The Struggle for the Soul of Science, pt2: Science – Exhibit A
To start with, it is important to counter the commonly repeated assertion, designed to intimidate and silence genuine questions, that “all scientists accept an old earth and evolution”. Such a statement completely misunderstands the nature of scientific inquiry. Science relies on constant introduction of new evidence and questioning of existing theories, as in any academic discipline, and consensus is the enemy of progress. Appeal to the authority of the establishment to stifle dissent is exactly the response Galileo received, and now evolution has taken the place of geocentrism as the unquestionable ‘truth’. Nevertheless, there are most certainly many qualified scientists who dare to question it, regardless of intimidation.
By way of example, I might simply cite the respected professors Norman C. Nevin OBE (Emeritus Professor of Medical Genetics at Queen’s University, Belfast), John C. Walton (Research Professor of Chemistry at St Andrews University), and Andy McIntosh (Professor of Thermodynamics and Combustion Theory at Leeds University), among the contributors to the recent book Should Christians Embrace Evolution? (2009) Another interesting collection called In Six Days, edited by John F. Ashton (2000), assembles fifty scientists with doctorates earned from state-recognised universities in various Western nations, each of whom affirm a literal six-day biblical creation as the most likely origin of life on earth. Fields represented range from Biology to Botany to Genetics to Geology to Nuclear Physics and much more. While I myself may be a non-specialist, I can still be confident that there are others, far better informed than I, who do believe the evidence to point elsewhere.
Both the ‘old earth – evolution’ and ‘young earth – creation’ narratives are essentially scientific hypotheses, or clusters of hypotheses, which claim to be empirical fact. In that case, both ought to be able to make certain predictions which can then be confirmed or falsified by careful investigation. Despite strong institutional resistance to their participation in the scientific community [as Big Bang sceptics also experience – see below], creationist scientists are doing more and more field work to confirm hypotheses, and creating coherent models which can be subjected to rigorous tests by others, regardless of religious affiliation. For an easy introduction to the current state of creationist science, see Paul Garner’s book The New Creationism (2009).
Principles of Secular Genesis
Darwin’s formulation of the theory of evolution and its mechanisms has been very influential, but in the last 150 years the details of his theory have had to be modified considerably. Darwinism was updated around the time of World War Two to the ‘Modern Synthesis’ of Neo-Darwinism. In November 1980 a conference at the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History tried to reconcile more recent evidence with existing theories, and most recently, in July 2008 the ‘Altenberg 16’ met to attempt a new ‘extended evolutionary synthesis’. Though this was certainly not ‘evolution in crisis’, as some creationists made out, it did nevertheless confirm that the precise meaning of ‘evolution’ is not as straightforward and agreed as is often thought. In the famous court case over creation/evolution, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005), the most frequent definition was the fairly bland phrase ‘common descent with modification’. In that case, Secular Genesis apparently still insists upon three basic principles: modification (rather than fixity) of species, a single common ancestor of all living things, and the uniformitarianism in earth history which theoretically allows for the vast time needed for evolution. How does the evidence match up with the theory?
‘Natural selection’, that is, adaptation of organisms, was advocated by creationist scientists such as Edward Blyth even before Darwin, and has never been an objection to creation. Creationists simply argue that there are inbuilt limits to modification – distinct families of species which Genesis 1 speaks of as ‘kinds’ (or ‘baramin’ in creationist terminology). Darwin himself observed these limits in his breeding of pigeons, but hypothesised, against his own evidence, that it might be different in the wild. The evolutionists at the 1980 Chicago conference disagreed, recognising that large-scale changes simply cannot be extrapolated from the mechanisms of small-scale adaptation1. Cyclical variation of finches’ beaks, favouring certain genetic options which suit the changing climate, cannot prove microbe-to-microbiologist evolution. Genetic mutation is almost always destructive, as shown by repeated experiment, and natural selection is a mechanism for ‘genus stasis’ rather than ‘genome building’. Instead, there must be some other mechanism for creating new species, as yet unknown. Since creationists and evolutionists both affirm modification, just two basic distinguishing principles of Secular Genesis remain: common descent and uniformitarianism.
2) Common Descent
Darwin proposed the idea of a ‘Tree of Life’ – that all living organisms descend from a single common ancestor – but his theory has now been undermined decisively by further evidence from palaeontology (fossils), biology, and genetics.
