The watch in the desert

The watch in the desert

by Bob Riggins

OK, so if you found a watch lying in the desert, would you assume that it “spontaneously assembled” itself from the desert sand and rocks? Of course not! You would assume that it was made, or created, by a skilled watchmaker, and dropped there by him or someone else. The watch was clearly designed for a very specific purpose, by someone with great expertise, who knew exactly what he wanted ahead of time. Therefore, when we find something as perfectly designed as a living animal, it is utterly foolish to assume that it “spontaneously assembled itself” either. It had to be designed, in all its perfection, by some Great Designer. The mere existence of well-designed watches and animals is all the proof we should need that both were created by someone with infinitely more wisdom than the creations. Both, by their existence alone, imply the existence of a great designer or creator. Watches don’t “just evolve,” and neither do animals (or people); ergo, evolution is logically absurd (and, by extension, anyone who believes in it is an illogical idiot).

Anyway, that’s sort of how the analogy usually goes. And it looks pretty good at first glance. I imagine a few evolution-minded folks have been taken aback by this one, the first time they heard it, not knowing quite how to answer it at the time. I’ll also bet that some creationists see this as an irrefutable gem of logic that utterly destroys evolution and all its works.

Hold on a minute, though. Since this argument is presented in the form of an analogy, let’s hold the creationist to his own logic, and see if the analogy holds up. For an analogy to make any logical sense at all, the two things being compared have to have a LOT in common, not just one salient feature. For instance, when we’re considering the functioning of a living thing (like a person), an analogy is often drawn with a complex machine of some sort (like a watch, but a car works even better). Both need fuel, both produce heat and waste products, both wear out eventually, both turn chemical energy into mechanical energy, both have many small but critical parts, etc. But the watch-in-the-desert analogy is not about how the things work. It’s about where they came from–or really, how they came to be. And when you think about that, you come to some interesting conclusions. Remember, it’s supposed to work this way: because a watch doesn’t spontaneously assemble and has to have a maker who made it just the way it is, therefore an animal can’t spontaneously assemble either, and it, too, must have a maker who made it just the way it presently is.

Let’s start with this: watches DIDN’T just appear in the world as they presently are! As a matter of very obvious fact, they evolved . The first timepieces were very primitive, clumsy, and inaccurate. They improved over the years. If we can refer to really old time-keeping devices as “fossils,” then we can show a fossil sequence of the evolution of watches from some dim time in the past up to our present electronic wonders. Nowadays they evolve visibly from one year to the next. The watchmakers went through a whole, evolving series of clocks and watches before someone carelessly dropped one in that desert. So is this supposed to prove that the animal we find in the desert was made in its present form, with no significant changes over many generations? Am I missing something here?

Remember, the debate is really about whether evolution occurs , not about whether there’s a creator behind it. A watchmaker (mankind) slowly developed (evolved) the sequence of timepieces. Maybe a Watchmaker slowly developed (evolved) the sequence of living things–you’ll get no argument about that here. But the evolution happened in both cases. The message of that lost watch is NOT “I sprang up in my present perfection, with no primitive ancestors before me.” It’s more like “I’m at the end of a long chain of slowly evolving ancestors, and my descendants will continue to change.”

Is finding a man-made watch in the desert supposed to somehow show that animals were created in their present forms by magic (or miracle) some few thousand years ago? What on Earth would lead us to that conclusion? The watch wasn’t created by magic. In fact it was created by purely natural processes (as opposed to supernatural). If the creation of the watch really is analogous to the creation of living things, then what the analogy shows us is that the origin of both can be explained by natural processes.

Supernatural intervention could have been responsible for either or both, but that explanation certainly isn’t necessary for the watch. If we hold the creationist to the logic of his own analogy, then what the analogy “proves,” if it proves anything, is that well-designed “creations” can be produced naturally, in small, incremental steps: no magic required, thank you very much.

“But, but, but…” the creationist insists, “the point of the analogy is that things like watches and animals don’t spontaneously assemble!” Well, that’s half right, and here’s where the analogy breaks down. Any analogy can only be stretched so far. The car stops being analogous to the human body when you start talking about thought or emotions. And watches stop being analogous to animals when you start talking about how the individual item is assembled. Watches, after all, never have little baby watches! An individual watch is, of course, always assembled by something outside itself (a human watchmaker, although nowadays it’s more likely to be industrial robots). All the animals I’ve ever seen have assembled themselves , quite literally! They take in (usually) nonliving material from their environments, chemically process it, and turn it into parts of the living animal. In the case of mammals like us, the only parts of us that are directly made by someone else are the sperm and egg cells that unite and subdivide into our first few cells. After that, for the rest of our lives, we take in material from the outside, and assemble it ourselves into parts of us. Early on, that material is supplied by our mother, but she doesn’t make us: she just supplies the raw material. We absorb it, manipulate it, build ourselves , and get rid of what we don’t need.

OK, I know, the point is the first animal. How could it get started? All presently living animals are started off with bits of already-living matter created by their parents. Nonliving chemicals don’t spontaneously assemble, don’t create orderly, complex molecules out of simple elements… Don’t they? If the creationist gets to this point, he has revealed his basic ignorance of the simplest chemistry. Elements and simple molecules combine spontaneously all the time to form more complex molecules. When was the last time you found any loose hydrogen on the Earth, or fluorine? All of it has spontaneously combined with other elements to form more complex molecules. If you turn some loose, it won’t stay uncombined for long. Carbon atoms, especially, have a tendency to form spontaneously into all kinds of complex molecules, which in turn often combine to form very complicated polymers and mega-molecules. Some of those combinations are even self-replicating , if the raw materials are available. We don’t commonly see molecules assembling themselves into living systems, but then it only had to happen once–from then on the natural tendency of life has been to keep itself going, spread out, and evolve. When you get down to the level of molecules, or small collections of them, the dividing line between living and nonliving gets pretty fuzzy. As a matter of fact, one of the basic criteria used in modern biology to distinguish living from nonliving complex systems, is that truly living systems are capable of evolving as they reproduce.

And, if we are committed to the idea of a Creator, He certainly could have been the one to arrange that first unlikely combination. He could have even directed all the evolution since then. Again, the point of the tired, old watch-in-the-desert analogy was supposed to be that evolution does not and could not occur. But watches have evolved; they aren’t created miraculously, ex nihilo ; and their inability to self-assemble has nothing to do with the obvious ability of chemical compounds and living things to assemble themselves out of available materials.

So how is it again that finding a man-made watch is supposed to prove that animals were created in their present forms?