David Marshall: “Some Riddles of Evolution”

Today, I’ll blog about Chapter 4 of David Marshall’s The Truth Behind the New Atheism.  This chapter is entitled “Some Riddles of Evolution”.  Whereas, in Chapter 3, Marshall expresses some openness to evolution, in Chapter 4 he appears to question it, at least until the last few pages.

I’ll say before I write about Marshall’s questions that I do not know much about evolution, for science is not my field, and so I welcome correction.  I will not, however, publish any comments that call me or anybody else stupid.

Now, on to Marshall.  Several of his questions about evolution resemble the objections to it that I heard when I was growing up.  First, Marshall expresses skepticism that something as complex as DNA (which was likely a prerequisite for the first life) could have emerged by chance.  Second, in response to the evolutionist point that viruses and bacteria mutate to become resistant, he says that “I have seen none claim that in the relatively well-known recent history of these pathogens, any have in fact evolved into something strikingly new” (page 70).  That reminds me of the the strands of creationism that are open to micro-evolution but not to macro-evolution.  Third, Marshall says that helpful mutations (which are the basis of evolution) are rare.  And fourth, he asks why we don’t see too many helpful mutations nowadays.  His fourth point called to my mind a question that a relative of mine used to ask: “If evolution is true, why aren’t we still evolving?”

To his credit, Marshall interacts with new atheist arguments against Intelligent Design.  ID advocate Michael Behe has argued that the eye is a problem for Darwinism, for the eye needs certain parts for it to work, and Behe cannot imagine animals surviving in a stage where they would have an eye without one of its important parts.  The implication, for Behe, is probably that it makes more sense to say that God created the eye, than to say that the eye evolved through stages, some of which lacked the parts that were necessary for the eye to function.  Richard Dawkins’ response is that even a deficient eye can work on some level, and so animals can survive with that.  But Marshall retorts on page 74: “The question isn’t what happens when half the complete structure is missing.  The question is what happens when half its parts are missing.  What good is an eye without an optic nerve?  Or an optic nerve that connects only halfway?”

Marshall also points out what he believes is a contradiction in Dawkins’ approach to Intelligent Design.  Dawkins acknowledges that “genuinely irreducible complexity…would wreck Darwin’s theory,” and he quotes Darwin as saying that “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possible have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”  And yet, Dawkins also says that “Searching for particular examples of irreducible complexity is a fundamentally unscientific way to proceed: a special case of argument from present ignorance.”  According to Marshall, Dawkins challenges skeptics about evolution to look for irreducibly complex organs, and then he says that such a search would be unscientific!

Notwithstanding his questions, Marshall does appear to admit that there is evolution, for he states on page 77: “Species do not…change as gradually as Darwin anticipated—-something dramatically new appears, then remains much the same for long periods.”  Marshall also asks if nature itself could be a design program, which may mean that God could have set natural selection into motion to bring about design.

A prominent theme in this chapter is how evolutionists have sought to censor and stigmatize any critique of evolution, even when it has been made by someone (say) with a doctorate from Cambridge.  Marshall speaks favorably of an interaction between ID proponent Behe and evolutionist Kenneth Miller: “A better way to decide whether [irreducible complexity] can be disposed of at all (say, by positing intermediate uses for new organisms) is to read both sides of the debate” (page 75).  And yet, at the end of the chapter, Marshall expresses discomfort with voices from both sides: “Both sides discredit themselves at times by forcing all science into a theological cage that depends on what great Christians thousands of years ago already saw as a naive reading of Genesis, and some atheists by ‘No Bleevurz Aloud’-type postings on the doorpost of Le Club Scientifique” (pages 76-77).

I won’t offer a thorough critique of this chapter, but I’ll say this: Evolution still does take place, as new species are developing.  But I think that Marshall raises a good question when he asks why we have not seen it that much with humans.  An evolutionist answer that I have read is that we survive as we are and thus are able to pass on our genes, and so the point here may be that we do not need to evolve, or that we haven’t been weeded out by natural selection (see my post on Jerry Coyne here).  But that explanation does not satisfy me, for why can’t we survive and have helpful mutations?  I doubt that helpful mutations came only on an “as needed” basis in the history of evolution, for fish were surviving quite well, but some of them still had a mutation that led them on the path to becoming something else.  Why don’t we see this with humans, that often?  

