The Cambrian Explosion And Evolution


Gould was a scientist who was quite familiar with history in biological science. History was his major sideline. He was also deeply involved in exchanges with creationists. Ultimately, theories he worked on like punctuated equilibrium whither or are judged fruitful in science independent of his theological beliefs. We need to recognize that while he deployed some theological assumptions in his writings, he also wrote a lot that didn’t reference the subject.

Jerry Coyne is a scientist who dabbles in theology and philosophy. He also is stridently non-theist. Often he mixes them with bad results. But again, whether his scientific work is ultimately judged fruitful is largely independent on his theological position.

Over my career, I’ve found that asking “How would God have done this?” or “How would God not done this?” to be pretty useless in hypothesis generation. Useful for discussing theology, perhaps, but it hasn’t been helpful for me in science. Among most scientists I’ve worked with over the years, the same could be generally said of them. If anyone has a good idea about God in understanding cancer progression and acquisition of resistance to drugs, please drop me a note. There are a large number of Christians working in Oncology but being naturally disposed to theological possibilities doesn’t provide much insight into the nature of aberrant cell reproduction. As in most areas, including evolutionary biology, it doesn’t really help.

I wonder that if there wasn’t continuous confrontation from Creationists who felt evolutionary biology was an assault on Christianity, then people like Coyne or Gould wouldn’t have invoked theological assumptions. Certainly, the phenomenon has fed on itself in a self-perpetuating cycle. At least among those bothered by it. (Reality check: I suspect most scientists don’t give a hoot and would rather work unbothered by religious/political posturing). If sociology weren’t such a dismal science I’d suggest they study that dynamic as a research project.

Returning to @swamidass’s comment, where does that leave us with regard to Neutral theory? Fully encrusted in religious dogma, non-intersecting with Christian theology, or something in between? Is Christian Neutral Theory distinct from common ‘Neutral Theory’?

Aside: Why do physicists get off scott-free in that exchange? :^)
Ask them about our understanding of relativity, quantum mechanics and the origin of the universe. Or consider when they found the age of the Earth extended millions and billions of years into the past, or that the Earth and planets orbited the sun. There was theologically-driven push-back on that work that the scientists at the time referenced.

(George) #63


This paragraph from Coyne’s book, “Why Evolution is True”, certainly invests time pointing out that an Intelligent Designer wouldn’t make the imperfect designs that we know are just as common as the seemingly perfect ones.

But for you to argue that "Theology places a central role in the “grounding or justification” of evolutionary theory. That, dear sir, is a completely bogus charge. But I can well imagine you getting bonus points for attempting such a forensic somersault in your presentations!

Theology doesn’t play a central role… the “negation of theology” plays the central role. For you to argue otherwise is nothing but sophistry.

(George) #64

Here is the summation of the Dilley process:

“The most severe tension, however, can be found in the fundamental justification for all
the positiva theological claims in the Origin. Judged from an epistemic point of view,
these claims offer genuine support for descent with modification only if they are justified
in the first place. In this vein, one may ask, ‘if Darwin’s own theory is true, what
justification is there for the positiva theology he used to support his theory?’”

“To appreciate his query, consider Darwin’s own reflections in his autobiography that
he felt compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that
of man … This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time, as far as I can remember,
when I wrote the Origin of Species. But then arises a doubt – can the mind of man, which has,
as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be
trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?”

“This question, in one form or another, haunted Darwin from at least around 1859 to the
end of this life.104 Just six months after the debut of the Origin, Darwin wrestled with
the relationship between God and evolution in a letter to Asa Gray, writing that he
believed in divinely designed laws with the details left to chance. ‘Not that this notion
at all satisfies me’, Darwin immediately added. ‘I feel most deeply that the whole subject
is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of

“In Darwin’s view, the human mind was not designed by God in order to know God; it
was instead equipped by nature to cope with the survival and reproductive needs of
ancient hunter-gatherers on the African landscape.106 Indeed, in Descent of Man, in
which Darwin applied evolutionary theory to the human species, God did not fashion
the human mind, but rather the reverse: Darwin argued that religious beliefs, including
the monotheistic concept of God, arose due to a combination of abstraction,
anthropocentric projection and social utility.”

