Thursday, 30 October 2014

Suboptimal design and special creation

The question of how to reconcile suboptimal design with special creation is one that has puzzled our community for some time. While the existence of suboptimal design is not 'proof' of evolution, for any special creationist who appeals to design in nature as evidence of special creation, the existence in nature of suboptimal design that directly leads to morbidity and mortality is a problem that is too often ignored. I have received in correspondence a comment on this this subject, which I am more than pleased to post here:

The challenge of how to explain the scientific evidence for a very old earth, filled with fossil remains of countless generations of extinct species which are increasingly complex, has been faced by Christadelphians since the earliest days of our community.

Brother Roberts and other early expositors explained this evidence as the product of numerous creations being made and destroyed by God in succession. [1] [2] [3] Later Christadelphian commentators found this solution unsatisfying. Brother Walker objected to it on scientific grounds, pointing out that there was no break in the fossil record providing evidence for the destruction of a previous creation, and that the fossils showed earlier extinct animals had a close physical relationship to modern species which were still alive, indicating a continuity of life rather than a break.[4]

However, a far more challenging problem with which Christadelphian commentators have wrestled, is the issue of sub-optimal features within the creation. Our community has long recognized the imperfections of the human eye, acknowledging it has a blind spot.[5]

Yet the many additional examples of sub-optimal features which are typically never addressed in Christadelphian writings. The eye of the nautilus, a relative of the octopus, is missing a lens. Some species of blind moles have vestigial eyes that do not work. Several species of birds have vestigial wings which cannot be used for flight. Many beetle species have fused outer wings that cover useless inner wings. Humans and apes have are missing an enzyme that would allow them to make their own vitamin C, like other animals do; consequently we are at risk of scurvy unless we regular get vitamin C from an external source. 

Other sub-optimal features are life threatening. The spotted hyena has a birth canal which is so long and narrow that the cubs often suffocate during birth because they are unable to exit before they have access to oxygen. Additionally, since the canal is too narrow for the cub to exit, it rips and bleeds, causing great pain and killing 20% of all hyenas giving birth for the first time. These are not features we would expect from an intelligent and all powerful creator.

Although such challenges are typically overlooked or ignored by Christadelphian writers, in 2013 brother Matthew Wigzell in Australia, made an attempt to explain them within the context of special creation. Remarkably, he did not deny that these features were sub-optimal, and acknowledged they did not suggest the work of an omnipotent and omniscient designer. In fact brother Matthew's description of creation was that "the evidence implies problem, failure and imperfect solution".[6]

Angelic responsibility for creation

Following a longstanding Christadelphian tradition, brother Matthew proposed that the angels were responsible for creation, rather than God.
"But given the close relationship between God and his angels and their active role in just about everything. It would make far more sense to me, if you were to say that God, like he did with Micaiah, gave the angels a life sustaining planet and DNA for building blocks. He then gave them a few billion years to work it all out by themselves with Him only helping when they got stuck."[7]
Knowledge and skill limitations of angels

