Volume > Issue > Briefly: October 2013

October 2013

Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design

By Stephen C. Meyer

Publisher: HarperOne

Pages: 512

Price: $28.99

Review Author: Terry Scambray

Stephen Meyer has followed his highly acclaimed Signature in the Cell [reviewed by this writer in the Oct. 2010 NOR — Ed. ] with a worthy sequel. Darwin’s Doubt blends the findings from molecular biology found in his first book with discoveries in paleontology, anatomy, and other disciplines in order to make the case for intelligent design as the best scientific explanation of life’s origin and development. Meyer does this in his usual clear and composed voice while explaining some complicated material without the distracting emotion that often distorts the study of origins.

“Darwin’s doubt” refers to Charles Darwin’s admission in On the Origin of Species that the fossil record contradicted his theory that life began with simple organisms and then progressed through endless transitions up to the present. As Darwin admitted, “The abrupt manner in which whole groups of species suddenly appear in certain formations has been urged by several paleontologists — for instance Agassiz, Pictet, Sedgwick — as a fatal objection to the belief in the transmutation of species. If numerous species belonging to the same genera or families have really started into life all at once, the fact would be fatal to the theory of descent with slow modification through natural selection.”

Yet the fossils from the so-called Cambrian Explosion, about 530 million years ago, reveal the emergence of “a veritable carnival” of basic body plans of animal and plant life that appear fully formed in about a five-million-year period. As a Chinese paleontologist has written, “compared with the 3-plus-billion-year history of life on earth, the period [of the Explosion] can be likened to one minute in 24 hours of one day.” Even the Darwinist operative Richard Dawkins has conceded that the plants and animals in the Cambrian Explosion “look as if they were just planted there without any evolutionary history,” which is the exact opposite of Darwin’s prediction.

Indeed, the Cambrian Explosion reveals much about the shaky foundation of Darwin’s theory, and not just because of discoveries in paleontology. Evidence from disciplines like developmental and molecular biology compounds the problem of having complex life develop without ancestors and in such a short time. As Meyer writes, the neo-Darwinist mechanism of mutation and natural selection “does not account for either the origin of the genetic or the epigenetic information,” the latter being outside the cell’s DNA and not subject to the effects of mutations. The development of complex biochemicals that stand ready to perform in unimaginably exact, coordinated, and purposeful genetic and extra-genetic ways would have to have taken place. Says Meyer, “the probability of generating just one gene from all the bacteria (and other organisms) that have ever lived on earth is just 1 in 10 trillion, trillion, trillion.”

“Time & chance,” the makers of life according to Darwin, need not apply as credible candidates for such a task. In Darwin’s day, “time & chance” could perhaps be imagined as makers of life, both because the understanding of biological organisms was simplistic and because 19th-century utopian dreams saw social evolution and revolution making “the new man” — an idea that still persists. But the 20th century was harsh on those simpletons and dreamers, Darwin primary among them. Meyer shows this by lining up respected scientists, including those of the Darwinist, materialist persuasion, who nonetheless have discredited every aspect of the Darwinian project, from the failure of natural selection to make anything new to the failure of “hox genes,” once thought to be kick-starters of the evolutionary process.

Yes, it is true that mutation and natural selection can cause small changes or “adaptations,” as when bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics, and insects develop resistance to pesticides. But to repeat what is now a truism, or should become one: “Darwin explains the survival of the fittest, not the arrival of the fittest” — the latter being precisely what he promised to explain in his iconic book on the origin of species.

Darwin thought his theory would be rescued by later fossil finds, inaugurating a faith tradition relied upon by evolutionary biologists to keep the theory afloat despite the evidence, not because of it. In support of this longing for evidence, Darwinists have diligently developed a bullpen of backup arguments to replace Darwin’s starting arguments, as each got knocked off the mound. The most prominent of these arguments, “punctuated equilibrium,” purports to tell paleontologists why they don’t see in the fossil record what Darwin told them they were supposed to see. This rationalization, cooked up by Stephen Jay Gould, goes like this: Evolution occurred in small groups of organisms away from larger populations; thus, few if any “intermediates” in-the-process-of-becoming-something-else are preserved in the fossil record — creatures that might be half reptile and half bird, for example.

