Is the Watchmaker Blind? – Part I

Richard Dawkins, The Blind WatchmakerRichard Dawkins wrote The Blind Watchmaker to provide a “non-miraculous account of the existence of complex adaptations.”1  The Economist magazine says it is “as readable and vigorous a defense of Darwinism as has been published since 1859.”  Logic & Light has addressed the theory of evolution before, but it makes sense for us to review and critique this book to ensure both sides of the debate are adequately considered.

We will do so in a two-part series.  This first section will address the high-level arguments Dawkins makes and the problems with them.  The second article will go into some of Dawkins more specific claims.

The bottom line is this:  Dawkins utterly fails to make a case for Darwinism.  While The Blind Watchmaker sounds compelling at times, it only does so because Dawkins is very selective in what he tells.  Dawkins’ book is long on theory, “thought experiments,” and just-so stories but short on actual evidence.  What evidence he does provide is often misrepresented or only told in part, leaving out the details which conflict with evolution. 

Further, despite being written in 1986 and reissued in 1996, 2006, and 2015, Dawkins has chosen not to address a myriad of new scientific findings that challenge evolution’s foundation.  Rather, he continues to remain committed to the truth of evolution for philosophical reasons and relies on the presumed ignorance of his readers to make his case.

Dawkins believes Darwinism is an “inevitable”2 process that results from:

  1. The initial beginning of some very simple lifeform through chance.
  2. The gradual, cumulative evolution of that lifeform due to a) random mutations, b) effectively filtered by natural selection, c) across vast time periods.

We will look at each of these high-level claims to see if they hold water.  However, before we do so, it is important to recognize that biological change does occur.  Even the most conservative, biblical creationist acknowledges this fact.  But, despite evolutionists’ attempts to convince us otherwise, simple biological change is not the same as the Theory of Evolution.  The question is not whether life changes.  The question is whether evolution provides plausible, naturalistic explanations for how 1) life initially began and 2) progressively developed complex designs and features. 

Let’s take a look.

The Beginning of Life

Dr. Dawkins freely admits that even the most basic “simple” single cell life is far too complex to have arisen randomly.  Consequently, life must have started as some unknown “primordial objects sufficiently simple to have come into being by chance.”3  Given that there are “probably more than a billion billion available planets in the universe” and life took a billion years to develop on earth, there are at least a billion billion billion (equivalent to 1 x 1027) “planet years” for such an event to occur.4  Dawkins claims such odds make a chance beginning for life practically inevitable.

While Dawkins’ theory sounds initially plausible, it is rife with holes and problems.  The first issue is that the entire model is based on a supposed, though never observed, “sufficiently simple primordial object.”  In effect, it is something that only exists in Dawkins’ imagination.  One has to note the irony of Dawkins’ theory depending on something for which there is no evidence when he so vehemently accuses Christians of the same thing.  The difference is that there is a wealth of evidence to support the foundation of Christianity (Cosmological, Teleological, Biblical, Historical, Anthropological, Covenantal, Moral, and other arguments) as opposed to Dawkins’ theoretical primordial object.

Secondly, Dawkins asserts that 1 x 1027 “planet years” is more than enough opportunity to create life from non-life by chance.  But he offers no support for this statement other than the fact that it is a big number.  This assertion is a beautiful illustration of Dawkins attempting to rely on the supposed ignorance of his reader to make his point.  We can show this by looking at the example of simple protein.

Proteins are not life.  They are simply one of the four necessary building blocks of life (along with lipids, carbohydrates, and nucleic acids).  In fact, the simplest know lifeform, which is a laboratory modified version of the Mycoplasma mycoides bacterium, contains 438 proteins.5  However, even a single protein is far too complex to have arisen by chance.  In fact, scientists have estimated that the likelihood of getting a simple protein of only 92 amino acids (the average protein has several hundred amino acids) is 1 chance in 1063 note 6.  Other estimates of the chance formation of a protein are even worse.

Let’s look at these odds vs. Dawkins’ math.  Given 31.5 million seconds per year, we have 3.15 x 1034 “planet seconds” to perform random chemical reactions to generate life.  Assuming such early life form was no more complex than a single protein, we would need each potential planet in the universe to “conduct” 3.17 x 1028 trials every second, for 1 billion years, to create this initial lifeform!  Suddenly, Dawkins’ odds don’t sound so easy.