(a) To start with the fossil evidence, Darwin predicted that in time there would be increasing numbers of transitional fossils found between the various ‘branches’ of the family tree of fossils. Even though many new varieties of fossils are being found, some of which have features in common with more than one existing species (comparable to the duck-billed platypus), the overall picture clearly disproves the idea of gradual change from one species to another. Instead, species appear suddenly in the fossil record without predecessors, show little or no change throughout their history, and either disappear just as suddenly or else continue unchanged to the present day, known as ‘living fossils’. Rejecting the excuse that we do not yet have enough evidence, the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould suggested an alternative model of ‘punctuated equilibrium’2 – millions of years with only very limited variation, punctuated by dramatic climatic changes and the rapid appearance of completely new ecosystems and associated species. To apply this to the ‘tree of life’ metaphor, it is as if new branches have suddenly appeared some distance away from the trunk, connected to it by some invisibly thin (i.e. hyper-speedy) biological mechanism too fast to be observed. The creationist solution to this problem is to suggest that the disembodied branch is actually just a partial view of a different tree altogether. Rather than segments of a single tree, we might instead be seeing a cross-section view of an orchard – numerous common ancestors, or ‘kinds’, each with their own narrow cluster of branches.
(b) Biologists and palaeontologists tend to use morphology to trace branches of the ‘tree of life’, comparing similar forms in different organisms (e.g. hands/paws/flippers) to prove that they are biologically related to each other. Since both evolutionists and creationists accept that organisms have diversified into multiple species, both enjoy using morphology to piece together the puzzle of either one tree or many trees. Science textbooks often use sequences of pictures to ‘prove’ common descent of animals that now look very different (e.g. the famous ape-to-human sequence), and the fact that Great Danes and Chihuahuas are cousins makes this plausible in theory. However, visual or morphological similarity simply cannot prove common descent. It is possible to build up quite a list of remarkable ‘lookalikes’ among marsupials and placental mammals, despite the fact that evolutionists do not believe these to result from common descent. Likewise, particular features such as the eye seem to have evolved independently in several different evolutionary branches, commonly called ‘convergence’. If this is the case for a handful of features, there is no reason why it could not apply to many others too. A common designer is an equally (if not more) logical explanation for repeated appearance of good design features in different ‘kinds’.
(c) Thirdly, evidence from the rapidly expanding field of genetics – including ‘horizontal transfer’, ‘ORFan genes’, and genetic codes – demands a significant reconceptualising of the ‘tree of life’:
i) Geneticists expected that sequenced genomes would show clear evidence of lineage, but as with convergence in morphology, genomes seem to share large amounts of genes regardless of evolutionary ‘lineage’. This is explained as frequent ‘horizontal transfer’, or swapping of genes between organisms in different evolutionary branches. Some scholars even wonder whether the better solution might be to speak of the tree as a tangled briar, the lineages impossible to recognise, or even a mangrove with multiple roots and multiple branches3. Shared genes cannot prove common descent, whether one compares humans with chimpanzees or with bananas.
ii) Every sequenced genome contains a large proportion of genes unique to that particular group of organisms (about 30%), called ‘ORFan genes’. If all organisms share a common ancestor, we would expect that as more genomes are sequenced, more of these unique genes would be discovered shared with other organisms too. However, the proportion in each new genome sequenced seems to be staying fairly constant, increasingly undermining the idea of a common ancestor.
iii) The National Centre for Biotechnology Information currently lists eighteen distinguishable genetic codes used by living organisms, which J. Craig Venter sees as evidence against the idea of a single common ancestor at the base of a ‘tree of life’4.
It appears, then, that evidence from fossils, ‘convergence’, and genetics are all consistent with an orchard of created kinds. Each original kind (‘baramin’) allowed new species to develop to a limited extent through adaptation, selecting particular features already contained in their original genetic code, while also suffering the invariably damaging effects of random mutation. That does raise the question of the origins of life itself, which would have to have begun on quite a number of separate occasions if there were in fact multiple common ancestors. The incredible complexity discovered by genetics in even the ‘earliest’ or most ‘primitive’ forms of life makes it truly miraculous that all of the components of life appeared spontaneously from inanimate matter even once, let alone multiple times. Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of DNA, even proposed ‘directed panspermia’ – that life originally arrived on earth, fully functioning, in an alien rocket ship. Why intelligent aliens should be a more ‘scientific’ explanation than an intelligent Creator God, I cannot tell. If all the diverse species of life had many points of origin rather than one, and if new species have always arrived suddenly rather than gradually, this would drastically reduce the time needed for life to develop to its present state, were it not for the third principle of Secular Genesis – uniformitarianism. This will be addressed in the next post, along with some principles of Biblical Genesis.
- 1. Roger Lewin, “Evolutionary theory under fire”, Science 210 / 4472 (1980): pp. 883-887.
- 2. Ibid.
- 3. Elizabeth Pennisi, “Is it time to uproot the tree of life?”, Science 284 / 5418 (1999): pp. 1305–1307.
- 4. http://thesciencenetwork.org/programs/the-great-debate-what-is-life/what-is-life-panel