Evolutionary Confusion

THOMAS W. CASE

The trouble with evolution as an account of the way things work is that, if it is wrong, then a Creator must exist. There is no way around it. No wonder atheists are frightened.

Every so often popularizers of science like Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge show up on television to inform us that evolution is not just a theory but a fact. They are friendly, boyishly enthusiastic, and just a little patronizing. "We are the experts," they seem to say, "and, as you can see, we are calm and reasonable. Listen to us."

Why is it necessary for these men to get up on a stage and sell us on the truth of something every schoolboy knows? Nearly everyone has seen textbook pictures of a "pro-avian" with fringy scales gliding through the trees; a hairy, hunched-over Neanderthal tossing a log on the fire; or that ancient little horse growing by smooth evolutionary stages into a big modern horse. What is the need for such periodic reminders of a doctrine etched in stone?

Mild-mannered as these pundits are, it sometimes seems they "protest too much." Are they afraid of something?

Off-stage, out of camera range, is heard a shrill cacophony. We viewers of "Nature" or "Wild America" do not hear it, but I think Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould hear it. It is a disconcerting noise, a clash of rude voices, often belonging to fierce believers in that Old Time Religion. The voices say distressing things like "the evolutionary hypothesis" as if evolution were only an addle-brained idea dreamed up by strange little men in white smocks. They say "creation science" as if the two words went together like a hand in a glove when every right-minded person knows the phrase is a contradiction in terms. There is thunder in the distance, and it threatens these reasonable men who are used to basking in the bright light of pure science.

The trouble with evolution as an account of the way things work is that, if it is wrong, then a Creator must exist. There is no way around it. No wonder atheists are frightened. What a confusion! In courtrooms across the land scientific men are plagued by evangelical housewives, in museums Neanderthal Man begins to stand upright, and in the ivory towers a cadre of creationist biologists begins to make noise. It is the Scopes trial all over again, only now some of the science teachers have gone over to the side of the Bible-bangers.

Let us first try to straighten out some of the confusion. Science has never necessarily been opposed to religious faith. Religion is not only the belief in things unseen, but rather, like science, it seeks the truth of all things. It makes inferences from the seen to the unseen, just like science. (Can you see gravity? Can you see quarks?) Religion examines the evidence, just like science. If Moses one fine day some 3200 years ago climbed a mountain and saw a bush that burned but did not burn up, we can be certain he made an inference that something extraordinary was happening. He inferred that he was looking on an event that was outside the usual ways of nature.

Here is where the confusion starts. Moses made a reasonable inference based on the evidence. What he inferred was a miracle. But twentieth century science, and nineteenth century science, and most science since the eighteenth century, has decided that miracles cannot happen. The "scientific" reasoning goes something like this: the universe is the totality of reality, and the universe is ordered by the laws of space and time. Therefore, if anything happens that seems to break those laws, or explodes the limits of space and time, that event cannot have happened. Or if it happened, it must somehow be explained differently from what a reasonable inference would conclude. It must be explained "naturally," even if it seems terribly unnatural. Is this value-free science, or is this science with an agenda? If your doctrine insists that there is nothing, especially that there is no cause, outside the "space-time continuum," and then something happens that to the logical observer goes beyond those limits, is it more scientific to reject the evidence in order to retain the doctrine, or is it more scientific to modify the doctrine in light of the evidence?

This first sort of confusion is on the way to being cleared up. The debate is not between science (logical) and religion (illogical). The debate is really about whether a certain scientific theory is true or not. If it is true, religion will have to accept it, since religion seeks the truth. If it is not true, present-day science will have to modify itself, since science seeks the truth. This is of course to grant both to science and religion a fundamental honesty not always found in the practitioners of either endeavor.

The talk of Moses and the burning bush may have thrown some readers off. The point to emphasize is that some things happen, or have happened, that may require a reasonable person to infer a supernatural cause, or in some sense an extraordinary and extra-natural cause, for that happening. For example, a happening like the origin and subsequent history of life on this planet.


