Finding the answer to life’s big question
Science | Both scientists and nonscientists alike should faithfully seek the truth about our origin
by Douglas Axe
Posted 7/22/17, 08:50 am
Douglas Axe’s subtitle to Undeniable offers a shocking suggestion: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed. Axe has an elite science education and record of journal publication, but he commits treason to the scientism guild when he writes that “people who will never earn Ph.D.s [can] become full participants in the scientific debates that matter to them.” Undeniable was selected as WORLD’s 2016 Book of the Year in the Science, Math, and Worldviews category because it’s a largely nontechnical argument showing the incredible improbability that life has evolved as Darwin theorized. Axe offers example after example to show that “functional coherence makes accidental invention fantastically improbable and therefore physically impossible. Invention can’t happen by accident.” He shows how “the claim that evolution did invent proteins, cell types, organs, and life forms is scientifically legitimate only if we know evolution can invent these things.” He then shows how we have learned that evolution can’t. In the excerpt below, courtesy of HarperOne, Axe points to “the big question” we all have about our origin. —Marvin Olasky
Chapter 1: The Big Question
In August of 2013, as I was making my way down a picturesque Cambridge street called King’s Parade, I nearly collided with renowned British scientist Sir Alan Fersht. We were a short distance from Cambridge University’s Gonville and Caius College, where he serves as Master among a distinguished group of scholars including the well-known cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking. Fersht was exiting a shop, stepping across the sidewalk to his bicycle, and that was where our paths crossed.
I know him as Alan. I had been friends with him for so long—having worked at research centers directed by him from 1990 to 2002—that I assumed we probably still were friends, eleven years after we went our separate ways. Events had tested the friendship, though. From my perspective, an honest conversation making it clear where we stood with each other and why our working relationship had to end so abruptly would have been very helpful when I left his Centre for Protein Engineering in 2002. I had regretted the absence of that conversation over the years, and now, in the space of a few minutes, it occurred to me that he might have regretted it too.
Our time was short. I had a vacationing family waiting for me and Alan had a college waiting for him, so we settled for something less than closure. We did what we could do with a few minutes. After all that had happened previously, those few minutes reaffirmed our friendship, which was a good start.
The initial awkwardness of that encounter proved well worth enduring, as is often the way with awkwardness. I speak as something of an expert on the subject. Most people find their place in the stream of life early on by mastering the art of “going with the flow,” but I seem to be one of the exceptions. I never set out to oppose the stream. Still, I found myself compelled to take a course you would never choose if the power of the stream were at the forefront of your mind. As anyone who’s tried wading across swift waters knows, awkwardness was bound to follow.
I recall a question on a final exam near the beginning of my graduate studies at Caltech: Which of the biological macromolecules is apt to have been the first “living” molecule, and why? If that sounds like Greek to you, relax. I promise to write in plain English. All you need to know is that the question is about how life began, posed with the unstated assumption that it began by ordinary molecular processes. That assumption had been ingrained in biological thinking for so long that it went without saying. Every student in the class understood this, but I understood it more critically than most did. I knew the expected response to the test question, but through my critical lens, that response seemed scientifically questionable. So I had a choice: Do I go with the flow, or do I push against it?
I decided to give the expected answer in full and then—for extra credit—to state why I found that answer unconvincing. I explained why, contrary to the consensus view, I didn’t think any molecule has what would be needed to start life. As shrewd as that seemed at the time, I learned when my exam was returned (with points deducted) that we students were expected not only to know current thinking in biology but also to accept it without resistance. We were there as much to be acculturated as educated.
I had learned my lesson. The stream of scientific consensus flows with an almost irresistible current.
Of all the controversial ideas to come from modern science, none has brought more awkwardness than Darwin’s idea of evolution through natural selection. We know natural selection means “survival of the fittest,” which in one sense isn’t at all controversial. Indeed, Darwin’s observation that fitter individuals are apt to have more offspring is so obvious it hardly needs to be stated. But how can something with so little content—a truism—possibly explain the astounding richness of life?
The biggest question on everyone’s minds has never been the question of survival but rather the question of origin—our origin in particular. How did we get here? Even if you think natural selection is the answer, you have to admit to a degree of internal conflict over the matter. Francis Crick acknowledged this conflict, at least implicitly, when he cautioned that “biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.” So if Darwin’s claim is true, then it’s a truth we all find ourselves doubting—at least subconsciously—and if it’s false, then we’re to be commended for doubting it. Awkwardness clings to it either way.
