This continues our series on the 2020 NCCA apologetics conference. Dr. Rana is with Reasons to Believe, (RTB) which was founded by Canadian-American astrophysicist Hugh Ross. Some distinctives of RTB are an evangelical faith, a clear presentation of the evidence that the earth is old (billions of years), and rejection of naturalistic evolution. Rather than denying the experimental evidence that points to the sudden origin of our universe over 13 billion years ago, they celebrate it; they tie the stages of the physical development of the earth and solar system into their stage-wise interpretation of the “days” in Genesis 1. Hugh Ross’s books were very helpful to me when I was trying to sort out old earth/young earth issues some years back. Another distinctive of RTB is a gracious attitude toward those they disagree with, which came across in Dr. Rana’s presentation.
Dr. Rana’s training was in biochemistry. He mainly writes and speaks about evolution, but covers other topics as well. He also authored Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth, which sits on my bookshelf. That was a reference I used in writing a detailed article (Dinosaur Soft Tissue) on whether the finding of soft tissues in dinosaur fossil bones implies a young earth.
The title of Dr. Rana’s talk at this conference was: Why I am Not a Theistic Evolutionist [Oct. 13, Talk 3]
The Abstract provides a good outline of this presentation:
I am often asked why I reject the evolutionary paradigm, when it is the prevailing scientific explanation for the origin and design of life. In this talk, I will summarize some of the philosophical and theological problems with evolutionary creation. I then describe what I believe to be the most serious scientific shortcomings of the evolutionary paradigm. Specifically, I will demonstrate that, as it currently stands, the evolutionary paradigm cannot account for the key transitions in life’s history including the: Origin of life Origin of eukaryotic (complex) cells Origin of body plans Origin of human exceptionalism I will also show how the explosiveness of these key transitions can be used to argue for a Creator’s role in orchestrating the history of life on Earth.
I will state some of these points of his more fully and also give assessments of those points.
Darwin’s View on Theistic Evolution (Evolutionary Creationism)
Dr. Rana tried to make the case that Darwin rejected the notion than evolution was compatible with theism. In his talk he stated that “we now know that Darwin was an atheist”, and that Darwin held that the violence and cruelty in the world meant it could not be the product of an all-loving, all-powerful, all-good Creator.
Dr. Rana’s case here depends on a carefully-edited and unfortunately misleading selection of quotes from Darwin. (Such out-of-context “quote-mining” is common among opponents of evolution; there is a whole Quote Mine Project section of the pro-science TalkOrigins site dedicated to unmasking and correcting such misleading citations.)
Although opponents of evolution try to paint Darwin as a closet atheist who propounded evolution as a sneaky way to take down religion, that is simply false. Darwin was a firm theist (though perhaps not a Trinitarian Christian) at the time he gathered his data and formulated his theory of evolution. Later in life, heartbroken by the death of his beloved ten year old daughter, he slid into agnosticism. However, he made it clear that he did not hold to atheism. He just could not find enough evidence for or against theism to come down firmly on one side or the other. All this is documented in Was Darwin an Atheist?
Dr. Rana presented the following abbreviated quote from a reply by Darwin to a letter from American botanist (and devout Christian) Asa Gray regarding God and evolution:
I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.
Dr. Rana claimed that Darwin here was just side-stepping the theological issue to avoid hurting Gray’s feelings: According to Dr. Rana, the real Darwin, the atheist who finds it inconceivable that a good Creator could have made a world with all its waste and suffering comes out, comes in this quote:
What a book a Devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of nature!
But let’s look at the contexts of these two Darwin quotes.
Worldly Victorians routinely made off-hand references to the Devil, and the term “Devil’s chaplain” had been around since the time of Chaucer. In the quote above, Darwin was commenting that IF someone wanted to build a case against God, they could make use of all the seeming waste, inefficiency and suffering in the natural world. Darwin was perfectly correct, and was simply stating the obvious. Atheists like Richard Dawkins in fact do point to these features to argue that, “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference”. Likewise, if you talk with people today in general, you will often hear that that pointless suffering in nature and in human affairs makes them doubt that a loving God is in charge.
