by Richard Dawkins
Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England
This is the latest in a series of books by Richard Dawkins designed to show that it’s possible to be an ‘intellectually fulfilled atheist’.1 Computer mogul Charles Simonyi recently endowed Dawkins with a post as ‘Chair of Public Understanding of Science’ at Oxford University, but the British author Paul Johnson called it ‘Oxford’s first Chair of Atheism.’2 But true (operational) science involves repeatable, observable experimentation in the present, which includes physics, chemistry, experimental biology and geology, etc. (see also Naturalism, Origin and Operation Science). Dawkins has made no notable contributions to any of these, or even to the history or philosophy of science. His main claim to fame is his ingenious story-telling about what might have happened in the unobservable past. For Dawkins sees the design argument as the strongest support for theism (cf. Rom. 1:18–32), and he has led a long crusade trying to show that mutations and natural selection can adequately explain all the complex structures in the living world. He is therefore a worthy successor to T.H. Huxley to the title of ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’. His tenacity of purpose in trying to show that there is no purpose is astounding.
But despite Dawkins’ hero-worship of Darwin, Solomon had written, ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ (Ecc. 1:9). The philosopher and priest Dr G.H. Duggan, in reviewing a Dawkins book, pointed out that a form of Darwinism had been proposed by the ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles.3 The underlying philosophy of evolution is that man can determine truth apart from God, and this philosophy started in Eden.
Creationists cannot afford to ignore Dawkins. Thus a recent book responding to anti-creationists,4 while excellent overall in my opinion, was justly criticized for overlooking Dawkins and making a small mistake as a result.5 Dawkins has a widespread influence well out of proportion to the actual scientific merit of his books. This is partly due to man’s rejection of God, and Dawkins tickles their ears the way they want. However, his message is anything but inspiring—we are robots programmed by DNA to replicate more copies of that DNA.
Dawkins writes in a lucid style, with never a dull moment—Dawkins throws in much informative material in real science which keeps the reader interested. And the real science in the book camouflages the many just-so speculations Dawkins resorts to.
The book’s title is a parable: many structures in living organisms are so complex that there is a vanishingly small probability of producing them in a single step—this corresponds to leaping the high Mt Improbable in a single step. But, says Dawkins, this mountain has a gently upward-sloping terrain on the other side, where a climber can ascend gradually, constantly progressing to the top. This corresponds to the neo-Darwinian mechanism of evolution—mutations + natural selection. Mutations produce gradual improvements, and natural selection means that organisms which have them are slightly more likely to leave offspring. So a later generation of organisms is slightly more complex, or higher up the slope of Mt Improbable. This process is repeated until the dizzy peaks are scaled by this ever-so-gradual process.
Indeed, the origin of the first self-reproducing system is recognized by many scientists as an unsolved problem for evolution, and thus evidence for a Creator.6 There is good reason for this: even the simplest self-reproducing organism contains vast quantities of complex, specific information. Mycoplasma genitalium has the smallest known genome of any free-living organism, containing 482 genes comprising 580,000 bases.7 Of course, these genes are only functional with pre-existing translational and replicating machinery, a cell membrane, etc. But Mycoplasma can only survive by parasitizing more complex organisms, which provide many of the nutrients it cannot manufacture for itself. So evolutionists must posit a more complex first living organism with even more genes.
