The Tinkering Engineer and Design

In Why Evolution is True, biologist and atheist Jerry Coyne seeks to drive a wedge between intelligent design and NeoDarwinian evolution, favoring the latter. But what if the Bible and "real world" engineering both make a case that there is less of a contrast than what Coyne would have us believe? Would a little imagination from an engineer help?

In Why Evolution is True, biologist and atheist Jerry Coyne seeks to drive a wedge between intelligent design and NeoDarwinian evolution, favoring the latter. But what if the Bible and “real world” engineering both make a case that there is less of a contrast than what Coyne would have us believe? Would a little imagination from an engineer help?

When God created the world did He do so as a Master Engineer or as a Tinkerer?

I recently finished listening to an audiobook by Jerry Coyne, a University of Chicago biologist, and vocal critic of Christian interpretations of science. In Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne is making the argument that the biological theory of evolution rules out the possibility of Intelligent Design. Evolution does not reflect the divine activity of a Creator. According to Coyne, the biological world does not resemble the work of someone creating things from scratch. Instead, the evolutionary process demonstrates the work of tinkering; that is, working with a limitation of available parts, experimenting at putting together different solutions. Tinkering is not very efficient, nor does it always produce the most beneficial results, hardly becoming the activity of a Divine Creator. But for Coyne, this tinkering is exactly what NeoDarwinian evolution is all about… and it is true.

Jerry Coyne did his undergraduate work at the College of William and Mary, finishing in the 1970’s. I currently work at William and Mary as a network engineer. Coyne is a superbly skilled scientist, but I need to respond to him as an engineer.

A Network Engineer Reconsiders the Contrast Between the Ideal Design and Inefficient Tinkering

I help to build computer networks for a living, and while it would be great as an engineer to create a new network straight from scratch, it rarely turns out that way. I help to serve a user community of some 8000+ students, faculty and staff, and any effort to make improvements to the network is pretty much like trying to change a tire on a vehicle going 55 mph down the highway. At Coyne’s alma mater, if the network goes down for even a minute, I have people lining up at my office door wanting answers. As a result, scheduling a maintenance window that will not impact someone is extremely difficult to do.

Furthermore, the foundational networking protocols that currently drive the Internet are horribly inefficient. However, over time, computer scientists and engineers have found ways to “tinker” with the protocols to improve them such that we reliably depend on the Internet for our global economy to function without the need to start over from scratch. The Internet was not built all once but instead involves a number of progressive stages of development built on top of one another, without needlessly compromising the foundational elements of previous stages.

Leaving aside the question of a literal versus figurative interpretation of Genesis 1 for this discussion, as well as ignoring the problem of natural evil, would it be fair to say that the progressive nature of the days of Genesis parallels the progressive nature of creation that we find in the scientific record? For God to create in progressive stages or “days” does not necessarily require Himself to make things from scratch on each day. Each new day builds on the continuing success of the previous day or days. While we do have creation out of nothing at the very beginning, we soon after have some basic building materials of the universe such as light and water, and we end up with a complex fabric of physics, chemistry and biology by day six. Furthermore, even Genesis 2:7 clearly teaches that humanity’s special creation was not strictly creation ex nihilo, or “out of nothing”, but rather that God fashioned man out of the dust of the earth that was already there.

This may not fit in with the concept of an Intelligent Designer as “Master Engineer” as Jerry Coyne wishes to critique, but it does fit in closer with Jerry Coyne’s understanding of evolution as a type of “tinkering”. In my view, Coyne’s contrast between a “Master Engineer” versus a “Tinkerer” carries with it a negative critique of “tinkering” that is philosophically idealistic from a human perspective. However, such a contrast does not stand up well against the actual testimony of the biblical record, nor does it reflect the real world experience of what engineers do on a daily basis. The reality is that a more reasonable view of engineering is closer to what appears on the surface to be the inept and bungling view of “tinkering” that Jerry Coyne finds unworthy of divine appeal. But what appears to be an awkward sense of “tinkering” at first glance could suggest a more profound and elegant view of the Creation process.

Sure, in a philosophical sense God could stop the universe at any moment, do a reset, perform an act of special creation, and then crank everything up again. But consider this analogy: If someone could effectively change a tire on a car moving 55mph down the road, or upgrade a computer network without ever dropping a single packet of data, well that would be somethin’ else! That would be some really hot-stuff engineering, let me tell you! A fully-redundant, self-healing Internet is the industry goal, but it is taking a very long time to get there. Have you ever called your computer vendor to make a complaint, only to find out that the problem mysteriously goes away when you talk to the tech support guy? Computer, heal thyself!! …. Until the next time it breaks! But the complexity of the Internet pales in comparison to the overwhelming biological diversity of our universe, and it just keeps on going.  That is pretty impressive. What if the Creator God intentionally chose to create the universe in such a fashion, a universe where He upgrades “on the fly”?