Now let’s circle back to the “dog might as well speculate” quote, and show it (bolded) in its full context. Again, this is Darwin replying to Gray:
With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I should wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ [wasp] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed.
On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.— Certainly I agree with you that my views are not at all necessarily atheistical.
Darwin acknowledges, with regret, that he cannot see “design and beneficence” in all the outworked details of natural laws, in all the specific instances of predation and mutilation in the animal world. Nevertheless, at the big picture level, he “cannot…conclude that everything is the result of brute force.” In fact, though he is not sure, Darwin inclines toward the intelligent design of the natural laws themselves: “I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance”. These are hardly the words of a man who “will have none of” theistic evolution, which is what Dr. Rana claimed in his talk. Darwin repeatedly affirmed that it was possible that a Creator may have set up this universe with its natural laws, while then letting those natural processes play out with all of their consequences and “grandeur”, including the production of higher animals and humans.
Does Evolutionary Creationism Help Scientifically Literate People Accept Christianity?
Organizations like Biologos propose that reconciling evolution with the Bible can help make the faith more acceptable to those exposed to mainstream modern biology. Dr. Rana pushed back on this notion, claiming that accommodating evolution “does nothing to make skeptics feel any different about the Christian faith whatsoever.” He referred to atheist advocates like P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne who mocked Biologos on-line discussions on non-literal interpretations of Genesis.
In fairness to Biologos, it is unlikely that they expected to convert committed atheists like Myers or Coyne. The organization’s primary impact has been in helping seekers and troubled Christians to reconcile their wavering faith with the facts of science, by presenting a wide range of views on how to interpret the biblical text (particularly taking into account the ancient Near East context). The Biologos web site has story after story similar to that of April Maskiewicz Cordero:
I went to a couple pastors I knew and I sought them out and asked them. They told me the same thing, that you had to choose: faith or evolution. My biology classes were showing that evolution was the reality, and since everyone told me I had to choose, I made a conscious decision in college to give up my faith, reject all belief in God, and I became an atheist.
And it wasn’t until a couple years after I got out of college that I came back to Christ; but then I had to spend the next ten years trying to make sense of the philosophical and theological issues so that I could reconcile my Christian faith with my acceptance of evolution.
And Marcus Maltby :
By the time high school started, the sense of conflict I felt between faith and science was great…This environment really tried my faith and made me question over and over again the existence of God and his proclaimed work in his Word….BioLogos transformed my understanding of science and God. It made a big difference in my life, as I have learned to appreciate both science and theology for the knowledge they offer.
Origin of Life and of Eukaryotic Cells
One of Dr. Rana’s main scientific objections to evolution is that scientists cannot currently furnish detailed mechanistic descriptions of several key transitions in the history of life. The first such transition is the origin of living cells such as bacteria and archaea from plain chemicals over 3.5 billion years ago. (Technically the origin of life is the topic of “abiogenesis”, while the term “evolution” typically denotes changes in life forms from that point forward, but we’ll let that pass.) The second major transition is the appearance of the more complex kinds of cells (eukaryotes) which contain internal structures such as mitochondria and a nucleus; animals and plants are made of such cells.
But is this actually evidence against evolution? That does not follow. The reason that research scientists still have jobs is precisely because there is still much about the physical world that we do not understand. We would make no progress if, when we ran into something we did not understand, we threw up our hands and said, “We can’t explain this, so no physical explanation is possible, so this must be a supernatural act of God.” That is not how radioactivity was discovered. That is not how diseases are identified and cures found. Rather, that is the old God-of-the-gaps approach.
We know from recent experience with Covid-19 that once a new type of flourishing microorganism appears, it can rapidly spread worldwide. Thus, it is not surprising that once fully viable bacteria or eukaryotes finally appeared, they soon filled the oceans. It is unrealistic to demand that we, billions of years later, would necessarily find remains of whatever intermediate stages these microscopic organisms passed through, on their way to becoming fully robust and widespread. So these transitions are not “failures” of evolution.
The Cambrian Explosion
The third major transition Dr. Rana mentioned is the relatively sudden appearance of early representatives of many animal phyla in fossils of the Cambrian period (541-485 million years ago). Again, there is much that remains unknown in this event here, but this all happened a long time ago and under circumstances where it would be intrinsically unlikely to find the transitional fossils.
