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E-Mail Evolution

By Tom Bethell, The American Spectator, July, 1994

From my window I have been marveling at the miracle of spring, and on my computer I have been following an e-mail discussion of evolution. As to the wonders of nature, we take these things far too much for granted. With hardly a murmur of dissent, people who should know better seem to accept that life in all its profusion and complexity emerged from the random collision of particles of matter. Darwin some how proved it, didn’t he?

Living cells are so complex that we don’t begin to know how make them in our highest-tech labs. Yet we are led to believe that the necessary parts assembled themselves, and further, that billions of these cells somehow came together to form sentient beings, with the power of reproduction, and without the intervention of any antecedent intelligence or designer.

There has long been a resistance movement to this ideology, an opposition that has been scattered and disorganized. But now the computer revolution has had the unexpected effect of permitting this opposition to get together electronically; to compare notes, argue, and talk things over.

I have long believed that the dogma of evolution would one day encounter a more serious opposition and I have been on the lookout for that day. The Internet discussion persuades me that it may be coming close. What was missing from the earlier challenges was scientific literacy, Lord knows, the people from the Institute for Creation Research had plenty of good will, but their arguments were often footnoted to the Bible, and their nature walks had a way of turning into prayer meetings. The Darwinian Citadel could afford to smile indulgently. Let them cite Genesis and recite their prayers; no need to stir the masses from their slumbers if they weren’t causing trouble. Admittedly, John Maddox, the editor of Nature, recently noted that "it may not be long before the practice of religion must regarded as anti-science" and Oxford’s Richard Dawkins has long wanted to throw cold water in the faces of the faithful. But most evolutionists have seen merit in preserving the peace.

The new generation of critics of evolution are going to cause more trouble. The discussion group has about a hundred members now, assembled over the past year by Phillip E. Johnson, a professor of law at U.C. Berkley. "I can’t give you a breakdown," he told me, "but the majority are science or philosophy professors or graduate students, with the rest mostly enthusiastic amateurs. A few are in mainstream evolutionary science, and their identities are known only to me." All are free to participate by sending messages that are reflected back to everyone else, but most are "lurkers", who receive but don’t send. Most of the participants apparently do not believe in evolution.

Among the regular contributors are Michael Behe, an associate professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University; Paul Nelson, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Chicago; Jonathan Wells, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of molecular and cell biology at Berkley; and Kurt Wise, a student of Stephen Jay Gould’s at Harvard, who now teaches at a small college in Tennessee. Nelson (with co-authors) and Behe are writing books, which promise to be of outstanding quality. Another member of the group, Walter Remine has recently published "The Biotic Message", and together with Phillip Johnson’s own "Darwin on Trial", all these works should persuade the intelligent layman that there is a great deal more to anti-evolutionism than Bible Belt intransigence. Most members of the group would seem to be young, or relatively so. But the most important point is they argue against the reigning dogma intelligently, and with facts, not faith. Nonetheless, some (perhaps many) members of the group, notably Kurt Wise, are also explicit creationists.

Logically, of course, if creatures did not evolve then they must have been created, presumably by a higher power that is invisible to us. The sharp horns of this dilemma account for the emotional potency of the issue. Either all organisms had parents (the theory of evolution in four words), or some did not. If the latter, how did they get here? If you reject evolution, or find it terribly implausible, then you are unavoidably faced with an alternative that some find desirable, others unpalatable.

Evolutionism is perhaps the most jealously guarded dogma of the American public philosophy. Any sign of serious resistance to it has encountered fierce hostility in the past, and it will not be abandoned without a tremendous fight. The gold standard could go (glad to be rid of that!), Saigon abandoned, the Constitution itself slyly junked, but Darwinism will be defended to the bitter end.

The great problem with the theory of evolution is that it is supported by very little evidence. A decade ago, Colin Patterson of the British Museum of Natural History said he knew of none at all. More recently, the chairman of the department of ichthyology at the American Museum of Natural History New York, said that "evidence, or proof, or origins … of all the major groups of life, of all the minor groups of life, indeed of all species—is weak or nonexistent when measured on an absolute scale." We are of course endlessly bombarded with Just-So stories, such as the recent one about mammal-like creatures walking into the sea and turning into whales, but the speculative nature of these stories is usually concealed. The story of human origins finds its way into the headlines every six months or so, the better to rub in our alleged descent from apes. But in all these primate scenarios a mountain of speculation hangs from a scrap of bone, and with every new press conference the dating of relevant events is changed by a million years or so.

