Which came first?

Books | Why science needs foresight instead of blind evolution
by Marcos Eberlin
Posted 8/22/20, 12:01 pm

Some say “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” is either a silly question or a stumper, but it may expose an improper understanding of angels. The answer is an infinite number because angels are immaterial beings who do not occupy space the way a person would. “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” is also a good question to ask because it exposes the inadequacy of a Darwinian perspective. Marcos Eberlin, a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, shows in his book Foresight that “There are no demonstrated examples of unguided, mindless processes anticipating and solving problems that require a sophisticated orchestration of fine-tuned parts. … Intelligent design thus represents the best and, indeed, the only causally adequate explanation.” Here’s an excerpt, courtesy of the Discovery Institute, from Foresight, which made WORLD’s short list for 2019 Book of the Year in the Science category. —Marvin Olasky

Foresight and the Future of Science

Time for a quick recap, and then let’s step back and consider the implications of the evidence in these pages for the future of science.

The development of a chick embryo is a wonder to behold. (And you actually can behold it, because scientists have filmed the process.[1]) But no less a wonder than the developing embryo is the egg in which it develops. The egg yolk and egg white contain all the food the chick will need before it hatches. The eggshell also contains microscopic pores that let air in, so the chick can breathe. The developing bird then generates a network of capillaries to absorb oxygen from the air and release carbon dioxide. Just before hatching, special membranes in the egg trap enough air so the full-grown chick can take its first breath before it leaves the shell.

The eggshell is hard enough to protect the developing chick, yet fragile enough for the full-grown chick to peck its way out. Indeed, the egg’s contents and shell are masterpieces of engineering that both nourish and protect the baby bird.

But there would be no egg without a chicken to produce it. Without an egg there can be no chicken, but without a chicken there can be no egg. It’s the original chicken-and-egg problem, the archetypal example of a most curious causal circularity: To get A we need B, but to get B we first need A. We can’t have one without the other. To get both together, we need foresight.

We find examples of this causal circularity—and thus the need for foresight—throughout living systems. As we have seen, living cells need membranes. No membranes, no life. And not just membranes, but membranes with a myriad of phospholipids and channels that enable a cell to control its internal environment. Those channels require complex and specialized proteins to function. Yet in the absence of a skilled biochemist, the necessary proteins are made only in cells—which existed long before there were biochemists. Without stable membranes loaded with protein-operated channels, there are no cells. But without cells there are no proteins to form membrane channels.

In the absence of a skilled biochemist, the necessary proteins are made only in cells—which existed long before there were biochemists.

Or consider this: Inside a living cell we find DNA and RNA, both extremely well-suited for the jobs they perform—from the chemistry of their components to the chemistry of the complex molecules themselves. Without DNA and RNA, the cell could not synthesize the proteins it needs. Yet without a suite of complex proteins, the cell could not synthesize more DNA and thus could never divide. And without another suite of complex proteins, the cell would be unable to make RNA. No DNA and RNA, no proteins. No proteins, no DNA or RNA.

After proteins have been translated from RNA, chaperones help them to rapidly fold into the right three-dimensional shapes. Without the right shape, a protein cannot function properly. But chaperones are made of protein. Once again, we have causal circularity. No chaperones, no proteins. No proteins, no chaperones.

And it’s not just causally circular systems that require foresight. The way bacteria cage and use poisonous hydrazine to convert nitrogenous waste and replenish atmospheric nitrogen; the way Issus insects use precisely meshed gears to jump; the way the mantis shrimp stores up elastic energy to power its remarkable strike while protecting its hands with gloves; the way birds use quantum entanglement to sense the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate when they migrate; the coordination between sperm and egg in human reproduction; the way the appendix functions to replace beneficial bacteria in the digestive system after diarrhea; the integrated complexity involved in the senses of sight, smell, and pain: All of these point to the need for foresight.

Blind Man’s Bluff

In the opening chapter I mentioned that evolutionists have made additions and other adjustments to Neo-Darwinism’s central mechanism of random genetic mutations and natural selection. Some have gone so far down this path as to give up on the modern Neo-Darwinian synthesis even while clinging to the hope that some purely blind, materialistic version of evolution can be developed. The ongoing search for such an alternative to Neo-Darwinism was the subject of a 2016 meeting of the Royal Society of London, which included several distinguished evolutionists. The various proposals to salvage evolutionary theory—some more fashionable and some less—include punctuated equilibrium, neutral evolution (non-adaptive evolution), evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo), self-organization, epigenetic inheritance, and natural genetic engineering. Big claims are made for each of these and other versions of blind evolution, but in the end those claims, while undoubtedly believed sincerely by their proponents, have little more substance than a bluff. Each has serious shortcomings as a substitute for foresight and planning.