The odds that any animal carcass gets fossilized are low, even if the animal has hard body parts. And the further back in time we go, the greater chance that any fossil-bearing rocks will have gotten eroded away or buried too deep to find, or be smeared beyond recognition by crustal movements. Normally, only firm body parts leave a fossil impression. There are a few uniquely favorable fossil sites (“lagerstatten”) which can even preserve imprints of soft tissues in the middle Cambrian (where the bulk of the novel fossils have been found), but it happens that there are no such sites with prime fossil preservation conditions from the early Cambrian. The novel fossils found in the middle Cambrian seem to represent the first widespread assemblages with hard body parts. If the precursors to those fossils lacked hard body parts, then of course we will not find much in the way of fossil remains for them. But if these precursors were vigorous wormlike creatures, we should expect to find lots of fossilized burrows in the early Cambrian seafloor – – which we do. The relatively rapid appearance of hard body parts in the Cambrian may be related to an increase in the calcium content of the ocean water at that time.
To put this in perspective, consider this chart of the first appearances of representatives of known animal phyla. The Cambrian period near the left is represented as a C with a dash through it. “Cen” on the right is the Cenozoic era (the most recent 66 million years).
Quite a few of these phyla first appear in the Cambrian, though not all simultaneously even there. Other phyla appear before and after the Cambrian, scattered through geologic time. But there are also a whole bunch of phyla plastered along the right hand edge of this chart. These are all soft-bodied living species, which have not left any observed fossils, because, well, they are soft-bodied. So the fossil pattern in the Cambrian does nothing to disprove evolution as such. From the Cambrian onwards, once hard body parts become common, we do see the expected series of fossilized intermediate species that span other major transitions such as fish to amphibians and reptiles to mammals.
Dr. Rana showed a quote from The Cambrian Explosion (2013) by Douglas Erwin and James Valentine:
One important concern has been whether the microevolutionary patterns commonly studied in modern organisms by evolutionary biologists are sufficient to understand and explain the events of the Cambrian or whether evolutionary theory needs to be expanded to include a more diverse set of macroevolutionary processes. We strongly hold to the latter position…the move from micro to macro forms a discontinuity.
Does this quote imply that evolution cannot account for the Cambrian explosion? No, it just says that we may need to expand our conception of the mechanisms involved. And that is fine – of course we should augment the valid parts of evolutionary theory with further insights. It is a complex world. Opponents of evolution sometimes set up Darwin’s primitive 1859 understanding of matters (“Darwinism”) as a straw man to knock down, as though that somehow invalidates evolution. That is akin to claiming that modern physics is invalidated because we have found that simple “Newtonism” is not sufficient.
If we look at the rest of what Erwin and Valentine say in their book and other writings, they note that molecular studies indicate much of the base genetic diversification that was manifested in body types in the Cambrian actually developed well before the Cambrian (see figure here). Thus, it was not the case that a huge amount of genetic rewiring had to be packed in the first half of the Cambrian in order for the diverse suite of physical forms to appear in the middle Cambrian.
The Supposedly Rapid Appearance of Human Language and Culture
As his fourth major transition, Dr. Rana presented quotes claiming that complex human language appeared “recently” and “suddenly”, rather than in a gradual “Darwinian” fashion. He claims that this is somehow a failure of “evolution”. This objection fails on several levels:
( 1 ) There is reason to believe that human language first developed in Africa, where the existing tongues are relatively complex, but nobody actually knows how fast human language developed. We have no recordings or written records from that far back. All we can do is ponder the few artifacts we have from the 50,000-200,000 year ago era, such as bead necklaces, arrowheads, and cave drawings, and make flimsy guesses about what the cavemen and women may or may not have been saying as they fabricated them.
( 2 ) Accordingly, there is no scholarly consensus on this matter. Among the scholars who do ponder these things, the majority view is that human language developed in an evolutionary manner, not “suddenly”. Thus, the “sudden, recent” quotes presented by Dr. Rana are a minority opinion.
