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Creation/evolution debate gets front page airing in major U.K. weekly

7 November 2003

CMI’s Dr Don Batten comments on the published cover story on the rise of the dissent from Darwinism in The Spectator, 25 October 2003:

[The Spectator cover story] THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING LINKS

It is becoming fashionable to question Darwinism, but few people understand either the arguments for evolution or the arguments against it. Mary Wakefield explains the thinking on both sides

A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend, a man who has more postgraduate degrees than I have GCSEs [passes in subjects sat in senior high school university entry level exams]. The subject of Darwinism came up. ‘Actually,’ he said, raising his eyebrows, ‘I don’t believe in evolution.’

[Don Batten:] An appropriate way of putting it: evolution is a belief system. See Leading anti-creationist philosopher admits that evolution is a religion.

I reacted with incredulity: ‘Don’t be so [expletive] daft.’

‘I’m not,’ he said. ‘Many scientists admit that the theory of evolution is in trouble these days. There are too many things it can’t explain.’

‘Like what?’

‘The gap in the fossil record.’

Indeed. Prominent evolutionists have admitted the profound problem of gaps in the fossil record—see Are there any Transitional Fossils? (Luther Sunderland’s interview of leading museum paleontologists). Putting it another way, evolution has a huge problem in the lack of robust examples of transitional fossils (there are plenty of claims that do not stand up under scrutiny). See Fossils Q&A.

‘Oh, that old chestnut!’ My desire to scorn was impeded only by a gap in my knowledge more glaring than that in the fossil record itself.

Many never hear anything but the propaganda of the evolutionary establishment, so it is not surprising that dissenting views are viewed with suspicion, even contempt. Many, like Mary Wakefield, have accepted evolutionary dogma without critical evaluation, thinking that it is a scientific fact, so they regard anyone who dissents as a nutcase.

Last Saturday at breakfast with my flatmates, there was a pause in conversation. ‘Hands up anyone who has doubts about Darwinism,’ I said. To my surprise all three—a teacher, a music agent and a playwright—slowly raised their arms. One had read a book about the inadequacies of Darwin—Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis; another, a Christian, thought that Genesis was still the best explanation for the universe. The playwright blamed the doctrine of survival of the fittest for ‘capitalist misery and the oppression of the people’. Nearly 150 years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, a taboo seems to be lifting.

It’s encouraging that the modern creation movement has made an impact on many, in spite of the efforts of the mainstream education system and the media to censor such information. And it is true that evolutionary dogma has contributed to a lot of evil (see Morality and Ethics Q&A), including such things as the Columbine high school massacre—see Defusing bombs in public schools.

Until recently, to question Darwinism was to admit to being either a religious nut or just plain thick. ‘Darwin’s theory is no longer a theory but a fact,’ said Julian Huxley in 1959. For most of the late 20th century Darwinism has seemed indubitable, even to those who have as little real understanding of the theory as they do of setting the video-timer. I remember a recent conversation with my mother: ‘Do you believe in evolution, Mum?’ ‘Of course I do, darling. If you use your thumbs a lot, you will have children with big thumbs. If they use their thumbs a lot, and so do their children, then eventually there will be a new sort of person with big thumbs.’

The whole point of natural selection is that it denies that acquired characteristics can be inherited. According to modern Darwinism, new species are created by a purposeless, random process of genetic mutation. If keen Darwinians such as my mother can get it wrong, it is perhaps not surprising that the theory is under attack.

We at CMI wish people knew much more about evolution. Wakefield’s mother was a Lamarckian, not a Darwinian. We believe that if people understood evolution better, they would be less inclined to believe it! So does anti-creationist Eugenie Scott, cited in Where Darwin Meets the Bible—by anti-creationist Larry Witham (Oxford University Press, 2002):

‘In my opinion, using creation and evolution as topics for critical-thinking exercises in primary and secondary schools is virtually guaranteed to confuse students about evolution and may lead them to reject one of the major themes in science.’