Punctuated equilibrium, for example, attempts to explain why we see few transitional fossils in the fossil record from one animal form to a fundamentally different animal form, but it offers no credible mechanism for the geologically rapid evolution of new forms. Indeed, whatever challenges that traditional Neo-Darwinism faces in this regard, punctuated equilibrium faces them in intensified form, since it has less geological time to build new form.

Big claims are made for … blind evolution, but in the end those claims, while undoubtedly believed sincerely by their proponents, have little more substance than a bluff.

Neutral evolution de-emphasizes the role of natural selection and focuses on mutations that, at least for a long time, would have been neutral or even deleterious in terms of fitness. The idea is that such mutations might predominate in small populations of, say, animals. The benefit of this approach is that evolutionists no longer have to envision a series of functionally advantageous steps from some starting point to the evolution of some new molecular machine, organ, or organism. But that benefit comes at an enormous cost, a cost its proponents tend to overlook.

Stephen Meyer, in discussing work on neutral evolution by Michael Lynch and Adam Abegg, explains with an illustration of a man dropped into a vast but happily predator-free body of water. (The lack of any predators in the analogy mirrors neutral evolution’s de-emphasis on natural selection.) The man in the water just has to swim to a ladder somewhere in that vast body of water and climb out. The catch is that he’s blindfolded and has no idea where the ladder is. Now, as Meyer points out, if you tried to estimate how long it would take him to reach the ladder by calculating a fairly direct line between man and ladder, you’d come up with “a fantastically optimistic estimate of the severity of the problem facing our unfortunate swimmer,” because a straight line obscures the key problem the swimmer faces, namely that he has no clue where the ladder is, nor any way to gauge whether he’s getting closer to or further from the ladder at any given moment. Meyer continues:

Thus, any realistic estimate of how long it will actually take him to swim to the ladder—as opposed to an estimate of the theoretically fastest route possible—must take into account his probably aimless wandering, fits and starts, swimming in circles and drifting in various directions. Similarly Lynch and Abegg fail to reckon in their calculation on the random, undirected, and, literally, aimless nature of the mechanism that they propose. Instead, they mistakenly assume that neutral processes of evolution will make a beeline for some specific complex adaption. In fact, these processes will—in all probability—also wander aimlessly in a vast sequence space of neutral, functionless possibilities with nothing to direct them, or preserve them in any forward progress they happen to make, toward the rare and isolated islands of function represented by complex adaptations. For this reason, Lynch vastly underestimates the waiting times required to generate complex adaptations and, therefore, does not solve the problem of the origin of genes and proteins or any other complex adaptation.[2]

There is another problem. Not only is the neutral-evolution swimmer blindfolded, ignorant of where he needs to go, and without any desire to get there; there are other exits from this great body of water that lead to his destruction, or at least to a lost limb. That’s because evolution does not go in one direction only. Mutations can break things much more easily than they can make them. Worse, this tendency for mutations to break will not politely sit on hold while neutral evolution casts about blindly for a mutation or series of mutations that build something new.

What they all lack is the secret sauce in every great engineering success—foresight, ingenuity, and planning.

True, sometimes these devolutionary breaks lead to niche advantages, as Michael Behe discusses in his book Darwin Devolves. But as Behe also notes, no new molecular machinery has been built in such cases, and it’s precisely the origin of new molecular machinery and information that any evolutionary account of the diversification of life needs to account for, neutral or otherwise.[3]

The other alternative evolutionary proposals face similarly devastating shortcomings.[4] What they all lack is the secret sauce in every great engineering success—foresight, ingenuity, and planning.

The Foresight-or-Death Principle

The need to anticipate—to look into the future, predict potentially fatal problems with the plan, and solve them ahead of time—is observable all around us. It is clear from the many examples in this book that life is full of solutions whose need had to be predicted to avoid various dead-ends. Put another way, many biological functions and systems required planning to work. These features speak strongly against modern evolutionary theory in all its forms, which remains wedded to blind processes.