Brother Matthew further suggested that since angels are less powerful than God, and closer to humans, it should be expected that their characters and work would be subject to weaknesses and limitations similar to those of humans.
"Angels do not know everything
Angels learn on the job
Angels are asked by God, to come up with the best process and then given the job to work it out and put it into action
Angels do not always make correct decisions"[8] 
"I think Angels are slightly better versions of ourselves who learn, grow, err and love a challenge."[9] 
Design and manufacturing errors caused by angelic involvement
Brother Matthew used this as an explanation both for sub-optimal features in the natural creation and for the fossil record of a succession of increasingly complex and better adapted creatures, arguing this is evidence of angels learning, making mistakes, and improving features and designs when errors were found.
"Perhaps leaving residue is their way to drop clues. Or perhaps they wiped their failures out with a big tsunami and started again, a bit like rubbing out a black board this creating a fossil layer of designs, attempts and failures."[10]
"So we see this angel who looks like me. And we see it dawn on him that he has crossed over two pipes that should not cross over. He cant reverse it, so he calls the forman [sic] over or even more like me, tries to fudge it and gets caught out after its too late to reverse. Together they perform a work around and he gets away with it for thousands of years until modern science. 
They say there is rejoicing in heaven over sinners repenting. I imagine there would have been howls of laughter and a red faced angel when science finally laid bare his error and the flawed logic behind it. 
Now I imagine he is struggling to live it down."[11]
Brother Matthew proposed an collaborative process of peer review, collaboration, and "upgrade", as the angels worked to get things right and improved earlier designs.
"I guess if Angels were divided into creative divisions, perhaps the error was realised in some species which required a redesign. The improvement was debated and some differed. So a proof of concept was done on a few species and the two put side by side to see if the improvement really was worth the effort of redesigning the whole sweep of species that would need to be recalled, redesigned and upgraded."[12] 
"They would start small and try to get a self sustaining ecosystem working 
Numerous attempts would start and fail. But with each success they would build from simple complex. 
Other Angels would work on climate, tweaking orbits and axis, triggering ice ages and floods until they got it right. 
Some angels would work on birds, the physics of the aerofoil wing structure, the aerodynamics of feathers and muscles. Others would work on imparting the intelligence needed to get termites to build mounds with air-conditioning, when not of them understand air flow and heat transfer. 
The earth would be littered with the results of failed attempts. Certain animals would exhibit features that demonstrated how a land based feature was tweaked to adapt it to water in the best way an angel could. It may not be perfect but it would be very good."[13]
Commendation and critique

Although explaining his proposal in considerable detail over a number of days, brother Matthew nevertheless acknowledged it was just a theory, though he would be prepared to teach it formally.
"Just a theory, but one I would be happy to present this as a non dogmatic possibility from any platform."[14]
There are many points at which brother Matthew's theory is vulnerable to criticism, not least the complete absence from the Biblical record of any suggestion that angels were even responsible for creation (especially in the manner he suggests). The suggestion that God would permit His angels to blunder and fail through the creation of countless species, and the idea that angels are only slightly more competent at carrying out God's commandments than humans, is also incompatible with the far more positive description of angels found in Scripture. Nevertheless, brother Matthew is to be commended for facing the issue directly, and attempting to find an honest solution to the problems raised by the fossil record.

One point must be noted. From brother Matthew's perspective, the sub-optimal features of creatures in the natural world are actually examples of angelic design flaws, manufacturing errors, and general lack of knowledge and skill. Since he believes in special creation, when he looks at the world he believes was made by angels, he concludes "the evidence implies problem, failure and imperfect solution".

Many Christadelphians would not be comfortable with this conclusion, and I am one of them. Since I do not believe in special creation, I do not believe God left the work to unskilled, uninformed, and largely unsupervised agents who were compelled to learn on the job as they muddled through generation after generation of mistakes. Consequently, when looking at creation I do not conclude "the evidence implies problem, failure and imperfect solution", I do not see manufacturing errors, sub-optimal designs, and engineering mistakes. I personally find it offensive to attribute such a process to a creator, even through the medium of imperfect agents.

I believe God established a natural biological process of speciation, which accounts for the variety of creatures in the fossil record and those we see today. That process followed rules established by God in the beginning, and was not blind, random, or accidental. However, being a natural process without constant guidance from an intelligent being, its results were imperfect. God has always been prepared to work with a less than perfect creation, and it is a Biblical principle that His glory shines with great brightness when His character is reflected by fallible creatures.


[1] ‘Interested Stranger.—No doubt the earth has gone through changes. Christadelphian. — Have not these changes been in the nature of progress—an advance from a crude to a more perfect state? Interested Stranger.—It has doubtless been so. Christadelphian.—From what sort of a state did this process make its start? Interested Stranger.—That, I think, we cannot ascertain. Christadelphian. — Not in an exact sense perhaps; but are we not justified in saying that if we go far enough back in the record of the earth’s physical history, as written in the rocks, we come to a time when the earth was a molten mass, incapable of sustaining life, either vegetable or animal? Interested Stranger.—That is believed by the geologist; and I do not see that any thing can be said against it.’, Roberts, ‘A Page for the Interested Stranger - No. 2’, The Christadelphian (22.255.405), 1885.

