bower birds is actually in favour of evolution rather than intelligent design. What evolution achieves is not an ideally ‘fit’ result, but a ‘good enough to survive’ result. So there are pluses and minuses. Perhaps a more fundamental example is provided by childbirth. A combination of bipedalism and resulting changes in pelvic structure together with the size of the human skull has led to dangerous birth, frequently fatal in natural conditions.
    The trade off has in fact been ‘good enough’, or we would not be here.
    This is an unintelligent design. But evolution as a natural process is essentially unintelligent. God, controlling development directly, would have made a better shot at it.

  35. Iona says:

    Quentin – and CamillaG – right; I have no problem with evolution, except that there are some things it doesn’t seem able to explain fully, the peacock’s tail being one, the bower-bird’s bower-building habits being another. (Give me time, I’ll think of some more). But this doesn’t mean I want to throw the whole of evolutionary theory out of the window; it means I think there must be “more besides”.

    Camilla G, I have read both your references (and am grateful for your solicitude in saving me a trip to the library). The talkorigins one led me into many fascinating byways (sea-cows with LEGS!!) but I couldn’t find anything in it that addressed the question of how random mutations and survival-of-the-fittest could account for the evolution of elaborate physical characteristics / behaviour which are funtionless in terms of conferring evolutionary advantage. Explaining it by “sexual selection” doesn’t help, because sexual selection itself should be based on choice of a mate who will provide his/her offspring with characteristics helping to ensure their survival. For example, other things being equal an individual would choose to mate with a strong and healthy specimen so that the progeny will (hopefully) inherit genes for strength and disease-resistance; and/or, in species where the young need a lot of care, the individual would choose a mate who shows evidence of long-term bonding and supportive behaviour. Possession of a cumbersome erectable tail shimmering with brilliant colours is no evidence of survival-value. So why has the peacock got one?

  36. CamillaGorilla says:

    Quentin: Still, there is no definiton of the concept of free will. But anyway- what’s to say an action cannot both be caused by different things and be a voluntary action? How does the fact that there is or may be «elements of freedom» in your actions/behaviour make it an uncaused phenomenon?

    In other words, what is the inconsistency of the fact that the human will is largely constrained-by reason, experience, surroundings etc, and yet that what we do is voluntary?

    Science can very well claim that it does not yet know without having to say anything about methodology. Science can very well claim that a theory adequate to explain things such as free will and moral sense from material causes is not yet existing- without it meaning it is not fitted to do so. Science is the way to ask interesting questions, mysticism is not. And science is already on to something exciting here, and the key to understanding is to shed the light of evolution upon it. But since the question of free will is traditionally a philosophical one, I’ll leave further explaination to a philosopher:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eS5Q-9uNCLU&feature=related Lecture by Daniel Dennett: Freedom evolves. (Sound only, I’m afraid. I could find 5 parts, perhaps there is more.)

    Iona: That is why I recommended you read «The Selfish Gene», it explains natural selection on gene-level- which makes tremendous sense. It is genes that are selected (and select) and survive through generations.

    But I will try and explain briefly how I understand the peacock’s tail, but please bear in mind that I am no biologist. So, if by sexual selection the genes for a shiny huge tail is carried on- because peahens prefer them somehow- then these genes are carried on- and so are the genes for “preferring huge flamboyant tails” in the peahens. The individual bird is a vessel for these genes, and what matters to the genes is to get their vessel to reproduce. A less fancy tail may be of greater survivale-value to the individual peacock- but not to his genes.

    It makes sense to me that peahens would prefer huge tails, because it shows the male has got very good health indeed- good enough to afford such an unnecessary fancy tail. These “good health genes” must be valuable in survival. (Survival of the genes, remember). The better the health the bigger the tail- the tail then is announcing this health- its a fancy commercial.
    If the huge tail did nothing for the survival of certain genes, then these genes would not get carried on through generations.
    I hope this was of any help.

