How Does Evolution Really Work? – Chapter III of True Creation

| June 28, 2012

The following is a Chapter from “True Creation” a web book by Jude George. The full book can be read at no charge here I highly recommend it as an introduction to evolution as a tool of Gods’ creation.

-David Evarts

True Creation by Jude George

III. How Does Evolution Really Work?

“How can random chance cause molecules to assemble into anything like a human being? I just can’t believe that could ever happen, no matter how much time you give it.”

There are three stumbling blocks that together form an immense barrier for Christians to overcome if they do not understand evolution and they do not understand what the Bible really has to say about it. The first is the argument from incredulity. The second is a misunderstanding of what role randomness plays in biological evolution. The third problem is a theological one. I will explain each of these, in turn.

We must be very careful not to let our feelings of “it doesn’t make sense” to get in the way. It doesn’t make sense that we’re moving around the Sun at 67,000 miles per hour. It certainly doesn’t feel that way, and there’s very little “obvious” evidence for it. In understanding the world, we should be careful to never use the argument from incredulity. This position entails a rejection of a notion because we cannot personally comprehend it. From a Christian perspective, the argument from incredulity is better known by another term: pride. The argument from incredulity was made famous by the Christian philosopher William Paley and his watchmaker analogy in his book Natural Theology, published in 1802: a pocket watch, with its carefully crafted gears and motions, implies that every detail of its structure must have been designed. If you encounter a pocket watch, you know that somewhere, at some time, there was a watchmaker who designed and built the watch. By the same reasoning, says Paley, if you encounter a complex structure such as the human eye, you understand that there is a Creator who designed this eye. I fail to see how this argument helps our Christian witness. Solely using Paley’s reasoning, who is to say that there isn’t a group of designers, or one designer and one builder? Or who is to say that the designer didn’t finish his business and close shop long ago? Paley’s argument could just as easily be used to support polytheism, gnosticism, deism, or any number of religions. Of course we as Christians know that the Designer and Creator are one and the same, the God of the Bible. We know that God is the designer, but rather than creating our bodily forms instantly as He envisioned them, it is clear that He designed the universe to eventually produce us.

Science is a discipline which has slowly given us an understanding of atoms, quarks, energy, the stars and planets and the very nature of space and time, all of which have required subduing the argument from incredulity. In many cases, a clear understanding of the scientific theories behind a set of phenomena will inevitably lead you to a truth which is incomprehensible to our minds, yet is still true. In the case of the physical sciences as well as biology, we put these theories into practice in our daily lives. The physical sciences and the biological sciences are in complete agreement about evolution, and yet the argument from incredulity is a stumbling block to its acceptance. One major problem is that we simply cannot comprehend the vast time scales and numbers — trillions times trillions of cells over billions of years — that are in play. Another is that we cannot imagine the hundreds of interactions between objects at different scales — at the scale of molecules, cells, and complete living things — that occur each microsecond, every second, every day. However, the evidence of evolution, having now been studied for over 150 years, is clear.

Evolution is frequently called a random, undirected process. This second stumbling block is a fundamental misunderstanding of both Charles Darwin’s theory and of modern evolutionary biology, which incorporates findings from genetics and is known as the modern evolutionary synthesis. Random chance, by itself, has very little to do with evolution. Evolution is a process which combines multiple factors, including mutation, genetic drift, gene flow, common descent, and natural selection. In Darwin’s time, the genetic factors were poorly understood; Darwin’s theory focused mostly on natural selection. In the process of biological evolution, randomness dictates only when and where mutations occur. Environmental factors affect the frequency of mutation and natural selection determines which organisms, in the long run, will survive. All of these are natural physical processes and all of them have some statistical component, but only the first is truly random. Natural selection, by itself, is fairly deterministic.

