Finding Adam in the Genome: Part 1 of a Response to Chapter 2 (and Chapter 4) of Adam and the Genome

Part 9

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This article series has been responding to Dennis Venema’s and Scot McKnight’s book Adam and the Genome.1 Our primary focus has been on Venema’s scientific claims. In our previous post, we explored chapter one which deals exclusively with nongenetic data. Venema’s remaining chapters dive into the subject of genetics. In this post, we begin exploring Venema’s evidences in chapter two, titled “Genomes as Language, Genomes as Books.”

Naturally, with a subject as technically complex as genetics, our task might seem daunting. Nevertheless, in previous posts, we made a critical observation that simplified our task. We discovered that evolutionists refuse to read young-earth creationist (YEC) literature because they think that YECs are liars. Consequently, when evolutionists cite evidence to support their claims, they effectively fit facts to conclusions.

In chapter two, Venema’s opening arguments illustrate his refusal to engage the YEC literature. His purpose in these arguments is spelled out explicitly:

When faced with compelling evidence for evolution, many nonbiologists assume that evolution requires substantial changes in multiple organisms in the same generation for a change to pass down over time. Therefore they conclude, reasonably enough, that evolution is too improbable to occur.

If indeed evolution worked that way, they would be right. But, in fact, that’s not the way it works. Evolution works by incremental change within a population, shifting its average characteristics over long periods of time.2

To illustrate this point, Venema turns to human language for an analogy.

Missing the Bigger Debate

Venema’s choice is clever. Many parallels exist between the process of language change and the process of biological change—extending even into the realm of “transitional forms,” a subject that Venema addressed in chapter one. To accomplish his stated purpose of showing that “evolution works by incremental change within a population,” Venema picks an appropriate analogy.

At face value, Venema’s analogy doesn’t distinguish between evolution and YEC.

But what relevance does this analogy have to the origins debate? Had Venema read the YEC literature and addressed it in his book, the relevance (or lack thereof) would have been clear. In fact, YECs endorse language change. We explain the origin of the over 7,000 languages in existence today by invoking an initial, instantaneous language split at Babel, which would have resulted in perhaps 70 languages, followed by massive language change in the last few thousand years.3 Furthermore, YEC biologists like myself use similar language analogies to explain DNA change and the process of speciation.4 At face value, Venema’s analogy doesn’t distinguish between evolution and YEC.

One of the most critical distinctions between evolution and YEC is in an arena that Venema’s language analogy never addresses. Like the YEC position on language change, YEC scientists postulate an initial miracle (the creation events of Genesis 1) to explain the origins of the first ancestors or kinds. In other words, the YEC position holds that the language analogy has strict limits. Venema doesn’t discuss these limits in chapter two.

Engaging the Critical Issues

Instead, Venema deals with the potential limits to evolutionary change in another chapter. In chapter four, Venema addresses some of the objections that the Intelligent Design (ID) community has raised about the limits of evolution. Since some of the objections raised by the ID community have been adopted by the YEC community, Venema’s claims in chapter four (“What About Intelligent Design?”) are worth exploring in detail at this juncture in our article series.

Since ID arguments can be as technically complex as the field of genetics, let’s focus our attention on just one of the ID arguments that Venema claims to rebut: Michael Behe’s. Unlike YECs, Behe accepts common ancestry of many species and has no problem with the evolutionary timescale. Behe’s only objection to evolution is the mechanism: random mutation and natural selection. In the last two decades, Behe has published two books—Darwin’s Black Box5 and The Edge of Evolution6—which outline his specific reasons for objecting to the evolutionary mechanism.

Venema attempts to summarize Behe’s arguments in chapter four. Given Venema’s refusal to read the literature of his YEC opponents, it’s no surprise that Venema manifests a similar flaw in his treatment of his ID opponents. Though Venema claims to have read both of Behe’s books,7 Venema’s summary and understanding of Behe’s claims leaves much to be desired.

Before exploring where Venema went wrong, let’s review what Behe has claimed. In Darwin’s Black Box, Behe took up Darwin’s own test for evolution:

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.8

Naturally, Darwin claimed to “find out no such case.”9 But, as Behe points out, neither Darwin nor his contemporaries knew anything about the molecular details of cells—the very place where evolutionary change is supposed to happen. Behe put Darwin’s test in biochemical and molecular terms.

In short, Behe concluded that biological systems consisting of multiple, mutually interdependent parts—or irreducibly complex systems—could not evolve via mutation and natural selection. In his book, Behe gives multiple systems that meet the criteria of being irreducibly complex and, therefore, inexplicable via evolution.

Nearly a decade after Darwin’s Black Box, Behe took up an even more adventurous task in The Edge of Evolution. Since Venema seems to conflate the messages of these two books, let’s allow Behe to explain his purpose in his second book. Furthermore, given Venema’s very pointed responses to Behe, it’s worth quoting Behe at length to understand exactly what Behe was trying to accomplish, and to understand the relationship between Behe’s second book and his first:

Darwin’s Black Box was concerned to show just that some elegant structures in life are beyond random mutation and natural selection. This book is much more ambitious. Here the focus is on drawing up reasonable, general guidelines to mark the edge of evolution—to decide with some precision beyond what point Darwinian explanations are unlikely to be adequate, not just for some particular structure but for general features of life. This can be compared to the job of an archaeologist who discovers an ancient city buried under sand. The task of deciding whether random processes produced things like intricate paintings on walls of the city buildings (perhaps by blowing sand) is pretty easy. After all, elegant paintings aren’t very likely to be made by chance processes, especially if the paintings portray not just simple geometric patterns, but images of people or animals.

