Photo by Tadeusz Lakota

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Published in Salvo Mag

Upon learning of an employee’s defection to a rival company, one prominent CEO launched a chair across the room. Commenting on the incident in the Washington Post, eminent primatologist Frans de Waal noted that the CEO acted like an ape. But de Waal (and the Post for that matter) wasn’t kidding; he took this incident as further proof of common ancestry between humans and apes.

Even a few theists are now embracing the notion of common ancestry — though hopefully for better reasons. Francis Collins, in his much-discussed The Language of God, defends the theory, as does Stan Guthrie, who wrote in a recent issue of Christianity Today about the widely touted “transitional” fish fossil Tiktaalik roseae. Guthrie, in particular, entertains the possibility that God made life through a process involving common ancestry, noting that “accepting the idea of common descent doesn’t mean abandoning our belief that the created order declares the glory of God.” A valid point, to be sure, but it misses the right question. And as Darwinist critic Philip Johnson often reminds his readers, when discussing science and faith, it is vital to ask the right questions.

Queries beginning with the words “Could God have…?” tend to be unenlightening. The much more revealing question is “What does the evidence say?” Take, for example, the so-called “feet” of Tiktaalik roseae, which are a far cry from those seen on the “Darwin fish” decal adorning your neighbor’s car bumper; scientists have yet to uncover a scrap of evidence to suggest that they functioned as anything but common fins, which renders their transitional status somewhat specious, to say the least.

Scientists have also recently unearthed all kinds of evidence that actually challenges common ancestry. The “Cambrian explosion” is as infamous within the scientific community as the “Darwin fish” is among Christians. In this ancient burst of life, which happened over 500 million years ago, nearly all of the major living phyla (or basic body plans) of life appeared in a geological instant with no apparent evolutionary precursors. The Cambrian explosion even included vertebrate fish, which appeared without any hint of an evolutionary past. As even Richard Dawkins concedes, “it is as though they were just planted there, without any evolutionary history.” Perhaps this explains why Niles Eldredge, a prominent Darwinian paleontologist, acknowledges that “the higher up the Linnaean hierarchy you look, the fewer transitional forms there seem to be.”

Darwin’s universal Tree of Life (TOL) is coming under assault not only from paleontology but also from genetic data. A recent article explains that a “minority of biologists and evolutionists have questioned the accuracy of the TOL hypothesis even though similar genes exist in organisms in patterns that do not fit a universal tree.” As National Academy of Sciences (NAS) biologist W.F. Doolittle states, “evolutionary scientists will have failed to find the ‘true tree,’ not because their methods are inadequate or because they have chosen the wrong genes, but because the history of life cannot properly be represented as a tree.” Doolittle attributes this incapacity to gene-swapping among microorganisms at the past of the TOL. But another NAS member, Carl Woese, found that discrepancies between proposed evolutionary trees “can be seen everywhere in the universal tree, from its root to the major branching within and among the various taxa to the makeup of the primary groupings themselves.” This bears repeating. More than one NAS member are saying that modern genetic discoveries challenge Darwin’s universal Tree of Life.

And other Darwinian biologists are concurring with Woese. “Despite the amount of data and breadth of taxa analyzed,” writes biologist Sean B. Carroll, “relationship among most metazoan phyla remained unresolved.” Carroll, who studies animal (“metazoan”) relationships at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also explains that the “recurring discovery of persistently unresolved clades (bushes) should force a reevaluation of several widely held assumptions of molecular systematics.” Unfortunately, one assumption Carroll does not reevaluate is that of common ancestry. Could it be that the inability to construct robust phylogenetic trees (evolutionary relationships) using genetic data simply indicates that common ancestry is wrong?

No doubt the debate as to how life diversified will continue among theists and atheists alike. Both groups would do well to carefully scrutinize the scientific data and realize that thee are good evidential reasons to question universal common ancestry.