What is evolution? It is the idea, or hypothesis, or theory, or — if you believe Stephen Gould — the fact, that all living things that exist or have ever existed on the earth have a common ancestor. The first living thing (presumably, a kind of ur-bacterium) has given rise, by way of biological descent, to the whole multitude of kinds and types of organisms that have come to exist since that first living being came to life. A shorthand definition of this process is "descent with modification."

A second sort of confusion results in the popular mind when this general notion is called "Darwinism." Darwinism, or as it is now called, the Synthetic Theory (or Neo-Darwinism), is not evolution itself, but the prevailing theory (in the West) of how evolution is supposed to have occurred. The Synthetic Theory assumes a random variation in living forms, caused by spontaneous mutations in the germ plasm of individual creatures, and the environmental selection of superior varieties, so that a new variety, through superior survivability, comes to replace the form from which it sprang. Its short-hand definition is "the natural selection of random mutations."

It should be made clear that the neo-Darwinian hypothesis assumes that chance events generate new designs. The cause of variation is random changes in the DNA of individual plants and animals, changes which in themselves are not directed towards any goal. It is the environment which acts in place of a "goal," by naturally selecting those random variations which are best suited for survival in a particular environment. There is no intelligence in the "selection." It is blind. It operates by way of differential rates of death and reproduction. The supposition is that a better-adapted new variety will on average have a greater number of survivors to the age of reproduction, reproduce more of its own kind than its less well-adapted forebears, and so slowly (or rapidly if the selection pressure is great) come to replace the old form. At least it will be preserved side-by-side with the old variety, in a different "ecological niche." (One must add this caveat since the fossil record shows in most cases a long term persistence of species alongside their hypothetical descendants.)

If one may for the moment set aside all other arguments against the neo-Darwinian hypothesis, the chief problem is simply that it does not account for the origin of new structures, no matter how these new structures are "selected for." How can chance engender a new design? Remember that this blind process must account for the origin of life from non-living material, and then all the increased complexity of life from the origin of prokaryotes to the origin of human beings. Prokaryotes are the simplest kind of cells; the gulf between these simple cells and complex cells (called eukaryotes) is greater on the molecular level than the gulf between amoebas and elephants. Evolution must account for the origin of nervous systems, respiratory systems, backbones, reptilian eggs, and feathers; and finally the human eye, immune system, heart and brain. Selective pressure, assuming it operates, can act only on already existing structures. Random mutation of genotypes (the DNA in the germ cell) can deliver up only corruptions of the original genotype. At their best (or worst) such genetic miscopies will logically result in monstrous offspring, such as a fly without wings or a baby with no brain. No matter how the genetic material is mashed up or manipulated (by nature or by human experiments), there is no accounting for the origin of new organs such as the first heart or the first lung or the first kidney, or even for the alteration and increased complexity of existing organs and tissues. Organized structures demand an organizer; and random tinkering cannot organize. It is as if you shot an arrow at a barn and by this act, repeated a thousand times, produced a cathedral.

In the last years of his life the eminent French philosopher Etienne Gilson took up the problem of causeless structural design:

One comes then to the notion of a teleology without final cause. Solely through the play of natural forces, such as the tendency to vary spontaneously, the vital concurrence brought about by the scarcity of the means of subsistence and the elimination of the less apt which results from it, the ill-adapted forms eliminating themselves, the best adapted replacing them, there takes place then a transformation of the former species and adaptation of the new ones to their conditions of existence more and more satisfying, without it being necessary to recur to the hypothesis of a causality of a particular type charged with directing the operation.

To speak the truth, it is hard to imagine the details of the operation. Spontaneous variations do not suffice to explain the initial structures, nor even the modifications of structure. Actually observable plants and animals can only subsist thanks to the accord of the parts of which they are composed .... The evolutionists themselves recognize that, in the formation of a species, the first steps are the most difficult to explain, but that there should occur an entire series of concurrent spontaneous modifications to the constitution of a complex organism, that is an occurrence concerning the probability of which one cannot but wonder. [1]

