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The Evolution Wars

Good science encounters a bad philosophy Published in The American Spectator

The conference “Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe,” sponsored by the Wethersfield Institute, was held at the great hall of Cooper Union, in Manhattan. On the walls were photographs of presidents from Lincoln to Clinton in mid oration. The featured speakers on this occasion were less well known; Mike Behe, William Dembski, Stephen Meyer. All have been traveling from conference to conference, raising questions about evolution. As we know, there has been a great deal of agitation and propaganda on behalf of the theory. Less often do we hear the other side.

The Evolution Wars are beginning to get interesting. The public has long been skeptical, of course. It’s one of those areas where the experts don’t encounter automatic assent. Now we are beginning to see a serious intellectual challenge to Darwinism. It is not a matter of “religion versus science,” although the media do try to frame it that way. The new critics, including Behe, Dembski, and Meyer, make the claim that the science on which evolutionist claims are made has been sloppy, misleading, and in some cases downright deceptive.

I have long taken an interest in this subject. An early dissenter from evolutionism, a Los Angeles lawyer by the name of Norman Macbeth, was a friend of mine, and on several occasions took me with him to meet the curators at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In private, some of them would allow that we don’t know much about evolution. We can look back into the fossil record and determine that creatures that once existed no longer do. But how that change of dramatis personae took place, we don’t know. Gary Nelson, the curator of ichthyology in the 1980’s, would say that we know virtually nothing about the evolution of fishes, for example. Not that these people were creationists, I hasten to add. They just wanted to insist that the origin of species was treated with scientific rigor.

Another curator, the late Donn Rosen, said to me one day; “Why does it have to be one book or the other?” He was referring to the false choice that the culture obliges us to make; Either the Bible, or Darwin. Not that Rosen had another authority in mind. He didn’t think that science was supposed to be based on any kind of authority. Why was it not possible to say plainly what in fact is the case, Rosen said; that we just don’t know how the species evolved, or even if they did. Referring to Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of evolution by fits and starts, punctuated equilibrium, Rosen commented; ” Darwin said that evolution occurred too slowly for us to see it. Gould says that it occurred too quickly.” Either way, we don’t see it.

Norman Macbeth wrote a gem of a book called Darwin Retried. He died about ten years ago. More recently, the leadership of the antievolutionist cause has been taken up by another lawyer, Phillip Johnson of the University of California at Berkeley. His first book, Darwin on Trial, was published in 1991, and since then he has published others. He also runs an email discussion group, whose important role has been to bring once isolated dissidents together into a (virtual) community. It is encouraging to know that one is not alone in doubting one of the great dogmas of the age. In fact, the reiteration of that dogma is precisely intended to marginalize and isolate skeptics.

In a sense, the speakers at Cooper Union have been Johnson’s protege s. Behe is an associate professor of biology at Lehigh University (see TAS, September 1996, and this issue). Meyer, with a Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science from Cambridge University, is an associate professor of philosophy at Whitworth College. Dembski, the youngest, with Ph.D.’s in mathematics and philosophy, recently published The Design Inference (Cambridge University Press). He teaches at the University of Dallas. All have received support from the Discovery Institute in Seattle.

Two others, not present, should also be mentioned (also Discovery fellows). The first is Paul Nelson, whose Ph.D. thesis for the University of Chicago, ” On Common Descent,” is just now being published in that university’s Evolutionary Monograph series. He asks at the outset; If Darwin’s theory of common descent were false, how would we know? “That question turns out to be remarkably difficult to answer,” says Nelson. “It is important to see how common descent might be tested. But when the theory’s predictions failed, as happened for instance with the discovery of the nonuniversality of the genetic code, or the divergence of animal development, common descent emerged unscathed. It is privileged by evolutionary biologists. Any theory that cannot be challenged by contrary evidence, however, risks becoming a dogma.”

When evidence is not allowed to “count” against a theory, it resembles a rigged trial. The proceedings may seem to conform to due process, but, somehow, each hostile witness is excused in turn. Then the theory approaches unfalsifiability. We should recall the warning of Karl Popper, that such theories lie outside the realm of science.

The second is Jonathan Wells, who has a Ph.D. in developmental biology from U.C. Berkeley and remains a postdoctoral student at that institution. He is in the midst of writing what should be an eyeopening book, discussing some of the best known textbook “icons” of evolution. Examples are the horse fossil sequence, implying that it shows evolution (it doesn’t); “Darwin’s finches” on the Galapagos Islands (which prove nothing at all); the camouflaged dark moths which survive better than the lightcolored variety (true except when it isn’t true); the MillerUrey originoflife experiments (which never went anywhere); Haeckel’s embryo drawings (turning out to be ” one of the most famous fakes in biology,” an embryologist recently wrote in Science), and so on. All these and more involve either misleading claims, misrepresentation, or outright deception.

Reviewing the literature in his study of this material, Wells told me, was ” like being a dentist and discovering great pockets of tooth decay.” He’s thinking about including the most famous icon of allthe hominid series from knuckledragging ape to man. There’s more rot there. At the Cooper Union, Bill Dembski was discussing his “explanatory filter.” The audience of several hundred (not bad for paid admission on a Saturday morning) was quiet and attentive. How do we detect design in everyday life? Dembski asked us to consider a lottery. It could be won by chance (as lotteries are meant to work), or by necessity (only one person entered), or by design (it was rigged). The faculty of reason allows us to choose among these possibilities. Detectives and insurance companies are trained to distinguish between design (murder, arson) and accident. We can impute design to certain events even though human agency is ruled out a priori. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is funded with just this possibility in mind.

