The Genesis Controversy: Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Is Losing Support in the Scientific Community

Has it been duly noted that Darwin’s theory of evolution is dying? Not at the hands of fundamentalists; it is being killed off by the scientific community itself. The slow acknowledgement that the theory has died may prove to be an intellectual watershed more important than the ongoing demolition of Marx and Freud. No book has so profoundly affected the way modern man looks at himself than The Origin of the Species, first published in 1859. The notion that man is the result of a blind, materialist process which did not have him in mind is at the core of modern secularist thinking. If Darwin’s theory goes, we are in for what philosophers call a “paradigm shift,” a moving of tectonic plates, and a lot of intellectuals will be running for cover.

But it may be too early for the obituaries. Many scientists would rather cling to Darwin’s theory, in whatever baroque form, than face the implications of its demise. Darwin’s scientific detractors, moreover, are generally reticent about taking their objections public for fear of being labeled “creationists.” So the newspaper-reading public has not been let in on what the British scientific journal Nature recently called “the sharp dissent and frequently acrimonious debate” over evolutionary theory, while the armies of biology teachers, science writers, and public television wildlife hosts carry on as though there were no problem with Darwin at all.

So many myths have been spun around the figure of Darwin and the history of his theory that untangling them can be difficult. History, as they say, is written by the victors, and most encyclopedias, textbooks, and popular histories spoon-feed the prevailing Darwinian orthodoxy. So before examining the theory of evolution, it is worth looking at Darwin himself and how his ideas developed.

Charles Darwin (1809-82) was a dull, reticent Englishman whose large fortune allowed him to pursue a passion for studying nature. Although he claimed his work had no objectives other than scientific, it is clear from his private journals that his motives were no less metaphysical than those of the clergy who attacked him. Darwin was a materialist. He dispensed with a mild Protestant faith early in life and became increasingly hostile toward religion as he grew older. One historian has described Darwin as a “good Christian,” but this hardly fits the man who wrote in his journal in 1873:

I have lately read Morley’s Life of Voltaire, and he insists strongly that direct attacks on Christianity (even when written with the wonderful force and vigor of Voltaire) produce little permanent effect: real good seems only to follow the slow and silent side attacks.

Contrary to popular myth, Darwin did not hit upon his idea of natural selection while observing the animal life on the Galapagos Islands in 1835 during the voyage of the Beagle. The varieties of finches and other species he saw there merely gave him the idea that species might change over the course of time. This idea had been around since the ancient Greeks. The Eureka! moment came later when Darwin read Malthus’ famous (and discredited) “Essay on Population,” which held that population tends to multiply faster than food supply and that only the fittest will survive. Darwin took this “struggle for existence” among humans and applied it to plants and animals.

Malthus had wished to show that political economy was subject to the same sort of mechanical laws that Newton had demonstrated in physics. Dar-win had the same motive in biology — to describe the origin of life as the result of mechanical laws rather than the willful act of a Creator. Like Malthus, Darwin came up with a formula whose simplicity and seemingly taut logic gave it immense popular appeal: “natural selection” — to which he later appended Herbert Spencer’s phrase, “survival of the fittest.”

Darwin maintained that organisms produce off-springs which vary slightly from their parents and that “natural selection” will favor the survival of those individuals whose peculiarities (sharper teeth, more prehensile claws) render them best adapted to their environment. Darwinian evolution is a two-stage process: random variation as to raw material; natural selection as directing force.

Those Amazing Pigeons

Once he struck on his theory, he spent a great deal of time observing breeders at work near his Kent home. The opening section of The Origin of the Species is mainly about pigeons, which often surprises readers. He noticed that through selective breeding pigeons could be made to develop certain desired characteristics such as color and wing-span. He extrapolated from this observation the notion that over many millennia species could change — with natural selection acting as the “breeder” — into entirely new ones.

But a critical distinction has to be made here. What Darwin saw in the breeding pens is micro-evolution. Micro-evolution is the name biologists give to the small changes that occur within a species over time. Such evolution is common. People, for example, are generally taller today than they were a hundred years ago. The various finches Darwin saw on the Galapagos islands are another example of “micro” changes. Darwin went further, however. He said that over time, these micro-evolutionary shifts could gradually add up to macro-evolution, a change from one species into another, and that all plants and animals have descended from ancestors whose forms were entirely different from those we see today. Here we run into problems.