Neo-Darwinism (the how-is-it-done of evolution) is under attack these days on a broad front; it was never the prevailing theory among European scientists. In the United States, it is becoming more and more clear to biologists and paleontologists that neo-Darwinism provides an insufficient causal explanation for large-scale evolution. In England for the past three decades a scientific movement known as "transformed cladism" has been classifying organisms without regard even to the notion of common ancestry. In that country the general theory is itself coming under suspicion. In France the scientific community is in upheaval over the whole question of evolution. Paul Lemoine, professor of biology at the Museum of Paris has said:

The theories of evolution with which our studious youth was lulled to sleep actually compose a dogma which everyone continues to teach; but, each in his specialty, zoologist or botanist, takes cognizance of the fact that any of the explications furnished cannot stand, whether it is a question of documents furnished by the Lamarckians, by the Darwinists, or by subsequent schools which appeal to these two great names. [2]

The capsule definition of Lamarckism is "the inheritance of acquired characteristics." Its possibility has been denied by geneticists on the grounds that there is a barrier between the phenotype (the body of the organism) and the genotype (the germ-cell DNA) such that a changed phenotype cannot influence the original genotype; and therefore a bodily change during the life-time of a creature could not be inherited by its offspring. Only a modification of the DNA can be inherited. This axiom of genetic science remains, however, a matter of contention among some scientists but not in the United States. A more fundamental criticism is simply to ask how a new design or organ or structure can be "acquired" in the lifetime of an individual organism? An acquired callous cannot be extrapolated into an acquired backbone, heart, or small intestine.


Though evolutionists deny that acquired characteristics can be inherited, they often fall back on the notion when imagining certain transformations. A common enough description of how birds got their feathers, for example, goes something like this: "lizards in the habit of running and hopping or gliding from branch to branch in the trees would begin to have their scales shredded by the wind generated by such activity; after many centuries the scales on such creatures would turn into feathers." This is not only a taboo hypothesis in terms of genetic science (changes in the adult would have to be picked up by the creature's DNA and inherited by its offspring); it is an absurdity even if Lamarckism were a viable mechanism of change. Scales do not shred in the wind, and even if they did, a shredded scale is worlds apart from the intricate design of a bird's feather. Evolution literature nevertheless abounds in such fabulous just-so stories.

When such a revolution in biological thinking is taking place within the scientific communities of France and England, and to a lesser extent in the United States, it is unfortunate that in this country the battle lines are drawn between so-called religious fundamentalists and the neo-Darwinist scientific establishment, with the result that anyone, scientist or not, who rejects the neo-Darwinist hypothesis, is in danger of being branded a religious fanatic. At the same time neo-Darwinism, no matter how attenuated in form or speciously defended, assumes the status of a scientific dogma to be protected at all costs, lest the six-day creationists take over and we enter a new dark age of mythic fantasy For in the heated cultural arena, these seem to be the only alternatives; Darwinism or a mistaken literal reading of the Book of Genesis.

In point of fact there are a number of alternatives to Darwinism that preserve the general theory of evolution. (Remember that evolution simply means common ancestry.) There is the widely discredited Lamarckism mentioned above, and there are various forms of so-called "guided evolution" evolution guided, that is, by an extra-cosmic spiritual cause or alternatively by an intra-cosmic "elan vital." The question remains whether one of these alternative hypotheses is true, or whether common ancestry ("descent with modification") is itself a fiction. If common ancestry is untrue, the alternative must be some kind of one-time or periodic creation or it must be, as a subsidiary alternative to this, a creative process involving the timely manifestation of specific forms from presumably more generalized numinous archetypes. This would mean the genesis of newly appearing species from a spiritual dimension. To us, trapped as we are in the space-time universe, it would look like a series of creations ex nihilo.

If neo-Darwinism were the only mechanism available to drive evolution, a thorough discrediting of neo-Darwinism would leave the Emperor of Evolution without any clothes. But there seem to be as many hypotheses and variations of hypotheses as to the mechanisms of evolution as there are evolutionists to think them up. On the other hand, a successful demolition of common ancestry itself would render any critique of evolutionary mechanisms superfluous. (If the emperor himself does not exist, there is no need to clothe him or undress him.) Yet there remains a blending of critiques. If you say "evolution," and I say "how?," and you say "this way and no other," and I convince you that even "this way" is impossible — you, having fought and won all the internal scientific battles to arrive at the one true evolutionary mechanism, will have nothing left with which to undergird your theory.

