Design, Evolution, Abiogenesis, and Oklo


Joe Carter’s post here at The Evangelical Outpost reminded me of a semi-famous discovery some years back. In 1972, it was discovered that about 2 billion years ago there were naturally-occuring, self-sustaining fission reactions in a place now known as Oklo, which is in western Africa. Dr. George Cowen of the Los Alamos National Laboratory said that in order for the events at Oklo to have occured, “an extraordinary sequence of seemingly improbable events” had to happen in just the right steps, at just the right times.

In his book “Nature, Design and Science,” Del Ratzsch uses this unusual event as a springboard for a Gedankenexperiment. He imagines four scenarios.

“First, suppose that Oklo occurred, but had no noteworthy effects at all. Second, suppose that the radiation from Oklo had one effect – it triggered a mutation that resulted in all descendent cockroaches having a slightly tighter curl in their antennae than they otherwise would have had. Third, suppose that the radiation triggered the rise of primates. Finally, suppose that Oklo was at the single precise window of opportunity and triggered the explosioin of intelligence in human ancestors, and that without Oklo that wouldn’t have happened.” Ratzsch goes on to analyze how each of these differs, “Despite the complexity of the Oklo event, the first case above suggests little if anything concerning design. But the last is a bit different. Was that last just a monumentally lucky (for us) coincidence? A really fortunate accident? Some undiscovered but wholly fortuitous natural necessity? Or was the complicated episode set up for the actually produced result? Was that incredibly unlikely and complex event an exquisite preadjustment of means to an end? That is a sensible question to ask, regardless of what we decide the answer is. It is a prima facie plausible question in a way that asking the same question about the cockroach antennae is not.If there is a progression in the plausibleness of the Oklo cases vis a vis design, what underlies that progression? There may be some differences in probabilities or in some technicalities of complexity, but … that does not appear to be driving our intuitions here. What is that progression tracking? …The generating of intelligence strikes us as something that an agent might find worth doing. It strikes us so because we see intelligence as something inherently significant in a value sense. …In the Oklo cases, neither complexity, improbability, instrumentality, nor tight production constraints do much by themselves. And by itself, the bare existence of values may carry little intuitive force. But link imporbability or complexity or instrumentality or tight constraints to the production of those values, and they can take on new significance. When a value is produced by a long, tricky, precarious process, when it is generated and preserved by some breathtaking complexity, when it is realized against all odds, then intent – even design – suddenly becomes a live and reasonable question. And other things being equal, in a given context the degree of reasonableness of a question is an indirect measure of the relevant evidential status of the phenomena prompting the question.” Given that, I want to examine a statement that Richard Dawkins has made about evolution. He said, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” My question is, given that life (and with it, intelligent life) came about generally in the way the theory of evolution proposes, is there any less force behind the design argument after Darwin than before Darwin?

Dawkins answer to this is that evolution has gotten rid of the “against all odds” part of the picture. By a series of incremental steps, natural selection eliminates the odds that intelligence would arise from early life-forms. He would likely argue that we see intelligence (value) but since natural selection erodes the improbability away, that intelligence has little or no evidential force on its own. If evolutionary processes do erode the improbabilities and if there is no reason to assume evolutionary processes are goal-oriented or purposeful, then I’m inclined to agree with this – there would be little force behind the design argument and Dawkins could be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

However, the abiogenesis seems to me to be a huge problem for the atheist. If, like Oklo, “an extraordinary sequence of seemingly improbable events” had to occur for the origin of life, then this seems very analogous to Ratzsch’s fourth Oklo scenario. Furthermore, this scenario doesn’t seem (to me) to be much different than the scenario before Darwin. Natural selection provided the means by which the odds were “erased,” but there doesn’t seem to be a similar mechanism for abiogenesis to make it more probable. So atheists seem to be in the same boat as before Darwin.

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