In fact, though you won’t see this in any textbook, Darwin implicitly conceded something that adds to the unease surrounding his theory. All six editions of his book On the Origin of Species include a few paragraphs in the conclusion where he addressed the widespread rejection of his theory by his scientific peers. He began with a question: “Why, it may be asked, have all the most eminent living naturalists and geologists rejected this view of the mutability of species?” The answer, he thought, was their closed-mindedness. Sensing little hope of opening more than a few of those minds, he decided to “look with confidence to the future, to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality.”
To Darwin’s own great surprise, this near total rejection of his theory turned to near total acceptance within just a few years. Up to the publication of the fifth edition of his book in 1869, his original gloomy assessment of the reception of his work wasn’t in need of revision. Then in 1872, a mere three years later, the sixth edition followed those original paragraphs with this commentary:
As a record of a former state of things, I have retained in the foregoing paragraphs, and elsewhere, several sentences which imply that naturalists believe in the separate creation of each species; and I have been much censured for having thus expressed myself. But undoubtedly this was the general belief when the first edition of the present work appeared. I formerly spoke to very many naturalists on the subject of evolution, and never once met with any sympathetic agreement. It is probable that some did then believe in evolution, but they were either silent, or expressed themselves so ambiguously that it was not easy to understand their meaning. Now things are wholly changed, and almost every naturalist admits the great principle of evolution.
What would cause such a sudden reversal of scientific opinion? Did a new scientific discovery appear in the late 1860s or early 1870s—potent enough to convince the skeptics that Darwin was right after all? Clearly not, as Darwin surely would have cited such a decisive finding. But if science itself wasn’t the cause of the change, then what was?
Whether he intended to or not, Darwin reveals here that peer pressure is a part of science, happening behind the scenes as the various scientific interests compete against one another for influence. If it’s a plain historical fact that the experts didn’t side with Darwin in the early 1860s, then why would he have been “much censured” by his peers for saying so? It’s as though his colleagues wanted all mention of opposition expunged from the record now that this opposition had faded. Darwin resisted the pressure applied to him on that occasion, but what if others, perhaps under even greater pressure, were less able to resist? Might the earlier inability of some scientists to express their support of Darwin’s theory—the silence and ambiguity of expression Darwin referred to—have been the result of peer pressure too? And if so, then might the sudden change in Darwin’s favor have been more like a change of power than a change of minds—a sudden reversal of the stream’s flow?
We have good reason to consider this possibility. The question of what controls the stream—why it flows this way and not that, and why it changes when it does—is every bit as important now as it was back then. If yesterday’s scientists were influenced as much by human factors as by data, wouldn’t this be equally true of today’s scientists? And if it is true, what does this mean for the received wisdom of our day, which holds the evolutionary view to be the only one worth taking seriously?
As we think more about how science works, we’ll see that those rare people who oppose the stream are the ones to watch.
Thankfully, every generation has had a handful of rebels who are compelled to do just that. A countercurrent of awkwardness flows from these misfits in refreshing waves. Among the most beautiful examples of this I’ve come across is a man named Thomas Nagel, a professor of philosophy at New York University. He’s a highly unusual atheist, the author of a superb wave-making book titled Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.
By way of background, the flag that has flown for many generations over the academy of higher education is that of a broad school of thought known as materialism. The meaning here isn’t the common one (an obsession with flashy cars or expensive clothes) but rather the view that matter—the stuff of physics—underlies everything real. Even if they don’t use this term, atheists tend to subscribe to the materialist view of reality, believing God to be a product of the human imagination, which they believe to be a product of material evolution. Theists, on the other hand, believe the reverse—that the material universe was brought into existence by God, who is not material. Both views accept the reality of the physical world, but one sees this as the only reality whereas the other doesn’t.
People on either side of this divide might think constructive dialogue is hopeless because everyone on the other side has fallen prey to wishful thinking. In practice, however, I find that atheists are more inclined toward this. Atheists have a pronounced leaning toward scientism, which is the belief that science is the only reliable source of truth. It’s entirely understandable, then, that belief in God might look to them like wishful thinking—as though people of faith have let their hearts overpower their heads. Although people of serious faith (myself included) know this to be a misconception, our holistic understanding of human belief and behavior certainly does include the heart along with the head. We fully acknowledge that emotion can get in the way of clear thinking, but since we see this as a very general condition of humanity, we would never offer it as a particular weakness of atheism, the way so many atheists offer it as a particular weakness of theism.
