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Breaking the Iron Grip of the Reigning Scientific Orthodoxy

THE TWILIGHT OF MINDLESS EVOLUTION?

By Nicholas J. Healy | October 2020
Nicholas J. Healy formerly practiced maritime law in New York. He subsequently served as Vice President of Franciscan University of Steubenville, President of Ave Maria University, and President of Newman College Ireland.

The term evolution has different meanings. To the average layman it means simply that changes in life forms occur over long periods of time. This is, of course, supported by the fossil record, though that record does not reflect the innumerable “intermediate” forms that Charles Darwin’s theory prescribes. Evolution has also come to mean a kind of natural progress, applicable not only to species but to social concepts, such as moral development, and even to theology, as with the theories of Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. The cultural influence of evolution is enormous, yet few have challenged its foundation. The absence of a definition has hampered the framing and addressing of serious issues that continue to roil the sciences relating to evolution as well as a reconsideration of its broader cultural influence.

The year 2019 closed with two milestones in the drama of evolution’s grip on establishment science. The first was the passing of Phillip Johnson. He will be remembered as the first academic of real stature in recent decades to question Darwinian evolution in a public forum. Though not a scientist, Johnson’s academic pedigree was so impressive that he could not be easily dismissed: He earned a B.A. in English literature from Harvard University; he graduated first in his class from the University of Chicago Law School; he was a clerk for Earl Warren, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; and he was a longtime faculty member at Boalt School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley.

Despite his immersion in legal issues, Johnson became intrigued by debates in the field of biology concerning the origin of life. What troubled him was that scientists who studied and wrote about the subject were constantly making pronouncements based on the assumption that life is a spontaneous, random event, wholly without any external influence of design or intelligence. Johnson concluded that the Darwinist consensus was propped up by a philosophy of naturalism rather than by scientific evidence. His growing skepticism led to a blockbuster book, Darwin on Trial (1991), in which he effectively demolished the accepted theory that all life and all species, including mankind, were the product of mindless material forces. Overnight, skepticism about the claims of Darwinism became widespread; hundreds, perhaps thousands, of scientists awakened to the possibility that their private doubts about at least some of the claims of the Darwinists might be valid. The nascent intelligent-design movement had a champion. Professor Johnson, by his courage, humility, and love of truth, led many to new insights into the nature of life and observable evolution.

The second milestone was the public announcement by David Gelernter, head of the Computer Science Department at Yale University, that he could no longer accept Darwinism as the correct explanation for the observed evolution of life forms. This breaking of ranks by a widely respected establishment scientist sent shockwaves through the scientific community. Dr. Gelernter “came out” in a forceful article in Claremont Review of Books (Spring 2019). He referred to Darwinism as a “brilliant and beautiful theory” that he had always believed, but recent scholarship convinced him that it was no longer supported by advances in science, particularly in biology at the molecular level.

Before examining the evidence Gelernter cites, it might be helpful to trace how Darwinism became such a dominant theory. With the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), a comprehensive theory of how life evolved burst into the scientific world. It was a profound but simple theory: All life forms descended from one single-cell organism, the origins of which Darwin expected to be discovered. The twin engines that powered evolution were random mutation, which could accidentally give an organism a slight change in form, and the survival of the fittest organisms — i.e., those that happened to acquire an advantageous change in form, such as longer leg bones that allow them to run faster to avoid predators. The advantageous mutation had to be an inheritable change that would then spread throughout the species. If enough of these advantageous mutations occurred, the organism would eventually become a new species altogether.

From the outset, some scientists accepted this theory. Others did not. One whose refusal was a great disappointment to Darwin was Louis Agassiz, one of the most respected scientists in the world, who was doing pioneering work in glaciation, paleontology, and geology. Of Swiss nationality, he was recruited by Harvard University and helped mold an entire generation of American biologists. He never accepted natural selection as the means by which new species arose. Yet, by the early 20th century, the great bulk of scientists had adopted Darwin’s theory of evolution. The holdouts principally objected to it on religious grounds — specifically, that it contradicted the Book of Genesis. These objections were greatly heightened when it became clear that Darwinism included the evolution of mankind, whose ancestors were said to be apes, and not a specially created set of first parents (Adam and Eve). Yet such was the prestige of science in the 20th century that religious opposition was dismissed as primitive superstition.