[2] ‘Geology teaches us much; it speaks of a time and creation on this earth when animal life, if not totally, was nearly unknown, and only the lower order of vegetable life covering its face, and this must have existed many thousands of years; and during the whole of that long period, the earth was undergoing wonderful and necessary changes to fit it for a creation of a higher order, and evidently with the creature man in view. There are evidences to show that when this early period had done its work, it was replaced by a creation of a higher order , when animal and vegetable forms of a far more wonderful structure were brought into existence and most admirably adopted to the atmosphere, climate, and peculiarities of that creation; and this, again, must have lasted for many thousands of years, and in its turn been swept away, and a grander creation built on its ruins. And so on, stage after stage.’, Simons, ‘Why Man was not at once made Perfect’, The Christadelphian (21.238.177), 1884.

[3] 'There can be no reasonable doubt that when the non-fossiliferous rocks were first formed t he heat of the earth’s matter was too intense for vegetable and animal life to exist. There can be no reasonable doubt that it was only in a later age that the lower forms of plant and animal life could exist . And there can be no reasonable doubt that the succeeding ages allowed the creation of still higher and more perfect forms, till we reach the age called the “Tertiary,” and the “Post-pliocene” period of that age, when we are told remains of man are found for the first time. All of this, I say, I do not doubt. The facts of old mother earth’s storehouse are too convincingly inscribed upon her crust to allow me to doubt. At the same time, and amid it all, I have the most implicit faith and unbounded trust in God and His sacred word.’, Welch, 'Knowledge.- No., 12 Geology', The Christadelphian (28.329.416), 1891.

[4] ‘If we suppose a sudden and absolute break some 6,000 years ago, or before, resulting in the destruction of all life, and that the creation account of Genesis describes a new creation following, we ought to find some evidence of the break, and we cannot well account for the apparently close relationship that obtains between extinct and existing forms. There are forms becoming extinct in our own day from slow and natural causes. May it not have been so in pre-Adamic times? The professors tell us for instance that some of these ancient birds, whose strides we can see for ourselves from their footprints were from four to six feet long, were like gigantic ostriches.’, Walker, 'Genesis', The Christadelphian (47.557.501), 1910.

[5] 'Where a particular sin is a normal feature of anyone’s life and personality, this can only be because that person’s conscience has not been quickened or alerted concerning it. The eye of every human being has a “blind spot”, and optical experts know how to demonstrate its existence.', Whittaker, ‘Sin Unto Death’ The Christadelphian (98.1164.247), 1961.

[6] "So to take the human elements, the frustration, the changes of plan and the solution along with God allowing that process to work its way through, and applying it to a creative environment where the evidence implies problem, failure and imperfect solution.", Matthew Wigzell, email on his email list "Watchmen", 17 January, 2013; (brother Matthew has explained this email list was not private, and both he and other members have shared publicly emails by various members of the list.)

[7] Matthew Wigzell, email on his email list "Watchmen", 12 January, 2013.

[8] Matthew Wigzell, email on his email list "Watchmen", 12 January, 2013.

[9] Matthew Wigzell, email on his email list "Watchmen", 13 January, 2013.

[10] Matthew Wigzell, email on his email list "Watchmen", 13 January, 2013.

[11] Matthew Wigzell, email on his email list "Watchmen", 15 January, 2013.

[12] Matthew Wigzell, email on his email list "Watchmen", 16 January, 2013.

[13] Matthew Wigzell, email on his email list "Watchmen", 12 January, 2013.

[14] Matthew Wigzell, email on his email list "Watchmen", 12 January, 2013.

[15] Matthew Wigzell, email on his email list "Watchmen", 17 January, 2013.