I was surprised to learn that there’s an advocate of Intelligent Design (ID) teaching evolutionary biology in Britain: one Dr. Richard Buggs, Professor of Evolutionary Genomics at Queen Mary University in London. Heretofore I hadn’t heard of an ID advocate in a respectable British University.
Apparently Buggs (I’ll refrain from puns) has been pushing ID for some time, viz., in the Guardian article below from 2007. That was already two years after the Dover v. Kitzmiller case, in which a Republican judge ruled that ID was “not science”. The judge saw through the religious nature of ID, which really is a form of creationism because it posits a supernatural designer to get around what are seen by IDers as impossible evolutionary pathways. And, in fact, every advocate of ID or creationism I know of has religious motivations, with the possible exception of the haughty David Berlinski. Buggs is no exception: he’s a diehard Christian. If ID wasn’t religious in nature, how come every one of its advocates is religious?
I won’t reiterate the 14-year-old article below except to say that Bugg’s claim that ID is a science is wrong. Despite promises of the Discovery Institute, ID has failed as a scientific program, as there is real no way to test it: the discipline consists of pointing out phenomena and then saying, “See, naturalistic evolution couldn’t have done that!” And since we’ll never understand everything, we can always say that God is hiding in the corners.
Two quotes from Buggs:
If Darwin had known what we now know about molecular biology – gigabytes of coded information in DNA, cells rife with tiny machines, the highly specific structures of certain proteins – would he have found his own theory convincing? Randerson thinks that natural selection works fine to explain the origin of molecular machines. But the fact is that we are still unable even to guess Darwinian pathways for the origin of most complex biological structures.
This is the Argument from Ignorance (for God). Yet because Buggs refuses to tell us who the designer is (he thinks it’s the Christian God, of course), he think that makes the ID enterprise scientific:
When a religious person advocates teaching ID in science without identification of the designer, there is no dishonesty or “Trojan horse”, just realism about the limitations of the scientific method.
That’s still the Argument from Ignorance, and comes down to the invocation of a supernatural designer when we don’t understand something. That is a tactic that not only doesn’t advance our understanding, but isn’t itself science. But let’s move on.
Ten years later, at BioLogos (article above), an organization dedicated to selling evolution to evangelical Christians (it’s failed at that), geneticist Dennis Venema took Buggs to task for insisting that the genetic data we have is compatible with the idea that a single breeding pair could be the literal ancestors of all of humanity. (Now where did Buggs get that idea?) Buggs is wrong because, as Venema shows at length, conservative estimates of mutation rates still show us that our species harbors far more genetic variation than would occur if our species went through a bottleneck of two people within the last 10,000 years. In fact, the size of the bottleneck was probably 10,000 to 15,000 individuals, which is NOT TWO (i.e., not Adam and Eve).
But I’ve written about that before, too, so let’s move on.
Dr. Buggs has a new 20-minute video (it came out three days go), and he’s still pushing Christianity and dissing atheism and Darwinism at the same time. His thesis: “Darwinian evolution is simply not sufficient to explain the world and its complexity to an great enough extent to preclude the existence of God.”
He begins by showing that there’s a correlation between intelligence and the level of complexity of a structure, using a snowman he saw (Paley used a watch). Since the human body is infinitely more complex than a snowman, doesn’t that show that there’s intelligence behind it? Well, no, because natural selection acting in Darwinian evolution can create complexity. It is this theory that, said Richard Dawkins (whom Buggs bashes throughout the video), knocked out the props under the only rational explanation for biological complexity: God. By dispelling the need for a supernatural force, said Dawkins, natural selection made it “intellectually respectable to be an atheist.” And Dawkins was right, for there are no other knockdown arguments for theism, and there’s a knockdown argument against it (the existence of natural evil, which can’t be explained by an omnipotent and loving God).
