Time's up for the comatose watchmaker

November 21, 1997

The empirical evidence is against Darwinism's mechanism of random mutation and natural selection as defined by Richard Dawkins, argues Phillip E. Johnson

An otherwise splendid exhibit in the National Museum of Wales contains a curious omission. Although presenting the accepted story of biological evolution at length with beautiful illustrations, it makes no mention of Charles Darwin or his famous theory of evolution.

Darwinians must think this rather like staging Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. Darwin himself insisted that no mere description of evolution would be satisfactory "until it could be shown how the innumerable species inhabiting this world have been modified, so as to acquire that perfection of structure and coadaptation which most justly excites our admiration". Richard Dawkins, the most famous contemporary Darwinist, puts the heart of the problem this way: "Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose."

Dawkins attributes this to the "blind watchmaker," the Darwinian mechanism of random mutation and natural selection, so called "because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in view". Since blind people do have plans and purposes, we might more accurately say that the watchmaker is comatose.

If the "comatose watchmaker" actually can make all those biological watches, and if it works by preserving genes that have mutated randomly, then evolution all the way from molecule to man is a purposeless process that required no supernatural guidance.

Dawkins states the reductionist implications with his characteristic boldness: humans (like other organisms) are "machines built by DNA whose purpose is to make more copies of the same DNA".

Why should we believe that the comatose watchmaker can do what Dawkins says it can do? The most widely cited examples of natural selection in action are remarkably unimpressive. Moth populations vary in colour distribution, finch beaks vary in average size from year to year, and so on. All involve cyclical variations in fundamentally stable species; none provides any indication that the affected population is in the process of changing into something fundamentally different.

As well as variation, the watchmaker must provide an immense quantity of genetic information. To his credit, Dawkins acknowledges the problem forthrightly; a single cell contains more information than all the volumes of a vast encyclopaedia, and our bodies contain trillions of cells working in an orchestration of coordinated functions. All must be provided by random mutation, since natural selection does not supply anything.

Darwinists have to believe that the information supply problem can be solved by supposing that random mutations supply information in tiny bits, but this is a fallacy. It is easier to imagine a random assortment of letters forming a single intelligible phrase than that shuffling a giant pile of letters could produce a book of instructions for building a computer. Unlikely as it may be that the book could appear through one colossal statistical miracle, it is no less unlikely that it could appear through a succession of millions of small miracles.

Dawkins must realise at some level that the task is hopeless, because he continually tries to solve the problem by smuggling an intelligent designer into his illustrations. For example, he explains that a random letter generator can produce a coherent sentence like Shakespeare's "Methinks it is like a weasel" if one programmes the target phrase into a computer, and the computer then selects the first "m" to appear in the first space, the first "e" in the second space, and so on. Of course it can, and a properly programmed computer with a sufficiently rapid random letter generator can also produce the complete works of Shakespeare in a matter of hours. It is nearly as fast as printing the whole thing out from memory, because that is exactly what it amounts to.

The real problem that the comatose watchmaker presents is how such a dubious mechanism could attain the support of so many intelligent people when it is so clearly at war with the evidence. Selective animal breeding is guided by intelligence, working by protecting specialised breeds within a species from the destruction they would face if natural selection were allowed to operate.

The pattern displayed by the fossil record is one of sudden and mysterious jumps followed by prolonged periods of stability, not the continual gradual change expected by Darwinists. The leading American fossil expert Niles Eldredge has candidly lamented that "Evolution cannot forever be going on somewhere else. Yet that is how the fossil record has struck many a forlorn palaeontologist looking to learn something about evolution." Yet Eldredge also describes himself as a "knee-jerk neo-Darwinist" - in spite of, what he knows about fossils.

The molecular biologist Michael Behe, author of _Darwin's Black Box, has challenged the Darwinian mechanism at the molecular level. Behe argues that Darwinism emerged in an era when the complexities of the cell were not understood, and that molecular systems are "irreducibly complex".

If Behe is right, there is no step-by-step adaptive path up Dawkins's Mount Improbable, and the reason that organisms look designed seems to be that there really was a designer.

When he thought it safe to do so, Dawkins wrote that he would cease being a Darwinist if anyone could show him an example of irreducible complexity. After Behe called his bluff, he withdrew into a position that is unfalsifiable. It is lazy and incompetent, he now says, for a biologist to argue that the apparent design in biology is real. Instead, Behe should be discovering the Darwinian mechanisms that will solve all the problems. But what if such mechanisms do not exist?

The reason that some scientists defend Darwinism so vigorously despite its empirical troubles is that it grows directly out of the materialist philosophy that has taken hold of the scientific community. If there is no God, and if matter had to do its own creating, then something at least roughly like Darwinism has to be true. Dawkins himself makes this point by his doctrine of Universal Darwinism, which asserts that the Darwinian mechanism is the only one that can, in principle, explain life's complexity. Other scientists accept this materialist starting point to avoid being ridiculed as vitalists or creationists. As long as materialism rules the dialogue, Darwinism-in-principle is effectively unfalsifiable. Only the details are open to debate. That leaves us with an intriguing situation. If materialism is true, Darwinism has to be true. But the empirical evidence, when it is considered without a huge materialist bias, is against Darwinism in every speciality. Maybe it is time to draw the conclusion that materialism itself is not true, if we have the courage to face the alternative.

Phillip E. Johnson is professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. This essay is drawn from his public lecture on September 18 sponsored by the law faculty of the University of Cardiff, and from his current book Testing Darwinism.

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