Complexity, Design, and Miracles

by Loren Haarsma, Ph.D. and Terry Gray, Ph.D.

This page contains excerpts from the introduction and conclusion of a chapter — "Complexity, Self-organization and Design" — written for Perspectives on an Evolving Creation.

    ... Modern life's complexity and information content poses an interesting challenge for the theory of evolution.  It is easy to understand how evolution, using just the natural mechanisms of mutation and natural selection, can produce small changes in species over time.  But is it possible for simple life forms, over time, to evolve into much more complex life forms — life forms with novel capabilities far beyond those of simpler forms?  Charles Darwin believed that complexity and novelty could evolve over time.  In The Origin of Species, Darwin developed some hypotheses for how this might happen.  Since Darwin's time, scientists have tested and improved upon his hypotheses and invented new ones.  Most scientists today are convinced that biological evolution can, under the right conditions, lead to increased complexity and novelty.  Not everyone agrees.
    Using theological language, we could ask the questions this way: Did God design the laws of nature so that biological evolution is limited to making small-scale changes in species?  If so, then God, at various points throughout biological history, must also have miraculously superseded ordinary evolution to form newer, more complex life forms.  Alternatively, did God design the laws of nature so that biological evolution could, through its ordinary operation, bring about gradual increases in biological complexity and novelty?  If so, God could have created modern life forms (and the entire history of life seen in the fossil record) using biological evolution under his ordinary providential governance, without the need for extraordinary miracles. [2]
    Using language that is more religiously neutral, we might ask the questions this way: Are the natural mechanisms of biological evolution limited to only small-scale tinkering with a species' existing capabilities?  Or can we scientifically explain how biological evolution could produce the complexity we see in modern life forms?
    For the present, we cannot definitively answer to those questions.  Scientists still have much to learn about how living cells work.  Scientists have sequenced the entire genomes of only a few species.  Once a species' genome is sequenced, there is still a great deal to be learned about how those genes function in a living cell, and a great deal more to be learned about how much those genes can evolve biochemically from generation to generation.  We need to study the evolution of complexity for many more decades before the "limits" of evolution are well understood.  While we do not yet have definitive answers, we do have some hints — hints both from biology and from computer science.
    Under certain conditions, complexity can self-organize. ..... [The middle part of the chapter examines possible mechanisms for a natural production of increasing biological complexity.]

    Self-Organization, Design, and Miracles
    We started this chapter by asking these questions: Did God design the laws of nature so that biological evolution is limited to making small-scale changes in species?  Or did God design the laws of nature so that biological evolution could, through its ordinary operation, bring about gradual increases in biological complexity and novelty?
    We have seen that complexity can self-organize by a variety of strategies.  Computer programs allow us to investigate what sorts of properties are necessary for complexity to self-organize.  Living organisms and biological evolution seem to have those properties.  We also have seen some specific biological examples where there is good genetic evidence that complexity did, in fact, evolve.
    Human beings are clever enough to devise systems in which complexity self-organizes, and the scientific evidence suggests that God has chosen to use self-organized complexity for at least some of cosmological and biological history.  But does this prove that God used natural mechanisms to create all forms of biological complexity?  Does this mean that God never miraculously superseded evolution during biological history?  Of course not.  The jury is still out on that question.
    Only within the last few years have biologists mapped out the entire genetic sequence of a handful of species.  Within a few more decades, we will probably map the genetic sequences of many species.  Even then, we will have only begun the work of understanding the capabilities and limits of evolution.  In order to know whether or not some complex piece of biological machinery could have evolved, we must not only know each species' genetic sequences, but also understand in great detail how gene products interact with each other in living cells.  As biologists learn more, they might eventually discover that there are some, or even many, complex biological systems for which there are no plausible evolutionary scenarios.  As biologists learn more, they might eventually discover that there is no plausible scenario for natural mechanisms to self-assemble even the simplest of living cells.  As biologists learn more, they might also come to the opposite conclusions.  In the meantime, it is premature to say for certain whether God used evolution to produce all known biological complexity, or if God superseded evolution in a few or many cases.  We still have much to learn about the wonders of God's creation and God's creativity.
    Some Christians study the complexity of modern life and hope to find there, in that complexity, proof that the natural mechanisms of evolution are not enough.  They hope to use this as evidence for God's existence and miraculous intervention in biological history.  Other Christians study the complexity of modern life and have a very different reaction.  They are excited by the fact that God has created a universe where, under the right conditions, complexity can self-organize via the natural mechanisms which God designed and governs.
    For us, as we consider the evidence from cosmological history that God used natural processes to form galaxies, stars, planets and the atoms necessary for life;  as we consider the evidence that God used natural processes in geological history to form the earth's atmosphere, ocean, dry land, and simple organic molecules;  as we consider the evidence from biological history and consider the incredible array of evolutionary mechanisms which we already know that God has created and uses;  it seems most promising — both scientifically and theologically — to study biological complexity expecting to find more evidence that God designed into it the ability to self-organize.


2. It is important to use the term "design" carefully.  In recent years, some people have appropriated the name "Intelligent Design" for a particular theory — the theory that biological evolution is limited to making small changes so that biological complexity could only have been produced if God (or someone) superseded evolution during biological history.  See, for example, Phillip Johnson, Darwin on Trial (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1991); and William Dembski, The Design Inference (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).  Whatever might be said, good or bad, about the scientific and theological arguments of Intelligent Design theory, we are troubled by the appropriation of the word "design" to exclude evolution.  Intelligent Design theory, the way it is typically presented, seems to offer the following choice:  either modern life forms evolved or they were designed.  That is a false choice.  Christian theology says that modern life forms were definitely designed by God, whether God used ordinary evolution or superseded it.

This website for Whole-Person Education has TWO KINDS OF LINKS:
an ITALICIZED LINK keeps you inside a page, moving you to another part of it, and
 a NON-ITALICIZED LINK opens another page.  Both keep everything inside this window, 
so your browser's BACK-button will always take you back to where you were.

Here are other related pages:

other pages by Loren Haarsma

other pages by Terry Gray

Haarsma & Gray about
The Origin of Life

and pages, by other authors, about

This page, written by Loren Haarsma & Terry Gray
and assembled (with links added) by Craig Rusbult, is

Copyright © 2003 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
(Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA), all rights reserved.