In fact, Buggs explains how natural selection works pretty well using a child’s wooden railroad track, but then gets into his real counterargument ten minutes in. Taking up arguments from Michael Behe, Buggs says that there are features of the biological world that cannot be explained by natural selection, but require enormous amounts of luck. He also asserts that there are adaptations that can’t be built up in a step-by-step fashion, with each step increasing the fitness of the possessor. That was Behe’s argument as well, but at least Behe used biological examples—all of which have been demolished. In contrast, Buggs does not cite a single example of an adaptation or feature that requires us to invoke a supernatural designer. He simply asserts that there are some biochemical features that require maladaptive steps, and “several of them in a row.” I don’t know of any, nor does Buggs cite any.
Now it’s true, as Buggs maintains, that sometimes genetic drift can outweigh natural selection in a population that is sufficiently small, and that can “dismantle” an adaptation in a way that might allow another adaptation to arise that couldn’t have been attained otherwise. But although we have plenty of examples of genetic drift on the molecular level, I know of not a single adaptation that requires the existence of genetic drift to come into being. I may have missed one or two, but they’re certainly not pervasive enough to dismantle Darwinism, Dawkinsism, and to require us to invoke God and Jesus.
Finally, and I won’t go into detail here, Buggs says that the origin of life was extremely improbable, requiring, according to his thesis, TOO MUCH LUCK (ergo, God). But that’s not credible, either. On a planet like ours, life arose within a billion years of its current 4.5-billion-year tenure, showing that when conditions are right, it doesn’t take forever to get life. You could also say, as Dawkins does, that there are gazillions of planets where conditions were right for the origin of life, and we happen to have evolved on one of them. That seems reasonable, but Buggs doesn’t like that argument because it also involves a form of “luck” (18:13) and further, he claims, the Universe isn’t infinitely old and doesn’t have an infinite number of planets, giving Dawkins “a low level of probabilistic resources” to explain the origin of life. This is nonsense. How many suitable planets are there in our Universe, which has been in existence for nearly 14 billion years? Enough to allow, I suspect, lots of life to evolve. “Luck”, taken as a small probability of life evolving, becomes a certainty when there are enough opportunities.
In the end, Buggs argues that Darwin didn’t really make evolution that much more credible, because we still need “huge doses of luck to make all of this work.” Buggs concludes that we need more than evolution, and more than Darwinism, to make atheism credible. We need, I suspect, God and Jesus. Hallelujah!
One gets an impression—not just from this video, but from Buggs’s history of pushing creationism—that he’s not being pushed towards ID by the facts, because a “designer” confirms his pre-existing Christianity. What we see here, I think, is a massive example of confirmation bias.
I’m not calling for Buggs to be fired, of course, because he can say whatever he wants on his own time. But I hope he doesn’t push these arguments in his biology classes. That would be a matter that Queen Mary would have to confront.
40 thoughts on “A creationist professor of evolutionary biology in England”
When creationists say there is too much “luck” involved in naturalistic evolution, I never understand why they don’t see it as “luck” that a god just happens to exist on its own.
Indeed. That requires a LOT more explanation than naturalistic evolution does!
Check Richard Buggs on Portfolio Nature Ecology & Evolution for more info on Bugg’s position
Let’s suppose that this argument holds. It thus follows that God, being vastly more intelligent than a human, is therefore vastly more complex . . . and so, by the argument, is vastly more necessarily a designed artifact, rather than something that just happens to exist.
It’s amazing how few Christians have spotted that Paley’s argument fails to work, even by its own lights, and just lands you with a bigger puzzle. And that puzzle can only be resolved by Darwin’s great insight.
LOL, the theologians have an answer for you! They say that GOD IS SIMPLE!
I would say that Paley’s watch actually argues the opposite of what Paley and the creationists claim.
He claims that if he were walking across a heath and hit his foot on a stone, for all he knew, the stone might have been there forever, but if he saw a watch on the ground, he would immediately know it was designed because of its “contrivance” and therefore nature, with its contrivances must also have been designed.
Except he’s just walked across nature and stubbed his toe on part of it and he is able to pick out a watch as being different from the rest of it.
A hypothesis, which is not mine since others have said it more than once, is that a hard core Creationist is unable to follow many of the key arguments for natural selection. There is a “scrambler” in their brain that actively protects them from cogitating on the key details.
Where the scrambler kicks in seems to vary, but for example suppose you patiently and clearly explain to them the principles of evolution by natural selection. You go over the parts where there is random variation. They probably get that part. Oh, they just looove that part, to hear them go on about it.
