Evolution of the Gaps

Guest post by Paul Yuen

A few nights ago, a good friend shot this question at me: how can I, as a medical student, possibly believe in a miraculous deity? Maybe it was the time of the night (or morning), but we foolishly jumped into a 3 hour long discussion that ended with the sun arisen. Nevertheless, it is a powerful question that well reflects the tension that many feel exists between Science and Religion. As one being schooled in the medical sciences, I am taught the virtues of evidence-based medicine and randomised controlled trials. I learn to observe the world at human scales with my eyes, and at microscopic scales with microscopes. One might say that medical science is of the surest proofs of the benefits of Science and the legitimacy of the scientific method – and one would be right.

On Religion, and Theism in particular, such praise is rarely lavished. Religion is the opiate of the people, said Marx. God is dead, said Nietzsche. Religion is merely wish fulfilment, said Freud. The new atheists, Dawkins at their helm, are only too happy to feast as vultures on the rotting corpse of Theism, all the while cawing the evils of Religion. In particular, they like to point out that science provides (or will provide) all the explanation necessary for man to understand everything. And so Genesis was displaced by the Big Bang, the divine breath of life with primordial soup, the mind-body duality with star dust. Much ink has already been spilled on both sides of the fence, and people much smarter than me have duked it out in public debates (see John Lennox vs. Richard Dawkins at the Oxford Museum of Natural History on ‘Has Science buried God?’). Here, I present not a defence of Theism, but a small challenge to Science which, we shall soon see, are not as straightforward as it first seems.

But first, to define the terms. Science is that field of study involving the gathering of data by the senses and the synthesis of that data to reach a general conclusion. Put another way, Science takes what we can see/hear/smell/taste/touch, puts it all together and presents a statement or law that describes what we saw/heard etc. Medical science is simply Science applied in Medicine. Theism is the unequivocal assertion that the Divine is ultimate reality. Or, Theism says, “this is true: God exists.”

On to the challenge then. We begin our journey in the control hub of a tiny E. coli bacterium – the nucleoid. All around us is a long, colourful ribbon made of scarlet, indigo, azure and verdant (or red, purple, blue and green for the more boring amongst us). And everywhere we turn we see little machines splitting the ribbon down its length and all of a sudden, there are two ribbons, exact copies of each other – fantastic. We know from school that we just witnessed Binary Fission, the duplicating of DNA, the act bacteria use to reproduce; and our teachers don’t hesitate to tell us that bacteria reproduce according to the law of Natural Selection – fitter, stronger bacteria survive to bring forth children bacteria and in this way, everything in the little E. coli cell gradually came to be.

So here’s the question: if
1. Everything in the cell came about by Natural Selection
2. Natural Selection works by the fit reproducing more than the weak
3. The ‘ribbon’ and ‘machines’ are what effect Binary Fission (the reproductive process)

Then where did the ribbon and machines come from? … Evolution? But if so, what can Evolution really do without Natural Selection?

The challenge increases in intensity when we consider that DNA (the ribbon) codes for mRNA, which codes for proteins, including the enzymes needed to replicate DNA (the machines), and to make DNA (by processes called De Novo Purine and Pyrimidine Synthesis). So how can the ribbon come about if there was no machine? And how can the machine exist without the Ribbon? This presents the idea of irreducible complexity. It is the chicken or the egg question at the heart of Biology.

Now it is obvious to any serious Science student that Natural Selection is real and observed, and that Binary Fission is effected by DNA and certain enzymes. That is, statements 2 and 3 above are true. Indeed, the problem lies not with them, but with statement 1: the assertion that everything in the cell can be accounted for by Natural Selection.

[[By now, the astute reader will realise that I have left my arena of very questionable expertise: Science. Obviously, I could not come to a definition of Science through the gathering of data etc. Indeed, I was dabbling with the Philosophy of Science (if our resident philosopher will forgive my trespass), and not Science itself. I must therefore tread very lightly.]]

In the same way, not all statements made by Scientists are statements of Science. Hiding behind statement 1 above are the philosophical assumptions of Naturalism – that (very crudely put) ‘the Cosmos is all that is, was, or ever will be’. This is not a scientific statement because it is not something available to testing by Science. No one can say with any scientific backing that they, with their powers of observation, have synthesized and deduced a general law that supports Naturalism. The claims are simply too far removed from us in time and space for us to test.

It is clear to all that men and women of great intellect, scientific giants, stand on both sides of the issue – which is not between Science and Theism (or religion), but between Theism and Naturalism; between the claim that “God is ultimate reality” and “The Cosmos is ultimate reality”. Just to name two, on Theism’s side stands Newton, who having discovered the laws of gravity did not conclude God’s irrelevance, but instead wrote in his Principia Mathematica that he hoped his work would lead thinking people to belief in a deity. While on Naturalism’s side stands Hawking – one of the preeminent physicists of our time, the brain behind Black Hole Hawking Radiation.

The real question is not how I, a medical student, can believe in Christianity, but which side does Science support more – Naturalism or Theism. The argument from irreducible complexity is just one of many arguments pointing Science towards Theism. Other arguments include the reality of the Big Bang, the fine-tuning of the cosmological constants, the constraints of evolution, the Origin of Life, and the origin and nature of information. Outside science, there is the argument from morality, the existential thirst for meaning, and many others.

But there is one more card thrown around these days, one I feel may have been behind my friend’s question after all. Miracles violate the laws of nature, therefore miracles cannot be true. What if the laws of nature were like arithmetic, and miracles like a thief? I will let C.S. Lewis end this little write-up.

