Why You Must Read Multiple Opinions When it Comes to Evolution

I ran across an old article by Dr. David Berlinski. He is one of the more interesting proponents of intelligent design, since he does not believe in God but nevertheless thinks the natural world is obviously the result of design. In addition, he is an entertaining writer whose keen wit and disciplined thought help him cut to the heart of the issues about which he writes.

The entire article is worth reading, but for the purposes of this blog post, I will just give you the “executive summary.” The eye has always been a problem for flagellate-to-philosopher evolution. Not only does it seem so obviously designed, but developing an evolutionary history of the various eyes we see in nature has led to the incredible conclusion that eyes must have evolved independently in multiple evolutionary lineages. Nevertheless, those who fervently believe in evolution as a creation myth are convinced that it must have happened somehow. As a result, they tend to jump on anything that might support their fervent belief.

Enter Dr. Dan-Eric Nilsson and Dr. Suzanne Pelger, who published a scientific article entitled “A Pessimistic Estimate of the Time Required for an Eye to Evolve.” In this article, they sketch what they think might be a path by which a small circle of light-sensitive cells surrounded by a dark pigment and covered with a protective layer of tissue might evolve into a camera-type eye. In a series of eight drawings that they came up with in their own minds, they show how that circle of light-sensitive cells might form a depression, add a lens, and eventually come to resemble some of the eyes that we see in nature.

They measured four aspects of each drawing and assumed that those aspects could each change by 1% for every evolutionary step that was taken towards the next drawing. In the end, they estimated that it would take 1,829 steps to get from the first drawing to the last one. Using a simple equation that tries to estimate how many generations it takes to produce each evolutionary step, they arrived at the conclusion that it would take only 363,992 generations to get the job done. Since some organisms with eyes have generations that last a only a year, they suggest that in some cases, eyes could evolve in a mere 363,992 years.

Now, of course, I think there are a lot of things wrong with this scenario, not the least of which is that Nilsson and Pelger sketched out a hypothetical path knowing what the outcome had to be. That’s not the way evolution is supposed to work, but nevertheless, I applaud Nilsson and Pelger for at least trying to tackle such an intractable problem. After all, you have to start somewhere, so Nilsson and Pelger started with their imaginations. As a result, it’s at least possible that they have produced a first step in the long, difficult journey of trying to understand the evolution of the eye. The problem is what the popularizers of evolution have done with this work. Knowingly or unknowingly, they have spread false propaganda about it, and no one (except Dr. Berlinski and perhaps a handful of others) seems to care.

Dr. Berlinski offers examples of Dr. Matt Young, Dr. Richard Dawkins, and Dr. Ian Stewart each referring to Nilsson and Pelger’s work as a computer simulation that shows how easy it is to evolve an eye. As Berlinski makes clear, Nilsson and Pelger’s work has nothing to do with a computer simulation. They made up the drawings in their heads and then simply analyzed each drawing, using mathematics to determine how long it might take to get from one drawing to the other. Indeed, Dr. Berlkinski actually wrote to Dr. Nilsson and asked him if the study had anything to do with a computer simulation. Of course, Nilsson said it did not.

What’s the big deal? Okay, they didn’t simulate anything on the computer, but they at least came up with a plausible scenario of eye evolution, right? Wrong! A computer simulation could show whether or not such a pathway is plausible, but they didn’t do a computer simulation. If you start at the first of Nilsson and Pelger’s drawings and then have a computer make random changes to it (with no goal in mind), that would be the start of a simulation of how evolution is supposed to work. You could then make some assumptions about how natural selection might decide which random changes to keep and which ones to discard (once again being careful to have no ultimate goal in mind). After that, you could see what comes out. If the product looks something like an eye, then you would have at least some evidence that there is a plausible pathway for the eye to form by evolution.

Of course, whether or not the simulation would actually give us confidence that the eye could evolve would depend on how detailed it was. The more real-world problems it took into account, such as the sources for added structures like the lens, the effects any changes would have on living tissue, the chemical and energy demands of each change, etc., the more confidence we could have that the eye evolved. The key is, of course, that Nilsson and Pelger did no such thing. Nevertheless, many popularizers of evolution try to say that they did.