We spend a lot of effort correcting misconceptions people have about evolution and what it means. Many of these misconceptions, for example, the idea that embryos trace the evolutionary ancestry of an organism, are perpetuated by evolutionary educators in schools, in universities and in nature ‘documentaries’ (see Embryonic Recapitulation and Similarities).

The current confusion is the result of a decade of campaigning by a group of Christian academics who work for a think-tank called the Discovery Institute in Seattle. Their guiding principle—which they call Intelligent Design theory or ID—is a sophisticated version of St Thomas Aquinas’ Argument from Design.

Actually, not all the IDers are Christians. Michael Denton is not and nor is Dr Jonathan Wells. The latter is a member of the ‘Unification Church’, the Moonie sect, which is not Christian. Also, the attribution of the modern questioning of evolution solely to the ID movement is rather a distortion of historical reality. Many biblical creationist groups, in many countries, have been active for many years in enlightening people to the truth of Creation. The ID movement has piggy-backed onto the foundational work done by many people.

Over the last few years they have had a staggering impact. Just a few weeks ago, they persuaded an American publisher of biology textbooks to add a paragraph encouraging students to analyse theories other than Darwinism. Over the past two years they have convinced the boards of education in Ohio, Michigan, West Virginia and Georgia to teach children about Intelligent Design. Indiana and Texas are keen to follow suit.

See Education Q&A for what actually happened or is happening in the school districts. Many of these achievements are quite trivial, sadly (for example, the insertion of a paragraph to say that ‘evolution is only a theory’).

They sponsor debates, set up research fellowships, publish books, distribute flyers and badges, and conduct polls, the latest of which shows that 71 per cent of adult Americans think that the evidence against Darwin should be taught in schools.

Yes, the vast majority of Americans want some sort of balanced treatment of the topic (see What do the polls reveal?), but those who have been responsible for getting evolution taught as dogma are not about to let this happen. I suspect that many parents in other once-Christian countries would like evolution to be taught in a more balanced manner that encourages critical thinking skills rather than blind adherence to dogma.

Unlike the swivel-eyed creationists, ID supporters are very keen on scientific evidence.

This is a gross distortion of the position of biblical creationists by comparison with IDers and it reveals a lack of philosophical understanding about the roles of presuppositions in the interpreting of evidence, particularly when it comes to matters of unrecorded history. See Creation: ‘Where’s the proof?’

They accept that the earth was not created in six days, and is billions of years old. They also concede Darwin’s theory of microevolution: that species may, over time, adapt to suit their environments. What Intelligent Design advocates deny is macroevolution: the idea that all life emerged from some common ancestor slowly wriggling around in primordial soup. If you study the biological world with an open mind, they say, you will see more evidence that each separate species was created by an Intelligent Designer.

More confusion. Biblical creationists accept that small changes occur but these do not add up to the major changes claimed by evolutionists. But we point out that it’s not a matter of small vs large changes, so we discourage majoring on the micro- vs macro- distinction.  The key point is the direction of change—evolution from goo to you requires changes that bring about new genes with new information, not lose information as observed changes do (see The evolution train’s a-comin’). We also accept that speciation can occur. We do not hold the view (and nor do IDers) that ‘each separate species was created by an Intelligent Designer’. However, we do not accept that the changes wrought by nature (e.g. mutations) can account for the voluminous amounts of information present in the DNA of living things. We believe that God created basic kinds of organisms that had the capacity to adapt to different environments, but that adaptation is basically limited to rearrangement of existing genetic information or downhill changes (loss of information). That adaptation can involve ‘speciation’ (breeding isolation). This view is consistent with all testable experimental science. See Information Theory, Mutations and Natural Selection.

The most prominent members of the ID movement are Michael Behe the biochemist, and Phillip E. Johnson, professor of law at the University of California. They share a belief that it is impossible for small, incremental changes to have created the amazing diversity of life. There is no way that every organism could have been created by blind chance, they say. The ‘fine-tuning’ of the universe indicates a creator.

Yes. See Universe finely-tuned for life and What is the Anthropic Principle?