Meyer tests the various neo-Darwinian explanations for life, including theories of self-organization. He also discusses the ideas of James Shapiro, a prominent University of Chicago biologist whose work “represents a promising avenue of bringing new insight into how the cell’s information-processing system” alters its genetic information in response to change. But these explanations all fail because they are exercises in question-begging. As Meyer puts it, they “assume a gene,” the making of which is one of the questions to be answered in the first place. So Meyer, a geophysicist with a Ph.D. in the history of science from Cambridge, shows that all mindless, materialist forces don’t pan out as explanations of life’s origins and development. Such explanations have invariably turned out to be intellectual fool’s gold.

Yet a tradition of reasoning that we all use in assessing the causes of past events does exist. It is called “abductive reasoning,” a concept Meyer borrows from American philosopher Charles Pierce. The father of modern geology, Charles Lyell, for example, relied on such a process when he reasoned that the forces that sculpted the crust of the earth are the same forces that are still at work. Or, “the present is the key to the past.” Relying on Lyell’s dictum, Meyer asks: What in our common experience is the source of the complex, specified information that is observed in the organic cell? Intelligence is the only source responsible for such information, not an accidental un-intelligent force like blind, Darwinian evolution.

Intelligence is an “unseen force,” materialists argue. They, like 19th-century phrenologists, yearn for an explanation that they can physically lay their hands on. But gravity is invisible and yet remains a fundamental part of the scientific edifice precisely because, like intelligence, we constantly witness its effects.

The origins debate is not simple, and this book may appear imposing and complicated. But Meyer is a talented writer with an easygoing voice; he has blended interesting history with clear explanations. Darwin’s Doubt may come to be seen as a classic presentation of this most fundamental of all debates.

The Bible on the Question of Homosexuality

By Innocent Himbaza, Adrien Schenker, O.P., and Jean-Baptiste Edart. Translated by Benedict M. Guevin, O.S.B

Publisher: Catholic University of America Press

Pages: 147

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

In reply to some recent ideological interpretations of the Bible, Innocent Himbaza, a Protestant, and Adrien Schenker, a Dominican priest, both of the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, and Jean-Baptiste Edart, of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Rome, have produced a timely book that clarifies what the Bible says on the question of homosexuality. Himbaza offers a close reading of three stories: Sodom, the men of Gibeah, and the friendship of David and Jonathan; Schenker looks at the prohibition of homosexual acts in Leviticus 18 and 20; and Edart analyzes relevant passages in the New Testament.

Himbaza points out that the inhabitants of Sodom did not merely fail to practice hospitality but were also violent and debauched in their desire to yada the strangers — the term yada in Hebrew having sexual connotations. The same word yada is used in Gibeah, where once again “raping a woman seems less odious than raping a man.” In both stories, Himbaza says, “homosexual behavior is part of what constitutes the sins of the inhabitants.” To insist that the stories say nothing about homosexual behavior seems to be “an ideological interpretation.”

In his analysis of key passages in Samuel, Himbaza shows that “no word, no gesture describing the love between Jonathan and David is limited to an erotic context, nor absent from common and neutral language.” For instance, the kiss the friends exchange (1 Sam. 20:41) is just like the kiss Moses gives his father-in-law, Jethro (Exod. 18:7). Some have seen an erotic connotation in David’s lament, “More precious have I held love for you than love for women” (2 Sam. 1:26), but the word used for “love” (ahavah) is also used for love of country or master. So a homosexual relationship between David and Jonathan “is neither clearly expressed nor implicitly suggested.”

