Darwin Under Fire
A review by James M. Kushiner
In order of appearance:
By Design: Science and the Search for God
Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe
Doubts About Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design
Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing
Darwin’s God: Evolution and the Problem of Evil
Darwin’s Proof: The Triumph of Religion over Science
The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent
No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence
Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology
The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery
Designer Universe: Intelligent Design and the Existence of God
By Design or Chance? The Growing Controversy on the Origins of Life in
In 1959, Sir Julian Huxley, grandson of “Darwin’s Bulldog” T. H. Huxley, was in Chicago to celebrate the centennial of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Taking the pulpit of Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago on Thanksgiving Day, he declared that man no longer needed to “take refuge in the arms of a divinized father-figure” such as God. Evolution was the key to reality. The university’s “cavernous, Baroque Mandel Hall was packed for performances of an original showboat-style Darwinian musical, Time Will Tell.”
Here begins Larry Witham’s By Design, a history of “science and the search for God” in the twentieth century. Little did Huxley and the other celebrants know what time really would tell. With hindsight, it appears likely that 1959 will prove to be the high-water mark of Darwinism. After the festivities ended, continuing developments in science itself, from many quarters, would begin to threaten Darwin’s monopoly and, eventually, his theory.
Witham, an award-winning journalist on religion and society, points out the cracks in scientific orthodoxy that developed well before the intelligent design (ID) movement began in the 1990s.
As early as 1951 biophysicist Harold Morowitz was trying to find the cell’s “information content.” He eventually concluded that it was impossible for life to have arisen without some large infusion of information. Not a theist, he nonetheless created space for an Intelligent Designer.
At the Darwin centennial, naturalist Ernst Mayr and geneticist Sewall Wright could not agree on the mechanism of Darwinism (genetic change or natural selection), yet everyone swore fealty to “gradualism,” even though no one really knew what the gradual steps were. Gradualism was the crucial feature of Darwin’s theory, as it claimed that minute random steps, accumulated over time, eventually produced a wide variety of species.
Mathematicians using the newly invented computer soon threw a monkey wrench into gradualism. Witham recounts the 1966 debate at the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology in Philadelphia. Both Murray Eden of MIT and Marcel P. Schützenberger (later a member of the French Academy of Sciences) argued that it was “mathematically impossible for Darwin’s tiny variations to add up to a new organism.” Their opponents “could not explain the major gap in their theory: How does the random shuffling of a one-dimensional string of genetic codes create a highly coordinate multidimensional organism?” Eden and Schützenberger declared “this gap to be of such a nature that it cannot be bridged within the current conception of biology.”
Wider gaps appeared: The fossil record was not what Darwin predicted. Paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould created a theory of “punctuated equilibrium” to explain the sudden appearance of species in the fossil record and their relative stability over time. It was another direct assault on Darwinian gradualism. Paleontologists, but not the public, knew what the fossil record really showed.
Paleoanthropologists could not (and still cannot) agree on the supposed lines of human descent based on fossil finds. Louis Leakey’s son Richard “acknowledged his father’s tendency to alter criteria to make his fossils Homo, and said the Homo habilis category was ‘a grab bag mix of fossils; almost anything around two million years that doesn’t fit the robust [ape] definition has been tossed into it.’”
Witham also reviews the discoveries and emerging debates in physics and cosmology, especially as they inched closer to the “God questions” of purpose and design in the universe.
The understanding of science itself was also evolving. In 1958, chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi published Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, an effective assault on the myth of a purely materialistic and objective science. In 1962, Harvard physics instructor and historian Thomas Kuhn started a great debate among scientists by arguing in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions that, “far from being magisterial in its objectivity, science was conditioned by history, society, and the prejudices of scientists.”
