A Pepper Grinder Post

Smart Watchmaker

My wife read me a quote recently.  I want to see if it sounds as crazy to you as it did to us.  I should give you a little background first.  This is a quote from someone who went to the same college my wife and I did.  This is not at all an easy college to get into.  This person went to Swarthmore, went on to get a PhD in some type of biology, and then founded his own biotech company.  In other words, he's a very smart guy.  Here is what Vishu Lingappa said, as quoted in the Swarthmore College Bulletin (Volume CXII, Issue III).

Anything that we discover in biology today, evolution has already figured out, and 100 times more.

watchIn a way, I have to give Vishu credit.  He has a lot more humility than people in the sciences have often had in the past.  When I was growing up, and before, it seemed the attitude among scientists was often that anything nature could do, man could do better.  For example, breast milk was seen as okay for babies, but there seemed to be a certainty that we, with our vast scientific know-how, could make something better.  I used to wash my hair with a shampoo called "Protein 21," which sounds to me more like something you would find on a beaker in a lab than something you would put in your hair.  Science was king, and marketers rushed to make their products sound like they were the product of meticulous scientific research.

Thankfully, this type of human-centered arrogance seems less pervasive in science today.  Now I feel like I keep reading about inventors or even computer programmers who are achieving great breakthroughs by imitating designs found in nature.  We have figured out that the natural world is incredibly well-designed.

You would think this would mean that we would recognize the existence of a designer.  As a co-worker of mine is fond of saying, "You would think that.  You would be wrong."

To me it seems that there is an inherent tension in believing that we live in a world that is far more intelligently and intricately designed than the very best that generations of the smartest humans building on each other's discoveries and inventions have been able to come up with, and yet believing that this world came into being purely through chance occurrences.  Yes, I know the argument that this was able to happen because of the large amounts of time involved.  There are many serious objections to this argument (irreducible complexity, lack of fossil evidence of intermediate life forms, and the miniscule mathematical probability of this happening even in the 4.5 billion years scientists believe the Earth has been in existence, to name a few), but my point in this post is not to poke any more holes in this argument, but to point out the difficulty that the true believers have in accepting their own argument.

nature sceneHow many times have you heard someone rhapsodize about the incredible beauty that Nature has provided?  As my wife has said many times, "Who is this Nature?"  In the same way, we read a highly intelligent scientist telling us that "evolution" has already "figured out" WAY more than we have.  I have little doubt that, if questioned, Dr. Lingappa would state the orthodox view that evolution occurred purely by chance, natural processes with absolutely no guiding intelligence.  And yet, he can't help referring to evolution as though it were not an "it," but a person.  This person is very powerful and very intelligent.  To me, it seems that this evolution is (what's that funny word?)…God!

Accepting the idea that pure blind chance (what Richard Dawkins refers to as "the blind watchmaker") has produced our world is hard to do on many levels.  Here are two reasons why this is so difficult to accept that stand out to me.

  1. The more we study, the more we discover that nature is MUCH better designed than anything humans can do.  To assert that evolution is nothing but blind chance is to say that blind chance, mixed with a few billion years, is lots smarter than we are.  Let's face it, evolution means taking a big box of rocks, shaking it up for a long time, and having something miraculous come out of it.  This means that we, with all our technology and shared knowledge, are … you guessed it: Dumber than a box of rocks.  Who wants to believe that?  Who can believe it?
  2. I think that no matter how firmly someone asserts that  evolution  is true, there is a part of his or her mind that just does not really believe it.  How many people believe that if you separated a Rolex into all its constituent parts, put them in a shoebox, and shook it for millions of years (perhaps also randomly heating it and adding chemicals to it), that a fully functional watch would emerge at some point?  Believing that is child's play compared to believing in chance evolution.  Evolution says that you take a bigger box filled with various atoms and molecules, "shake" it for a long time, and something will come out that is way more complex than the best watch people have even imagined.  It will actually be a whole bunch of stuff that is so intricate that we haven't even figured out how it all works, and that can produce more of its kind with no human intervention.

And so we have intelligent people saying that evolution happens purely by chance, but talking as though "Evolution" is an all-wise and all-powerful creator.  How can they live with that contradiction?  I am sure there are all kinds of reasons, but I think there is one root to all of them.  If we claim the world is produced by unintelligent chance processes, then we humans are the smartest game in town.  There is no creator to whom we must bow our knee; there is no one who can tell us what we want is wrong.  We are the top of the heap.   We have wanted that ever since the fateful day we were told we could be like God if we just ate the right piece of fruit.


*Picture of Rolex from