Sunday, January 6, 2008

Common Descent, Common Design and a Creation Hypothesis

Common descent, the backbone of evolutionary theory, is assumed to be both a definition and proof for the theory. This is based on several "proofs". The creationist comeback is that the same evidence apply equally well to common design, proof that a single designer was responsible. The one shortcoming of the creation side is that of a mechanism, which, for better or for worse, the common descent side claims to have identified and described.

In this post I will try to elaborate on the descent/design argument a bit, and also posit an ex-nihilo creation hypothesis by analogy.

Morphology, DNA similarities and the combination of both in a dated sequence is proof positive of common descent. If you assume of course, a-priori, that common descent is true. Morphological proof, the way things look, states that because there are anatomical similarities, it is proof that they shared a common ancestor. But the same morphological evidence is what first raised the possibility of common descent, and common descent is defined as sharing some characteristics with an ancestor, but also incorporating change, i.e. descent with modification. So basically, because humans and apes share some physical traits, it is assumed that they developed from the same lineage.

With that assumption firmly entrenched, it was a short hop, skip and a jump to incorporate the similarities in the chimpanzee and human genomes as further evidence for common descent. In a recent debate with an evolutionary biologist, I asked for his best proof of common descent, and he quoted chromosomal fusion. That is the fusion of two human chromosomes to create a single chromosome at #2, which also holds 2 telomeres and centromeres. The proof then is that humans have two fewer chromosomes than chimps, and should this be "undone", will have exactly the same amount of chromosomes, and look like the banded chromosome structure in chimps. This, coupled with the high correlation between the human and chimp genomes, (~95-98%), is presented as proof for common descent.

The last common ancestor for humans and the great apes lived around 5-10 million years ago, depending on which of the scientists you choose to believe.

There is of course much more scholarship around this short synopsis, so I encourage you to get familiar with the material around this important discussion.

The creationist response is that this is explained by common design. But does this mean that the designer intended to fuse two chromosomes exactly at a spot where chimps have two chromosomes? That is certainly a possibility, but does seem a bit odd, and not intellectually satisfactory. Of course, I would argue that since we cannot tell exactly when this fusion event happened, that both chimps and humans were created with an equal amount of chromosomes, and that a fusion event happened sometime after that in humans.

Further support for the design theory is that the common ancestor remains a mystery, no such LCA (last common ancestor) for humans and apes have yet been found. Many have been proposed, but so far all have been found wanting. The latest candidate is Nakalipithecus Nakayamai, "a toothy, large, nut chomping ape", and includes the fossilized remains of a jawbone and 11 teeth. What excites the scientists is that this fossil dates from the "right" time period, between 5 and 11 million years ago. It is a classic case of using morphology to prove common ancestry.

But should we not hold ourselves, and the scientific community to a higher standard? Since the appeal to morphology is circular, and includes the assumption of common descent based on morphology as proof for common descent, should we not demand biochemical proof? As such, when can we expect to see the predicted genome of the LCA mapped out, along with a description of how its DNA passed on to both humans and apes, the biochemical pathways for each unique morphological and genetic trait, and why creatures with such a remarkable similarity in genome are so different? That is, of course, unless one wishes to argue that the tree-climbing fruit-and-bug eaters are pretty much the same as those who do the genome mapping. (In that case, I would suggest taking your DNA samples and computer down to the zoo for some brainstorming.)

Until the LCA is conclusively found and proven by the above standard, we will continue to be entertained by morphological fables and mytochondrial legends. And, in the absence of a suitable and proven candidate for the LCA, I suggest that the designer created similar genomes which expressed very differently.

Of course, the above request is always rejected as being too rigorous. Which is evo-talk for "we can't do it." And leads to accusations of "You are unscientific because you just want to say that goddidit and leave that as the final explanation." Leaving aside the "tu quoque" fallacy for now, and resisting the temptation to rely in kind ("chancedidit"), I want to suggest a creationary hypothesis for the alternative, ex-nihilo creation.

Now, before I start, I want to state that this is an argument by analogy, and is an introductory attempt to demonstrate that it may not be as forbiddingly impossible as we may think. Of course, I do not claim that this is the only way, nor do I claim to have special insight into the extraordinary omnipotence of our Father. But I am kind of getting tired of these "goddidit" arguments, so here goes:

"Psa 33:6 By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
Psa 33:9 For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm."

Those verses are a pretty good summary of the creation act, God spoke, He created through His word, and the creation was there. We further read:

"Gen 2:7 then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.
Gen 2:8 And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. "

These two verses show that God took physical action during creation, and thus by the power of His Word, creation happened, and was completed by some physical actions.

For some reason, this seems to be tough to understand by some (especially the "goddidit" crowd). So let me try to break this down in an analogy, that of an original composition of a piece of music.

The original genre, the goal, theme and music are all , in a basic form "created" ex nihilo. Yes, I will immediately grant that it comes to existence in an environment of the brain which includes some basic preliminary concepts of music, memory etc, and is facilitated by the biochemical functions of the brain but nevertheless, it did not exist before, and now it does. This thought, that did not exist before, does not exist in anything but the abstracts of human thought at this point. The naturalist may argue that it is nothing but the combination of electrical impulses and chemical reactions. If so, it still does not explain how that unique combination of materials and impulses came together in the first place to produce a unique result, it just tries to obfuscate.

To make the music come to life for others though, the composer has to take some physical action, and write down the notes on a piece of paper, assemble an orchestra and have them play the piece. But when did the creation happen? Was that not the original mental exercise? It surely did not happen when he wrote down the notes, called the orchestra together or have the piece played?

By analogy, I would think that that is how God did it. We know of His omnipotent nature, and that He thinks every thought before we do. Furthermore, we know that He is timeless, so that what ever He thinks, is, was and will be. The creation was there, by His Word, so eloquently described as the "Logos" in John 1:
"Joh 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Joh 1:2 He was in the beginning with God.
Joh 1:3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. "

something said (including the thought); by implication a topic (subject of discourse), also reasoning (the mental faculty) or motive; by extension a computation; specifically (with the article in John) the Divine Expression (that is, Christ): - account, cause, communication, X concerning, doctrine, fame, X have to do, intent, matter, mouth, preaching, question, reason, + reckon, remove, say (-ing), shew, X speaker, speech, talk, thing, + none of these things move me, tidings, treatise, utterance, word, work.]

Christ, the Divine Expression, the hand of the Creator that wrote down the notes of creation's composition. He formed, made and caused, the same as our composer. He breathed the breath of life into man, as the composer and his orchestra breathed life into his music. Of course God's creation is on much grander scale than a simple piece of music, yet the analogy applies: something came from nothing based on the nature of the Creator, and was translated into existence for others to witness and enjoy.

How exactly the hands of the Creator moved, one can only speculate about, or mark as "To be confirmed" when the face to face meeting happens sometime in future. But for now, I am content to know that such a thing is not only possible, but reasonable given my own experience.

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