It’s just so easy!

I’ve been wrestling with one particular idea I’ve encountered on this discussion board recently… and trying to figure how to communicate it…

I’ve perceived what seems a tendency to simply gloss over the astounding intricacy and levels of complexity that evolution must stumble upon to accomplish the marvels of programming and engineering involved. Two examples in particular stood out to me, but I’ve seen many (and my apologies as I don’t mean to single out Dr. @DennisVenema ):

I know enough about echolocation/sonar engineering to know it isn’t so simple as simply honing the same ability for all mammals (including primitive whales) to utilize a most rudimentary echolocation to do what bats and dolphins can do. Humans, for instance, can’t determine direction in water because of the much greater speed of sound. The exquisite engineering involved to use dolphin teeth as acoustic antennae and the jawbone as a hydrophone array, and the completely unique organ designed to produce directional ultrahigh frequency signals, is not simply a “honing” of what all mammals (or even what baleen whales) do. This is a radically re-engineered design, even if some principles or functions cross over.

Perhaps I misread his intent with the words, but evolving a primitive chimp or HCLCA into a being that can do all the astounding and exquisite things that we as humans can do does not seem appropriately described as “easily obtainable”, regardless of the timeframe involved.

These examples, and others, give this observer the impression that faith in evolution must be accompanied by a striking minimization of or disinterest in the exquisite engineering or programming involved in biological systems.

The logic seems to be: If natural selection sifting through blind random changes can accomplish these feats, the feats must not really be all that difficult. Give natural selection enough time and variation, and stumbling upon these sorts of feats is unsurprising and not particularly striking, and simply par for the course.

There’s something about this that gives me significant pause. I can certainly appreciate how stunning and difficult these feats are, such that even our best minds and engineers can’t approach such sophistication. Hence it contributes to my skepticism to see Darwinism proponents essentially wave the hand about these astounding accomplishments and say, essentially, “it’s just so easy!”


Some good thoughts. This isn’t so much an answer to you as an interjected comment - others much more knowledgeable than I am will hopefully follow.

I had never made that connection! Thanks for that bit of education.

Well - it is difficult, apparently. Human engineers are trying to accomplish within a scope of years what (on an evolutionary reading) took many millions of years. And even so, what humans do accomplish remains far less impressive (in its scope of consideration) than what God has accomplished in creation.

But your point is well-taken. The “It’s so easy” refrain is making use of imagination to fill in many gaps, to be sure, but all those gaps are only there courtesy of the many data points also there, so that perhaps evolutionary enthusiasts could be forgiven for what seems to be the faith that there will be a continuity about it all were we able to see everything?

Concluding that biologists are either stupid or lazy is… what’s that phrase… just so easy.

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I might reply simply that non-sequitur or straw man statements are also apparently quite easy… but they tend not to further constructive dialogue…


What Steve wrote was neither a non sequitur nor a straw man, so I’m not seeing the point of your comment.

I think that Steve’s point was that calling biologists stupid/lazy/disinterested does not further constructive dialog.

An engineer wouldn’t repurpose existing parts like that; nor would an omnipotent engineer.

Please cite the evidence you used to determine that this organ is “completely unique.”

You did. You strategically omitted an essential part of the quote, which was “easily obtainable within the timescale (4-6 MY).”

Now THAT’S a straw man. What fascinates me is that you don’t appear to have any interest in the evidence, and you are projecting this disinterest onto biologists.

That wasn’t the essence, and you know it.

Also, you seem to be totally unaware of neutral theory, based on your polemic use of the term “Darwinism.”

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I did not, nor would I ever, state, suggest, intimate, imply, and certainly never conclude, that biologists are either lazy or stupid. And certainly never in reference to someone I so deeply respect such as Dr Venema. If Steve erroneously deduced this from what I said in good faith, he unwittingly committed a non sequitur. If he intentionally exaggerated or otherwise mischaracterized my views to suggest that it is what I believe, he committed a straw man.

Ether way, Steve completely mischaracterized my sentiments and put words and sentiments in my mouth that I find repulsive. Simply not conducive to constructive dialogue.

Then please explain the following claims:

Handwaving is the scientific epitome of laziness and stupidity.

In the interest of constructive dialog, there are a couple of outstanding points:

My hypothesis is that you are interested only in polemics, not in dialog. That hypothesis predicts that you will not engage on either of these substantive points.

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That’s good, though unfortunately that’s what your words seemed to imply.

This thread is not off to a good start, but I would hope that you could find your questions addressed, perhaps even by @DennisVenema who hopefully is enjoying the start of his summer break yet?

