Sunday, 27 September 2009

Is Dawkins Moving the Goalposts?

In an article commissioned by Wall Street Journal and published on 12 September alongside an article by Karen Armstrong under the heading "Man vs. God", each article written independently as a reply to the question "Where does Evolution leave God?", Richard Dawkins claims that "Evolution is the creator of life, ..."

This goes further than many science writers normally do. They usually understand "evolution" to mean the process of natural
selection by which new species evolve from previously existing forms of life. How life originated in the first place they are usually a bit cagy about. Of course those of a theistic inclination maintain that this is where god put in his pennyworth.

However the process by which life emerged from non-life is known as "abiogenesis", and it seems it may have been quite complicated, and not the same process as evolution, though once it had reached a critical mass evolution took over.

Even more explicitly Professor Dawkins goes further by stating: "Never once are the laws of physics violated, yet life emerges into uncharted territory. And how is the trick done? The answer is a process that, although variable in its wondrous detail, is sufficiently uniform to deserve one single name: Darwinian evolution, the nonrandom survival of randomly varying coded information."

The article was republished on and has received many comments, however only one, the last time I looked, queried this point, I quote:

105. Comment #414485 by JDLipsitz on September 13, 2009 at 4:38 am
For a group of critical thinkers on this site, we really do let Prof Dawkins over-apply evolution via natural selection as an explanation for the origin of life. Evolution is a delicious explanation for biodiversity and the distinct characteristics of species, but it does nothing to explain how life originated in the first place. While I agree with most of what the Prof says, our nature as a group of atheists should help identify us as critical thinkers. Richard Dawkins is not - nor would he wish to be - exempt from our critical thought. If any opponent thinker came up with something so baseless, he would get trashed in these comments. Please be fair, and apply critical thought evenly.

This has received several reasoned replies, in particular 110 by "Quine", 119 by "bendigeidfran", 121 by Jos Gibbons and 153 by Steve Zara (as well as several unreasoned ones).

Professor Dawkins may perhaps say that he was trying to express a strong case to an unreceptive audience, but although I entirely accept his thesis that life is of solely material origin, I do feel that he has overstated his case here. Or is his view now justified by advances in understanding the chemical origin of life?

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