But once the cherry-picking is over, the going gets tougher. Are the dark markings at the side actually a part of a painting, or just smudges? Is a pile of stones next to an exterior wall a table or an altar of some sort, or just a random collection of rocks? Is ground near the wall the remnant of a tilled field? Where lies the border of the city? Where does civilization stop and raw nature begin? Deciding on marginal cases like those is harder work, and the conclusions will necessarily be more tentative. But at the end of the study the archeologist will be left with a much clearer picture of where the city leaves off and random natural processes take over.10

Venema’s Fatal Misstep

With respect to Behe’s two books, Venema breezes over the differences. He treats the tests that Behe lays out in the second book as nearly equivalent to the first. In fact, as the quote above demonstrates, Behe’s first book makes a very tight theoretical argument. Behe’s second book attempts to empirically determine general rules for distinguishing between evolution and ID. The first book lays out a rigorous case; the second book, by definition, deals with more ambiguous data and is, of necessity, more tentative.

Specifically, Venema takes Behe’s “new binding sites between proteins”11 rule from The Edge of Evolution and overextends it. Venema treats this rule as nearly equivalent to Behe’s arguments in Darwin’s Black Box. In fact, they are distinct, consistent with the distinctive purposes of each book:

The conclusion from Chapter 7—that the development of two new intracellular protein-protein binding sites at the same time is beyond Darwinian reach—leaves open, at least as a formal possibility, that some multiprotein structures (at least ones that aren’t irreducibly complex, in the sense defined in Darwin’s Black Box) might be built by adding one protein at a time, each of which is an improvement.12

Behe makes it obvious that his irreducibly complexity argument from Darwin’s Black Box is different from the general rules that he derived in The Edge of Evolution. This distinction is critical because Venema’s rebuttals focus largely on the “new binding sites between proteins” rule—to the exclusion of the arguments in Darwin’s Black Box.

Since Behe published Darwin’s Black Box, the evolutionary community has exerted great effort in trying to rebut it—but without success.

Venema’s misstep is fatal. It is also consistent with evolutionary practice over the last two decades. Since Behe published Darwin’s Black Box, the evolutionary community has exerted great effort in trying to rebut it—but without success. In general, evolutionary responses fall into four categories. First, evolutionists have appealed to the concept of scaffolds. By analogy, bridges are an example of irreducibly complex structures. Yet they exist and have been built in numerous small steps, seemingly in defiance of Behe’s arguments against this possibility. The reason bridges overcome the barriers to the construction of irreducibly complex structures is the existence of scaffolds that buttress unstable intermediate steps in the construction process. Of course, scaffolds exist because intelligent people put them there. Since evolution seeks to replace intelligence as a scientific explanation, and since Behe seeks to reestablish intelligence, the evolutionary appeal to scaffolds is logically flawed from the outset. In other words, to invoke scaffolding in response to Behe’s arguments is to concede defeat.

Second, evolutionists invoke vague hierarchies from simple structures and systems to complex ones. This argument deftly skirts Darwin’s own criteria for testing evolution. Since evolution works via “numerous, successive, slight modifications,”13 the real test of evolution is in the details of the mechanism, not in the way that life can be organized. Effectively, the evolutionary appeal to vague hierarchies changes the subject—which is not a rational response to a scientific challenge to evolution. (Darwin’s Black Box hammers this point home.)

Third, evolutionists have appealed to neutral evolution to explain the origin of irreducibly complex biological systems. This tactic actually makes the problem worse for evolution. Neutral evolution is simply a synonym for blind luck. When the explanation is luck, probability calculations apply, and the probability of forming a biochemical system by blind luck is effectively zero.14

Fourth, evolutionists have ignored irreducible complexity entirely. They have cited the evolutionary origin of structures that are not irreducibly complex, in order to justify the origin of structures that are. This logically incoherent answer does nothing to meet Behe’s challenge.

In chapter four of Adam and the Genome, Venema cites three examples that supposedly rebut Behe’s arguments. Venema describes a genetic comparison in fruit flies, a “whole-genome duplication (WGD) event” in the lineage leading to vertebrates (i.e., humans, mammals, fish, and so on), and an example of evolution in viruses that infect bacteria.

Again, because Venema conflates Behe’s two books, Venema’s arguments are deficient. They also end up repeating the same erroneous strategies that evolutionists have employed for 20 years. The fruit fly argument, by Venema’s own admission, does not represent an irreducibly complex structure—a flaw in reasoning which Behe himself has publicly identified.15 In other words, Venema commits the fourth type of error that I discussed above.

