October 20, 2007

God and the Cambrian Explosion

Filed under: Church — Bob Gifford @ 1:23 pm

Heracletus sent me this interview of Dr. Paul Chien, a professor of Biology at the University of San Franciso and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute. It’s undated, but appears to be from 2002 or earlier. Chien raises objections to the theory of evolution. The gist:

A simple way of putting it is that currently we have about 38 phyla of different groups of animals, but the total number of phyla discovered during [the Cambrian explosion] adds up to over 50 phyla. That means [there are] more phyla in the very, very beginning, where we found the first fossils [of animal life], than exist now.

Stephen J. Gould, [a Harvard University evolutionary biologist], has referred to this as the reverse cone of diversity. The theory of evolution implies that things get more and more complex and get more and more diverse from one single origin. But the whole thing turns out to be reversed – we have more diverse groups in the very beginning, and in fact more and more of them die off over time, and we have less and less now.

Chien’s belief that evolution implies an ever-increasing diversity as measured by the number of phyla is intuitively appealing, but if I learned nothing else from studying Quantum Mechanics, it’s that intuition is not a reliable guide to scientific truth. And in fact, in his book At Home in the Universe, Stanley Kauffman describes mathematical models of evolution which, when tested via computer simulations, show results exactly like the Cambrian explosion and subsequent pruning of the evolutionary tree.

While it’s the math and the research that provides the scientific proof, he provides an analogy that makes it easier to visualize: technical innovation.

I have already mentioned…the diversity of early bicycles in the nineteenth century: some with no handle-bars, then forms with little back wheels and big front wheels, or equal size wheels, or more than two wheels in a line, the early dominant Pennyfarthing branching further. The plethora of the class Bicycle (members of the phylum Wheeled Wonders) eventually settled to the two or three forms dominant today: street, racing and mountain bike. Or think of the highly diverse forms of steam and gasoline flivvers early in the twentieth century as the automobile took form. Or of early aircraft design, helicopter design, or motorcycle design.

To these examples, I’d add e-business. In the nineties, every kind of e-commerce business model was proposed, funded and launched. Following the e-business bust of 2000, we are left with just four phyla, as represented by Amazon, Google, Yahoo and eBay.

In the same way, when the biochemical mechanisms required for complex multi-cellular organisms emerged, these new forms of life faced a world with virtually no competition. Everything was possible, every biological niche had to be filled, and so everything was tried. But since this explosion, evolution has weeded out all but those forms best able to compete in an ecosphere with more cut-throat (literally) competition. So the rapid emergence of 50+ phyla, gradually reduced to the current 38, makes perfect sense.

Chien and others in the Intelligent Design community set up a false dichotomy between evolution-believing atheists and evolution-rejecting Christians. But the leadership of the mainline Protestant, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches all see no conflict between evolution and Christianity. This isn’t a disagreement between Christians and unbelievers, but a disagreement within Christianity itself, with the evolution-accepting side in the majority.

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