Darwinian (Dis)analogies

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Though they may have little in common, Darwinian evolutionists and Intelligent Design theorists do agree on one thing: living organisms display characteristics of complex design. Of course, they differ sharply on what this means. For Intelligent Design theorists, the reality of design in nature implies that evolution is an intelligent process; for Darwinian biologists, it doesn't. As Francisco Ayala puts it, Darwin's greatest discovery was to show how natural selection could create design without the existence of an Intelligent Designer. To illustrate this seeming contradiction, Darwinian biologists like to draw analogies between the workings of natural selection and familiar aspects of everyday life. But interestingly, when taken seriously these Darwinian analogies end up undermining the very idea the analogies are used to support—they become Darwinian (dis)analogies.

Take, for example, François Jacob's classic 1977 paper titled "Evolution and Tinkering." Jacob famously compared natural selection to the workings of a tinkerer (as opposed to an engineer). An engineer works from a preconceived plan and secures the best materials he can find to build a prototype from scratch. But a tinkerer, Jacob says, "uses whatever he finds around him, old cardboards, pieces of string, fragments of wood or metal," often without knowing in advance what he is going to produce. And this, according to Jacob, is how natural selection works. Like a tinkerer, it cobbles together existing features of living organisms without a preconceived plan or end goal. Contrary to Jacob, however, no tinkerer tinkering around in his garage lacks a preconceived idea about what he is trying to accomplish, even if he is relegated to the materials at hand. Otherwise, what would be the point of tinkering? If natural selection really works like a tinkerer, natural selection must be a goal-directed process.

Francisco Ayala likens natural selection to the work of a painter who "creates a picture by mixing and distributing pigments in various ways over the canvas. The canvas and the pigments are not created by the artist but the painting is." But of course, an artist does not make random brush strokes on millions of canvases, selecting the one she likes best while discarding the others, only to repeat the process millions of times until a picture emerges. The artist has a preconceived idea in her mind of the picture she will paint and she makes a series of highly coordinated brush strokes to bring her painting into existence. If natural selection is like a painter, natural selection must be an intelligent process.

Ernst Mayr, one of the leading champions of natural selection as a non-intelligently-directed process is especially interesting in this regard. He agrees wholeheartedly with Jacob that "Natural selection does not work like an engineer. It works like a tinkerer." But he then turns around and compares natural selection to the work of automotive manufacturers who experiment with a variety of innovations with customer demand providing the selective pressure sorting out good innovations from bad ones. He writes, "Neither in the automobile industry nor in the world of life do we find any finalistic forces at work, nor any mechanistic determinism." Really?! Finalistic forces are exactly what we find in the automotive industry as engineers develop preconceived plans for new design innovations which the marketers then try to convince their customer base that they cannot live without. If natural selection is like an automotive engineer, natural selection is clearly an intelligent process.

Returning to Jacob for a moment, he makes the following startling observation:

When different engineers tackle the same problem, they are likely to end up with very nearly the same solution: all cars look alike, as do all cameras and all fountain pens. In contrast, different tinkerers interested in the same problem will reach different solutions.

Jacob has just undermined his whole argument as the well-documented phenomenon of convergent evolution so beautifully illustrates. The evolutionary biology literature is filled with examples of how living organisms that do not share a close evolutionary history nevertheless frequently converge on similar forms. For example, the marsupial mammals of Australia are very similar in appearance to the placental mammals of North America. There once was a marsupial wolf, and there is a marsupial flying squirrel, a marsupial mouse, a marsupial anteater, and many other parallels. If Jacob is right and it is engineers—not tinkerers—who are likely to develop similar solutions to common problems, then the evidence of evolutionary convergence stands squarely on the side of the engineer as the more appropriate analogy for natural selection! As improbable as it may seem, even Ernst Mayr seems to agree.

In one of his last books titled "What Evolution Is," a book designed to convince a skeptical public that Darwinian evolution is true, Mayr writes, "Convergence illustrates beautifully how selection is able to make use of the intrinsic variability of organisms to engineer (my emphasis) adapted types for almost any kind of environmental niche."

If convergent evolution demonstrates the engineering (not tinkering) prowess of natural selection, natural selection must be a very intelligent process indeed, the protestations of Mayr, Jacob and Ayala notwithstanding.

Why do some of the strongest advocates for a non-intelligent view of evolution repeatedly fall back on analogies that introduce intelligence into the process? Perhaps because the proposition that there can be design without a designer is incoherent, and the orthodox insistence on a non-intelligent view of evolution is really a philosophical bias, not an empirically verifiable scientific fact.

This is the view, at least, of University of Chicago biologist James A. Shapiro (who interestingly completed a post-doc in François Jacob's lab). Shapiro uses the term "Natural Genetic Engineering" to describe the evolutionary process. He understands cells to be active participants in evolution, pointing to evidence that cells have the ability to engage in "purposeful genome manipulations." Shapiro agrees with his mentor that tinkering is an appropriate term to describe how evolution adapts existing materials to new functions, but parts ways with him in arguing that "the term engineering seems to be more appropriate for the built-in processes of self-modification that have operated over the course of evolution." If this is where the evidence unambiguously points, Shapiro concludes that the Darwinian rejection of the engineering metaphor must be philosophical.

It is hard to disagree, especially when those most adamant in their rejection of an intelligent evolutionary process continually deconstruct their own position by comparing natural selection to the intelligently directed work of tinkerers, painters and automotive engineers. Can there be design without a designer? Even Darwinian evolutionists seem not to think so, and my next blog post will consider in more detail why they frequently argue so adamantly against their own implicit conclusions.

Robert Shedinger

Robert Shedinger

Robert Shedinger is a professor of religion at Luther College. He is the author of several books, including the 2015 "Jesus and Jihad," "Was Jesus a Muslim?: Questioning Categories in the Study of Religion" and "Radically Open: Transcending Religious Identity in an Age of Anxiety."

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  • November 4 2014 at 5:46 pm
    Amy E. Weldon

    Thank you, Bob! As you probably know, we are reading Darwin and Paley (both great users of analogies) in Paideia this year as we did last year, and I will share this with my students!

  • November 5 2014 at 11:51 am
    Bob Shedinger
    Thanks, Amy. Darwin was actually the first to use a (dis)analogy by comparing natural selection to artificial selection, ignoring the fact that artificial selection is a highly intelligent and intentional process.
  • November 16 2014 at 10:43 pm
    Jonah Luebke
    I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you for the insight Professor!
  • November 17 2014 at 9:35 am
    Bob Shedinger
    Thanks, Jonah. I'm glad you found it helpful.

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