I will add though from your OP:

It’s not surprising to find animals, thanks to natural selection are well suited to their environments. But their environments can change. The real challenge that you are bringing to the table is that you need to define what is “so impossible” for such natural (though from a Christian perspective, “God-designed”) processes to create. The problem in much of this is that the changes aren’t so large!

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Okay, so let’s make this a discussion about views of the evolution of echolocation.

There is plenty we can agree on here. Echolocation is amazing. Extraordinary. Inspiring. I hope any biology lover agrees with me here. Richard Dawkins certainly does: he made echolocation (in bats) the centerpiece of his opening argument in The Blind Watchmaker. That argument is basically that Paley was right: design in the biological world is an extraordinary thing, and requires an extraordinary explanation.

It’s a bit too easy to simply assert things like this. Every sub-claim is an opinion, and all are of dubious value. I doubt there is any point discussing how you feel about dolphin heads and their specializations. Here is how I would discuss this with a curious person, the kind of person Dawkins seems to have in mind as the audience for The Blind Watchmaker.

Echolocation (let’s call it sonar) is extraordinary, truly amazing, and everything about it is related to something that came before. Dolphin sonar, like all animal sonar, has three components: vocalization (making sound), hearing, and information processing to direct action. These three components involve a nose, some ears, and a brain. All are specialized to some extent for sonar, but the most notable specialization (in my opinion) is the melon, which is that strange dome on the dolphin’s forehead. This is a large fatty deposit, composed of some unique blends of fats made by standard fat cells, that focuses the sound into a beam. There is even some evidence that the beam can be narrowed and broadened on demand. This, to me, is the only candidate in the system for the role of “completely unique organ.” The ultrasonic vocalization system is not unique–it’s cool, but it’s not unique–and the hearing system is focused and complex but not radically different from other directional hearing systems.

It is at this point that the existence of sonar in humans is relevant: humans are poorly adapted at directional hearing compared to many of our fellow animals (barn owls are my favorite example), but as Dennis pointed out, even we can use a crude version of sonar. This, to me, badly damages any argument for highly specialized, utterly unique, somehow “new” aspects of sonar, of the kind that would be even remotely problematic for common descent. Even humans have directional hearing and can act on information from echoes.

So, for me, that really just leaves the melon and perhaps the somewhat similar sound-focusing fatty structures near the jaw of the dolphin, as candidates for “completely unique organ.” And they fail, for me, dramatically. Because fatty deposits, containing specialized lipids, are not unique to any animal lineage. Adipocytes (fat cells) can be flexibly repurposed to make lots of different lipid variants, and putting them on a forehead is not interesting at all. Biologically speaking, the development of a fatty bulge is not news.

What makes it all cool and remarkable is that natural selection can guide development in that direction. Anyone can always say “design” and then name their favorite designer, and no one will EVER be able to disprove either assertion. But it is wrong, and actually rather silly IMO, to claim that this damages explanations based on common descent by selection on variation.


I can understand your skepticism, but would not characterize biological evolution as “just so easy.” For one thing, the process of evolution has occurred over a few billion years.

If it would help with your skepticism, I suggest you consider what has occurred, with the advent of modern computers, with “artificial intelligence (AI).” It has been demonstrated, for instance, that it is possible to get a program to self-generate algorithms that can beat grand masters at chess. The self-generation process occurs as the algorithm plays chess numerous times, winning sometimes and losing sometimes (mostly losing at the beginning), and keeping track of what succeeds and what fails, and adapting its approach in favor of what succeeds. Gradually the program gets better and better, and after many, but not prohibitively many, games with good chess players, it becomes capable of beating grand masters, and has.

This only happens because the self learning ability has been programmed into the AI in the first place. There is a higher level of intelligence external to the program.

Correct. Biological evolution posits a natural process of self learning. The AI example here shows that self learning can work very well. You are quite right that someone with “a higher level of intelligence” had to write the AI program. Could not God play a similar role with biological evolution?

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Do you mean Theistic Evolution aka Intelligent Design?

To answer your question: No. I was merely asking what seemed a natural question given what you had said about the need for a writer of an AI program. I do believe in biological evolution, but I have no idea how it got started. But I am also a Christian. So I believe God has something to do with it.


Very much appreciate the thoughts. But I’m afraid this illustrates the very pattern I was earlier observing. (And please note i am intending absolutely no implication of stupidity or laziness!)

You gave, for instance, An excellent overview of the functioning of the organism’s melon, And the very unique and striking features and abilities, including changing the dispersion, focus, and direction of the high frequency sonar signals.

