Darwin’s blind evolutionary process has no way to do this. It has no ability to plan or to hope. Natural selection can’t labor in anticipation of future benefit. Instead, it goes with whatever works best now. The patience and foresight and insight we know to be absolutely essential for invention are completely absent from evolution. If things can’t be improved immediately, then they won’t be improved at all. We can dream up fanciful stories where amazing things happen though little Darwinian improvements, but the sober reality is that they are nothing more than that: fanciful stories.
Bill Nye, host of the popular 1990s kids’ program Bill Nye the Science Guy, has become a celebrity spokesman for science. Nye’s hero status got a major boost in 2014 when he debated young earth creationist Ken Ham. I couldn’t bear to watch, knowing their shared tendency to replace scientific argument with appeals to authority (a form of Biblical authority for Ham and the authority of scientific consensus for Nye). Several million people did watch, though, and millions more have since then.
Nye has been back in the headlines recently after paying a visit to Ham’s new Ark Encounter theme park, promoted as a full-size replica of Noah’s ark. Reporters ate it up.
I’m sure that kind of publicity is hard for either man to resist, but shouldn’t Nye at least try to resist it? If he’s really a science guy, shouldn’t he pay less attention to jousting with Ham and more attention to the weighty scientific case against Darwin’s account of life? After all, how serious can he really be about Darwinian evolution if he ignores all the research that shows it doesn’t do nearly what is advertised?
Despite our different takes on Darwinism, Nye and I have quite a bit in common. We’re both engineering-trained science guys with a strong interest in the big question of where we humans came from. Nye gave us his answer to that big question in his book Undeniable, and — by coincidence — the recently released book that gives my answer is also titled Undeniable.
The fact that our two Undeniables reach opposite conclusions — his portraying Darwin’s story as “the most reasonable creation story that humans have ever found” while mine claims that story has completely unraveled — means our differences are significant as well. What most puzzles me is not that we disagree on the origins question, but that we have such sharply contrasting takes on the role of engineering for settling that question.
From the exquisite molecular machines operating inside every cell on up to whole organisms, living things don’t just look like ingenious designs — they are ingenious designs. We all have this intuition in our childhood, and while intuitions aren’t always trustworthy, this design intuition turns out to be solid. As I show in my book, our design intuition is firmly supported by what I call “common science” — the combination of observation, questioning and deduction that we all engage in naturally. The same instantaneous reasoning that tells us origami cranes can’t happen by accident tells us real cranes can’t either — not even in billions of years. And when we examine that conclusion carefully, we find that it holds.
So if kids get this, how can kids who grow up to become engineers miss it — even to the point of strenuously denying it? Nye is a perfect case in point. As a former Boeing engineer, he describes in his book the considerable effort that went into developing those turned-up tips on the ends of aircraft wings, called winglets. In the testing stages, winglets did more harm than good until the concept went through many rounds of revision. But after “countless hours of research and development” a beneficial winglet design finally emerged, after which these perfected winglets quickly became a standard feature of commercial jets.
Barn owls have winglets too, but in this case Nye assures us “there is no evidence that they were deliberately designed.” Natural selection caused owl winglets to be invented by accident, Nye assures us. Humans design in a top-down way, where the low-level details are worked out in order to meet the top-level objective, but according to Nye, “nature works the other way around.”
Hmmm. Why would an engineer be so quick to dismiss the lessons learned from engineering? If engineered aircraft winglets were at first worse than useless — “a waste of time and energy” — why be so quick to assume that a mindless and ruthlessly cost-cutting process like natural selection would be able to get over that hump? Engineers benefit from clear goals, dedicated research budgets, and the patience and foresight to stick with something that isn’t working at all, sensing that it will work. Those key ingredients of invention are completely absent from Darwin’s recipe for innovation.