A Response to Evolution Deniers: How Complex Comes from Simple

evolution creationists simple complexIn a recent post, I responded to the Creationist challenge, “DNA is a program, programs demand a programmer, and that programmer is God” Let’s turn to a related idea, that DNA is too complex to have evolved naturally.

DNA (or RNA) becoming more complex, from the first simple cells four billion years ago to humans and other animals today, is explained by evolution, but conservative Christian groups often dogmatically reject evolution. They say that it is incompatible with God creating life in Genesis (in two incompatible stories, but never mind that). Adam didn’t evolve from earlier apes, they tell us—that would be yucky. No, God created Adam from dirt, which is far more dignified. And we know that Eve was made from Adam’s rib because it’s right there in Genesis (leading to the belief, which survives, that men have one fewer ribs than women).

Curiously, they never seem to be troubled by quantum physics, which is far more counterintuitive.

Let’s explore a few examples besides evolution where complex comes from simple. The well-known Fibonacci sequence is very simple. Each term is the sum of the two previous terms: F(n + 2) = F(n + 1) + F(n). After {1, 1} as the first two terms, we get:

1 + 1 = 2

2 + 1 = 3

3 + 2 = 5

5 + 3 = 8

8 + 5 = 13

And so on. It’s trivially simple, and yet entire books have been written on this simple series and its applications. As one example, the ratio of consecutive terms in the Fibonacci series becomes an increasingly good approximation to phi (φ), the golden ratio. Expressed formally:

Phi 2

And then phi itself is a fascinating number about which entire books have been written. To take just one example of many, phi (φ = 1.618 . . .) is the only number that if you take off the initial one (0.618 . . .) and then invert it (1/0.618 . . .) you get the original back: φ – 1 = 1/φ.

There are many more examples of complex coming from simple, some of which you are already familiar with.

  • Crystals and snowflakes are complex but formed from simple physical principles and laws.
  • Simple equations can form beautiful, complex, fractal artwork as Julia sets.
  • The harmonograph (typically, a pen is controlled by two pendulums as it draws on paper) was invented in the 1800s. A Spirograph creates similar art.
  • John Horton Conway’s Game of Life is a two-dimensional cellular automaton with three simple rules. The general category of cellular automata also create complex patterns with simple rules.
  • The members of social insect colonies—ants, termites, bees—don’t have large brains for complex algorithms, and yet they still create complex hives and nests. “A single ant or bee isn’t smart, but their colonies are,” as National Geographic put it. Starlings are famous for their swarms (“murmurations”) that appear to act as a single organism, and many fish swarm. Simple rules govern both.
  • A piano has 88 keys but can create a vast number of pieces of music.
  • The Periodic Table has 94 naturally occurring elements. From these millions of compounds are possible. Only 19 elements are essential for human life, but these make the thousands of chemicals that are metabolized as food and converted into thousands more to make a healthy human.
  • Mathematics has a small set of axioms (a statement declared true because of evidence, not because it derives from simpler axioms) from which derive its fantastic complexity—algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, topology, group theory, linear algebra, probability and statistics, number theory, and so on.
  • Pulsars emit a beam of radiation at very precise intervals, measured in milliseconds or seconds. From our vantage point, they’re like a lighthouse. The pulses were so curiously regular that an intelligent source was considered, first as interference from the earth and then as a signal from an alien intelligence. We now know that pulsars are rotating neutron stars that emit beams of radiation from their poles.

That the complex can come from the simple is no proof that DNA wasn’t made by God or that there is no God, but it does illustrate that complexity can be nicely explained with natural means.

Creationists are forced to the very brink of accepting evolution when they agree that antibiotic resistance is caused by random mutation and natural selection acting on bacteria. Add more time (not just years but millions of years), and you get the diversity of life that you see on earth. Somehow Creationists imagine an unexplained shield that prevents one species from eventually becoming another.

At best, they propose an argument from ignorance: Wow—look at how DNA works. What could’ve caused that?? This is no evidence for God. And what does it say of their arguments that this argument from incredulity is in their arsenal? A god worth believing in wouldn’t be hidden.

If you pretend that your problems are already solved,
you have no motivation to solve them.
— Scathing Atheist podcast #76

Image credit: Wikimedia

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