Why Evolutionary “Just So” Stories Fail

During my graduate philosophy work at Talbot, I took an independent study on Darwinism and intelligent design. My guiding professor, Dr. Garry Deweese, had me read books on both sides of the debate, including Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett and The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins.

Evolutionary Just So Stories

It was during this study that I began to understand the concept of a “just-so” story, and it has stuck with me ever since. Essentially, to save the Darwinian paradigm, Darwinists sometimes come up with logically possible, but evidentially unsubstantiated stories to account for some recalcitrant feature in the natural world (yes, Christian apologists can sometimes be accused of doing the same thing to explain apparent contradictions in the Bible. But that is a story for another time).

For instance, evolution has been used to explain why men (allegedly) prefer blondes to brunettes, why humans like to burn their mouths with hot chilies, and the origin of religion.

On a more serious (and common) note, many Darwinists aim to provide an evolutionary explanation for morality. As it is often claimed, morality is a tool for survival. After all, if we didn’t have principles such as faithfulness, promise keeping, and honesty, we couldn’t function as a society. Society would crumble if there were no moral code. A belief that there is a real right and wrong helps species survive and flourish.

Now, morality certainly could, at least in principle, provide an evolutionary advantage to a particular species. If a group of human beings, for instance, lacked any moral compass, they would arguably be less likely to survive than a tribe committed to courage, honesty, and chastity. But this possible explanation fails to explain how morality evolved in the first place. Rather than providing an actual mechanism for the evolution of morality, the evolutionist offers a benefit of evolution and then assumes his job is done.

But this misses the point. If Darwinists want to provide a successful mechanism that can account for the totality of life, they need to offer an explanation for how these features evolved in the first place. It is not enough for naturalists to begin with a certain feature of the world and explain its (supposed) evolutionary advantage. There is always some possible evolutionary story that can be spun to save the theory. For their views to have explanatory power, naturalists must first provide an explanation for how a given feature evolved in the first place.

In his excellent book The Experience of God, David Bentley Hart offers a helpful illustration for how naturalist just-so stories fail to explain key features in reality, such as consciousness:

If I should visit you at your home and discover that, rather than living in a house, you instead shelter under a large roof that simply hovers above the ground, apparently neither supported by nor suspended from anything else, and should ask you how this is possible, I should not feel at all satisfied if you were to answer, ‘It’s to keep the rain out’—not even if you were then helpfully elaborate upon this by observing that keeping the rain out is evolutionary advantageous.[i]

Hart is exactly right. Offering a positive benefit of why a hovering house protects from rain does not explain how such a feature originated. Similarly, explaining how consciousness benefits mankind does not to explain how consciousness first emerged. An explanation that merely explains why such a feature is beneficial leaves the mystery unexplained.

All evolutionary “just-so” stories are certainly not equal. Some are much more believable, natural, and evidentially supported than others. But many are simply outlandish. The key point is that, for Darwinism to be considered a successful worldview with explanatory power, it needs to explain some of the big features of reality, such as the origin of morality, consciousness, personhood, and free will. Unless it can successfully explain these features, Darwinism itself is merely a “just-so” story.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D.is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 18 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.

 


Resources for Greater Impact

Darwin Dilemma

DARWIN’S DILEMMA

MacroDVD1_SHADOW

MACRO-EVOLUTION?

I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be a Darwinist


[i] David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 205-206.

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25 replies
  1. Andy Ryan says:

    “But this possible explanation fails to explain how morality evolved in the first place”

    I don’t get what you think is missing. The mechanics of how things evolve are well understood already. Allele frequencies in a population may change due to four fundamental forces of evolution: Natural Selection, Genetic Drift, Mutations and Gene Flow. That’s how it works. That’s how features evolve. Why think that morality would be an exception to this? This isn’t a ‘just so’ story, it’s science.

    Reply
    • JS says:

      Well you failed to refute his claim in any sense. You in no way explained how how the four presupposed forces of evolution led to morality. If morality is NOT an exception, then please explain your reasoning.

      Reply
      • Andy Ryan says:

        JS, I still don’t understand what you think needs explaining. You’re taking a feature of our thinking, instincts and behaviour and you’re claiming it couldn’t have evolved. Why do you believe it’s an exception? Why couldn’t it not have evolved, just like our revulsion to rotting meat and excrement, which benefits us from avoiding the germs we can catch from them, or our taboo on incest, which prevents harmful inbreeding?

