Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Bespectacled Biologist: The Function of Control Beliefs in Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker

* This is a paper I wrote in 1991 for a Philosophy of Biology class.  A great deal of development has happened over the past 25 years in terms of the Intelligent Design movement and its critics.  In that Dawkins' book has been continually reissued and referenced this paper's discussion of a number of early reviews may still be relevant.

The resurgence of creationism as a contender against evolution in the 1970’s and ‘80’s has brought forth a whole host of defenders for the standard neo-Darwinian model of evolution.  Such titles as Darwinism Defended, Taking Darwin Seriously, and The Blind Watchmaker are put forth as ammunition to decimate the dreaded scourge of “Scientific Creationism.”  The Blind Watchmaker (hereafter BW) by Richard Dawkins is particularly zealous to defend the sacrosanct position of neo-Darwinism.  Dawkins is not merely arguing for the truthfulness of neo-Darwinian evolution as a scientific fact but he is also seeking to convince his readers that the Darwinian worldview is correct.  Dawkins states up front that his book “is not a dispassionate scientific treatise” (BW, p. x).  Dawkins wants to “persuade” and “inspire” the reader with the grandeur of the Darwinian worldview.  He very pointedly states:

More, I want to persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence. (BW, p. x)

So convinced is Dawkins that he feels that those who reject Darwinism do so for three main reasons: 1) Religious reasons, 2) Political or ideological reasons, or 3) They work in the “media” and they “just like seeing applecarts upset, perhaps because it makes good journalistic copy” (BW, pp. 250-251).  Of course, for Dawkins there can be no scientific reasons to reject Darwinism because it is the only possible explanation for the “mystery of our existence.”

Given that Dawkins’ goal is nothing less than a view of neo-Darwinian evolution which is so compelling that all other views are seen as nonsense, a crucial question to ask is, “Does Dawkins succeed in his endeavor?”  The answer would appear to depend on the reader’s prior worldview with which he approaches BW.  Charles Lumsden in his review of BW has written, “The informed will read and have their views reaffirmed by the clear arguments.  Skeptics will read and remain unmoved.  In part the division is not one of stupidity, but of faith” (Lumsden, p. 500).

It is this issue of “faith”—or what I will call one’s control beliefs—that I wish to examine in this paper.  I will examine how Dawkins’ control belief of naturalistic neo-Darwinism functions to interpret the date—and at times, the lack thereof—that one finds in the world.

I borrow the notion of control beliefs from Nicholas Wolterstorff.[1]  Wolterstorff points out that in examining a theory one does not approach the data with an empty mind.  “On the contrary, one remains cloaked in belief” (Wolterstorff, p. 66).  As R. H. Brady observes, “Scientists are only human after all.  They begin their adult lives, like everyone else, armed with all sorts of a priori ‘knowledge’” (Brady, p. 94).  Part of these beliefs are control beliefs which function in two ways.

Because we hold them we are led to reject certain sorts of theories—some because they are inconsistent with those beliefs; others because, though consistent with our control beliefs, they do not comport well with those beliefs.  On the other hand control beliefs also lead to devise theories.  We want theories that are consistent with our control beliefs.  Or, to put it more stringently, we want theories that comport as well as possible with those beliefs. (Wolterstorff, p. 68)

Dawkins has such control beliefs which cause him to reject certain theories and ideas and which in turn lead him to postulate certain theories about how evolution works and why it is true in spite of gaps in empirical evidence.[2]

What are Dawkins’ control beliefs?  Reading BW and its reviewers one quickly comes to see that an atheistic naturalism serves as the foundation for Dawkins’ noetic structure.  One reviewer stated that what Dawkins has written is “chiefly a philosophical advertisement for atheistic naturalism” (Nelson, p. 10).  This remark appears justified in view of the way Dawkins speaks of God or a designer (see BW, pp. 92, 93, 141, 316—these references are discussed in the appendix).  Dawkins’ own stated thesis of BW is set forth in a straight forward manner: “The basic idea of The Blind Watchmaker is that we don’t need to postulate a designer in order to understand life, or anything else in the universe” (BW, p. 147).  Furthermore, Dawkins tips his atheistic hand in the very beginning of BW when he writes, “that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist” (BW, p. 6).  Thus the remark of philosopher David Hull is apropos: “In short it (BW) is an atheistic tract against Paley’s argument from design” (Hull, p. 289).

Given that Dawkins’ control belief is one of atheistic naturalism, how does this affect the way Dawkins views the empirical data in nature?  It is my contention that Dawkins’ perception of reality is colored by his control belief of atheism and that his arguments in BW are not empirically grounded but instead driven by his atheistic worldview.[3]  To some of Dawkins’ arguments we now turn.

Dawkins’ argument in BW is not that there is no design—or, to use Dawkins’ word choice, “complexity”—in nature.  On the contrary, Dawkins desires to “follow Paley in emphasizing the magnitude of the problem that our explanation faces, the sheer hugeness of biological complexity and the beauty and elegance of biological design” (BW, p. 15).  Later he writes, “I do not want the reader to underestimate the prodigious works of nature and the problems we face in explaining them” (BW, p. 37).  Dawkins’ explanation is that of gradualistic neo-Darwinian natural selection. 