This is why Stephen Jay Gould is so worthy of respect and criticism. He is a superb paleontologist and states accurately that the fossil record is full of huge gaps between the larger biological groups. The fossil record as it exists forces him to cast about for an evolutionary mechanism that remains conceivable given that record. I contend that his evolutionary mechanism — requiring major hereditary transformations initiated by chance mutations in a blink of geological time — is inconceivable.

A recent American theory of means — one that rejects the materialistic foundation of neo-Darwinism while retaining the general theory of common ancestry — is explored by Augros and Stanciu in The New Biology, published in 1987. This book promotes the idea of intelligent purpose and cooperation in nature, adding to that paradigm a close look at modern genetics. The central notion is that so-called "redundant" DNA long strings of hereditary material which seem to have no part in the design of the organism in question — could be the locus for purposeful new designs. This new engineering marvel taking place within the germ plasm would not manifest itself in the offspring until it was complete, a process which might take many generations. Then (the Angel of Evolution?) would throw a genetic switch, shut off the old genes and turn on the new ones, and the duck, say, would give birth to a beautiful new swan.

The problem with the Augros-Stanciu scenario is that of the "hopeful monster." It is true that the theory gets around the fact that in the fossil record there are no real intermediate forms: if all the changes are prepared within the DNA, and do not become manifest until a new type is ready to be born, then of course there will be no record of the transitory phases in the fossil record.


But the problem with a major transition taking place in a hidden manner is that sooner or later the new creature does indeed have to be born. And how will the baby swan (a "hopeful monster") survive in a nest of mallards? If it survives, with whom will it mate? How could it be born viable in the first place since one of its parent's genetic material will be so different from its other parent's? — resulting not in a new type of creature, nor even in a "hopeful" blending of characteristics, but in a horribly deformed creature, or more likely in no creature at all. An incompatible joining of male and female DNA will result in either a destructive miscopy wherever that incompatibility shows up, or a refusal to join together at all. The end result is infertility or a truly uncanny creature that would die aborning, or shortly thereafter.

The only salvation for this kind of speculation is for the "purposeful cause" to re-design the DNA in a very large portion of a population, all at once, so that many mothers and fathers would all at once be ready to give birth to the new kind of creature. Even then the notion is fraught with difficulty. Think of the supposed transition from amphibian to reptile, for instance. A hundred thousand frogs all of a sudden giving up metamorphosis, changing their uro-genital systems, trading in a moist skin for scales, revamping their whole life pattern and behavioral program, and manufacturing a brand new land-laid egg with its own interior and very complicated ecosystem. All in a single generation.

I say "a single generation" — because for a creature that lives part of its life in the water and part on land to change into a creature that lives all of its life on land, it must at some point, in one generation, make that switch. And at the point of that switch, all the physiological and behavioral traits necessary for life lived partially in the water would have to be traded in for those necessary for life lived entirely on the land. That is, all those changes noted above. There are some mechanical problems I think even God would have trouble solving through the pathways of biological inheritance.

The criticism of the "hopeful monster" idea applies not only to the Augros-Stanciu scenario, but also to any other "purposeful" alternatives, as well as to Lamarckism and to Stephen Jay Gould's still materialistic revision of neo-Darwinism. Gould admits that in all cases you have a fossil record characterized by long-term stasis of forms along with sudden appearances of altered or brand new forms. So any speculation about evolutionary means will have to involve some variation of the "hopeful monster" idea. (Since there is no fossil half-way between a shrimp and a starfish, evolution would have to make a jump — a "hopeful monster" sort of jump — from shrimp to starfish.) The same consideration applies to any imagined transition from one phylum to another, or from any lesser biological taxon (or grouping) to another. If the "hopeful monster" idea will not fly, and the fossil record is what it is, then all "how to" theories are demolished along with the general theory.