        “If morality is NOT an exception, then please explain your reasoning”

        If you’re claiming it IS an exception then the burden of proof is on you. If you want evidence that evolution occurs at ALL then read a biology book – it’s not up to me to prove that the current scientific paradigm is accurate.

        Reply
        • Ian Black says:

          Andy…

          you just illustrated JS point: “read a biology book” is not evidence. Tell us WHICH biology book contains real data (evidence) of the points you are making and since this is the Internet, let’s dispense with the book altogether and just send the links to the data itself if you would be so kind ? If you are prepared to actually do this simple task with an open mind, you’ll be at least mystified to discover that there is no real data… its all theory.

          Reply
          • Andy Ryan says:

            Ian, do your own homework. As Bob above says, this is the scientific consensus. If you have evidence against it, go ahead and claim your Nobel Prize.

            “read a biology book” is not evidence”

            Ian if you’re claiming that evolution doesn’t occur at all then, again, the burden of proof is on you, not me.

            If you want a web address, go to TalkOrigins website and find their section “29+ Evidences for Macroevolution”

    • Hong says:

      Those are the broad forces that might have accounted for evolution, but I don’t think that’s what he’s asking. He’s questioning how these forces manage to develop the mechanisms that made gaining the morality possible.

      Correct me if I’m wrong…those forces indeed do change the genetic composition of an organism, but they have not been shown by what means do they develop new, successful functions/features that are not harmful or useless. It is therefore a stretch to say, at least from what I know, that macroevolution occurred.

      Reply
      • Andy Ryan says:

        “It is therefore a stretch to say, at least from what I know, that macroevolution occurred”

        No, it’s not. It’s one of the most well-supported theories in science. That’s like saying it’s a stretch to say, at least from what YOU know, that the earth goes around the sun, or that procreation makes babies.

        Reply
        • Scott says:

          If you want to actually give evidence for common descent you need to show 2 things:
          1) There is an information gain in a species
          AND
          2) There is an information gain in the biocosm

          Whomever provides this evidence will definitely get a Nobel Prize.

          Reply
          • Andy Ryan says:

            We already have evidence for common descent, Scott. Nobel prizes await those who overturn it, not confirm what we already know.

          • KR says:

            Scott wrote: “If you want to actually give evidence for common descent you need to show 2 things:
            1) There is an information gain in a species
            AND
            2) There is an information gain in the biocosm

            Whomever provides this evidence will definitely get a Nobel Prize.”

            Your argument seems to be that common descent requires an increase in information. For this to actually mean anything, you need to provide a stringent definition of information that can be applied to biological systems. Crucially, you also need to provide a means of quantifying this information so that we can gauge any gains or losses. In my experience, people making this kind of argument (typically proponents of some form of Intelligent Design) never deliver on any of these points – which of course means that their argument can be summarily dismissed as completely content-free.

            I’m not convinced that “information” is a very useful concept when it comes to biology – for the reasons I outlined above. It seems to me that evolutionary adaptations are all about what is functional in a particular environment, which doesn’t necessarily equate with an increase in information. As an example, in his Long-Term Evolution Experiment, Richard Lenski found a strain of E. coli which had acquired the capacity to metabolize citrate in the presense of oxygen. This is clearly new functionality as it made a new source of energy available to the organism. Lenski was able to pin-point the exact mutation that made this possible – it turned out that it was a duplication mutation that placed a new copy of the gene for a citrate transporter protein right next to a promoter sequence for another gene that is active in an oxygen atmosphere.

            When this was presented as an example of evolution creating new information, the ID proponents dismissed it, claiming it was just a duplication of already present information and nothing really “new”. Well, if a mutation that provides new functionality (while also inceasing the size of the functional part of the genome) does not qualify as new information, then the ID proponents need to explain how their definition of information is even relevant to biology, since evolution is apparently getting along famously without any increase in such information. This is of course after they explain what their definition of information actually is.

            As for common descent, we don’t need to appeal to information in order to conclude that it’s the best explanation for the observed evidence. Common descent makes the clear prediction that we should see patterns of nested hierarchies (i.e. a tree-like pattern of relatedness) whether we look at the fossil record or compare the anatomy, physiology, biochemistry or genetics of living organisms. This would be the inevitable outcome of a process of descent with modification and speciation – and it’s also what we find. Of course, neither creationism nor ID makes any such prediction. Obviously, creationists and IDists can (and do) claim that the evidence is consistent with their preferred theory but that’s simply because their theories are consistent with any conceivable evidence, making them unfalsifiable – and useless as scientific propositions. The evidence is also consistent with evolution being driven by the magic powers of invisible pixies – but I think we can agree that this is not a good reason to include pixies in biology textbooks.

