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,
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,
Living cells are so complex that we dont 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 werent 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 Oxfords
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 cant 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 dont 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 Goulds 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 Johnsons 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.
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 speciesis 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.
Darwins 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
Wallaces 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. "Darwins 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 Darwins 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 isthat the universe consists of nothing but molecules in motion
in otherwise empty spacethen 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 moleculesby 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 dont 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
Gods handiwork was implemented by evolution.
This has exasperated Johnson, who calls Grays 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 debatesmost 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, "Id bet on
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."