First, the fossil evidence. If Darwin’s theory is correct, the fossil record should show innumerable slight gradations between earlier species and later ones. Darwin was aware, however, that the fossil record of his day showed nothing of the sort. There were enormous discontinuities between forms. He accordingly entitled his chapter on the subject, “On the Imperfection of the Geological Record.” He hoped that future digging would fill in the gaps, which he admitted to be the “gravest” objection to his theory. Plenty of fossils have been dug up since, and they do not support gradual evolution. Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard biologist, calls this the great “trade secret” of modern paleontology.

The fossil record shows exactly what it showed in Darwin’s day — that species appear suddenly in a fully developed state and change little or not at all before disappearing (99 out of 100 species are extinct.) About 600 million years ago there was a sudden explosion of highly organized life-forms such as mollusks and jellyfish. Not a single ancestral multi-cellular fossil is to be found in earlier rocks. Niles Eldredge, head of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, writes that the theory of gradual evolution “is out of phase” with the fossil record: “We paleontologists have said that the history of life supports that interpretation, all the while really knowing that it does not.” Admits Gould, “Phyletic gradualism [i.e., gradual evolution] … was never seen in the rocks.”

What about those pictures in museums and textbooks, those charts showing how large horses gradually evolved from smaller ones, and so forth? These are artistic conjectures which are constantly being falsified as new bones are dug up. In effect, paleontologists find a fossil of an extinct species and make up a scenario connecting it with a later or earlier animal. But they never find the series of transitional forms which Darwin’s theory demands.

The famous series of pictures at the American Museum of Natural History showing the “evolution” of horses, the diminutive Eohippus slowly changing into modern Equus, has become something of a joke even among Darwinists. Eohippus remained Eohippus; it was followed by numerous species of horses, some larger, some smaller. The chart is nonetheless widely reprinted in textbooks and passed off as fact. John Bonner, a science professor at Princeton, says that textbook discussions of ancestral descent are generally “a festering mass of unsupported assertions.” The “ancestry” of man changes about once a decade as the few bits of hominid fossil are shuffled about. (For a lively discussion of this debate see Roger Lewin’s Bones of Contention [Simon & Schuster, 1987[).

Since the fossil record gives no evidence of the gradual transformation of species, the only other place to look is breeding experiments. But here the evidence also goes against Darwin. Breeders can change the color of a pigeon or the size of a cow to some degree, but they can only go so far. In fact, all breeders have the same experience: if they try to go too far in one direction, the animal or plant in question either becomes sterile or reverts back to type.

The most famous breeder of all, Luther Burbank, found no evidence of the unlimited plasticity of species which Darwin’s theory demands and posited a Law of Reversion to Average. The late Richard Goldschmidt, a leading geneticist who taught at Berkeley, spent years observing the mutations of fruitflies and concluded that biologists had to give up Darwin’s idea that an accumulation of “micro” changes creates new species. If you have a “thousand point” mutation in a fruitfly, a statistical impossibility, it is still a fruitfly.

The small changes we do see in species, such as wolves growing a heavier coat of fur to cope with a colder climate, tend to preserve a species rather than change it. As Robert Augros and George Stanciu point out in The New Biology, “adaptation” is simply ecological adjustment; it is not the source of new species. No one, then, has ever seen one species change into another either in the fossil record or in breeding experiments. Darwin himself was unable to come up with a single indisputable case of one animal changing into another via “natural selection.” His case was entirely theoretical; it rested on a chain of suppositions rather than empirical observation; the “facts” that he mustered were either made to fit the theory or were explained away.

The theory itself — “Natural Selection, or the survival of the fittest” — has been dismissed by many critics as an empty tautology rather than a scientific theory. Tom Bethell, writing in Harper ‘s several years ago, was not the first to point out that the idea of “survival of the fittest” is entirely circular. Who survives? The fittest. How do we know that they are the fittest? They survive. Jacques Barzun, an acute critic of Darwin, pointed out that this is like the character in Moliere who explains that opium causes sleep because of its “dormitive powers.”

It is an obvious truism that the “fittest” survive. The question is whether the “struggle for existence” is the mechanism by which one species changes into another. C.H. Waddington, one of the major biologists of the twentieth century, dismissed the idea of natural selection as “vacuous,” saying that it “merely amounts to the statement that the individuals which leave most offspring are those which leave most offspring.” What is needed, as Bethell pointed out, is a criterion of fitness other than “survivability.” Despite much verbal gymnastics, Darwinists have not been able to provide one.

