The Evolution Wars Continued
BY GEORGE SIM JOHNSTON
January 15-21, 2006 Issue | Posted 1/16/06 at 11:00 AM
A federal judge has spoken: It is unconstitutional for a Pennsylvania school district to present intelligent design as an alternative to “evolution.”
The framers of the Constitution, of course, never dreamed that judges would some day use the First Amendment to prohibit local schools from raising a metaphysical issue. But we’ll let that pass. It seems churlish at this late date to express annoyance at the willful misreadings of the disestablishment clause that routinely issue from the bench.
The most annoying aspect of this latest incarnation of the Scopes trial is the way the debate was framed for the public. The message was that if you think there are phenomena in nature — say, the human eye — which are too complex to be explained by Darwinian selection, then you are a creationist and so by definition reject the “fact” of evolution, preferring religious obscurantism to scientific enlightenment.
But the real issue in this debate is not whether one is “for” or “against” evolution. It is rather about the merits of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. “Evolution” and Darwin’s explanation of the origin of species are not the same thing. The media never make this distinction and so give the secularist side of the debate an unfair advantage. The proponents of intelligent design are not necessarily “anti-evolution.” But they do question whether Darwinian selection can create everything from the defense mechanism of the bombardier beetle to the human brain. And in this they have good company.
Since Darwin published the Origin of Species in 1859, there have always been scientists who, while accepting the idea of evolution, have questioned whether Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection explains the appearance of complex life forms. Natural selection, after all, only eliminates what doesn’t work. It doesn’t “create” anything. The work of creation is presumably done by genetic changes (and here we’ll put aside the vexed question of the origin of DNA). But Richard Lewontin of Harvard, dean of American geneticists, writes that “we know nothing about the genetic changes that occur in species formation.”
The French zoologist Pierre Grasse compares genetic mutations to “a typing error in copying a text,” adding that they “in time, occur incoherently. They are not complementary to one another, nor are they cumulative in successive generations toward a given direction.” Grasse calls himself an “evolutionist” but flatly states that these small changes in gene frequencies have nothing to do with the really big jumps in the evolutionary continuum — say, from reptiles to birds.
There is, in fact, a heated debate among evolutionary biologists over whether the genetic changes that occur within species have anything to do with “evolution.” Yes, bacteria can mutate in all sorts of ways, but they remain bacteria. These ecological adjustments never add up to evolutionary novelties, tending rather to conserve a species. They have nothing to do with the origin of new ones.
But once you decouple “within species” variation from “evolution,” Darwin’s theory collapses, since it depends entirely on extrapolation, on the idea that evolution is simply the process of variation writ large. Many scientists admit this problem, but prefer not to mention it when the order of the day is battling creationists.
There are other problems with Darwinism, which Judge John Jones III downplayed when he mentioned that the theory is “imperfect.” There is, for example, the failure of the fossil record to produce the “innumerable transitional forms” that Darwin said had to be there. Anyone who thinks that the theory has been “proved” has not been paying attention to the work of paleontologists or to the sharp debates among prominent biologists or to the fact that the late Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard declared the brand of neo-Darwinism taught in Dover’s public schools “dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy.”
We know that there have been a succession of life forms in earth’s history, starting with the bacteria that appeared more than 3 billion years ago. But we are far from having a coherent scientific explanation of how it happened. If this were plainly stated in academic textbooks, then there would be less reason for the religiously minded to demand the kind of disclaimer sought by the Dover school board.
But far from admitting to any problems, Darwinists make sweeping claims about the theory’s explanatory power that are in no way supported by the evidence. And not a few Darwinists use the theory as a convenient weapon against religion. The theory is in many respects disguised counter-metaphysics, and protests by Darwinists that they are strictly adhering to the “scientific method” are often disingenuous.
I don’t blame parents and school boards for fighting back. But a case can be made that intelligent design is a philosophical enterprise that, strictly speaking, does not belong in a high school biology class.
In a perfect world, a biology teacher would admit that there is much in nature that currently eludes explanation; he would then humbly hand over his data to a philosophy teacher, who, in turn, might profitably start a class discussion with Aristotle’s question, “How does nature produce beings of such marvelous and intricate design?” The students could then hear about teleology and final causes and have an interesting discussion.
That philosophy teacher might also point out that a theory of evolution hardly disposes of ultimate metaphysical questions. Indeed, he might put before the class Chesterton’s observation that evolution “is not, touching the primary things ... a very profitable idea. Nobody can imagine how nothing could turn into something. Nobody can get an inch nearer to it by explaining how something could turn into something else.”
George Sim Johnston, author of
Did Darwin Get it Right?
writes from New York.
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