Dawkins’ aim is to show how neo-Darwinian natural selection can account for the complexity of living organisms and their “apparent design.”  For those who observe features, organs, or organisms and are uncertain about how such examples of complexity could have arisen by step-by-step gradualistic measures, Dawkins retorts that such people are merely using what may be called the “Argument from Personal Incredulity” (BW, p. 38).  Dawkins adds, “This is not an argument, it is simply an affirmation of incredulity” (BW, p. 39).  Having disposed of the incredulous, what is Dawkins’ explanation for the observed complexity around us?  Dawkins takes the human eye—William Paley’s favorite example to demonstrate design—and asks five questions (BW, pp. 77-79).

1.     Could the human eye have arisen directly from no eye at all, in a single step?
2.     Could the human eye have arisen directly from something slightly different from itself, something that we may call X?

Dawkins’ answer to 1. is a “decisive no.” But the answer to 2. for Dawkins is “equally clearly yes.”  Dawkins defines the X of 2. as “something very like a human eye, sufficiently similar that the human eye could plausibly have arisen by a single alternation in X” (BW, p. 77).  He then applies question 2. to X itself, proposing that X could have arisen from something slightly different than itself which, for convenience sake is called X’.  X’ arises from X’’ in the same manner, and so on.  “By interposing a large enough series of Xs, we can derive the human eye from something not slightly different from itself but very different from itself” (BW, p. 78).

Dawkins’ third question is:

3.     Is there a continuous series of Xs connecting the modern human eye to a state with no eye at all?

His answer is “yes, provided only that we allow ourselves a sufficiently large series of Xs” (BW, p. 78).

Questions four and five are as follows:

4.     Considering each member of the series of hypothetical Xs connecting  the human eye to no eye at all, is it plausible that every one of them was made available by random mutation of its predecessor?
5.     Considering each member of the series of Xs connecting the human eye to no eye at all, is it plausible that every one of them worked sufficiently well that it assisted the survival and reproduction of the animals concerned?

In reference to 4. Dawkins’ belief is that as long as the difference between X and X’ is sufficiently small “the necessary mutations are almost bound to be forthcoming” (BW, p. 79).  In answer to 5. Dawkins asserts that five percent of an eye is better than four percent and that as one increases the percentage of the eye this confers reproductive advantage to the organism so that the answer to 5. is “yes.”

These five questions and the discussion following them in the rest of the chapter I take to be the central case for Dawkins’ book.  All else in the book appears to be further additions to these ideas outlined in chapter four of BW so it may be wise to begin the analysis here.

In reference to question 1. Dawkins is undoubtedly correct.  No one wishes to claim that the human eye could have arisen by chance directly from no eye at all in a single step.  Question 2. is also probably deserving of an affirmative answer as well.  It does appear that a human eye could develop from something slightly different as long as the gap between the two is sufficiently small.  Although I grant the answer to 2. is “yes,” that does not justify what Dawkins does with the answer.  He begins a process of extrapolation from human eye to X to X’ to X’’… all the way back to a state of no eye at all.  This move raises the troubling issue of extrapolation.  The extrapolation from demonstrable microevolution to large macroevolutionary claims has always been problematic for neo-Darwinism but frequently the problem is passed over, especially by zealous neo-Darwinian apologists.  Michael Denton, however, calls attention to this problem and urges caution.  He writes:

However attractive the extrapolation, it does not necessarily follow that, because a certain degree of evolution has been shown to occur, therefore any degree of evolution is possible.

Denton latter concludes:

There is no doubt that the success of the Darwinian model in explaining microevolution invites the hope that it might be applicable also to macroevolutionary phenomena.  Perhaps in the end this might prove to be the case; but, on the other hand, there is the depressing precedent, as the history of science testifies that over and over again theories which were thought to be generally valid at the time proved eventually to be valid only in a restricted sphere.  Newtonian physics, for example, which accounted perfectly for all the empirical data available in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and is still used for calculating the trajectory of a space rocket, is absolutely inapplicable to phenomena at the subatomic and cosmological levels.  Theories are seldom infinitely extendible. (Denton, pp. 88, 92)

Dawkins’ third question to which he gave an affirmative response—“Is there a continuous series of Xs connecting the modern human eye to a state with no eye at all”—is also mired in the problem of extrapolation.  The reasonableness of Dawkins’ answer will depend on whether Dawkins can deal with the complexities of extrapolation and provide a reasonable argument for the legitimacy for extrapolation in this case.  Dawkins fails to offer any such argument in BW so the reader is left to wonder about the cogency of Dawkins’ affirmation of 3.[4]

Since I find question 4. to be beyond my scientific background I do not feel equipped to adequately evaluate Dawkins’ answer.  I instead move to question 5. which I find much more important to Dawkins’ overall argument.[5]

Question 5., it will be remembered, concerned the issue of whether each X in the series of eye to no eye would have worked well enough to assist the survival and reproduction of the animals concerned.  Dawkins answered “yes” but had to argue for his answer against those who say “no.”  There are those who argue that certain organs or systems, like the eye, are too complex to have developed in a gradualistic manner.  Dawkins’ assessment is that “(t)his is often just another case of the rather pathetic ‘Argument from Personal Credulity’” (BW, p. 86).  Dawkins takes up one such argument offered by someone critical of neo-Darwinian evolution.