More recently, Eugene Koonin and others tried to calculate the bare minimum required for a living cell, and came up with a result of 256 genes [Update 14 February 2006: follow-up research led by Hamilton Smith at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville reveals that the minimum genome consists of 387 protein-coding and 43 RNA-coding genes (Nature 439, 246–247 (19 January 2006) | doi:10.1038/439246a; Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 103:425–430, 2006]. But they were doubtful whether such a hypothetical bug could survive, because such an organism could barely repair DNA damage, could no longer fine-tune the ability of its remaining genes, would lack the ability to digest complex compounds, and would need a comprehensive supply of organic nutrients in its environment.8
Yet even this ‘simple’ organism has far too much information than can be expected from time and chance, without natural selection. The information theorist Hubert Yockey calculated that given a pool of pure, activated biological amino acids, the total amount of information which could be produced, even allowing 109 years as evolutionists posit, would be only a single small polypeptide only 49 amino acid residues long.9 This is about 1/8 the size (therefore information content) of a typical protein, yet the hypothetical simplest cell above needs at least 256 proteins. And Yockey’s estimate generously presupposes that the many chemical hurdles can be overcome, which is a huge assumption, as shown by many creationist writers.10,11,12,13
In fact, Dawkins admits: ‘[T]he original replicator probably was not DNA. We don’t know what it was’ (p. 261). In both Climbing Mount Improbable and The Selfish Gene14 Dawkins opts for a replicating molecule, perhaps RNA, as the first entity, although RNA is itself not self-replicating, is chemically unstable, and there are insuperable chemical hurdles preventing its prebiotic synthesis.15 In his later book, The Blind Watchmaker,16 he advocated A.G. Cairns-Smith’s outlandish idea that clay minerals with self-replicating patterns of crystal defects were the first organisms. Dawkins relied on Cairns-Smith’s popular book on this idea, Seven Clues to the Origin of Life.17 But Dawkins failed to mention that Cairns-Smith is mainly driven to such a desperate expedient because of serious chemical flaws in the more usual protein-first or RNA-first ideas in typical Oparin/Haldane (primordial soup) scenarios. Cairns-Smith’s critique of such models in the first part of his technical book, Genetic Takeover,18 is one of the most convincing demolitions ever written [see also Cairns-Smith: detailed criticisms of the RNA world hypothesis], but Cairns-Smith’s evolutionary faith prefers clay to a Creator.
Dawkins also cannot stomach such a conclusion. He makes the childish objection, similar to one he made in The Blind Watchmaker:
Several things are wrong with this argument:
The previous section shows that it’s impossible for ordinary chemicals to assemble into a self-replicating cell, since natural selection cannot come to their aid. But can natural selection increase the total quantity of information? As Dawkins himself says:
The problem is, all observed examples of natural selection involve sorting or loss of pre-existing information; evolution requires new genes with new information. Neo-Darwinism requires that mutations can generate this new information, but observed mutations have never been shown to do so. Sometimes a loss of information can help an organism so is ‘beneficial’, e.g. beetles born without wings are less likely to be blown into the sea. But loss of wings is the opposite sort of change to what evolution needs.22
The information scientist Werner Gitt has shown that the laws of nature pertaining to information show that in all known cases, information requires a sender.23,24 Since living organisms have such a vast information content, Gitt points out that it is a sound application of science to deduce that this information also has a Sender.
Dawkins’ atheistic faith cannot allow this, so he asserts that the complex features of the living world are not designed, but ‘designoid’, i.e. having only the appearance of being intelligently designed. But can mutation + natural selection really violate known informational laws?
Another book which appeared at about the same time as Climbing Mount Improbable was Darwin’s Black Box by the biochemist Michael Behe.25 This is replete with examples of biochemical ‘irreducible complexity’, systems which need many parts working together before they have any function. This includes the immune system, blood clotting, vision, cellular transport, cilia and flagella, etc. For example, Behe has pointed out that many components are needed at the right place and the right time to make a blood clotting system work. If even one is missing, the animal is either a hemophiliac, or else suffers blood clots in vital vessels. Either way, it’s dead. It is small consolation to have a small edge over another animal, as per Darwin and Dawkins, if both die before they have a chance to reproduce.
One major criticism of Dawkins’ scenarios is that they presuppose an enormous level of complexity to start with. Indeed, Dawkins is repeating the error of Darwin—as Behe shows, Darwin was ignorant of the complexity of even the simplest cell that modern biochemistry has discovered.
When ‘explaining’ the origin of the eye, Darwin started with a light sensitive spot. Similarly with Dawkins’ chapter on eye evolution. He relies on a computer simulation of gradual eye evolution by Dan Nilsson and Susanne Pelger, which claims, ‘it would take less than 364,000 years for a camera eye to evolve from a light-sensitive patch.’26 They start from a light-sensitive layer, with a transparent coating in front and a light-absorbing layer behind.