But then when you get into the parts about selection … then the scrambler gets to work and all they hear is “Blah blah blah. Blah blah. Blah blah BLAH blah blah.”
The thing about ID that should lead any informed person to dismiss it out of hand is that there is no theory to it. That the history of life is a history of genetic variation and differential reproduction is beyond denying, so anyone who wants us to reject the current consensus of non directed variation and differential reproductive success of variants needs to propose an alternative. IDers never have.
The fact that Buggs is defending a 14-year old video claiming ID is science, and doesn’t seem to know or care that it’s made zero contributions to science in the meantime (or the decades before), tells you his belief is probably immune to evidence.
ID is not science, but even if it were, it would be the most unfruitful hypothesis in the history of science. And that alone is a reason to consign it to the trash bin.
There is an element of luck that I suspect traps some in their thoughts about evolution, though I have no idea if Buggs suffers from it. If one thinks about the current state of evolution on Earth, especially homo sapiens and its culture, as a special outcome of the life “experiment” then, of course, it is very lucky. Change a few things, such as laws of physics, shapes of continents, fortuitous storms, cosmic rays hitting DNA (or whatever molecule carries the genetic code in the experiment instance), the outcome is likely very different. However, our outcome is not intrinsically better than any of the other possible outcomes, as far as we know. Intelligence likely evolves in most of the experimental runs. I’m pretty sure there’s a name for this fallacy but I don’t know what it is.
“I know of not a single adaptation that requires the existence of genetic drift to come into being. I may have missed one or two, but they’re certainly not pervasive enough to dismantle Darwinism, Dawkinsism, and to require us to invoke God and Jesus.”
I don’t have specific examples but theoretically this probably happens a lot. Genetic drift always affects every locus to a greater or lesser degree. It allows the survival and spread of mutations that are neutral or deleterious. This just adds to the variation on which selection can work, and is completely mechanistic and non-teleological. In modern evolutionary theory there is no requierement that adaptations must occur stepwise, with each step being favorable. So even if we grant Bugg’s assertion that nature is too complex to have evolved from small steps, each favorable by themselves, this does not hurt the modern theory of evolution in any way, though it might affect pre-genetic formulations of the theory.
Aren’t there there these cool papers by Ortlund & Thornton on resurrecting the progenitor of certain nuclear hormone receptors, showing that the path to new adaptive forms was most likely opened by neutral mutations?
Well, good luck with changing his mind about anything. Because, as creationists often note, Buggs remain Buggs.
There’s a famous passage by Richard Dawkins that begins, “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.” He also says, “… the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people …”
Likewise, the set of possible organisms allowed by DNA massively exceeds the set of actual organisms. We are no less probable, or less lucky, than any other species alive today.
And among the 100s of billions of stars in the 100s of billions of galaxies in the visible universe (let alone the at least 250× more in the entire universe), Earth is no less probable and no less lucky that billions upon billions of other planets that (likely) also have life.
That passage is put to dramatic effect (probably the understatement of the year) here:
There aren’t many heavy-metal concerts where an evolutionary biologist gets the most applause and brings tears to people’s eyes.
Watch the whole thing; you have nothing better to do. It’s worth it. You can turn on the subtitles, although the lyrics should be clear enough without them.
While my taste in music is similar to Jerry’s (though I might tend a bit more to more English bands such as 70s Jethro Tull), this is a prime example of good music still being made today.
I have the album. I love Nightwish with Floor Jansen.
What we really, really need to do is to find a second instance of life. For which the only real medium-to-short term prospects are below the crusts of Europa and possibly other “icy moons”, or a slender chance of finding relict biochemical fossils (or even body fossils, but that’s really optimistic) on Mars.
Examining another stellar system might happen this millennium, but we’d need to survive the next couple of centuries first, which is also stretching the bounds of optimism.
Oh well, we’ve got a good answer for the Fermi paradox, at least.
I always found the argument that something it “too improbable” to be ridiculous. The fact is that if you go back far enough in time, almost everything is too improbable to have happened. If you go back 4.5 billion years, I can’t imagine what the odds are that professor Buggs would ever come into being.