The book (Hitching, p. 82) goes on to quote Stephen Jay Gould, the noted Harvard palaeontologist, as saying:

“We avoid the excellent question, What good is 5 percent of an eye? by arguing that the possessor of such an incipient structure did not use it for sight?

An ancient animal with 5 per cent of an eye might indeed have used it for something other than sight, but it seems to me as least as likely that it used it for 5 per cent vision.  And actually I don’t think it is an excellent question.  Vision that is 5 per cent as good as yours or mine is very much worth having in comparison with no vision at all.  So is 1 per cent vision better than total blindness.  And 6 per cent is better than 5, 7 per cent than 6, and so on up the gradual, continuous series. (BW, p. 81)

The above is essentially Dawkins’ argument for an affirmative answer to question 5.  The argument is utterly fallacious and trades upon an equivocation of the eye itself and the process of vision.  Phillip Johnson appropriately responds to Dawkins when he writes:

The fallacy in that argument is that “5 per cent of an eye” is not the same thing as “5 per cent of normal vision.”  For an animal to have any useful vision at all, many complex parts must be working together.  Even a complete eye is useless unless it belongs to a creature with the mental and neural capacity to make use of the information by doing something that furthers survival or reproduction.  What we have to imagine is a chance mutation that provides this complex capacity all at once, at a level of utility sufficient to give the creature an advantage in producing offspring. (Johnson, pp. 34-35)[6]

Dawkins’ confusion on this point renders his argument useless and question 5., including Dawkins’ affirmative answer, is therefore devoid of support.

Although failing to recognize the problem of extrapolation and engaging in fallacious reasoning, Dawkins states that:

It is thoroughly believable that every organ or apparatus that we actually see is the product of a smooth trajectory through animal space, a trajectory in which every intermediate stage assisted survival and reproduction. (BW, pp. 90-91)

Dawkins then quotes Charles Darwin from The Origin of Species where Darwin issues the following challenge:

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. (BW, p. 91)

Dawkins goes on to add his approval:

One hundred and twenty five years on, we know a lot more about animals and plants than Darwin did, and still not a single case is known to me of a complex organ that could not have been formed by numerous successive slight modifications.  I do not believe that such a case will ever be found.  (BW, p. 91)

But what of those scientists who do not share Dawkins’ faith in the power of gradualistic, step-by-step evolution?  Michael Denton, for example, in chapter nine of his work Evolution: A Theory in Crisis speaks of the amazing complexity of the flight feather of birds.  As he states, “The flight feather of a bird is one of the most beautiful and well known of all biological adaptations” (Denton, p. 202).  Another such complexity is the avian lung.  The avian lung is distinct from all other vertebrate lungs—“the structure of the lungs in birds and the overall functioning of the respiratory system is quite unique.  No lung in any other vertebrate species is known which in any way approaches the avian system” (Denton, p. 211).  Denton remarks,

Just how such an utterly different respiratory system could have evolved gradually from the standard vertebrate design is fantastically difficult to envisage, especially bearing in mind that the maintenance of respiratory function is absolutely vital to the life of an organism to the extent that the slightest malfunction leads to death within minutes. (Denton, pp. 211-212)

Denton thus concludes, in direct opposition to Dawkins, that “the avian lung and the feather bring us very close to answering Darwin’s challenge” (Denton, p. 213).  Denton goes on to list other avian features which “defy plausible explanation in gradualistic terms”: the design of the heart and cardiovascular system, the gastrointestinal system, and the unique sounding producing organ, the syrinx (Denton, 213).

Why the divergence of opinion between Dawkins and Denton?  Why, after looking at the same evidence—the raw data of birds and other organisms—do these scientists come to such contrary conclusions?  It is my contention that Dawkins’ control belief of atheistic naturalism will not allow him to find data contrary to his worldview.  Gradualistic, step-by-step evolution must have happened for the simple reason that alternatives invoking the supernatural are not acceptable to Dawkins.  J. Kerby Anderson and Harold Coffin comment on this concept in relation to paleontology.  They write in their book Fossils in Focus:

In the face of this evidence, why is it that a majority of the scientific community has been unwilling to consider the creation model?  The answer may lie in the presuppositions of the observers rather than in the facts that are available.  Many paleontologists feel that it is scientifically required that they continue to work within the confines of the evolutionary model rather than to consider alternative models. (Anderson and Coffin, pp. 79-80)

Dawkins’ faith in the continuous series of Xs leading from a state of no eye to the human eye is not a belief empirically shown to be the case.  Rather, it is a story (albeit, perhaps a true one) that allows him to explain complexity in light of his naturalistic assumptions.  When Dawkins states,

It is thoroughly believable that every organ or apparatus that we actually see is the product of a smooth trajectory through animal space… I have no trouble at all in accepting that these statements are true of eyes, ears, including bat ears, wings, camouflaged and mimicking insects, snake jaws, stings, cuckoo habits… (BW, pp. 90-91—emphasis added)

he is merely telling the reader that he, Richard Dawkins, believes and has great faith in gradualistic, step-by-step processes.  This tells us more about Dawkins’ imaginative ability than it does about the actual evidence involved for substantiating his claims.  This same device was used by Darwin and Michael Denton takes him to task for it.