Breaking New Ground
In the 1980s two books broke new ground. Charles Thaxton, who took a doctorate in chemistry with him to study with Reformed theologian Francis Schaeffer at L’Abri, Switzerland, was quite taken with Polanyi’s claim “that the information in DNA could no more be reduced to the chemical than could the ideas in a book be reduced to the ink and paper: something beyond physics and chemistry encoded DNA,” an observation that suggests an underlying intelligence at work. Together with Walter Bradley of Texas A&M and researcher Roger Olsen, in 1984 Thaxton published The Mystery of Life’s Origin, which was unique in that it laid out all the current origin-of-life theories and their shortcomings. Also, the epilogue became the opening shot for ID: As a “concrete alternative” it proposed “intelligent causation.” Mystery appears repeatedly in the footnotes and bibliographies of the ID books published in the last decade.
Then, in 1987, the second book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, by Michael Denton, an Australian biochemist, became a scientific bestseller, and the debate that had been kept mostly between scientists now became public . Though Denton was an evolutionist of sorts, he wrote that claims about Darwin’s tree of life did not match the evidence—and the crisis was that scientists could find no acceptable alternative.
Meanwhile, key relationships for the ID movement were being formed. Dean Kenyon, author of Biochemical Predestination in 1969, eventually lost faith in Darwinism and by the 1980s was supporting dissenting views. He wrote the foreword to Thaxton’s Mystery. In 1993, Kenyon, a tenured professor at San Francisco State University, “was stripped of his right to teach biology courses because he criticized some aspects of neo-Darwinian theory.” About a year later he was reinstated by a full faculty-senate vote after a piece on the affair appeared in the Wall Street Journal by Stephen Meyer, a young geophysicist.
Meyer had been influenced by Thaxton and was studying in Cambridge in 1987 when a mutual friend put him in touch with a Berkeley law professor on sabbatical, Phillip E. Johnson. Meyer put Johnson onto Thaxton; Johnson already had read both Denton’s book and Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker. Using his lawyer’s training in evidence and rhetoric, Johnson began a public campaign to unmask Darwinism as a fraud.
If T. H. Huxley was Darwin’s bulldog, Johnson became ID’s pit bull. In 1991 he published Darwin on Trial, which artfully exposed many of the cracks in evolutionary theory and became “a lightning rod for the origins debate.” In 1993 Johnson initiated a “smalltime Manhattan Project for the ID movement” at Pajaro Dunes on Monterey Bay in California, in which a group of young scientists met to strategize on how to break the neo-Darwinian hold on science. These men became the core of the ID movement. Among them was Meyer, whom Bruce Chapman of Seattle’s new Discovery Institute soon hired to head its Center for Science and Culture, which has been instrumental in the success of the ID movement.
A new generation of scientists, many mentored by Johnson, began to participate in public conferences presenting ID arguments, in some cases alongside the responses of orthodox Darwinist speakers. In 1999 Michael Behe, William Dembski, and Meyer spoke at a conference sponsored by the Wethersfield Institute, collected in Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe. In this book, they present what have become signature arguments for design.
Dembski applies developments in the information sciences to argue that “specified complexity” can be used objectively to detect evidence of intelligence in events and artifacts. Meyer deals with information-rich biological features, including DNA and RNA, which exhibit a level of complexity and specificity that could not have evolved through natural causes. Behe presents some of the material from his acclaimed 1996 book, Darwin’s Black Box, arguing that the “irreducible complexity” of some biological mechanisms suggests that they could not have evolved in small steps, since the imagined intermediate phases would not have been functional (survivable) mechanisms.
Behe notes that mainstream scientists often describe biological components as “designed machines,” and then asks: If they “strike scientists as looking like ‘machines’ that were ‘designed by a human’ or ‘invented by humans,’ then why do we not actively entertain the idea that perhaps they were indeed designed by an intelligent being?” Scientists don’t do so because that would “violate the rule,” stated baldly by Christian de Duve in his 1995 book, Vital Dust: “All throughout this book I have tried to conform to the overriding rule that life be treated as a natural process, its origin, evolution, and manifestations, up to and including the human species, as governed by the same laws as nonliving processes.”
By Design’s closing chapters on the Human Genome Project and the “mind and brain” debate also make it clear that the ID movement itself is part of a larger revolt against a science rooted in nineteenth-century naturalism.
The growing rejection of Darwinism was the natural result of honestly facing the findings of scientific research. While orthodox Darwinists and materialist science still dominate the scientific establishment, it is clear that a revolution has been in the making.