Darwin presented himself in his writing as an open-minded, amiable naturalist sorting his facts and humbly open to objections. This image partly accounts for the enormous intellectual authority he exerted in Victorian England. He kept telling his readers, in effect, that he could be trusted, that he was only going by the facts: “I have steadily endeavored to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved . . . as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it. ”

But in reality he argued like a man in the grips of a dogma. He did not hesitate to get rid of embarrassing facts with ad hoc explanations — or no explanations at all. His method, as Gertrude Himmelfarb describes it, “was neither observing nor the more prosaic mode of scientific reasoning, but a peculiarly imaginative, inventive mode of argument … possibilities were promoted into probabilities, and probabilities into certainties.”

Confronting the whale, for example, which appears out of nowhere in the fossil record and which he, like all evolutionists since, maintained to be descended from land animals, Darwin was unable to explain how, for example, the specialized apparatus which allows the mother whale to suckle her young under water — which includes a special cap around the nipple into which the snout of the young fits very tightly to prevent it from taking in sea water — slowly evolved on land. All modifications would have had to take place before the first whale could successfully suckle her young underwater. Why would “natural selection” bring about such changes in a land animal?

Here’s how Darwin handles the whale (which presents many other problems) in the first edition of Origin: “I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more and more aquatic in their habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale.”

Darwin, in effect, proposed natural selection as a theory in need of proof and then used it as an a priori explanation for the origin of complex organisms. This circularity is for the most part camouflaged, although sometimes Darwin slips into locutions like, “In living bodies variation will cause the slight alterations.” To this day, no evolutionist has explained how an organ as complex as the eye, all of whose components — retina, iris, cornea, etc. — must be fully formed and coordinated for it to work, could have suddenly appeared, by biological freak and in a form developed enough to prove its “survival value,” on a slippery creature feeling its way around in the muck. As one biologist put it, “Since the eye must be either perfect, or perfectly useless, how could it have evolved by small, successive, Darwinian steps?”

This problem of accounting for intermediate stages, each of which, according to Darwin, must be useful to the organism, has been a major thorn in the side of evolutionists. As Gould puts it, “What good is half a jaw or half a wing?” In 1940, Goldschmidt published a list of 17 items — including hair, feathers, teeth, eyes, whalebone, and the poison fangs of a snake — and challenged anybody to explain how they evolved on a step-by-step basis. Goldschmidt was subjected to a savage campaign of vilification, but no explanation has ever been furnished. It should be recalled that Darwin himself admitted that his theory would break down “if it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications.”

There are other major problems with classical Darwinian theory. Among them are the fact that scientists see very little “struggle for survival” in nature (many species tend to co-operate and occupy ecological niches which do not compete); the fact that fossils show a few species in many groups (or phyla) have been replaced over millennia by many species in a few groups (which is the reverse of Darwin’s model); and that several species like the lungfish have not changed at all in over 300 million years despite important shifts in their environment (which flatly contradicts the constant fine-tuning Darwin attributed to “natural selection”).

Darwin himself was increasingly plagued by doubts after the first edition of the Origin. In subsequent editions, he kept backing off from natural selection as the explanation for all natural phenomena. Loren Eiseley writes in Darwin’s Century that a “close examination of the last edition of the Origin reveals that in attempting on scattered pages to meet the objections being launched against his theory the much-labored-upon volume had become contradictory. . . The last repairs to the Origin reveal … how very shaky Darwin’s theoretical structure had become.” Darwin’s unproven theory nonetheless had become dogma in the public mind.

Scientists v. Darwin

Yet, there was sharp scientific opposition from the start. As Swedish biologist Soren Lovtrup points out, most of Darwin’s early opponents, even when they had religious motives, “argued on a completely scientific basis.” In fact, in the decades following Darwin’s death in 1882, his theory came increasingly under a cloud. Lovtrup writes: “during the first third of our century, biologists did not believe in Darwinism.” Hans Driesch in Germany, Lucien Cuenot in France, Douglas Dewar in England, Vernon Kellogg and T.H. Morgan in America, biologists and geneticists with international reputations, all rejected Darwin’s theory during this period. Cuenot wrote that “we must wholly abandon the Darwinian hypothesis,” while the Dictionnaire Encyclopedique des Sciences dismissed Darwin’s theory as “a fiction, a poetical accumulation of probabilities without proof, and of attractive explanations without demonstrations.”