Several year ago I read an article that discussed this issue in the context of a hand of bridge, where each of the four players is dealt a hand of 13 cards. The odds of all four bridge players holding the particular hands they have were said to be 1:53,644,737,765,488,792,839,237,440,000. However, it would clearly be absurd to deal a hand of bridge and then have the four players leap to their feet and exclaim, “Wow, the odds against the four of us getting these exact cards are 53.6 nonillion to 1, therefore we couldn’t possibly have been dealt these hands by chance! This is clearly evidence of supernatural intervention!”
Glad to see someone here mention deep time, and the relation to probability.
If someone like Buggs came up with a precise claim (an accurate one is extraordinarily unlikely) that somehow 4 billion years is not enough for there not to be some dumb luck involved, but his deep thought and calculation indicates that 400 billion years would have been enough, then it would be likely important to show where he was in error.
Has anyone forced him to say exactly his opinion about how old the earth really is? If some kind of evangelical Christian, he likely would have much trouble to remain both honest and consistent with both his scientific status and his religious beliefs.
Yes, if I buy a lottery ticket the chances that it will be a jackpot winner are vanishingly small yet every week (or nearly) someone wins the jackpot. When this happens we don’t say that it is too unlikely to have occurred by chance so it must be an act of god because we understand that lots of tickets are sold and although there is a tiny prior chance that any particular ticket will be a winner there is a high probability that one of them will be. Deep time and the vast number of solar systems within the universe equate to the large numbers of lottery tickets sold and greatly reduce the improbability that life will arise somewhere.
I think this glosses over the fact that “too improbable” is a genuine argument. The issue at hand is that we’ve done the calculations for what the most improbable is, and found that the course of our evolution is nowhere near it.
Galen Strawson’s translation Section 46 of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum Scientiarum, 1620:
‘Once the human mind has favoured certain views (whether because they’re generally accepted and believed, or because it finds them attractive), it pulls everything else into agreement with and support for them. Should they be outweighed by more powerful countervailing considerations, it either fails to notice these, or scorns them, or makes fine distinctions in order to neutralize and so reject them … thereby preserving untouched the authority of its previous position.’
Confirmation Bias described 400 years ago. We should of course be careful not to fall into the same trap, but if there really were a god there ought to be powerful countervailing considerations to the Theory of Evolution.
From the BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-55769269
“In the fossil record they appear very suddenly in the Cretaceous, dated at about 100 million years ago, and there’s nothing that looks like an angiosperm before them and then they suddenly appear and in considerable diversity,” says Prof Buggs.
Questions raised by the sudden appearance of flowering plants are at the heart of Darwin’s abominable mystery, he explains.
“Why isn’t there a gradual evolution of the angiosperms? Why can’t we see intermediate forms between the gymnosperms – things like conifers – and the flowering plants? And why, when they appear, are they already so diverse?”
i would like to hear a paleobotanist on this.
“i would like to hear a paleobotanist on this.”
I would too but, let’s be clear, it’s not a mystery that comes close to dethroning evolution. It might take a thousand years to answer that question but it shouldn’t weaken evolution if it does.
There is no doubt that gymnosperms and angiosperms had a common ancestor, because of their genetic similarity, and the molecular evidence suggests they diverged 50-100 million years before the appearance of the first fossil records. So the mystery is only about the reasons for the apparent gap in the fossil record, not the fact that they shared a common ancestor with the gymnosperms.
Wikipedia is informative:
“The apparently sudden appearance in the fossil record of nearly modern flowers, and in great diversity, initially posed such a problem for the theory of gradual evolution that Charles Darwin called it an “abominable mystery”. However, the fossil record has considerably grown since the time of Darwin, and recently discovered angiosperm fossils such as Archaefructus, along with further discoveries of fossil gymnosperms, suggest how angiosperm characteristics may have been acquired in a series of steps. Several groups of extinct gymnosperms, in particular seed ferns, have been proposed as the ancestors of flowering plants, but there is no continuous fossil evidence showing how flowers evolved, and botanists still regard it as a mystery.”
