Problems With Darwinism
Rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based Hence the existence of materialist, reductionist and spiritualist interpretations. What is to be decided here is the true role of philosophy and, beyond it, of theology. -- Pope John Paul II, "Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Evolution," Oct. 22, 1996
Imagine you are the first astronaut to step out of a spaceship and set foot on the planet Mars. A short distance away you see three stones about the size of basketballs, spaced evenly apart in a straight line. They attract your attention, but only for a moment, because the line probably is -- indeed must be -- due to chance and means nothing.
Suppose, however, that there are nine such stones, spaced evenly apart, in a perfectly straight line. Do you still attribute the line they form to chance? Suppose, then, that from the stone at each end of the fine, two other straight lines of stones run off at right angles, and that these lines are connected by still another line, so that the whole set of fines forms a square. Now imagine that every stone on the edge of the square is connected to the stone on the opposite edge by a straight line of stones, so that the result is a checkerboard formed by stones. Can you still believe this is a matter of chance?
A certain type of mind is capable of saying yes, because it believes that the whole universe and all living beings in it came to be by random variations in matter and "natural selection." Those living beings that survived were the ones that by chance were best adapted for survival. Anything can happen if we allow X00,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000+ years for it to happen.
That there is random variation in the universe, and an enormous amount of it, is undeniable. Every human being now alive got here against the odds, because so many contingencies had to happen before any one of us could come into being. Most of what occurred in natural and human history could have turned out differently than it did.
But does that lead to the conclusion that we can explain the world and the creatures living in it by mere contingency? That is the question, and the only question, that I am raising here. I am not denying the evolution of species or contending for a literal interpretation of the creation narrative in the Book of Genesis. Nor am I even arguing here that evolution requires an intelligent and purposeful Creator. Those are valid and interesting issues, but they are not the issue I am addressing here. If there has been an evolution of all life forms from an original one, whatever the correct explanation of that process may be, I am asking only whether chance variation and natural selection can be an adequate explanation of that whole process. That living creatures can and do adapt themselves to changes in their environment is clear enough, but not that the entire living world can be explained in this way.
If it cannot, I do not mean to offer an alternative explanation, nor do I see why I must do so. The Darwinist theory of evolution either explains it satisfactorily or it does not. If it does not, then some other explanation is needed, and other persons more competent than I may (or may not) provide it. I want only to raise a question that is not biblical or theological or scientific, but metaphysical: Does Darwinism violate the principle that effects cannot exceed their causes or, conversely, that causes must be adequate to the effects they produce?
At least part of the stubborn insistence that Darwinism must be the correct explanation of evolution is, I suspect, that it is the only one that materialists will accept. There have been materialist philosophies ever since the rise of philosophy in ancient Greece. But they have gained in force since the rise of modern science in the 16th and 17th centuries. A couple of passages from David Lindley's book The End of Physics, will help to illustrate what I mean: [Sir Isaac] Newton mathematicized physics to turn the "tendencies" and "potentials" of Aristotelian thought into what we now recognize as true science, based on quantitative and precise relations between masses, forces, and motions. Numbers were needed to measure these quantities, so physical laws had to take the form of relationships between numbers -- mathematical laws, in other words ... . There is a temptingly simple explanation for the fact that science is mathematical in nature: it is because we give the name of science to those areas of intellectual inquiry that yield to mathematical analysis. Art appreciation, for example, requires a genuine effort of intellect, but we do not suppose that the degree to which a painting touches our emotions can be organized into a set of measurements ... . Science, on the other hand, deals with precisely those subjects amenable to quantitative analysis, and that is why mathematics is the appropriate language for them. The puzzle becomes a tautology: mathematics is the language of science because we reserve the name "science" for anything that mathematics can handle. If it's not mathematical to some degree at least, it isn't really science. Fair enough, if that is what you mean by science. It follows, of course, that science cannot deal with all subjects open to intellectual inquiry and cannot explain everything, but has a limited scope, and not necessarily the highest one. But the triumphs of mathematical science in the past four centuries have been so stunning that multitudes uncritically assume that if science cannot verify it, it isn't real. Or at least it isn't knowable, and belongs in the realm of poetry or myth.
This assumption turns not only religion but any philosophy that goes beyond the material into mythmaking and superstition. It also lends the enormous prestige of science to materialism, where matter is the real, and the real is matter. It thus enables materialists to dismiss any criticism or even questioning of their scientific theories as "unscientific."
