Günter Bechly on Origins


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #1

I’m wanting to know more about Gunter’s views on origins. @T.j_Runyon and @Zachary_Ardern can you help me out?

Günter Bechly is a distinguished paleontologist, specializing in fossil dragonflies, exquisitely preserved in amber for tens of millions of years. After revealing his support for the theory of intelligent design, he was pushed out as a curator at the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, Germany. He subsequently joined Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture as a Senior Fellow.
Wikipedia Erases Paleontologist Günter Bechly | Evolution News

Some more information. He recently was a guest on an apologetics program, that (if McLatchie follows through) will probably have me soon. (Of note, @Joel_Duff, is he using your figure unattributed? Or is that from somewhere else?). In this video, he actually defines common descent as neo-Darwinian evolution. So the two are interchangeable in his view. This is a highly idiosyncratic definition.

On his blog site he explains his position this way:

Rejects Common Descent

Even though, intelligent design theory is in principle compatible with universal common descent and guided evolution, I personally have come to reject common ancestry as naturalistic mode of macroevolution in favor of a sophisticated version of progressive (Old Earth) special creation in terms of non-random adaptive macromutations in the “womb” of parental organisms (analogous to Schindewolf’s and Goldschmidt’s “hopeful monsters”, recently endorsed by Rieppel 2017, as well as other representatives of saltationism, mutationism and orthogenesis) combined with the instantiation of a new form that preexisted as template in the mind of the designer (“special transformism” sensu Chaberek 2017). Nevertheless, I do affirm that every organism (apart from the first living cell) was produced / born from a biological parent organism and thus did not pop into being ex nihilo. I also affirm microevolutionary speciation within biological kinds through Neodarwinian processes. However, these never generate new specified complex information, but mostly represent devolution or variation or reshuffling of pre-existing information (e.g., homozygosity from heterozygosity, deactivation or detioration of genes, polyploidy, gene duplication, horizontal gene transfer, hybridogenesis). The two above mentioned affirmations may qualify as affirmation of universal common descent in the eyes of most evolutionary biologists, but the difference is that I only affirm common ancestry in terms of an unbroken lineage of individual maternal and paternal relationships (individual common ancestry), but reject the origin of new biological kinds from other biological kinds via transformation lineages of ancestral species (supraindividual common ancestry). The fact that because of the delicate and intricate interdependence of different genes and their products during ontogenesis, any transition necessarily has to include a coordinated major reprogramming of different genes as well as of epigenetic factors in the zygote cell, shows that the apparent distinction between guided evolution and special creation is rather blurry and in either case involves heavy physical intervention (coordinated and synchronized in multiple individuals within a population). When the distinctive genetic makeup is not inherited from the parents but introduced by design from an external intelligent agent, the process is rather akin to special creation than common ancestry.

Sort of at least. This is a surprising position to unpack.

Redefines Neo-Darwinism

As a scientist, who should follow the evidence wherever it leads, I came to doubt the naturalistic Neodarwinian paradigm of unguided evolution via a purely mechanistic process of chance (random mutation, sexual recombination, genetic drift) and necessity (natural and sexual selection), even when supplemented with more modern concepts like symbiogenesis, multilevel (group) selection, epigenetic inheritance, evolvability, natural genetic engineering, phenotypic plasticity, and niche construction, as suggested by the proponents of an extended evolutionary synthesis (“Third Way of Evolution”, “Evolution 2.0”). None of these phenomena can explain the origin of complex biological novelty, and some (e.g., natural genetic engineering, phenotypic plasticity, and evolvability) require intelligent design themselves. Therefore, I signed the “Scientific Dissent from Darwinism” list.

It appears he dislikes @Perry_Marshall’s Evolution 2.0 too.

Loves Darwins’ Doubt

Even before my “conversion” to intelligent design theory, I became convinced that only a goal-directed (teleological) process, either with laws of biological form (structuralism) or with non-random adaptive macro-mutations, can explain the evidence. This assumption is also compatible with and supported by the discontinuous fossil record, which strongly suggests saltational origins. Therefore, I totally agree with the views in Stephen C. Meyer’s book " Darwin’s Doubt ".

I agree with @art and @John_Harshman in their assessment of this book though: Examining "Darwin's Doubt".

