Dr. Standish is associate professor of biology at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. He holds a B.S. in zoology from Andrews University, an M.S. in biology from Andrews University, and a Ph.D. in biology and public policy from George Mason University (University of Virginia), Charlottesville, Virginia. He teaches genetics at Andrews University and is currently researching the genetics of cricket (Achita domesticus) behavior.
Reading The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins was a pivotal experience for me. I had recently started my Ph.D. program at George Mason University and eagerly signed up for a class entitled “Problems in Evolutionary Theory.” The Blind Watchmaker was required reading, and with growing enthusiasm I noted glowing endorsements printed on the cover. According to The Economist, this book was “as readable and vigorous a defense of Darwinism as has been published since 1859.” Lee Dembart, writing for the Los Angeles Times, was even more effusive: “Every page rings of truth. It is one of the best science books—of the best of any books—I have ever read.” A book that was “Winner of the Royal Society of Literature’s Heinemann Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award” must contain nothing but undistilled brilliance. I felt smug with confidence as I paid for the book and left the store, brimming with ebullience to start reading.
After wading through all the hyperbole, I was stunned by the ideas put forward by Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker. Rhetoric burnished the arguments with a glittering sheen, briefly giving the impression that pebbles were gems. But once each metaphor was stripped aside, the core ideas did not support the idea that natural selection could account for the origin of life and the meaningful complexity of organisms. Most startling to me was the realization that, one of the book’s core theses, in fact, violated the principle of natural selection.
Dawkins wove two ideas together in supporting Darwinism. The first idea was that, given enough chances, the improbable becomes probable. For example, flipping a coin ten times in a row and getting heads each time is very unlikely; one would only expect it to happen about 1 in 1,024 tries. Most of us would not sit around flipping coins just to see it happen, but if we had a million people flipping coins, we would see it happen many times. This phenomenon is publicized in the newspapers when lottery winners are announced. Winning a million-dollar jackpot is unlikely, but with millions of people purchasing tickets, eventually someone wins.
Dawkins admits that the odds on life starting from a random collection of chemicals is very slim, but given an immense universe and the billions of years it has existed, the improbable becomes probable. In this is echoed the logic of Ernst Haeckel, who wrote in his book The Riddle of the Universe, published in 1900:
Many of the stars, the light of which has taken thousands of years to reach us, are certainly suns like our own mother-sun, and are girt about with planets and moons, just as in our solar system. We are justified in supposing that thousands of these planets are in a similar stage of development to that of our earth … and that from its nitrogenous compounds, protoplasm has been evolved—that wonderful substance which alone, as far as our knowledge goes, is the possessor of organic life.
Haeckel was optimistic about the presence of conditions that could support life on planets other than earth, and it is in this that one of the problems with Dawkins’ argument emerges. While the universe is immense, those places where life as we know it could survive, let alone come into being, seem to be few and far between. So far, only one place has been discovered where conditions for life are present, and we are already living on it. Thus, there is not much cause for optimism that the universe is teeming with planets bathed in a primordial soup from which life might evolve. Dawkins wrote glibly of the immensity of the universe and its age, but failed to provide one example, other than the earth, where the unlikely event of spontaneous generation of life might occur. Even if the universe were teeming with proto-earths, and the spans of time suggested by modern science were available, this is still not a great argument, as if something is impossible—in other words, the odds of it happening are zero—then it will never happen, not even in an infinite amount of time. For example, even if we had our million people flipping coins, each with ten flips in a row, the odds on any one of them flipping and getting 11 heads in ten tries is zero because the odds of getting 11 heads in ten tries with one person is zero. The bottom line is that the odds on life evolving from nonliving precursors is essentially zero. Ironically, this was the stronger of the two ideas, or arguments, presented by Dawkins.
The second argument was presented as an analogy: imagine a monkey typing on a typewriter with 27 keys, all the letters in the English alphabet and the space bar. How long would it take for the monkey to type something that made any sense? Dawkins suggests the sentence spoken by William Shakespeare’s Hamlet who, in describing a cloud, pronounces, “Methinks it is like a weasel.” It is not a long sentence and contains very little meaning, but it works for argument’s sake. How many attempts at typing this sentence would it take a monkey, which would presumably be hitting keys randomly, to type the sentence?
As it turns out, the odds can be easily calculated as the probability of getting each letter or space correct raised to the power of the number of positions at which they have to be correct. In this case, the probability of the monkey typing “m” at the first position of the sentence is 1/27 (we won’t worry about capitalization). The sentence has 28 characters in it, so the probability is (1/27)28 or 1.2 x 10–40. That is about one chance in 12,000 million million million million million million! You would want a lot of monkeys typing very fast for a long time if you ever wanted to see this happen!
