Douglas Axe

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Book Review: “Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique” Part 2: Science

Crossway has published a book entitled Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique edited by J.P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, et al. The book is mammoth- right around 1000 pages of text. As the title suggests, it purports to give a comprehensive refutation of the position of theistic evolution. Due to its huge size and scope, I’ve decided to break my review up into multiple posts. I do not claim to be an expert in every field this book touches upon–that would be impossible. Instead, I’ll offer comments on those areas I took notes and had interactions with in my own reading.

For this part, I will focus on the scientific critique offered in the book.

Science

I admit I am by no means an expert in science and so do not feel adequate to fully interact with the scientific chapters in this book. Chapter topics include “Three Good Reasons… to reject Darwin’s Explanation of Life” by Douglas Axe, the problem of information for evolution, the problem(s) of mechanism(s) for evolution, the question of first life and its arising on earth, the problem of having front-end loaded design for evolution, DNA mutations being inadequate to explain evolution, embryology as a challenge to evolution, multiple chapters against universal common descent, arguments for unique human origin, and the way bias can lead investigations in science.

Again, it would not be possible to even give an overview of all of these chapters without several thousand more words, so I’ll just go over a few of the notes I took throughout the chapters.

Douglas Axe’s chapter includes a rather strange claim that is pretty central to his whole proposal. He has argued before about the plainness of design and our ability to detect it. He continues this argument in his chapter arguing for rejecting Darwinism. Yet one of his points is that things like clouds do not point clearly to design. Specifically, he states:

To the theist… nothing happens apart from God. But then, no theist came to that view by looking at clouds or craters [on the moon]. Such things are not at all inconsistent with God’s presence, but neither do they confront us with his presence. (90)

Such a statement is quite strange, because historically it seems pretty clear that such things do, in fact, point to God’s presence for many theists. Most notably, the Bible itself states rather clearly: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). It seems obvious from this passage that David, at least, felt that such things as clouds and the skies and the heavens—yes, perhaps even moon craters–declared the glory of God and the works of God’s hands. They are used as paradigms for showing the exact thing that Axe says they are not. But of course to admit that would be to undercut Axe’s whole point. After all, if the mundane things may actually point us to God and indeed confront us with God’s presence, then the whole objection to Darwinism based on it reducing life to “natural” causes itself falls apart.[3] 

Stephen C. Meyer’s chapter that argues having “Front-End Loaded” design makes no difference for theistic evolutionists and atheistic evolutionists has its own problems with grand claims. Meyer states:

Some theistic evolutionists affirm that God actively directs the evolutionary process by… directing seemingly random mutations toward particular biological endpoints… this view contradicts the (scientifically) orthodox neo-Darwinian view of the evoltionary process as a purely purposeless, unguided, and undirected mechanism… (218).

It is odd, though, for Meyer to insist that theistic evolutionists must have their directions of speculation or insight governed by atheistic perspectives (he specifically cites Richard Dawkins in favor of his assertion). Of course, the whole point of being a theistic evolutionist is that God exists and so saying God may be involved in the process is simply an outworking of that theism. To artificially limit theistic evolutionists to the thought process of Richard Dawkins is a bit absurd, and again hints that the way these authors are looking at TE may itself be problematic.

In the chapter entitled “Theistic Evolution and the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis: Does it Work?” by Stephen C. Meyer, Ann K. Gauger, and Paul A. Nelson, the authors ask “Why insist on synthesizing Christian theology, or a biblical understanding of creation, with a scientifically failing theory of origins [read : evolution]?” (257). I can’t help but wonder at this total confidence. I continually try to learn more and read magazines like Smithsonian and Scientific American. I read manuscript-length science book when possible. Time and again, I find that there are new and continued confirmations of evolutionary theory in these magazines. Yes, the theory continues to change, but it also continues to find affirmation in discovery after discovery. Yet authors like those of this book continue to rely on the same quotes time and again to support their own assertions.[4] If it is true that evolution is truly a failing theory of origins, why is it that we don’t see the majority of scientists turning away from it? Sure, it is possible there is some massive conspiracy, but is that what we are being asked to believe?

Finally, in a chapter arguing against human evolution by Casey Luskin entitled “Missing Transitions: Human Origins and the Fossil Record,” I found a number of problems. The first is that Luskin’s chapter often focused on works focused towards lay people in the reporting on fossils, apparently trying to show how sensationalized new discoveries are. But having excitement over new fossil discoveries–and having sometimes inaccurate reporting–does not somehow discredit those same fossil finds. Another difficulty is one I have seen time and again in creationist and ID literature, namely that they argue that because there is not an exact, agreed upon sequence of A-B-C…Z, there must be no sequence. But of course, that doesn’t follow whatsoever. It may be that the sequences is not A-B-C…. but rather A-C-B….Z, but that hardly means there is no sequence with start and endpoints. This is a problem I have observed time and again, and an argument I found pretty compelling for many years until I began to research more and more of the literature. Simply having disagreement about the order of transitional forms does not entail that there are no transitional forms. Yet Luskin makes exactly this kind of argument on pages 444ff. Indeed, he makes it explicit in his conclusion, after quoting a pair of paleontologists to the tune of saying that the sequence of human ancestors is unknown, Luskin confidently asserts “With the fossil evidence for human evolution so weak, why should our theistic evolutionist brothers and sisters insist that the church must adopt their viewpoint?” (473). That is a major non sequitor. Imagine a defense attorney on a murder case arguing that because the prosecution could not precisely put a serial killer’s victims in order of when they were killed, it followed that there were no murders or that there was no sequence. Of course, anyone paying attention would be shocked at this seeming confusion. But that is what Luskin and others are expecting readers to accept as evidence against TE, saying simply that because there is disagreement of sequence, there can be no sequence.