A Paleontologist Enamored with Meyer, Dembski, Behe, and Axe

My rejection of unguided evolution was not motivated by religion, but by some very convincing and still unrefuted scientific arguments from intelligent design proponents, based on information theory (William Dembski, Stephen C. Meyer), population genetics (Richard Sternberg), molecular machines (Michael Behe), and new proteins (Douglas Axe). These arguments emphasize the discontinuities of the fossil record, the prohibitive waiting time for coordinated mutations, the problem of new specified complex information in the genetic code and irreducible complexity of molecular machines, the isolated islands of functionality (folding proteins) in the vast search space of possible aminoacid sequences, which all strongly limit the feasibility of Neodarwinian unguided processes.

Does Not Like BioLogos

The BioLogos Foundation also promotes a version of theistic evolution, which they call evolutionary creationism, and explicitly distances itself from the intelligent design movement. However, their list of beliefs is mostly compatible with intelligent design. The affirmation of common descent cannot be a distinguishing feature, as several eminent intelligent design proponents either explicitly affirm common descent (e.g., Michael Behe, Richard Sternberg, Michael Denton), or remain agnostic about it (e.g., William Lane Craig), or at least affirm that there is substantial evidence for common descent (e.g., Walter Bradley, Vincent Torley, myself, and even a few YECs like Todd Wood and Kurt Wise). I am therefore somewhat at a loss, what is the actual point of theistic evolution sensu BioLogos, and their official statements do not really help either. I rather looks like theistic evolution is Neodarwinism in a cheap tuxedo with a gratuitous God, who has no detectable influence on nature. In this case theistic evolution would just be a redundant and superfluous concept that was only forged in the misguided delusion that a surrender to materialistic science might make religion more respected or at least tolerated by modern secular culture.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #2

@Agauger is it true he was pushed out of his position for his views?

(John Harshman) #4

Isn’t Bechley a creationist, not just an ID fan? I’ve been told they’re not at all the same thing.


I’m guessing whatever they are, they include an old earth.

(Ashwin S) #6

A good place to start would be his blog.

On origins specifically he makes the following statement-

I reject the deistic notion of “Theistic Evolution” (sensu BioLogos) and endorse the necessity of divine intervention (infusion of information) in the origin and history of life.

However, his theism doesn’t seem to disallow common descent perse.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #7

He defines common descent as disallowing infusion of information. Doublespeak? Confused? I have a hard time following this.

His post is remarkable. Thanks @Ashwin_s. It seems like he is a philosopher at heart and that his philosophy sets his view of everything.

(Ashwin S) #8

Didn’t get you…

Anyway,I cant speak for him… you could contact him and ask I guess…
Or read his blog.

(Ashwin S) #9

That’s not how he describes it. There is a short “about me” section where he states that he believes in ID because of the evidence… and his conversion to Catholicism happened after the science convinced him on ID.
Overall, his position doesn’t seem very different from that of Behe.

(Guy Coe) #10

@swamidass , do you conceive of common descent as an ongoing, dynamic, “whole-enchilada” process, or a description of the emergence of all species from previously existing life, with --what, a punk-eek type history of such appearances, or Dobzhansky’s “hopeful monster” characterization? Why would a person who holds that God actively intervenes in natural law of necessity be denying common descent? What about the characterization of “small and slow” subtly miraculous infusions of information to accomplish what time alone cannot? Is “confused” really the word you mean, or is it more like, “I don’t use my labels the same way ID does,” or what?

(T J Runyon) #11

So, Gunter’s older work is still respected and recommended if you’re interested in fossil Odonates. And what I was told when I was in the Odonate community is that he’s still invited to conferences he just doesn’t come. I’ve also been told his conversion story to ID isn’t entirely accurate (though these could be false rumors) I was excited when he joined the DI because I always said they needed a real paleontologist. But his contributions since joining have been poor. Just read his chapter in Theistic Evolution and I was very disappointed. I don’t think he accepts common ancestry. His paper in Bio-Complexity on a new fossil Odonate listed features of the specimen that conflicted with common ancestry

(Blogging Graduate Student) #12

He doesn’t accept common ancestry, but does seem to concede there is substantial evidence for it:

The affirmation of common descent cannot be a distinguishing feature, as several eminent intelligent design proponents either explicitly affirm common descent (e.g., Michael Behe, Richard Sternberg, Michael Denton), or remain agnostic about it (e.g., William Lane Craig), or at least affirm that there is substantial evidence for common descent (e.g., Walter Bradley, Vincent Torley, myself, and even a few YECs like Todd Wood and Kurt Wise).