( 3 ) Even among the “sudden” proponents like Noam Chomsky, “sudden” means over a period of some 100,000 years, not in a hundred or a thousand years.
( 4 ) Why was this topic included at all? “Darwinian” and ”Darwinism” have become catch-all terms denoting “gradual change” and/or “competitive elimination”. Opponents of evolution sometimes exploit this linguistic ambiguity by noting some failure of “Darwinian” mechanisms in some subject other than biological evolution, as a means to cast vague doubt on “Darwinism” as a whole. That appears to be what is going on here. Even if there were any real evidence that language behavior developed “suddenly” among Homo sapiens, that has nothing to do whether biological evolution explains the appearance of new physical species.
Convergence is Not a “Failed Prediction of Evolution”
Two main principles underlie the theory of evolution. First, there are heritable variations among individuals. Second, some individuals will be more successful than others at surviving and reproducing; their offspring, bearing their characteristics, will come to dominate succeeding generations. As this “natural selection” operates, the character of a population can shift with time, even to the point of becoming a different species.
Assuming that life began from a common ancestor, as new species branch off and further evolve, in general we expect divergence, especially at a genetic level. However, then is no hard and fast rule preventing some later convergence in physical and genetic traits.
Dr. Rana wants to show that convergence is somehow a “failed prediction” of evolution. But the reader can verify that the two principles of evolution as stated above make no such “prediction” against convergence.
It is possible to find some quotes (especially in the older literature) which suggest that such convergence would be exceedingly uncommon. But further progress in research has shown that convergence is actually not surprising. In fact, it is to be expected. If there is some advantage to being able to fly, nothing precludes diverse animals like insects, pterosaurs, birds, and bats from all independently developing winged flight. There is nothing “illegal” about that.
The Christian paleontologist Simon Conway Morris argues that convergence ought to be common in evolution. Given a similar set of environmental and physical constraints, life will tend to evolve toward whatever is the “optimum” body plan for that environment. A famous example is the physical similarities between Australian marsupial mammals (some of them now extinct) and the Eurasian placental mammals that occupy the some ecological niches (see Dr. Rana’s figure below). The Tasmanian wolf, our familiar wolf (canine), and the hyena (in the cat family) are all apex pack predators, and all have evolved to a similar body form.
There can be convergence at a genetic as well as physical level. Some of this may be random, but some involves natural selection. It is advantageous for a predator to be able to locate prey by echolocation. It turns out that a certain set of genetic mutations facilitate echolocation, and bats and toothed whales have evolved a similar set of those genes.
Convergence does complicate the construction of evolutionary family trees. Some earlier rules of thumb assumed that similar forms or genes always meant close lineal relationship. We now know that this assumption is not always valid, so more care must be taken to take into account the genome and the fossil history as a whole.
This treatment of convergence illustrates why one should always be skeptical regarding claims of some “failed prediction of evolution”. There is a difference between rigorous logical predictions of core evolutionary theory (some of which we will visit below), and speculative predictions. Often these more speculative predictions are not based on core evolutionary theory, but on some ancillary theoretical proposal, such as genetic drift, epigenetics, etc. Also, there is pressure on researchers to cast their results as novel and important, so authors often refer to recent results as “surprising” or “unexpected”, when nobody who is current with the literature is actually surprised.
The literature is full of pontifications and guesses and other vague or unsubstantiated estimates and predictions regarding evolution, which of course opponents of evolution seize upon, in order to assert that evolutionary theory is in utter disarray. Or they can take more realistic statements by scientists and twist them to mean something other than the author intended.
That seems to have happened here, with the two quotes Dr. Rana cited. One quote was from Darwin, expressing his skepticism that organisms from different lineages could “afterward converge so closely as to lead to a near approach to identity throughout their whole organization.” This was just Darwin’s opinion, not a rigorous deduction from the principles of variation + natural selection. More importantly, and contrary to Dr. Rana’s presentation, Darwin was not ruling out convergence in general. He just thought it unlikely that two lineages could converge to form two practically indistinguishable species. In fact, Darwin was largely correct: in nearly all the known cases of convergence, either a casual observer or an expert can still tell the two species apart by visual inspection. In the rarer cases where the two species have nearly identical appearances, they can still be distinguished by their genomes. There is more than one genetic way to attain a similar-looking organism, which is precisely why convergence can occur.