The third major stumbling block for Christians and the “random, undirected” process of evolution is theological in nature. It is easy to equate “undirected” with “without purpose”. This is the crux of the problem for many Christians. How could a random, purposeless process be in any way compatible with faith in a God who formed us in His image? In everyday parlance, evolution is sometimes described as an unguided, purposeless process. Unfortunately, this statement sometimes finds its way into scientific literature. It is important, as a Christian, to not succumb to a knee-jerk reaction to such a statement. Evolution is purposeless only in the sense that there is no detectable cause working to guide it. When studied within the natural laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, we see that evolution is not working toward any goal other than the survival of species and the genes that they carry. As we will explore at length in Chapter XI, God’s hand most certainly is in all of these processes. As Christians, we believe that God has complete sovereignty over every cause and effect in the universe. However, that does not mean that God is actively intervening in such a way that He detectably breaks the physical laws of the universe, except in the case of a miracle. From a theological perspective, there is no reason for us to expect that billions of miracles have occurred, over the span of billions of years, in order for God to achieve the diversity of life on this planet. God is perfectly capable of creating a universe in which this happens according to natural laws, and every evidence we have found so far indicates that this is in fact what has occurred.

Since the early 1900s, we have known that the universe is inherently unpredictable at the quantum level; this is known as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The effects of this principle have been tested over years of research and have been shown to be true, and it now forms the foundation of almost everything we know in particle physics. Is this compatible with the Bible? How could a completely sovereign God allow such “random, undirected processes” to form the framework of His entire creation? To argue along these lines would be to fall into the same trap that 16th and 17th century Christians did when they were challenged with a spotted Sun, cratered Moon, and Earth’s true place in the solar system. Even Albert Einstein scoffed when confronted with this new discovery in quantum mechanics, and he famously quipped, “God does not throw dice.” Yet, we now know that Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is true. Chaos theory is another branch of science that has been used to mathematically describe many “random, unguided” behaviors in the natural world. It is difficult to reconcile some concepts in science with an understanding of a sovereign God, but this is an area where we have to hold firm to our faith that God is indeed sovereign over every cause, and our faith has been strong enough to carry us through many discoveries about the world. Proverbs 16:33 states, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” (NIV) We don’t see Christian organizations rising up against chaos theory and particle physics, and there is no reason for Christians to be ruffled by evolutionary biology, randomness and all.

Do we believe that God exists outside of the universe and that He designed and created the universe to operate by natural laws? Do we believe that God has foreseen the future of every person, every cell, and every atom in the universe? Do we believe that God has complete sovereignty and authority over the motion of every elementary particle? If so, when we see “random, undirected processes” at work in many areas within this universe, we can understand that God is big enough to use these processes to achieve His goals in a way that would be completely undetectable to an observer within, without breaking any of the laws of nature which He ordained at the beginning of time. If every innocuous action within the universe was ascribed to a miracle, what would be distinctive about the real miracles of the Bible?

We are fearfully and wonderfully made. However, we don’t invoke a miraculous act of God every time the action of a set of 46 molecules (our chromosomes) turns a single cell into a baby. That only takes nine months. Deniers of evolution love to quote the Second Law of Thermodynamics, saying how improbable it is for a simple object to give rise to a complex object. If we use solely that line of reasoning, it is far more improbable for a single cell to turn into a baby in nine months than it is for a single cell to turn into a baby over billions of years. And yet, we don’t come up with new theories of “gestation science” or “intelligent gestation” to explain miraculous, divinely guided appearance of babies in nine months. It certainly is a miracle that God breathes a living spirit into that first cell, or whenever He chooses to do so. But the baby’s physical development is entirely due to the natural processes of biology and God’s providence which sustains the universe and the laws of nature. Our cells are bags of molecules. The molecules inside each of our cells are driven by the same “random” forces that drive evolution. Amino acids and nucleic acids, the simple and fundamental building blocks of all living things, are sticky, self-organizing chemicals which quickly and easily form complex chains and patterns. It’s not a miracle of God each time a cell divides, yet that involves the orchestration of not just 46 chromosomes but thousands of other supporting molecules. At the level of individual molecules, they’re just “randomly” bumping into one another.

Some intelligent design proponents point to the fact that DNA encodes information in much the same way that a written book encodes information. If the genome of a typical life form can be thought of as a book, then the individual chromosomes are the chapters, genes are the paragraphs, codons are the words, and nucleotides are the letters. Their argument is that this points to an author who must have explicitly written down the code, letter by letter. However, there is a crucial distinction between DNA and any form of human writing. As molecular biologist Jonathan Watts points out, DNA (and RNA) have very specific physical properties which directly affect, and are affected by, the environment around them. Human writing, on the other hand, has no inherent effect on anything around it. It only has meaning to the person reading it [II-2]. Even a short string of RNA, in the presence of simple enzymes and a soup of amino acids, can naturally cause the synthesis of proteins around it [II-3]. DNA and RNA have properties outside of their inherent information content; they have shapes which directly or indirectly affect the concentrations of proteins in the world around them. These changes will eventually come around to affect the DNA and RNA molecules themselves. This gives natural selection the ability to effect change on the system as a whole, favoring concentrations of some molecules over others. The result is a net increase in information.

