Evolution: Dancing on the Titanic

Author Greg Koukl Published on 01/01/1998

Evolution is on its way out.

It’s only a matter of time before the iceberg hits.

The current evolution/creation controversy is based on two fundamental errors. First, the issue is cast as a conflict between the indisputable facts of science and the dogmatic faith of religious fundamentalists. Second, two entirely different definitions of science are used interchangeably, obscuring the true nature of the discussion.

Facts vs. Faith

Douglas Futuyma opens Science on Trial, his compelling polemic against creationism, with these words: “Fifty-seven years after the Scopes trial, fundamentalist religion and evolutionary biology are again fiercely at odds, and science is still on trial.”1

Futuyma’s words echo the sentiments of the academic rank and file: Creationists are obscurantist flat-earthers whose commitment to superstition keeps them in darkness. The verdict of science is clear. Darwinian evolution is an indisputable fact.

This characterization is simply false.

Following the complete failure of the Origin of Life Conference in Berkeley in the late 80’s to produce a plausible scenario for how life itself chemically evolved, Dr. Robert Shapiro wrote a book entitled Origins: A Skeptic’s Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth. (“Creation” here refers to biochemical evolution.) Shapiro is an educated skeptic, an eminent chemist from New York University and an expert in his field. In his book he decimates the reigning ideas of how life could have evolved from non-life.

Michael Denton wrote Evolution: A Theory in Crisis to show that the original scientific objections to evolution that faced Darwin—and were argued powerfully by his contemporaries—still apply after more than 100 years of scientific research and progress.

Both of these books were written by non-religious people raising scientific objections to evolution. Shapiro remains an evolutionist, hoping that the future will turn up more evidence for biochemical evolution than the past has been able to produce. Denton ends his analysis with this statement: “The Darwinian theory is the great cosmogenic myth of the twentieth century,” and then adds, “like the Genesis-based cosmology which it replaced.”

You have no friends of religion here. These men are inside of the established scientific community, not outside of it. Yet each offers scientifically rigorous and compelling arguments against the idea that known natural processes are adequate to explain the biological complexity of our world.

Michael Behe is a cellular biologist with impeccable credentials. In his book Darwin’s Black Box, he shows that the irreducible complexity of life can’t be explained by Darwinian gradualism.

James Shapiro of the University of Chicago, a molecular biologist and a deeply committed evolutionist, made this candid remark in response to Behe’s work:

There are no detailed Darwinian accounts for the evolution of any fundamental biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculations. It is remarkable that Darwinism is accepted as a satisfactory explanation for such a vast subject—evolution—with so little rigorous examination of how well its basic theses work in illuminating specific instances of biological adaptation or diversity.2

Niles Eldridge, one of the world’s leading experts in vertebrate fossils, describes the actual situation paleontologists face:

No wonder paleontologists shied away from evolution for so long. It never seems to happen. Assiduous collecting up cliff faces yield zigzags, minor oscillations, and the very occasional slight accumulation of change—over millions of years, at a rate too slow to account for all the prodigious change that has occurred in evolutionary history. When we do see the introduction of evolutionary novelty, it usually shows up with a bang, and often with no firm evidence that the fossils did not evolve elsewhere! Evolution cannot forever be going on somewhere else. Yet that’s how the fossil record has struck many a forlorn paleontologist looking to learn something about evolution.3

This problem is so severe it has spawned an entirely new school of evolutionary thinking—punctuated equilibrium, championed by Harvard paleontologist Stephen J. Gould. It’s also spawned a bitter feud between Gould’s camp and traditional Darwinists like Richard Dawkins who still hold to gradualism in spite of the paucity of fossil evidence for it.

Phillip Johnson has made a fair observation when he states,

“If eminent experts say that evolution according to Gould is too confused to be worth bothering about, and others equally eminent say that evolution according to Dawkins rests on unsubstantiated assertions and counterfactual claims, the public can hardly be blamed for suspecting that grand-scale evolution may rest on something less impressive than rock-solid, unimpeachable fact.”

We are within our rights to question the stability of the entire enterprise. But the minute we do, we run into a second problem.

Two Faces of Science

Science has two definitions. The first is the most well known. Science is about a methodology—observation, experimentation, testing, etc.—that allows researchers to discover the facts about the world. Presumably, this is what evolution is about—the facts of science. Science in this sense has prompted the litany of concerns expressed above by evolutionists.

The second definition of science involves the philosophy of naturalistic materialism: matter and energy governed by natural law. Any view that doesn’t conform to this definition is not scientific.

These two definitions are not always compatible. Evolution is a case in point. At first blush it seems like evolution is about scientific facts. But when facts suggest design, the second definition is invoked. The philosophy always trumps the methodology. That is, any scientific methodology (first definition) that supports intelligent design is summarily disqualified by scientific philosophy (second definition) as “religion disguised as science.”

Futuyma says, “Where science insists on material, mechanistic causes that can be understood by physics and chemistry, the literal believer in Genesis invokes unknowable supernatural forces.”4

Creationists claim, however, that these forces are knowable, at least in principle. Consider this analogy. When a dead body is discovered, an impartial investigation of the scene might indicate foul play and not accident. In the same way, evidence could, in principle, indicate an agent in creation rather than chance. This is not faith vs. evidence, but evidence vs. evidence.