  37. CamillaGorilla,
    “In other words, what is the inconsistency of the fact that the human will is largely constrained-by reason, experience, surroundings etc, and yet that what we do is voluntary?”

    No inconsistency here. My question is confined to the element of freedom in a choice. In practice I think that many of our choices are caused, usually by factors of which we are not aware. But the element of freedom is of a different order. And you implicitly accept that it exists.

    Perhaps a working definition of free will is that, in some circumstances, I am able to make free decision through my personal will, and for which I am therefore responsible.

    Naturally there are many aspects of material reality to which science has as yet no answer. For example no one knows how life actually began. But it is possible to put forward possible alternative solutions which are at least theoretically possible. If they can be confirmed empirically, and perhaps they never will be, the cause will have been found. It is certainly a legitimate scientific question.

    But the element of freedom is a different matter because it requires an explanation of how it might be materially caused and yet remain free. I do not expect you to have an answer to this question but I would like to know why you think it can be a scientific question. Science addresses material causes.

    This is not a trick question but merely part of my quest (followed with many scientists without result) to define a limit to science, should there be one.

  38. JohnBunting says:

    A few points about time, space and origins, on which I would be thankful for anyone’s comments, and which might form some useful background to this discussion.
    Do you see the material universe as in any sense eternal, or did it – in some primal pre-evolutionary form – come into existence ‘ex nihilo’: in which case I assume that time had a beginning.
    We define time in terms of intervals between events, and space in terms of intervals between objects. Events cannot occur without objects; therefore neither time nor space would exist in the absence of matter. True or false?
    Evolution can only begin when some primal matter, which cannot itself be a product of evolution, is present. Richard Dawkins – or perhaps his friend Peter Atkins – asserts that such ‘simple’ matter could have arisen spontaneously from nothing. Can we assume that any such random lot of particles, waves or whatever, would give rise to a process of evolution?
    A correspondent in The Spectator last week defined God as ‘an unknowable black box that can be given any attributes needed to achieve the outcome’. Does not the concept of the ‘Quantum Vacuum’ serve the same purpose, except that it rules out any consciousness or intention?
    Finally, it does not seem to me that belief in God need be prejudicial to the pursuit of science. If the scientist is an atheist anyway – no problem. If he’s not, he can just ignore God during working hours, and pursue the science to its – or his – limits. It is obvious that saying ‘God did it’ does not constitute an explanation of anything, in the scientific sense; but believing in a conscious and intentional beginning of things need not stop you from going on to look for explanations of all the material processes.

  39. CamillaGorilla says:

    Q: I suspect you didn’t bother to check out the link. Perhaps you’ll find the link at the bottom of this post worthy of a look.

    I accept the fact that we are able to make decisions, meaning that we choose from different alternatives presented to us. This ability you mean can not be explained by science. I find it quite reasonable that this ability, along with other features of the brain, is a product of evolution, in fact I can’t see how it wouldn’t be. «The element of freedom» is your words. Hence the quotation marks..

    «But the element of freedom is a different matter because it requires an explanation of how it might be materially caused and yet remain free»

    And why is that, excactly? Because you want there to be areas where science should not be allowed to develop explanations? And why may that be?

    «But it is possible to put forward possible alternative solutions which are at least theoretically possible. If they can be confirmed empirically, and perhaps they never will be, the cause will have been found. It is certainly a legitimate scientific question.»

    Yes, there is a theoretical possibility that pink unicorns, flying spaghetti monsters and fairys are real to. Possible does not equal plausible.

    Questions on whether the universe is eternal or not is fun to contemplate Friday nights down the pub, but why the assumption that if there was a beginning- it must be intention and consciousness behind it? Does it make life less wonderful if it emerged without any intention?

    «Finally, it does not seem to me that belief in God need be prejudicial to the pursuit of science. If the scientist is an atheist anyway – no problem. If he’s not, he can just ignore God during working hours, and pursue the science to its – or his – limits.»