“But what of the positiva theological claims in the Origin itself? It seems that if Darwin
had applied evolutionary theory to himself while writing the Origin, then he would not
have been justified in his claims about God. Here, the looming problem comes to a head:
by his own lights, if evolution is true, then some of the reasons for this theory – the
homology argument, the natural-suffering argument, claims about divine honesty and
as indicated below, perhaps the one exception is the claim that humans cannot know
whether God’s intellectual powers are analogous to their own.”

“Charles Darwin’s use of theology about God’s relationship to the laws of nature, and
so on – are no longer justified. In effect, the theology of the Origin undermined itself.
Darwin was still entitled to use reductio theology, in which he simply took special
creation’s theology seriously in order to test its empirical predictions. (One can test a
claim – say, that the Earth is flat – without having justification for that claim.) But if his
mature reflections are correct, then positiva theology, which purported to be
independent support for his theory, was an epistemic failure.”

“In summary, by taking seriously the laws of logic as well as Darwin’s mature thoughts,
an analysis of the Origin’s theology reveals vagueness, logical incoherence and epistemic
illegitimacy. Darwin’s later theological ‘muddle’ was quietly present in 1859. In this
view, the theology of the Origin resembles an assortment of claims that – even if some
were existentially important to Darwin – do not appear, from an epistemic point of view,
to have been carefully scrutinized for plausibility, clarity or consistency, but rather were
recruited to satisfy the primary purpose of establishing evolution and undermining its
chief rival.”


What I get from this article is a subtle argument that if Darwin’s analysis was flawed, then
Evolution is somehow defective today.

Come on. This high point of this article is that it is a historical glimpse into the psychology
of a man who helped change the world. I think the article is a fine one in terms of antiquarian

But as to it being something useful in today’s understanding of Evolution? Hardly.
The evidentiary snow-ball effect for Evolution has taken on its own momentum. It doesn’t
need its birthing-wife (Darwin) to hold its hand any more. Darwin didn’t know anything
about DNA. He didn’t have the sophisticated physics and chemistry procedures that exist

Today, we don’t even think about using theology or God to justify the Existence of Evolutionary
processes. Today, we have the evidence of Evolutionary processes that cannot be denied on a
eye-witness basis (eye-witness to the testing and the field findings). And so now the task
is to rediscover, all over again, what part of our Christian faith works with all this abundant

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #65

Those references to theology should be removed, in my opinion.

The imperfect design argument is a genuinely bad argument. Coyne, also is speaking as an atheist there, not for science. There is a distinction.

That is past history. I’m suggesting we find ways to explain this in theological neutral language.

Look, I’m not interested in turning this into a grand ID debate. Science is how we find it, and I am okay with that. If you are interesting in agitating to change science, I’m not sure that this will be successful, and this certainly is not the forum for it.

(Paul A Nelson) #66

Fine with me – your site, and you make the rules.

But is this new book (just out from Houghton Mifflin), by Professor Nathan Lents at CUNY, science or religion, in your view?

This article is also relevant:

The Bad Design Argument
The Bad Design Argument
The Bad Design Argument
(S. Joshua Swamidass) #67

Still figuring out the rules. I get that many people don’t like where science is right now, and there has to to be a way to express that…

Do you have references in current text books?

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #68

11 posts were split to a new topic: The Bad Design Argument

(Paul A Nelson) #69

Sure – see the chapter by Steve Dilley in the Crossway Theistic Evolution volume – footnote 29 on page 609-610. He lists dozens of examples from current textbooks.


“Aside from humanity which I am still turning over in my mind, I think its down to whether any hints of this guidance can be detected by science, not as “proof” per se but as anomalies in the data.” @Revealed_Cosmology

Why “aside from humanity” and what needs to be ‘turned over’? Isn’t that the very same problem we get when the discussion is reduced to only involving natural science, rather than say, humanities? It comes back around somewhere to who gets to define & explore what it means to be human in a spiritual + material universe.