Venema’s second claim is one from a vague hierarchy. Venema simply assumes that the species—whose DNA he examines—are related via evolutionary common ancestry, and then calls Behe’s arguments refuted. Venema never describes a detailed mechanism by which these DNA patterns arose (nor does he give detailed justification for whether they are irreducibly complex—a necessary point to prove if Venema wants to rebut Behe’s claims from Darwin’s Black Box). In other words, Venema never shows how “numerous, successive, slight modifications” actually produced the genomes that we see today. In short, Venema repeats the second error that I discussed above.

In Venema’s last example, he seems to finally engage Behe’s claims. Venema says, “This experiment documents the addition of a protein to an irreducibly complex system.”16 In fact, Venema contradicts himself later:

Thus Behe is now faced with a concrete example of a new protein-binding site arising through multiple mutations, with that new binding event replacing a previously essential part of a complex system—and all documented at a level of detail that cannot be disputed.17

Which is it? Was a new protein added to the system? Or was one part of the system replaced with another? Venema doesn’t seem to understand the difference between the two—or the significance for Behe’s ideas. In an irreducibly complex system, swapping one part for another doesn’t explain the origin of the system.

For example, in Darwin’s Black Box, Behe uses a mousetrap as an analogy for irreducibly complex systems in the biological realm. In the mousetrap example, the pieces of the mousetrap can be attached to the floor instead of to the piece of wood that normally forms the base of the trap. The floor and the base can be swapped. But this says nothing about how any of these components arose in the first place. Before the swap and after the swap, the number of irreducibly complex components is the same. Nothing has been added to the system. A swap does nothing to explain how a mousetrap can be built step-by-step from a non-mousetrap. For evolution to occur, an irreducibly complex system must be built by addition of parts, not the swapping of parts. Venema claims that parts were added to the system—and then contradicts himself later. In fact, his latter answer is true—which means the example never really addresses Behe’s claims in Darwin’s Black Box. In other words, Venema’s last example falls under category four of traditional evolutionary responses to Darwin’s Black Box.

Conclusion and Ramifications

Consider the significance of Venema’s attempts to rebut Behe. For over 20 years, evolutionists have had opportunity to cite some example, some biological process, some experimental result that refutes Behe’s claims. And, after two decades, the best that Venema can do is change the subject. This does not bode well for the scientific coherence of evolution.

Since Behe’s arguments are still fatal for evolution, we won’t take the time to explore Venema’s responses to other ID claims. If Venema can’t address the most significant objections to evolution, then there’s no need to explore the rest. The naturalistic evolution of irreducibly complex biological structures is impossible.

It seems that Venema picks and chooses from Behe’s concepts to fit Venema’s preconceived conclusions.

Let’s analyze one more aspect of Venema’s treatment of Behe’s ideas. Why does Venema make the errors that he does? Perhaps Venema’s blunders are due to his earlier confusion about the purposes of Behe’s two books. With respect to Venema’s third example that supposedly refutes Behe, Venema seems preoccupied with the “new protein binding site” rule (as the quote above demonstrates), yet he doesn’t recognize the distinction between this rule and Behe’s arguments from irreducible complexity. In other words, it seems that Venema picks and chooses from Behe’s concepts to fit Venema’s preconceived conclusions. Whether deliberate or inadvertent, Venema seems to have the same approach to all of his critics, whether YEC or ID.

In subsequent posts, we’ll explore in more detail Venema’s language analogy, and how he attempts to use that analogy to buttress his other claims in chapter two.

Footnotes

  1. Dennis R. Venema and Scot McKnight. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2017.
  2. Venema, 19.
  3. A. K. Steel, “The Development of Languages Is Nothing like Biological Evolution,” Journal of Creation 14, no. 2 (2000): 31–40, https://answersingenesis.org/tower-of-babel/the-development-of-languages-is-nothing-like-biological-evolution/.
  4. “The Origin of Species After the Flood,” Answers in Genesis, https://answersingenesis.org/noahs-ark/origin-of-species-after-flood/.
  5. Michael J. Behe. Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York, Touchstone, 1996.
  6. Michael J. Behe. The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism. New York, Free Press, 2007.
  7. Kathryn Applegate and J.B. Stump, eds. How I Changed My Mind about Evolution: Evangelicals Reflect on Faith and Science. Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press, 2016.
  8. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 189, http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=F373&viewtype=text&pageseq=1.
  9. Darwin, 189.
  10. Behe, The Edge of Evolution, 8.
  11. Venema, 69.
  12. Behe, The Edge of Evolution, 157.
  13. Darwin, 189.
  14. For example, consider the probability of getting a correct protein sequence by pure luck. The building blocks of proteins, amino acids, come in 20 forms. If a protein consists of 100 amino acids, the probability of getting the correct sequence by chance is astronomical: 1/20 * 1/20 * 1/20 . . . [i.e., (1/20)^100] = 1 chance in 8 x 10131 [that’s the number 10 with 131 zeros after it].
  15. Michael Behe, “At BioLogos, Confusion over the Meaning of ‘Irreducibly Complex,” Evolution News, July 9, 2012, https://evolutionnews.org/2012/07/at_biologos_con/.
  16. Venema, 79.
  17. Ibid., 80 (emphasis added).

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