What if Evolution is Compatible with Design After All?

E. V. R. Kojonen is a philosopher that affirms evolutionary science, and uses it as an argument for divine design. He is making a philosophical/theological argument that is engaged with science, but (Unlike ID proponents) he is not claiming this argument is “science” proper.

The timing is fortunate for coinciding with some work by @NLENTS: Nathan Lents: The Night Begins to Shine.

I think Rope’s ideas are worth considering, along with their interactions with the IDM and with the bad-design argument.


What exactly are Rope’s ideas? I do not find them in that piece at all, and so am unable to consider them. How does he propose that design and evolution go together? What is designed? What is not?


It sounds like a wordier and less credible version of the various fine-tuning arguments. And the notion of any “explanatory gain” is ludicrous. For that, you’d need testable, scientific hypotheses, not philosophical speculations.


For some reason he references a third party for what his argument says, rather than making his own argument in this piece himself. That third party piece in turn references Rope’s book as the source of the argument.


And a quite long-winded and tedious third party at that, who also seems to have difficulty in coming to the point. I’ve read some distance into it and I still don’t know what Kojonen is proposing. The article persists in saying that something might be this or might be that or might be something else, and somewhere in there might be a role for design. Clarity is an all too rare virtue.


And the journal in which it was published needs to be renamed the Journal of Religion OR Science, not AND, as I did not see a speck of science in that monstrosity of a paper. It reminds me of the output of the Postmodernism Generator:


Roughly speaking, there are two ways in which design proponents might wish to argue that the conjunctive explanation could achieve this. First, they might draw attention to contingency within evolution and argue that certain evolutionary outcomes are much more likely to occur in the presence of design than would otherwise be the case. The idea here would be that God guides the evolutionary process through some type of divine action, though it would not be necessary to specify exactly how often or in what way this occurs. Second, they might seek to argue that evolutionary mechanisms require other factors to be in place in order for evolutionary explanations to work effectively. According to this approach, design may not be needed to supplement evolutionary explanations by means of divine action, but it is necessary to explain why evolution is possible in the first place.

Somegod did something, somewhere, somewhen. The deliberate vagueness of ID without the concealment of religiosity.


You have bolded the part that Kojonen does not prefer. The preferable claim is even more vague, with an even less defined role for God:

Don’t know what these “laws of form” are, or what these other evolutionary mechanisms are, or how they would provide directionality, or especially how they would point to design, and the article doesn’t say.


Yep. I think he’s misunderstood something basic. If the attempt is to strip ID of the need for dishonesty by stripping it of any useful assertions at all, one does get rid of a principal cause of ID’s contemptibility. But it is a mistake to assume that the loss of contemptibility in that sense makes it worthwhile. Things may be contemptibly foolish without being intentionally false; or they may simply be unworthy of regard at all, and hence unworthy of contempt.

Yeah, it’s hard to see why anyone in science should ever care about any of the notions contained there. And it is another illustration, I think, of the vacuousness of much of philosophy. The questions worth asking are empirical questions, answerable by the weighing of evidence. One can spend a good deal of time asking unanswerable questions, and then waste still more time speculating about what the answers to those might be. But such activity can never rise above the speculative because there’s no damned test of any of it, even if any of it were coherent enough to be testable in the first place.

We don’t get knowledge by shuffling words. We just don’t. It’s not a worthwhile endeavor and the fact that we have a history of stroking our chins and tolerating bafflegab doesn’t mean we should go on pretending to find substantial meaning in it.


I think my disagreement with Kojonen’s argument can best be encapsulated by these two sentences from Glass (who Kojonen cites for an explanation of his argument):

How might conjoining design with evolution provide explanatory gain for the explanandum in question (biological order and complexity)? Basically, by making the explanandum more likely to come about than it would be otherwise.

  1. This seems to be tying Kojonen to (at least implicitly) accepting older, generally discredited, Creationist arguments that ‘evolution is too improbable to have happened’ (without designer/divine intervention).

  2. Assuming an omnipotent designer who wills it to happen will raise the probability of any improbable event to 100%. Yes, this means that you can argue that the designer gets (at least partial) credit for evolution, but it also means that the designer is also on the hook for every improbable and unfortunate event – every bizarre automotive accident, every unfortunate coincidence, etc, etc. This line of reasoning also seems to conflate probability (given an unfalsifiable assumption) with plausibility.

  3. If you cast the net far enough – and evolutionary history of hundreds of millions of years, over the entire planet, would cast it very far – you will inevitably catch some very improbable events. So it does not seem to reduce Evolution’s plausibility if it involved some very low probability events. If somebody told me that all the events that led to the current biological diversity had a probability of greater than 50% (or even 10% or 1%, etc), I would have the very strong suspicion that they were falsifying the record. This is further reason not to conflate probability with plausibility.