The fact is that “origin of life” researchers have spent decades trying to create a workable theory of how life began.  To date, despite the best minds examining the issue, all potential theories are rife with problems.  There is zero evidence that abiogenesis (life from non-life) is actually possible.  Evolutionary biologist Eugene Koonin (among many other evolutionists) admits “we still do not even have a plausible coherent model” of how it could have happened.7  Dawkins’ attempts to make it sound easy and inevitable are completely inaccurate and misleading. 

Random Mutations

Dawkins claims that random mutations, resulting in small incremental variation and filtered by natural selection, are the change agents of evolution.  He is clear that each change is minute in and of itself, such that it can be explained by simple chance.  However, since only those changes that provide a benefit are kept due to natural selection, evolution results in a steady progression towards more and more effective, and complex, “designs.”  What we think is design is actually the end result of billions of years of tiny, incremental improvements.  Since each successive step is small enough to have been caused by random chance, no Designer is needed and the odds are quite realistic.

Again, Dawkins’ proposition sounds compelling, but only because he tells partial truths.  First of all, Dawkins implies mutations are simply changes to genetic information.  In reality, mutations are copy mistakes that inevitably reduce genetic information.8  Consequently, the vast, vast majority of mutations are harmful (on the order of 99.9% to 99.9999%).9  Even those mutations that are “beneficial” (e.g. bacterial antibiotic resistance) result in reduced genetic information.10 Therefore, random mutations cannot be the driver of long-term, progressive evolution.  Evolution requires a dramatic increase in information and mutations take things in the wrong direction.

Dawkins acknowledges that most mutations appear harmful.  But he then makes a startling statement.  Dawkins claims that most mutations simply appear harmful because the only ones seen in the lab “are pretty macro because otherwise geneticists wouldn’t notice them.”11 The shocking conclusion is that evolution must be driven by mutations that are too small to actually be observed!  In other words, the mutations seen by mainstream, evolutionary scientists don’t fit with what evolution requires.  So, just as with Dawkins’ mythical “simple primordial” lifeform, we must also believe in tiny, unobserved micro-mutations that are inconsistent with what science actually sees to salvage evolution!

Furthermore, Dawkins relies on the concept of mutation much more than on actual mutations to explain evolution.  The bottom line is that small “point” mutations are simply the wrong mechanism to drive the development of new information and entirely new body parts and plans.12  Similarly, larger mutations (e.g. epigenetic, embryonic, regulatory gene networks, etc.) are also the wrong mechanism because they also don’t create information, are exceedingly rare, and are almost always catastrophic to the organism.13  Recognizing this fact, Georgia Tech geneticist John McDonald notes what he calls the “great Darwinian paradox14.”  In short, “the kind of mutations we need for major evolutionary change we don’t get:  the kind we get we don’t need.”15

Dawkins also misrepresents the math in his attempt to show how small incremental mutations can scale “Mount Improbable” one tiny step at a time.  Dawkins acknowledges that getting something as sophisticated as a bat’s sonar in one step is so improbable as to be impossible.  But many small steps make it practically inevitable.  However, unfortunately for Dawkins, the math is the same either way.16  For example, let’s say a certain complex structure only has a 0.0001% chance of occurring at random.  If we break it down into 20 distinct steps, that each have a 50% chance of occurring, the chance of getting that same complex structure is…wait for it…0.0001%!  Since we have to multiply the chances of each step to get the total, the odds are exactly the same.  And since random mutations are the driving factor, natural selection cannot change the odds.  It only comes into effect after the right mutation has occurred. 

Let’s look at the odds another way by going back to our protein example.  If the chances of getting a simple viable protein to form randomly are 1 in 1063, could random mutations have created over a million biologically functional proteins?  Evolutionists estimate that, over the assumed 4.5 billion years of earth history, there have been 1 x 1040 living organisms, from single-celled bacteria to humans.17  Incidentally, 4.5 billion years represents 1.4 x 1017 seconds.  So, to get one protein, each of these organisms would need to experience over 700,000 random mutations, per second, for 4.5 billion years, to code for a single new protein.  Of course, even this impossible number stacks the deck heavily in evolution’s favor.  It assumes that all of earth’s organisms existed from the beginning of the planet and presupposes the existence of countless proteins needed to support them in order to generate one such protein!  Again, Dawkins willingly and massively misrepresents the challenges facing evolution.  In fact, Dawkins and many other atheists often invoke the idea of an infinite and theoretical multiverse to help even these odds.

