In Salvo 21, I discussed philosophical problems with “theistic evolution,” the view that God used blind Darwinian processes to create life. Amid all the logical and theological problems associated with theistic evolution’s central claim that “God guided an unguided process,” there is a much more immediate flaw: the scientific evidence does not support the view that life arose and diversified by strictly evolutionary mechanisms.
Before critiquing the science of theistic evolution, we must investigate what its science says. This is a simple inquiry: theistic evolutionists make precisely the same scientific arguments that secular, atheistic, Darwinian evolutionists make. Theistic evolutionists essentially baptize materialistic ideas by adding, “And by the way, God did it this way”—although when pressed they’d admit that you can’t empirically detect God’s actions in any of it.
But are we obligated to submit to the evolutionary “consensus”? In this article, we’ll review several areas in which theistic evolutionists make scientific claims that are both indistinguishable from those of their atheistic counterparts and unsupported by scientific evidence. Along the way, we’ll mention other Salvo issues that have covered these topics in more detail.
The Origin of Life
Some theistic evolutionists admit that the origin of life remains a mystery. Others, however, maintain that we should pursue the idea that life got started through unguided chemical processes. For example, in Salvos 13 and 14 we saw that BioLogos Foundation president Darrel Falk—a leading theistic evolutionist—defended the search for blind and unguided chemical processes that could account for the origin of the genetic code. And as we discussed in those same issues, evolutionary theorists cannot explain the origin of life’s language-based code.
That’s not the only place where origin-of-life research is stuck. The Miller-Urey experiments, which supposedly showed how a primordial “soup” arose on the early Earth, have been discredited because they inaccurately modeled the atmosphere. The RNA world hypothesis is plagued by difficulties with creating RNA under natural conditions. No model makes a serious attempt to explain the origin of biological information.
In 2007, Harvard chemist George Whitesides was given the Priestley Medal, the highest award of the American Chemical Society. During his acceptance speech, he offered this stark analysis:
The Origin of Life. This problem is one of the big ones in science. It begins to place life, and us, in the universe. Most chemists believe, as do I, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth. How? I have no idea.1
If origin-of-life theorists give so few scientific reasons to adopt their position, why are theistic evolutionists so quick to come to their defense? The reason, as you might suspect, isn’t scientific, but philosophical. It stems from a deeply embedded—and deeply misguided—assumption that one ought never to question what “science” says.
Natural Selection & Random Mutation
Arguably, the evolution of life is where theistic evolutionists defer the most to orthodox Darwinian thinking. In their book, The Language of Science and Faith, Francis Collins and Karl Giberson insist that they are “unfamiliar with any premier scientists who reject evolution,” and conclude that “Christians should take no comfort in the misplaced hope that the scientific community is gradually abandoning the theory of evolution.”>2 Their comments are ironic, since leading scientists increasingly doubt the neo-Darwinian model of evolution.
The standard neo-Darwinian view holds that natural selection acting upon random mutations was the driving force that accounts for life’s diversity. But a growing number of highly credible scientists doubt this position. Lynn Margulis, a premier scientist herself and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences until her recent death, explained in a 2011 interview:
[N]eo-Darwinists say that new species emerge when mutations occur and modify an organism. I was taught over and over again that the accumulation of random mutations led to evolutionary change [which] led to new species. I believed it until I looked for evidence.3
According to Margulis, “new mutations don’t create new species; they create offspring that are impaired.”4
The Altenberg 16
In 2008, sixteen biologists from around the world convened in Altenberg, Austria, to discuss problems with the neo-Darwinian synthesis. The top journal Nature covered this “Altenberg 16” conference, quoting leading scientists saying things like: “The modern synthesis is remarkably good at modeling the survival of the fittest, but not good at modeling the arrival of the fittest,” and “the origin of wings and the invasion of the land . . . are things that evolutionary theory has told us little about.”5
According to Susan Mazur, a science journalist who covered the conference, these sixteen are not alone. She reported that there are “hundreds of other evolutionary scientists (non-creationists) who contend that natural selection is politics, not science, and that we are in a quagmire because of staggering commercial investment in a Darwinian industry built on an inadequate theory.”6
The year after Altenberg 16, Eugene Koonin of the National Center for Biotechnology Information stated in Trends in Genetics that breakdowns in core neo-Darwinian tenets, such as the “traditional concept of the tree of life” or the view that “natural selection is the main driving force of evolution” indicate that “the modern synthesis has crumbled, apparently, beyond repair.” “Not to mince words,” Koonin concluded, “the modern synthesis is gone.”7
While 21st-century biology is moving beyond the standard neo-Darwinian model of evolution—sometimes adopting the same critiques made by proponents of intelligent design—theistic evolutionists appear stuck in the mid-20th century, defending a dying paradigm. (See Salvos 15, 16, 17, and 19 for critiques of neo-Darwinian approaches to explaining life’s complexity.)