Not useful scientifically, but honestly religious. This is along the lines of belief for the other Creationists - Old Earth, Theological Evolution, etc… A lot of these folks are generally science friendly, so if they want to see things that way I don’t think there is any harm in it.


It is problematical to the extent that it gives credibility to ID arguments that evolution is too improbable to have occurred without divine assistance. I have in fact seen one ID advocate on this forum repeatedly cite Kojonen for cover when the opinion of more critical observers of ID have been raised.

I think the general level of detachment from science (commented upon by both you and @Mercer) rather undercuts any credibility this line of argument can have in being connected to the relationship between Religion and Science. However, given that Kojonen is a Theology Post-Doc, this level of detachment is perhaps understandable.

It is also of course possible (though I don’t think probable) that Kojonen’s book, The Compatibility of Evolution and Design, contains more scientific grounding for his claims, that were omitted for brevity from Glass’s summary.


If the operations of the designer are observationally indistinguishable from just blind physical forces as we understand them, then evolution has always been strictly compatible with design. If the designer is picking and causing mutations consistent with transition bias, or is invisibly making random animals die with some sort of perfect foreknowledge of how this will affect future evolution of the biosphere, then of course it’s compatible with evolution. It’s literally untestable.

What evolution did away with (to everyone who understood it) was the perceived need for design in explaining the emergence of complex adaptations: that organisms are very complex and are extremely fit for their environment.

For much of history it had seemed unimaginable that there would ever be a naturalistic explanation for the origin of complex species very well adapted to their environment. So they posited miraculous creation to explain why living things exist. Darwin essentially found that the complexity and adaptations of organisms are explained by descent with modification subject to natural selection.

This hasn’t changed since Darwin. There’s still no need to invoke design. You can make up a story of how a designer is operating at some deeper level way below biology, physics and chemistry, or outside of time and space, or at a supposed beginning by setting up the initial conditions of the universe, or undetectably at the quantum level, and of course evolution has nothing to say about that other than that isn’t necessary to explain what we see in biology.


I tracked down Kojonen’s book, which has this to say:

As biologists increasingly talk of “laws of form” underlying evolutionary development, the role of natural selection and mutation in explaining biological form seems comparatively less all-encompassing. The resulting picture comes quite far from the old view that all one needs for evolution is differential survival, reproduction, and heritability, evolution then following from these as almost a logical necessity. Again, the basic trend of research has been visible for some time. Sean Carroll (2001, 62) wrote that:

Life’s contingent history could be viewed as an argument against any direction or pattern in the course of evolution or the shape of life. But it is obvious that larger and more complex life-forms have evolved from simple unicellular ancestors and that various innovations were necessary for the evolution of new means of living. This raises the possibility that there are trends within evolutionary history that might reflect the existence of general principles governing the evolution of increasingly larger and more complex forms.13

Unfortunately Kojonen takes this Carroll quote from a secondary source. The original source continues on:

The first task of this review is to examine the degree to which the evolution of the shapes of life are a matter of chance — a random walk in morphospace — or of necessity — borne from the demands of natural selection and the constraints imposed by physics, genetics and development. The second task is to extrapolate from the evolutionary trends on Earth to assess what they might portend for the evolution of life elsewhere.

This ‘review’ concludes:

The parochial question nested within the mystery of the existence of life on other bodies is that of the existence of forms like the ones that have occurred on Earth. A few extrapolations seem to be reasonably grounded in the overall trends of life’s history reviewed here. Assuming a cellular basis of life elsewhere, the passive trends towards increases in organismal size, complexity and diversity from some initial minima are certain to prevail in any system. It must be kept in mind, however, that few macroscopic forms evolved in the first 3 billion years of life on Earth. Therefore, the time required for any quantum change in morphology is entirely contingent upon the particular history of any system. As for the shapes of life, macroscopic forms are most likely to be multicellular and there is a finite set of simple geometries — such as those that dominated the early history of life on Earth (linear and branched filaments, cylinders and spheres) — that are likely to satisfy the constraints imposed by diffusion and biomechanics and that are therefore likely to be universal 2,75 .

But the evolution of motile, modular mega-organisms may be a different story. Only after 3 billion years of physiological and anatomical evolution, vast changes in the environment and ecology (that were partly biogenic in nature), and extensive genetic and developmental innovations did such beasts emerge on Earth. And, although some symmetrical body organization is likely of macro- forms 75 , there is no basis to assert that bilateral, radial or spiral forms were or would be inevitable. Nor, sadly, is their continued evolution assured as the ecological dice are now in the hands of a single species that is on a path to extinguishing a substantial fraction of all diversity before the question of life elsewhere may be answered.[1]

This does, I think, alter the in-context meaning of the original quote considerably.


