A public school science instructor recently contacted Discovery Institute to let us know that the required biology curriculum in the teacher’s district includes an inaccurate article from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). Titled “Why Teach Evolution?,” the article attempts to frame the debate over Darwinian theory as one of science versus religion. The article tells students that opposition to evolution is religiously based, and denies that there is a real scientific debate over modern Darwinian theory. It also makes fallacious objections to the Dissent from Darwinism list, signed by 900 PhD scientists and registering their disagreement with orthodox evolutionary theory.
I attended public schools from kindergarten through my master’s degree, and over the years I took many classes that dealt with the subject of evolution. I’m painfully aware of the censorship and false framing of the evolution debate to which public school students are subjected. My long-standing view is that students absolutely do need to learn about evolution, but they should do so in a complete, objective, and balanced manner, rather than having scientific challenges to Darwinism censored and caricatured as religiously based objections. So, I felt it necessary to write an accurate framing of the issue, which I hope will be beneficial to both teachers and students.
Why Is Darwinian Theory Controversial?
Everyone agrees that Darwinian evolution is a controversial topic. But not everyone agrees on why.
Many advocates of Darwinian evolution promote the stereotype that the theory is controversial only because a small religious segment of society has social, religious, or political objections. These advocates claim that there is no credible scientific disagreement with Darwinian evolution. This, however, is not true. The Scientific Dissent from Darwinism list shows that there is credible scientific dissent from Darwinian theory.
The Scientific Dissent from Darwinism List includes hundreds of PhD scientists who are skeptical of Darwinian evolution. The list shows that it is possible to hold legitimate scientific doubts about Darwinian evolution from a strictly scientific standpoint.
Of course there are some people who have religious objections to Darwinian evolution. Conversely, some people make religious (or anti-religious) arguments for accepting Darwinian evolution. Religion isn’t the issue here. The issue is whether it’s possible to be a scientific skeptic of Darwinian evolution. The Scientific Dissent from Darwinism List shows that it is.
What Is “Evolution”?
Whenever talking about challenges to “evolution,” it’s vital to carefully define terms, otherwise confusion can result. There are three common usages of the term “evolution”:
- Evolution #1 — Microevolution: Small-scale changes in a population of organisms.
- Evolution #2 — Universal Common Descent: The idea that all organisms are related and are descended from a single common ancestor.
- Evolution #3 — Darwinian Evolution: The view that an unguided process of natural selection acting upon random mutation has been the primary mechanism driving the evolution of life.
No one doubts Evolution #1, which is sometimes called “microevolution.” Some scientists doubt Evolution #2. But the Scientific Dissent from Darwinism list only concerns Evolution #3, also called Darwinian evolution or Darwinism. The scientists who have signed the dissent statement say this:
We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.
I defined Evolution #1 by equating it with “microevolution” — small-scale changes in a population of organisms. Collectively, Evolution #2 and #3 might be termed macroevolution, which is defined as follows:
Macroevolution: Large-scale changes in populations of organisms, including the evolution of fundamentally new biological features. Typically this term also means that all life forms descended from a single common ancestor through unguided natural processes.
Unfortunately, evolutionists sometimes purposefully confuse these definitions, hoping you won’t notice that they have overstated their case. They will take evidence for microevolution (Evolution #1), and then over-extrapolate the evidence and claim it supports macroevolution (Evolution #2 or Evolution #3). Indeed, sometimes evolution advocates will equate microevolution and macroevolution, the idea being that macroevolution is just repeated rounds of microevolution added up. I will address these inaccurate claims.
What Scientific Evidence Challenges Darwinian Evolution?
The signers of the Scientific Dissent from Darwinism List have many scientific reasons for being skeptical of Darwinian theory. In writing this, I do not intend to speak for any of them in particular, but the following section briefly lists some of the types of scientific data that are often cited by those challenging Darwinian evolution:
- Genetics — Mutations Cause Harm and Do Not Build Complexity: Darwinian evolution relies on random mutations that are selected by a blind, unguided process of natural selection. This undirected process has no goals. Being random, it tends to harm organisms and does not improve them or build complexity. As biologist Lynn Margulis, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences until her death in 2011, said: “New mutations don’t create new species; they create offspring that are impaired.”1 Similarly, the past president of the French Academy of Sciences, Pierre-Paul Grasse, contended that “[m]utations have a very limited ‘constructive capacity'” because “[n]o matter how numerous they may be, mutations do not produce any kind of evolution.”2
- Biochemistry — Unguided and Random Processes Cannot Produce Cellular Complexity: Our cells are like miniature factories using machine technology but dwarfing the complexity and efficiency of anything produced by humans. Cells use miniature circuits, motors, feedback loops, encoded language, and even error-checking machinery to decode and repair our DNA. As Bruce Alberts, former president of the U.S. National Academy of Science, observed: “[t]he entire cell can be viewed as a factory that contains an elaborate network of interlocking assembly lines, each of which is composed of a set of large protein machines.”3 Darwinian evolution struggles to explain the origin of this type of integrated complexity. Biochemist Franklin Harold admits in a book published by Oxford University Press: “There are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculations.”4