Behe attacks Darwinism in his 1996 book, Darwin’s Black Box: the Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. If you look inside cells, Behe says, you see that they are like wonderfully intricate little machines. Each part is so precisely engineered that if you were to remove or alter a single part, the whole thing would grind to a halt. The cell has irreducible complexity; we cannot conceive of it functioning in a less developed state. How then, asks Behe, could a cell have developed through a series of random adaptations?

See Book review— Darwin’s Black Box: the Biochemical Challenge to Evolution.

Then there is the arsenal of arguments about the fossil record, of which the most forceful is that evolutionists have not found the fossils of any transitional species—half reptile and half bird, for instance. Similarly, there are no rich fossil deposits before the Cambrian era about 550 million years ago. If Darwin was right, what happened to the fossils of all their evolutionary predecessors?

Phillip E. Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial, hopes that these arguments will serve as a ‘wedge’, opening up science teaching to discussions about God. Evolution is unscientific, he says, because it is not testable or falsifiable; it makes claims about events (such as the very beginning of life on earth) that can never be recreated. ‘In good time new theories will emerge and science will change,’ he writes. ‘Maybe there will be a new theory of evolution, but it is also possible that the basic concept will collapse and science will acknowledge that those elusive common ancestors of the major biological groups never existed.’

If Johnson is right, then God, or a designer, deposited each new species on the planet, fully formed and marked ‘made in heaven’.

This is a distortion of Johnson’s view, as explained above.

This is not a very modern-sounding idea,

No, it is a very old, outdated idea no longer held by IDers or biblical creationists.

… but one whose supporters write articles in respectable magazines and use phrases such as ‘Cambrian explosion’ and ‘irreducible complexity’. Few of us then (including, I suspect, the boards that approve American biology textbooks) would be confident enough to question it. Especially intimidating for scientific ignoramuses is the Discovery Institute’s list of 100 scientists, including Nobel prize nominees, who doubt that random mutation and natural selection can account for the complexity of life.

Professor Richard Dawkins sent me his rather different opinion of the ID movement: ‘Imagine,’ he wrote, ‘that there is a well-organised and well-financed group of nutters, implacably convinced that the Roman Empire never existed. Hadrian’s Wall, Verulamium, Pompeii—Rome itself —are all planted fakes. The Latin language, for all its rich literature and its Romance language grandchildren, is a Victorian fabrication. The Rome deniers are, no doubt, harmless wingnuts, more harmless than the Holocaust deniers whom they resemble. Smile and be tolerant, just as we smile at the Flat Earth Society. But your tolerance might wear thin if you happen to be a lifelong scholar and teacher of Roman history, language or literature. You suddenly find yourself obliged to interrupt your magnum opus on the Odes of Horace in order to devote time and effort to rebutting a well-financed propaganda campaign claiming that the entire classical world that you love never existed.’

Here Professor Dawkins, vitriolic Oxford atheist, speaks true to form—verbiage replete with informal fallacies and deceitful debating tactics:

  • The illusion of guilt by (unsubstantiated) association—putting a subtle association in the reader’s mind with ‘Flat Earthers’, etc. (see Who invented the flat earth?);
  • Ad hominem attacks: calling people he does not like ‘wingnuts’ and ‘nutters’ and questioning their motives (‘well-financed’);
  • The illusion of guilt by cultural prejudice: ‘Holocaust deniers’;
  • Implied impotence—a helpless academic dedicated to the love of pure knowledge under threat by powerful forces—when in fact he has demonstrated extremely effective use of (and support by) powerful media outlets for his atheistic agenda. Many universities have Dawkins’ books, which are craftily worded polemics for atheism, as required reading for unsuspecting fresh-faced university students in their first year of study.

Ironically, Dawkins’ analogy rebounds on him. Creationists do not deny recorded history! It is Dawkins who denies the recorded history of the Bible and chooses rather to believe the materialists’ story that everything made itself by natural processes over billions of unobserved years. This story has no witnesses; no written records! This underlines the huge difference between evolutionary story telling that Dawkins equates with fact and experimental science which can be tested by repeatable experiments. See ‘It’s not science’.