          • Scott says:

            @KR
            >>I’m not convinced that “information” is a very useful concept when it comes to biology
            You should read David L. Abel’s “The Capabilities of Chaos and Complexity”.

            Not only does Dr. Abel define information effectively (Prescriptive Information), he also reviews the current proposed solutions to account for this type of information.

            >>Common descent makes the clear prediction that we should see patterns of nested hierarchies (i.e. a tree-like pattern of relatedness) whether we look at the fossil record or compare the anatomy, physiology, biochemistry or genetics of living organisms.

            Was this really predicted or was the common descent theory changed to incorporate the data? I’ve looked at the talk origins 29 points of evidence, but they aren’t predictions.

            >>As an example, in his Long-Term Evolution Experiment, Richard Lenski found a strain of E. coli which had acquired the capacity to metabolize citrate in the presense of oxygen
            This experiment had been done decades before Lenski by Barry Hall. It happens in a matter of weeks, not years.

            >>Lenski was able to pin-point the exact mutation that made this possible – it turned out that it was a duplication mutation that placed a new copy of the gene for a citrate transporter protein right next to a promoter sequence for another gene that is active in an oxygen atmosphere.
            Actually it was a team from Michigan State that identified the mutation, but no matter. The put it simply – the mutation turned on a gene that was normally off. Certainly a change for the E Coli, but is it really a new prescriptive information?

          • KR says:

            Scott wrote: “You should read David L. Abel’s “The Capabilities of Chaos and Complexity”.”

            I skimmed it – and rather quickly decided life is too short to delve any deeper into David L Abels prose. I’ve read a bit of his stuff before and I get the same general impression now as I did then: a lot of words (and I mean A LOT) but no actual data, no empirical observatons and no experimentation.

            “Not only does Dr. Abel define information effectively (Prescriptive Information), he also reviews the current proposed solutions to account for this type of information.”

            The only attempt at defining Prescriptive Information I could find (I cheated and did a word search) in the article is this:

            “Prescriptive Information (PI) [1–3]? PI refers not just to intuitive or semantic information, but specifically to linear digital instructions using a symbol system (e.g., 0’s and 1’s, letter selections from an alphabet, A, G, T, or C from a phase space of four nucleotides). PI can also consist of purposefully programmed configurable switch-settings that provide cybernetic controls.”

            I have a couple of problems with this as a definition. The first is its general vagueness. When I asked for a stringent definition, I meant one that can be used as a basis of quantitation of the defined information. This seems to me to be absolutely essential for the ID proponents in order to justify their claim that no new Prescriptve Information can come out of an unguided evolutionary process. Abel’s definition doesn’t seem to provide any help here. The second problem is Abel’s claim that nucleotides are symbols, which makes no sense to me. Nucleotides are monomers that make up the linear polymers DNA and RNA. DNA to RNA transcription is just a 1:1 copying process and RNA to protein translation is a physicochemical process of molecules binding to other molecules with high specificity.

            Symbols require interpretation but there’s no interpretation involved in protein sysnthesis, it’s just molecules interacting with other molecules. The RNA codon triplets don’t symbolize their corresponding amino acid – they’re physically connected via the aminoacyl tRNA synthetase. It would be like saying that a lock symbolizes a key or that one end of a stick symbolizes the other.

            “Was this really predicted or was the common descent theory changed to incorporate the data? I’ve looked at the talk origins 29 points of evidence, but they aren’t predictions.”

            You’re setting up a false dichotomy. Of course scientific theories are changed to incorporate the data – that’s kind of the point of a theory: to account for our observations. Once we have a theory which seems to fit with the data, we can test it by using it to make predictions of what other observations we should be able to make. Even with the much sketchier fossil record that was available at the time, Darwin (and Wallace and maybe others) was able to see a progression from a few simple forms to a more diverse and complex set of organisms over time and that these organisms could be placed in a tree-like pattern of relatedness. He was also able to see these same patterns when comparing the anatomies of living organisms. When he added in the biogeographical data (i.e. how organisms are distributed geographically) he became convinced that common descent was the best explanation for the observed evidence.

