An Agnostic Approach to Evolution and Intelligent Design

Chapter from:
Agnosticism: The Battle Against Shameless Ignorance
By James Kirk Wall
Copyright 2010 James Kirk Wall

Note, since this was written I've found many natural explanations to the questions I've asked. Much of my openness of supernatural explanations turned out to be simply a gap of scientific ignorance which has since shrunk.

An Agnostic Approach to Evolution and Intelligent Design

“The fact that life evolved out of nearly nothing, some 10 billion years after the universe evolved out of literally nothing, is a fact so staggering that I would be mad to attempt words to do it justice.” – Richard Dawkins

An agnostic approach is ideal for adding perspective to ongoing arguments. Both sides are analyzed from a neutral perspective initially. The mind is cleared of preconceived notions and knowledge is built from the ground up on a solid foundation. An open minded and broad range of perspective is used to identify fresh and unique angles to the problem that may result in a solution. Evolution vs. Creationism has been an argument since Charles Darwin published Origin of Species.
Creationism is a Christian expression to argue against certain elements of evolutionary theory that do not coincide with biblical scripture. Intelligent Design is an agnostic term in regards to supernatural intelligence outside of any religion. Many atheists claim Intelligent Design and Creationism are the same thing. They are not, even though some Christian groups are trying to use ID to bring religious scripture into the classroom. There was a recent survey that posed the question, “Do you believe in evolution?” Everyone should answer this question “yes.” There are arguments to be had on the means of evolution which I will address in this chapter. In the face of indisputable evidence (which is a big statement for an agnostic!), there is no rational argument that evolution does not exist.
If you believe certain characteristics of a species can change due to changes in habitat over long periods of time, then you believe in one aspect of evolution. For example, if a specific species’ habitat changes from shade to sunlight, you might expect pigmentation of the skin to change in order to better deal with sunlight, and a possible thickening of the skin in certain areas to deal with heat, such as traveling on hot sand or rock. Evolution works through survival of the fittest (natural selection), random mutations that provide some kind of benefit, and selective breeding (male and female sexual attraction to certain attributes such as color, scent and sound) to promote specific characteristics of future generations, causing the species to gradually change over time.
Evolution also works through artificial selection which has been done by mankind for many years to promote specific characteristics in plants and animals. Through artificial selection mankind has altered plant and animal gene pools for the benefit of producing greater amounts of food or domestication.
A basic example of evolution by natural selection is turtles on an island during a drought. The turtles with longer necks are able to survive as they can reach the food. The turtles with short necks die out. The resulting generations of turtles have longer necks. Perhaps as a survival instinct, the female turtles now have an attraction to males with the longest necks or vice versa. Selective breeding also promotes certain attributes of the species. The main requirement in this example would be for the turtles to have various neck lengths that would be significant enough for some to reach food over others. What about the turtles that build ladders to go up and get the food? All kidding aside, this method of evolution has been proven over and over again; however, natural selection does not explaining everything.
There is no argument against evolution itself; there are only arguments to be had on the how and the why. Being an agnostic does not imply casting doubt no matter how much evidence is presented. The overwhelming evidence for “Old Earth” and the fact that all species were not all created at once dismisses a creation story interpretation in the Bible that all species were created at once 6,000 years ago. Intelligent design outside of any specific religious text is the only agnostic argument to be had on all of life not simply happening by blind chance.
In a chapter in his book The Greatest Show on Earth explaining how a human embryo was more of a recipe than a set of manufacturing instructions, Richard Dawkins stated that, “if a divine intelligence did prove to be ultimately responsible for designing living complexity, it is definitely not true that he fashions living bodies in anything like the way that clay modelers, for example, or carpenters, potters, tailors or car manufacturers go about their tasks.” It’s good to know that even a dogmatic atheist such as Mr. Dawkins can make an “if” statement.