So are all Intelligent Design supporters fantasists and idiots, just wasting the time of proper scientists and deluding the general public? If Dawkins is to be believed, the neo-Darwinists have come up with satisfactory answers to all the conundrums posed by ID proponents.

In response to Michael Behe, the Darwinists point out that although an organism may look essential and irreducible, many of its component parts can serve multiple functions. For instance, the blood-clotting mechanism that Behe cites as an example of an irreducibly complex system seems, on close inspection, to involve the modification of proteins that were originally used in digestion.

This is bluster, not fact. Behe has responded to simplistic arguments that the blood-clotting cascade could have evolved.

The bacterial flagellum, another one of Behe’s examples of irreducible complexity, has about 30 different very complex protein components that are novel; at most only about 10 components of the 40 could be conceivably co-opted from other functions. See also Recent discoveries prove that even at the microscopic level, life has a quality of complexity that could not have come about through evolution.

But then this underestimates the problem for evolutionists because Behe did not include the chemo-sensors and logic gates that control the direction of spin of the flagella to actually move in a given direction (towards food). Without this system, the flagella would not be much use to the bacteria, consuming resources and energy without any gain.

Matt Ridley, the science writer, kindly explained the lack of fossils before the Cambrian explosion: ‘Easy. There were no hard body parts before then. Why? Probably because there were few mobile predators, and so few jaws and few eyes. There are in fact lots of Precambrian fossils, but they are mostly microbial fossils, which are microscopic and boring.’

This is so far from the mark; a baseless excuse for the lack of transitional fossils. Precambrian rocks are replete with complex multicellular fossils, even jellyfish—so much for soft-bodied creatures not fossilizing! The Ediacaran formation is famous for its fossils of a rich array of complex organisms.

Likewise, palaeontologists say that they do know of some examples of fossils intermediate in form between the various taxonomic groups. The half-dinosaur, half-bird Archaeopteryx, for instance, which combines feathers and skeletal structures peculiar to birds with features of dinosaurs.

‘Huh,’ say the Intelligent Designers, who do not accept poor old Archaeopteryxas a transitory species at all. For them, he is just an extinct sort of bird that happened to look a bit like a reptile.

Yes, see What about Archaeoraptor and Archaeopteryx, which some evolutionists claim are ‘missing links’ between dinosaurs and birds?

It would be fair to say that the ID lobby has done us a favour in drawing attention to some serious problems, and perhaps breaking the stranglehold of atheistic neo-Darwinism; but their credibility is damaged by the fact that scientists are finding new evidence every day to support the theory of macroevolution.

A bit of elephant hurling here, an informal fallacy often used in argument. What evidence is this?

There is also something a little unnerving about the way in which the ID movement is funded. Most of the Discovery Institute’s $4 million annual budget comes from evangelical Christian organisations. One important donor is the Ahmanson family, who have a long-standing affiliation to Christian Reconstructionism, an extreme faction of the religious Right that wants to replace American democracy with a fundamentalist theocracy.

Unnerving to whom? Atheists and other God-haters? Now we have the writer taking lessons from Dawkins: guilt by association again, if indeed being an ‘evangelical Christian’ is something to be guilty about! Note also the use of loaded words such as ‘extreme faction’, ‘religious Right’ and ‘fundamentalist’. Isn’t Dawkins’ chair at Oxford largely funded by a wealthy atheist who would like to see Christians disappear from the face of the earth? Why aren’t Dawkins’ statements and motives also questioned along these lines?

There is a more metaphysical problem for Intelligent Design. If we accept a lack of scientific evidence as proof of a creator’s existence, then surely we must regard every subsequent relevant scientific discovery, each new Precambrian fossil, as an argument against the existence of God.

The writer obviously has not read the arguments for herself, or she would not have said this. This is also an elementary logical fallacy called ‘denying the antecedent’, explained in CMI’s response to Kenneth Miller’s book that she probably got it from.