Schenker remarks that when the Mosaic Law forbids homosexual acts (Lev. 18:22), no reason is given, and yet the prohibition occurs after 15 other prohibitions, nearly all related to incest. Likewise, a second prohibition of homosexual acts (Lev. 20:13), punishable by death, occurs in a list of several other forbidden sexual acts. In these passages, Israel is being given rules to follow that are “not ritual commandments of minor significance” but guides to holiness. While the biblical prohibition is only against the act, not the inclination, it is logical to conclude that “anything that paves the way to the prohibited act is also excluded by the Torah.”

Edart focuses on the controversial passages of the New Testament. He notes that the word malakoi in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 is translated in the New American Bible as “boy prostitutes,” but in fact it means “passive homosexual partner” and is not limited to a boy.

The debate about homosexuality over the past 30 years “has generated all kinds of literature, mostly American,” on Romans 1:18-32. Various writers contend that Paul refers here only to pedophiles, male prostitutes, and heterosexuals engaging in homosexual acts. Edart answers that “Paul’s perspective is theological. He is interested in the meaning of homosexual acts within the divine plan.” This is why he connects it to idolatry, where a human being worships creatures and is subject to them. What follows from idolatry is a reversal of God’s plan in sexual differentiation, the connection is emphasized by the verbs “to change” (allasso) and “to exchange” (metallasso). According to Paul, sexual differentiation is “willed by the Creator” and is “a fun­damental structure of the human being, a characteristic that is negated in the homosexual act.”

Some American authors claim that when Paul speaks of homosexual acts as being “against nature,” he means that they do not conform to the social norms of the time. Edart replies that Paul’s moorings are in his Jewish heritage, where the phrase “against nature” refers to creation: “God desired sexual union between the man and the woman, and this divine will or divine law is inscribed in nature. We can observe this by means of all the elements that characterize sexual identity, genitalia being one of the principal signs.” Besides, in Romans 1, Paul describes homosexual acts as having three dire results: loss of freedom, lack of respect for the body, and blindness of conscience. Edart concludes that Paul and the author of 1 Timothy “consider homosexual acts to be contrary to the law of the Gospel.”

Some exegetes claim that the silence of the Gospels on homosexuality means that Jesus implicitly approves it. Jesus’ silence can only be understood, Edart replies, as “agreement with the tradition of Israel,” since He came to fulfill the law and the law is “unambiguous” on this point. Also, His view can be deduced from what He says about the Creator’s will for human love “from the beginning” (Mt. 19:4; Mk. 10:6). Note too that in Mark 7:21-22, He condemns “licentiousness” ( porneia), a word that encompasses all the sexual sins prohibited in Leviticus 18-20, including homosexual acts.

Some authors see a homosexual relation between the pagan centurion and his dying slave, who is presented as “precious” (entimos; Lk. 7:2). Edart responds that this is a “strictly ideological reading, based on the projection of preconceived ideas.” Some authors also see a homosexual connotation in the title “beloved disciple” and in the posture of “reclining at Jesus’ side” (Jn. 13:23), but the verb “recline” (anakeimai), which is often used to describe how guests gather around a table, “has no affective and, even less, sexual connotation to it.” Moreover, the beloved disciple is the holy one to whom Mary will be entrusted and the one who will believe “immediately” upon seeing the empty tomb. To find a homosexual relation here is “simply another example of an ideological reading.” Edart concludes that the Bible takes “a very positive view of friendships between two men” but “never approves of homosexual acts.” Rather than being “the product of a particular historical context,” this biblical teaching is “valid for all of humanity and at all times.”

The Bible on the Question of Homosexuality is a scholarly yet very readable book. It is a welcome corrective to recent misinterpretations of the Bible. While the three theologians maintain an irenic tone, their conclusions are firm.

