Just-So Stories: Call them what they are

by John Mays

When it comes to science teaching, we have to do better than simply tell our students the content from the science texts. As fascinating as it is, the story told by scientists today is not the whole story. This is because contemporary science seeks only material explanations, and since there is a Creator involved in creation at every level, telling the story about creation without ever alluding to the Creator is like telling a family history without ever mentioning the father—something crucially important has been left out, and the rest cannot be understood without it.

I have a few times been called a theistic evolutionist. I don’t know why this happens, since I have never said in public that I accept evolutionary theory. (I've also never said I don't.) But be that as it may, the thoughts I have in mind today are not opposed to the idea of evolution of species per se, they are simply opposed to the crazy idea that evolution could have happened all by itself through random, unguided processes.

The more I have contemplated the theory of natural selection, the more I am convinced that it is one of the dumbest ideas ever. Not because it can’t happen or never happens—it clearly happens all the time. What is silly is the incredible idea that natural selection can explain everything.

And the assumption that natural selection does explain everything is ubiquitous—one reads almost every day about how natural selection caused this or that trait to be present in some organism or another. Now, given that most genetic mutations are harmful, and many others are silent, we start with the fact that mutations contributing beneficial features to organisms are relatively rare. Next, remember that only mutations in germ-line cells (sperm and eggs) matter so far as evolution is concerned because only these are passed on to offspring. Finally, we are expected to believe that natural selection alone, using these relatively rare beneficial mutations, occurring only in germ-line cells, has produced every single trait of every single organism in every single species in the world. This is what is called a just-so story. I wouldn’t believe it even if life on earth were 1020 years old instead of only 109 or so years old. Neither would I ever accept the claim that out of a trillion trillion tornadoes in wrecking yards one of them would be likely to produce an apparently brand-new BMW 750i.

Natural selection is regularly brought up in discussions of sex-selected traits. Female birds, we are supposed to believe, select mates exhibiting wild courtship displays because such displays indicate fitness to reproduce. Female elk, we are supposed to believe, select mates with huge antlers because such displays indicate strength, and thus fitness to reproduce. But such displays indicate nothing of the kind.

Imagine a young woman whose highest concern is to reproduce, raise a family, and thus pass on her genes. (By the way, this is a totally teleological thing. Why do all creatures want to do this? Whence cometh the intentionality, yea the purpose that produces this desire? And it clearly is a desire. What else could it be?) Anyway, let’s say two eligible bachelors come along. The first dresses in the most outlandish fashion and at irresponsibly great expense. He prances around in an extravagant manner, like some primitive tribal chief performing the goat dance, all of which consumes a great amount of time and energy. The second bachelor is a sensible, practical fellow. He dresses simply, neatly, and in good taste, and he exhibits perfect manners. If both bachelors ask our young lady out to dinner, which invitation do you think she will accept? Naturally, there are women who will be attracted to the craziness of the lunatic fop and will want to go out with him just out of sheer curiosity. But our question is about a woman whose chief interest is the very practical one of reproducing and successfully raising offspring until they themselves can reproduce, and the man most likely to help her do that is not necessarily a nut job. Successful rearing of offspring entails navigating the practical affairs of life—obtaining and succeeding at a good job, being alert to all kinds of threats, spending money on the most important things first, and being willing to sacrifice for one’s children. Given the lady’s priorities, and given the practicalities involved in the matter of successfully raising offspring, I think it most likely that the lady would select the practical man rather than the show-off.

Why should a female elk believe that a male with large antlers would be a better bet for successful reproduction? Why would she not conclude, on the contrary, that those big antlers might get in the way or exhaust the male during mating? Why would she not assume that any male with big antlers like that is going to have a tougher time hiding from predators, and would thus be more likely to get them all eaten before they could reproduce? And as for avian courtship displays, how could such displays suggest anything at all about fitness for reproduction? These have nothing to do with each other. You might as well say that sticking a Chiquita Banana sticker on your chest shows that you will be better at playing chess. It simply indicates no such thing, and may, in fact, show just the opposite.

So why do virtually all scientists promote the just-so story that natural selection gave us all the variety, exquisite functionality, and beauty of life? Because they have no other option. One who believes that a wise and loving Creator is responsible for all the variety, exquisite functionality, and beauty of life can assume that not nature, but the Creator is doing much, if not all, of the selecting. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has suggested (I think in Where the Conflict Really Lies, but I couldn’t find the reference in my notes) that God could cause specific mutations to occur that give the species no benefit whatsoever initially, and cause these to be collected in the genes over the generations until they add up to totally new functionality, at which time they would be expressed, giving the creature a completely new phenotype. (And, by the way, leaving no transitional forms in the fossil record.) Perhaps this is a better explanation for the rapid increase in mammal size and diversity after the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event than the explanation typically—… Wait, what is the typical explanation? Oh yes—all the new niches opened up by the destruction of the dinosaurs. As if sheer space is all that was needed for the evolution of squirrels who glide between trees, kangaroos who carry their joeys in pouches, and beavers who engineer dams. I don’t believe it—it simply takes too much faith. Weak people like me need a simpler, more straightforward causal framework, so I am sticking to the idea that it makes more sense that new BMWs are made intentionally in factories by skilled workers who know what they are doing and that highly specific and successful functionality in creatures is the result of the Creator’s wise hand. As for birds who prefer mates with crazy feathers and dances, either the Creator thinks these things are fun and causes the genetic mutations that will bring them to be, or perhaps the female birds just mate with males like that because they want to (that is, they think it’s fun)—regardless of the outcome for the offspring.

I have often said that if evolution did happen, it didn't happen by itself.

If you are interested in thinking more about teaching science with these kinds of things in mind, I have a new video series on ClassicalU that will be available probably sometime in November. I think it will be called Science and the Symphony of Creation. Just click on Teacher Training up at the top of the page.

Copyright 2022 John D. Mays