This quashing of religious grounds for disputing Darwinism was exemplified by the movie Inherit the Wind (1960), which portrayed the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial, in which a schoolteacher in Tennessee was tried for and convicted of teaching evolution contrary to state law. The movie was hugely successful, winning a number of Oscars and Golden Globe awards. The actual trial took place in 1925 and featured famous opposing lawyers, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. It was well understood that the movie (and the play on which it was based) was a metaphor for the anti-communist McCarthy trials that had so divided the nation in the 1950s. The film, however, was not factually accurate; it took many liberties in order to make the locals appear dumb, backward, and doomed to be overcome by science.

For the past three-quarters of a century, Darwinism has been forced to take account of the tremendous advances in the science of genetics, the study of how organisms pass on their characteristics. This resulted in a melding of Darwinism with modern genetics (often called neo-Darwinism). In this way, the theory has incorporated the latest findings of how DNA works, although it is precisely here that very serious objections to Darwinian theory have been raised.

The most consequential problems in the theory have nothing to do with the basic observation that life forms have changed over millions of years. Rather, they involve the theory’s usually unspoken philosophical tenets: that evolution is a purely materialistic process; that there is no transcendent Mind or Spirit influencing the process; and that all life, including human life, is the product of blind, irrational forces. One is permitted to question how natural selection encouraged certain traits, but not how they were “selected,” and any argument for something other than survival of the fittest is considered heresy.

At this point in time, the sciences relating to evolution — especially biology, genetics, and paleontology — are in the iron grip of an establishment that will brook no challenge to a purely materialistic understanding of evolution. Any references to “design,” which, by implication, require a designer, are considered unscientific; true science, it is believed, can only allow for causes that can be seen and measured in the material world. Those who deviate from the establishment orthodoxy regarding evolution will find that they cannot get grant money; their papers are not published in prestigious scientific journals; and job promotion and advancement are foreclosed to them. Public education generally does not permit the teaching of alternatives to natural (materialistic) evolution, and it must be taught not as a theory but as a settled scientific fact.

This rigid control is described as necessary to protect science from “creationists,” those religious fanatics who, a century ago, were persecuting those who taught evolution, as depicted in Inherit the Wind. So determined are these establishment scientists to forestall any challenge to the accepted theory that a mainstream biology journal recently published a demand that websites challenging Darwinian materialism as the sole mechanism for new species be subjected to government censorship!

In recent decades, public dissent has been carried on by brave souls who have some measure of protection, through tenure or otherwise. Many are connected to the Discovery Institute, a nonprofit organization in Seattle that promotes, among other aspects of innovation in science, the consideration of intelligent design (ID) as an explanation for observable changes in life forms. Their simple but profoundly challenging thesis is that Darwinian theory, based on the premise of purely materialistic forces, cannot account for the observable radical changes in life forms at the molecular level.

This is precisely the point that was most convincing to Gelernter. He had long accepted Darwinism but concluded that it was a theory “that has now been overtaken by science.” The book that led to Gelernter’s disavowal of Darwinism was Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt (2013). Meyer is closely associated with the Discovery Institute and is an open advocate of ID. Gelernter calls Darwin’s Doubt “one of the most important books in the intellectual history of Darwinism,” and he goes on to remark that “few open-minded people will finish it with their faith in Darwin intact.”

Neither Gelernter nor Meyer uses religion to bolster his points; they use only science. Indeed, Gelernter makes the point that “the religion is all on the other side. Meyer and other proponents of I.D. are the dispassionate intellectuals making orderly scientific arguments. Some I.D.-haters have shown themselves willing to use any argument — fair or not, true or not, ad hominem or not — to keep this dangerous idea locked in a box forever. They remind us of the extent to which Darwinism is no longer just a scientific theory but the basis of a worldview, and an emergency replacement religion for the many troubled souls who need one.”