Natural Selection

Natural Selection is the real engine of evolution in Dawkins’ opinion.  While mutation provides the paint, natural selection is the artist.  Dawkins goes so far as to say “Cumulative selection is the key to all our modern explanations of life.”18

Natural selection clearly has an influence on which organisms survive and thrive.  However, Dawkins drastically over-estimates its real power.  First of all, natural selection works at the level of the entire organism, not individual genes.19  Therefore, to significantly impact survivability, a mutation must be large enough to impact the entire organism20 as opposed to the unnoticeable micro-mutations Dawkins proposes. 

Secondly, once one accounts for random impacts to reproduction and non-heritable mutations (that cannot be passed on), the impact of natural selection is severely limited.  In fact, famed evolutionist and population geneticist Motoo Kimura (whom Dawkins respects22) estimated the “heritability” of “fitness” to be less than 1%.23  In reality, we much more often see survival of the luckiest instead of survival of the fittest.24

Finally, Dawkins ignores the reality of so-called “genetic entropy.”25  Mutations practically always reduce genetic information, even in cases where they provide a short-term benefit.   However, most mutations are too small to impact the organism as a whole.  Since selection works at the level of the whole organism, such minor mistakes cannot be selected out.  Consequently, many minor, negative, though “nearly neutral” mutations invariably accumulate through subsequent generations.  Since selection cannot eliminate them, and there is no offsetting means of replacing lost genetic information, the long-term trend is toward a degraded genome.  In other words, we are vastly more likely to get devolution instead of evolution.

Conclusion

 In total, Dawkins only makes a “readable and vigorous defense of Darwinism” by leaving out key parts of the story.  He is driven to do so, to massively dishonest proportions, because of a philosophical and emotional commitment to atheism.  It is not enough for Dawkins to doubt God’s existence.  He fervently hopes there is no biblical God, so he makes the evidence fit his wishes.

Ironically, after reading The Blind Watchmaker, I am now even more convinced that a belief in God is not only justified, but necessary.  Dawkins berates Christians for having a “blind faith” without proof, despite the strong and compelling evidence available on Logic & Light and many other places.  But, even if we agree with Dawkins’ erroneous claim that Christians believe in a God without proof, the evolutionist is in a much worse position.  To salvage his worldview, Dawkins must believe in a plethora of things for which no evidence actually exists:  undefined primordial life forms that haven’t been found, micro-mutations which cannot be seen, countless missing transitional forms, and multiverses which can never be proven.  Dawkins must summon at least four times more “blind faith” than even his strawman Christian! 

Notes:

  1. Dawkins, Dr. Richard.  The Blind Watchmaker.  New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. 2015.  Pg. 355
  2. Ibid.  Pg. 23
  3. Ibid.  Pg. 22
  4. Ibid.  Pgs. 205-206
  5. Combining information from two articles:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29757649 and https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/phenomena/2016/04/21/we-built-the-worlds-simplest-cell-but-dunno-how-it-works/
  6. Meyer, Dr. Stephen.  Darwin’s Doubt.  New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers 2013.  Pg. 183
  7. Sanford, Dr. John and Rupe, Chris.  https://www.logosra.org/spontaneous-life Appendix 1
  8. Sanford, Dr. John.  Genetic Entropy.  FMS Publications 2014. Pg. 15
  9. Ibid.  Pg. 35
  10. Ibid.  Pg. 17
  11. Dawkins, Dr. Richard.  Op. Cit.  Pg. 332
  12. Meyer, Dr. Stephen.  Op. Cit.  Pg. 281
  13. Meyer, Dr. Stephen.  Op. Cit.  Pgs. 269, 285, 318
  14. Meyer, Dr. Stephen.  Op. Cit.  Pg. 262
  15. Meyer, Dr. Stephen.  Op. Cit.  Pg. 262
  16. Axe, Dr. Douglas.  Presentation:  Undeniable:  How Biology Confirms Our Intuition that Life is Designed.  October 13, 2017.  National Conference on Christian Apologetics.  Charlotte, NC.
  17. Meyer, Dr. Stephen.  Op. Cit.  Pg. 203
  18. Dawkins, Dr. Richard.  Op. Cit.  Pg. 198
  19.  Sanford, Dr. John.  Op. Cit.  Pg. 53
  20. Sanford, Dr. John.  Op. Cit.  Pgs. 53-58
  21. Dawkins, Dr. Richard.  Op. Cit.  Pgs. 429, 444
  22. Sanford, Dr. John.  Op. Cit.  Pg. 105
  23. Sanford, Dr. John.  Op. Cit.  Pg. 100
  24. Sanford, Dr. John.  Op. Cit. Premise of the entire book
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