First, this layer bends gradually into a cup, so it can tell the direction of light rays increasingly well. This continues until it is curved into a hemisphere filled with the transparent substance. Secondly, bringing the ends together, closing the aperture, would gradually increase the sharpness of the image, as a pinhole camera does, because a smaller hole cuts out light, and as there are diffraction effects if the hole is too small, there is a limit to this process. So thirdly, the shape and refractive index gradient of the transparent cover change gradually to a finely focusing lens.
However, Behe has shown that even a ‘simple’ light sensitive spot requires a dazzling array of biochemicals in the right place and time to function. He states that each of its ‘cells makes the complexity of a motorcycle or television set look paltry in comparison’ and describes a small part of what’s involved:
And the eye-cup sounds simple enough when Dawkins describes it, but dozens of proteins control the structure of cells and their arrangement, and needs molecular supports to hold the structure in place.
A major objection to the Dawkins scenario is that the ability to perceive light is meaningless unless the organism has sophisticated computational machinery to make use of this information. For example, it must have the ability to translate ‘attenuation of photon intensity’ to ‘a shadow of a predator is responsible’ to ‘I must take evasive measures’, and be able to act on this information for it to have any selective value. Similarly, the first curving, with its slight ability to detect the direction of light, would only work if the creature had the appropriate ‘software’ to interpret this. Perceiving actual images is more complicated still. And having the right hardware and software may not be enough—people who have their sight restored after years of blindness take some time to learn to see properly. It should be noted that much information processing occurs in the retina before the signal reaches the brain.
Nilsson and Pelger admit that ‘an eye makes little sense on its own’ and that they ‘avoid the more inaccessible problem of photoreceptor evolution’28 although they remain convinced that eye evolution is possible. But the fact remains that, far from starting at the bottom of the mount, Dawkins starts very high up a sheer cliff, even if he, and Nilsson and Pelger, were right that there is a gentle plateau from there.
Dawkins, following Darwin, emphasizes that any mutation, however slight, will have a survival value. Even the most complex organisms can supposedly be built up from an accumulation of such changes over eons. But this assertion has been severely undermined in two recent books: Walter ReMine’s The Biotic Message29 and Lee Spetner’s Not By Chance.30 The objections include:
Take a population of 100,000. If only a male and female pair have the new trait, natural selection must eliminate the other 99,998 and all their heirs. If there is perfect selection (s = 1), this can happen in one generation. But this means that for every new trait, 49,999 individuals must be eliminated without offspring (This should be a warning to theistic evolutionists: death is called ‘the last enemy’ (1 Cor. 15:26), so how could God use all these deaths as a means to achieve a ‘very good’ creation (Gen. 1:31)?). Then the population must be regenerated with these survivors.
Anyway, even if evolution happened at the maximum speed for 10 million years, how many traits could be substituted in a creature with human-like generation times of say 20 years? Only 500,000. This small number of nucleotides is only a small fraction of the forty 500-page books worth of information (120 million base pairs) which are needed to transform an ape into a man. And in real life, selection is far less intense, meaning that only about 1700 substitutions could occur.
These problems have largely been ignored in Dawkins’ propaganda. Many of his computer simulations of evolution use ‘organisms’ with high reproductive rates (producing many offspring), high mutation rates, a large probability of a beneficial mutation, and a selection coefficient of 1 (also, his ‘organisms’ have tiny ‘genomes’ with minute information content, and they are not affected by the chemical and thermodynamic constraints of a real organism).
Nilsson and Pelger did account for selection coefficients, although they chose s = 0.01 for each step in their simulation, larger than considered typical in nature. But they took no account of the tiny rate of favourable mutations. They merely assumed a certain variability in a population, and assumed that this would remain constant throughout. But in a real population, natural selection could select only from the variability in existing genes for the best vision, but culling those for inferior vision. This would reduce variability, because genes are eliminated. This is not the same as having mutations to produce better and better eyes. Neither did their simulation prove that simple mutations could continually produce 1% improvements. Somewhere along the way, totally new genes would be required.
