Skepticism about Evolution

By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, December 3, 2009)

Skepticism about Evolution
I am skeptical of (at least) one sense of evolution. To explain, I will do the following: First, I will clarify several senses of “evolution”; second, I will specify the sense of evolution about which I am skeptical; third, I will set out some reasons for my skepticism.

1. The word “evolution” has several meanings, which, for the sake of clarity and truth, should be kept distinct.

Evolution can mean mere physical change over time, as, say, stars “evolve”—i.e., change—after they burn for a few million years.

Or evolution can mean chemical evolution, that is, a coming together of non-living material stuff to form the first living cell.

Or evolution can mean common descent, which means that all organisms have the same ancestor somewhere in the distant past.

Or evolution can mean, as it usually does mean, neo-Darwinian evolution, which is to say that, after the first life has begun, natural selection operates on random genetic mutation to produce the various complex organs and forms of life we now observe.

Or evolution can mean a combination of all of the above.

Moreover (to add a bit more complexity to the issue), each of the above meanings of “evolution” or combinations thereof can be understood either theistically (i.e., as guided by the Creator who created matter and its properties/laws) or atheistically (as wholly unguided and undesigned).

Furthermore (to add one last wrinkle), “evolution” can also be understood in a much more limited neo-Darwinian sense, that is, as micro-evolution, which is natural selection operating on genetic mutation merely to produce small-scale changes in an organism’s development.

An example of such small-scale or micro-evolution would be the changes in the beak sizes of the finches Darwin observed on the Galapagos Islands, changes which occurred as the type of available food changed. In contrast, an example of macro or large-scale neo-Darwinian evolution would be the production, via natural selection and genetic mutation, of the beaks of Darwin’s finches, and the finches themselves, in the first place.

2. I am skeptical of “evolution”—whether understood theistically or atheistically—when it means large-scale neo-Darwinian evolution, that is, when it means that after the first life began, the various complex life forms we now witness are wholly or primarily due to natural selection operating on random genetic mutation.

3. Why am I skeptical? First, I think that the arguments for large-scale neo-Darwinian evolution are not strong. Also, there are some claims from important scientists and philosophers, claims about large-scale neo-Darwinian evolution, claims that push me further in the skeptical direction:

“Molecular evolution is not based on scientific authority. There is no publication in the scientific literature…that describes how molecular evolution of any real, complex, biochemical system either did occur or even might have occurred. There are assertions that such evolution occurred, but absolutely none are supported by pertinent experiments or calculations.” Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box (The Free Press, 1996, 2006). Behe is professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania.

“We must concede that there are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical system, only a variety of wishful speculations.” Franklin Harold, The Way of the Cell (Oxford University Press, 2001). Harold is emeritus professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Colorado State University. According to Oxford University Press, Harold is “one of the world’s most respected micro-biologists.”

“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.” This is from a 2008 document titled “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism,” signed by 700 highly credentialed scientists. The list of scientists who signed this document can be found at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (click on “Dissent from Darwinism”).

The Center for Science and Culture adds: “The list is growing and includes scientists from the US National Academy of Sciences, Russian, Hungarian and Czech National Academies, as well as from universities such as Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and others.”

So, is it reasonable to be skeptical about large-scale neo-Darwinian evolution? I am inclined to think so.

P.S. I am inclined to think that it’s also reasonable to be skeptical about unguided chemical evolution, i.e., the purely accidental coming together of non-living material stuff to form the first living cell. But this is a topic for another column. See for starters my column “DNA & Intelligent Design” (March 26, 2009). See too Stephen C. Meyer’s recently published book Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2009).

P.P.S. For a fine debate between a highly-respected scientist and defender of large-scale neo-Darwinian evolution (Francisco Ayala) and a highly-respected philosopher and proponent of intelligent design (William Lane Craig), I encourage readers to check Apologetics315.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College. Van der Breggen’s views do not always reflect the views of his colleagues at the college at which he teaches. Some colleagues are young-earth literal six-day creationists, some are theistic evolutionists, and some are intelligent design proponents. Nevertheless, all are disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.)

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