(Zachary Ardern) #13

I think Dr Bechly is one of many sitting in the interesting middle ground between evolutionary theory and creationism. If people on both sides could get over semantic issues of what counts as ‘evolution’ or ‘common descent’ we could have a productive discussion. He is also a former atheist/skeptic (until just a few years ago) who became interested in intelligent design before he became a theist.

Dr Bechly to my understanding accepts what I would classify as a kind of common descent theory. He holds or is at least inclined towards the idea that all organisms subsequent to the origin of life had a biological mother, while also holding that ‘special creation’ infusions of information were required along the way to cause major transitions in body plan and the like (maybe an exception is the biogeographical conundrums mentioned below - I don’t know how/whether he holds these together). From lectures I’ve seen he is perhaps particularly impressed by the ‘waiting time’ problem, purported biogeographical conundrums, and in general the apparent rapid formation of new body plans on time-scales equivalent to the typical duration of one or two species.

(Dan Eastwood) #14

The Discovery Institute (an article by Klinghoffer) claims he was pushed out of a positions as curator at the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, Germany. I don’t know how to confirm that other than his blog.

His Wikipedia entry was also removed about a year ago, which seems to have cause a greater fuss.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #15

Thanks @Zachary_Ardern and @Ashwin_s, I edited the OP to add in much new information. His CD position is…idiosyncratic? Perhaps it fits in the RTB range of views? Of note, he is a paleontologist, who is primarily convinced by evidence from outside his field, and the Cambrian explosion. Interesting.

(Ashwin S) #16

I prefer to take people’s stated reasons for why they are convinced as a starting point. Incidentally, he has actively pointed to issues in paleontology too…

Usually these kind of things are paradigm shifts…
So I don’t think any one piece of evidence changes anybody’s mind… it’s the entire world that shifts and evidence that could be cast aside without much consideration suddenly becomes critical, while evidence which seemed to close the issue in favour of the old position, suddenly looks frail… and even contrary.
I am sure there are many reasons for why Dr Bechly was convinced that ID is correct… Just as you have a host of reasons for opposing ID.
How do you feel when people dismiss your claims as being too influenced by materialism?
Perhaps you are doing an injustice to Dr Bechly by trying to decipher the reason for his change in stance in narrow classifications such as “he is more influenced by philosophy” or "he got convinced by evidence outside his field… (i.e he didn’t know any better). I am sorry if that’s not your intention. It come across as such to me.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #17

He says the main reason why he is ID is because of Dembski, Axe, Meyers…so…I am taking his stated reasons. Yes, he does talk about the Cambrian Explosion and Biogeography, but he does not say this is the primary reason.

(Ashwin S) #18

He is quite active in talking about the Cambrian explosion. He even cowrote a chapter in the theistic evolution book on fossil evidence and common descent. The other author was Stephen Meyer.

So it’s more like his field + arguments of ID advocates from other fields. I am just trying to be fair here since the guy is not here to clarify.

(Ann Gauger) #19



(S. Joshua Swamidass) #20

When did that happen? Did he write about it any where?

(Jon Garvey) #21

In a field where confusion of terms is rife, it seems to me he defined his terms quite well for the purpose of differentiating positions in a specific presentation. Your definition of “common descent” is pretty minimalist, but the fact that @John_Harshman is able to bracket Betchly (should you correct the thread title?) as a creationist shows that more or less can be included in such terms.

So at least Betchly spelt out that the “common descent” he questioned included gradualism, neatly nested clades and so on - the things which are, in his view, challenged by specific counter-evidence. I didn’t notice that he was tilting at Neodarwinism so much as undirected processes in general (as the main driver of evolution).

Such evidence he regards as indicative of the input of new information non-naturalistically against a background of modified existing forms. I noticed at one point that his thought process ran from the evidence to the design conclusion thus: “This body of evidence is more indicative of saltational events along the line of Goldschmidt’s hopeful monsters, but such saltations are implausible under common descent/gradualism.”

So it’s progressive creation from existing forms he espouses, thus accommodating the good evidences for common descent, and I’m not sure there’s a neat descriptor of that position available. It would seem to fit your own definitions of both common descent and evolution.

Where it differs from a classical “early” model of theistic evolution like Asa Gray’s “certain beneficial directions”, apart from the latter’s historically conditioned emphasis on adaptive selection, is apparently a scientific difference, in stressing evidence for saltation and lack of directional evolutionary trends.