In effect, what Darwin is saying, and what many subsequent evolutionists have echoed, is that though we cannot imagine exactly how the gaps were bridged in any particular case this is merely because our imagination is relatively crude alongside the ingenuity of nature.  Thus the problem of providing detailed reconstructions of credible sequences of transitional forms is avoided and we are asked instead to wonder at the bountiful creativity of nature.  But rather than convince, this strategy only tends to emphasize the fundamental inability of evolutionary theorists to confront the problem of the gaps.  Further, this sort of argument smacks of tautology.  Of course, if gradual evolution is true then the gaps must have been closed gradually even if we can’t imagine how it occurred! (Denton, pp. 227-228)

As one reviewer, turning Dawkins’ words against him, argues, this is merely the “Argument from Personal Credulity” (Watson, p. 201).  Dawkins has imbibed deeply from the wells of naturalism and obviously feels that strong statements from Oxford scientists will effectively replace empirical data.

This lack of data is most clearly seen in his treatment of bat echolocation in chapter two.  He spends a great deal of time explaining the complexity of bat echolocation in order to demonstrate the need for an explanation for complexity.  Dawkins feels that “the hypothesis that can explain bat navigation is a good candidate for explaining anything in the world of life (BW, p. 37).  Dawkins’ hypothesis is, of course, gradualistic natural selection.  It is at this point that reviewer Paul Nelson critiques Dawkins:

Now here Dawkins does a rather odd thing.  One might expect that while the reader’s mind is full of the wonders of bat echolocation, Dawkins would demonstrate what he elsewhere calls the “power” of Darwinism “to explain prodigies of apparent miracle (p. 318), and show how the system of echolocation arose gradually in bats.  But he doesn’t.  Instead he lampoons an easy target, an Anglican bishop, and then presents a surprisingly poor argument based on the breeding of dogs. (Nelson, p. 10)

Dawkins never raises the actual empirical data to confirm or falsify his hypothesis.[7]

Yet another example of Dawkins’ lack of using empirical evidence occurs in chapter seven—“Constructive Evolution.”  It is Dawkins’ desire to demonstrate in this chapter that natural selection is a constructive force and not merely destructive.[8]  The analogy used is that of an “arms race” between cheetahs and gazelles in which each generation gets progressively faster and faster due to the competition relationship between them.  But Dawkins himself repeatedly admits the lack of empirical data to support such a claim.

We are unlikely to witness arms races in dynamic progress, because they are unlikely to be running at any particular ‘moment’ of geological time, such as our time.

Progressive ‘improvement’ of the kind suggested by the arms race image does go on… even if its net rate of progress is too slow to be detected within the lifetime of a man, or even the timespan of recorded history.

In the case of a biological arms race, on the other hand, we can usually see only the end-products.  (BW, pp. 192, 181, 188)

The arms race story is intriguing but “how much more convincing the theory would be if fossils had ever been found of a slow cheetah or a slow gazelle” (Watson, p. 202).  I am inclined to agree that arms races may have occurred but once again justification for the extrapolation from this analogy to the real world is needed.  It is one thing to claim that cheetahs and gazelles became progressively faster and quite another to say that the major morphological gaps (i.e., the avian lung from a reptilian ancestor) could be bridged in the same way.  Once again, the empirical evidence is not dealt with but, instead, glossed over by the use of an analogy.[9]

This use of analogy in place of evidence has not gone unnoticed even by friendly reviewers.  Jon Marks is one such reviewer; he writes of BW:

The prose is extraordinary, especially from a scientist.  As in his previous books, Dawkins shows himself to be a master of the seductive metaphor… And consequently, one may need to step back periodically from Dawkins’ engaging style to recognize that there is precious little substance to The Blind Watchmaker.  The work abounds with wonderfully clever expositions, turn of phrases…, plausible scenarios and captivating analogies.  But at the bottom line The Blind Watchmaker discusses at great length what biological evolution is like, not what biological evolution is.  While this is a very useful literary and pedagogical device, it is simply that—a device.  I venture to say that Dawkins is without peer as an illustrator-by-analogy,… all of which is interesting and appealing, as long as you do not think too hard about it. (Marks, p. 517—emphasis added)