This is why it is absolutely critical that anyone who wants to learn about evolution must read multiple sources from multiple different points of view. Most people would have no idea that Dawkins and his ilk are misinforming them about Nilsson and Pelger’s work. Reading other authors with opposing views might end up leading to the truth of the matter.

16 thoughts on “Why You Must Read Multiple Opinions When it Comes to Evolution”

  1. Haha: “I suppose one could say that had Dan-Erik Nilsson and Susanne Pelger rested their heads on a computer console while trying to guess at the number of steps involved in transforming a light-sensitive patch into a fully functioning eyeball their work could also be represented as computer-aided.”

      1. Haha, what was it he said during a debate with Christopher Hitchens? Something like: “Dawkins and Hitchens claim they would storm the gates of hell; unfortunately I wouldn’t be able to join them due to reasons of personal inconvenience.”

        The Devil’s Delusion was both hilarious and intellectually challenging. I knew it would be worth reading just from the introduction: “Is Scientific Atheism a frivolous exercise in intellectual contempt? Dead on!”

  2. The Nilsson & Pelger article is often used to illustrate proposed evolution of a vertebrate eye, as in “Biologist D.E. Nilsson has independently theorized about four general stages in the evolution of a vertebrate eye from a patch of photoreceptors.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution_of_the_eye#History_of_research]

    However the steps shown in their article produce an eye fixed in the head while the vertebrate eye is able to rotate in the eye socket which would require many additional steps to separate the eye and provide muscles to control its rotation; not to mention the associated development in the brain and nervous system.

  3. Hello Dr Jay Wile,

    It would be crazy to misinform the entire scientific community to make them believe that there is evidence for macro evolution if the hypothesis of macro evolution is the only “scientific” way.

    1. Nilsson and Pelger are not misinforming the scientific community. In their paper, they make it clear what they have done, and nowhere in the paper is the word “computer” ever mentioned. It’s just evolutionary evangelists like Dawkins and his ilk who are misinforming the general public.

  4. Sorry, I forget to mention Dawkins in my comment. I meant that Dawkins was misinforming the scientific community or the general public.

  5. “They measured four aspects of each drawing and assumed that those aspects could each change by 1% for every evolutionary step that was taken towards the next drawing. In the end, they estimated that it would take 1,829 steps to get from the first drawing to the last one”

    This conjecture always dumbfounds me. I’ll agree that its at least good they are attempting to tackle the problem. In my mind I wonder how many steps were taken by how many INTELLIGENT minds to get from a pinhole device to a modern video camera. It’s taken us a while and it’s left behind a huge group of fossils (go to any thrift store and you’ll find probably 100 defunct video / image processing devices).

    This is something I always bring up with friends when discussing natural selection – “If an unguided process can create x in y amount of time then what kind of exponential increase should we expect to see in time reduction when the process is guided/” I would expect a million fold. Sometimes I wonder if that variable can be found by modelling similar processes. ie – How long it would take a person to assemble a puzzle blindfolded vs with sight. Something like that.

      1. This article, the one about compound eyes, made me remember a paleontologist which said that we can see a gradual evolution of mollusks’ eyes; From the most “primitive” until the most complex; which are those find on squids, octopus. However, all his examples were from still living mollusks,(I wonder why the more primitive are still primitive with so many years; the his point is: the more primitive have a structure, and the more advanced have the same structures however advanced and more structures) and he had said that the cephalopods’ eyes are more “designed” than the human’s eyes; he claimed that the human’s eyes have a inverted retina,(for good reasons, but I think he doesn’t know that) have blind spots,(I forgot why we have those, feel free to say) and the eyes have many problem like cataract, vision lost, etc. (I think this is the weakest argument; cars have many problems too, however I never seen someone saying that they are not designed)

        God Enlighten you all!