Footnote 25 is a reference to Professor Bugg’s article. The article goes on to describe specific fossils that have been discovered and mentions competing hypotheses for angiosperm evolution.
Edited because I assumed Buggs was using the fossil gap as serious argument against evolution. That’s not what he believes, believes, but me stereotyping someone I disagree with instead of engaging with his actual views.
Edit: Buggs does not actually believe that an angiosperm fossil gap seriously challenges evolution. I’m implying this above, but that’s me stereotyping someone with a different worldview instead of engaging with him.
It is quite astonishing to see an established evolutionary biologist (he currently has 4426 citations on google scholar, and his research really is about evolution) making these kind of remarks. It is particularly disheartening to see him make the “irreducible complexity” argument. The Brio bridge example he uses is a rather poor model of how biological entities (for example proteins) evolve through time. I really hope that is a poor choice of metaphor and not the way he thinks about evolution. A much more useful metaphor is John Maynard Smiths’ idea of a protein space, and one of the consequences of that model is that, in a nutshell, intermediate steps are way more probable than Buggs suggests.
Astonishing, see what he does here. He introduces by saying this:
Some moments later he‘s in the familiar “tornado in the junkyard producing an airplane by mere chance” theme, twice, completely ignoring natural selection entirely.
Right afterwards goes to the toy example, with the same theme …
And only then he briefly adds natural selection back in, only to assert that Dawkins was emphasising it a bit much. Put a pin here. He says he was in error to describe the “whole process” as natural selection. He then lists four other things, needing luck …
He previously claimed that these five aspects (the four above, plus selection) are important and is saying here that natural selection is just one, versus four driven by luck. And luck of course means God, who impregnated a virgin through magic semen, to birth himself so he can be sacrificed and redeem humankind (cheap shot? No, he says, he’s a Christian, but let’s ignore it).
Now, I am just an interested layperson, and I’m acutely aware of this fact when discussing what a professor of biology like Buggs says, nonetheless I can’t help it: he seems to not understand a crucial part of evolution. I know, tall assertion. However, why did he prime his audience with nonsensical “tornado in the junkyard” examples? It seems to me that the four things he lists are not “parallel” or separate to natural selection but are ways for variation to occur which can be selected eventually. Or as in the simple version, random changes, then natural selection. An advanced explanation does not seem to overthrow this general setup, with the caveat Jerry listed above about drift.
I don’t believe Dawkins says that natural selection was literally the “whole process” — but it seems the mistake of Buggs lies in this crucial misunderstanding. In his mind, there are five different things and just one is weeding out luck, and he seems to think that 4 : 1 Luck vs Selection, Luck wins. And luck, of course, means virgin birth, ascending to heaven, et cetera.
Buggs straddles the ID/evolution line, but it remains unclear just how far down the rabbit hole he’s gone, apart from his regular coauthored science papers in botany.
Of relevance is a gobsmackingly strange piece Buggs coauthored in 2016 with the DiscoTute’s resident closet Young Earther, Paul Nelson: “Next-generation apomorphy: the ubiquity of taxonomically restricted genes,” which appeared in Peter Olson, Peter D., Joseph Hughes, & James A. Cotton, eds. Next Generation Systematics (Cambridge University Press) pages 237-264.
The work was an evasive parade of technical citations trying to show that ORFan genes were inexplicable. Along the way they bumped into a plethora of technical work whose content didn’t filter into their presentation, such as alluding to the “taxonomically-restricted genes” (TRGs) of E. coli, without mentioning that the bacterium’s TRGs were largely derived from horizontal gene transfer from bacteriophages. Fixated as they were on functionality (the influence of Nelson here, perhaps?), Nelson & Buggs were aware that functional TRGs were known among bacteriophages, but in not thinking about their showing up as viral HGT insertions in a bacterium (explicitly discussed in one of their own cited sources), apparently it slipped their minds to connect those obvious dots regarding how this would have affected their initial misidentification as ORFans.
No allusions to ID or creationism occurred in it, btw, but it fits into their general theme of Evolution (Supposedly) Can’t Explain X style of apologetics. Since Nelson believes in a Young Earth, but stays coy about it, while Buggs appears OK with an Adam & Eve living hundreds of thousands of years ago (in his set-tos with Joshua Swamidass & others on this) one presumes chronology issues have not arisen in their writing chats.