Why this reliance on analogies and stories to the exclusion of empirical evidence?  If, as Dawkins claims, “Cumulative selection, by slow and gradual degrees, is the explanation, the only workable explanation that has even been proposed, for the existence of life’s complex design” (BW, p. 317).  Why doesn’t he show the reader the necessary empirical data for such a claim?  As stated before, I believe it is because of Dawkins’ control belief of atheistic naturalism that causes him to take the case for neo-Darwinian evolution as the sole force in creating all of life as unproblematic.  Dawkins appears to feel that all is needed to defend his case are plausible stories and analogies instead of a perusal of the empirical data supporting his claims.  Robert Nisbet convincingly writes,

Although science is commonly defined as the search for knowledge by observation and experimentation, it should be noted that evolution for most scientists is usually accepted as a fact not on the basis of data, but rather on the basis of the naturalistic presupposition. (Nisbet, p. 1)

It is in the light of atheistic, naturalistic evolution that Dawkins sees all of reality.  Any evidence offered must be construed in light of this fundamental presupposition.  Of course, Dawkins will see confirming “evidence” for his beliefs all around him.  “Once we have become convinced by our theory, for whatever reason, artifacts of that belief are bound to emerge, for we see the world in the context of our belief” (Brady, p. 91).  For Dawkins the Darwinian worldview—including atheism for Dawkins—doesn’t just happen to be true but has to be true (BW, p. x).  Although not specifically dealing with Dawkins’ BW, R. H. Brady’s remark is very appropriate:

The theory is unbeatable because it is allowed to interpret our observations while they are being made or being recorded.  Once this has been done, it is only logical that the data so collected cannot be used to question the interpretation, being a product of it.  (Brady, p. 92)

This can been seen in the way Dawkins deals with empirical data that has the appearance of running counter to his theory.  One such instance is the problem in the fossil record during the Cambrian period in which “we find most of the major invertebrate groups.  And we find many of them already in an advanced state of evolution, the very first time they appear.  It is as though they were just planted there, without any evolutionary history” (BW, p. 229).  In an effort to bring this data into conformity with his control belief of neo-Darwinism Dawkins once again resorts to storytelling.  But even Dawkins recognizes that, “If you are a creationist you  may think that this is special pleading” (BW, p. 230).

Thus, one comes again to the question of whether Dawkins succeeds in his defense of the neo-Darwinian worldview.  If success is measured by an appeal to empirical evidence within the framework of a plausible, non-problematic theory then the answer must be a decisive “no.”  As has been shown over and over again, Dawkins fails to adduce the necessary evidence and, furthermore, fails to deal with such often used but yet problematic notions like extrapolation in the biological realm.  One is again reminded of the words of Charles Lumsden cited earlier: “The informed will read and have their views reaffirmed by the clear arguments.  Skeptics will read and remain unmoved.  In part, the division is not one of stupidity, but of faith” (Lumsden, p. 500—emphasis added).  Dawkins’ faith is that of atheistic naturalism and it is this faith which he is most zealous to defend.  But, as Carl F. H. Henry states, “The plain fact is, however, that naturalism is not a demand of reason but reflects an arbitrary conceptualization of reality” (Henry, p. 148).  Dawkins’ atheistic naturalism is not demanded by the scientific evidence available in the world.  Rather, it is the beginning point for Dawkins from which he launches his neo-Darwinian research program.  For those, like this writer, who do not do obeisance at the altar of atheism Dawkins remains unpersuasive.  My feeling is captured by the words of Tom Pittman in his review of BW:

I think we can conclude that The Watchmaker is not blind; the biologist looking over His shoulder is blind.  (Pittman, p. 11)


Dawkins in BW doesn’t have much to say about God as Creator except to argue that natural selection rules out the need for such a Being.  There are, however, a few remarks that deserve special attention.  On page 92, after discussing what he feels is one “telling imperfection” that lends support to evolution, Dawkins states:

The whole skull of a bony flatfish retains the twisted and distorted evidence of its origins.  Its very imperfection is powerful testimony of its ancient history, a history of step-by-step change rather than of deliberate design.  No sensible designer would have conceived such a monstrosity if given a free hand to create a flatfish on a clean drawing board. (Emphasis added)

Dawkins also points to “imperfections” in the eye as evidence against a designer and writes, “it is the principle of the thing that would offend any tidy-minded engineer!” (BW, p. 93)

It appears that Dawkins’ argument essentially reduces down to the following: “Since that is not the way I would have designed a bony flatfish or eye there must therefore be no God who is a creative designer.”  As an argument this lacks any cogency nor it is even intuitively appealing.  Perhaps, just perhaps, it is the case that the designer has reasons unknown to Dawkins as to why the bony flatfish and the eye are the way they appear in nature.  If a designer exists must he let Dawkins in on every move he makes?  When Dawkins considers problems for his theory he comments, “Even if the foremost authority in the world can’t explain some remarkable biological phenomena, this doesn’t mean that it is inexplicable” (BW, 39).  Well, if such a “saving” ploy is allowable for Dawkins then the believer in a creative designer is just as justified in using the same argument within the confines of his worldview.  Just because one doesn’t know why a given phenomenon is the way it is, it does not therefore follow that there is no answer to the “why” question.  Of course, within a theistic framework the answer may only be known by the Creator himself but this would not necessitate the end of rational, scientific inquiry.  The main point is that Dawkins’ argument can be answered utilizing principles he is willing to accept when he confronts problems for his position.  It would therefore be hypocritical of him to disallow the theist to use the same principles within the confines of his worldview.  Perhaps Dawkins should spend less time contemplating the mind of God in the name of science.  Phillip Johnson’s words urge a corrective to Dawkins’ ways:

