Home » Intelligent Design » George Williams (1926-2010) and the Theological Case for Evolution

George Williams (1926-2010) and the Theological Case for Evolution

Blake, God as geometer

Do you still think God is good?

– George Williams, 1987 (p. 157)

In the commentary following the death on September 8 of leading neo-Darwinian theorist George C. Williams — go here for a representative selection — I’ve seen no mention of the considerable role of theology in Williams’s thought. I’d speculate that this silence follows naturally from the wide, albeit tacit, acceptance by Williams’s closest colleagues of the theological assumptions he made. As Ludwik Fleck (1979, 41) understood, a premise on which a group of scientists agree (if they are conscious of holding the premise at all) is not likely to elicit comment.

But no one can open The Pony Fish’s Glow (Basic, 1987) or Natural Selection: Domains, Levels, Challenges (Oxford, 1992) and miss the theology.

While the biological examples Williams employs shift, depending on context, the logical form of his argument varies little: if a wise and benevolent God made organisms, we should observe perfection; we do not observe perfection; therefore, a wise and benevolent God did not make organisms. Natural selection, a mindless process, did. “Organisms show the expected design mistakes,” he wrote (1987, 153), “the dysfunctional design features, that arise when understanding and planning are entirely absent.”

Williams, unfortunately, did not think deeply about either his biological examples — such as the vertebrate eye — or his theology. A perceptive critic of slovenly reasoning in evolutionary theory, Williams nevertheless allowed himself a sort of “Dr. Seuss If I Ran the Zoo” latitude in postulating optimal (or perfect) structures, which God should have made, against which he judged existing structures to be deficient. “The human eye as it ought to be,” he captioned one figure, for instance, in The Pony Fish’s Glow (1987, 10), “with a squidlike retinal orientation.”

Dr Seuss cover

Really? Here’s an exercise. Write down a list of the main features of the cephalopod eye, its neural wiring, and retinal physiology, and compare that to a similar list for any vertebrate eye. Then try to isolate “photoreceptor orientation” as the only character by which functional optimality should be assessed. Ask yourself how you would test your analysis.

For years, I’ve had graduate classes follow Williams’s analysis of the human airway, another of his favorite examples. I’ve asked them to try to redesign the whole system, to avoid the problem of choking.

Try it yourself. The results are instructive.

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16 Responses to George Williams (1926-2010) and the Theological Case for Evolution

  1. The problem is that many biologists know little to nothing about engineering and they allow themselves wild speculations without the need for the slightest shred of evidence.

    In engineering we know that without a working prototype nothing no one can be sure the viability of the concept. Just a few examples:

    Piston engines are sub-optimal because they have to convert alternating linear motion into rotary motion. So let’s use Wankel engines, all right? Once you try, you will realize that in most cases you are still better off with a piston engine, because apart from the apparently sub-optimal design it still excels when the whole picture is considered. (At least today…)

    Once my company had to connect two computers on top of each other. So they measured the size of the rack and put in a half-foot long Ethernet cable between them, just the length that was necessary. However, both network cards reported failed connections. It wasn’t until one of the local geeks checked the actual Ethernet standard to find that to propagate the high frequency signals you need at least 5 feet (if I remember well) of cable. So today the two PC-s are connected with an apparently oversized cable coiled up at the back. Do not show it to your evolutionist friends because they will find it as evidence that the two PCs were not intelligently designed!

    Double measures are a plague in contemporary science. To the public you claim that nothing, but solid evidence is what matters. Then under the pretext of “knowing it all” wild speculations are thrown into our faces and those who question this practice are systematically marginalised.

  2. Alex73,,

    I find this interesting from your comment:

    “It wasn’t until one of the local geeks checked the actual Ethernet standard to find that to propagate the high frequency signals you need at least 5 feet (if I remember well) of cable. So today the two PC-s are connected with an apparently oversized cable coiled up at the back.”

    Why should this be? Do you have any idea of the underlying physics as to why this is so?

  3. Never mind Alex73, it has to do with giving the computers enough time to react to communications that are sent. Perhaps with the advances in computer speed reaction times the cable can be shortened if you change the computers.

  4. Alex73, in case you would like to know, the speed of light is about 1 foot per nano-second, which is why a computer’s reaction speed to an incoming signal matters.

  5. ba77,

    I do not know the exact reason, I guess it has something to do with the impedance of the cable.

  6. Professor Nelson,

    It sounds as if you at least agree with George Williams premise that a suboptimal design would be evidence against design by God.

  7. Bilbo I wrote,

    It sounds as if you at least agree with George Williams premise that a suboptimal design would be evidence against design by God.

    No — or not unless “God” and “suboptimal” are far better defined than Williams has done.

  8. Never mind Alex73, it has to do with giving the computers enough time to react to communications that are sent. Perhaps with the advances in computer speed reaction times the cable can be shortened if you change the computers.

    You will not find too many references to “advances in computer speed reaction times” I don’t think. From what I can tell, this has to do with leading edge detection of packets coming in to ethernet controller chips. Apparently, cable reflections (caused by slight impedance mismatch) can cause multiple leading edge detection, and the ethernet standard requires that a timing difference maximum be adhered to, in order NOT to interpret the events as two or more packet arrivals.