According to our scientific disciplines of biology and astronomy the Earth is approx. 4.6 billion years old and life has existed for approx. 3 billion years. There is a young Earth theory that places the Earth at 6,000 years old. Is this real science or simply an attempt to prove Old Testament biblical scripture? The age of 6,000 years comes from the biblical Genesis days actually being our 24-hour days and a biblical scholarly estimate of 4,000 years between the first man Adam and Jesus Christ. Add the 2,000 years since Jesus and you get 6,000.
At first glance, the young Earth theory appears plausible. The arguments are if the Earth was billions of years old the oceans would have more sentiment, the moon would have more dust, the Earth’s magnetic field would have been too strong in the past, Jupiter would be cooler and the Moon would have floated away by now. All these arguments have been scientifically countered as not accurate measurements of time (http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-age-of-earth.html.) Of all the methods used to measure the age of the Earth, the evidence supporting an old Earth are overwhelming. Methods include examining evidence from layers of rock, erosion, and layers of ice. Three scientific dating methods include:
• Radio Carbon Dating – Used to measure the age of organic material such as wood and bone. Carbon has three isotopes. Two isotopes are stable but Carbon 14 decays at a very slow rate with a half life of approximately 5,700 years.
• Potassium-argon Dating – Used to measure the age of igneous rocks. Potassium-40 decays to Argon-40 at a very slow rate with a half life of 1.3 billion years.
• Rubidium-strontium Dating – Used to measure the age of mineral and rock. Rubidium-87 decays to Strontium-87 at a very slow rate with a half life of approx. 48.8 billion years.
We can also measure the age of the Sun and the stars by dissecting light. Our sun generates heat through nuclear fusion. The outward push of nuclear fusion and inward pull of gravity are fortunately equalized and stable. Through nuclear fusion the stars are converting hydrogen into the heaver element helium. By measuring the hydrogen to helium composition, we can measure the age of the stars. Our Sun is estimated to be 4.6 billion years old with a life expectancy of 10 billion years.
Through studying fossils from certain periods of history one can trace a species over time and compare the common attributes of ancestors and record changes. Changes can include the movement of features such as the nostril, reduction in toes, disappearance of claws that once existed at the end of wings, disappearance of legs on snakes, disappearance of teeth on whales, etc. Studying fossils can show common attributes between species such as bone structures and possible lineages to a common ancestor. All dogs can be traced back to a common ancestral wolf according to evolutionists.
Through examination of rock and fossils, scientists have created an evolutionary scale that goes back hundreds of millions of years. This scale of time has been categorized into different periods such as Cambrian and Jurassic. In early periods there were only basic life forms. More complicated life forms such as mammals did not appear until later periods. This provides very strong evidence that complex life forms evolved from earlier simpler life forms. If mankind can mold dog breeds of completely different size and appearance such as bull mastiffs and chihuahuas through artificial selection, it’s not farfetched to imagine mankind evolving from something chimpanzee-like millions of years ago through natural selection.
Is all of life explained by natural selection, random mutations, selective breeding and artificial selection? William Paley (1743-1805) argued that life is intelligently designed and must have a creator. He used an example of finding a watch on a beach. The watch has intricate components placed together with a purpose. It is not something of chance and when studying a watch one realizes it must have had a creator. Like the watch, life has complex intricate components that are fitted together to serve a purpose. In regard to complexity, living organisms are more complex than watches as Paley would say, "in a degree which exceeds all computation." Paley’s argument would be this is not by chance, but rather by design.
Darwin’s theory of evolution was much inspired by his visits to the Galapagos Islands. These islands 600 miles away from South America contained unique animal species and breeds found nowhere else. Many species resembled those in South America and likely originated from there, but after time isolated on the islands (which rose from the sea due to volcanic activity) had changed. A noticeable trait supporting evolutionary theory is the shape of a bird’s beak to feed on the variety of food specific to the area they live in. What Darwin found on the Galapagos Islands regarding unique species is common in other remote islands and each continent all across the face of the Earth.