The Encyclopedic francaise (Vol. IV, On Living Beings), which is the French equivalent of our Encyclopedia Britannica, sums up the issue:

The result of this expose is that the theory of evolution is impossible. Basically, despite appearances, no one believes in it anymore and one says-without attaching any other importance to it-"evolution" in order to signify "a series of events in time"; or "more evolved," "less evolved," in the sense of "more perfected," "less perfected," because such is the language of convention, accepted and almost obligatory in the scientific world. Evolution is a sort of dogma which the priests do not believe in any more, but which they keep up for the sake for their flocks." [3]

The alternative I favor is not a general (one time) creation or a series of intermittent creations, but rather a series of manifestations from a numinous landscape where all things that ever were, are now, or are to be, are present in the mind of God.

It should be emphasized again that there is no third alternative. Either evolution is true, and all creatures come to existence through hereditary descent from other creatures (and the first creatures from inorganic matter), or evolution is false, and every different kind of creature has come to existence "ready-made" from a higher world than that bounded by the parameters of space and time. This is why the debate is so heated and so crucial. If science as presently constituted were to finally reject the theory of evolution, it would have to end its reliance on purely materialistic causes. It would have to entertain spiritual causes, and to that extent at least, it would have to become religious.

The Evolution Paradigm is in truth a biological cosmology built on the notion that living things can get bigger and better, more complicated and more intelligent, all on their own. If that notion is found to be groundless, an alternative theory requires a search for an utterly different cosmology. In that other, larger cosmology, one with a hierarchy of spiritual dimensions, all things are produced by causes that are "bigger and better" than the things they produce. In the realm of biological causes, "bigger and better" means spiritual, alive, potent, supremely intelligent.

May we return to the Middle Ages to find such a cosmology? St. Thomas Aquinas is called the Angelic Doctor, since he spoke so often and so well about the angels. He conceived of many ranks of angels, some closer to the Divinity and some lower down the scale towards the physical creation. Each order of angels contains in a simpler, purer mode the plants and animals, planets and stars, of the material universe ordered by space and time — the universe which is explored in its outward reaches by our telescopes and its inward reaches by our microscopes and cloud chambers. The spiritual hierarchies are on a higher level than all that. And yet they intersect our sensory universe everywhere, in a spiritual manner. Some of them are direct perfections of the species of plants and animals we see around us and in the fossil record. We will let St. Thomas have the last word:

The established order of things is for higher beings to be more perfect than lower; and for whatever is contained deficiently, partially, and in manifold manner in the lower beings, to be contained in the higher eminently, and in a certain degree of fulness and simplicity. Therefore, in God, as in the highest sources of things, all things pre-exist super-substantially in respect of His simple Being itself, as Dionysius says (Div. Nom. i.). But among other creatures the angels are nearest to God, and resemble Him most; hence they share more fully and more perfectly in the Divine goodness, as Dionysius says (Coel. Hier. iv.). Consequently, all material things pre-exist in the angels more simply and less materially even than in themselves, yet in a more manifold manner and less perfectly than in God. (ST I-I, 57,1)

The Dionysius St. Thomas refers to in this passage is most probably a Syrian monk of the fifth or sixth century. The early mystic's rich vision of an interwoven spiritual cosmos is completed by the 13th century Doctor of the Church. One should read that last quoted sentence again and again, and realize that what is invisible to our eyes is a world of many dimensions that contains us all, men and women and children, sheep and sharks and butterflies, in a higher, more splendid manner than we can ever imagine.


Endnotes:

  1. Gilson, Etienne, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution; tr. John Lyon (Notre Dame, Indiana: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1984), p. 84.
  2. Gilson, Aristotle to Darwin, p. 88.
  3. Quoted in Gilson, Aristotle to Darwin, p. 88.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Case, Thomas W. "Evolutionary Confusion." The Catholic Faith 4, no. 2 (March/April1998): 26-30.

Reprinted by permission of The Catholic Faith. The Catholic Faith is published bi-monthly and may be ordered from Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 591090, San Francisco, CA 94159-1090. 1-800-651-1531.

THE AUTHOR

Thomas W. Case is a writer living in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Copyright © 1998 The Catholic Faith




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