Notice how Futuyma conflates these definitions in the following statement taken from Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution, the most widely used college evolutionary textbook:

The fact is, in a scientific sense, there can be no evidence for supernatural special creation. Belief in special creation must rest on faith, on the authority of the Bible and its most literal interpreters. The fundamental conflict, then, is between two incompatible ways to knowledge. Science emphasizes evidence and logical deduction, and is forever uncertain. It deals not with irrefutable facts engraved on stone tablets, but with hypotheses that may be refuted by tomorrow’s experiments and concepts formulated by fallible human minds. The best scientific education encourages skepticism, questioning, independent thought, and the use of reason.5

How does Douglas Futuyma know in advance there “can be no evidence for supernatural special creation”? Because it’s stipulated by definition. Even if evidence is available, it cannot be allowed. Further, no independent thought regarding the fact of evolution (as opposed to the method of evolution) is allowed either, in spite of Futuyma’s assertions to the contrary. Any denial of evolution is simply not “science.”

Darwinism as Dogma

Clearly, the paradigm is paramount and everything must be done to save it. Harvard Genetics Professor Richard Lewontin is very candid about this fact. In The New York Review of Books he makes this remarkable admission:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen6 [emphasis in the original].

Here Richard Lewontin, distinguished Harvard Genetics Professor, admits that the apparatus of science is not geared to pursue the truth wherever it may lead, but rather to produce philosophically acceptable answers.

Phillip Johnson sums it up: “The reason for opposition to scientific accounts of our origins, according to Lewontin, is not that people are ignorant of facts, but that they have not learned to think from the right starting point.”7

Presumed Guilty

Once one presumes evolution, many of the pieces seem to fit. If you simply presume someone associated with a crime is guilty, you’re bound to find some pieces of evidence that appear incriminating. But if your suspect produces an airtight alibi, you must rework your presumptions.

In the same way, Darwinism has fatal flaws, in spite of some circumstantial evidence for common ancestry. The mechanism (natural selection) is not adequate to do the work it needs to do. Behe and others have made this clear. The gradualist pathways from one transition to another cannot be reconstructed, as Gould has pointed out. Robert Shapiro of NYU admits there is no current evidence that life could come from non-life. Paleontologists can compare fossils all they want, but if evolutionary processes cannot even produce the most basic amino acid sequences necessary for life, then the game can’t even get started.

To label creationist efforts as “religious zealots conducting stealth campaigns,” as one editorial did, skirts the issue entirely. It is easier to dismiss any objections to evolution as flat-earth religion than to intelligently and fairly engage the facts in public discourse.

Three Errors

The view that “religious” theories should not intrude in science is guilty of a several of logical errors.

First, it commits the either/or fallacy by asserting that a view is either scientific or religious. Design models might have some factual support. We see the blending, for example, in near-death experience (NDE) research, or conclusions about the existence of a Creator based on Big Bang cosmology.

Second, it commits the straw-man fallacy by assuming that creationists make no use of scientific methods. This is not the case. Creationists are happy to present an abundance of scientific evidence for their view, if they’re allowed. This evidence needs to be addressed instead of disqualified.

Third, it assumes that the reigning scientific views do not have religious significance. This is false. All cosmological views have metaphysical significance. If evolutionary naturalism is true, the only place for God is in the imagination of the faithful.8

Read This Book!

I want to recommend a book that gets right to the heart of this issue in a clear and accessible way. It’s called An Easy-to-Understand Guide for Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds by Phillip Johnson.

You’ll get first-rate advice on how to be a player in this discussion without getting bogged down in unnecessary details. You don’t need a technical background, just a simple game plan. It’s an easy read and a powerful tool that will help you expose the real issue in this debate.

The evolution/creation controversy is not about evidence. It’s about the power of an academic elite to enforce a philosophy. This fact is becoming increasingly obvious to the public. Once this becomes clear, then evolution will have to stand on its own merits and it won’t be able to do so.

Evolutionists are dancing on the Titanic. If it were not for philosophical strong-arming in the field of science, Darwinism would have become an historical curiosity long ago. It’s only a matter of time before the iceberg hits.

Extra Thought

Those who hold that science, by nature, cannot be integrated with theological views about the nature of the world, are out of step with a long history of science in which this arbitrary, modern distinction was not made. Most of the founders of modern scientific disciplines, including these that follow, were Christians whose world-view was thoroughly integrated in their scientific practice.

  • George Cuvier (1769-1832)—Great French naturalist, founded comparative anatomy
  • Carolus Linnaeus (1707-78)—Founder of modern taxonomy, the scientific classification of plants and animals
  • Blaise Pascal (1623-62)—The French mathematical prodigy, founded modern probability theory, advanced differential calculus and modern hydraulics, and invented of one of the first mechanical calculators
  • Michael Faraday (1791-1867)—Discovered electromagnetic induction and developed the first dynamo
  • Gregor Mendel (1822-84)—Established the foundational tenets of modern genetics
  • Copernicus (1473-1543)—Laid the foundation of modern astronomy with heliocentric theory of planetary motion