The other citation presented was from S. J. Gould, who noted that small differences in early mutations cannot be undone and thus they set two lineages on different trajectories. In general, then, evolution “cascades into radically different channels”. Dr. Rana took this to mean that Gould was excluding the possibility of any convergence. But that is not accurate. Just as two separated channels of a river can rejoin downstream, nothing about Gould’s observation precludes some later convergence in physical forms.
Evolution versus Intelligent Design as Explanations
Dr. Rana notes two classes of evidence which are often offered in support of evolution. One is the general pattern of simple-to-complex seen in the fossil record. The rock layers chronicle the appearance of simple one-celled organisms (bacteria, archaea), then more complex cells (eukaryotes), then multicellular life. In the vertebrate line first we see wormlike swimmers with a nerve cord down their backs, then jawless fishes, then jawed fishes, then a whole line of fish/amphibian intermediate forms, then full amphibians, then reptiles, then a whole line of intermediate mammal-like reptiles, then mammals, and so on. He acknowledges that all this comports with evolutionary common ancestry.
He also notes that there are instances of homology, where similar underlying structures are found in various families. For instance, whale flippers, human arms and hands, lizard legs, and bird wings all the same basic bones arranged the same way as the front and foot of a representative amphibian. He showed this figure, which illustrates how it is plausible that bone limb traits of the amphibian were passed down by evolution to the other types:
(The evolutionary story is actually much richer than mere physical similarities, since we are now finding the specific evolved mutations which direct the relevant genes to make, say, bird wing bones versus reptilian front leg bones).
For both the fossil sequences and homologies, however, Dr. Rana stated that a special creation or Intelligent Design (ID) model could also explain the observations. That is correct. It is a great strength of Intelligent Design (i.e. anti-evolutionary Old Earth creationism) that it can accommodate anything. If the Designer decided to create thousands of species over hundreds of millions of years in a sequence that just happens to look exactly like something that natural evolution would produce, well, that’s just the way it is (or was). The corollary of this, however, is that Intelligent Design can predict nothing. We just don’t know what the inscrutable Designer might have decided to do in any particular case as he specially created species after species in the distant past. (Some ID theorists may claim to make predictions, but typically they are just extrapolating from already known evolutionary patterns).
This is why U.S. courts have ruled that ID is not science, since it is not falsifiable even in principle. That is not true of evolution, however. Leaving aside the misleading speculative predictions discussed earlier, evolution makes many specific “hard” predictions which could falsify it. For instance, nearly all mammals can synthesize vitamin C, but humans and a few other species cannot. From evolution and common descent it was predicted that we should have the genes for making vitamin C, but in some deactivated form. When technology allowed us to do so, we found that indeed in humans one of the genes needed to synthesize vitamin C is present but with multiple disabling mutations. There is ongoing discussion about exactly how this pattern of mutations relates to disabling mutations in other species, but the fact is that evolution was able to make this clear, a priori prediction, whereas ID could not honestly do so.
Similarly, if whales evolved from terrestrial mammals, then there are well defined features which we should find in their genomes. Even though modern whales normally have no hind legs, evolution predicts that they should still have the genes for making hind legs, but with the genes in some deactivated or down-regulated state. When we sequence whale genomes, we do find these genes. One class of today’s whales, the baleen whales, have no teeth (they filter their prey through semi-porous baleen plates). Evolutionary common ancestry predicts that we should find deactivated genes for making teeth in the baleen whales which have no teeth today. And when we look, there they are.
Such specific predictions from evolution go on and on, and they keep getting verified. This is why nearly some 97% of practicing scientists hold that living beings, including humans, evolved from other living beings.
The primary reason for skepticism regarding evolution in North America are the understandable concerns by evangelical Christians that evolution somehow displaces God or makes it impossible for humans to be in His image. I won’t elaborate here, but those concerns have been addressed by Biologos and by myself (e.g. Adam, the Fall, and Evolution: Everybody Stay Calm).