Monday, May 23, 2005

Chapter 3: Evolution explains life, so God isn’t needed

Interviewee: Walter L. Bradley, Ph. D.

As good journalists often do, Strobel opens this chapter with a compelling story. He recounts the story of how Ronald Keith Williamson is wrongly convicted of a murder in Oklahoma. The clinching evidence came from the matching of his hairs with some found on the victim’s body. Convinced by the prosecution that the hair sample was irrefutable proof of his guilt, the jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to death row. However, spending nine years in prison, DNA testing of the hairs cleared him and he was set free. The reason that Strobel opens with this story is to prove that sometimes what appears to be scientific fact isn’t. Then he goes on to say that this story parallels the theory that life started naturally, with no need for divine intervention. In a sense, he is claiming that the naturalistic theories of evolution are faulty in much the same way as “hair evidence” in murder trials (that is, hair evidence before DNA testing was developed, I presume.)

He then goes on to establish the link between atheism and evolutionism, citing Richard Dawkins as saying that Darwin “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Strobel even sites his own motivations for embracing evolution in his high school biology class: “I was more than happy to latch onto Darwinism as an excuse to jettison the idea of God so I could unabashedly pursue my own agenda in life without moral constraints.” I’m not going to bother refuting this point, or Strobel’s former motivations, though I think he is a bit narrow in the assumption that evolutionists are necessarily atheists. Evolutionary theory, like all branches of science, is simply concerned with natural explanations. In Chapter 2, even Dr. William Craig agreed that scientists seek natural explanations. On the other hand, Craig also thought that we should appeal to the supernatural beyond the frontiers of our knowledge of the beginnings of the universe; as here Strobel and his interviewee argue that we should appeal to the supernatural to beyond the frontiers of our knowledge of the beginnings of life on Earth.

At this point Strobel makes an interesting statement: “Everyone concedes that evolution is true to some extent.” He then explains that he accepts the evidence of the adaptability of bacteria to antibiotics, and the breeding of animals and such. Fine, as long as the adaptations restrict themselves to the boundaries of species. This is called micro-evolution. This is in contrast to macro-evolution, or the development of new species from old. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that macro-evolution is nothing more or less than the cumulative effects of micro-evolution over millions of years. There have been several papers written on this topic, so I’m not going to get into it here.

Then he goes on to make an interesting statement that: “I knew that if scientists could convincingly demonstrate how life could emerge purely though natural chemical processes, then there’s no need for God.” Surely he does not mean that when the origins of life are figured out, he will conclude that there is no need for God? That could be a dangerous bet. Of course, he goes on to say “On the other hand, if the evidence points in the other direction towards an Intelligent Designer, then Darwin’s entire evolutionary house of cards would collapse.” Mr. Strobel must have never read Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” because if he had, he would know that Darwin hardly even begun to speculate about the origins of life. His theory was that all life on earth had developed from a common ancestor though a process of evolution and natural selection—a theory which Strobel has already accepted in part if he affirms the truth of micro-evolution. Even if life were proven to be of divine origin, Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection would still stand.

It is not until this point when the interview with Dr. Walter L. Bradley commences. Bradley uses a number of arguments to disprove the idea that life could evolve from a natural chemical source. I will address them one by one below (note that these are not all headings that are used in the book—a whole section is not devoted to each claim in the book):


Spontaneous generation has proven impossible; therefore life could not have come from nonliving chemicals.

Spontaneous generation is the term used to describe the idea that living things could form spontaneously from nonliving matter. For example, it was once commonly believed that maggots formed from rotting meat. This was famously disproved by Francesco Redi one hundred years before Darwin wrote the “Origin of Species,” as Bradley says. Today no one believes that spontaneous generation occurs, and no one (besides creationists) believes that this is necessary for the natural development of life. The early development of life is referred to as abiogenesis, and it doesn’t involve the spontaneous arrival of even the simplest of cells from a random mix of chemicals—in fact there are several steps between the chemicals and living cells. I can’t really do justice to the topic, but if you want more information check out http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/abioprob.html.

Miller’s “life in a test-tube” experiment was based on faulty data; therefore life could not have come from nonliving chemicals.