    This made me laugh out loud. In public. The problem is faith. Belief in the supernatural requires faith. Faith is not only incompatible with real science- but it is breeding ground for assumptions and superstition. In fact it IS assumptions and superstition. And nothing good did ever come out of that. If you’re a scientist, what you do should be subject to, among other things, critical thinking. Why check it at the door when you leave work?

    This is getting boring, and I stand risk of repeating myself. But I think you all will find the following interesting: (Its from an interview with D.Dennett which can be read in its full here: http://www.searchmagazine.org/Archives/full-dennett.html )

    «There are no factual assertions that religion can reasonably claim as its own, off limits to science. Many who readily grant this have not considered its implications. It means, for instance, that there are no factual assertions about the origin of the universe or its future trajectory, or about historical events (floods, the parting of seas, burning bushes, etc.), about the goal or purpose of life, or about the existence of an afterlife and so on, that are off limits to science. After all, assertions about the purpose or function of organs, the lack of purpose or function of, say, pebbles or galaxies, and assertions about the physical impossibility of psychokinesis, clairvoyance, poltergeists, trance channeling, etc. are all within the purview of science; so are the parallel assertions that strike closer to the traditionally exempt dogmas of long-established religions. You can’t consistently accept that expert scientific testimony can convict a charlatan of faking miracle cures and then deny that the same testimony counts just as conclusively—”beyond a reasonable doubt”—against any factual claims of violations of physical law to be found in the Bible or other religious texts or traditions.»

  40. C-G, thank you for your long explanation. It could however have been a shorter one had it addressed my questions (Feb 21). But there may be little point in us boring everyone with a dialogue in which I put a question and you respond with an answer which ignores the question.
    However it might be better for this particular dialogue to close at this point – particularly as it may distract us from commenting on John Bunting’s interesting contribution of 22 February. I note that you quote from this in your last message. I should say that on this blog we refrain from laughing out loud at sincerely expressed views.

  41. JohnBunting says:

    CG: Apparently it did not occur to you that my use of the words ‘come into existence’ rather than ‘created’ was specifically intended to avoid any implicit assumption of consciousness and intention.
    I agree that no imaginable questions worth asking should be ‘off limits’, and may be addressed by science. Hence ‘pursue the science to its limits’, whatever they may turn out to be, and indeed whether there are limits at all. Whether science is, or will be, able to make assertions which constitute answers to all such questions, beyond reasonable doubt, remains to be seen. To say or imply that such answers are, in principle if not in detail, a foregone conclusion, sounds suspiciously like a statement of faith.

  42. Durham says:

    John Bunting,
    You seem to have fitted a number of very important issues into one post. If I may just take the last one concerning the scientist leaving God at home. Can I try an analogy? If I am driving my motorcar I should be concentrating on a number of technical and observational skills, not meditating on one of the mysteries of the rosary (I suspect that I could be fined for not paying attention if a camera caught my halo!) If I am asked how God comes into it I might say that beforehand I prayed for a safe journey. Secondly I might say that my care for my family and for other road users is motivated by a general attitude of love for others. Similarly, a religiously-minded scientist should certainly be pushing science as far as it can go. But that would not stop him praying to the Holy Spirit to help his understanding. If anything, his inspiration to discover the truth about the material world should be all the stronger because his love of God and his love of truth are just different aspects of the same thing. Make sense?

  43. Iona says:

    CamillaG – Ah, I see you are sending me to the library after all.

    Though I haven’t read “The Selfish Gene”, I have read enough about it and heard it quoted to be aware of the general argument, – that genes act to perpetuate themselves even at the expense of the individuals carrying them (hence “altruistic” behaviour, – my relatives are carrying many of the same genes as myself so by having me support my siblings, the family genes are ensuring their own survival). However, the negative survival-value of a cumbersome tail to a bird DOES matter to the peafowl genes, so they (the genes) should not be prompting the pea-hen to mate preferentially with the encumbered peacock. True, if the peafowl have evolved (as presumably they did) in an environment with no predators and plenty of food, the encumbering tail will be unlikely to lead to a speedy extinction of the species; but that still does not explain why the tail (a) began to evolve and (b) was slected by the peahen for its further evolution.