[3] Indeed, the earliest days of theistic evolutionists had advocates making this exact point. George Frederick Wright, for example, argued that just as it is not problematic to acknowledge the movements of the planet are due to natural causes, it would not be problematic to see life’s development as the same. See my post on Wright’s theology.

[4] Multiple sources cited are older than 20 years. Time and again, people familiar with Intelligent Design will find themselves reading the same quotes from the same authors. Of course, if someone is right, the age of what they wrote or the fact that it gets quoted multiple times is hardly a problem. But I am left wondering why we can’t hear about more recent publications showing how disastrous evolution is or more dissenters from evolution. Instead, disagreement about details is often taken to be the same as showing evolution is wrong or that evolution is in crisis.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

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SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

 

Book Review: “Undeniable” by Douglas Axe

undeniable-axeUndeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life is Designed by Douglas Axe is an explanation of Intelligent Design theory at a lay level. Axe contends that by appealing to “common science”—the notion that experience is integral to how we live and that each individual is, in a sense, a scientist because we use experience to make models and figure out how things work (60-61)—the inference to design will be vindicated.

A central aspect of Axe’s case is appeal to what he calls “The Universal Design Intuition” defined as “Tasks that we would need knowledge to accomplish can be accomplished only by someone who has that knowledge” (20). This intuition, argues Axe, is supported by experimental data, including difficulties with forming proteins to form specific chemical transformations (33ff). He also utilizes mathematical modeling to show that it is effectively impossible to achieve certain results purely by chance (89ff). It is insight that is required to achieve the results that we see in biology, he argues. There is no amount of repetition possible to offset the improbability of life in our universe and life as we see (103).

Counter-arguments to design are addressed, including the multiverse. Axe argues that “aimless wandering” of chance effectively means that anything but design for the results we observe is impossible. There is a specific “target area” which must be achieved to get life, and the odds against hitting that target are infinitesimal to the point that they are practically impossible (113ff).

Ultimately, Axe concludes, “Functional coherence makes accidental invention fantastically improbable and therefore physically impossible” (160). The sheer improbability stacked against the notion that life could evolve functionally to new life forms makes it physically impossible, thus showing that design is the best inference when it comes to life. Scenarios which are alleged to show evolution in action require tweaking from outside, thus demonstrating that insight and design are required for life (198ff; 209). Moreover, “Nothing evolves unless it already exists” (214), and the existence of life cannot merely evolve from non-life given the probabilities stacked against it.

Why, then, do so few scientists advocate for design or see it in nature? Axe’s answer to this question is that there is enormous bias and no small amount of power being wielded against the design inference: “Harm comes to science not by people hoping to find a particular result but by people trying to suppress results that go against their hopes” (45). He argues that there is at least some intentional suppression of design theory and that new ideas take time to gain space in academia (46ff; 215ff).

Axe’s argument is geared towards lay readers, though it does have a few new things to offer those who have read the majority of ID literature already. His analysis of the mathematics behind design inferences will help gain an understanding of what is meant by “possible” in logical vs. physical senses. Moreover, his firsthand experience of experimental confirmation gives him a voice that is not often heard in defense of ID. It is not merely modeling that is happening, but rather experimentation with results.

That said, there are a few issues in the book. First, I think that the continued appeal to bias as the reason for rejecting ID is overdone. Although some certainly do reject ID due to bias against  the notion of a creator or designer, there are many who reject it because they find its arguments either inconclusive or mistaken. Bias exists, but it is not the only reason for rejecting ID theory any more than materialism is the only reason for rejecting ID. Second, evolution is treated as a kind of singular entity, with natural selection as the only mechanism proposed to accomplish the diversification of species. Though he acknowledges some efforts to modify evolutionary theory that acknowledge other mechanisms (220-224), he dismisses such efforts as “patching holes” instead of as serious alternative proposals. I admit I have no expertise in evolutionary biology, but I am familiar enough with the idea to know that several different notions of how evolution may produce new life forms are proposed, and that most acknowledge some combination of several factors is probably right. It seemed strange for Axe to largely dismiss these as dead ends. Third, there are several points of the argument that seemed rushed or simply passed by. I understand this is a book for laity, but the movement from seeing some aspect of evolution as physically impossible to design is an inference that requires some explanation beyond assertion.

Overall, Undeniable provides more food for thought for those interested in Intelligent Design and the debate between ID advocates and opponents. Axe does offer some insights that I, at least, haven’t read anywhere else. The book is also written at a level that almost any reader could pick it up and get the core of Axe’s argument. Those interested in the debate over Intelligent Design would be well-served to pick up a copy. I will be interested in seeing what responses are offered.

The Good

+Good introduction to ID theory
+A fresh take on some aspects of ID
+Use of examples that are easy to understand

The Bad

-Relies too much upon perceived bias in science
-Skims through much argumentation
-Little interaction with alternate evolutionary scenarios

Source

Douglas Axe, Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life is Designed (New York: HarperOne, 2016).

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book for review from the publisher. I was not obligated to provide any specific feedback whatsoever.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

Eclectic Theist– Check out my other blog for my writings on science fiction, history, fantasy movies, and more!

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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