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Book Review. Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul

David Roemer

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Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul
Kenneth R. Miller
Viking Penquin, 244 pp., $25.95.

Professor Miller coauthored a pro-Darwinian high school biology textbook bought by a school in Pennsylvania that had an anti-Darwinian board. In an ensuing lawsuit (Kitzmiller v. Dover), a federal judge ruled that the science of intelligent design (ID) is pseudoscience concocted to unlawfully promote religion. If another board of education makes their students read Only a Theory, it will be guilty of the same crime. These are Miller’s thoughts about the human spiritual soul and the purpose of life:

It would be an act of unbridled arrogance for us to examine the living history of this planet and pronounce ourselves, in Gould’s words, “the summit of life’s purpose.” Run the tape of life again, starting from the Cambrian or wherever one might choose, and it’s almost inconceivable that you’d get hairless bipedal primates with brains big enough to endow them with self-awareness, reflective thought, and calculus. (p. 152)

The terms self-awareness and reflective thought do not refer to observable phenomena. We can comprehend self-awareness because we can transcend ourselves and make ourselves the subject of our own knowledge. However, we can’t give the term an operational definition, to use scientific terminology. There is a poetical and circular definition: Self-awareness is the result of directing our attention inwards and catching ourselves, as it were, in the act of our own existence. The existential experience of self-awareness and reflective thought means humans are indefinabilities or embodied spirits.

In the method of inquiry called metaphysics, humans are finite beings and members of a category of being labeled rational animal. Since finite beings need a cause, there must be at least one being in the universe that is infinite (God). Since humans are equal to one another and at the same time different, humans are compositions of the metaphysical principles called matter and form. Matter or body is the principle that makes difference intelligible, and form or soul is the principle that makes equality intelligible. While biology textbooks don’t say so explicitly, it is understood that evolution only applies to the bodies of human beings, not their souls. According to the biologist Miller refers to above:

Catholics could believe whatever science determined about the evolution of the human body, so long as they accepted that, at some time of his choosing, God had infused the soul into such a creature. I also knew that I had no problem with this statement, for whatever my private beliefs about souls, science cannot touch such a subject and therefore cannot be threatened by any theological position on such a legitimately and intrinsically religious issue. (Stephen Jay Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History, March 1997, 13th paragraph)

Miller’s hypothesis that humans are self-aware because they have big brains is a violation of the scientific method. The end result of such materialistic/atheistic reasoning is that Miller doesn’t believe in the Bible or the Koran. The poor reasoning skills of many nonbelievers is another reason to believe in revelation.

Miller, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, would have us believe that biologists understand the evolution of complexity but can’t explain it to the general population:

The popular power of the ID argument rests on the ease with which one may point to any example of complexity and ask, “How come?” To prepare a cogent response, especially one that actually explains the evolution of complexity in an understandable manner, is beyond the popularizing ability of most scientists. And that means that the attacks of the ID movement place scientists and the scientific establishment in the pitiful defensive position of saying, “Trust us,” on such issues. (p. 43)

The problem the complexity of life poses to Darwinian evolution was raised in a paper with the subtitle, “Conflict between the idea of natural selection and the idea of uniqueness of the gene does not seem to be near a solution yet” (Nature, Vol. 224, 1969, p. 342). The “conflict” is alluded to in the textbook used by 65 percent of biology majors in the United States:

Each of the four identical polypeptide chains that together make up transthyretin is composed of 127 amino acids…The primary structure is like the order of letters in a very long word. If left to chance, there would be 20127 different ways of making a polypeptide chain 127 amino acids long. (Neil A. Campbell and Jane P. Reece, Biology, 2008, p. 82)

The evolutionary significance of such a number is explained in a book on facilitated variation that Miller praises and quotes at great length. After explaining that “skeptics of evolution” question whether there was enough time for selection acting on variation to explain life, the authors of this book say:

By comparison, if we question how long it would take a high-speed computer to write randomly a specific Shakespearean sonnet, we are asking that all the letters of the words of the sonnet will come up simultaneously in the correct order. It is an impossible task, even if all the computers in the world today had been working from the time of the big bang to the present. Even to compose the phrase, “To be or not to be,” letter by letter, would take a typical computer millions of years. (Marc W. Kirschner and John C. Gerhart, The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma, Yale University Press, 2005, p. 32)

Kirschner and Gerhart explain that natural selection is analogous to stopping the computer when it gets part of the phrase correctly, saving that part, and restarting the computer. Facilitated variation is analogous to programming the computer to generate only dictionary words. With such programming modifications a computer could reproduce by random chance “To be or not to be” in a short amount of time.