Returning to Thomas Nagel, as you may have guessed from the title of his book, he isn’t your typical atheist. Most significantly, he roundly rejects the simplistic scientism that so many atheists still cling to. His atheism is heart-driven, and he isn’t afraid to say so:
I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind.
As a first-rate philosopher of the mind, Nagel actually changes the debate with this candid version of atheism. In light of his example, thoughtful atheists no longer have the luxury of assuming their worldview just works somehow—that dead molecules somehow formed simple life, and that simple life somehow formed us, despite all the apparent difficulties. Nor do they have the luxury of dismissing every argument against atheism on grounds of religious bias. Thoughtful theists, for their part, can no longer assume that atheism necessarily breeds contempt for faith.
Nagel is living proof that the awkwardness of bare-naked honesty doesn’t compare to the reward of engaging seriously the matters that concern us most—a principle that will serve us well as we begin our journey together. You need no special training to join this expedition. All you need is a healthy dose of curiosity and a healthy tolerance of the good kind of awkwardness—the kind that comes from challenging claims that ought to be challenged.
The Big Question
Again, that one big question of our origin unites us—not because we agree on the answer but because we should all agree on the importance of finding the answer. Throughout history, it has been the foremost question of people searching for understanding: What is the source from which everything else came? Or, to bring it closer to home: To what or to whom do we owe our existence? This has to be the starting point for people who take life seriously—scientists and nonscientists alike. We cannot rest without the answer, because absolutely everything of importance is riding on it. To know where everything came from is to know where we came from, and where we came from has everything to do with who we are, and who we are has everything to do with how we ought to live.
If all goes well, our journey in this book will take us to the answer. We’ll know we have arrived when we have an answer that not only rings true but also distinguishes itself as the one answer that rings true. There should be no credible alternative.
A map will be helpful as we begin. My aim over the next four chapters isn’t to answer the big question but instead to show where we should be looking for the answer. Chapter 2 will introduce the intuition that creates internal conflict in all of us by tugging against Darwin’s claims. This design intuition, as we will call it, is the very intuition Crick wanted us to suppress. Chapters 3 and 4 will be a short account of the unexpected lessons I learned while seeking a scientific solution to this internal conflict. These lessons weren’t about the proteins I was studying but about the people I interacted with along the way—really, about people in general. With those lessons in hand, we’ll see in chapter 5 that the answer we’re seeking is to be found not in technical science but in something much more familiar—something I call common science. There will be plenty of glimpses of technical science along the way, but all of these will be presented with the nontechnical reader in mind. In the end, we’ll see that mastery of technical subjects isn’t at all needed in order for us to know the answer to the big question. Common science will be perfectly adequate.
The next section of the book—chapters 6 through 9—will be a journey through the important aspects of common science. The point of chapter 6 will be to provide a better understanding of what life is and what it isn’t, which will prove helpful as we progress to the matter of where life came from. Chapter 7 will be a common-science refutation of the idea that natural selection explains how life came to exist in its countless remarkable forms. With natural selection off the table, chapter 8 will be an exploration of searching, showing that the many inventions needed for new life forms to evolve would have had to be found accidentally. Chapter 9 will finish the section by showing why invention can’t actually happen that way. The intuition that Crick wanted us to suppress will end up being confirmed instead.
But all this only tells us what the answer to our question isn’t. To arrive at a satisfying understanding of what the answer is will require us to continue our journey a bit further. In chapter 10 we will revisit the question of what life is, viewing it this time through the lens of invention. The following two chapters, 11 and 12, will serve as a reality check, first by considering carefully whether we have overlooked anything in rejecting the evolutionary explanation of life and then by asking whether the scientific community’s defense of evolution looks more like a “science thing” or a “culture thing.” Finally, chapters 13 and 14 complete our journey. There we examine the nature of life and humanity more deeply—leading to a clear picture of what the answer to the big question is—after which I offer a glimpse of what I hope biology will look like in the not-too-distant future, after a great many people join us on this journey.
From Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed. Copyright © 2016 by Douglas Axe. Reprinted with permission by HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers. Now available in paperback.