Sure, ideally I would love to reinvent the Internet from scratch. But if I did, would any one really use it? Part of what has made the Internet such a resounding success is the organic nature of it and its flexibility and adaptability to change. The history of engineering is filled with a plethora of supposedly “intelligently designed” technologies “made from scratch”, but many of these never gain any traction in the real world because they fail to take into consideration other imaginatively creative aspects of the human experience.

A few years before Google and Facebook took over the Internet, we had “intelligently designed” networks like America Online. Do you remember those old America Online diskettes and CDs? Many super-geeky, bulletin-board purists thought that the “masterfully” designed America Online service was remarkably superior to the more modern, decentralized “tinkering” that gave us things like Google and Facebook. But a lot of “tinkering” engineers developed a knack at creative imagination to design and produce computer networking technologies that effectively buried America Online’s centralized, “bulletin-board” model of networking. This transformation to our contemporary “social networking” oriented Internet was not the result of some full scale reinvention of technology. Rather it was a process of adaptation and reworking of various inefficiencies. But it is still brilliant engineering. Who knows what it will look like tomorrow.

What makes the work of an engineer so exhilarating is the continued challenge of finding solutions to problems within the constraints of certain limitations that are problematic from an idealistic viewpoint. Nevertheless, it is these type of challenges that makes it so interesting to think about using one’s creative imagination.  The “Master Engineer” that Jerry Coyne wishes to deconstruct is not only an illusion, it can be pretty sterile, static and dull.

My analogy of “tinkering” as design is far from perfect, but to me it follows the Biblical narrative a lot closer than the straw man portrait of Coyne’s “Master Engineer” that he wants to tear down. For if Coyne’s “Master Engineer” is true, it would have been more appropriate to have God create in one single solitary moment, instead of what we might wrongly ascribe as being the “abysmally” long six days, however long those “days” really are. Genesis speaks more of an unfolding creative process, something that an engineer like me can relate to rather well. Perhaps a more dynamic approach to engineering like what I describe is what God had in mind when He went about the work of Creation. All it takes to see things this way is a desire to know this God of the Bible personally and intimately, submit our wandering hearts, wills and minds to His grand purposes…. and perhaps use a little creative imagination.

Additional Resources:

Rumor has it that Jerry Coyne may have studied briefly years ago as an undergraduate in a lab run by William and Mary biologist, Dick Terman, one of the founders of our church. Unfortunately, professor Terman’s enthusiasm for celebrating God’s handiwork in nature was not a perspective shared by Jerry Coyne. Coyne had gone a different direction, as he figures prominently now in a relatively new and vibrant, albeit anti-Christian, intellectual movement, the New Atheists.

Oddly enough, I was surprised to find that towards the end of Why Evolution is True that Coyne is dismissive of those efforts by some evolutionary psychologists to reduce all of human morality to a byproduct of NeoDarwinian evolution. I was not expecting that.

I really hate to make the type of criticism of Jerry Coyne that I have done here.  To be forthright, when Coyne really gets down into the science in Why Evolution is True, he is really good at explaining it.   Sure, he does some persistently overstated things like confusing “theory” with “fact” by stating that “evolution is a fact.”  No, “facts” are points of data.  A “theory” explains the “facts” in a coherent manner. Evolution, therefore, as a theory, explains the facts, which is a more accurate way of making the argument. Granted, people often wrongly denigrate scientific “theory” to something inferior to “fact”, but it does no benefit as Coyne does to misrepresent “fact” to make his argument. It is as though Coyne often likes to grab anything that he can find, load up his rhetorical canon, and then blast away in his version of the culture wars. After awhile, I am like “yada, yada, yada” and I just filter that kind of stuff out when it comes to reading Jerry Coyne.

Elsewhere on his Why Evolution is True blog, it is quite evident that the only legitimate and honest reading of Genesis  for Coyne is one that fits in with Young Earth Creationism, which is simply hogwash to him. Anything like Old Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design or Evolutionary Creationism are simply attempts by Christians to weasel their way out of the patently obvious. That might make Ken Ham happy, but that’s about it. Coyne was very vocal in his opposition to the recent Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate, saying that debates with “creationists” only raise the credibility of the anti-science movement, but that still did not prevent Coyne from watching the debate himself and offer his analysis.

