A Darwinian View of Life
Probe’s Dr. Ray Bohlin reviews Richard Dawkins’ anti-theistic book, A River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, showing the holes in Dawkins’ arguments.
A River of DNA
A River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life by Richard Dawkins is the fourth in a series being published by Basic Books entitled “The Science Masters Series.” This series is said to be “a global publishing venture consisting of original science books written by leading scientists. “Purposing to “present cutting-edge ideas in a format that will enable a broad audience to attain scientific literacy,” this series is aimed at the non-specialist.
The first three releases were The Last Three Minutes: Conjectures about the Ultimate End of the Universe by Paul Davies, The Origin of Humankind by Richard Leakey, and The Origin of the Universe by John D. Barrow. These were followed by the contribution from Dawkins. A look at these books, and at future contributors like Daniel Dennett, Jared Diamond, Stephen Jay Gould, Murray Gell-Mann, Lynn Margulis, and George C. Williams, makes the endeavor look less like a scientific literacy series and more like an indoctrination in philosophical naturalism.
The exposition of a Darwinian view of life by Dawkins in River Out of Eden certainly fits into the overt anti-theism category. His “River Out of Eden” is a river of DNA that is the true source of life and the one molecule that must be understood if life is to be understood.
This river of DNA originally flowed as one river (one species) which eventually branched into two, three, four, and eventually millions of rivers. Each river is distinct from the others and no longer exchanges water with the others, just as species are isolated reproductively from other species. This metaphor allows Dawkins to explain both the common ancestry of all life along with the necessity of gradualism in the evolutionary process.
Dawkins refers to this river of DNA as a digital river. That is, the information contained in the DNA river is completely analogous to the digital information of languages and computers.
Surprisingly, Dawkins gives away the store in this first chapter. In pressing home the digital analogy, Dawkins first uses probability to indicate that the code arose only once and that we are all, therefore, descended from a common ancestor:
The odds of arriving at the same 64:21 (64 codons: 21 amino acids) mapping twice by chance are less than one in a million million million million million. Yet the genetic code is in fact identical in all animals, plants and bacteria that have ever been looked at. All earthly living things are certainly descended from a single ancestor.(p. 12)
So it is reasonable to use probability to indicate that the code could not have arisen twice, but there is no discussion of the probability of the code arising by chance even once. A curious omission! If one tried to counter with such a question, Dawkins would predictably fall back on the assumption of naturalism that since we know only natural processes are available for the origin of anything, the genetic code must have somehow beaten the odds.
Chapter 2 attempts to tell the story of the now famous “African Eve.” African Eve embodies the idea that we are all descended from a single female, probably from Africa, about 200,000 to 100,000 years ago. This conclusion originates from sequence data of the DNA contained in mitochondria.
Mitochondria are tiny little powerhouses that produce energy in each and every cell of your body. Just as your body contains many organs that perform different functions, the cell contains many organelles that also perform specific functions. The mitochondrion is an organelle whose task is to produce energy molecules the cell can use to accomplish its tasks.
However, mitochondria are also the only organelle to contain their own DNA. Certain proteins necessary to the function of mitochondria are coded for by the mitochondrial DNA and not by the nuclear DNA like every other protein in the cell. One other unique aspect of mitochondria is their maternal inheritance. That is, all the mitochondria in your body are descended from the ones you initially inherited from your mother. The sperm injects only its DNA into the egg cell, not its mitochondria. Therefore, an analysis of mitochondrial DNA reveals maternal history only, uncluttered by the mixture of paternal DNA like nuclear DNA. That’s why these studies only revealed an African Eve, though other recent studies claim to have followed DNA from the Y chromosome to indicate an ancient “Adam.”
Now these scientists don’t actually think they have uncovered proof of a real Adam and Eve. They only use the names as metaphors. But this action does reveal a shift in some evolutionists minds that there is a single universal ancestor rather than a population of ancestors. This at least is closer to a biblical view rather than farther away.
Finally, Dawkins makes his case for the reliability of these molecular phylogenies in general. Here he glosses over weaknesses in the theory and actually misrepresents the data. On page 43 he says, “On the whole, the number of cytochrome c letter changes separating pairs of creatures is pretty much what we’d expect from previous ideas of the branching pattern of the evolutionary tree.” In other words, Dawkins thinks that the trees obtained from molecular sequences nearly matches the evolutionary trees we already had. Later on page 44, when speaking of all molecular phylogenies performed on various sequences, he says, “They all yield pretty much the same family tree which by the way, is rather good evidence, if evidence were needed, that the theory of evolution is true.”