According to evolution, if we placed a pack of dogs in two different parts of the world over millions of years, we would eventually have two different species of animals. So what is the difference between a breed and a species? Different dog breeds can mate with each other. If there was a separation of dogs of the same breed that were allowed to evolve independently to where the separation between them due to natural selection became so great that they would no longer be able to mate with each other, they would then be classified as different species.
So let’s say that the variety of animal species and breeds only found on the Galapagos Islands proves evolution as changes in a species over time that can result in evolution to a different species. Changes such as the development of a bird’s beak are insignificant in comparison to the creation of the eye.
William Paley argues that an examination of the eye is in itself a cure for atheism. Could the eye be created by evolution? Would a logical assumption be that the eye could only be created by an entity that already sees or has the concept of sight? Some evolutionists argue that the eye began as a light sensing cell. Is this an adequate explanation? It’s not enough to have a light sensing cell. The cell must be attached to a neural system that has the code to obtain and decipher the data.
Not all evolutionary theory is currently explained by fossil evidence. Fossil records show animals appearing and disappearing without any transitional period or trace of an ancestor or descendant. Not all, but many so called “missing links” have been found recently. Giraffe fossils have one of these “gaps”. It appears at one time giraffes didn’t exist, and then all of a sudden they were here. Evolutionist would argue that the reason we don’t have all of the fossil evidence is due to the nature of fossils and the enormous timeline involved. We can create models of evolutionary transitions to fill in the gaps. We also have DNA evidence that ties every species together.
In periods of history there have been explosions of new species (namely in the Cambrian Period) and there are also species that have gone completely unchanged over great amounts of time such as mosquitoes, alligators and sharks.
Let’s suppose Darwin is right and all species evolved from other species naturally. Evolution is a great tree of life where the branches represent species and they all come from a common trunk. There are branches off of other branches as species branched out from other species. The tree of life is incomprehensibly large and complex. Imagine the seed this tree grew from. Let’s suppose Intelligent Design exists and that life was designed. Evolution has a designed program running in the background.
I once viewed an episode of Scientific American Frontiers hosted by Alan Alda about evolution. There was a computer evolution simulator. This program was given many pieces to put something together that would meet a goal. The goal was to get from Point A to Point B. This simulator created many different structures to achieve this goal. Many failed but some succeeded. One evolved structure in the simulation was a tower that simply fell over in order to get to Point B. Mission accomplished. The evolution simulator was fascinating, but behind it all was a program running in the background, a program that was designed.
So let’s suppose that you are the intelligent designer of life. DNA is your programming language. DNA appears to be the common programming language for every living thing on Earth. Life must contain the DNA program and be able to interpret the program. If I give you a book written in a language you don’t understand, the book is useless. Not only must every living thing contain the DNA program, it must contain the intelligence to decipher the program and execute on the instructions. These facts make even the simplest organism amazingly complex and the notions of life by blind chance appear illogical.
Does common DNA between species prove that all current animals evolved from earlier life forms? Not necessarily although DNA, to a large degree, does not provide the only evidence. If you are programming an application to perform a task, there are various programming languages to choose from. A language is selected depending on the platform and type of application to be created. So what is the goal? This application must do A, B and C. You write the program and now have Application Alpha which does A, B and C. You are now given the task of creating a second application (beta) that does B, C and D. Why would you re-write the code for B and C when you already have it? You re-use the code for B and C, and then develop the code for D and the code required to tie D into B and C. You now have two applications. They were created independently. One did not evolve from the other, and yet they share much of the same code (programming language, application DNA.)