    I note your little parenthesis “because peahens prefer them somehow”, – this seems to me to be a little crack in the “random mutation plus survival of the fittest” argument which on inspection proves to be a gaping hole.

    Still, maybe I will go down to the library and get the Selfish Gene. Maybe it would make good Lenten reading, – what do you think, Quentin?

    (I expect people have been selectively breeding peacocks for quite a long time, but even before people took a hand the peacocks must have been pretty well-endowed. Anyway, the same arguments apply to bower-birds’ bowers, and no-one’s been selectively breeding them).

  44. Horace says:

    Of course to say “he can just ignore God during working hours” is unreasonable, and probably duplicitous not to say risible.

    To restate my position:-
    1) I believe in God, Creator of Heaven and Earth . . .
    This belief cannot be proved or disproved by reason, it is simply a matter of faith.
    2) To me there is no conflict between God and Science. This is not a matter of different territories.
    CamillaGorilla says “Science is about trying to determine and explain what is really going on.”
    I say “If you believe in God then you should try to ‘know Him, love Him and serve Him in this world’ “; knowing God in this world can perfectly well involve “trying to determine and explain what is really going on” in this world, the theory of evolution being a good example.

  45. JohnBunting says:

    Thanks, Durham. That seems a fair analogy, and makes
    sense to me.
    Pursuing it further, perhaps one might say that two people might give equally good explanations of the design, construction and operation of a car, although their ideas on matters unconnected with motor engineering might be very different.
    As for the heat and hilarity generated by my remark on the scientist ‘ignoring God during working hours’ – well, this is the case with natural science in general, as it does not include God, or any other putative supernatural being, within its terms of reference. I would say that in that respect it is ‘non-theistic’, in the sense of not referring to God, rather than ‘atheistic’ in the sense of denying God.
    As in any field of enquiry, disciplined or critical thinking consists largely in working within a paradigm that is adequate, but not superfluous, to the matter in hand. The scientist, as such, will work within the materialist paradigm of natural science, and while at work, may well not think consciously at all about any religious beliefs he may hold, (like you, concentrating on driving and not meditating on the rosary!). His working methods will not be systematically different from those of his atheist or agnostic colleagues, and his notes and papers will of course contain no reference at all to his beliefs. But to think and work outside this scientific methodology in other areas of his life is not necessarily to abandon critical thinking. The scientific method is very powerful, but should not become a Procrustean bed into which all thinking must be made to fit.

  46. Durham says:

    I’m glad that John Bunting and I are on the same net. So I dare to address another of his points. Sceptics, he says, claim that primal matter could have arisen spontaneously from nothing.
    If they put it that way it seems to me they really do need to undergo a course in critical thinking. Nothing is not a something out of which something can arise. It means no thing. Not a vacuum or an empty space. To claim that anything can spontaneously arise is just, to pinch, I think, Bentham’s phrase ‘nonsense on stilts.’ Belief in God seems rather mild by comparison. What they really mean is that they have no explanation since their best shot is not an explanation.
    Incidentally it may be true to say that matter always existed. ‘Always’ is a ‘time’ word. Of course there can be no time where there is no thing.

  47. tim says:

    It is good, as Quentin says, to have a sceptic pay this blog the compliment of taking it (relatively) seriously. But CamillaGorilla must not be allowed to get away with her opposition of faith and reason. In my understanding, faith must be based on, and consistent with, reason – this must apply in any system that is worth taking seriously. In mathematics, you start from postulates – which you choose, typically, on the basis of what seems reasonable. But in order to relate them to reality, you need to believe in them. Science, as an enterprise, is based on faith in the regularity of Nature: “Laws, which never shall be broken, For their guidance He hath made”: the first half of that couplet is the sceptical scientist’s prime axiom. And note that it cannot be disproved within the system. Science is based on repeatable experiments: miracles – rare occurrences in which the laws of Nature are superseded – are by definition not repeatable to order.