The task of science is not to speculate about why God might have done things this way, but to see if a material cause can be established by empirical investigation.  If evolutionary biology is to be a science rather than a branch of philosophy, its theorists have to be willing to ask the scientific question: How can Darwin’s hypothesis of descent with modification be confirmed or falsified? (Johnson, p. 71)

Does Dawkins have an answer as to why the bony flatfish and the eye are the way they are?  He bluntly states: “I don’t know the exact explanation for this strange state of affairs” (BW, p. 93).  It would appear that both Dawkins and the one who postulates a designer are in the same boat.  Thus, it is not the empirical evidence that of necessity militates against a designer but Dawkins’ faith in naturalism.

Dawkins feels confident in disposing of God and the concept of creation by the use of a philosophical argument.  Dawkins refers to those who “smuggle God in the back door: they allow him some sort of supervisory role over the course that evolution has taken” (BW, p. 316).  Earlier Dawkins referred to this concept as a “transparently feeble argument, indeed it is obviously self-defeating” (BW, p. 141).  Dawkins argues as follows:

But of course any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein replicating machine must have been at least as complex and organized as that machine itself… To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer.  You have to say something like ‘God was always there,’ and if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say ‘DNA was always there,’ or ‘Life was always there,’ and be done with it. (BW, p. 141)

In the last chapter of BW Dawkins thus concludes that creationists “assume the existence of the main thing we want to explain, namely organized complexity” (BW, p. 316).

Paul Nelson, in his review of BW, masterfully answers Dawkins at this point and deserves to be quoted in full.

This is an interesting argument.  However, it trades on an equivocation, and hence is fallacious.

Let me illustrate the fallacy.  Suppose a biologist and some students are walking through a field, and they come upon a stream dammed by branches and debris.  The students ask the biologist to tell who, or what, made the dam.  A number of possible explanations exist: the branches which form the dam might have accumulated randomly by the action of water; humans might have assembled the dam; or, perhaps, some beavers did the work.  After studying the dam and its surroundings, the biologist concludes on the basis of the available evidence that it was built by beavers.

But on hearing his explanation, the students laugh.  “That’s silly,” they object, “you’ve just explained one organized complexity—the dam there—by postulating another organized complexity—some beavers.  If you’re going to take that lazy way out, you might as well say the dam has always been there!”

The problem should be obvious.  “Organized complexity” is not of a kind.  The dam is an instance of organized complexity, as are the beavers, but they’re hardly the same thing.  In charging creationists with circularity, Dawkins trades on this equivocation of “organized complexity.”  To be sure, a Designer is in some sense “organized complexity.”  However, when offering an explanation for the origin of life, creationists are not obligated to explain the origin of the Designer.  That wasn’t the question.  (Nelson, p. 16)

Dawkins also claims that to posit a designer is “superfluous” since natural selection can go it alone.  Two points can be raised in response to this objection: 1. It could only be superfluous if the case for natural selection as the mechanism for major morphological change can be sustained.  As the body of this paper argued, Dawkins fails to do this in BW.  2. Even if natural selection is the all-powerful process Dawkins claims it is, a designer is still not necessarily superfluous.  One may have a worldview in which factors other than scientific ones (i.e., historical, philosophical, revelational) constrain one to posit a God who is the Designer and Creator.  Science, as a limited methodology, cannot rule out the existence of God.  But, as Howard J. Van Till points, “the temptation to make metaphysical assertions as if they were the logical deductions from scientific discoveries is a strong temptation that is not easily avoided” (Van Till, et al, p. 139).

Part and parcel of Dawkins’ atheistic worldview is the corollary control belief of scientism—the belief that science and science alone is the sole consideration in the formulation of a worldview.  Only if scientism is true can Dawkins’ “superfluous” objection carry any weight.  But scientism is a metaphysical belief system, just as much as theism, and is not proven to be true by scientific evidence.  It is a faith commitment with which one approaches the scientific data.  Why should one think that scientism is true?  Philosopher J. P. Moreland speaks of the proper nature of worldview assessment and science’s place in such a process when he writes:

The rationality of a worldview is a multifaceted affair, involving scientific, historical, and philosophical considerations.  It is difficult to see why science should be singled out for the role of dictator in  world view assessment, since world views are broad paradigms which must take into account all the facets of life… Science is an important part of world view assessment, but it is only one part.  The rationality of accepting any scientific hypothesis involves bringing rationally justified external conceptual problems to bear on that hypothesis, even if those problems do not come from science. (Moreland, p. 204)

I reject scientism and atheism—for what, I believe, are cogent and rational reasons—and therefore find Dawkins’ arguments for the superfluity of God horribly unconvincing.  Perhaps Dawkins is willing to argue for his faith in scientism and atheism but to do so is to engage in matters philosophical.  If Dawkins desires to argue in such a manner he must give up the pretense of speaking from a scientifically empirical minded position and earn his keep like all others who engage in the philosophical discipline by justifying his control beliefs.[10]

·       Thanks to Andy, Gary, Nathan, Paul, and Sean for their questions and comments on a draft of this paper presented 11/21/91 at the University of Arizona philosophy club.   