Darwin’s claim to originality was his discovery of a supposed mechanism of evolution: natural selection, summarized as "the survival of the fittest" by Herbert Spencer. Thereafter it seemed reasonable to believe that if nature had "evolving machinery" built into it, evolution surely must have occurred. But a more critical examination of the mechanism has cast considerable doubt on the whole business. We have, and can have, no criterion of fitness independent of survival itself. So natural selection is a veiled tautology. It passed muster in Victorian England, and throughout much of the twentieth century, because it silently incorporated the idea of progress. This flourished in the last 150 years, but now is fading fast and perhaps will take evolution with it.

Natural selection depended on the belief that species could "depart indefinitely from the original type…" to use Alfred Russel Wallace’s phrase. But repeated attempts to demonstrate that plasticity in labs and greenhouses have failed. For years, fruit flies were bombarded with X-rays in an attempt to "speed up evolution," but all the specimens died off, remaining fruit flies (some of them admittedly rather odd looking) to the end. Defeat was not conceded, Nobel prizes were duly awarded, but it was a setback.

"Visible mutations with large effects have never been observed," Jonathan Wells noted on the Internet earlier this year. "The mutations we observe are not the ones (we) need (for evolution)," said Steve Meyer, who teaches at Whitworth College in Washington State.

The most famous example of natural selection is that of the peppered moths in Britain. Light and dark variants of the moth existed, with the light-colored version much more common. Then came pollution, and the black forms, now perched on blackened tree trunks, were well camouflaged from predators. More blacks survived to leave offspring, and within a few decades they outnumbered whites. "Darwin’s missing evidence!" exulted the Scientific American. Then came the Clean Air Act, and the light to dark ratio returned to normal. In his new book "The Beak of the Finch", Jonathan Weiner says that, "the case of the peppered moths gave evolutionists one of their first inklings of the speed of Darwin’s process." It might give us an inkling of just how feeble the evidence for evolution is. Natural selection was supposed to explain how moths appeared in the first place, not how we get more of this variety or that. Only by redefining evolution to mean just such a change in ratios are its defenders able to claim that evolution is a fact."

As Phillip Johnson has repeatedly pointed out, the most important support for evolution is an inconspicuous assumption of modern science: the assumption of naturalism, or (as it is sometimes called) materialism. If it is true that matter is all there is—that the universe consists of nothing but molecules in motion in otherwise empty space—then God, or mind, or spirit, is eliminated from the picture by definition. But life got here somehow, so it must have been by some accidental combination of those molecules—by evolution, in short. Evolution, therefore, is not so much seen in the rocks as deduced from a philosophy. But there is no need to assume materialism in the first place. It is not a prerequisite of science. Isaac Newton was no materialist. But Darwin was, and he saw the need to conceal that point: to "avoid stating," as he said in one of his notebooks, "how far I believe in materialism."

Darwin was also antagonistic to Christianity, a point that was concealed by his family until 1958. He grew more so as the clerics of his day retreated to an accommodationist position. But of course you don’t have to be hostile to religion in order to accept evolution. Much of the Internet discussion in recent months has consisted of an argument between Terry Gray, a biochemist from Calvin College in Michigan (on leave from Texas A&M), and half a dozen members of the group. Gray believes "that God exists, that he has the power to create, and that there is no need for a "blind watch-maker mechanism", but he also believes that God’s handiwork was implemented by evolution.

This has exasperated Johnson, who calls Gray’s position "too vacuous for serious discussion." God is brought in as a mere "subjective add-on to a naturalistic picture of reality." His explanatory role is nil if everything can be understood as having happened without Him. Johnson wants people to realize that there really is a conflict between religion and science of the naturalistic variety, and so to take sides, either evolutionist or creationist, with no straddling allowed. The "Calvin College accommodationists" have performed a disservice, he believes, by blurring the outline of a much sharper conflict.

To this end he has teamed up with William Provine of Cornell in a series of debates—most recently at Stanford University. Johnson admires the evolutionist Provine, because he sees and accepts the atheistic implications of evolutionary theory. Provine dismisses as "effective atheists" those who add an undetectable deity to the purposeless processes of evolution. His willingness to debate Johnson, and to "make the atheistic implications of contemporary evolutionary theory explicit" is deplored by many of his colleagues in the naturalistic camp. Johnson says, "They prefer to keep the atheism implicit." Terry Gray too sees Johnson as playing a "high stakes game." If Provine "proves Darwinism" he will "disprove theism," and on the evidence, Gray adds, "I’d bet on Provine."

Darwin himself, "never took any of the ‘providential evolutionists’ seriously in their pathetic efforts to put a Christian spin on his naturalistic system," Johnson replied, and in failing to see what is really at stake, Gray and others are helping "to disarm the Christian intellectuals and pave the way for the triumph of meta-physical naturalism in science and in the universities."