In that scenario, can you help me and others bring humanity closer to the centre, rather than keeping us so distant from it? The clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson is bringing people closer to the biblical creation story on a mass scale right now, even though he is not himself a confessing Christian or Jew, because he connects it with people. Not with biology or physiology or even ecology by themselves.

Usually people at BioLogos do evangelical protestant theology when they want to move from biology to humanity. It’s a question of meaning, after all, not just of fact or physical evidence.

(Paul A Nelson) #73

Professor Lents at CUNY, apparently. Also John Avise at UC-Irvine (you must have had Avise as prof for at least one or two courses while you were there, right?), who wrote a whole book about it, Inside the Human Genome: A Case for Non-Intelligent Design (Oxford U Press, 2010).

But the point is this: trying to demarcate evolutionary biology (or science in general) from ID or “creationism,” by saying that the former does not refer to theological or teleological concepts, is hopeless. Ever since Darwin, evolutionary theorists have availed themselves of generous helpings at the theology buffet table, and stuffed much of it into their science. Right into the textbooks, in fact.

I have to attend an orphans and taxonomically restricted gene research meeting in Houston tomorrow, and need to finish my prep for that. Thanks for the opportunity to contribute here, even if I raise issues that are unwelcome.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #74

You and your ideas are welcome here @paulnelson. I’m still figuring this forum out.


In my book, for what it’s worth, you and your contributions are welcome here & I believe Joshua will treat you fairly. I would suggest one thing to you, Paul. Lose the edginess. Lose the Discovery Institute sharpness & scrappiness here. It’s a different audience, not to be treated as enemies. It would do us all better & reflect the person behind this ‘movement’ you’ve been swept up in. In my view, you seem to have a sense of humour different from the politically strained DI lot, so hopefully you’ll take the recommendation for participation here with good will in mind & laugh seriously with us rather than seeking to fight & argue.

I don’t find the issues you raise ‘unwelcome’ at all. They are in fact very welcome. Especially here!

Being a young earth creationist, you are undoubtedly quite accustomed to many Christians rejecting your ‘ideas’ about natural history and geology. The issues themselves are not impacted by that. We each can hold differing views and none of us here are bound by your particular categories or those of your opponents, both of which I find to be outdated and often intentionally culture warrish.

Good wishes with your orphans tomorrow.

(Mark M Moore) #77

Aunty the context of that remark was what the Good Doctor and I were still arguing about. I still don’t accept human evolution from a common ancestor with apes but he pointed out that the rate problems I see with the Cambrian Explosion don’t apply to the Ape-Human common ancestor scenario. We were strictly talking about the genetic evidence. Not what you are referencing.

So that was one thing we were still arguing about but he made a good point I am still mulling over. I don’t have the time or expertise to find any anomalies in that line and the ones I thought were out there were from old data- which they kept measuring again until they got a measurement consistent with evolution.


Thanks for clarification. That helps me to understand your perspective.

(Curtis Henderson) #80

Great point @auntyevology. @swamidass is expending a great deal of time and energy on this novel venture. @paulnelson, you are probably not aware, but the earliest moderator to be added to the site was @J.E.S, also a young earth creationist. Input here is always welcome, from all viewpoints.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #81

A post was merged into an existing topic: The Bad Design Argument

(George) #82


Scientists are on the verge of answering the age old question of why speciation went into over-drive during the Cambrian Epoch!

It turns out that the genetic processes that allow DNA to remain relatively dormant (or in other words, “un-triggered” into any of hundreds of possible and quite specific outcomes) do not do well in a highly oxygenated environment. So as single celled life, like algae, started to produce an increasingly oxygen-rich atmosphere, it began to define just where life could survive. Imagine being a proto-amoeba drifting into a pocket of highly oxygenated water. Suddenly, your DNA starts to fire off sequences triggered by the random encounters of oxygen molecules accumulating within the cell itself. Proteins you need are not being made, because amino acids are being hi-jacked to make proteins you don’t need. Sure, a robust living cell can survive low levels of these kinds of mis-fires … but at a certain point, the cell expires when the internal chaos exceeds some threshold.