Well, besides implying that evidence is not really needed to prove evolution, Dawkins stumbles in trying to display confidence in the molecular data. What exactly does “pretty much” mean anyway? Inherent in that statement are the numerous contradictions that don’t fit the predictions or the ambiguous holes in the general theory. But then, evidence isn’t really needed anyway is it?
While this chapter contained the usual degree of arrogance from Dawkins, particularly in his disdain for the original account of Adam and Eve, it was somewhat less compelling or persuasive than is his usual style. He hedged his bet frequently and simply waived his hand at controversy. Unfortunately, this may not be picked up by the unwary reader.
Scoffing at Design
In Chapter 3 Dawkins launches a full-scale assault on the argument from design. After presumably debunking arguments from the apparent design of mimicry (not perfect design, you know, just good enough), Dawkins states, “Never say, and never take seriously anybody who says, ‘I cannot believe so-and-so could have evolved by gradual selection.’ I have dubbed this fallacy ‘the Argument from Personal Incredulity.’”
To some degree I’m afraid that many creationists have given Dawkins and others an easy target. Such a statement, “I cannot believe…,” has been used many times by well-meaning creationists but is really not very defensible. It is not helpful to simply state that you can’t believe something; we must elaborate the reasons why. First, Dawkins levels the charge that much of what exists in nature is far from perfectly designed and is only good enough. This he claims is to be expected of natural selection rather than a designer. This is because a designer would design it right while natural selection has to bumble and fumble its way to a solution. To begin with, the lack of perfection in no way argues for or against a designer.
I have always marveled at some evolutionists who imply that if it isn’t perfect, then Nature did it. Just what is perfection? And how are we to be sure that our idea of a perfect design wasn’t rejected by the Creator because of some flaw we cannot perceive? It is a classic case of creating God in our own image.
The evolutionists are the ones guilty of erecting the straw man argument in this instance. In addition, Dawkins fully admits that these features work perfectly well for the task at hand. The Creator only commanded His creatures to be fruitful and multiply, not necessarily to be perfectly designed (humanly speaking) wonders. Romans 1:18-20 indicates that the evidence is sufficient if you investigate thoroughly.
Dawkins further closes off criticism by declaring that “there will be times when it is hard to think of what the gradual intermediates may have been. These will be challenges to our ingenuity, but if our ingenuity fails, so much the worse for our ingenuity.” So if explanations fail us, the fault is not with the evolutionary process, just our limited thinking. How convenient that the evolutionary process is so unfalsifiable in this crucial area. But after all, he implies, this is science and intelligent design is not!
Dawkins concludes the chapter with a discussion on the evolution of the honeybee waggle dance. It is filled with probabilistic statements like “The suggestion is that…. Perhaps the dance is a kind of…. It is not difficult to imagine…. Nobody knows why this happens, but it does…. It probably provided the necessary….” Yet at the end, Dawkins proclaims,
We have found a plausible series of graded intermediates by which the modern bee dance could have been evolved from simpler beginnings. The story as I have told it…may not be the right one. But something a bit like it surely did happen.
Again, “it happened” only because any other explanation has been disallowed by definition and not by the evidence.
God’s Utility Function
Dawkins concludes his attack on design in his book River Out of Eden, with a more philosophical discussion in Chapter 4, God’s Utility Function. He begins with a discussion of the ubiquitous presence of “cruelty” in nature, even mentioning Darwin’s loss of faith in the face of this reality. Of course, his answer is that nature is neither cruel nor kind, but indifferent. That’s just the way nature is.
But a curious admission ensues from his discussion. And that is, “We humans have purpose on the brain.” Dawkins just drops that in to help him put down his fellow man in his usual arrogant style. But I immediately asked myself, “Where does this ‘purpose on the brain’ stuff come from?”
The rest of nature certainly seems indifferent. Why is it that man, within an evolutionary worldview, has “purpose on the brain”? In his attempt to be cute, Dawkins has asked an important question: Why is man unique in this respect?
As Christians, we recognize God as a purposeful being; therefore if we are made in His image, we will also be purposeful beings. It is natural for us to ask “Why?” questions. No doubt if pressed, someone will dream up some selective or adaptive advantage for this trait. But this, as usual, would only be hindsight, based on the assumption of an evolutionary worldview. There would be no data to back it up.