“If this week I put a thousand pounds in the drawer of my desk, add two thousand next week and another thousand the week thereafter, the laws of arithmetic allow me to predict that the next time I come to my drawer, I shall find four thousand pounds.

But suppose when I next open the drawer, I find only one thousand pounds, what shall I conclude? That the laws of arithmetic have been broken?

Certainly not! I might more reasonably conclude that some thief has broken the laws of the State and stolen three thousand pounds out of my drawer.

Furthermore, it would be ludicrous to claim that the laws of arithmetic made it impossible to believe in the existence of such a thief or the possibility of his intervention.

On the contrary, it is the normal workings of those laws that have exposed the existence and activity of the thief.”

Addendum: Why does secular literature so readily dismiss Irreducible Complexity as pseudoscience?

For the benefit of those who may have wiki’d ‘Irreducible Complexity’ and are reeling from the jargon, I have included a response here.

According to Wikipedia, Irreducible complexity (IC) is a pseudoscientific argument that certain biological systems cannot be evolved by successive, slight modifications to a functional precursor system through natural selection acting upon a series of advantageous naturally occurring chance mutations.” Fittingly then, Central to the creationist concept of intelligent design, IC is rejected by the scientific community, which regards intelligent design as pseudoscience”. And lastly, “Pseudoscience is a claim, belief or practice presented as scientific, but which does not adhere to the scientific method.”

It strikes me as very odd that some authors have placed Irreducible Complexity in the same category I have for ideas like homeopathy, the idea that ‘like cures like’. Homeopathy teaches that if one is poisoned by a snakebite, the cure would be something like a drop of the same venom diluted to one part in 10 with many 0’s following behind, so many in fact, that it makes Avogadro’s Number, L=6×10^23 look small. For the uninitiated, L is the number of molecules in a solution of concentration 1mol/dm^3 – the implication being that in the ‘curative solution’, there is something like 0.00000125 of a venom molecule in there. This of course makes no sense – at the molecular level, part of a molecule is not the same as the whole molecule; just because hydrogen peroxide is H2O2 doesn’t make OH half the amount of hydrogen peroxide. It is a wholly different molecule altogether.

Indeed, homeopathy works like this:

  1. If you get bitten by a snake, a really small amount of venom can cure you
  2. We can make that venom solution by diluting it – a lot
  3. If you drink our really dilute venom solution, you can get better

The big problem? The really dilute venom solution does not contain any venom at all – it’s plain water.

I am explaining homeopathy, an actual pseudoscience, to draw a difference between it and Irreducible Complexity. In homeopathy, statement 1 is supposedly backed up by scientific study but science itself (specifically Chemistry) says statement 2 is intrinsically impossible – half a venom molecule is not half as much venom as 1 molecule, on the contrary, it is not venom at all. Irreducible Complexity, on the other hand, works like this:

  1. We, through our powers of observation, have elucidated the biochemical events at the molecular level (that is, beyond the level of individual cell parts)
  2. These events interlock tightly with each other to form systems and pathways to perform certain functions, so much so that to remove one event from the system is to lose the function
  3. These functions are essential to life
  4. Hence, these functions with their constituent events must have arisen simultaneously

Statement A is undoubtedly backed up by scientific study. Statement B provides the foundational explanation for what I’m learning – pathology. Statement C is empirically verifiable in every hospital morgue. Which leaves only Statement D open to debate, and hidden in here is the crux of the difference.

Homeopathy claims that a venom molecule split in 2 is half as venomous as before. To affirm this is illogical. Hence, we must affirm the negative: that venom molecules cease to be when split.

Irreducible Complexity claims that the constituent biochemical events that provide essential functions for life are so interlinked that that must have arisen simultaneously. The negative is: that these constituent, interlocked events essential for life must have arisen sequentially. The example with homeopathy is so self-condemning logically that we have no need to consider it. But the positive and negative claims of Irreducible Complexity are not in that category – it does not strike me as ludicrous to demand evidence for both the positive and the negative stand. Because here’s the issue: homeopathy as a statement of fact fails to correspond with what we clearly know, through science, of how reality really is like; on the other hand, the negative of Irreducible Complexity, namely that the events came about sequentially, is something deeply challenged by Science. Hence, it is because of Science that I reject the negative claim, and accept the positive claim of Irreducible Complexity, that is, Statement D is true.

But hold up, someone cries. What do I mean that science challenges the sequential appearance of these biochemical events? Well, I mean something far stronger: Science refutes the sequential appearance of these biochemical events and points very clearly to a simultaneous emergence. To go into the meat of this is beyond the scope of this essay, but listen to John Lennox speak on Youtube on the subject, or read his book ‘God’s undertaker’ for a broad, deep but generally accessible introduction to the arguments.

The question I set out to answer here is why secular literature so readily dismisses Irreducible Complexity. The definition given by Wikipedia provides strong hints: Central to the creationist concept of intelligent design, IC is rejected by the scientific community, which regards intelligent design as pseudoscience. Does it not strike one as very unscientific to reject Irreducible Complexity not on the basis of evidence, but on the grounds that Irreducible Complexity provides the grounding for Intelligent Design? Indeed, the secular world a priori rejects Intelligent Design because for them, the cosmos is all that is, was, or ever will be – there is no possibility of a designer in their thinking.

(I have noted some of the arguments in the Wikipedia article. The arguments are hollow, and the sources are dubiously quoted or sourced.)

And that is why secular literature dismisses Irreducible Complexity so. It is not a war between Science and Design, but one between Theism and Naturalism that sits near the bottom.

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. – Romans 1:18-23

Indeed, they exchanged the glory, the honour of the Designer, the Creator by teaching that the Creation created itself.