Universal Common Ancestry
One of the faltering tenets of neo-Darwinism mentioned by Eugene Koonin is the “tree of life.” In Salvo 21, we saw that Francis Collins snidely compared those who doubt universal common ancestry to flat-earthers; nevertheless, the revolution in DNA sequencing has provided immense amounts of data that challenge universal common ancestry. The fundamental problem is that one gene gives you one version of the tree of life, while another gene yields an entirely different and conflicting version of the tree.
Numerous examples of this problem are recounted in the literature. To give a recent one, a June 2012 article in Nature reported that short strands of RNA called microRNAs “are tearing apart traditional ideas about the animal family tree.” Dartmouth biologist Kevin Peterson, who studies microRNAs, lamented, “I’ve looked at thousands of microRNA genes, and I can’t find a single example that would support the traditional tree.” Peterson put it bluntly: “The microRNAs are totally unambiguous . . . they give a totally different tree from what everyone else wants.”8 (Readers may find more complete discussions of this topic in Salvos 4 and 9.)
Human Origins & Junk DNA
Other areas in which theistic evolutionists insist we must submit to the evolutionary consensus are human origins and junk DNA. We covered these topics in Salvo‘s 6, 10, and 18, but some review may help.
Theistic evolutionists love to argue that our cells are full of functionless DNA, which many call genetic “junk.” In The Language of God, Francis Collins claims that some “45 percent of the human genome” is “made up of such genetic flotsam and jetsam.” As the argument goes, God would never put useless DNA into our chromosomes, so we must conclude that random mutation and natural selection built our genome. Collins makes these implications clear:
Unless one is willing to take the position that God has placed [shared functionless DNA] in these precise positions to confuse and mislead us, the conclusion of a common ancestor for humans and mice is virtually inescapable.9
Imagine that: A self-described Christian (Collins) appears to be arguing against God’s direct involvement in the origin of the human genome. But is he right?
The problem with Collins’s argument isn’t so much theological as it is scientific. Numerous examples of function have been discovered for so-called junk DNA. While there’s still much we don’t understand about the genome, the trend-line suggests that the vast majority of our DNA plays a vital role in regulating cellular processes.
Collins himself admits that this type of evidence defeats his argument. Functional genetic similarity alone “does not, of course, prove a common ancestor,” he writes, because a designer could have “used successful design principles over and over again.” So the more “junk” DNA we find function for, the more this theistic evolutionist argument retreats into gaps in our knowledge. As Jonathan Wells put it in Salvo 18:
Calling something in a living cell “junk,” just because no one knows its function, is a science-stopper. Biologists make progress not by closing their eyes to “junk” but by looking for new functions.
In contrast, the intelligent design (ID) paradigm would have encouraged biologists to seek function for “junk” DNA long ago.
But What Does the Evidence Say?
Theistic evolutionists contend that we must accept materialistic explanations of life’s origins because (they say) there is no empirical evidence to the contrary. This, we are told, is the only respectable option because one must never question anything science says.
In contrast, ID uses this motto: Let’s follow the scientific evidence wherever it leads. This brief review shows that the evidence is not leading to a Darwinian, evolutionary viewpoint—whether theistic or otherwise.
- George M. Whitesides, “Revolutions in Chemistry,” Chemical and Engineering News 85 (3/26/07), pp. 12–17.
- Francis Collins and Karl Giberson, The Language of Science and Faith (InterVarsity Press, 2011), pp. 31, 34.
- Quoted in “Lynn Margulis: Q + A,” Discover Magazine (Apr. 2011), p. 68.
- Darry Madden, “UMass Scientist to Lead Debate on Evolutionary Theory,” Brattleboro Reformer (2/3/06).
- Scott Gilbert, Stuart Newman, and Graham Budd, quoted in John Whitfield, “Biological theory: Postmodern evolution?” Nature 455: 281–284 (9/17/08).
- Susan Mazur, The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry (North Atlantic Books, 2010), p. 55.
- Eugene V. Koonin, “The Origin at 150: Is a new evolutionary synthesis in sight?” Trends in Genetics 25(11): 473–475 (2009).
- Elie Dolgin, “Rewriting Evolution,” Nature 486: 460–462 (6/28/12).
- Francis Collins, The Language of God (Free Press, 2006), pp. 134–137.
Casey Luskin, a senior editor of Salvo, is co-founder of the Intelligent Design & Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Center and Program Officer in Public Policy and Legal Affairs at the Discovery Institute.