Fr. Stanley Jaki, who is himself a scientist, says: "Most Darwinists, consider the scientific theory of evolution as a confirmation of the following: the process of evolution is utterly purposeless, there is only matter and motion; the universe is purely material and strictly uncreated; the human mind is a mere epiphenomenon of material processes." Given such suppositions, it is not so much that Darwinism confirms materialism, as that materialism leaves Darwinism as the only, or at least the best, explanation of evolution.
So we have Richard Dawkins, who holds the Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, assuring us that biology "is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose," but are in fact the unintended products of random minor changes in matter over very long periods of time. When it is objected that such changes, being small, leave few if any traces in the fossil record, he replies that "we know a lot more about animals and plants than Darwin did, and still not a single case is known to me of a complex organ that could not have been formed by numerous successive slight modifications."
That no one has shown that a complex organ could not have been formed by minor successive changes seems to be a weak argument. Lack of proof that something could not have occurred by a certain process is hardly a convincing reason for believing that it did occur in that way, especially when the evidence for it is lacking. This amounts to saying that unless you can prove to me that evolution could not have occurred by random variation and natural selection, I will take it as given that it did because, in the framework of scientific materialism, no other explanation is admissible. Incidentally, this also admits that the Darwinist idea of evolution via successive slight modifications is not an object of scientific observation but a hypothetical explanation.
Michael Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, argues that "the fundamental insight of modern biology is that life is based on highly specific complex interactions of molecules." Many cellular systems, he explains, are "irreducibly complex." Many molecules, that is so say, must come together and interact in certain ways before the system can work properly, or indeed at all. The components of a cellular system are intelligible only as parts of a system, and the system does not work unless the components are all in place and functioning in the right way.
The failure of so many modern minds to see the significance of Behe's proposition is the result of a philosophical inheritance with roots in medieval nominalism. It held that the class names (nomina) by which we deal with the world are only names, mental constructs by which we group individual substances for reasons of intellectual convenience. The only real entities are the individual substances, not any common natures that unite them. There is therefore no intellectually discernible natural order in the universe. For a nominalist theologian like William of Ockham, such order as we encounter is dictated by a pure act of God's sovereign will, to which we owe obedience because it is God's will, not because of its inherent intelligibility.
Later generations carried this idea further and reduced the substances themselves to their component elements, either in the laboratory or by mental analysis, then put them together again in the laboratory or in the mind. The parts thus come to be seen as more real than the wholes they form, and the quest for understanding comes to resemble the way in which we understand a machine, by taking it apart and putting it together again. It is not a great step to regarding the several species on the earth as results of accidental changes, which enjoy such stability as they have because of their ability to survive. As Stephen Jay Gould has said, the appearance of each species as it emerges is unpredictable, because the evolutionary process is not going in any predictable direction, but after it happens it is perfectly explainable. Or as journalist George Johnson puts it, "We can reduce downward, but cannot explain upward." The order of the universe is accidental and is intelligible only after the fact.
To return to Michael Behe, Darwinists explain the evolution of an eye that can see by beginning with the chance occurrence of a spot that is sensitive to fight and gradually, by random variation, evolves into a seeing eye. On the contrary, says Behe, "Modern science has shown that the 'simplest' eye-spot requires a cascade of protein molecules -- rhodopsin, transducin, rhodopsin kinase, and more -- which must interact with one another at the level of the cell to produce vision." Furthermore, they must interact in exactly the right proportion and the right way for vision to be possible. Behe concludes that "the interactive complexity of life's machinery fits poorly with a theory of gradual development."
Darwinian evolution is thus a constant process of getting more out of less without an adequate cause. It is not merely that the parts of an eye, and the complex molecules that compose them, are said to evolve by slight random variations, but that they evolve into an organ that did not exist as such before and is capable of performing an action (seeing) that was impossible before. An eye is not a mere sum total of parts in a new conjunction. It is an order of parts so intricately complex that it is questionable whether it is the result of a series of random changes which, by Darwinian definition, were not going anywhere except by sheer accident. Such a process far exceeds the chances of finding a checkerboard of stones on the surface of Mars: The more outruns the capability of the less, because the effect seems to exceed the given Darwinian cause or causes.
There is a further question to be considered: Is complexity all that needs to be explained? Darwinian evolution not only produces more out of less, it brings forth the higher out of the lower. But agere sequitur esse: Action follows upon essence. We know what a thing is by what it does, and therefore has the power to do. The nature (constitution, composition, inherent order) of a being is an interior principle or source of action. But some actions are higher in themselves than others, and they, too, require explanation in a theory of evolution.
The eye is the organ of sight. But seeing is an action that is new, distinct in kind, and does something that is not merely more than earlier organisms could do. It is something on a totally different and higher level of action, therefore of being. Can it be understood or explained simply in terms of the evolution of the organ?