On the whole issue of whether the gaps in evolution should encourage scientists to throw in the towel and say “God did it”, or to have faith that there is a natural explanation out there and to search rigorously for it, I’d say that they should feel free to look for a natural explanation, and I question whether theists should root their belief in God so heavily in the existence of gaps.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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8 Responses to David Marshall: “Some Riddles of Evolution”

  1. hktelemacher says:

    Re: Evolution in humanity

    Think about the period of time in which the process of evolution has shaped life on this planet (billions of years). Compare that to the period of time equal to all of humanity’s recorded history (approx, what, 3,000 years of written history and maybe 10x that if you’re willing to count cave paintings). We’re talking about orders of magnitude in difference. So I’m not sure if you were thinking that someone would wake up one morning with telekinetic powers or a functional third arm or something and then suddenly everyone in the world would have the same, but evolution works in gradual changes over time. Think about the minor differences in physical characteristics that exist within our species, or why some people are more resistant to certain ailments than others.

    There should have been no reasonable objection before based on the mountains of evidence for evolution, but genome mapping should really be the last nail in this particular coffin. The ability to trace populations and relations back in time based on genetic mapping is an awesomely powerful tool for sharpening our view of the evolutionary tree. I cannot wait to see some of the resulting conclusions from this technology.


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    True, there is the time factor.


  3. Tafacory says:

    Regarding the first reason given by Marshall, we have to consider what he means by chance. Often times in the evolution/creation debate, the Theists and the scientists are using the term in very different ways. So I won’t attack a straw man but instead will wait for clarification on the definition.

    Regarding the second point, we must separate viruses from bacteria. Bacteria have greatly changed. Prokaryotes became eukaryotes and over a long period of time, these eukaryotes developed into the diversity of life on Earth that we now know. Viruses don’t do this though. They need to live through a host so becoming completely new creatures wouldn’t really benefit them. It would decrease the chance of their survival. Also, this comment seems to assume that every living thing is moving towards becoming completely different things. But that’s not the case. Evolution does not imply that everything is working towards perfection or towards humans if you have that view. Evolution has actually seen several regresses. There have been organisms that successfully adapted to their environment and then for various reasons, reverted back to a similar/previous form. Evolution is not necessarily linear nor does it have a goal in mind.

    Third, helpful mutations are rare. But thankfully mutations are not the only basic mechanism of evolution. There are also natural selection, genetic drift, and migration. These all play an important role in evolution.

    Fourth, the unit of evolution is not the individual, but the population. So no one will see themselves evolving, but rather when they look at the population in which they live, if they pay close attention of a long period of time, they will notice gradual shifts which can then give way to big shifts. But that aside, how do you know you’re not evolving? If the changes that take place are on a genetic level, how can humans, without sophisticated machinery, know such a fact? Are you somehow very in touch with your genetic material? Do you know when it changes? Not likely.

    I don’t think Marshall’s objection has any force. The problem is whether something as complex as the eye could come about through purely naturalistic means. Dawkins shows that it can. The eye can be less than satisfactory in structure and function but as long as the organism and the organ continue to develop, that defunct eye could become a properly working one.

    There is no contradiction in Dawkins’ approach. An example of irreducible complexity would destroy Darwin’s theory. The problem is that every example given by ID proponents has been shown, either empirically or theoretically, to arise from gradual changes over a long period of time. Dawkins is merely speaking out against the presence of an argument from ignorance fallacy. By looking for entities which supposedly lie outside the realm of scientific explanation, they are being teleological. They are trying to find those things on purpose and will, either purposefully or subconsciously, bend evidence to fit their view. This is why Dawkins is against it. It’s not truthful or intellectually honest science. Scientists go where the evidence leads them. Or at least they should. They never set out to prove that X is a certain way, unless they have a hypotheis. And when they do, they test it. If it fails, they refine it or get rid of it. Yet despite the numerous scientific and philosophical failings of ID, their proponents continue to press the issue. But such desperation ought to make us question their motives and purposes of such a project.


  4. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thank you for your informative comment, Tafacory.


  5. Tafacory says:

    Anytime James. If you get a chance and are wanting to read more about evolution, check out these sites (personal favorites):






  6. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks Tafacory! I like Talkorigins myself. I’ve not read it thoroughly, but I like what I have read.


  7. jdk1.0 says:

    “According to Marshall, Dawkins challenges skeptics about evolution to look for irreducibly complex organs, and then he says that such a search would be unscientific!”

    This was addressed previously, but I wanted to add to it. I think Dawkins means that when ID proponents are searching for irreducible complexity, they are doing so with the intent to find something complex and then say “Aha! we were right” when they find something that no one can explain. This is the argument from ignorance he mentions.

    What would need to happen is for someone to demonstrate that an organ could necessarily NOT have evolved, but must have been created in place. There would need to be multiple tested hypotheses leading to a supporting model or theory which could then itself be tested further.

    It seems that most anti-evolutionists simply use personal incredulity to discover an organ that they cannot figure out, and then use that coupled with the argument from ignorance fallacy to convince the choir that evolution is bunk.

    I’d like to see someone come up with a good model demonstrating how a particular organ could not have evolved, but nobody does this as far as I can tell.


  8. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks for your comment, JDK.


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