If By Design may be compared to a history of the forces and personalities leading up to the American Revolutionary War and its opening battles, Thomas Woodward’s Doubts About Darwin is a military history and commentary on the strategies of the opening battles. While Woodward covers some of the early history, he focuses on the rhetorical strategies of both design advocates and Darwinists. They “are constantly deploying stories” at two levels: one he calls “factual-empirical,” based on data and the interpretation of data, and the second “semi-imaginative,” combining fact and faith and appealing to the imagination.
Anti-Darwinists had to speak in a way that would make their heresy heard and not be dismissed. Denton “knew that his book must avoid the appearance of a pathetic, quixotic lunge. It had to be constructed in such a way that its tone, theses, and varied lines of evidence acted in concert to overwhelm and intellectually defeat the reigning orthodoxy.” It worked: “When the startled defenders of Darwinism began to sense the severe intellectual danger in Denton’s pummeling in 1985 and 1986, they unleashed a ferocious counterattack.”
Thus, with Denton, began the real ID war, and Doubts About Darwin devotes two chapters to Denton, three to Johnson, and one each to Behe and Dembski, analyzing in detail the rhetorical strategies of each.
Denton, for example, split Darwinism in two: microevolution and macroevolution, affirming the former but subjecting the latter—the evolution of all life forms from common ancestors—to a withering empirical investigation. Johnson focused on the philosophy of naturalism that is assumed by Darwinists, writing in Darwin on Trial what Woodward calls “an intellectually savage manifesto designed to overwhelm the opposition, to expose Darwinism as, in Johnson’s stigma-word, a ‘pseudo-science.’”
Others have joined in the revolt against Darwin, as shown in Uncommon Dissent, a wide-ranging collection of essays by “intellectuals who find Darwinism unconvincing.” The editor, William Dembski, is executive director of the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design. The contributors come from various religious (and nonreligious) and academic backgrounds, and include Johnson, Denton, J. Budziszewski, Nancy Pearcey, and David Berlinski.
The current debate is only the latest chapter in a long dispute, going back to the ancient philosophers, between materialistic and teleological views of creation, argues philosopher Robert Koons in his Uncommon essay. The burden of proof falls on those arguing for blind and purposeless forces as responsible for all life in the universe, a point he says was conceded by the “argumentative structure” of Darwin’s book itself. Darwin wanted to offer an alternative and succeeded in offering a “theory worthy of being taken seriously.” But it still needed to be proven. Darwin, in effect, “produced a stack of promissory notes for future theories,” none of which have been paid.
Cornelius G. Hunter, a senior scientist at a high-tech research firm, with a doctorate in biophysics, argues in his essay, “It would be far more accurate to view Darwinian evolution as a religious theory that has penetrated natural science rather than as a scientific theory that has impinged on our religious understandings.” The theory was “fueled by theological presuppositions” about how a creator should or should not make the world.
In Darwin’s God, Hunter helpfully summarizes the actual evidence for evolution, but his unique contribution is his discussion of evolution as “a solution to the age-old problem of evil,” arising from religious questions and needs. As naturalists discovered more about various species, nature appeared to be more malign than benign. Distancing God from creation appealed to them because they could blame blind evolutionary forces. Many evolutionists thought they had gained the advantage for evolution simply by discrediting divine creation.
In Darwin’s Proof, Hunter first argues that evolution fails on scientific, philosophical, and theological grounds. He then devotes two chapters to the Scriptures and general revelation, noting that the Bible itself seems to recognize the oddities in creation (Job 39:1–18) and also chastises man for his stubborn views about how the world came to be. He closes with a discussion and defense of intelligent design; a useful appendix gives “faulty arguments” for and against evolution.
Caution & Boldness
In The Design Revolution, Dembski takes on “the toughest questions about intelligent design.” Described by Chuck Colson as a “revolutionary,” Dembski exhibits a refreshing blend of both caution and boldness in his work. He is not afraid to point out what ID might succeed in doing—overthrowing Darwin—but at the same time has cautioned that some of the claims of ID may not hold up.