My best guess is that the OoL is one of those. Alternatively, it might happen many times every day, but we’ve evolved the means to strangle it in the crib.

The incredible stability of ribonuclease comes to mind.

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The philosophical prats who raise these sorts of notions are probably lucky that evolution is voiceless.


Since delving into Kojonen’s argument, I couldn’t help but noting what I might characterise as a degree of detachment from the field of biology in his work.

Attempting to follow up on this, I skimmed his ‘Acknowledgements’ section in his book The Compatibility of Evolution and Design in an attempt to determine his level of engagement with the field. The relevant sentence would appear to this:

Out of a large group, I wish to thank particularly Zachary Ardern, Andrew Davidson, David Glass, Mikael Leidenhag, Alister McGrath, Jeroen de Ridder, Bethany Sollereder, Christopher Southgate, Aku Visala, Olli-Pekka Vainio, and Mats Wahlberg for their detailed feedback on parts of the manuscript.

Of this group, I was unable to identify which Andrew Davidson he was referring to. Of the remainder, only one was a biologist (with Southgate being a theologian who “trained originally as a research biochemist”), with the rest being mainly theologians and/or Science-Religion scholars. Oddly enough, this lone biologist is neither a Finn, nor working at a Finnish university – so it is unlikely that Kojonen either simply dropped into his office to pick his brains about biology, struck up a conversation in a pub near the university, or knew him from his childhood or student days. The biologist in question is Zachary Ardern, a New Zealand-born evolutionary biologist working at the Technical University of Munich, and an active Christian Apologist. It would therefore seem likely that it is Ardern’s apologetics rather than his scientific work that brought him to Kojonen’s attention.

As well as this acknowledgement, Kojonen cites two pieces by Ardern as references:

  • What Can Biology Teach Us About Genesis?

  • Wichmann, Stefan, and Zachary Ardern. 2019. Optimality in the Standard Genetic Code Is Robust with Respect to Comparison Code Sets. Bio Systems 185: 104023. – for the claim that “Though current theories are still largely incomplete, the immense improbability of a chance origin, the relatively quick origination of life on Earth after its cooling, and the relative optimality of the genetic code seem to point away from chance as the explanation for the origin of life”.

It is possible of course that Kojonen has delved into biology to an extent not reflected by his Acknowledgements. However my own impressions, comments from others on this thread, and the fact that Kojonen cited his Carroll quote to a fellow ‘Science and Religion’ scholar, rather than reading Carroll’s paper for himself, and citing it to that paper directly, all would tend to suggest otherwise.

I’m afraid this further confirms an ongoing suspicion I have had that the field of ‘Science and Religion’ has too cozy a relationship with Christian Theology and Christian Apologetics, and too distant a relationship with Science, to be a credible disinterested commentator on the relationship between the two, rather than being seen as pushing its own agenda.


So the “laws of form” thing is all based on a quote-mine? How exceedingly embarrassing. Most charitably, we can accuse Kojonen of execrable scholarship.

But even Carroll, properly understood, needs a corrective. As S.J. Gould pointed out, the modal organism after 4 billion years of evolution, is a bacterium and always has been. There can be no general trend toward complexity.


We do? I never have. I know what “evolutionary” and “development” mean in biology, but I have no idea why they are being combined in this context. Does he mean “the evolution of development,” or is it less coherent than that?

That was predictable.


@Dan_Eastwood, having now skimmed the book somewhat, I’d go further and say that Kojonen relies explicitly on ID arguments. One example is the ‘Protein Evolution’ section that immediately precedes the section on ‘Laws of Form and Convergence’, and of which Kojonen states in the introduction to the latter section:

Based on the preceding, it seems readily apparent that natural selection and mutation will not work in just any environment.

This ‘Protein Evolution’ section relies heavily (but not exclusively) on ID claims: those of Behe, Axe, Gauger, and even Meyer. The section does also cite the work of Andreas Wagner fairly heavily, but seems to allow ID the final word in framing and interpreting the topic.

(Parenthetically, the section on the section on ‘Laws of Form and Convergence’ has about half a page on Denton’s views.)

My general impression is that Kojonen is more trying to rehabilitate a slightly-diluted version of ID (perhaps even more diluted than Behe’s Common Descent-accepting version) rather than conceiving a completely new relationship between evolution and a completely new conception of ‘Design’. This (and the fact that Kojonen explicitly bases his thesis, in part, on ID argumentation), means that his thesis will likely inherit most of ID’s baggage.

I would however wish to state that I am not a biologist. I’d be very interested in seeing what an actual biologist, and particularly one more familiar than I am with the work and views of the biologists Kojonen cites, thinks of this book.

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