Because of my book, I often get emails from religious people. Some of them damn me to hell or accuse me of overweening arrogance, and some have real questions about biology. But a third class is very common: under the guise of asking a biology question, and praising my book, someone affirms his faith, challenging me to disprove it. I call these “brickbat” letters, from a famous epistolary exchange in 1937 between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. Fitzgerald had written to Wolfe, ostensibly to praise him but really offering some pretty severe criticism about what he saw as Wolfe’s overly baroque prose. Wolfe began his letter of defense with this: “Your bouquet arrived smelling sweetly of roses but cunningly concealing several large-sized brickbats.”
Yesterday I received a brickbat email from a British Christian, and am highlighting it not only to demonstrate class 3, but also to show a recent but very common objection to evolution.
Unwarranted familiarity—I’ve never met the guy.
My name is [REDACTED]. I am a student at [REDACTED] University in England. I study Architecture so am by no means a biologist.
I am also a Christian.
First of all I would like to apologise for Christians who give you a hard time for holding to Evolution. It is not Christ like to be unkind or aggressive.
I have some questions about the theory of Evolution. I am truly asking with an open mind, because the bible is clear that Christianity is not true then it is foolish. It literally says that.
I would have tried to email Richard Dawkins, but he comes across a little more aggressive that you, so I felt you would give me a more reasonable answer.
I apologise if my language is unscientific, but I am not a scientist. I am just good at drawing. I have two main Questions.
1.At what point did male a female come into the world?
I ask because it seems as though you would need the male and female organisms to develop at the same moment in order for them to then reproduce bringing more male a female organisms.
Ten or fifteen years ago I never got this question, but recently I’ve heard it at least half a dozen times. It’s an argument from “irreducible complexity,” but applied to whole organisms—sexes in this case—instead of organs or molecular pathways within organisms. The import is that because males and females are both needed to produce offspring, they could not have been produced by evolution, for what use is one sex without the other? Ergo a creator; ergo Jesus.
You could also make this argument for obligate mutualists, such as the algae and fungi that together make up lichens. Neither species can exist on its own—they function only together, as an amalgamated “species,” with each constituent providing vital support for the other. Since neither species can live without the other, how could this have evolved? God must have made it. Ergo Jesus.
If you’ve followed the arguments against intelligent design and irreducible complexity, you’ll know the response: things that look irreducibly complex could have evolved from simpler constituents in a step-by-step process, with each step conferring selective advantage over the preceding one. In the end, things look as though adaptive intermediates could not have existed, but that’s because those intermediates are effaced in the evolutionary process. (A common example is the construction of a stone arch. It looks as though you couldn’t build it by putting stone on stone, because the intermediate stage of “half an arch” would have collapsed. But of course there was an intermediate stage, one in which the arch was supported by a scaffold. When the arch is finished, the scaffold is removed, effacing the method of construction.)
And this is the answer to the sex question. What we see as male and female metazoans (multicellular animals), or male and female multicellular plants, are the end products of a long evolutionary process, probably beginning with one-celled organisms. And each step of that process could have been adaptive. Here’s the latest thought on the evolution of different sexes, which involves four steps.
- One celled creatures that could mate with each other and produce offspring; there were no males or females, so each individual could mate with any other. (I won’t explain theories on why sex evolved in the first place, as they are many and complex.)
- “Mating types” evolved: genetic differences between individuals ensuring that successful matings could occur only between individuals of different types. Individuals still look alike. (These mating types are, for example, seen in the one celled Paramecium.
- The different mating types became specialized: one type became large and immotile (the ancestor of the “egg”) and the other smaller and motile (the ancestor of the “sperm”). (The condition of gametes being of very different size is called anisogamy.) There is a substantial body of evolutionary theory showing how this evolution of different mating types into physically different mating types might be favored by natural selection.
- Finally, multicellularity evolves: the naked gametes become the reproductive parts of organisms that have evolved differentiated cells and tissues.
Biologists have plausible theories about how each step of this process might have been favored by natural selection. All intermediate stages could have been adaptive. Now we’re not sure if the different sexes of multicellular organisms really evolved in this sequence (though I suspect they did), but constructing such an adaptive scenario immediately disposes of the “irreducible complexity” argument. If you posit that the lack of a plausible Darwinian pathway proves Jesus, the best answer is that there are plausible pathways.
But we also have some empirical data. (Remember how Darwin disposed of the “irreducible complexity” argument against the evolution of eyes by showing that one can put together existing eyes of animals, from simple eyespots to complex camera eyes, in a plausible evolutionary chain?) We can see intermediate stages of a sex-evolution pathway in nature. I’ve already mentioned Paramecium, and have posted before on the green algae Chlamydomonas and Volvox demonstrating a plausible transition from one-celled to multi-celled organisms.
And there’s other evidence, too. You can show theoretically that if there are different mating types that are not physically different from each other, they can evolve physical differences only if those physical differences are genetically linked (i.e. nearby on the DNA strand) to those genes determining the initial mating types. This was confirmed in a paper this year in Science (reference below) by Ferris et al. If the sexes had been created, you wouldn’t expect such linkage, but it’s a requirement for the evolutionary transition.
These are early days in studies of the evolution of sex, but so far there’s no insuperable problem in explaining it. I fully expect that we’ll understand it much better in a few decades.
NOTE: There was no question #2.
3. Can you proof [sic]that Jesus Christ didn’t rise from the dead?
For me Jesus Christ rising from the dead is the single greatest proof of God. The history does seem to back it up.
No, I can’t. Neither can I prove that hordes of invisible leprechauns don’t roam the bogs and fens of Ireland. (There are lots of stories, too, that back up that assertion!) But I don’t worship leprechauns, or spaghetti monsters, or Zeus, or the pantheon of Hindu gods—or any of the entities that can’t be disproven. As for the history, well, we all know how accurate the Bible is.
Perhaps readers would like to respond to this young man in the comments, as I’m going to refer him to this post. Be nice!
The letter continues:
I have noticed you often talk about errors in design which disprove God. However the bible is under no illusions that the world is perfect. In fact it describes the world as you do. Very accurate and yet with flaws. Not a perfect world.
As I mention in the book, it’s not just that the world is imperfect, or that organisms have “bad” designs: it’s that those bad designs are exactly what you’d expect to see if evolution were true. How does the Bible explain the vestigial limbs of whales, or all those “dead genes” in our genome that are functional in our relatives? If you want to explain these things by invoking God, you’re forced to see God as a Divine Trickster, who cunnningly made things to appear as if they evolved.
Just wanted some answers. There are lots more questions, but these seem more blatant to me.
Please do respond.
I would like to suggest that people not agreeing with you isn’t a total disregard for science. We can see water boiling and that sort of stuff, whereas there are a lot of unknown factors in evolutionary theory. You cannot know that conditions haven’t changed, so although I respect your position to assert what you believe, you must acknowledge that conditions could well have changed.
Thanks for reading this.
p.s. You seem very nice. How do you explain Anthony Flew?
Answer: Somewhere around the beginning of May, 1922, Mr. and Mrs. Flew had a little dinner, a little wine, a little music, and then. . .
Ferris, P., B. J. S. C. Olson, P. L. De Hoff, S. Douglass, D. Casero, S. Prochnik, S. Geng, R. Rai, J. Grimwood, J. Schmutz, I. Nishii, T. Hamaji, H. Nozaki, M. Pellegrini, and J. G. Umen. 2010. Evolution of an expanded sex-determining Locus in Volvox. Science 328:351-354.