Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Book Review: "God and the World of Insects" (Part 2)

We're continuing our review of the edited volume titled God and the World of Insects by editors Josh Shoemaker and Dr. Gary Braness. If you missed the introduction post to this review, click here.

We're considering today the first essay in Part 1 of the book ("Beautifully Engineered Creatures") which contains those essays which are more scientific in nature.

The essay is by Josh Shoemaker and is titled "The Amazing World of Insects & the Significance of Biological Convergence" (pp. 13-31). The author reminds us that over half of all cataloged species on Earth...are insects. That itself is a remarkable piece of data. Appropriately, Mr. Shoemaker asks, "How did the world come to be filled with so many of these incredible creatures?" How, indeed?

The primary question at the heart of this essay is whether or not "there is a Creator behind the amazing world of insects?" (15). In a very interesting approach to the question, Shoemaker turns to the evidence of what is called "convergent evolution." Simply defined, "convergent evolution is the development of analogous structures in unrelated species" (16). For example, the convergent evolution of flight in disparate groups such as insects, bats, birds, and the now-extinct pterosaurs. Or, the widespread development of similar traits in different insects (for exampl, the ability to sting). The essay gives abundant examples of the phenomenon and notes that new and complex examples of convergent evolution are being discovered each year.

So given the mainstream evolutionary view of the development of life on Earth, why does evolution, given the numerous examples of convergent evolution, seem to repeat itself so often? As Shoemaker notes, "despite all the diversity in insects, there is much the same" (21). In other words, what is the reason for the shared likenesses?

Evolutionary biologists argue that a variety of factors can explain the phenomenon of convergent evolution, suggesting for example, that when different species live with the selective pressures of similar environmental factors, life will inevitably evolve towards an optimal body plan (contra Stephen Gould's suggestion in Wonderful Life that life would never evolve the same way twice). Nonetheless, these same biologists, as Shoemaker notes, use words like "surprising," "implausible," "unbelievable," and "incredible" to describe these findings. What gives?

What gives is that this might not be the only way to account for the similar outcomes of convergent evolution. What if a common Designer, responsible for the creation of life, could be the primary explanation?

It's more than a "what if" though. The fact that evolutionary biology posits descent from a common ancestor doesn't necessarily explain how it is that these similar traits have "evolved" independently so many times. Shoemaker asks, might it not be more rational to suggest a designed Intelligence is behind all these homologous forms and functions? (22).

After a fascinating discussion on the 'directionality' of convergent evolution, which seems 'destined' (if one can put it that way) towards human beings, one inevitably wonders at the theological implications of convergent evolution. That is what Mr. Shoemaker takes up in his final section of the essay. He contrasts two primary views of how God might have shaped the development of life on Earth: Intelligent Design and Theistic Evolution. He doesn't cover these positions in detail (it would be beyond the scope of the essay to do so), but he does want to reader to be familiar with the terms and their larger discussion.

In the end, Mr. Shoemaker seems to favor the Intelligent Design argument (and perhaps even other forms of creationism which embrace the ideas of ID rather than theistic evolution) though he doesn't say so explicitly. It is not the point of the essay to disambiguate between the options, etc. Rather, it is to raise the larger question of whether a common Designer might be responsible for the phenomenon of homologous forms and function arising independently across the biological world.

I think he admirably raises the question and then points to the answer by highlighting the incredible world of the insects. In the end, he leaves the reader to marvel and wonder and perhaps even consider a new direction in thinking.

Next time, we'll look at the second essay in the collection, Dr. Wegner's "Making Sense of Arthropod Diversity."