I remember a Catholic of liberal views once asking me whether, if a television camera had been present at the resurrection of Christ it would have seen anything. There are several answers to that question, but the one that is relevant here is that a television camera does not see. It receives an image carried by light and transmits it to audiences around the globe. But the machine, being a machine, does not see. Only living, bodily creatures do that. They cannot do it without eyes and light to see by. But is the act of seeing reducible to the necessary conditions of sight? Or is it a reality for which they alone are not a sufficient explanation?
Your materialist will of course say that the necessary conditions are a sufficient explanation of sight; given the evolution of organs that make sight possible, living beings will see. Implicit in that answer, however, is a denial that evolution is a rising curve. There are no actions that lie beyond the capacity of purposelessly evolving matter. The movement is from simplicity to growing complexity, nothing more. Complexity makes new actions possible, but since effects do not exceed causes, they are actions that matter was always capable of producing, and they do not attain any higher level of being or action. All that was lacking was the development of the necessary conditions of the actions, which remain essentially on the same level.
In reply we may remark that while great oaks from little acorns grow, great mountains do not grow from little grains of rock that organize themselves from within. Self-replicating molecules are the elementary stuff of life; non-self-replicating ones are not alive. Plants reproduce themselves but feel no pain; animals both reproduce and feel pain. Higher animals are aware of an outer world through such senses as they have; a virus presumably is not, although it is a living organism. There is such a thing as animal intelligence, but it has several observable levels. Soaring above them all is human intelligence. All of these differences would seem to require some explanation other than the chance formation of the necessary organs.
The once famous Lucy, a chimpanzee, was able to order items of food and drink by punching buttons on an electronic board, but that is as far as she went. I have read that the differences between the chromosomes of chimpanzees and humans amount to a variation of only 1.9 percent. That certainly suggests a common ancestry of ourselves and our very remote cousins, the chimpanzees. It does not suggest that the difference between the two species is a slight one.
It is fashionable in certain circles to decry as arrogant the claim that man is superior to beasts. Stephen Jay Gould has said, "it is so arrogant of us to think of dinosaurs as unsuccessful because they are dead." They lasted far longer on this earth than we have so far done, he asserted, and we don't know how long we shall last. This makes sense if, but only if, success is measured solely in terms of longevity.
But there may be other criteria of success. Off the top of the head one can think of Mozart and Beethoven; Praxiteles and Michelangelo; Sophocles and Shakespeare; Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas (and let us throw in Hegel); Moses, Isaiah, and Jesus, not to mention the great names of non-Western cultures. No dinosaurs of which we have records rivaled them. The difference between men and dinosaurs, or even chimpanzees, is measured in light years, and is a difference in kind, not merely in degree. That only human beings use language that employs universal and common terms like nouns and verbs should indicate that.
But is the difference reducible to previously existing material causes? Sir Francis Crick, the codiscoverer of DNA, is sure it is reducible: "you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast multitude of nerve cells and their associated molecules."
This is sheer reductionism. When I was in high school, it was considered sophisticated to say that a human being is nothing more than 98 cents worth of chemicals. Apparently nothing has changed since then except that, at today's inflated prices, the chemicals would cost $19.98 or perhaps even $49.98. All things can be explained by analyzing them down to their material parts and the evolutionary process by which they have come to be arranged. On his own terms, the very thoughts by which Francis Crick and his collaborator discovered DNA were "nothing more than" the firing of neurons in their brains.
Darwinists speak of higher species "emerging" from lower ones by random variation and natural selection. Any other explanation, as Dr. Eugenie C. Scott asserted in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, is not science but religion. "Science," she said, "is limited to only natural explanations. Yes, theoreticians in this area rely on materialist explanations; they are doing science." But if "natural" is a synonym for "materialist," she is assuming that matter, whatever it may be, is a stuff of such kind that from within itself, by a process of accidental change and adaptation, it can produce the entire range of living beings on earth. Her science, it seems, rests upon a belief in scientific materialism that could qualify, by some definitions, as a religious faith. For she implies that non-living matter has the potentiality, given enough time and the necessary series of accidental changes, to become living, growing, sentient, and intelligent beings. This suggests that there is no real and unbridgeable difference between the living and the non-living, the sentient and the non-sentient, the intelligent and the non-intelligent. They are all simply different forms of the same thing and reductively are on the same level because there is only one level. That may not be a theory of a flat earth, but it looks like a theory of a flat biological world.
The Rev. Francis Canavan, S.J., is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Fordham, and the author of several books, most recently The Pluralist Game.
© 1997 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved. April 1997, Volume LXIV, Number 3. Reprinted with permission of the New Oxford Review.