Revolutions are “messy affairs,” he writes. Successful revolutions go through several stages. First, the establishment thinks the new idea is preposterous and does not feel particularly threatened. Second, it regards it as a pernicious idea, and the gloves come off. Anything is fair in the defense of the established theory, including attacking the character of the dissidents. Third, the establishment allows that the idea is at least possible. Lastly, it sees it as plausible.
Dembski’s aim in Revolution is “to facilitate the transition of ID from stage two to stage three by giving supporters of intelligent design the tools they need to counter the attacks by critics of intelligent design.” Intended for “honest skeptics,” the book answers 44 common questions about ID, arranged under six headings: Basic Distinctions (What is ID? Is it creationism?), Detecting Design, Information (What’s the difference between information and matter?), Issues Arising from Naturalism (Does ID require a miracle?), Theoretical Challenges to ID (Is ID an argument from ignorance?), and A New Kind of Science (Is ID testable?).
In No Free Lunch, Dembski builds on his earlier book, The Design Inference, to defend the “No Free Lunch Theory,” a “collection of mathematical theorems proved in the last five years about evolutionary algorithms.” These algorithms depend “crucially on additional information not inherent in the algorithms.” This “additional information needs to be carefully specified and fine-tuned,” and is “always thoroughly teleological.” Dembski includes enough technical discussion for experts yet tries to make it accessible to the educated layman. His preface gives a helpful summary of each chapter and a suggestion of what to read (and skip) for “math phobics.”
Dembski’s most wide-ranging and accessible book is Intelligent Design, which appeared five years ago . It is a primer on the three aspects of ID: a scientific program that investigates the effects of intelligent causes; an intellectual movement that challenges Darwinism and its naturalistic legacy; and a way to understand divine action. He discusses miracles, the demise of British natural theology, problems with naturalism, design in creation, the interface between science and theology, the theology of creation, and objections to design.
In the last few years, the ID movement has expanded and its science has broadened. In The Privileged Planet, Jay Richards of the Discovery Institute and astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez challenge the modern orthodoxy that our earth is an insignificant speck in the universe, an average planet circling an ordinary star. Not only is our earth uniquely fit for life, it is positioned to give us the best view of the universe itself (hence the subtitle). For example, our moon produces solar eclipses that have enabled us to study the nature of the sun’s atmosphere, to test General Relativity, and to chart the earth’s rate of rotation.
In Designer Universe, Jimmy Davis and Harry Poe put ID into the context of history and cultures, as well as present a broad range of modern scientific data relevant to ID. Davis, a professor of chemistry at Union University, and Poe, the Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture at Union, begin by describing views people have had about design in the world over the last 3,000 years, including Hindu, Greek, and Asian views, pointing out that many cultures have assumed some notion of design. They cover in more detail various Western notions of creation and design, then give data from scientific discoveries that have prompted renewed interest in design. They conclude with philosophical and theological considerations, including beauty and the problem of evil.
Canadian science journalist Denyse O’Leary’s By Design or Chance? is a unique contribution to the literature. Aiming for the general reader, she covers the long history of the “growing controversy of life in the universe” with a generous supply of historical sidebars (e.g., a Scopes trial versus Inherit the Wind comparison chart), definition and quotation boxes, charts, and timelines. Unlike other treatments, hers also includes “creationism” and “young earth creationism,” as well as coverage of ID, multiple universes, Darwinism, naturalism, the Big Bang, and much more—all presented in a fast-moving, journalistic style. Some of it is entertaining, such as the debacle of Huxley’s mistaken identification of ocean-floor debris for some type of organism between life and non-life, perfect for helping to “prove” Darwin’s theory. But Huxley realized his mistake and in a private letter called the “organism” Blunderibus.
So will that be the fate of Darwinism? The history of science is not a smooth series of progressive steps. As in the actual fossil record, new theories (species) appear suddenly, some surviving and some becoming extinct. Darwinism may well prove to be on its way to extinction, and we may be around to see its demise. In view of the evidence (or lack thereof), as presented in these books and many others, that it has survived as long as it has says more, I think, about the mystery of man than it does about the mystery of life.
James M. Kushiner is the Executive Editor of Touchstone.
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“Darwin Under Fire” first appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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