It is not because of lack of knowledge that we can see that there must be a Creator, but because we do understand that we see that there must be a Creator. For example, a fairly full understanding of the complexity of the bacterial flagellum, the ATPase enzyme motor, the blood clotting cascade or the vertebrate immune system drives one to realize that such systems could not have developed by Darwinian/Dawkinsian small step-wise lucky accidents called mutations, because natural selection can only work on traits that have at least some function. If you remove just one of the 40 components of a flagellum it does no work at all, so there is no stepwise process to evolve it from no components. Period. More knowledge underlines the need for a Creator. Creationists do not believe in a ‘God of the gaps’ (‘we don’t understand it so God must have done it’).  But evolutionists are quite happy to believe in ‘mutation plus natural selection of the gaps’.

The debate has anyway been confused by the vitriol each side pours on the other. Phillip Johnson calls Dawkins a ‘blusterer’ who has been ‘highly honoured by scientific establishments for promoting materialism in the name of science’. Dawkins retorts that religion ‘is a kind of organised misconception. It is millions of people being systematically educated in error, told falsehoods by people who command respect.’

Dawkins is indeed paid to promote atheism; that’s what he spends his time doing: writing books and articles to oppose Christian belief in particular. He is the English archbishop of atheism.

Perhaps the answer is that the whole battle could have been avoided if Darwinism had not been put forward as proof of the non-existence of God. As Kenneth Miller, a Darwinian scientist and a Christian, says in his book Finding Darwin’s God, ‘Evolution may explain the existence of our most basic biological drives and desires but that does not tell us that it is always proper to act on them.... Those who ask from science a final argument, an ultimate proof, an unassailable position from which the issue of God may be decided will always be disappointed. As a scientist I claim no new proofs, no revolutionary data, no stunning insight into nature that can tip the balance in one direction or another. But I do claim that to a believer, even in the most traditional sense, evolutionary biology is not at all the obstacle we often believe it to be. In many respects evolution is the key to understanding our relationship with God.’

For a review of Miller’s illogical views expressed in his book, see Mutilating Miller.

St Basil, the 4th century Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, said much the same thing: ‘Why do the waters give birth also to birds?’ he asked, writing about Genesis. ‘Because there is, so to say, a family link between the creatures that fly and those that swim. In the same way that fish cut the waters, using their fins to carry them forward, so we see the birds float in the air by the help of their wings.’ If an Archbishop living 1,400 years before Darwin can reconcile God with evolution, then perhaps Dawkins and the ID lobby should be persuaded to do so as well.

This claim about Basil’s views is completely without foundation in what Basil wrote. He gave nine Lenten sermons on the days of creation in Genesis 1 called the Hexaëmeron (= ‘Six Days’). See Genesis means what it says according to great Church Father, Basil of Caesarea for direct quotations. Note what Basil said about day 5 of creation, when the fish and birds were created:

“And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life” after their kind, “and fowl that may fly above the earth” after their kind. … The command was given, and immediately the rivers and lakes becoming fruitful brought forth their natural broods; the sea travailed with all kinds of swimming creatures; not even in mud and marshes did the water remain idle; it took its part in creation. Everywhere from its ebullition frogs, gnats and flies came forth. For that which we see to-day is the sign of the past. Thus everywhere the water hastened to obey the Creator’s command.’ ( Homily VII:1)

Basil did not accommodate any form of evolution; he spoke strongly against such ideas (which were indeed around in his day, first recorded by atheistic Greek philosophers before Christ).

Basil’s words would be well heeded by the church today, including those in the ID movement who are Christians: that when the Bible says God created everything in six days, that is just what He did. The consequences for the Gospel of compromise with the long-ages that are part and parcel of the materialistic worldview are profound. See AiG’s views on the Intelligent Design Movement.

It has been said that “Information is power”. When it comes to creation information we’d have to agree. Keep the ‘powerful’ evidence for God being Creator coming. Support this site

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