At the chapter’s end Dawkins returns to his initial topic. “So long as DNA is passed on, it does not matter who or what gets hurt in the process…. But Nature is neither kind nor unkind…. Nature is not interested one way or another in suffering, unless it affects the survival of DNA.” Even Dawkins admits that this is not a recipe for happiness. The problem of evil returns. Dawkins’s simple answer is that there is no problem of evil. Nature just is.
He recounts a story from the British papers of a school bus crash with numerous fatalities and reports a Catholic priest’s inadequate response to the inevitable “Why” question. The priest indicates that we really don’t know why God would allow such things but that these events at least confirm that we live in a world of real values: real positive and negative. “If the universe were just electrons, there would be no problem of evil or suffering.” Dawkins retorts that meaningless tragedies like this are just what we expect from a universe of just electrons and selfish genes.
However, it is also what we expect in a fallen world. Evolutionary writers never recognize this clear biblical theme. This is not the way God intended His world to be. What is unexpected in an evolutionary world are people shaped by uncaring natural selection who care about evil and suffering at all. Why are we not as indifferent as natural selection?
In making his point, Dawkins says that the amount of suffering in the natural world is beyond all “decent” contemplation. Where does decency come from? He calls the bus crash a “terrible” story. Why is this so terrible if it is truly meaningless? Clearly, Dawkins cannot live within the boundaries of his own worldview. We see purpose and we fret over suffering and evil because we are created in the image of a God who has the same characteristics. There are aspects of our humanity that are not explainable by mutation and natural selection. Dawkins must try to explain it, however, because his naturalistic worldview leaves him no choice.
Are We Alone?
Dawkins closes his book with a final chapter on the origin of life and a discussion on the possibilities of life elsewhere in the universe. This chapter is a bit of a disappointment because there is really very little to say. To be sure, it is filled with the usual Dawkins arrogance and leaps of naturalistic logic, but there is no real conclusion just the possibility of contacting whatever other life may be out there.
Dawkins begins with a definition of life as a replication bomb. Just as some stars eventually explode in supernovas, so some stars explode with information in the form of life that may eventually send radio messages or actual life forms out into space. Dawkins admits that ours is the only example of a replication bomb we know, so it is difficult to generalize as to the overall sequence of events that must follow from when life first appears to the sending of information out into space, but he does it anyway.
While we can clearly distinguish between random and intelligent radio messages, Dawkins is unable to even ask the question about the origin of the information-rich DNA code. I suppose his answer is contained on page 138 when he says, “We do not know exactly what the original critical event, the initiation of self-replication, looked like, but we can infer what kind of an event it must have been. It began as a chemical event.”
This inference is drawn not from chemical, geological, or biological data, because the real data contradicts such a notion. Dawkins takes a few pages to evoke wonder from the reader by documenting the difficult barriers that had to be crossed. His conclusion that it was a chemical event is rather an implication that is derived from his naturalistic worldview. It is a chemical event because that is all that is allowed. Creation is excluded by definition, not by evidence. While chemical evolution may be difficult, we are assured that it happened!
The book closes with a discussion of the Ten Thresholds that must be crossed for a civilization of our type to exist. Along the way, Dawkins continues to overreach the evidence and make assumptions based on naturalism without the slightest thought that his scenario may be false or at least very wide of the mark.
All along the way Dawkins tries to amaze us with both the necessity and complexity of each threshold but fails miserably to explain how each jump is to be accomplished. He depends totally on the explanatory power of natural selection to accomplish whatever transition is needed. It is just a matter of time.
But, of course, this begs the question. Dawkins perfects this art for 161 pages. Despite the smoke and mirrors, Richard Dawkins is still trying to sail upstream without a paddle. It just won’t work. While many of his explanations and ruminations should make careful reading for creationists (he is not stupid and writes well), I have tried to point out a few of his inconsistencies, assumptions, and poor logic.
What bothers me most is that this is meant to be a popular book. His wit and dogmatism will convince and influence many. For these reasons I found it a frustrating and sometimes maddening book to read. Unfortunately, few will think their way through these pages and ask tough questions of the author along the way. This is where the real danger lies. We must not only show others where he is wrong but help them how to discover these errors on their own. We must help people to think, not just react.
©1996 Probe Ministries