Chapter You Did It Yourself In Nine Months

That irascible genius J. B. S. Haldane, who did so much else besides being one of the three leading architects of neo-Darwinism, was once challenged by a lady after a public lecture. It's a word-of-mouth anecdote, and John Maynard Smith is sadly not available to confirm the exact words, but this is approximately how the exchange went:

Evolution sceptic: Professor Haldane, even given the billions of years that you say were available for evolution, I simply cannot believe it is possible to go from a single cell to a complicated human body, with its trillions of cells organized into bones and muscles and nerves, a heart that pumps without ceasing for decades, miles and miles of blood vessels and kidney tubules, and a brain capable of thinking and talking and feeling.

JBS: But madam, you did it yourself. And it only took you nine months.

The questioner was perhaps momentarily thrown off balance by the veering unexpectedness of Haldane's reply. Wind taken out of sails would have seemed an understatement. But maybe in one respect Haldane's retort left her unsatisfied. I don't know whether she asked a supplementary but, if so, it might have gone along these lines:

Evolution sceptic: Ah yes, but the developing embryo follows genetic instructions. It is the instructions for how to build a complicated body that you, Professor Haldane, claim evolved by natural selection. And I still find it hard to believe, even given a billion years for that evolution.

Perhaps she had a point. And even if a divine intelligence did prove to be ultimately responsible for designing living complexity, it is definitely not true that he fashions living bodies in anything like the way that clay modellers, for example, or carpenters, potters, tailors or car manufacturers go about their tasks. We may be 'wonderfully developed' but we are not 'wonderfully made'. When children sing, 'He made their glowing colours / He made their tiny wings',* they are uttering a childishly obvious falsehood. Whatever else God does, he certainly doesn't make glowing colours and tiny wings. If he did anything at all, it would be to supervise the embryonic development of things, for example by splicing together sequences of genes that direct a process of automated development. Wings are not made, they grow - progressively - from limb buds inside an egg.

God, to repeat this important point, which ought to be obvious but isn't, never made a tiny wing in his eternal life. If he made anything (he didn't in my view, but let it pass, that's not what I'm about here), what he made was an embryological recipe, or something like a computer program for controlling the embryonic development of a tiny wing (plus lots of other things too). Of course, God might claim that it is just as clever, just as breathtaking a feat of skill, to design a recipe or a program for a wing, as to make a wing. But for the moment, I just want to develop the distinction between making something like a wing, and what really happens in embryology.

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