In this experiment, which is famously touted in high school biology books, scientists Miller and Oparin attempted to simulate the early creation of life on Earth by mimicking the conditions on early earth. While they did not actually create life, or even claim to, their experiment did yield some of the amino acids—which are vital to life as we know it. However, they went on the assumption that the early Earth atmosphere contained ammonia, methane, and hydrogen—in other words; they assumed the theory of the atmosphere of the early Earth that was in vogue at the time. Bradley points out a major flaw in the experiment: NASA has, since 1980, affirmed that the early Earth atmosphere was more likely composed of water, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen. These gasses are too inert to work in Miller’s experiment. Therefore life could not have naturally developed in the conditions of early Earth.

Or could it? Skeptic that I am, I checked the NASA website for verification of Bradley’s claim. What I found was a press release with this headline:

UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO STUDY SHOWS EARLY EARTH ATMOSPHERE HYDROGEN-RICH, FAVORABLE TO LIFE

http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Newsroom/MediaAlerts/2005/2005040718746.html

I can’t blame Strobel for not mentioning this, since his book was published in 2000, and this press release came out in April 2005 (a month prior to this writing.)

Among the statements in the article are as follows:

“This study indicates that the carbon-dioxide, hydrogen poor Mars and Venus-like model of Earth’s early atmosphere that scientists have been working with for the last 25 years is incorrect . . . In such atmospheres, organic molecules are not produced by photochemical reactions or electrical discharges.”

However:

“In the new CU-Boulder scenario, it is a hydrogen and CO2 –dominated atmosphere that leads to the production of organic molecules, not the methane and ammonia atmosphere used in Miller’s experiment, [University of Colorado Professor Owen Toon] said.”

The CU-Boulder studies found that there was much more hydrogen in the early Earth atmosphere than they had previously supposed—making it favorable to the development of life. It turns out that Bradley’s observation was right on the money, but is now obsolete. This serves as an example of how solutions to unanswered scientific questions are best found, not though an appeal to the supernatural, but rather through further experimentation and study.

Moving on . . .

Next Bradley goes on to discuss various ideas about the mechanics of how evolutionists say that life on earth evolved. He mentions The “Random Chance” theory (which no one believes anymore), “Chemical Affinity” (that the chemicals needed for life were inevitably attracted to one another), “Self-ordering tendencies” (that life formed from self-organizing matter), “Seeding from space” (the idea that life originated somewhere else and ended up on Earth. I quite agree with Bradley that this only postponed the question of how life came to be.), “Vents in the Ocean” (that life originated near hot-springs in the ocean), and “Life from Clay” (that live evolved in clay rather than in water—I don’t really get this one.) I’m not going to get into detail on these, as I don’t have the time. I’m going to skip to the real crux of the matter.

Intelligent Design

Naturally, the discussion turns to the Intelligent Design theory, just like in chapter 2. As this chapter review is getting rather long, I’m not going to bother going into any detail on ID. For what I know of it, it just sounds like some Christians embrace both evolution and creation. (As opposed to the Biblical literalist creationists, who think God created the world in six literal days. Their view is not even mentioned in Strobel’s book.) There are some things that are not yet completely understood about the mechanism of evolution, so there is even some room for the God of the Gaps. Hence the ID proponent’s appeal to what they call ‘irreducible complexity.’ I say that if you even want to believe that a god has guided evolution, more power to you. Just don’t tell me that your belief is a scientific theory.

Verdict

Not convinced. Actually, I don’t even think the objection for which the chapter was named was even adequately addressed. Most of the chapter was did not even address evolution, but abiogenesis—the origin of life. As I mentioned before, even proving a divine origin for life would not disprove evolution. It could still be believed that God just got the process started. Nor would proving a natural origin for life prove that no god exists. It’s just that such a proof would point towards the credibility of a belief that there is no intelligent creator, which is what I think Richard Dawkins meant when he said that Darwin’s theory helps to make atheism intellectually fulfilling.

5 comments:

kAgE said...

hmmmm, i think that a lot of people try to argue for evolution or for christianity etc

but proving one or another doesn't really disprove one or the other either.

Like, freezing water into ice doens't disprove that there's a God. How cells or structures etc mutate and things like that don't disprove anything. It's just telling you how it works etc

Mikayla Starstuff said...

I quite agree. In fact, that is the point I was trying to make in the final paragraph :)

Contemplative Activist said...

That is so ludicrous! I work in science and I know a lot of people of various faiths and they all accept that evolution is the best explanation we currently have as to the origin of human life.

I take issue with his saying that he accepted Darwinian theory as an excuse to live without moral restraint.

Religious people have often used their religion to jettison religious wars. We all know people who've glady accepted religion as a way to live without thought, honesty and compassion.

Strobel is really annoying me now.

*Sigh*

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