The great irony is that the Scopes trial in 1925, which the American popular imagination still regards as putting to rest the whole case against Darwin, took place against this background of general skepticism. The scientific issues were never properly discussed at the trial, and Clarence Darrow was able to ridicule William Jennings Bryan’s fundamentalist beliefs. A properly coached cross-examination could have made Darrow seem equally ridiculous defending Darwin. To this day, an aesthetic aversion toward Bible-thumping fundamentalists in the United States and England accounts for the fact that Darwinism remains a somewhat parochial theory. It is rejected, for example, by a large majority of French biologists, including the most eminent, Pierre P. Grasse, who says Darwin’s theory is “either in conflict with reality or else incapable of solving the major problems.” And French theologian Etienne Gilson was amazed by “the American tendency to take evolutionary Darwinism … for a phenomenon of planetary significance.”

Because of the obvious flaws in Darwin’s original theory, the so-called “synthetic theory” (sometimes called “neo- Darwinism”) emerged around 1930. This incorporated genetics, molecular biology and mathematical models. But the synthetic theory remained completely Darwinian in its identification of random variations preserved by natural selection as the driving force of evolution. Contradictory facts were explained away with soothing phrases like “genetic drift” or with mathematical models intelligible only to a small minority of biologists.

But as Waddington complained, “the whole real guts of evolution — which is how do you come to have horses and tigers and things — is outside mathematical theory; you are still left with the vacuous explanation of natural selection.” Genetics and molecular biology turned out to be no help, either. In Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Adler & Adler, 1986), molecular biologist Michael Denton demolishes the idea that natural selection could have produced at random the smallest elements of life — the functional protein or gene. And “to get a cell by chance would require at least one hundred functional proteins to appear simultaneously in one place,” which is outside the realm of probability. A cell is so complex, writes Denton, that it excels “anything produced by the intelligence of man.” It is also irreducible; a simpler “ur-cell” would not work. So how, asks Denton, could cells have randomly “evolved”? It would be like a volcano spewing out a factory.

In 1980, Stephen Jay Gould echoed the private sentiments of many scientists when he declared, “The synthetic theory . . .  is effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy.” Since the synthetic theory originally arose in response to the collapse of classical Darwinism, where does that leave scientists today? There are roughly three camps in America: (1) those who still cling to orthodox Darwinism on the grounds that no one has come up with a better explanation for the origin of species; (2) those (like Gould and Eldredge) who have concocted baroque refinements of the original theory, such as “punctuated equilibria,” in order to shelter it from empirical falsification; and (3) those, including a well-known group of “cladists,” who reject the theory altogether.

The tenacity of Darwin’s theory among scientists and educators can only be explained by its crude materialism. The biologist Julian Huxley, who was a kind of roving statesman for Darwinism in the 1940s and ’50s, claimed that Darwin’s real achievement was to remove the idea of a Creator from intelligent discourse. Huxley’s famous grandfather, T.H. Huxley, was more explicit; he claimed (wrongly, it turned out) that the great merit of evolutionary theory was its “complete and irreconcilable antagonism to that vigorous and consistent enemy of the highest intellectual, moral, and social life of mankind — the Catholic Church.”

The Evolutionist Faith

But Darwinism itself quickly became a kind of religion — a “metaphysical research program” in the dismissive phrase of Karl Popper. In their determination to rid nature at any cost of the principle of design, Darwin’s disciples still show every sign of being under the spell of a dogma, one which explains all phenomena by a single unprovable cause, natural selection. There is so much circumstantial evidence against natural selection as the cause of changes other than those within a given genus that belief in it requires a leap of faith — or, shall we say, ulterior motives. As biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy put it, “that a theory so vague, so insufficiently verifiable, and so far from criteria otherwise applied to hard science, has become a dogma, can only be explained on sociological grounds.”

To give up natural selection would violate the “teleological taboo” of modern scientific thinking. As Augros and Stanciu put it, “If evolution is not the product of random mutations and survival of the fit-test, then the production of new species is not a matter of chance.” In other words, it’s natural selection or a Creator. There is no middle ground. This is why prominent Darwinists like G.G. Simpson and Stephen Jay Gould, who are not secretive about their hostility to religion, cling so vehemently to natural selection. To do otherwise would be to admit the probability that there is design in nature — and hence a Designer.

The last line of defense of Darwinism is that nobody has come up with a better scientific explanation for the appearance of new species. And it is probably true that Darwinism will not entirely disappear until there is an alternate theory. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn writes that “the decision to reject one paradigm is always simultaneously the decision to accept another.” History is full of examples (including the Galileo affair) of what Kuhn calls the “priority of the paradigm.” Men will go to any length to defend a theory in the face of falsifying evidence, especially if they are professionals who have invested their careers in the reigning orthodoxy.