Does the complexity of our DNA, of man, and of life as a whole, attest to the awesome power and sovereignty of God? Of course it does! However, God did this through natural processes of physics and chemistry which He set up at the beginning of our universe. God is actively and continuously involved in sustaining the universe and bringing about His will, but we know that He works through natural processes as well as supernatural ones. The entire universe attests to God’s power and authority. With regards to the creation of the physical universe, there is every indication that God designed the universe in such a way that He didnt have to “fix” anything after He created it. This would be out of character with the other supernatural events described in the Bible. God’s creation of the universe — the Big Bang — was indeed a supernatural event. The forces of gravity, electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces, the appearance of atoms, stars, planets, the Earth, and all living things including us were baked into that original plan, and this was described in Genesis in a way that the ancients could comprehend it. Although the narrative in Genesis accommodated the ancient Israelites’ level of understanding, the message is just as true for us today. What wonderful mechanisms God has created to achieve His purposes! The Earth, over the course of billions of years, brought about the first man and woman who would bear His image and come to know Him personally.

Human embryogenesis.

Human embryogenesis.

A commonly heard argument is that evolution of microbes to man, or “goo to you,” is less likely to occur than a tornado in a junkyard producing a fully-formed 747 airplane. Known as Hoyle’s Fallacy, this argument sounds convincing, but it’s a strawman argument which completely disregards what evolution by natural selection is all about. Consider the tornado itself. The chances of countless molecules spontaneously forming into a whirlwind is infinitesimally small, yet tornadoes form all the time. This fallacy disregards the fact that tornadoes and evolution both occur by positive-feedback processes. To understand evolution, imagine that you have a trillion tornadoes in a trillion junkyards, representing trillions of collections of the very first lifelike molecules in the primordial seas. You don’t need to form something on the scale of a 747 in one shot. All you need is something a little better than what you started with. Let’s say you just need a piece of paper to get folded into a crude paper airplane, with a weight stuck to the nose end so it can have some success at flight. If one tornado out of the trillion produces something this successful, even once, it reproduces and spreads throughout its environment and into other environments. You now have billions of crude paper airplanes in some subset of these junkyards. With trillions of junkyards, you may end up with many different types of paper airplanes, competing with each other. Some airplanes will be better adapted by picking up new parts, or becoming larger or smaller than their previous generation. Some of them will be better at surviving than others. Now repeat this process across these trillions of junkyards, billions of times. This is the essence of Darwin’s theory.

Of course, paper airplanes don’t reproduce, but microbes can, and they do so easily. Understand that the tornado argument completely falls apart in light of molecular biology. We aren’t dealing with junkyards full of scrap objects, all different, with little chance to combine into anything useful. The basic building blocks of life are organic molecules. There aren’t that many different types of these building blocks. There are 38 amino acids, only 20 of which are used to form the proteins in all living things. There are only 5 nucleic acids in DNA and RNA, only 4 of which are needed by all modern life forms above the level of a virus. Add in some simpler molecules such as water and oxygen, as well as salts and ions, all of which are found in seawater, and you have the building blocks of life. Each molecule of a certain kind is identical to all of the others of that kind. They are interchangeable. Even varieties of the same type of molecules are sometimes interchangeable. God provided those very first microbes with a wealth of usable parts in their junkyards. In DNA or RNA, you can string together nucleic acids in any sequence you like, and they’ll stick. Take a particular sequence of nucleic acids (let’s call it a “gene”) and some protein molecules that are stuck to it. We have seen such pre-cellular collections of molecules called coacervates and protobionts, the latter containing simple genetic material in the form of RNA. If such a combination of molecules manages to reproduce particularly well, it will itself become the basic building block — part of the soup — by which more complex forms can arise.