- Paleontology — The Fossil Record Lacks Intermediate Fossils: The fossil record’s overall pattern is one of abrupt explosions of new biological forms, and generally lacks plausible candidates for transitional fossils, contradicting the pattern of gradual evolution predicted by Darwinian theory. This non-Darwinian pattern has been recognized by many paleontologists. University of Pittsburgh anthropologist Jeffrey Schwartz states: “We are still in the dark about the origin of most major groups of organisms. They appear in the fossil record as Athena did from the head of Zeus — full-blown and raring to go, in contradiction to Darwin’s depiction of evolution as resulting from the gradual accumulation of countless infinitesimally minute variations.”5 Likewise the great evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr explained that “[n]ew species usually appear in the fossil record suddenly, not connected with their ancestors by a series of intermediates.”6 Similarly, a zoology textbook observes: “Many species remain virtually unchanged for millions of years, then suddenly disappear to be replaced by a quite different, but related, form. Moreover, most major groups of animals appear abruptly in the fossil record, fully formed, and with no fossils yet discovered that form a transition from their parent group.”7
- Neo-Darwinian Evolution Has Been and Continues to Be Critiqued by Mainstream Scientists: Everyone agrees that microevolution occurs. But mainstream scientific and academic literature is saturated with skepticism about the neo-Darwinian claim that microevolution offers an adequate basis for justifying macroevolutionary claims. Günter Theißen of the Department of Genetics at Friedrich Schiller University in Germany wrote in the journal Theory in Biosciences that “while we already have a quite good understanding of how organisms adapt to the environment, much less is known about the mechanisms behind the origin of evolutionary novelties, a process that is arguably different from adaptation. Despite Darwin’s undeniable merits, explaining how the enormous complexity and diversity of living beings on our planet originated remains one of the greatest challenges of biology.”8 A 2011 paper in Biological Theory stated, “Darwinism in its current scientific incarnation has pretty much reached the end of its rope,”9 and in 2012, the noted atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel argued in an Oxford University Press book that “the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false.”10 Evolutionary biologist Stanley Salthe likewise describes himself as “a critic of Darwinian evolutionary theory,”11 which he insists “cannot explain origins, or the actual presence of forms and behaviors”12 in organisms. Biologist Scott Gilbert has stated in a report in Nature that “[t]he modern synthesis is remarkably good at modeling the survival of the fittest, but not good at modeling the arrival of the fittest,” and evolutionary paleobiologist Graham Budd admits: “When the public thinks about evolution, they think about the origin of wings and the invasion of the land, . . . [b]ut these are things that evolutionary theory has told us little about.”13 Eugene Koonin writes in Trends in Genetics about the increasingly undeniable reasons to doubt core neo-Darwinian tenets, such as view that “natural selection is the main driving force of evolution,” indicating that “the modern synthesis has crumbled, apparently, beyond repair” and “all major tenets of the modern synthesis have been, if not outright overturned, replaced by a new and incomparably more complex vision of the key aspects of evolution.” He concludes: “Not to mince words, the modern synthesis is gone.”14 Because of such criticisms, Cornell evolutionary biologist William Provine believes the Darwinian claim that “Macroevolution was a simple extension of microevolution” is “false.”15
There are many scientific objections to Darwinian evolution, and again, this is not to say that any particular signer of the Dissent from Darwinism list makes any one of these specific arguments. Instead, I have simply indicated some of the common scientific objections to Darwinian evolution. In a subsequent post, I will address the question: “Is Darwinian Evolution ‘Just a Theory’?”
[1.] Lynn Margulis, quoted in Darry Madden, “UMass Scientist to Lead Debate on Evolutionary Theory,” Brattleboro (Vt.) Reformer (Feb 3, 2006)
[2.] Pierre-Paul Grassé, Evolution of Living Organisms: Evidence for a New Theory of Transformation (Academic Press: New York NY, 1977).
[3.] Bruce Alberts, “The Cell as a Collection of Protein Machines: Preparing the Next Generation of Molecular Biologists,” Cell, Vol. 92:291 (February 6, 1998).
[4.] Franklin M. Harold, The Way of the Cell: Molecules, Organisms and the Order of Life, p. 205 (Oxford University Press, 2001).
[5.] Jeffrey Schwartz, Sudden Origins: Fossils, Genes, and the Emergence of Species, p. 3 (Wiley, 1999).
[6.] Ernst Mayr, What Evolution Is, p. 189 (Basic Books, 2001).
[7.] C.P. Hickman, L.S. Roberts, and F.M. Hickman, Integrated Principles of Zoology, p. 866 (1988, 8th ed.)
[8.] Günter Theißen, “Saltational Evolution: Hopeful Monsters are Here to Stay,” Theory in Biosciences, 128: 43-44 (2009) (internal citations omitted).
[9.] D. J. Depew and B. H. Weber, “The Fate of Darwinism: Evolution After the Modern Synthesis,” Biological Theory, 6: 89-102 (December 2011).
[10.] Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012).
[11.] Stanley N. Salthe, Home Page, http://www.nbi.dk/~natphil/salthe/ (last visited Dec. 18, 2009).
[12.] Stanley N. Salthe, Analysis and Critique of the Concept of Natural Selection (and of the NeoDarwinian Theory of Evolution) in Respect (Part 1) to its Suitability as Part of Modernism’s Origination Myth, as Well as (Part 2) of its Ability to Explain Organic Evolution (2006), www.nbi.dk/~natphil/salthe/Critique_of_Natural_Select_.pdf
[13.] John Whitfield, “Biological Theory: Postmodern Evolution?,” Nature, 455: 281-283 (2008).
[14.] Eugene V. Koonin, “The Origin at 150: Is a New Evolutionary Synthesis in Sight?,” Trends in Genetics, 25:473-474 (2009) (internal citations omitted).
[15.] William Provine, “Random Drift and the Evolutionary Synthesis,” History of Science Society HSS Abstracts.
Image: Charles Darwin as a young man, by George Richmond [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.