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Dawkins and Design

by Richard Peachey

[Featured as an advertorial in Cascade News, University of the Fraser Valley student newspaper, Sept. 10, 2009]

During last year’s [2008] “Anti-Darwinism Display” at UFV, I hung several quotations on the wall, including this one:

“Echo-sounding by bats is just one of the thousands of examples that I could have chosen to make the point about good design. Animals give the appearance of having been designed by a theoretically sophisticated and practically ingenious physicist or engineer. . . .”

The quote was from Richard Dawkins, the Oxford zoologist who is currently the world’s leading spokesman for evolution and atheism. It came from his best-known book The Blind Watchmaker (New York: Norton, 1987, p. 36).

One student who attended our event objected vigorously to my use of Dawkins’s quotation within a creationist display. The student (who was also a reporter for the Cascade News at the time) charged that I was disingenuously making it seem as if Dawkins might support a creationist position.

Well, Richard Dawkins (as I did make clear in the reference supplied with the quotation) is not by any stretch a creationist supporter! He despises and vilifies us. He is categorical: “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid, or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that)” (New York Times, April 9, 1989, sec. 7, p. 34).

Nonetheless, as I suggested in my response to the complaining student, Dawkins definitely does see “good design” in the animal world (which is his area of expertise as a zoologist).

Furthermore, the wall quotation wasn’t an uncharacteristic snippet from Dawkins. In fact, there are several very similar statements within the first two chapters of The Blind Watchmaker:

• On page 1, Dawkins offers his now-famous definition of life science: “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”

• On page 15, he says: “Meanwhile I want to follow [William] Paley [the intelligent design theorist of two centuries ago] in emphasizing the magnitude of the problem that our [evolutionist] explanation faces, the sheer hugeness of biological complexity and the beauty and elegance of biological design.”

• On page 21, Dawkins enthuses: “Yet the living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with the appearance of design as if by a master watchmaker, impress us with the illusion of design and planning. . . . when it comes to complexity and beauty of design, Paley hardly even began to state the case.”

• And on page 37, he concludes: “I do not want the reader to underestimate the prodigious works of nature and the problems we [evolutionists] face in explaining them.”

The foregoing citations make two things clear: (1) that Dawkins is awed by the complexity, beauty, ingenuity, and sophistication found in the structure of animal bodies and cells; and (2) that he thinks the impression of intelligent design, although extremely strong, is mere appearance ( “illusion,” he calls it).

All this elegant complexity, Dawkins believes, can be explained by Darwinian evolution. He is forthright enough to admit that his view has “problems,” but still, he thinks evolution is the only way to go.

The point of my wall quotation was to indicate a fact on which evolutionists and creationists heartily agree: biological organisms look designed.

Now, we creationists think they look designed because they are designed. But in Dawkins’s view, organisms look designed because somehow, impersonal, unplanned, naturalistic processes have the ability to produce amazing things like this.

Evolutionists undergird their story with two primary processes: mutation and natural selection. But we should ask ourselves, are these realistic explanatory mechanisms for a process that’s required to manufacture people out of prokaryotes?

What are mutations? Just genetic mistakes, random changes in the cell’s DNA. Virtually all known mutations are either neutral (yielding no change in amino acid sequence) or destructive.

Plant geneticist John Sanford of Cornell University wrote:

“. . . I am still not convinced there is a single, crystal-clear example of a known mutation which unambiguously createdinformation. There are certainly many mutations which have been described as ‘beneficial’, but most of these beneficial mutations have not created information, but rather have destroyed it. . . . for example, in chromosomal mutations for antibiotic resistances in bacteria, where cell functions are routinely lost. The resistant bacterium has not evolved — in fact it has digressed genetically and is defective” (Genetic Entropy & The Mystery of the Genome. Lima, NY: Elim Publishing, 2005, p. 17).

As for natural selection (which would be better termed “differential reproduction”), this only means that some individual organisms die off earlier than others, so that their surviving conspecifics become more predominant in the population. (As the late Carl Sagan rightly quipped, “The secrets of evolution are time and death.”) Natural selection conserves what’s there; it doesn’t generate novelty.

Dawkins’s Oxford colleague Antony Flew is a philosophy professor (now retired) who recently gave up his long-held atheistic views and accepted the case for intelligent design. For fifty years he had been the world’s leading proponent of atheism, but now he argues otherwise:

“What I think the DNA material has done is that it has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily diverse elements to work together. . . . It is all a matter of the enormous complexity by which the results were achieved, which looked to me like the work of intelligence. . . . Although I was once sharply critical of the argument to design, I have come to see that, when correctly formulated, this argument constitutes a persuasive case for the existence of God” (There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. New York: Harper Collins, 2007, pp. 75, 95).

Richard Peachey is vice-president of the Creation Science Association of British Columbia. He was UFV’s first science graduate (BSc, Biology and Chemistry, 1995), and the winner of the 1995 SFU Dean’s medal for excellence in the faculty of science. For 17 years, to the dismay of some UFV instructors, Peachey was a science teacher in the Abbotsford public school system.