Evidence for evolution includes:
1. The oldest to newest fossils clearly demonstrate without exception a progression of life forms from basic to more complex. If there was no evolution there would be no progression of species complexity over time.
2. Each continent and even groups of islands contain unique species of plants and animals. If there was no evolution, there would not be unique species on every continent as they would all be the same shared among them as when there was one supercontinent before the continents divided. Why are there species on Darwin’s Galapagos Islands unique to all other parts of the world?
3. Through artificial selection we have clearly demonstrated the ability to alter species of plants and animals in a short period of time. Even the evolution of bacteria has been clearly demonstrated.
4. Many skeletal and other similarities exist among animals and can be used to trace changes such as gills to lungs.
5. DNA is the common genetic instructions found in all living things. DNA can be used to determine how closely different species are related. Combined DNA of closely related species has a higher boiling point (degree of heat needed to separate the DNA strands) than species that are not as closely related.

Charles Darwin insisted that all of evolution originally happened over enormous periods of time due to natural selection. Along with natural selection and other means of evolution such as random mutations, could there also be a subconscious intelligence within species that makes determinations on offspring based on environment or some kind of timetable? Could there be supernatural intelligence outside of the species which intervenes from time to time modifying the gene pool; a hidden artist perhaps?
Is there such a thing as forward thinking evolution beyond the next generation? Is it possible that certain life forms are pre-programmed to evolve into certain species? Did a mosquito evolve into being a mosquito through blind natural evolutionary causes making tiny random changes from generation to generation or were the gradual changes part of a grand design, a predetermined end state of that species? Not all species keep evolving. The ones that don’t (or seemingly don’t) are known as living fossils.
Atheists believe that everything ultimately has a natural scientific explanation. Religions provide supernatural explanation to these questions. Agnostics do not believe in the divinity of any religious doctrine but believe life is so amazingly complex that everything may not have a natural scientific explanation. There may be intelligent design in regards to the physical and biological universe. We don’t know, and any probability statement by anybody for one side or the other is suspect. Once again, it’s not about believing, it’s about having something behind the belief.
I always find it amusing when an animated talking mass of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorus claims that there is absolutely no evidence of anything supernatural in this world. There is evidence for evolution and intelligent design. At the same time there was evidence that the world was flat and the center of the universe. Does everything boil down to the question of natural science or supernatural intelligence? Once again, it’s important to remember that not all scientists are atheists.
Is all of life due to random and blind natural means, or is there something supernatural involved? After philosophizing for many years, I don’t know. What do I believe? I believe we don’t know. Some people maintain that belief has to be on one side or the other. I don’t believe natural science ultimately provides all the answers any more than supernatural intelligence. I don’t even know if it is a question of the two as if there is supernatural intelligence, then natural science is simply a study of what was already intelligently designed, and what was intelligently designed is what we now call “natural.” Imagine a fish in an aquarium making a declaration that their world was spontaneously generated.
Why is there good and evil in the animal world? Why do we have life forms that cause great suffering in other species, and sometimes within their own kind? Why do we have life forms that cause great pleasure, comfort and partnerships with other species? Was this an expected result from evolution through blind random events? Why don’t we have a world of flowers, butterflies and panda bears?
Why is there both a male and female? Would a species have a better chance of survival if it only had one sex capable of reproducing? Why do animals age? Why do very few people possess superhuman attributes such as incredible strength or resistance to cold? Would not these be advantageous traits for survival? Why doesn’t most of the human population have these abilities? Why do some advantageous mutations not carry over to future generations?
Why do humans have compassion for other animals? Why don’t we want other animals to suffer, why do we care? Does this give us an evolutionary advantage over animals that cause suffering without care or remorse? Does empathy and compassion aid us in the survival of the fittest, or is it a hindrance? Is living strictly a utilitarian existence the best way to survive? Why do we have emotion?
When did the first humanoid laugh when another humanoid farted? Did this cause an advantage of survival over the humanoids that didn’t laugh? The evolutionists might argue that it didn’t begin with a laugh, but a partial dopey smirk that eventually evolved into a laugh. Perhaps this trait made the comedian more sexually desirable to the opposite sex promoting the crude humor to future generations. It is understandable why sex is desired and brings pleasure. Obviously a species needs to have offspring in order to survive. Why doesn’t child birth also bring pleasure? Why does this often cause so much pain?
Competition in the survival of the fittest can explain why we are competitive and enjoy competitive sports and other contests. Competition makes us stronger. Why does music and art bring us so much pleasure? Does a passion for the fine arts provide a competitive advantage over other species? Is it useful at all in our struggle to survive? Human beings, for whatever reason, have evolved into, as Aristotle would say, social animals.
Although the evidence for evolution is undeniable, there is still room for questions and spiritual belief. Perhaps we and every planet among all the stars and galaxies in the universe that contain life are all part of an experiment to see what will win out, good or evil. Perhaps every planet carrying life is merely a test tube in an omnipresent scientist’s laboratory. Which specimen will rise above the others? Which species will spawn its’ own destruction? Which will find ways to populate other planets?
What are the implications of evolution for religion? Religions must evolve in order to survive; although there are Eastern religions that focus primarily on timeless wisdom which will never become outdated. Thousands of religions have become extinct over the past many millenniums. In order to avoid this fate, should the Bible and Koran be updated to coincide with modern science by a meeting of Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders and scientists? And God placed the substance on Earth from which all living things would evolve with divine guidance, and it was good…… for the most part.
Many would argue that this cannot be done as it would cause an integrity issue within the sacred writings, but what is the alternative? Why not update religious scripture with modern understandings of the universe and at the same time remove versus that are intolerant and cruel based on the primitive world they were written in? We all know that religious text was written by men and that men are not perfect even if they are inspired by something greater than themselves. What happens to God when his scripture is not kept modern with the times? Ask Zeus.

Note – A great resource for the evidence of evolution is Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth. I do disagree with some of his anti-theological conclusions regarding the evidence. Reading is an amazing thing. Through a matter of hours one can gain the greatest discoveries and perspectives of someone who has spent a lifetime in a particular field of study. The Greatest Show on Earth is a fantastic example of just that.

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