In bringing the explanatory filter to bear on some artifact or event, randomness and regularity (chance and necessity) are given priority. In some cases they must be rejected, however. That would be when the thing in question is contingent, complex, and specified. (You had to be there to get the full story! Be on the lookout for Dembski’s writings.) Then we are left with design. Does God have to come in at that point? Not necessarily! Francis Crick, codiscoverer of the structure of DNA, devised an escape route for those who would rather do without. The structure of that molecule is so complex that it couldn’t have arisen by chance, Crick realized. So how did life arise? Clever creatures somewhere else in the universe must have assembled the bits and pieces, and then sowed the seeds of life here. ” Panspermia,” he called it. Close encounter with God narrowly averted! Crick has indeed fought the good fight and kept the (materialist) faith.

The Darwinian message, of course, is that living things only appear to have been designed. Nature incorporates within itself machinery that transforms random events into apparently designed outcomes; living bodies, for example. That machinery is called natural selection, which the somewhat gullible writer Robert Wright has called “the most plainly beautiful creation of scientific thought yet.” But it is beginning to look as antiquated as any other piece of Victorian machinery. The problem with natural selection, as Stephen Meyer pointed out in his talk, is that it starts off by assuming the very things whose existence it seeks to explain, selfreproducing organisms. Evolutionary theory “assumes, rather than explains, the existence of the first life and the information it required.” Organizing matter into even the most primitive lifeform turns out to be far more complex than was realized in the nineteenth century, and scientists to this day have made virtually no headway in solving the problem.

Another problem is that natural selection is supposed to work by small increments, over many generations. Each successful mutation is supposed to confer a reproductive advantage on the organism as a whole. But as Michael Behe argued in his talk, what we see under the microscope does not encourage us to believe that that is what really happened. Even the simplest industrial mechanism consists of parts which must all be present and correct at once. If it takes a thousand steps to build an eye, all must be completed before we get any vision at all. Within the body, the actual molecular machines that are involved turn out to be far more complex than Darwin and his allies ever imagined. The Victorian fantasy was one of smallscale simplicity. The cell, it turns out, is about as remote from Ernst Haeckel’s “simple little lump” of protoplasm as a semiconductor fabrication plant is from a child’s sand castle on the beach.

Evolution is still dogmatically upheld, of course. But intellectual opposition is growing rapidly. The collapse of the idea of progress, so strong in Darwin’s day, has no doubt played a role. We can now see that supporting evidence for the theory has scarcely been unearthed at all. The late Colin Patterson, a curator of paleontology at the British Museum of Natural History, questioned in the 1980’s whether we really know anything about evolution. The supporters of the theory are at their most dogmatic when they tell us that it is a “fact,” but when pressed they say that what they mean by evolution is “change over time.” Oh. Or a “change in gene frequencies. ” As Phil Johnson says, this claim is so weak that it is confirmed every time a baby is born.

Although portrayed as a science, evolution is more truly an ideology. It is based on the premise of materialism, or naturalism. This may be characterized as the belief that nothing exists except for “molecules in motion” (in Lenin’s apt formulation). If materialism is true, then evolution indeed must be true. Organisms do exist, so they must have assembled themselves out of blindly whirling atoms. Evolution, then, is a straightforward deduction from a world view, rather than an observation. But we do not have to confine ourselves to so dim a philosophy. Many scientists do, however, and some, such as Richard Lewontin of Harvard, have made the point explicitly. Writing in the New York Review of Books, he spoke of scientists’ “prior commitment to materialism,” and he added, rather impishly I felt, that that materialism “is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

The undisguised materialists, among them Richard Dawkins of Oxford, Daniel Dennett of Tufts, and William Provine of Cornell, who do not shrink from the implications of their own philosophy, make a greater contribution to clarity than the theistic evolutionists, who try to keep everyone happy. When Dawkins derides “the shallows” of theology or the fantasy of religion, and when Dennett praises the “universal acid” of Darwinism, eating away “just about every traditional concept,” the cold water in the face wakes us up and we do pay attention. The way to marginalize religion, Johnson has said, is to “put it to sleep with accommodationist rhetoric. Don’t advocate atheism. Say rather that religion and science are separate realms.”

This is what Stephen Jay Gould has done, in his recent book Rocks of Ages. Although a materialist himself, he sees the value of singing occasional lullabies to the congregation. Let sleeping Christians lie! Science and religion are “nonoverlapping magisteria,” he intones, and we are back snoozing in the pews. He debates Jerry Falwell, the better to reinforce the ” religion versus science” stereotype. Guess which side has the more plausible claim to know the facts? Gould would not make the mistake of debating anyone with scientific arguments and a more skeptical version of the facts. He’s a skillful operatora field marshal in the culture war.

Meanwhile, within the biology departments of the Christian colleges, the accommodationists have been unhappy. In some cases they have been bitterly resentful of Phil Johnson. Their forlorn hope has been to receive admiring notice, perhaps even a Strange New Respect Award or two, from Harvard and Yale. Having done their best to shed that old rumpled seersucker, William Jennings Bryan stigma, along comes this slick lawyer from Berkeley to tell them that Darwin got it all wrong! They had learned to live with a nice, passive, nothunderbolts deity, who minded his own business, allowed life to develop of its own accord by Darwinian methods, and certainly had the good taste to stay out of the “creationism” business. Now they were to believe that all this had been unnecessary? Like nuns in miniskirts just as they went out of fashion?

Phil Johnson’s strategy is to show that the facts of biology do not fit the materialist preconception. He aims to drive a wedge between the two. It is an encouraging sign that he has attracted to his side people of the caliber of Behe, Nelson, Wells, Meyer, and Dembski. The president of the Discovery Institute, Bruce Chapman, who has had the courage to help fund this movement, says that the question of evolution “not only has a direct bearing on the integrity of science, it also has immense importance for our culture. The materialist superstition has affected our learning in all academic disciplines.”