Also, as we saw in Chapter 2, the evidence of foresight in nature is not limited to examples from the life sciences. As we investigated Earth and the cosmos, we saw how it appears that an ingenious mind anticipated and steered around a host of potential dead-ends, in everything from physics and cosmology to chemistry and geology, situations that otherwise would have made life impossible.

No foresight, no life: In this book we have examined many instances that manifest this principle. And these barely scratch the surface. The many examples of solutions that anticipated problems before they arose, the ingenuity evident in those solutions, and the need for the orchestrated, simultaneous delivery of multiple, fully functioning components right from the beginning of a given system, pose a significant challenge to blind evolution. And not just blind evolution but the materialism that undergirds it, for foresight requires something more than matter in motion. Foresight is a hallmark of mind.

Foresight and Intelligence

We humans have thrived on Earth thanks to many of our unique abilities. We reason, possess the power of speech, craft sophisticated tools, grow crops, and breed livestock. We fly airplanes and spaceships and go deep into the oceans with submarines. We write software that commands mobile phones and robots. We synthesize polymers to make clothes, and drugs to cure us from pathologies. We sing, compose songs and plays, and much more.

What most sets us apart in the animal kingdom, then, is not something mechanical or material; rather, it is our minds. With our minds we can study the past, comprehend the present, and anticipate the future to a degree unparalleled in the animal kingdom. We, more than any other animal, foresee.

And yet, as we have witnessed throughout this book, acts of extraordinary foresight are evident throughout the natural world—in everything from cell membranes to the mechanisms of bird migration. And these examples far exceed in sophistication any examples of engineering foresight that we could point to in human culture.

What most sets us apart in the animal kingdom, then, is not something mechanical or material; rather, it is our minds.

Where does this evidence invite us? Let’s take the case for foresight in nature in steps:

  1. We see many examples of apparent foresight in the natural world—of problems being anticipated before they arose, and ingeniously solved with on-time delivery of multiple, essential, and well-orchestrated parts.
  2. We know from our uniform experience that the ability to anticipate and solve such problems is a characteristic of intelligent minds.
  3. There are no demonstrated examples of unguided, mindless processes anticipating and solving problems that require a sophisticated orchestration of fine-tuned parts, all brought together on the ground floor of an origin event. Hand-waving references to cases that are assumed rather than demonstrated do not count. Neither do arguments based on question-begging logic—e.g., “Common features must mean common descent” and “Common descent must mean blind evolution.”
  4. Therefore, our uniform experience provides us with only one type of cause with the demonstrated capacity to anticipate and solve such problems—intelligent design.
  5. Intelligent design thus represents the best and, indeed, the only causally adequate explanation for the many examples of apparent foresight in the natural world, of situations where problems are ingeniously solved with on-time delivery of multiple, essential, and well-orchestrated parts. The foresight is not merely apparent, but real.

This isn’t to say that there were no secondary causes in action, that nothing unfolded from law-like patterns and pre-existing conditions. Being open to the evidence of foresight leaves us open to consider both primary and secondary means. In each case under consideration we can simply follow the evidence rather than being constrained by a question-begging rule.

And whether the evidence points to primary causation, secondary causation, or a combination, it still follows that a mind was required to foresee the many potential dead-ends and escape them. Life and the universe are full of these clever escapes, ingenious solutions that speak strongly in favor of intelligent design.

From Foresight: How the Chemistry of Life Reveals Planning and Purpose by Marcos Eberlin. Copyright © 2019. Published by Discovery Institute Press. All rights reserved. Used with permission.


ENDNOTES

[1] Vladimir Matveev, “Development of a Chicken Embryo,” YouTube video, 2:06, May 25, 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKvez9duEHQ; Yusaku Watanabe, “Observation of the Development of Chick Embryo,” YouTube video, 9:45, November 26, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uE0uKvUbcfw.

[2] Stephen C. Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2013), 328–9.

[3] Michael Behe, Darwin Devolves: The New Science about DNA That Challenges Evolution (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2019).

[4] For more on the problems facing the various post-Neo-Darwinian models, and why most of them are not really post-Neo-Darwinian models, see chapters 4 and 5 of Behe, Darwin Devolves, 93–137, and chapters 15 and 16 of Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt, 291–335.

Marcos Eberlin

Marcos is a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the founder of the Thomson Mass Spectrometry Laboratory, and the winner of the prestigious Thomson Medal in 2016.

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