            Of course, Darwin knew nothing of genetics and couldn’t explain the source of the variation needed for natural selection. As we learned about DNA and became able to do sequence analyses of entire genomes, this was a test of the theory of common descent. The prediction was that we should be able to see the same patterns of nested hierarchies in DNA that we already knew from fossils, anatomy and biochemistry – and that’s also what we’ve found. Some researchers made more specific predictions – like the prediction that if humans and egg-laying birds and reptiles have a common ancestor, we should be able to see remnants of the gene for vitellogenin (a precursor to egg yolk protein) in humans – which was the case. So scientific theories are adapted to incorporate the evidence which leads to predictions of what other evidence we should be able to find a.s.o.

            “This experiment had been done decades before Lenski by Barry Hall. It happens in a matter of weeks, not years.”

            As far as I can tell, it’s not the same experiment at all. Hall used a single batch culture, while Lenski (et al, I should apparently add) used serial sub-culturing in fresh medium. In Hall’s experiment, the cultures were run until the glucose was depleted and then the E. coli cells were essentially starving for a long time in an environment where citrate was the only carbon source. In the LTEE experiment, fresh glucose-containing medium was supplied regularly. In other words, in Hall’s experiment there would have been a much higher selection pressure to adapt to citrate as a carbon source. It’s hardly surprising that this adaptation happened quicker in this environment than in the LTEE. Lenski (et al) has also done experiments similar to Hall’s with similar results so this seems very repeatable.

            I have to admit to being a bit mystified that the fact that the adaptation can happen even quicker than in the LTEE is being used as an argument against evolutionary theory. Rather, it seems to me this is what the theory would predict.

            “Actually it was a team from Michigan State that identified the mutation, but no matter.”

            Indeed – a team led by Richard Lenski. I promise to use “et al” from now on – is that better?

            “The put it simply – the mutation turned on a gene that was normally off. Certainly a change for the E Coli, but is it really a new prescriptive information?”

            How would we know? From David L Abel’s definition? How would you apply this to the cit gene? How do we calculate how much prescriptive information there was before and after the mutation? How is this prescriptive information even relevant to evolutionary processes? ID proponents seem singularly disinterested in applying their ideas to any actual, real-world biological systems – which makes me suspect that they can’t do it. I’ve gone through all the 7 volumes of Bio-Complexity – the Discovery Institute’s own publication which “aims to be the leading forum for testing the scientific merit of the claim that intelligent design (ID) is a credible explanation for life”. From the start of the publication in 2010 up to the present time, I can’t find a single research article where ID principles have been applied to the detection of design in nature. For a movement with the ambition to overthrow the current paradigm of biological science, this is rather damning.

          • KR says:

            Update: David L Abel often references himself in his writings. I followed one such reference in the above mentionaed article. It’s for a paper Abel wrote with Jack T Trevors called “Three subsets of sequence complexity and their relevance to biopolymeric information” published by BioMed Central (an open access publisher) in 2005. In it, the authors actually address the problem of quantifying Prescriptive Information. I quote: “No method yet exists to quantify “prescriptive information” (cybernetic “instructions”).”

            Bummer.

            Abel & Trevors also offer little hope of any such quantitation being possible. As always when Abel is involved, I find the text difficult to parse but Prescriptive Information seems to be somehow dependent on another variable which Abel & Trevors call Functional Sequence Complexity (FSC). This is what they have to say about the quantitation of FSC: “FSC cannot have individual units of fixed value. Does this negate the reality of FSC? If so, we have a lot of explaining to do for fields such as engineering and computer science that depend squarely upon FSC. Language, rationality, and the scientific method itself all depend upon FSC, not RSC or OSC. Science must recognize that there are legitimate aspects of reality that cannot always be reduced or quantified.”

            Ironically, it seems that Abel & Trevors – in a roundabout way – agree with my position: that the fundamental quality of evolutionary adaptation is “function”, not “information”. They correctly point out that functionality can’t have a fixed value (since it will always be context-dependent), which means that any value of information that somehow depends on this functionality will be just as uncalculable. My suspicion (that “information” is not a helpful concept when it comes to evolutionary change) seems to have been confirmed.