Darwin’s Doubt focuses on the so-called Cambrian explosion, a well-known geologic era some 500 million years ago, during which an astounding number of new life forms appeared in the fossil record in a shockingly short period of geologic time (a few million years). These included not just new species but new classes and even new phyla in the animal kingdom. Darwin’s theory prescribes that evolutionary changes happen very, very gradually, as small changes give a life form some inheritable advantage, which over many thousands of generations can result in a new species. Even Darwin was aware of the general character of the Cambrian explosion and cited it as a challenge to his new theory. Yet, like other noted challenges, such as gaps in the fossil record (e.g., the absence of many of the predicted “intermediate forms”), ongoing study of the Cambrian record, including newly discovered Cambrian strata in China, have multiplied the difficulties: There are still no scientifically accepted early or intermediate ancestors leading to the Cambrian animals, despite examination of pre-Cambrian strata. No Darwinian explanation for how whole new body plans of sea animals that were worldwide in scope and survived as discrete species for scores of millions of years has actually come about.

What Meyer did in Darwin’s Doubt, and in his earlier book The Signature in the Cell (2009), was to demonstrate that evolutionary changes require vastly greater quantities of information than had been previously contemplated even for the most basic functions of life forms. DNA, in its famous double-helix structure, communicates information, such as the structure of proteins needed for a cell’s function. Even the smallest, imperceptible alteration in cell function can only occur by adding a new protein or deleting an existing one. The complexity and variety of these protein structures are almost beyond comprehension, and the information needed even in the simplest cells is astronomical. Proteins consist of bases or beads of one of 20 different amino acids linked in long chains, the instructions for which must be transmitted through the DNA code. Protein molecules can be arranged in a stupendously large number of ways, only a relative handful of which produce a useful protein. Hence, the chance of a positive change occurring by random mutation is vanishingly small.

According to the calculations Gelernter cites, a protein molecule of 150 bases (the average is 250) with one of 20 different amino acids for each base can accommodate 10 to the 195th power different arrangements. The odds of randomly mutating a protein capable of folding so as to be functionally useful are one in 10 to the 77th power. Does time (the three and a half billion years since the first one-cell bacteria appeared) and the sheer volume of cells that have ever existed (10 to the 40th power) solve the problem? No. Even assuming that every bacterium that ever lived produced a mutation (most do not), the chances of even a single useful protein being established is one in 10 to the 37th power — effectively an impossibility. And Cambrian animals appeared suddenly, geologically speaking, not as minor variations of fossil ancestors but as previously unknown creatures with whole new body plans that required huge numbers of new proteins. What are the odds that the information necessary to assemble them occurred by sheer accident? Gelernter makes it plain that it is the mathematical impossibility of new species emerging randomly that convinced him that Darwinism was not the answer.

Does all this matter very much? Yes, because Darwinian evolution has become a quasi-religious worldview in stark contradiction to the Judeo-Christian conception of reality. From Genesis to Aristotle, and from the Epistles of St. Paul to the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, the scale, beauty, and complexity of nature have been cited as reasons for belief in God as Creator. Throughout the succeeding centuries, scientists understood that the world could be examined and apprehended precisely because nature is ordered, there is a design to it, and the God of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures is its Designer. What Darwin and his followers have done is to propose, and then insist upon, a purely materialist alternative to the apparent design in living forms, including the human form. It seems fair to say that no other philosophical worldview has so undermined the Christian faith among the highly educated as has the commitment to materialist naturalism.

Intelligent design is certainly not the only alternative to Darwinism. There are “young-earth creationists” who challenge such major points as the age of rocks, which, in turn, tend to determine the age of species. Some active biologists have come up with “theistic evolution,” accepting Darwinism in the main but finding room for God in the process.

There is also a movement to return to a more classical understanding of nature as “an interior principle of movement and rest,” as Aristotle put it. Biologists such as Stephen L. Talbott and philosophers formed in the Aristotelian and Thomistic traditions argue that ID concedes a mechanistic understanding of the natural world. Instead of positing a “designer” or an “engineer who works on the evolutionary process from without,” it would be better, in their view, to recover a vision of biology that includes formal and final causality. As Aquinas argues, the teleology immanent in natural things is a sign of the wisdom and generosity of the Creator.

Though the ID movement deserves the main credit for calling into question the consensus of contemporary Darwinism — by using science to refute the proclaimed science of Darwinian creation of new species — it leaves important questions open: What is a living being? Is the purposeful activity displayed by an organism different from the activity of a machine or artifact?

The Darwinian consensus is now tottering, and when it finally crumbles, there should be a new freedom to consider both the beautiful order of the natural world and the source, or cause, of beauty within the world. It will be an exciting time for both scientists and philosophers.

 

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