    Faith, as well as reason, is necessary for any enterprise. When difficulties are encountered (whether theoretical or practical) it sustains the believer and helps him to continue along the path originally chosen as a result of (or at least as consistent with) reason.

  48. Andrew Lack says:

    Two points to add to this ever-lengthening discussion:
    1/ there is abundant evidence of evolution actually happening, including in the peacock’s tail (actually it is a ‘train’ of body feathers as you may know – undignified maybe but go around the back of a peacock next time you see one with its ‘tail’ up!). A delightful experiment has been done where someone cut some ‘eyes’ off one peacock and added them to another. The one with extra eyes got almost all the females – it really does work. There is a fascinating discussion as to whether this is female choice on aesthetic or perhaps grounds that symmetry and perfection mean fewer parasites etc., or whether having such a large ‘tail’ means it must be super-strong as it is able to survive even with such an impediment (it is probably both and there may be other things).
    2/ one of the best features of the Catholic church, as emphasised again and again by our present pope, is that it bases itself on rational thought. After all St Thomas Aquinas did just that too, even if the world was subsequently shown to move round the sun rather than be the centre of things. Rational thought is one of our greatest attributes and, like religion, separates us from the animal world. And its origin remains shrouded in mystery about which evolution has nothing to say.
    Actually I often think of God when I am ‘doing’ science in my everyday life…..

  49. pnyikos says:

    A passage in Loren Eiseley’s _The Immense Journey_ had a profound effect on me when I read it as a young adult. Eiseley’s book is a partly poetic but scientifically sound book on evolution. His viewpoint is secular except in one striking passage:

    “Perhaps there also, among rotting fish heads and blue,
    night-burning bog lights, moved the eternal mystery,
    the careful finger of God. The increase was not much.
    It was two bubbles, two thin-walled little balloons at the
    end of the Snout’s small brain. The cerebral hemispheres
    had appeared.”

    Until that time (and since the age of seven) I was what you might call a neo-Deist: one who believed God let the universe evolve completely on its own until species reached a certain level of intelligence, like in the Old Testament. But since then, I have taken very seriously the theory of “natural evolution with subtle intermittent divine nudges.”

  50. Malteser says:


    How, exactly, does an experiment that shows that peahens are more attracted to a peacock with an abundance of ‘eyes’ than one with fewer than average provide evidence for evolution? You might just as well argue that humans must have evolved, because gentlemen prefer blondes.

    This is even weaker than Quentin’s reference in his original article to peppered moths. At least in that case it could be argued that the darker moths did indeed have an ‘advantage’ in the ongoing struggle for survival over their less well camouflaged friends. What advantage does a more elaborately decorated peacock possess? Or are you arguing that natural selection is not about survival at all, but, rather, how many mates you can attract and how often you reproduce?

    The problem with the peppered moth example, incidentally, is that it isn’t actually an example of evolution at all. The peppered variety had always existed – they did not evolve as a consequence of a changing environment. All that happened was that they tended to do better in that environment than their non-peppered cousins. In the same way, grey squirrels do better than red squirrels in a man-made environment. That is an example of a population shift, not evolution.

  51. Malteser, in one sense you are right about the peppered moth. Both the light and dark coloured are the same species, and can interbreed without problem. But they do differ genetically. Thus they provide a simple example of ‘survival of the fittest’ through small genetic variation in action. As external conditions changed so the different characteristics became more or less advantageous. The example is often used when explaining evolution to people who have no background in the subject. Which is probably the case for a number of CH readers. More knowledgeable readers are familiar of course with many other more complex examples, and did not need an explanation in the first place. But I have to cater for a wide range in a general newspaper.

