Designed by Natural Selection?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 04/22/2013

Could it be the evolutionists who are being irrational? Is it possible that God design everything using natural selection?

About a year and a half ago, I gave a response to an article in the L. A. Times about a book called The Moral Animal—Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology by Robert Wright. This response resulted in my commentary called “Did Morals Evolve?” There are some interesting things in this book I want to comment on.

Wright’s argument is that it is possible to explain all of man’s mental and moral development in terms of evolution, “survival of the fittest,” and natural selection. One thing he acknowledges is essentially the same point of view held by one of the world’s most famous evolutionists, Richard Dawkins. Dawkins makes the point in his watershed book, The Blind Watchmaker , that the world looks designed. He asserts it looks designed—but isn’t. He believes natural selection can be invoked to account for all of the things that appear to be consciously design.

Robert Wright unabashedly makes the same point. He uses design language in his descriptions all of the time. He talks about nature wanting certain things and natural selection designing particular things, but then is careful at different points to add the disclaimer that this design is just a manner of speaking because Mother Nature doesn’t actually design anything. Natural selection doesn’t design anything. There is no mind behind this, no consciousness. It just looks that way. However, since it looks designed, he feels comfortable using design language to describe natural selection as a designer, which is no conscious designer at all.

I think his work might be more honest if he didn’t use design language, but it’s interesting that he is at least willing to acknowledge that nature does look designed.

Incidentally, I am one who believes that natural selection is a legitimate explanation for many things. I think we can see natural selection at work in the natural realm that does influence the morphological distinctions of populations. The shape of the body is ultimately going to be determined by the genetic makeup of the creature, but whether that phenotype gets passed from generation to generation will be determined by environmental factors—natural selection. And that will then begin to characterize larger groups of the organism.

Basically I believe in what is known technically as the Special Theory of Evolution, or micro-evolution, because it has been demonstrated without question to have occurred. We can observe it happening. This doesn’t go against my Christianity or my conviction that God created the world. Darwinian evolution requires macro-evolution, or trans-species evolution.

Any design creationist of any ilk, whether old-earther or young-earther, can hold to this. For example, a population of mosquitoes can be almost entirely wiped out by DDT, except for those few who may be naturally and genetically resistant to that strain of DDT. Then they reproduce a whole strain of mosquitoes that are resistant to that strain of DDT. But this is unremarkable. When I hear these kinds of descriptions of minute changes and small variations within a species attributed to natural selection, I have no problem with that in itself.

I do have another question regarding the assessment, or acknowledgment, that the world looks designed. If it looks designed, it could be equally explained by either the unconscious “design” of natural selection, as the author argues, or the conscious design of a Creator. If someone looks at the natural realm and observes that it looks designed but thinks that it can be accounted for by natural selection, then they are identifying empirical equivalency between two different explanations. Empirical equivalency means the observable data can be explained by two alternatives equally. In this case, the observation of design can be attributed to natural selection or conscious design. The evidence is equal for both. That’s what it means to say that the world looks designed but natural selection can account for it.

My question is, why opt for the evolutionary explanation if there are two different explanations that will equally do the job? When you have a question that needs resolution and two empirically equivalent solutions, you must look for some other information to adjudicate between the two. Is there something that can be said for one system over the other that would cause us to choose it as the paradigm which better reflects how the world came to be? What is the compelling evidence that would cause us to opt for a naturalistic explanation over some kind of theistic explanation? Frankly, I know of none. There is only a predisposition to look for a naturalistic explanation that leaves God out. If that is the case, then it needs to be acknowledged.

Why go for natural selection rather than for God? Because God is religion and natural selection is science. Science is seen as fact—and religion as fantasy. If we have a set of physical facts that can be accounted for by a theistic explanation, then you have to have some other information that may cause you to want to dismiss the theistic option. I’m asking “where is the evidence that makes the God option an intellectually untenable one, without bringing in a mere philosophic assumption (namely naturalism)?”

One might rightly ask, where is your evidence that God did it? I can give lots of it. I could give independent evidence that is unrelated to religious authority claims. I can give other evidence why it is reasonable to believe and would be intellectually and rationally compelling to believe that there is a conscious mind behind the universe. I could give cosmological and moral arguments that God is the best explanation for the existence and nature of the universe. Many of these rely on scientific evidence.

Given two options to explain the apparent design features of the universe, one seems to be a bald-faced authority claim—the non-religious, so-called scientific one.

We have two options—one scientific and one religious—that equally explain the observation of a designed universe. The so-called scientific argument is sustained simply by a bald assertion that nature did it and not by evidence that God could not have done it. However, the design claim that I am making can be further substantiated by other evidence for the existence of God. When push comes to shove, if you are rational, it is more reasonable for you to adopt the conscious design explanation—the God claim. Most people are not going to do that because it is not scientific.

Why does that matter?

Because science knows the answer.

How do they know the answer?

Because God doesn’t exist.

How do they know that?

Because nature did everything.

But how do you know that?

That is the question we are trying to ask and there are no rationally sustainable answers forthcoming.