Anderson, J. Kerby and Harold G. Coffin.  Fossils in Focus.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977.

Brady, R. H. “Dogma and Doubt” Biological Journal of the Linnean Society (17) 1982.

Cairns-Smith, A. G. Seven Clues to the Origin of Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1986.

Denton, Michael. Evolution: A Theory in Crisis.  Maryland: Adler and Adler, 1985.

Dose, Klause. “Review of Clay Minerals and the Origin of LifeBio Systems vol. 22, no. 1,

Frame, John. The Doctrine of the Knowledge of the God. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and
Reformed, 1987.

Henry, Carl F. H. God, Revelation, and Authority—vol one. Dallas: Word, 1976.

Hitching, Francis. The Neck of the Giraffe: Darwin, Evolution, and the New Biology. New York:
Mentor, 1982.

Hull, David. “Review of The Blind WatchmakerThe Quarterly Review of Biology vol. 62,
September 1987.

Johnson, Phillip. Darwin on Trial. Washington D. C.: Regnery Gateway, 1991.

Joyce, Gerald F. “RNA Evolution and the Origin of Life” Nature vol. 338, March 1989.

Lester, Lane P. and Raymond Bohlin.  The Natural Limits to Biological Change. Dallas: Word,

Lumsden, Charles. “Ye Olde (Neo-) Darwinism, Once Again: a review of The Blind
WatchmakerBiology and Philosophy (4) 1989.

Marks, Jon. “Review of The Blind WatchmakerJournal of Human Evolution vol. 15, no. 6,

Moreland, J. P. Scaling the Secular City. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987.

Nelson, Paul. “The Hopeless Watchmaker: A Skeptical Look at Dawkins and Darwinism”
Origins Research vol. 11, no. 2, 1988.

Nisbet, Robert A. “A Presuppositional Approach to the Four View Model of Biological
Origins” Origins Research vol. 11, no. 2, 1988.

Pitman, Michael.  Adam and Evolution: A Scientific Critique of Neo-Darwinism.  Grand
Rapids: Baker, 1984.

Pittman, Tom. “Another Look at The Blind WatchmakerOrigins Research vol. 12, no. 1,

Ratzsch, Del. Philosophy of Science: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective. Downers
Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1986.

Van Till, Howard J., Davis A. Young, and Clarence Menninga. Science Held Hostage: What’s
Wrong with Creation Science AND Evolutionism. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1988.

Watson, David, C. C. “Review of The Blind WatchmakerCreation Research Society Quarterly
vol. 24, March 1988.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Reason Within the Bounds of Religion—2nd ed. Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1984.

Yockey, Hubert P. “Self Organization Origin of Life Scenarios and Information Theory”
Journal of Theoretical Biology vol. 91, 1981.

