Cereal or Eggs?

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The next chapter is the heart of Dawkins’ book, so the best plan would seem to take more than one installment to deal with it. At the conclusion of this chapter, Dawkins says that “this chapter has contained the central argument of my book” (p. 157), which is actually kind of scary when you think about it. But a lot of people are listening to Dawkins, and so I don’t think it will be a waste of time to go over his argument more closely in this section.

An essential component to his argument is the distinction that he makes between chance and natural selection. He cheerfully grants to the creationist that complex things don’t just spring into being “by chance.” There is nothing chancey about it, Dawkins argues. Design versus chance is a false alternative.

“The argument from improbability states that complex things could not have come about by chance. But many people define ‘come about by chance’ as a synonym for ‘come about in the absence of deliberate design” (p. 114).


“Creationist ‘logic’ is always the same. Some natural phenomenon is too statistically improbable, too complex, too beautiful, too awe-inspiring to have come into existence by chance. Design is the only alternative to chance that the authors can imagine. Therefore a designer must have done it. And science’s answer to this faulty logic is also always the same. Design is not the only alternative to chance. Natural selection is a better alternative” (p. 121).

Dawkins admits in multiple places that the appearances are against him.

“Who, before Darwin, could have guessed that something so apparently designed as a dragonfly’s wing or an eagle’s eye was really the end product of a long sequence of non-random but purely natural causes” (p. 116).

Now look closely at this quotation. These magnificent organs (and scadzillions like them) are “really the end product of a long sequence of non-random but purely natural causes.” Non-random? Well, he has to say that because he is arguing that chance and natural selection are two different things. But the foundation of natural selection is mutation. How do mutations occur? Randomly or non-randomly? Ah, exactly so.

Dawkins might want to qualify his point here and grant that the mutations are random, dealt out of the deck by a blind-folded dealer, but then go on to say that his point really was that while the mutations are random, the survival of the lucky critter that received a beneficial mutation (by chance) is not random. That’s not what he said, but let’s allow him to qualify it. The increased odds of survial are, I grant, explicable as a non-random thing, provided something happens that actually increases a creature’s ability to adapt to his environment. But we will pursue this, and the idea of irreducible complexity, in another installment.

With regard to this part of his argument, my critique of Dawkins is simple — Dawkins is missing the point in a spectacular way. We are having an argument over what possible options we have for breakfast — cereal or eggs? That is a false alterative, Dawkins insists. Why can’t we have an omelet instead? But omelets are made up of eggs, and natural selection is made up of a host of random, chance events. And at least the omelet has the decency to limit itself to just three eggs. Just one stupendeous piece of engineering like the dragonfly’s wing would require gazillions of chance mutations, most of them negative and harmful, and the rest of them entirely inadequate.

Driving through a nice neighborhood with Dawkins, we drive by a nice colonial-looking pile. “Oh, look,” I say, pointing. “Brick!” “That’s not brick,” Dawkins replies. “That’s a house. You Americans and your theocracy!”

The brazen part comes next. Dawkins instinctively knows that he is doing an adroit word-game shuffle.

“Natural selection works because it is a cumulative one-way street to improvement. It needs some luck to get started, and the ‘billions of planets’ anthropic principle grants it that luck. Maybe a few later gaps in the evolutionary story also need major infusions of luck, with anthropic justification” (p 141).

Another name for the anthropic principle is the Goldilocks principle (p. 141ff). Conditions can’t be too cold or too hot for life to arise — they have to be “just right.” The earth can’t be too close to the sun or too far away, and so on.

But look what Dawkins did here, right out in broad daylight. Substitute “chance event” or “chance” for luck in the quotation above and ask yourself if the meaning is materially altered. Well, no, not in the slightest. So the evolutionary story needs “major infusions” of chance the way the omelet needs “major infusions” of egg. So Dawkins admits he needs luck to jump the chasm between inorganic and organic matter, and he kind of allows that he needs luck to get the origin of the eucaryotic cell (the kind we have), and the origin of consciousness “might be” another place requiring this kind of astronomical luck. But don’t call it chance, you bozo, because that would be an admission that the only alternative to chance is design.

One last comment on this point. Dawkins uses a parable to describe the task of “climbing Mount Improbable.” On one side is a radical cliff, and Dawkins grants that a lowly creature at the bottom of the cliff cannot suddenly leap to the top of the cliff, becoming another kind of creature instantly. That violates the laws of probability in such a way as to be functionally impossible. But on the other side of the mountain is a long gradual slope, up which, over time, creatures can “evolve.” It is a clever illustration. We all nod, yes, a turtle can’t suddenly fly up the cliff face, and yes, a turtle could walk up a gradual slope and get to the top. Q.E.D.

Not exactly. This is not illustrating the point at issue. Let’s have the turtle at the bottom of the cliff jumping, and by the time, seconds later, when he is at the top, he is now an English professor at Ball State. Okay, so improbable as to be impossible. Now take the turtle around to the gradual slope, tell him to walk up slowly, take ten million years if he wants, but he still has to be an English professor at Ball State when he gets to the top. Is this any more likely?

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