05/17/2010 08:14 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Intelligent Design: Did God Create Through Law or Miracle?

Michael Zimmerman has rightfully drawn attention to a most interesting piece by the geneticist John Avise in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Avise discusses the human genome, showing in devastating detail that in many, many respects it is seriously dysfunctional. There are all sorts of genes that lead to horrendous genetic diseases. And even when positive harm is not being caused, the genome is inefficient, carrying many repetitive elements and other bits and pieces that do no good but lurk there with the potential to do harm. The conclusion is that all of this is just what you might expect from evolution through natural selection and not at all what you might expect if the chief causal agent is Intelligent Design -- a creator getting involved whenever there is then need of a particularly complex piece of biological machinery.

Avise writes:

From an evolutionary perspective, such genomic flaws are easier to explain. Occasional errors in gene regulation and surveillance are to be expected in any complex contrivance that has been engineered over the eons by the endless tinkering of mindless evolutionary forces: mutation, recombination, genetic drift, and natural selection. Again, the complexity of genomic architecture would seem to be a surer signature of tinkered evolution by natural processes than of direct invention by an omnipotent intelligent agent.

Zimmerman points out that not only does Avise show that Intelligent Design Theory fails as science, but it also fails as theology. By putting in God at the ongoing intervention level, you make Him responsible not only for the good things but also for the bad things. If God makes the good genes, then He makes the bad ones also. Not a happy conclusion! Better to keep God out of the process altogether, so even though He does not get the immediate praise, He does not get the immediate blame. Zimmerman concludes: "From both a scientific and a religious perspective, intelligent design is dead and buried. All that's left is to spread the word about its demise."

Let me add a footnote to Zimmerman's piece. One of the very best of today's evolutionary biologists is Jerry Coyne at the University of Chicago. He is the co-author of the definitive work on speciation and last year (the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin) brought out a terrific general book on evolution: Why Evolution Is True. He also runs a blog by that name, and for those of us who are interested in evolution, it is compulsory reading. No one casts a net wider than he, and no one writes with such intelligence and clarity about the ongoing findings and theories of modern Darwinism.

Coyne is also an ardent New Atheist with the glassy-eyed, moral fanaticism that such people share with opponents of abortion and lovers of guns. Those who disagree are not just wrong but stupid and probably evil to boot. Hence, rather like the human genome, one finds in Coyne's blog, interspersed between the functional (the brilliant mini-essays on evolution), the dysfunctional (ranting against anyone who presumes to think that there might be more to life than science). I should say that people like me who think that science and religion might co-exist -- "accommodationists" -- are particular objects of scorn.

But Coyne does makes some good points, even though having made them he then seems incapable of following them up and discussing possible objections. In the case of the Avise piece, with its conclusion that if there is a God then He created through the lawbound process of natural selection, Coyne reasonably asks why -- if there is such suffering -- God did not choose a nicer way of doing things, eliminating the harm along the way and preventing the dysfunction in the finished product? Creation through law lets God off the hook at one level, but He is still on the hook at another level. (Coyne also makes other points, including the objection that even if Avise's argument works, this still does not explain moral evil. Let us charitably put down to ignorance Coyne's not mentioning Saint Augustine and the free will defence.)

Why did God create through law? First, let it be noted that the Genesis stories notwithstanding, there is nothing in Christian theology that prevents Him from doing so. Indeed, if with Augustine we think of God as outside time, then for Him the thought of creation, the act of creation, and the product of creation are as one. Using law rather than miracle does not slow the process down for God, and indeed Augustine himself inclines to think that God created seeds that then developed. (Augustine was no evolutionist, but his theology encourages such thinking.)

Second, either God created through law or He did not. If He did not, then He has a lot of explaining to do. Why do organisms all carry the marks of a lawbound origin, evolution through natural selection? Just before Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species in 1859, the Plymouth Brethren naturalist Philip Gosse hypothesized that God created organisms miraculously with the marks of evolutionary origins. Rightfully, theologians laughed at him no less than scientists. Such a God is a deceiver, and not the God of Christianity -- one who traditionally is thought of making one of our tasks that of discovering His glorious creation (however caused).

Third, if God created through law, why did He use such a painful and at times dysfunctional mechanism as natural selection? Interestingly, no less than the High Priest of the New Atheists, Richard Dawkins, has answered this one. Running through the various evolutionary options -- Lamarckism (the inheritance of acquired characteristics), saltationism (evolution by massive jumps), and others -- Dawkins points out that either they are false (Lamarckism) or they fail to account for adaptive complexity (saltationism). In Dawkins's own words:

My general point is that there is one limiting constraint upon all speculations about life in the universe. If a life-form displays adaptive complexity, it must possess an evolutionary mechanism capable of generating adaptive complexity. However diverse evolutionary mechanisms may be, if there is no other generalization that can be made about life all around the Universe, I am betting it will always be recognizable as Darwinian life. The Darwinian Law ... may be as universal as the great laws of physics.

(This is from an essay that Dawkins wrote back in 1982, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the death of Darwin.)

Fourth, why then didn't God do things in a different way? Either find or make up other user-friendly laws or create miraculously without the deceit? But, note that it has never been the position of Christians (with some exceptions like Descartes) that God can do the impossible. Dawkins's argument is that without selection, creation through law is impossible. But why not miracles and no deceit? Well, at the very least one can say that one is not going to get human beings and other organisms or anything remotely like them. For a start, I doubt there is going to be any sex, because reproduction is at the heart of natural selection -- more organisms are born than can survive and reproduce, hence a struggle for existence, hence selection. For a second, I doubt there is going to be much eating, because if nothing is doing much reproducing, we are going to run out of food. And that means we are not going to excrete, which is tough news for the dung beetle as well as all of those plants that need fertilization. Frankly, I am not sure you are going to get physical beings at all, which rather does mess up the Christian story.

Probably there is much more that could be said on this topic. There usually is when philosophy and theology get involved! So let us leave it at this. Jerry Coyne has asked a good question. His mistake is to think that it cannot be answered.