            Of course, nebulous terms like “Prescriptive Information” and “Functional Sequence Complexity” that are ill-defined and cannot be measured are the perfect tools for armchair scientists like Abel. He can pontificate until the cows come home about the importance of PI and FSC and how undirected evolutionary processes can’t account for them – safe in the knowledge that no-one will ever be able to put his claims to the test. The downside is that without being able to test his ideas, Abel will never be able to contribute to our knowledge about the evolution of life. Somehow I don’t think this matters to Abel – my distinct impression (especially from reading the leaked Wedge Document from the Discovery Institute) is that the Intelligent Design movement isn’t about science at all but about defeating “materialism” and replacing it with their particular brand of theism.

    • toby says:

      Andy, I think it’s nearly impossible to make apologists see the light on this issue. First, when they hear the word “evolution” their minds either toss up a neon sign that reads: “BAD! SIN! BS! NOT TRUTH!” And then they can’t reconcile that morality can be a product of evolution because of their beliefs that our minds and morality aren’t of this universe. Morality comes from outside the universe. Our minds are somehow part of this universe, but not really because they’re a soul that exists . . . well there’s “no where” for it to exist if it’s spaceless and immaterial. I think that’s why this topic fascinates us and why we keep coming here. It’s like throwing rocks on a frozen pond. You keep thinking “if I throw just the right amount of rocks that ice will crack and break.”

      Reply
      • Andy Ryan says:

        I don’t get why you’re confused. Actually, is it that you are asking how evolution creates morality itself? That’s not the argument. Evolution gave us empathy, it gave us taboos against pedophilia, necrophilia, murder etc. And societies have developed mores that include looking down on theft and other crimes that hurt society. It gave us knee jerk reactions against harmful acts. Sure humans can co mint those acts, but we tend to need training or brainwashing or bad childhoods or mental illness to stop feeling guilt when we do them. Does this help stop your confusion?

        Reply
          • Andy Ryan says:

            I’m back to being confused myself. I don’t get what you don’t get. What is your problem in the four forces mentioned producing brains that feel empathy? Have you read many books on evolution, how changes occur etc? If you’ve got variation among offspring, then specific characteristics can increase and become more pronounced over subsequent generations. This can include aspects of behaviour – animals becoming calmer around humans, less quick to anger etc, ie tamer. If you’re saying empathy is an exception to this, you need to explain to me why.

  2. Bob Seidensticker says:

    During my graduate philosophy work at Talbot

    Talbot School of Theology? I’m not sure that’s the best place to get a reliable view of biology.

    to save the Darwinian paradigm, Darwinists sometimes come up with logically possible, but evidentially unsubstantiated stories to account for some recalcitrant feature in the natural world

    First, they’re called biologists. And second, they understand the evidence. When you get a doctorate in biology, I’ll be interested in your take as well, but until that point, I’ll accept the consensus view of the people who actually understand the evidence as our best provisional estimate of why life looks the way it does.

    Reply
    • Scott says:

      @Bob

      I’m surprised by your response. Typically you make intelligent, thought provoking responses. This is not one of them.

      Your entire response is ad hominem and appeal to authority. Whether Mr. McDowell has a PhD in Biology or attended a college you view as acceptable in no way invalidates his argument. Likewise, even is 99.9% of biologists think something different, it has no bearing on his argument either.

      Reply
      • Andy Ryan says:

        Scott, I don’t think you understand the ‘appeal to authority’ fallacy. Bob did not commit it.

        “An argument from authority (Latin: argumentum ad verecundiam), also called an appeal to authority, is a common type of argument which can be fallacious, such as when an authority is cited on a topic outside their area of expertise or when the authority cited is not a true expert.”

        It’s quite valid to quote those with genuine expertise.

        Reply
  3. Ed Vaessen says:

    “But this misses the point. If Darwinists want to provide a successful mechanism that can account for the totality of life, they need to offer an explanation for how these features evolved in the first place. “

    The point is not missed. Evolution is a valid scientific theory because all evidence points to it and no valid alternative explanation seems feasible. That not all questions can be answered in detail is a fact, but that is what we deal with in every scientific discipline.
    The burden of proof therefor lies by him who claims morality and other things are impossible to explain by natural processes.

    “Your argument seems to be that common descent requires an increase in information. For this to actually mean anything, you need to provide a stringent definition of information that can be applied to biological systems. “

    Indeed this stringent definition is not available and that is why anyone can make mean whatever he likes it to mean. To judge the theory evolution, it is useless.

    Reply

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