[1] Closely akin to control beliefs is the concept of “presuppositions” as defined by John Frame: “A presupposition is a belief that takes precedence over another and therefore serves as a criterion for another.  An ultimate presupposition is a belief over which no other takes precedence” (Frame, p. 45).  It is in the sense of “ultimate presupposition” that I use the phrase “control beliefs” in this paper.
[2] The issue of whether empirical data can overthrow one’s control beliefs is important and should be briefly commented upon.  The way I am using control beliefs, namely as ultimate presuppositions, necessitates that empirical data cannot overthrow one’s control beliefs.  The reason for this is that one’s ultimate presupposition is not merely an arbitrarily chosen paradigm but, rather, one’s primal orientation in life.  All of reality—including empirical data—is thus viewed in terms of these fundamental presuppositions.  The ultimate presupposition, therefore, has primacy over the evidential data.  Although I cannot argue for it here, my position is that of Reformed Christian theism wherein there are but two fundamental, ultimate presuppositions—either commitment to or revolt against the living God who is revealed in the Bible.  Whether one is a “friend” or “enemy” of God will affect all of one’s subsequent noetic activities.  See Frame, pp. 40-164 for more details.
[3] I do not wish to commit the genetic fallacy of faulting Dawkins’ arguments simply because they have their genesis in a worldview I find untenable.  Rather the argument of this paper is that Dawkins doesn’t supply the reader with empirical evidence but, rather, that he relies on analogies and stories to argue for his position.  Furthermore, the analogies and stories only convince those already committed to Dawkins’ view of neo-Darwinian evolution.
[4] If Dawkins’ question 3. is taken to mean, “Do we observe in the evidence available a continuous series from no eye to human eye?” then the answer is, of course, no.  I am well aware that neo-Darwinians point to “living intermediates” such as single celled organisms with a light sensitive spot and certain worms with the light sensitive spot in a cup (see BW, p. 85 and Hitching, pp. 77-79) but the problem with this argument is that “(n)one of these different types of eyes are thought to have evolved from any of the others, however, because they involve different types of structures rather than a series of similar structures growing in complexity” (Johnson, p. 35).  This leads Michael Pitman to comment that “a list of eyes from various animals, not necessarily related, no more demonstrates evolution than a carefully ordered range of lamps” (Pitman, p. 216).
[5] As an aside it should be noted that there are mechanisms of stasis which might have great bearing on Dawkins’ answer to question 4. as well as Dawkins’ whole general argument.  See Michael Thomas, “Stasis Considered” Origins Research vol. 12, no. 2, 1989.
[6] Some neo-Darwinians would argue that Johnson’s assertion is false if we construe “vision” as including being light sensitive such as found in some single celled organisms.  There is, perhaps, some truth to their objection.  If “vision” is construed as being light sensitive then “many complex parts” may not have to be working together.  There is, of course, the difficulty of defining with precision “many complex parts” and “working together.”  Be that as it may, Johnson still pointedly demonstrates a grave flaw in Dawkins’ reasoning, namely that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between “5 per cent of an eye” and “5 per cent normal vision.”  This point, in and of itself, serves to dismantle Dawkins’ argument.
My guess is that when Johnson wrote, “For an animal to have any useful vision at all, many complex parts must be working together” he had in mind “higher” animals such as humans.  This seems reasonable in view of the fact that he is responding to Dawkins’ argument and Dawkins’ example was that of the human eye.  For the human eye, Johnson’s remark is most certainly correct.
The remarks of biologists Lane Lester and Raymond Bohlin are also important to note in this context:
It certainly seems unreasonable to propose that the eye developed slowly by chance mistakes to its present complexity of nerves, cones, rods, lens, pupil, retina, etc.  If the eye is not capable of providing a picture that successfully aids in survival, of what good is it?  If all the parts are not in sufficient working order, it is of no use to the organism.  The more we learn of the eye, the more we appreciate Darwin’s fear.  Darwin’s only suggestion, which remains today, is to observe the many types of eyes found in lower creatures, from light sensitive structures on some single-celled organisms to the compound eye of insects, to the focusing, color-receiving human eye.  This is satisfactory to most Neo-Darwinians, but does it actually solve the problem?  All that this technically demonstrates is that there are various organisms that possess light sensitivity in nature.  Each contains its own complexities and unique properties.  No true historical series has ever been proposed for the evolution of the human eye.  Darwin’s solution may only add new examples to the list of complex adaptations waiting to be explained.  (Lester and Bohlin, pp. 97-98)

[7] Two pieces of information, although, are curiously left out by Dawkins:
(1) The oldest bat-fossil skeleton is exactly the same as a modern bat’s, bone for bone; (2) All bats have their pelvis twisted 180o from that of ground mammals, and no fossil every discovered shows any sign of a 900 or any other degree of twist.  What happened to all the intermediates?  The question is not even raised. (Watson, p. 202)
[8] Cf. “The Paradox of Natural Selection” by Arthur LaGrange Batson III in Origins Research vol. 9, no. 2, 1986 and subsequent discussion in Origins Research vol. 10, no. 2, 1987.

[9] Quick mention should be made of chapter six of BW—“Origins and Miracles”—where Dawkins utilizes the theory of A. G. Cairns-Smith in Seven Clues to the Origin of Life as a possible answer to the mystery of the origin of life.  This chapter appeared to me to be one long “story” devoid of any real empirical data.  Cairns-Smith’s theory, although provocative, is, as of yet, still lacking in experimental evidence.  Klause Dose, in a review of Cairns-Smith’s theory, stated the following:
Cairns-Smith’s thesis of ‘genetic takeover and the mineral origins of life’ is as yet without experimental basis… This thesis is beyond comprehension of all biochemists who are daily confronted with the experimental facts of life. (Dose, p. 89)
Gerald Joyce also cautions that “enthusiasm has to be tempered until there is experimental evidence” (Joyce, p. 217).  The words of Hubert Yockey are perhaps the wisest concerning origin of life scenarios:
Since science has not the vaguest idea how life originated on earth… it would be honest to admit this to students, the agencies funding research, and the public.  Leaders in science, speaking ex cathedra, should stop polarizing the minds of students for which faith is the only evidence.  Research on the origin of life is legitimate and it would be much better off if the effort absorbed by defending scenarios which cannot meet the most elementary criteria for a scientific contribution were directed in a search for new knowledge.  It is new knowledge not another clever scenario that is needed to achieve an understanding of the origin of life. (Yockey, p. 29)
[10] For more on the “superfluous” objection see Philosophy of Science by Del Ratzsch, pages 111-114.