As Dawkins says, ‘to a first approximation, all animals fly … because … to a first approximation, all species are insects’. Also, ‘there are twice as many bird species as mammal species, and a quarter of mammals species are bats.’ Flying is of course a very complicated process as any aircraft designer would know. Birds have a number of complex structures to enable them to fly: wings with a good aerofoil shape, the intricately structured feathers, the lungs with their unique air circulation system though parabronchi, and the algorithm for the controlled muscle movements to achieve flight.33
Again, Dawkins exudes confidence that neo-Darwinism can bridge the gaps from non-flying to flying animals. But he can’t help admitting:
The example of eye evolution showed that Dawkins is a master of glossing over difficulties. In support of the running, jumping and mid-course correcting theory, he writes:
The words ‘rather effortlessly’ make the mind boggle, but then his word ‘story’ inadvertently gives the game away.
Some more story-telling is evident in Dawkins’ discussion of feathers. Alan Feduccia, a world authority on birds, and a staunch evolutionist, says ‘Feathers are a near-perfect adaptation for flight’ because they are lightweight, strong, aerodynamically shaped and have an intricate structure of barbs and hooks which makes them waterproof and able to repair their shape.34
But Dawkins glibly states: ‘Feathers are modified reptilian scales.’ But scales are folds in skin; feathers are complex structures with a barb, barbules and hooks. They also originate in a totally different way, from follicles inside the skin in a manner akin to hair. Finally, feather proteins (φ-keratins) are biochemically different from skin and scale proteins (α-keratins) as well. One researcher concluded:
At the morphological level feathers are traditionally considered homologous with reptilian scales. However, in development, morphogenesis, gene structure, protein shape and sequence, and filament formation and structure, feathers are different.35
The origin of sex is a puzzle for evolutionists. Sex has many disadvantages, e.g. only 50% of the genes are passed on to an offspring, so there is a 50% chance of losing a beneficial mutation. And in a stable population, there is on average one offspring per parent, so asexual reproduction is twice as efficient at passing on genes to the next generation.
It is also biologically costly to maintain the sex organs, and maintain mechanisms to stop the male’s immune system destroying his own (genetically different) sperm, and stop the female's immune system destroying incoming sperm or the offspring she carries (in viviparous organisms). Females obviously expend a lot of time and energy if they must bear live young. On the other hand, males eat about half the food so there can be only half as many females of the species bearing young. In an asexual population, all its members reproduce. Also, courtship rituals, conspicuous plumage etc. are expensive and make the animal more vulnerable to predators. And in many cases, the male and female genitalia are precisely tuned so one could fit the other, meaning that they could not have evolved independently.
How could ‘selfish genes’ concoct a system with all those disadvantages, especially one which guarantees that some will be lost in the next generation? Creationists can explain the origin of fully functioning sexual reproduction from the start in an optimal and genetically diverse population. Once the mechanisms are already in place, they have certain advantages. There is a 50% chance of losing a harmful mutation without cost to the population (death of an individual). Sex also enables more variability, providing a greater capacity for adaptation. But to build them from scratch, no. The hypothetical transitional forms would be highly disadvantageous, so natural selection would work against them. Even Dawkins himself says:
This argument is commonly brought up by evolutionists against creation. Many such arguments forget the Fall, and others are based on ignorance of the need for a particular arrangement. In the latter category is the allegation that the eye is imperfectly designed because the ‘wires’ (nerves) run between the photoreceptors and the light. Many anti-creationists have argued thus—the roll of dishonour also includes Jared Diamond,36 Kenneth Miller,37 and George Williams and John Bonner.38 However, Dawkins admits that the nerves are transparent, so don’t detectably affect the image. More importantly, the ophthalmology researcher George Marshall pointed out:
If the photoreceptors were not in contact with the choroid, as per the ‘superior’ design of Dawkins et al., they could not be regenerated efficiently. Thus it would probably take months before we could drive if we were photographed with a flashbulb, as another ophthalmologist, Joseph Calkins, points out.40,41
I have not covered all the points Dawkins makes in a book of 300 pages. For example, he has chapters on spiderwebs, sea shells and segmentation. But there is plenty of information on two of his case studies—flight and sight—plus some general principles, to show that the Apostle of Atheism has a long way to go to make a convincing case for his faith.