Books

Design and Purpose

“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” This is the foundation dogma of neo-Darwinism proclaimed by Richard Dawkins, today’s principal prophet of the “New Atheism”.

In Blind Evolution? The Nature of Humanity and the Origin of Life, David Frost has taken on the neo-Darwinians. He is a former Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, and was Professor of English Literature and Language at the University of Newcastle, New South Wales, for twenty-one years. He returned to Cambridge and was, for eleven years, Honorary Principal and Administrator of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

In this stimulating and, at times, idiosyncratic and very personal book, Frost seeks to demonstrate, precisely by observing the universe, that it is only reasonable to conclude that there is a design and purpose in creation and that we live in a moral universe where love, compassion and self-sacrifice are to be found among many forms of life, not just humans. In his conclusion, he goes further than perhaps many of his readers will be prepared to go, and asserts the reliability of the New Testament and the universal truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The bulk of the book, however, is a fascinating exploration of a greatness of spirit in the human race and even in parts of the animal kingdom drawing on both modern scientific research and some of the greatest passages from the Bible and the classics of English poetry and drama. The evidence reveals a reality and experience of life far removed from notions of the “survival of the fittest”, the “selfish gene”, and the roll of the dice.

Frost’s first target is the proposal that blind chance is the only possible explanation for the origin of life. How can mere chance give rise to cells with a structure and complexity which can only be described by analogy with machines? As Fred Hoyle said in 1982, “biomaterials with [their] amazing measure of order must be the outcome of intelligent design”. More recently, Antony Flew, a renowned proponent of modern atheism, accepted that the scientific evidence pointed at least to the “clockmaker” God of the deists.

Frost could also have mentioned the development of the embryo where, at about fourteen days after conception, the cluster of cells forming the zygote, each of them capable of becoming any part of the human body, are then organised to their specific tasks, beginning with the formation of the spine and leading to the emergence of an individual human biological entity. Interestingly, Aristotle called the “organising principle” the “soul”.

To my mind, there seems to be an internal contradiction in the two premises of neo-Darwinism—how can a life form which emerges by chance then develop an instinct for survival? Frost, in fact, sees more than a mere instinct for survival. He sees creation as having a moral compass which he illustrates by reference not only to the human attraction to goodness, beauty and truth, but to what seems to be animal behaviour corresponding to our understandings of love, compassion and self-sacrifice.

Not only, for example, does the internet reveal a man been moved to risk his life to rescue a rabbit threatened by wildfire in California, but also that whales have been observed defending seals from orcas, a mother wild dog offering herself as a decoy to a lioness preying on her puppies, and meerkat sentries putting themselves in danger to protect their fellows. Not only humans mourn the death of another, but so, it seems, do elephants, giraffes and monkeys. A Tanzanian lioness has nursed a leopard cub, a chimpanzee has kept a genet cat as a pet, and monkeys still play in pools in India. There is more to all this than meets the eye.

These interpretations of animal behaviour are, of course, dismissed by critics as mere sentimentality or a mistaken anthropomorphism—but why are we willing to impute to animals our own cruelty and cunning but not love, loyalty and altruism?

For Frost, to limit our knowledge and understanding to the results of “scientific inquiry” is to severely limit our capacity to find the truth of all things. There is also what he calls “nous”—“knowledge by the power of the Spirit, the realms of intuition, inspiration, vision, of reaching out towards something greater than ourselves, to the Unknown Other”. Not surprisingly, Frost finds expressions of this “nous” in the Bible and in Shakespeare, Milton, Herbert, Coleridge and Wordsworth, to name but a few. Blind Evolution? is not a systematic treatise, but the reader who is prepared to go where the evidence leads will find much in this book to explore further.

Frost has already decided that the evidence, understood by the scientific method and the insights of “nous”, leads to the truths which we find expressed in the Judeo-Christian revelation. These are steps from design theory to deism to the universal truth of the Gospel which not everyone will take. Perhaps Frost has sought to take his readers one step too far, but he is being true to his own experience of life, finding in what some would call chance a thread of divine providence.