  52. Durham says:

    Iona’s original question about the unnecessary size of the peacock’s tail has not been satisfactorily answered yet. So let me try. I don’t need to be very original here because the most plausible answer was given in 1915. Roughly what happened was probably this. Initially the peahen, wanting to select the best father, was attracted by a peacock with good strong tail feathers – a sign of good health. This kind of selection is common to many species, including our own.
    Probably at this stage the tail feathers were not much longer than those of other peacocks. But naturally the genetic mutation for long feathers began to predominate in the population at an accelerating rate. So the peahen, now faced by a wide choice of long feathered mates, favoured the longest tails then available, the gene was reinforced and, eventually the current peacock tail developed. So there was advantage (being picked as a father) and a disadvantage (lack of mobility and prominence to predators). So a natural balance, suffcient to maintain the population, came about. This is what we have today.
    if anyone is interested this is called ‘Fisherian runaway’ because a Professor Fisher proposed it. And ‘runaway’ because the effect is circular: the desirable (to the female) characterstic increases until its disadvantages outweigh its advantages.
    All this shows is that peahens are stoopid, and evolution (viewed scientifically) is mindless.

  53. Iona says:

    Thank you, Durham.

    And the bower-birds?

  54. RMBlaber says:

    What Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, et al, following their mentors JD Bernal and Jacques Monod, with TH Huxley and Herbert Spencer before them, all realise(d), is that the theory of the evolution of species by the natural selection of random mutations runs completely counter to any theistic explanation of the existence of life on Earth or in the Universe at large. There is no doubt in my mind that Darwin himself realised this, and that to deny it is to engage in a form of elaborate self-deception.
    This assertion is not the same as denying that evolution takes place, and nor does it deny the role of natural selection in that process. What it denies is the element of randomness. The watchmaker is not ‘blind’, to allude to the title of one of Professor Dawkins’ books. He can see perfectly well – indeed, He has perfect foresight.
    Nothing happens in His Universe that is not meant to happen and that does not serve His purpose. There are no ‘random’ or ‘chance’ events. There are only events that appear to us to be random – from our limited, finite perspective.
    Was it chance that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago? No – it was Providence. The Chicxulub Meteorite impact was meant to happen. If it hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be here – the mammals would never have had the chance to evolve beyond the rodent stage. It is not necessary to speak in terms of Divine ‘intervention’, because God is necessarily, and intimately, involved in running His Universe, on a day-to-day basis, and at the minutest level.
    This is the proposition that sticks in the craw of the materialistic scientist. He or she cannot tolerate the idea that materialism is not irrefutable, and that there is a strict limit to the explanatory power of empirical science.
    But when it comes to the human being, the soulless robot that materialistic science would substitute for the divinely created reality would have no free will, no conscience, no sense of moral responsibility or ability to tell right from wrong, and no means of truly understanding, or being conscious of, the world around it. If there is no ‘ghost in the machine’, you are left with a heartless machine – and its power to destroy. We should all fear that, very much indeed.

  55. Durham says:

    Iona – your bowerbird. Some species have males with colourful plumage, but no particular characteristic in their nests. Others are dull in colour, little different from the female. These are the one with the highly decorated nests. It’s a good trick. You prove your fitness as a mate without exposing yourself to predators.It’s an excellent survival strategy. much brighter than the peacock!

  56. Iona says:

    Durham – but at least some of these bowerbirds build their bowers on the ground, – these are not nests at all, but carefully arranged collections of leaves, twigs, berries, stones etc., with no practical function whatsoever. And on the ground, they definitely would explose the bird to predators – if there were any in its environment which presumably there aren’t. I can’t see how this proves the bird’s fitness as parent of the next generation.

  57. JohnBunting says:

    This evening’s (5 March) BBC2 programme on Darwin made the usual assertions that he had ‘made it possible to account for life on earth without the need for God’. Apologies if I’m labouring the point, but the existence of pre-evolutionary matter with properties which allowed evolution to occur, seems to me a good indication that the watchmaker was not blind.

