Linnaeus, Darwin, Callahan

Like the appearance of certain comets, once in a great while when I'm arguing with someone I realize I am wrong and change my mind. I think Gene has stumbled onto something quite brilliant (and I am not just throwing that term around flippantly) in this LRC article on Intelligent Design.

I think Gene is saying the following: The Darwinists claim that the first living cell gave rise to all terrestrial organisms through an undirected process of mutation and adaptation through natural selection. The ID people object to this and claim (a) that certain steps in the process are wildly improbable and hence (b) an intelligent designer must be controlling the whole thing.

Now Gene's point is that there is an element of truth (and hence, falsity) in both camps. For what if God set up the initial conditions of the universe such that the "improbable" steps had to occur? In that scenario, the Darwinians who watched a video of the origin of life would come away vindicated, but the ID people would also be correct in their criticisms. What's going on is that each side is making a metaphysical claim that goes beyond the natural facts.

I'm amazed that this never occurred to me before, but the most important part of Darwinian theory--the non-teleological character of evolution--is completely untestable.

Gene, have I got your views correctly?

(NOTE: When I say I changed my mind, I don't mean that I now endorse the theory of common descent. I just mean that I originally thought Gene's criticisms of ID were silly, but now I realize what Gene's saying. It's particularly ironic that I didn't see the point myself, since it's very similar to my own attempt to prove that miracles by definition don't violate natural laws.)


  1. Yes, that's it. This came up with Galileo -- he was told not to "constrain God" by claiming that he had proved heliocentrism. The idea that God was not limited to producing the phenomena Galileo cited in only ways conceivable by Galileo. In this "theistic Neo_Darwinism," what happened wouldn't be random from a God's-eye view, but it would be indistinguishable from chance by us.

    Crash Landing: Your favorite theological blog!

  2. Hmmm. Wouldn't this sophisticated version of intelligent design still have to prove the existence of God? Until this proof was accomplished, the default position would be that there was no design in the conscious sense.

  3. Yes, what we've got now is like a "consistency proof" -- it is my attempt to demonstrate to an IDer that, once they put God in the picture, they are in theological difficulty if they try to claim that he couldn't have gotten us where we are on a Darwinian route. A divine designer is not inconsistent with a history containing all Darwinian evidence.

  4. Gene,

    Granted, and that's what I was conceding to you. But by the same token (and you pointed this out in your follow-up), the IDers would have a point if some of the steps (especially the origin of the first cell) were astronomically improbable. That would be evidence against the more sweeping Darwinian claims about purposelessness. (But as I said in the original post, ultimately you could never disprove the claim that there is no purpose.)

  5. Anonymous2:18 PM

    Where the argument seems to end up is this - a choice between:

    1. A series of fantastically improbable steps leading to life as we know it.


    2. An all knowing deity AND a series of fantastically improbable steps leading to life as we know it.

    The trouble for proponents of 2. is that it seems to be the same as 1. except with an added layer of complication. As such, it explains nothing that 1. does not already explain and adds a layer of complexity in the process. In short it is a worse theory than 1. by any reasonable measure.


  6. Well, if the deity arranged the steps, they are no longer improbable.

    But I agree with you to this extent: This sort of argument cannot resolve the question of God's existence. All I intended to show is that there is nothing inconsistent in holding that God is responsible for creation and life has unfolded just as Neo-Darwinists conceive it to have done.

  7. Julius,

    In a different context the flaw in your argument would be so obvious that it wouldn't need mentioning. Two guys are hiking in the forest and come across rocks that are arranged to form the letters, "BEWARE SNAKES AHEAD". The first guy is quite sure that no one else has been in this forest before them, and so claims that it must have been an amazing coincidence that these rocks just happened to fall (after a storm perhaps) in this arrangement.

    The 2nd guy thinks that's crazy, and that another intelligent entity must have placed them there.

    The first guy says, "No, your scenario is even more improbable than mine. Not only does it rely on a random arrangement of rocks, but the existence of an unseen and ultimately unprovable 'first mover' of rocks."

    (In other words, what Gene said.)

    Of course, the "God hypothesis" has all sorts of other problems, but it's not a simple cumulative piling on of problems. It eliminates one sort and adds a different type.

  8. Anonymous11:01 AM


    "But by the same token (and you pointed this out in your follow-up), the IDers would have a point if some of the steps (especially the origin of the first cell) were astronomically improbable."

    But are they willing to subject the creation (or perpetual existance) of God to the same test? What is the probability that God exists?

  9. Andy,

    I don't think any sensible philosophy of probability assigns any sort of probability to a unique event like God's existence. It's not like we have lots of other universe from which we can get a frequency distribution, or anything like that.


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