In a given environment, you’ll have trillions of copies of various globs of biological material, the very first self-reproducing organisms. The beauty of molecular biology is that these molecules cobble together easily — completely unlike scrap metal in a junkyard. They’re not sticky in the sense of Lego blocks, which have to be placed together perfectly in order to fit. At the atomic level, “pretty close” is good enough in most cases. Instead of Lego blocks, think of them as being like bristle blocks which come in a variety of shapes and can be put together at odd angles. Some molecules stick and others repel, depending on how they are charged. They chain together easily, and these chains bend and fold into patterns that form useful functions. There is an entire science devoted to the study of “protein folding” and it forms the basis of nearly all biomedical research done today. These proteins, in turn, line up to form membranes, organelles, and other parts of the cell. Some proteins even envelop and carry around other molecules. This is how cell biology works.

Let’s look at hemoglobin, for example. It’s a complex protein in its own right, but science has revealed some of the steps in its evolution from simpler molecules which performed a similar function, although they didn’t work as well as hemoglobin does in animals. Hemoglobin has just the right shape to cause oxygen molecules to get stuck inside it in an oxygen-rich area, and release those oxygen molecules in an oxygen-poor area. This is how your blood keeps you alive. New discoveries have shown that our cells have little pumps and even motors inside them. You can think of cells as finely tuned machines, but comparing them to machines which exist at the scale of an airplane or a car’s motor is ridiculous. They aren’t “machined” to such precision, and it has already been shown how some of these structures have been pieced together from similar, less complex structures, performing other tasks within our cells. We now have electron micrograph images of our cellular motors. At the atomic level, they are very rough around the edges,pieced together from the soup of free-floating molecules that they swim in. They are indeed complex, but it is a false metaphor to compare them to objects that are manufactured. This isn’t even evolution — this is going every moment in every cell in your body, and it doesn’t require a miraculous (that is, supernatural) act of God to keep each of your cells receiving oxygen, thriving, and reproducing. Was His design and creation of the universe with laws of physics and chemistry that made this all possible a miraculous act in and of itself? You bet.

Now combine this understanding of how life’s buildings blocks work within a single cell with the reality that evolution used this soup of molecules in the primeval oceans, trillions of times across the surface of the Earth, over countless generations, for billions of years. At the macroscopic level, organs and appendages begin simply, through mutations, but evolve whenever there is selective pressure on a population. Biologists have shown how the eye has evolved from a simple layering of cells, to a hollow cavity, to a cavity with a lens. Each of the eye types shown below still exists in organisms today in which their eye has not evolved any further due to lack of selective pressure.
Evolution of the eye.

Evolution of the Eye

Evolution of the eye.

Each time something worked better than what preceded it, it lived and made numerous copies of itself. Each time something wasn’t so good at staying alive, or was outcompeted, it died without reproducing very often. You’ll end up with an evolving set of life forms. As Darwin put it, “endless forms most beautiful.” Can you imagine if God inspired Moses to record in Genesis Chapter 1, not verses 12 and 24, but rather an explicit description of all of the above? He would have lost His audience at the first sentence. God made the animals according to their kinds through evolution, and by the time Adam appeared, there was a rich variety of species in the area of Mesopotamia for him to name. God didn’t say how He actually accomplished this any more than he said how he actually created the stars. Did He describe the creation of the stars and galaxies as condensing spheres of hot hydrogen plasma and include descriptions from what could be a modern-day astronomy textbook?
Galaxy collisions take place over millions of years.

Galaxies Gone Wild

Galaxy collisions take place over millions of years.

No, He hung the stars in the sky. Yet we don’t have a problem with that explanation, do we? We accept that the stars aren’t points of light hung on a dome. So what’s the problem with evolution? In each case, God conveyed the message in a way that the ancients could understand. All the Bible says about the creation of life is that God caused the Earth to bring forth living creatures, plants and animals, each of which reproduced after its kind. How is this not consistent with evolution? How does understanding and accepting this not glorify God?