    And BTW the propagation of electrical signals in twisted pair cables is 75%~90% the speed of light in free space, depending upon the cable design

  9. Alex (1),

    The last chance I ever had of believing that unguided laws of nature can produce the wonders of biology went out the window while in a graduate Mechanical Engineering program a university in the midwest/south that will remain unnamed for later reasons. In my final semester I was taking Mechatronics alongside Physiology for Engineers. What a beautiful, humbling juxtaposition.

    In Mechatronics, a class of 25 bright graduate students spent hours every night collaborating over projects, usually frustrated by functionless output or undesired results. The mistakes were usually caused by a single wiring problem or a failed electrical component; these were not heavy-duty switches, transistors or breadboards, and we weren’t eletricians so usually about once an hour you would catch a whiff of the distinct smell of someone frying their project :)

    But we’d spend hours trying to get very intelligently designed electrical and mechanical components to perform relatively simple tasks with relatively generous room for error. It would cause great frustration, but with perseverance the job would eventually be complete (although a particularly dusty test environment ruined my final project’s performance, particularly the sonic radar distance detectors, on the final day of class, costing me an A and a 4.0 graduate GPA…I’ll never let it go!). After hours struggling with producing our simple tasks, those of us in Physiology for Engineers would then learn about the Mechatronic projects found in biology.

    It turns out that we should have been copying off of random mutation + natural selection, because it did a much better job with astronomically more difficult design problems. We sat and learned about body temperature regulation systems (on which I did a report in my Heat Exchanger class, where we had to present an example of a heat exchanger…I chose the most efficient one of any in the class, the evaporative condenser heat exchanger known as the human body…I glossed over the autoregulatory nature of the system, including the hypothalamus gland…simple stuff, really), blood clotting cascades, and numerous examples of brilliance such as surfactant, a complex surface-active collection of lipids and proteins that prevents alveoli from collapsing (it also autoregulates its thickness with varying aleolar size for optimum performance) among other vital functions (still just of surfactant).

    It became more and more obvious with each two hour lecture that nature did not fumble blindly through the darkness to these genius solutions. Thankfully we didn’t have to hear any storytelling about how this brilliance arose; the professor (legally or illegally) openly attributed biology to God. I asked him about it later and it turns out he was Hinduu.

    After our lectures it was back to fiddling with trying to get stepper motors to turn a certain number of degrees depending on what switches were activated. Perhaps instead of intelligently pouring over our projects for hours on end, with dozens and dozens of completely “unselectable” failures before anything funcitonal happened, we should have just set our projects on a vibrating table and let nature take its course?

  10. Paul Nelson: No — or not unless “God” and “suboptimal” are far better defined than Williams has done.

    Your answer to Williams’ examples is to suggest that optimality must be understood in terms of tradeoffs of advantages and disadvantages of a system. So if we could design a better eye (without losing any of the advantages of our current eye) or a better airway (without losing any of the advantages of our current airway), would this be evidence that our current eye and airway are suboptimal? And if it is evidence of suboptimality, would this count as evidence (in some degree) against there being designed by God?

  11. Hi Bilbo,

    I think one would need additional (independent) assumptions, about the necessity of God making optimal things, to turn suboptimality (as you have sketched it) into evidence against divine design. Williams’s examples, in any case, aren’t developed beyond the “gee that looks dumb to me” level of intuition; wretched biology, even leaving aside the theological issues.

    This paper may interest you:

    http://www.springerlink.com/co.....037038134/

  12. Hi Dr. Nelson,

    Are there any books available regarding your views on YEC?

    Do you believe the creation is 6000 years old or older?

  13. DesignFan asked:

    Are there any books available regarding your views on YEC?

    See my chapter, co-written with John Mark Reynolds, in Three Views on Creation and Evolution (Zondervan, 1999), available as an inexpensive paperback.

    DesignFan asked:

    Do you believe the creation is 6000 years old or older?

    Here’s what Reynolds and I wrote in our chapter:

    On the question of the earth’s age, the evidence is much less clear [than on the historicity of Noah]. This has always been the case. The Bible no place states an age for the cosmos. This number can only be derived by extrapolation from the text. (Three Views, p. 49)

    I think the Earth is older than 6,000 years, but cannot give you an exact number, because I don’t know.

    In any event, this line of questioning is unrelated to the topic at hand, and I’ve answered here strictly as a courtesy to you.

  14. Thank you for replying Dr. Nelson. I appreciate it.

  15. I think that is a fascinating idea (a recent creation) but not necessarily one that occurred 6,000 years ago.

    Gives supporters of a recent creation a bit more freedom to think creatively IMHO.

  16. I just wanted to thank you and everybody else here (Drs. Dembski, Mr. Arrington, Ms. O’Leary, everyone else) for being such moral people.

    The past two days for me have been a nightmare. I was hacked and have dealt with some really horrible internet people.

    It is good to know that there are good people out there. :)

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