April 25, 2007

Cosmological vs. Biological Evolution

I just listened to a short radio debate between Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, and Hugh Ross, president of Reasons to Believe. The focus of the debate was evolution. Of course, their differences were numerous, since Eugenie is a notorious advocate for evolution, and Hugh is a well-traveled champion of various flavors of design arguments.

In the closing minutes, the two of them shared their agreement over the idea of an old universe and that galaxies, stars, and planets had formed by way of physical forces, even while they differed over the origin of biological life. Eugenie made a point of including cosmological history in her overall definition of "evolution," and one of her final remarks rested upon her liberal usage of the term. Her parting challenge to Hugh was this: "If the physical universe can evolve, why can't the biological universe?"

Now, Hugh would probably be okay with the idea that God had trumped the "natural" order of things and shaped our solar system just exactly how, when, and where He wanted it. In fact, I sometimes think that Hugh is implying this when he labors the point that our own Sun, Earth, and planetary system are exceptionally unique in their composition and arrangement. However, had Hugh been able to respond to this he probably would have pointed out the principle difference between cosmological and biological "evolution."

The origin of the universe may be a profound mystery, but the formation of galaxies and stars within this universe depend upon established laws of physics intrinsic to it. Of course, gravity is a key player in the cosmic drama, and it is a tangible force that we personally experience and can measure and test. Based on our calculations, we can predict what might be expected of galaxy and star formation, lifespan, and death, and when observing the universe we find confirmation of our understanding. The fact that light travels at a finite speed allows us to see the universe as it was at various ages, according to the distances we observe. We have, in effect, a very complete cosmological "fossil record."

So, in cosmology, there are known laws that deterministically act upon matter to shape it into certain kinds of forms, from simple to complex elements and objects. It is not a problem to imagine that God has used such secondary causes to shape our world. Even if God did not specially create our star and planet, it would appear that the forces He has ordained would yield things like them, just as we now observe other stars and planets forming. Perhaps it might be argued that there is not enough time and matter out there to yield by pure chance the very special life-sustaining attributes that our planetary system exhibits, but there are at least adequate materials and mechanisms to grant such opportunities.

Contrast this with biological evolution, which says that simple chemistry yielded life, and that simple life progressively underwent change to become complex life.

In chemistry, there are no gravity-like laws that will take chemicals lying about and form cells out of them. Even if you poured out all the complex molecules of which a simple prokaryotic cell consists they would still not self-assemble in a deterministic way. Indeed, it has been challenging enough to identify processes by which even the simplest molecules of life are formed. And it is not enough to simply propose that the right existing elements be available upon which chance might work its magic. There must be valid chemical pathways that obey the laws of physics, which can take elements through the necessary stages to produce target molecules. This is the world of roadblocks and rabbit trails in which origin-of-life researchers live.

Mainstream evolutionary theory is in slightly better shape. It at least proposes a process by which life advances. Unfortunately, that process involves, at its core, a very un-predictable and un-orderly element: mutation. These random corruptions and process failures are an exception to the functional rule of the cell, which is an otherwise law-abiding citizen. Evolution is ultimately dependent upon chance, along with the assumption that increased complexity is the preferential direction for natural selection to take. Contrary to what sci-fi movies might suggest, you cannot drop a mutagen into a vat of bacteria and yield a superbug like you can drop an apple and watch it fall. It may be argued that these random mutations are simply an indirect and roundabout process nonetheless, but that is the very questionable assertion on which the debate hangs.

Chance is a far different creature than deterministic physical law, and therein lies the difference between cosmological and biological evolution. This difference, and the chance/probability issues, have even led some to look for more common ground between the two. As Hugh Ross pointed out in his parting statement, prestigious scientists, like those at the Santa Fe Institute, have begun to propose an undiscovered law of self-organization to support the idea that the appearance of life is as inevitable as the gravitational collapse of matter into stars. If that were ever proved, then we'd certainly have a new topic to debate, but for the committed materialist it would only add one more incredibly odd and fortuitous law to the heap already begging for explanation.

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At 4/25/2007 10:35 PM, Blogger SLW said...

Chance as God is yielding to self-ganization as God. Perhaps evolutionists are evolving into Hindus. Thanks for the cogent post, I enjoyed your thoughts.

At 4/26/2007 4:35 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

There is an interesting use of language in your opening paragraph. If you are on the evolution side you are a 'notorious advocate' but if you advocate ID you are a 'well travelled champion'.

At 4/26/2007 7:04 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Hiya Stephen! Welcome to our corner of the blogosphere. Regarding your comment, I think you may be closer than you know. I sometimes wonder if this is where Paul Davies is going, and there are those like Dr. Mae-Wan Ho who get pretty mystical in their interpretations of nature.

Psio, my reply to your various round of comments will have to wait a bit, as I am scheduled for several medical tests over the next 24 hours, and then my daughter will be arriving with friends for the weekend. Till then...

At 4/28/2007 10:06 AM, Blogger Paul said...


You're right, that does sound kind of polemical. Those descriptions were the result of some unconscious wordsmithing (e.g., I originally had "advocate" and "champion" reversed between them) and my struggle to properly describe Hugh, who is not a mainstream ID advocate. I'll try to be more careful in the future, but as Pontius Pilate said, "I have written what I have written."

I am not inclined to be generous toward Eugenie, who is to me a propagandist. She consistently paints a rosy, infallible, and un-nuanced view of evolutionary theory, and her chief complaint against ID rests upon the foundation of methodological naturalism. Anyone who portrays evolution, as she does, as having no anomalies is just as disingenuous or ill-informed as one who claims that evolution has no support whatsoever.


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