Even outside of molecular biology, the laws of physics and chemistry can produce amazing complexity at the molecular level with very little outside influence. Take, for example, the growth of a snowflake as it drifts silently through alternating warm and cold layers of the atmosphere. Amazing complexity arises from “random” processes throughout God’s universe, even in something as simple as a collection of water molecules falling through the air. The stochastic processes within molecular biology work within similar constraints, but evolution has a vastly larger playing field, with a much richer set of fundamental building blocks, over much longer periods of time, with millions of slightly differing environments in which to allow natural selective pressures to make changes. If we can accept that a single cell has all of the machinery required to grow, repair and rebuild itself into a baby over a few months’ time, through God’s providence but without His supernatural intervention, then we can accept the tremendous amount of evidence that God used natural selection, through the laws of physics and chemistry that He designed, to bring about the final form of our DNA — in Adam and the other first humans — over billions of years.

Newly discovered genes, called Hox genes, are switches that control other genes within the DNA molecule. Hox genes are responsible for the complex morphology (shape) of structures found within all living things. Hox genes were some of the earliest genes to develop, and they are remarkably similar among humans and all other animals; we have many of the same Hox genes that are found in everything from flies to flounders. Simple changes in these genes can account for radically different body structures. A single fertilized human egg cell, over the course of nine months, will go through many of the evolutionary stages of our ancestors, due to the selective expression of old genes that are still in our human DNA, yielding even more evidence for His use of evolution to create man. The study of this process is the new science of evolutionary developmental biology, or evo-devo. Many old genes (which are controlled by Hox genes) vanished from the genome over millions of years, but some old genes have remained, and mutations in Hox genes turn these old genes on again while the embryo is forming. Occasionally, a human is born with a tail, a chicken is born with teeth, or a whale is born with legs. Before gene sequencing, some non-evolutionary explanations were made to sound plausible. However, we now have the complete genome mapped for many species, including man, and the evidence of these old genes is clear. DNA isn’t just a blueprint that God used for each species, it’s a history book. Is this something to fear, or be disgusted by, or refuse to accept out of pride? Or do we accept with humility that this is simply the way God made us?

Some say that we couldn’t possibly be made in God’s image if we evolved from primordial ooze, but I don’t accept this argument. God exists outside of the boundaries of space, time, and causality. At the time of the Big Bang, He set up the universe in precisely the way that would give rise to the created beings that he desired to make in His image. He foretold the future of every single particle and every quantum of energy. Psalm 139 teaches us that God knew the fate of each of us before we were born: “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (NIV) If we believe this, we can believe that God knew how the universe He created would eventually bring us about, without having to “fix” it along the way.

Some would say that it’s sacrilegious to say that Jesus — through half his genes — evolved from lesser creatures. I don’t accept this argument either. God is infinitely superior to man than man is to slime. If we try and grasp what infinity means in regard to the difference between God’s perfection and ourselves, it’s clear that whether or not we evolved from slime, we are at precisely the same level as slime from God’s perspective. And yet, God humbled himself and became one of us. It is only our own pride that gets in the way of ourselves accepting how God made us. In 3.5 billion years of evolution, we’ve never gotten any closer to God. But with the birth of one human child in Bethlehem, God bridged the gap instantaneously.

As we look closer, and examine God’s grand design all the way from the motions of stars down to the motions of atoms, physicists are now seeing His handiwork. The fundamental constants of nature — the speed of light, the charge of the electron, the mass of the proton, and so forth — are so finely tuned, that if they varied by more than a fraction of a percent, the universe would have been too hot or too cold for the formation of atoms, much less stars, planets, or anything resembling life as we know it. Scientists call this the anthropic principle. It can never be proven, but to me, this is the hand of God. A well-grounded Christian faith and an honest study of the sciences will lead you to an awesome Creator, the God of the Bible. We can stand in awe of His creation and praise Him for His works. And yet, it would be folly to use the anthropic principle as a “proof” of God’s existence. The multiverse hypothesis, for example, allows for the possibility that God created an infinite number of universes, some of which must exhibit the conditions that are necessary for life. God has made clear many times in His Word that He desires that we come to Him in faith, not to scientifically prove His existence or to ascribe His existence to gaps in our knowledge. Let’s be clear: God created the universe and the laws that govern it; He made man in His image, for His glory alone; He loves us and wants us to know Him. We believe this because the Word teaches it. God’s Word is true and unchanging.

Genesis is not just a story. It reveals the nature and sovereignty of God, not just to people in Moses’ time, but to all people. Its ultimate purpose is to bring us to Christ. We are not to repurpose it for any political agenda or read into it anything that will take us further away from the truth.

-Jude George

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