  58. Durham says:

    Iona, I think you’ve missed my point. Unlike the peacock (who is continuously obvious to predators) the bowerbird is more safely camouflaged. He uses the ‘nest’ as display rather than himself. The females visit him there and then lay their eggs in better hidden nests. He may even sit above the nest until a caller comes. Incidentally there are around 17 different species, and 7 different types of ‘nest’. All other things being equal this is a much better survival strategy than drawing attention to your own appearance, from which you can’t escape.

  59. Iona says:

    Durham – Yes, I can see that the bowerbird who builds bowers is thereby keeping himself safer from potential predators than the bird who “dances” and displays on the forest floor to attract a mate. But my point is that building a bower (I would prefer not to call it a nest, since many bowers have not the remotest resemblance to nests and couldn’t possibly be used for protecting eggs or nurturing the young) has absolutely nothing to say to the female about the male’s fitness to be a father. It doesn’t say “I’ll be a conscientious Dad”, it doesn’t say “I’ll bring you food while you’re sitting on the eggs”, it doesn’t say “I’m likely to father children who will be healthy, strong, fast flyers, efficient food-gatherers” – So the female has no Darwinian reason to choose a mate by reference to his bower.

    The more fundamental point which I am trying to approach is that there are living creatures with observable physical and behavioural characteristics which do not fit well with the Darwinian explanation.

    (Your comment on the superior self-camouflage of the bowerbird raises another problem with random-mutation-and-survival-of-the-fittest which I hadn’t previously thought of: dancing and displaying, especially on the ground, makes birds obvious to predators as well as to females of their own species, so how come this behaviour has developed purely by means of natural selection?)

  60. Durham says:

    Iona, of course we can only guess what goes through the mind of a female bowerbird. Here is a plausible shot. These bowers (as you prefer to call them) are very ingenious. Therefore the builder must be resourceful and replete with energy. So by an association built up over the generations the female is drawn to the signal of a healthy and competent mate. We see something analogous in the human male who is attracted to the ‘right’ waist to hip ratio. I doubt if, at the time, he often works out that this suggests a female who can bear children easily. But the instinctive, latent, connection is still there.
    On your second point, I am only repeating myself by saying that by using an external sign of his competence he only exposes himself to particular predator danger for a short period. The balance between mating opportunity and danger must be right in their particular environments or bowerbirds would be extinct by now.

  61. tim says:

    I am as a child in these matters (as is probably only too evident) – but isn’t the contention that nothing goes through the mind of the female bower bird (or the male either)? One gene appears, as a purely random mutation, which causes males to rake together primitive bowers. Maybe it has other beneficial side-effects, so that it doesn’t immediately die out. Then another separate gene appears that causes females to prefer males who make bigger or better bowers. Now you have a system that preserves and amplifies itself. The genes for making good bowers are beneficial to both males and females because they make their offspring more likely to have more descendants. Clearly this is all highly implausible – probably there is a much more cogent Darwinian explanation – or maybe it is a Just-So story concocted to fit the facts.

  62. Iona says:

    Durham – I wasn’t meaning to suggest that any thoughts or reasonings actually go through the mind of the female bowerbird; merely that if females select mates on the basis of likelihood of contributing to the well-being of the next generation (which on the basis of the “selfish gene” they must, or die out), they would do so on the twin bases of “that one’s carrying good genes” and “that one will help raise the next generation”.

    But DOES the bower suggest a male bird who is “resourceful and replete with energy”? Or does it suggest a male bird who is obsessed with something totally irrelevant to survival and/or to raising a family?

    (I have been deliberately leaving human beings out of any discussion of sexual preferences, since our instincts are tangled up with and overlaid by social conventions, fashion etc. Silicone implants do not suggest a female who will be an effective feeder of her young, – but I understand this doesn’t stop men being attracted to them).