The Quotable Newman: A Definitive Guide to His Central Thoughts and Ideas

By Dave Armstrong

Publisher: Sophia Institute Press

Pages: 448

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Stephen J. Kovacs

In 1845 John Henry Newman, an Anglican clergyman noted for his intellectual gifts, entered the Catholic Church and later became a cardinal famed for his piety and scholarship. His conversion rocked English society and prompted a major Catholic revival in England, where centuries of persecution and marginalization had reduced the Church to a mere remnant. Some of the famous figures in this revival, most of them converts, are Gerard Manley Hopkins, Oscar Wilde, Evelyn Waugh, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and J.R.R. Tolkien — all of whom had a significant impact on English culture in the 19th and 20th centuries. The wisdom in Newman’s writings continues to inspire conversions, and his most prominent works have become staples in the Catholic literary canon.

Dave Armstrong, an apologist, writer, and himself a convert who was greatly influenced by Newman’s thought, has compiled The Quotable Newman. He has selected some of the most noteworthy quotations from Newman’s vast corpus of books, articles, letters, and sermons, and organized them into a reference-style anthology. The quotations, which vary in length from a few sentences to about two pages, are arranged in sections according to topic, and are presented in alphabetical order, from Absolution to Trinitarianism. In between are quotations on such topics as Apostolic Succession, Evil, Faith and Reason, Grace, the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Justification, Mary, Original Sin, Papal Infallibility, Sacraments, and Transubstantiation. In all, over 100 topics are covered.

The subtitle of the book, however, is misleading. Aside from a preface by Joseph Pearce, who eloquently presents a brief biography of Newman, and an introduction by Armstrong, there is no specific guidance given for understanding Newman’s thought. Furthermore, the quotations provided are not all central thoughts and ideas. Pope Honorius and Relics, for example, are two topics found in the book that could not be considered among Newman’s central thoughts or ideas. Conscience and the Development of Doctrine, however, are topics for which Newman is particularly well known, and both are included in this book.

Armstrong has chosen quotations that relate specifically to theology and Church history, with apologetic and catechetical emphases; but as Pearce explains, besides being a theologian, historian, and apologist, Newman was also a philosopher, educationist, novelist, and poet. While Newman is usually remembered for his theological writings, it should not be forgotten that he wrote and made important contributions in other fields.

The quotations within each topic are arranged chronologically, often dating as far back as Newman’s Anglican days. This allows readers to track his faith journey as his pursuit of truth led him to embrace fully the doctrines of the Catholic Church. This is evident in the section on the Eucharist, which begins with an excerpt from a letter Newman wrote 11 years before his conversion. In it he professes belief in Christ’s presence in the sacrament, but in a nebulous sort of way. As the quotations progress, Newman’s understanding becomes clearer and he begins to speak of the Eucharist with the words of a convinced Catholic. The developments in Newman’s thought can also be detected in the section on Papal Supremacy. While still an Anglican, his study of the Fathers of the Church brought him to an acute awareness of the vital role of the Petrine office. As time passes and he makes his entrance into the Church, Newman begins to express his own filial loyalty and obedience to the Holy See.

Newman’s humanity shines through in his writings, and we find that even one as brilliant as he must grow and learn like the rest of us. His words are marked by humility and a deep love for truth, which he proves lead to happy returns. It is easy to see why Newman has been and continues to be influential in so many conversions. The fact that Pope Benedict XVI made a special visit to England in 2010 to beatify Newman suggests his importance for the Church today, especially with the recent establishment of a personal ordinariate for Anglican communities to come to full communion with the Catholic Church.

The Quotable Newman is an excellent introduction to Newman’s thought. It is easy to feel intimidated when attempting to read the work of such a prolific writer as Newman, but Armstrong has already done much of the hard work by arranging selections from Newman’s writings in a very accessible format. He has chosen quotations wisely and the topics provide comprehensive coverage of the Catholic faith. Newman writes with such clarity and beauty that reading him is never too difficult, and is often a great pleasure. Yet his insights are so profound that even the reader most conversant in the doctrines of the faith has much to gain.

Armstrong dedicates the book to Bl. John Henry Newman and expresses a sincere hope that Newman will be canonized and one day even be proclaimed a Doctor of the Church. These are very reasonable causes to put hope in, and ones that deserve our prayers.

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