  6. The authors didn’t address the real difficulty in explaining the development of a more complex vertebrate eye. That problem is explanation of the retinal connectome and the functional neurochemical pathways within the connectome. The retinal connectome is a comprehensive map of the neuronal connections in the retina. It is essentially a wiring diagram. The connectome only represents the physical part of the system. The functional portion of retinal neurochemistry is far more complex.

    If you put the information that follows doesn’t directly link to a video you can copy the information and paste it in your Google search bar. It should link you to a You Tube video titled Flight Through the Mouse Retina. It will give you a small glimpse into the complexity of the retina. In my opinion, the development of the vertebrate retina through a naturalistic process without any external intelligence is astronomically improbable.


  7. Dr. Wile,

    It seems to me (as a mere layman) that there is a great deal of focus in these types of articles on the physical structure of the eye itself. By this I mean that, although there is a great difference between a few light sensitive cells and a complex eye with all the lenses, fluids and musculature necessary for proper functioning, there is another important aspect that should also be discussed regarding the “evolution” of an eye.

    For any eye, whether simple or complex, there is an entire system that must be present as well for the eye to be functional and therefore beneficial. It seems to me that there must exist (or come into existence concurrently with the eye) a means of attachment to the animal (muscle, tissue, or orbital socket), the nerves for transmission of visual information, the nerve sheathes, pathways from the eye to the brain for those nerves to be located within, neural receptors to receive the information at the brain, and brain cells capable of interpreting this new type of data.

    It seems to me that if any one part is missing the eye is thus reduced to a useless aberration, as opposed to a genetic step forward in an evolutionary process.

    If this argument is sound, I believe that in order to argue for the evolution of an eye is to also argue for the spontaneous generation of a visual system. I assume the amount of genetic information necessary to accomplish this must necessarily increase exponentially as well.

    Also, absent asexual reproduction, wouldn’t this new DNA need to be a series of dominant traits in order to appear in an animal’s offspring?

    As I mentioned I am a layman, but it seems to me that evolutionists often argue the simplicity of the process as though these were mere structures and not biological systems involved.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Irish. Evolutionists would say that you don’t need much to make a useful “eye.” Consider, for example, the euglena. It is a single-celled organism. However, it has an “eye” of sorts. The red spots in the photo on the page I linked are the eyespots of the euglena. The eyespot is made of pigments that absorb light and some photoreceptor proteins that sense the light. The euglena can only detect the brightness of the light, but that allows it to move towards the light if it needs to do more photosynthesis. That’s not a lot of supporting structures to get a very, very basic eye going. After that, the other aspects of more evolved eyes could be added a bit at a time, as long as each new bit can make the organism more likely to survive.

      In terms of dominant/recessive, since evolutionists think that natural selection is incredibly powerful (even though it isn’t), they generally think of alleles that increase survivability as becoming dominant, since those who do not express what the allele gives them are less likely to survive and will then be “weeded out” by natural selection.

  8. I would like to address the functional systems of the eye point that Irish raised. The video of the mouse retina connectome that Dr. Wile was kind enough to include with my prior comment only showed about 950 neurons. The entire mouse retina and the human retina contain millions more neurons. A complete connectome or map of the human retina … if it was available… would take considerably more time to “fly through”. Once again, the connectome in the video is only the wiring diagram of the neurons in the retina. Many other cell types are present in the retina. The neurochemistry of the synaptic connections alone is extremely complex.

    The retina is a complex functional biological information processing system. This is exactly the type of system the naturalist needs to explain the development of in detail. Dr. James Tour has used the term “fly over” to describe how naturalists tend to leave out detail while explaining abiogenesis. I think the same is true when explaining the retina of the human eye.

    There is no complex functional information processing system I know about that can be progressively and positively improved by a process without intelligence. The retina is just such a system. If the naturalist is going to tell us it developed without external intelligent input, the claim being made is counter intuitive. A claim of that sort needs extremely detailed scientific support in order to justify making such a claim. I am not aware of any detailed naturalistic explanation of human retinal development that can justify the claim that the human retina developed naturalistically. If there is any such detailed explanation, I would appreciate knowing about it.

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