  63. Iona says:

    Tim – if there IS a more cogent Darwinian explanation I’d like to hear it. My objection to explantions of unnecessarily elaborate physical features and/or behaviour patterns in terms of sexual preference is precisely that they have to be “Just so” stories, involving “maybe”s and “must have been”s, which is hardly in the scientific spirit.

    I can quite accept that the female frog will head for the male with the loudest croak (he’s likely to be the biggest, and large size has survival-value and is at least partly genetically mediated) and the female deer consent to mate with the male with the biggest antlers, for much the same reason (I don’t mean the deer is doing the reasoning!) But I think Darwinism alone can’t explain items like the peacock’s tail and bowerbirds. There’s something else at work in addition to random-mutation-and-survival-of-the-fittest. It’s as though Life (in the sense of living creatures continually evolving over generations), if given an inch, will take a mile. Give it an environment rich in food and relatively free of predators and it says “Way-hay!” and starts doing all sorts of extraordinary things which have nothing to do with mere survival and self-perpetuation.

  64. pnyikos says:

    JohnBunting, did the BBC really claim that Darwin could account for the existence of life on earth, or only that he could account for the way living things are today, GIVEN the existence of some kind of life to begin with?

    As you and I know, the former claim is just ridiculous: Darwinian evolution needs organisms able to reproduce. Where those came from was, to paraphrase Obama, beyond Darwin’s pay scale. I personally believe that life as we know it is so improbable, that blind chance can only produce it once in a googol of universes every bit as favorably configured for life as ours is.

    If we deny the supernatural, I think the only way the probabilities could be any lower than “once in a googol…” is for our kind of life to have been designed by an intelligent being with a simpler biochemistry. Our biochemistry is based on a remarkably structured protein translation apparatus that looks and works like an elaborate machine. I first learned about it twelve years ago in a book called _Vital Dust_ by Christian deDuve. He tries to argue for the ease of life arising spontaneously, but even I, no biochemist, could see what an enormous leap he was making from simple small rNA and amino acids to the full-blown protein translation apparatus.

  65. JohnBunting says:

    Thankyou, pnyikos. I don’t claim to remember Andrew Marr’s exact words in the 5 March programme – which I think were more or less repeated in the second programme on 12 March – but I am pretty sure that they were to the effect that ‘Darwin made it possible to account for life on earth without the need for God’. A little ambiguous, but to me it suggests that God was not needed at any stage of the process. Richard Dawkins says that Darwin made it possible to be ‘an intellectually fulfilled atheist’, which clearly rules out God altogether.
    As for Darwin himself, whatever his later beliefs were, he apparently took the existence of some primal form of life as ‘given’ when writing the Origin of Species. As you say, the spontaneous or chance appearance of life seems highly improbable, and as I indicated in previous posts, I would extend that idea to the pre-organic stage of evolution: the properties required for elements to combine in a way capable of producing life must have been present from a very early stage of the universe. I am wary of assuming that later ‘interventions’ by God were needed, because they can make one a hostage to the fortunes of future scientific discoveries.

  66. This new study on Moths could add more to the picture of enviromental adaption pre and post Industrial Revolution.


  67. Quentin, I’d also like you to read this quote from biologist Adam Wilkins (former editor of the journal BioEssays – of which you have an example of above) explaining the increasing prevalence of skepticism about natural selection as a growing split within biology in an open-access review of Shapiro’s book ‘Evolution: A View from the 21st Century’

    “[Jim Shapiro’s] contention that natural selection’s importance for evolution has been hugely overstated represents a point of view that has a growing set of adherents. (A few months ago, I was amazed to hear it expressed, in the strongest terms, from another highly eminent microbiologist.) My impression is that evolutionary biology is increasingly separating into two camps, divided over just this question. On the one hand are the population geneticists and evolutionary biologists who continue to believe that selection has a ‘creative’ and crucial role in evolution and, on the other, there is a growing body of scientists (largely those who have come into evolution from molecular biology, developmental biology or developmental genetics, and microbiology) who reject it.”

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