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Evaluating a Synthesis of “Design and Evolution”

Laveta Brigham

Image credit: Ustad Mansur, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. We are pleased to announce the publication of a peer-reviewed open-access article by CSC staff members Stephen Dilley, Brian Miller, Emily Reeves, and myself. Published in the journal Religions, our article is titled “On the Relationship Between Design and Evolution,” and it examines and reviews a scholarly book, The Compatibility of Evolution […]

Image credit: Ustad Mansur, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

We are pleased to announce the publication of a peer-reviewed open-access article by CSC staff members Stephen Dilley, Brian Miller, Emily Reeves, and myself. Published in the journal Religions, our article is titled “On the Relationship Between Design and Evolution,” and it examines and reviews a scholarly book, The Compatibility of Evolution and Design (Palgrave Macmillan / 2021), which is arguably the best current treatment of the relationship between evolution and intelligent design from an evolutionary point of view. The book is written by E. V. Rope Kojonen, a theologian at the University of Helsinki, who offers a potent argument that mainstream evolutionary biology is fully compatible with a robust biological design argument. On his view, the wings of the hummingbird, for example, display evidence of design while also being the product of natural selection, random mutation, and other processes — all without the need for direct guidance, divine intervention, or intelligent supervision per se.  

We regard Kojonen’s model as nuanced, erudite, and fair-minded. It is a model of fine scholarship and deserves serious attention. Even so, we argue that Kojonen’s conception of design is flawed, as is his attempt to harmonize design with evolution. We support our contentions with both scientific and philosophical arguments. Scientifically, we provide perhaps the most comprehensive defense of Douglas Axe’s research written to date as well as an updated analysis of the bacterial flagellum. Philosophically, we argue that Kojonen’s model undercuts itself. It gives an account of “design detection” that actually conflicts with Kojonen’s own design argument.  

A Question about Compatibility

The abstract of the article is as follows:

A longstanding question in science and religion is whether standard evolutionary models are compatible with the claim that the world was designed. In The Compatibility of Evolution and Design, theologian E. V. Rope Kojonen constructs a powerful argument that not only are evolution and design compatible, but that evolutionary processes (and biological data) strongly point to design. Yet Kojonen’s model faces several difficulties, each of which raise hurdles for his understanding of how evolution and design can be harmonized. First, his argument for design (and its compatibility with evolution) relies upon a particular view of nature in which fitness landscapes are “fine-tuned” to allow proteins to evolve from one form to another by mutation and selection. But biological data run contrary to this claim, which poses a problem for Kojonen’s design argument (and, as such, his attempt to harmonize design with evolution). Second, Kojonen appeals to the bacterial flagellum to strengthen his case for design, yet the type of design in the flagellum is incompatible with mainstream evolutionary theory, which (again) damages his reconciliation of design with evolution. Third, Kojonen regards convergent evolution as notable positive evidence in favor of his model (including his version of design), yet convergent evolution actually harms the justification of common ancestry, which Kojonen also accepts. This, too, mars his reconciliation of design and evolution. Finally, Kojonen’s model damages the epistemology that undergirds his own design argument as well as the design intuitions of everyday “theists on the street”, whom he seeks to defend. Thus, despite the remarkable depth, nuance, and erudition of Kojonen’s account, it does not offer a convincing reconciliation of “design” and “evolution”.

A Flawed Account of Design

We’ll have more to say here about this model in the coming weeks, but for now, it’s worth taking a look at some of the main points from our paper’s conclusion:

In this article, we argued that Kojonen’s account of design is flawed. It requires fine-tuned preconditions (and smooth fitness landscapes) so that evolution can successfully search and build viable biological forms. Yet empirical evidence shows that no such preconditions or fitness landscapes exist. At precisely the place we would expect to find evidence of Kojonen’s type of “design”, we find no such thing. Accordingly, his view of design is at odds with the evidence itself. As such, it is poorly situated to add explanatory value to evolution.