But just any random globs of fat won’t do this; this requires some very careful, specific, and ingenious fine-tuning and engineering, to be able to focus and narrow the sound beam at will so as to fix on a particular target. And my interest is in how, specifically, simple fat tissues could be so perfectly shaped, integrated with muscles (presumably) so as to accomplish the subtle yet precise changes in shape to redirect the sound beam, and how this is integrated with the animal’s neural system so that it can direct all that instantaneously at will.

It just doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of answering all those very complex layered engineering questions to simply say, “fat cells can be flexibly repurposed to make lots of different lipid variants, and putting them on a forehead is not interesting at all.”

Perhaps you can see why I get the impression (not the conclusion) that I do… this simply comes across to me like the proverbial (Jedi?) hand wave. “I’d like to explore the actual engineering involved.” “You don’t need to see the engineering involved… you can go about your business… move along…”

How did fat cells organize into the very precise, finely attenuated acoustic engineering marvel to direct and focus high frequency sonar beams in manners unequalled by our most advanced submarines?” “Just put the repurposed fat cells on the forehead! That’s not interesting at all!”

It’s just so easy?

Firstly, I’m here specifically speaking about marvels that happened in an evolutionary blink of an eye… human intelligence and related abilities, and cetacean echolocation, happened in an cosmic blink of an eye… somewhere around 5-10 million years, and thus barely 500,000 - 1,000,000 generations

To add to Chris’ point, the AI you are speaking of specifically was designed to have forethought, and to learn from the past. Evolution can do neither. It has theoretically inherited its present state of being from the past, but there is no memory of what has failed in the past that it will avoid in the future, nor any foresight of knowing what is more likely to work in the future.

Nor, for that matter, any pre-programmed “goal” (like winning conditions in chess) that it is trying to achieve. Merely generation after generation, blindly, asking, “does this immediate change allow some offspring to better pass on their genes”?

In fact …a better analogy to evolution would be programming the best AI in the world to try to play chess… but it only gets to think a single move ahead. It only gets to make a modification on the board that it perceives to provide an immedite increase it it’s tactical advantage, one that will significantly improve its chances of not losing any pieces, or of taking an opponent’s piece…

That, and add the condition that you can’t program into your AI the victory conditions of a chess game… only let it think one move at a time, and allow it to select the most “fit” conditions immediately upon every move that would contribute to immediate benefit and immediate survival. But no thinking more than one move ahead, and give it no knowledge of the ultimate victory conditions.

That would better mimic biological evolution. How well would you suspect AI like that would fare against the grand masters?

Theistic Evolution is not also known as Intelligent Design.

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I imagine Chris means the kind of theistic evolution wherein God either so directly intervenes at steps in the process in an intelligent, directed manner, or has very specifically and directly preprogrammed the process to ensure certain outcomes, such as to make it de facto an intelligently designed outcome?

Maybe so, but Intelligent Design, capitalized as such, refers to a specific philosophical and scientific endeavor that is not at all equivalent to theistic evolution and shouldn’t be conflated with it.


Hi, Daniel.

You make a good point. My AI example is no more than an imperfect analogy of biological evolution. If the AI example does not help, then by all means discard it.

But, for the sake of discussion, I will try to respond to the issue you raise here. In doing so, I am flying by the seat of my pants, so to speak. But here goes:

Consider any process that involves moving from one state to another sequentially in time according to a set of rules, deterministic, probabilistic, or both. If the rule which moves from state a to state b, say, can only use the information that it is in state a, then the process is called Markovian, in honor of the famous Russian mathematician Andrey Andreyevich Markov (1856 - 1922). The AI example of a step-by-step algorithmic improvement in chess playing, as you note, is not Markovian. But, if I understand you correctly, you are suggesting that biological evolution is Markovian, and as such, this would be disadvantageous.

My response would be that I don’t think this is a totally valid characterization of biological evolution, for three reasons that come to mind:

  1. An organism’s DNA contains far more information than is needed for the survival of the organism in its current environment. Environments change over time, and recycle. So oversimplifying, but to be specific, imagine two environmental states c and d, such as a wet climate and a dry climate. The DNA is going to provide the organism with the capability of coping with both environmental states. So, an individual’s DNA does provide memory that goes beyond the current state of the organism possessing that information. Thus, it would be wrong to characterize biological evolution as Markovian; it is not.
  2. Mating is common for many organisms, including humans. This provides a huge survival advantage for a species, and there is nothing Markovian about this.
  3. Mutations; I will skip the details. I believe it is common for evolutionary biologists to model mutations as completely random, thereby suggesting a Markovian process. This is a mathematical convenience, but surely too simplistic.
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