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How to Talk About “Evolution”


An email correspondent says that criticizing Darwinian “evolution” and “evolutionists” is wrong-headed; not because he is a Darwinist himself — in fact, he is sympathetic to intelligent design — but because the public generally understands the word “evolution,” multivalent and ambiguous as it is, to represent a scientific fact. Casting the debate in terms of “evolution” is likely to get you dismissed immediately as a crank. Instead, we should frame our case exclusively in terms of design in nature against “accidental mutation/natural selection.” Or so my email friend argues.
Is he right? How, in fact, should we talk about evolution in a public context?
First, I don’t think there is any general opinion about evolution. It is misleading to think about this topic in terms of a “general population” or an “average person.”
Better to think of opinion as sharply divided. The professors, their students and many university-educated people believe one thing (evolution is a fact) and most everyone else is suspicious. They won’t believe in evolution if you tell them what the professors believe — that life in all its complexity assembled itself as a result of a series of lucky hits; that we live in a world of random changes that sometimes “coincide” with the environment (natural selection); and that’s how we got here.
To believe that, we first have to be blinded by antagonism to the normal, automatic recognition of purpose and design in nature. And for most people, this blindness has to be inculcated; by teachers, by the academy, by the culture.
As to the possibility of our reaching the professor group, the trouble with my correspondent’s design versus “accidental mutation/natural selection” formula is not that it is too wordy but that the professoriate have learned to accept that accidental mutation and natural selection can explain everything under the sun.
I have often wondered: What would it take for a biology professor to see some living organism, study it and then clap his hand to his forehead and say: “Wow, natural selection couldn’t possibly have done THAT!”
Answer: Nothing. They are locked into a materialist worldview, and they think that anything outside it is unscientific. They have already accepted Lewontin’s Law about the necessity of a “prior commitment to materialism.” They will look at any strange organism you may show them and say: “Well, it exists doesn’t it? How else did it get here, if not by gradual stages, bit by bit, starting with molecules in motion, finally building up to what we see in front of us? What other choice is there?”
In such a dogmatic environment dissenters wisely keep their mouths shut and upholders of the orthodoxy firmly close their minds.
Going beyond that, some of our better-known adversaries indulge in name-calling so mechanically that they may well have ceased to understand the issues. It’s as though they become unable to think about what they don’t want to think about. Those who resort to slogans like “ID creationism” often show no sign of understanding what the claims of ID are, sufficiently even to be able to restate them.
As to evolution, there are numerous questions. Here’s one. Has “indefinite departure from the original type” ever been observed? The phrase was first used by Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858. I don’t believe anyone has ever made such an observation. We know that organisms vary, but always within confined limits.
What evidence is given for it in The Origin of Species? We get disquisitions from Darwin on the variability of pigeons. But somehow they all end up as pigeons. The Origin, dressed up as a set of observations, is mostly an exercise in extrapolation. It is also a set of theological reflections, hinting that God’s way is less plausible than Darwin’s way. He says this much more openly and aggressively in his letters.
If pressed, Darwinians award themselves a billion years in which to complete their investigations. “Don’t be in such a hurry,” they say. “You want something right away? You’re a creationist!” The attitude of the most voluble Darwinians is thereby antagonistic to the scientific spirit. Nothing can shake them from conclusions they have already reached.
What about the evidence for universal common ancestry? It can be summarized by the word “homology.” To understand homology, think of the similarity of mammalian forelimbs.
But we have to be careful how we define it. Ernst Mayr tried to co-opt it by definition. After Darwin, he wrote, the most “meaningful definition” of homology was: “A feature in two or more taxa is homologous when it is derived from the same (or a corresponding) feature of their common ancestor.”
Jonathan Wells and Paul Nelson criticized this as follows:

What Darwin proposed as the explanation for homology became its definition. For many biologists, the post-Darwinian (or phylogenetic) definition of homology has replaced the structural (or morphological) definition.

These biologists hope to smuggle into their definitions what they should show in their demonstrations. It’s hard to believe that someone as highly placed as Ernst Mayr, resting on his Harvard laurels, didn’t know what he was doing.
We do find patterns in nature — nested sets within sets. But we also find them in designed objects — artifacts. Artifacts can, for example, be divided into moving and not designed to move; in the natural world, animals and plants might be the corresponding division. Movable vehicles sometimes possess a chassis, which is analogous to a skeleton (or a backbone) or lack a chassis (invertebrates). Many vehicles are four-wheeled (quadrupeds) and so on. You can reach the family level (GM), the species level (Chevrolet), and then different models of Chevrolet (“races”). Sometimes, these “species” even have “vestigial” parts (running boards you can no longer stand on).
You could take this analogy further. We have lots of extinct auto species (Packard), and a whole graveyard of fossil auto companies — take a look in parts of Detroit today. When a big new design idea is initiated, as in the invention of automobiles, there is an initial burst of creative radiation. That later gets consolidated into a smaller number of automakers.
Homology is real, in other words, but the concept of homology also applies to design.
Phillip Johnson was the first to point out the evolutionists’ most striking blunder in this regard. It became known as Berra’s Blunder. In his book Evolution and the Myth of Creationism (Stanford University Press, 1990) biologist Tim Berra wrote:

If you compare a 1953 and a 1954 Corvette, side by side, then a 1954 and a 1955 model, and so on, the descent with modification is overwhelmingly obvious. This is what paleontologists do with fossils, and the evidence is so solid and comprehensive that it cannot be denied by reasonable people.

But of course all the structural similarities that Berra thought illustrated “descent with modification” were created by designers. Berra, an Ohio State biologist, evidently forgot, or never figured out, that similarities do not exclude design. One Corvette can’t get another Corvette pregnant either. Put two Corvettes in a garage and come back a year later and you won’t find a baby Corvette alongside them.
Wells and Nelson:

In order to demonstrate naturalistic evolution, it is necessary to show that the mechanism by which organisms are constructed (unlike the mechanism by which automobiles are constructed) does not involve design.

Real fossils placed side by side don’t provide “solid evidence” for descent with modification. If they did, we would be able to work out its history by fossils. But we can’t.
The design explanation of structural similarity also has the advantage of not being beset by problems like convergence. In the many cases of convergent evolution, the Darwinian evolutionists admit, it’s not easy to claim “common descent” unless you go so far back into the past that they have to ignore many incongruent stages.
On the other hand, it’s easy for unrelated designers to “converge” in their designs by copying each other’s ideas. They just have to see photos of them or read about them somewhere. It’s not so easy for that to happen by blind chance. Patents and copyrights try to stop copying. Any sign of patents in the animal kingdom? No? Maybe that is because there’s only one designer, who has a monopoly.
Image credit: gin_able/Flickr.

Tom Bethell

Tom Bethell graduated from Oxford University and is a long-time journalist who has served as Washington editor for Harper’s, a contributing editor to Washington Monthly, and a senior editor at The American Spectator. He has written articles for many magazines, including Fortune, the New York Times Magazine, and The Atlantic Monthly. Praised by Tom Wolfe as “one of our most brilliant essayists,” Bethell is the previous author of The Noblest Triumph: Property through the Ages, Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher, and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science. He resides in Washington, DC.