We also contended that Kojonen’s conjunction of “design” and “evolution” is internally fragmented. Recall that Kojonen believes that the complexity of the bacterial flagellum adds to his case for joining “design” to “evolution”. Yet Behe’s irreducible complexity argument shows that the type of design manifest in the bacterial flagellum runs contrary to mainstream evolution. Thus, the very system that provides strong evidence of design also undercuts evolution. In effect, this drives a wedge between the two. Kojonen’s conjunction of “design and evolution” is at war with itself.

We also highlighted the internal tension in Kojonen’s attempt to join “design” and “evolution” with respect to convergent evolution. Kojonen draws on convergence as a key argument for the “laws of form”, which are an important element of fine-tuned preconditions and, thus, his case for design. Yet convergent evolution conflicts with Kojonen’s use of co-option and approach to protein evolution. It also conflicts with the general justification of common ancestry. Thus, this element of Kojonen’s case for design chafes against his own reasoning as well as mainstream evolutionary thought. Internal discord surfaces once again.

In each of these criticisms, we have not targeted evolutionary theory itself. Although we believe that the scientific evidence we have covered counters mainstream evolution, we have set this concern aside in this article. Instead, our criticisms are aimed at Kojonen’s conception of design. We have contended that he does not offer sufficient empirical support for it — and so it adds little explanatory merit to “evolution” — and that some of the evidence he does offer actually conflicts with his commitment to evolution, producing incoherence within his model. (We should note, however, that because of the way Kojonen frames the matter, our criticisms of his view of design do have negative implications for the feasibility of evolutionary theory as he understands it. But this is an implication of our argument based on his own framing. It is not the focus of our argument per se. We will return to this point momentarily.)

Finally, we raised epistemological concerns aimed at the fundamental basis of Kojonen’s understanding of design detection. If our concerns are correct, then they cut deeply against Kojonen’s design argument as well as his defense of the theist on the street. In a nutshell, our worry is that a person who takes Kojonen’s model seriously — or who lived in such a universe — would either have defeaters for her biology-based design beliefs or might not have the cognitive dispositions and beliefs that (in our experience) are foundational to the formation of such beliefs in the first place. Kojonen’s reliance on evolution (and non-agent causes) undermines his basis for design detection, in short.

Stepping back, it is important to reiterate, once again, the many strengths of Kojonen’s treatment. The extensive review we have given here is a credit to a book of remarkable sophistication, precision, and erudition. Only a venerable fortress is worthy of a long siege. The Compatibility of Evolution and Design is the best of its class.

Devastating Implications for Evolution

But there’s one more point worth highlighting about Kojonen’s model. He effectively concedes that evolution won’t work to produce biological complexity unless there is some special “fine-tuning” of the “preconditions” for evolution (which themselves arise from designed laws of nature). We might agree with this framing but we have shown that this fine-tuning does not seem to exist. Therefore not only is his case for marrying design and evolution flawed but — if there are no such preconditions — then evolution itself is impotent. Here’s how we frame this in the final paragraph:

Even so, we bring this article to a close on a poignant note: Kojonen’s model may have devastating implications for mainstream evolutionary theory. Recall that the heart of his proposal is that evolution needs design (in the form of fine-tuned preconditions). Evolution on its own is insufficient to produce flora and fauna. But if we are correct that Kojonen’s conception and justification of design are flawed, then it follows — by his own lights — that evolution is impotent to explain biological complexity. Kojonen’s own account of the efficacy of evolution depends upon the success of his case for design. But if the latter stumbles, then so does the former. In a startling way, Kojonen has set the table for the rejection of evolution. If he has failed to make his case for design, then he has left readers with strong reasons to abandon mainstream evolutionary theory. The full implications of this striking result warrant further exploration.

Despite our critique of Kojonen’s model, we find it stimulating and thoughtful. We invite interested readers of Evolution News to read our article and also to read The Compatibility of Evolution and Design.

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