Is a new scientific explanation for the origin of species emerging? I asked one biologist, an anti-Darwinist at the American Museum of Natural History, and he told me that most anti-Darwinists are “agnostics” at this point. “All we know is that species reproduce and that there are different species now than there were 100 million years ago. Everything else is propaganda.” Other scientists, however, claim that research points to the possibility that an internal, “pre-programmed” genetic mechanism may cause “superfluous” DNA suddenly to organize itself into new forms. According to this theory, species do not

evolve into other species (an assertion supported by the fossil record), but rather harbor the seeds of new species which appear quite suddenly.

Interestingly, this new theory dovetails with the argument St. Augustine set forth in his commentaries on Genesis -that in the beginning God created all living things not immediately, but “potentially, in their causes.” God, according to Augustine, placed in His creation seeds -“rationes seminales “-which remained “in the hidden recesses of nature.” Augustine understood evolution in the strict etymological sense of the word -an “unfolding” of what is already there.

But Augustine’s real significance for Catholic thinking on this issue lies not in his scientific conjectures, which were sometimes far-fetched, but in his reading of Genesis. In De Genesi ad litteram he asserts that the account of creation could not possibly have been meant to be taken literally. And since Augustine, the Church has never subscribed to a literal reading of the first chapters of Genesis. Catholic thinkers have generally deemed the account of creation as theologically true, if not strictly factual — poetic compression of the truth, as it were. Darwin’s theory was never the bombshell for Catholics that it was for Protestants adhering to a literal reading of scripture. Darwin himself said that as a young man he had believed the “strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible” and lost his faith when it became clear that “science” disproved Genesis. He was not the last Protestant to do so. In Three Scientists and Their Gods (1988), Robert Wright, interviewing the Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, writes:

Like E.O. Wilson, I was brought up a Southern Baptist. Like him, I encountered the theory of evolution as a teenager. Like him, I was bowled over by its power and beauty. Like his religious faith, mine did not survive this encounter.

As is often the case, there is a reasonable Catholic “center” between the poles of scientific and religious fundamentalism. The Catholic response to Darwin was always measured and intelligent. Pope Leo XIII warned scientists not to be “overly hasty” in pro-claiming hypotheses as established results, but the Vatican never issued an official condemnation of Darwin’s theory and no scientific work about evolution was ever placed on the Index. In 1909, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, following Augustine and Aquinas, said that one is not bound to seek scientific exactitude in the opening chapters of Genesis. In his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, Pius XII, while pointing out correctly that the theory of evolution “has not been fully proved,” permitted “research and discussion … in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent matter.” But whatever the findings of science, Pius affirmed, Catholics must believe that “God intended, from all eternity, to create Man … and He took those means which He saw to be the most suitable to the purpose.”

While allowing what Pope John Paul II, who has a special preoccupation with Genesis, calls a “metaphorical” element in the creation account, we should keep in mind that the Book of Genesis has held up well under the scrutiny of modern geology and archeology. Twentieth-century physics, moreover, describes the beginning of the universe in virtually the same cosmological terms as Genesis. Roughly 18 billion years ago, space, time, and matter came out of nothing in a single burst of light exactly calibrated to bring forth carbon-based life. The so-called “anthropic principle” — that the universe was made for man to live in — is becoming a scientific commonplace. Biologists now tell us that life had its origin from clay templates (cf. Genesis 2:7), while geneticists assert that we are all descended from one woman (another embarrassment for Darwinists, whose scenarios do not allow for a single progenitor so late in prehistory).

We are obliged to believe that our first parents committed a primal act of disobedience whose effects we still suffer. This belief is, of course, entirely outside the realm of science. But it is worth keeping in mind Newman’s remark that the more he thought about humanity, the more clear it was to him that the race was “implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity.”

As Catholics, we should look forward to advances in science with enjoyment and confidence. And as non-scientific laymen, we should not hesitate to get involved in the debate over evolution. There is an honorable line of inspired amateurs — Samuel Butler, G.K. Chesterton, Jacques Barzun, Arnold Lunn, Norman Macbeth — whose common-sense criticisms of Darwin’s theory have often anticipated those of scientists. Nor should we leave popular science writing to people like Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould or the late J. Bronowski, whose charming expositions, in Stanley Jaki’s phrase, “mask a fierce counter-metaphysics.” These writers are masters of what Darwin called the “slow and silent side attacks” against Christianity. But they may be fighting a rearguard action against the dissolution of the nineteenth-century materialist paradigm.


  • George Sim Johnston

    George Sim Johnston is the author of "Did Darwin Get It Right? Catholics and the Theory of Evolution" (Our Sunday Visitor).

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