So once you get past his meanderings with Intelligent Design philosophy, confusing “theory” and “fact”, confusions over the nuances and challenges of Biblical interpretation, etc., Coyne’s book gets into the heart and meat of explaining Darwin’s central evolutionary mechanism, natural selection, as well as detailing other mechanisms of evolution that Darwin never fully imagined, such as genetic drift. Coyne even shows how Darwin got some things really wrong about evolution, particularly regarding the process of speciation itself. If you are concerned about being “infected” by Jerry Coyne’s polemically-driven atheism but still want to learn about evolutionary theory, then I would encourage Christians to look at  evangelical molecular biologist Dennis Venema’s description of evolutionary basics here.  When he sticks with the science, Coyne brings the technical aspects of his field down to an accessible, popular level.  It is just simply too bad that he spoils such a wonderful education about evolution by his persistent championing of an anti-theist philosophy that merely masquerades as that science.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

7 responses to “The Tinkering Engineer and Design

  • John Paine

    I get what you’re saying (I think), but believe that the creation of man was not an evolutionary process.

    Marion was listening to Dick Woodward’s Mini Bible College session on Genesis 1 yesterday. Dick reminds us to carefully examine the Hebrew words, particularly the word ‘bara’.

    The Bible says, the Spirit of God began to move upon this creation and develop it and manipulate it and change it. For instance, Genesis 1:9 says, “Then God said, ‘Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear.’”

    God did not say, “Let the dry land come into being.” This is not the moment dry land was created. It had apparently already been created, in that initial act of creation, but had been underwater. In this verse, it is being uncovered. It is interesting that the scientific community is certain this whole earth was under water at one time.

    The word bara, or “create,” means to make something from nothing. This word is only used three times in this creation account. God creates in the beginning, in verse one. This first act of “bara” accounts for the universe, the earth, and all plant life.

    The other words between verses 2 and 20 are different. They are words that indicate change, or taking something that exists and altering its form. The next act of creation takes place in the water. In verse 21 we read: “And God created the great sea monsters, and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind; and God saw that it was good.”

    Again, there is an agreement between the biblical account and science. Scientists seem to be very sure that animal life began in the water, and that is what the Genesis account says.

    The next act of “bara” takes place in verse 27: “And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

    The Genesis revelation of creation accounts for the beginnings of everything in the universe. After these original acts of creation, though, the Spirit of God changes and develops this original creation. This parallels what scientists have observed about life forms evolving, and in this regard I see a parallel with evolutionary thinking.

    Where creationists and evolutionists cannot agree at all, though, is over the issue of what I call the three missing links. The three missing links are focused in three questions. How did it all begin? How did plant life become animal life? How did animal life become human life? Science has no explanation for these missing links. Genesis, though, does. The answer of the Genesis account is simply “bara” — God created.


    • Clarke Morledge

      As I understand it, and someone correct me if I am wrong, since evolution is a theory of biology, Darwin’s celebrated theory simply can not explain that first mystery of where life came from to begin with. Many have tried, but I think the Old Earth Creationist camp, including Hugh Ross, have made a good case that even though we might actually be able to “create” life within the next few years, it will be the result of a highly controlled and interventionist process, which is truly problematic from a naturalistic world view that denigrates “design”.

      I have not thought much about the plant to animal life transition, but my understanding is that NeoDarwinism effectively models this. I just don’t much about it.

      As to the animal life to human life transition, I do not think that evolutionary theory has anything to say about the spiritual realm. My thinking is this: As I read Genesis, what makes us human is that we have been imprinted with imago Dei, the image of God. Someone correct me if I am wrong again here, but I do not think God’s imprinting of His image on the human has a biological or genetic component. It is a spiritual reality, not a material one. I have yet to see any compelling case from Scripture that argues otherwise.

      In other words, I do not think there is a “God gene”. To suggest that there is a “God gene” is dangerous because it suggests that we as humans might technologically have the capability to alter or even remove such a “God gene”. Instead, the witness of Scripture suggests that we humans are what we are by the supernatural, spiritual activity of God.

      As to whether or not an act of “special creation” is required to introduce human biology to the created world is a great question (as is the other “missing link” questions), but that really is not my concern here. My concern in this post is that Jerry Coyne has a deficient view of God as Creator, which makes it easy for him to dismiss God. My argument is that if we really grapple with Scripture, we see a God who creates dynamically and in a process, which us a much better way of looking at things and can not be dismissed quite as easily as Coyne would suppose.


  • dwwork

    Clark, great post and I loved the analogy between creating a network and God’s acts of creation. What I find amazing is that when people say that if God really did create life then why are there so many “flaws.” What they miss is that all designs are compromises. To strengthening one thing means something else may suffer. The auto industry could make a completely safe car, only problem is no one wants to drive a tank that has a five miles an hour top speed. David


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