To overcome this problem with probability, Dawkins proposed that natural selection could help by fixing each letter in place once it was correct and thus lowering the odds massively. In other words, as a monkey types away, it is not unlikely that at least one of the characters it types will be in the correct position on the first try. If this letter was then kept and the monkey was only allowed to type in the remaining letters until it finally had the correct letter at each position, the odds fall to the point that the average diligent monkey could probably finish the task in an afternoon and still have time to gather bananas and peanuts from admiring observers. Dawkins got his computer to do it in between 40 and 70 tries.
Luckily I had taken biochemistry before reading The Blind Watchmaker. Organisms are made of cells, and those cells are composed of little protein machines that do the work of the cell. Proteins can be thought of as sentences like “Methinks it is like a weasel,” the difference being that proteins are made up of 20 different subunits called amino acids instead of the 27 different characters in our example. The evolution of a functional protein would presumably start out as a random series of amino acids one or two of which would be in the right position to do the function the protein is designed to do. According to Dawkins’ theory, those amino acids in the right location in the protein would be fixed by natural selection, while those that needed to be modified would continue to change until they were correct, and a functional protein was produced in relatively short order. Unfortunately, this ascribes an attribute to natural selection that even its most ardent proponents would question, the ability to select one nonfunctional protein from a pool of millions of other nonfunctional proteins.
Changing even one amino acid in a protein can alter its function dramatically. A famous example of this is the mutation that causes sickle cell anemia in humans. This disease causes a multitude of symptoms, ranging from liver failure to tower skull syndrome. It is caused by the replacement of an amino acid called glutamate, normally at position number six, with another amino acid called valine. This single change causes a massive difference in how the alpha globin subunit of hemoglobin works. The ultimate sad consequence of this seemingly insignificant mutation in the protein causes premature death in thousands of individuals each year. In other proteins, mutations to some, but not all, areas can result in a complete loss of function. This is particularly true if the protein is an enzyme, and the mutation is in its active site.
What Dawkins is suggesting is that a very large group of proteins, none of which is functional, can be acted on by natural selection to select out a few that, while they do not quite do the job yet, with some modification via mutation, can do the job in the future. This suggests that natural selection has some direction or goal in mind, a great heresy to those who believe evolutionary theory.
This idea of natural selection fixing amino acids as it constructs functional proteins is also unsupported by the data. Cells do not churn out large pools of random proteins on which natural selection can then act. If anything, precisely the opposite is true. Cells only produce the proteins they need to make at that time. Making other proteins, even unneeded functional ones, would be a wasteful thing for cells to do, and in many cases, could destroy the ability of the cell to function. Most cells only make about 10% of the proteins they are capable of producing. This is what makes liver cells different from those in the skin or brain. If all proteins were expressed all the time, all cells would be identical.
In reality, the problem of evolving life is much more complex than generation of a single functional protein. In fact, a single protein is just the tip of the iceberg. A living organism must have many functional proteins, all of which work together in a coordinated way. In the course of my research, I frequently physically disrupt cells by grinding them in liquid nitrogen. Sometimes I do this to obtain functional proteins, but more often to get the nucleic acids RNA or DNA. In any case, I have yet to find that the protein or nucleic acid I was working on was not functional after being removed from the cell, and yet, even though all the cell components were present and functional following disruption, I have never observed a single cell start to function again as a living organism, or even part of a living organism. For natural selection to occur, all proteins on which it is to act must be part of a living organism composed of a host of other functional protein machines. In other words, the entire system must exist prior to selection occurring, not just a single protein.
“Problems in Evolutionary Theory” was a class that made me realize the difficulties those who discount the possibility of a Creator have with their own theories. The problems with evolutionary theory were real, and there were no simple convincing resolutions.
Progressing in my studies, I slowly realized that evolution survives as a paradigm only as long as the evidence is picked and chosen and the great pool of data that is accumulating on life is ignored. As the depth and breadth of human knowledge increases, it washes over us a flood of evidence deep and wide, all pointing to the conclusion that life is the result of design. Only a small subset of evidence, chosen carefully, may be used to construct a story of life evolving from nonliving precursors. Science does not work on the basis of picking and choosing data to suit a treasured theory. I chose the path of science which also happens to be the path of faith in the Creator.
I believe God provides evidence of His creative power for all to experience personally in our lives. To know the Creator does not require an advanced degree in science or theology. Each one of us has the opportunity to experience His creative power in re-creating His character within us, step by step, day by day.