I share the endpoint which Frost has reached but, for me, the real value in the book has been the opening of windows into phenomena of the natural world which more than hint at the universe having a design, a purpose and a moral dimension where goodness and love rather than “blind pitiless indifference” are the order of the day.

Blind Evolution? The Nature of Humanity and the Origin of Life
by David Frost

James Clarke & Co, 2020, 276 pages, £65

 

Richard Waddell is a Priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross and is presently working in the Archdiocese of Sydney. He wrote on the Latin Mass in the September issue.

4 comments
  • Dalone

    I expect all political parties suffer from it as do many politicians themselves, and like many Quadrant subscribers I always vote for the right of politics, even though they do not always get it right, because the alternative is untenable.
    So it should not come as a surprise to find that some/many/most (?) Quadrant subscribers find their mag of choice also gets it wrong at times.
    Which I find a little disconcerting considering the authors and writers of articles in Quadrant appear well educated, intelligent and well informed.
    But it appears many are religious people, like the author of the above article who admonishes Richard Dawkins for explaining very clearly in a number of books how we have evolved to become the way we are, in fact, how most life became the way it is today.
    Can it be true that there are still people here today who do not believe we evolved over millions of years, like all other life on earth has?
    Do these people really believe that Adam and Eve were the first humans on Earth?
    That dinosaur fossils, for all intents and purposes, don’t exist? Because to admit they do exist shows that our own fossilised ancestor’s bones also exist, which directly contradicts the Adam and Eve biblical claims.
    I won’t stop my Quadrant subscription just because I find fault with some authors, well, actually it goes right to the top, simply because, like political parties and politicians themselves, they don’t always get it right.
    But I will ‘tch tch’ and shake my head when I see what I would describe as, absolute nonsense.

  • robbo116

    In response to Dalone, Waddell’s book review notes Frost’s understanding, along with other intellectual disciplines, of the importance of modern scientific research, which means adhering to the discipline of empirical method, and therefore, presumably, of the most recent coherent iteration of a theory of evolution. Darwin was at pains to point out with his own early iteration of the theory, that it had nothing to say about the origins of life. His theory was solely about the process of speciation within pre-existing life forms. Darwin would have had Dawkins for breakfast for being so deficient in the philosophy of science. This is one of a number of categorical errors Dawkins makes (as leading academics like John Lennox and Alistair McGrath have pointed out). Neo-Darwinism appears to be as much an ideology as an empirical method-derived iteration of the theory. Frost has gone into philosophical and literary territory science can’t go into because of the necessary limitations of empirical method. Empirical method is so effective in what it enables scientists to discover about things that are measurable to that method because it is based on the possibility that every new theory is theoretically disprovable, therefore uncertain, on the way to improved theories (so Karl Popper). Frost’s philosophical assumptions are very different from those of neo-Darwinian evolution. I take it he is being far more transparent about his philosophical assumptions than most believers in scientism (as distinct from practitioners of empirical method) who wouldn’t recognise their own assumptions if they fell over them. What Dalone has read into this review and what it is actually about are two very different things.

  • James Franklin

    Religious people don’t deny that life on earth has evolved over billions of years (except for a very small number of “young earth creationists”). The debate is about the causation of that process – could something of such complexity have evolved by the random search process described by the Darwinian theory? Unfortunately, that’s a strictly mathematical question, and the mathematics of the measurement of complexity is not up to answering it.

  • talldad

    Dalone asks:
    >>Can it be true that there are still people here today who do not believe we evolved over millions of years, like all other life on earth has?
    Yes, it can. Why do you assert as fact something which can only be ascertained by historical and archaeological enquiry, and which assertion involves significant assumptions?

    >>Do these people really believe that Adam and Eve were the first humans on Earth?
    Yes, we do.

    >>That dinosaur fossils, for all intents and purposes, don’t exist?
    No, that is a false conclusion.

    >>Because to admit they do exist shows that our own fossilised ancestor’s bones also exist, which directly contradicts the Adam and Eve biblical claims.
    To what ancestors are you referring? And you will need to substantiate your assertion that the existence of fossilised bones contradicts biblical claims.

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.