A big dose of “affirming his confirmation bias” in short, intellectual senility before his time. Sad that inquiry and investigation stops at god.
A short search in Web of Science gave:
Published: 28 January 2021 online
Silvestro et al, Fossil data support a pre-Cretaceous origin of flowering plants
Nature Ecology & Evolution (2021)
That is a model of time, but this article as well as WoS give pre-Cretaceous angiosperm fossils. Buggs is certainly wrong in his statements on angiosperm fossils.
What weaksauce. Science doesn’t try and doesn’t have to “preclude the existence of God”; it’s up to the theist to demonstrate evidence for their preferred model of origins of species. No evidence of a ‘possible’ theory means no warrant to believe that theory.
This is called the Possibiliter ergo Probabiliter fallacy; they argue science can’t eliminate the possibility of God, then make an unstated implication that this justifies a belief in him.
It sounds as if most of his points are stock-standard God of the Gaps, as you note. I wonder why anyone bothers to dramatically assert that “Darwinism” is unable to rule out the existence of God. After all, God could perfectly well be concerned only with a mite that lives on pocket gophers, and be seen to act only in them. So you couldn’t rule out His existence.
I note some sign that he accepts ENCODE’s disastrous 2012 declaration of the nonexistence of Junk DNA. He seems ti talk in glowing terms about all the complex machinery of the cell. Is there any knowledge of what he thinks about Junk DNA?
Goodness – this British Bug creature AND the absolutely horrible David Berlinsky – we’re really swimming with some ugly fishies today aren’t we? Where do they find these odious characters?
My hat off to you for even hearing them out – I don’t have the tolerance or patience: as soon as Buggers said “…and I’m a Christian” at about 3 minutes in I was outta there.
His name sounded familiar and after some digging through his publications, I found his paper on hybrid zone movement (from 2007 in Heredity). I have cited this paper in my own work on hybridization. Looking at his publication record, he has done some great work on hybridization and speciation. He clearly understands evolution at the level of plants and animals, but he seems clueless when he writes about molecular evolution at the protein level (where his ID suddenly pops up). It might thus be a case of ignorance outside his field of research that he fills with ID.
Regarding the origin of life: I am currently reading “The Vital Question” by Nick Lane. A wonderful book that lays out the possible steps from geochemistry to biochemistry to cells with convincing evidence from chemical, molecular and mathematical studies. Highly recommended (especially for Buggs).
I haven’t read Lane’s book, but he leans heavily on metabolism in many of his theories. There is no need for that, since tree methods (bad, but a start) suffice to take us from geology to biology. See e.g. “The physiology and habitat of the last universal common ancestor”, Weiss et al., Nature Microbiology, 2016].
Surely the bottleneck of two is Mr. & Mrs. Noah. Just sayin’…
I think I remember there was a paper studying the greatest amount of genetic divergence that could happen with time, and found that our natural history has been nowhere near that limit.
Today, I would argue, cosmology is a stronger knockdown against theism (and deism).
I now no longer label myself against a religious scale of theism/atheism – no need.
It is notable that the ease from quick start and high diversification rates is likely stronger than that. Life may have evolved right after the Moon forming event [“Integrated genomic and fossil evidence illuminates life’s early evolution and eukaryote origins”, Betts et al., Nat Ecol Evol., 2018; “Ancient Earth was a water world”, Science, Mar. 9, 2021].
In any case we the distinction between geology and biology is seemingly erased so biological systems show up as splits from geology in deep phylogenies [“The physiology and habitat of the last universal common ancestor”, Weiss et al., Nature Microbiology, 2016].
It is evolution of language capable animals that seems exceptionally rare [“The Timing of Evolutionary Transitions Suggests Intelligent Life is Rare”, Andrew E. Snyder-Beattie, Anders Sandberg, K. Eric Drexler, and Michael B. Bonsall, Astrobiology, 2021]. That fits with the apparent finetuning suggested by our inflationary hot big bang cosmology.