Enter stage right… “Hypoxia-Inducible Factors”, specifically a “proto-HIF - 1a”, the simplest protein that responds to Oxygen, and by regulating genetic transcription, protects cells from over-reacting to higher levels of oxygen diffusing into the cell from the environment.

HIFs - A new Way of Living

“It behaves as a metabolic switch that allows cells to “enter or exit a low-oxygen consumption mode,” she said, so it would have allowed emerging animals to be less sensitive to oxygen fluctuations in their environments.”

“Organisms could start to manage stem cells better,” Hammarlund explained. Their tissues could grow with fewer oxygen-imposed constraints, so they could be made of more diverse cells growing in more varied structures. Moreover, the animals could begin to populate more habitats with varying oxygen levels."

Pre-Cambrian Life Fades Out as Planetary Oxygen Levels Rise

“Hammarlund wonders whether the Ediacaran creatures, which disappeared at the start of the Cambrian, lacked this ability and therefore lived in the deep parts of the ocean because oxygen concentrations were more stable there.”

There’s Power in that Oxygen!

“. . . the development of the HIF proteins presented the “proper key to get at the gold mine,” Hammarlund said. It wasn’t until HIF came along … [and soon the more refined HIF-1a found in present-day invertebrates] … that animals could start to use oxygen for more metabolic energy, build more elaborate tissues and cope better with oxygen damage. “The HIFs probably weren’t the only key, but they’re one we now know,” she said.”

Vertebrate Life Doubles-Down on Oxygen: HIF-2a

"As support for her theory, Hammarlund points to the evolutionary history of HIFs in animals. HIF evolved in animals, and it can be found in nearly all animal species; meanwhile, HIF-2α is unique to the vertebrates. “It makes sense when you think about it,” she said. “Vertebrates are bigger and have longer life spans than invertebrates. They’re better at maintaining their tissues in oxygenated environments.”

“When HIF-2α entered the picture, it would have given vertebrates even greater flexibility because their tissues could behave as though they were hypoxic regardless of their environment. This would have enabled them to form complex organs from diverse, highly specialized cells without regard for disruptive oxygen exposure. “HIF-2α was an even better tool for sustaining . . . pockets of hypoxic [high-oxygen] responses,” Hammarlund said. Stem cells could have resided in regions that were completely isolated from the oxygen gradients throughout the rest of a tissue.”

Invertebrates Limpet Along

“In contrast, she said, many invertebrates such as insects spend most of their lives as larvae living in low-oxygen conditions, and they can’t regenerate tissues as vertebrates can. Hammarlund thinks that invertebrates may not be as good as vertebrates at maintaining viable stem cells in their adult tissues for regeneration.”

It’s All a Coincidence?

“People who live at extremely high altitudes on the Tibetan plateau, for example, possess a mutation in a gene that encodes HIF-2α, causing the protein to function less effectively. That mutation also protects Tibetans from the otherwise detrimental health effects of living at lower oxygen levels, including altitude sickness, increased risk of stroke and pregnancy complications.” Is it just an accident that “…the HIF-2α phenotype is less necessary at high altitudes” where oxygen levels are always depleted, Hammarlund said.”

(George) #83


When I saw this article, I knew I had to abstract it and put it here for safe-keeping!

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #84

Great article @gbrooks9.

(George) #85


The article I posted just today strikes a crucial hit on the very heart of the issue: what does it take for a life form to aggressively fill new eco-niches? And the proposal is inspired by the very protein that seems related to the unregulated growth of “non-differentiated tissues” that we conventionally call Cancers!

Sometimes the Fingerprints of God are found right on a surprise discovery the lethal weapon!