Getting back to Biology, Campbell and Reece never explicitly state that Darwinian evolution explains the complexity of life. In my opinion, they don’t make such a statement because most biologists agree with the following analysis of Darwinian evolution:

The theory sketched suggests something like a solution to the problem of how evolution leads towards what may be called “higher” forms of life. Darwinism as usually presented fails to give such a explanation. It can at best explain something like an improvement in the degree of adaptation. (Karl Popper, Unended Quest: Intellectual Autobiography, Routledge, 1992, p. 176)

Popper was a philosopher of science and based his views on the writings of biologists. The following quotes are supportive of Popper’s critique:

The result of this discussion is to suggest that we have perhaps been tempted to over simplify our account of the mechanism by which evolution is brought about. This mechanism—the evolutionary system, as it may be called—has often been envisaged as consisting of no more than a set of genotypes which are influenced, on the one hand, by a completely independent and random process of mutation and, on the other, by processes of natural selection which again are in no way determined by the nature of the genotypes submitted to them. Perhaps such a simplification was justified when it was a question of establishing the relevance of Mendelian genetics to evolutionary theory, but it can only lead to an impoverishment of our ideas if we are not willing to go further, now that it has served its turn. (C. H. Waddington, “Evolutionary Adaptation,” The Evolution of Life, The University of Chicago Press, 1960, p. 400)

The conventional theory of evolution considers adaptation and evolution under the same terms of reference, both to be explained by random mutation, selective advantage, differential reproduction, etc. However, in my opinion, there is no scintilla of scientific proof that evolution in the sense of progression from less to more complicated organisms has anything to do with better adaptation, selective advantage or production of larger offspring. (Ludwig von Bertalanffy, “Chance or Law,” Beyond Reductionism: New Perspectives in the Life Sciences, The Macmillan Company, 1969, p. 67)

Considered thermodynamically, the problem of neo-Darwinism is the production of order by random events. (Bertalanffy, p. 76, op. cit.)

Popper advocates a variation of orthogenesis to improve Darwinian evolution and Waddington promotes a variation of Lamarckism. Kirschner and Gerhart compare facilitated variation with orthogenesis:

Facilitated variation is not like orthogenesis, a theory championed by the eccentric American paleontologist Henry Osborn (1857–1935), which imbues the organism with an internal preset course of evolution, a program of variations unfolding over time. Natural selection remains a major part of the explanation of how organism have evolved characters so well adapted to the environment. (Kirschner and Gerhart, p. 247, op. cit.)

Kirschner and Gerhart refer to adaptation because claiming to have explained biological complexity would be overreaching. At least W. H. Thorpe would think so:

I think we are all agreed that it is the development of complexity, which in the animal series as a whole, seems to show a continuing trend; and this trend is one of the major problems of present-day evolution theory …And this again relates to the fascinating problems which are here and there ventilated in this book concerning the possibility that there is a non-random feature, perhaps at the very basis of the natural order, which may well have to be taken ultimately into account by biological theorists. (W. H. Thorpe, “Retrospect,” Beyond Reductionism: New Perspectives in the Life Sciences, The Macmillan Company, 1969, p. 432)

Kirschner and Gerhart don’t prove that facilitated variation explains the increase in complexity from bacteria-life forms to multicellular organisms, and they admit they can’t explain the complexity of bacteria. After mentioning the plans afoot to explore the solar system for clues about the origin of life, they say:

Everything about evolution before the bacteria-like life forms is sheer conjecture, so we start this narrative with the bacteria-like ancestor and its complex collection of biochemical and molecular biological core processes. (Kirschner, op. cit., p. 50)

According to ID, Darwinian mechanisms can’t explain the “irreducible complexity” or the “specified complexity” of living organisms. I recall my father showing me how our fingers become the same length when we make a fist. He was explaining how well-designed humans are and why God exists. ID advocates seem to be saying biological structures and systems like bacterial flagellum and intraflagellar transport are more complex than the human hand. Be this as it may, their argument seems to be no more than an assertion that life is too complex to have evolved in so short a time (three billion years) from Darwinian mechanisms given the small number of organisms that have existed.

On of the leading advocates of ID has an argument that strengthens Bertalanffy’s statement about the absence of evidence supporting Darwinism:

P. falciparum, HIV, and E. coli are all very, very different from each other. They range from the simple to the complex, have very different life cycles, and represent three different fundamental domains of life: eukaryote, virus, and prokaryote. Yet they all tell the same tale of Darwinian evolution. Single simple changes to old cellular machinery that can help in dire circumstances are easy to come by. This is where Darwin rules, in the land of antibiotic resistance and single tiny steps…There is no evidence tht Darwinian process can take the multiple, coherent steps needed to build new molecular machinery, the kind of machinery that fills the cell. (Michael J. Behe, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, Free Press, 2007, p. 162)

Miller’s rebuttal is deceptive:

In Behe’s view, these are examples of nothing more than a kind of “trench warfare” in which the two species have progressively disabled or broken parts of themselves in order to survive. Nothing genuinely new, novel, or complex has resulted from this struggle, and we shouldn’t expect otherwise. The reason, according to Behe, is that the sorts of changes we see in this well-studied interaction represent the limit, the “edge” of what evolution can accomplish. They can go this far and no further. A line in the sand is drawn, and the other side of that line is intelligent design.

How does Behe know where to draw that line? (p. 67)

Behe said that Darwinism fails on the other side of the line, not that intelligent design succeeds. The reason Miller pulls a switcheroo is that there is no disagreement between Behe and Miller about the science of evolution. The disagreement between them is the same as the disagreement between ID and mainstream science: Does the scientific method preclude explaining natural phenomena as acts of God or an intelligent designer?

In the opinion of the famous historian of science, Pierre Duhem, modern science began when the Bishop of Paris wrote a letter in 1277 condemning heresies based on the science of Aristotle. One of the heresies was that God could not create a vacuum. The Bishop of Paris knew that vacuums did not exist experimentally, but he and his advisors at the University of Paris could see no reason why vacuums could not exist. What this means is that reason and intelligibility are just as important to science as experimentation.

The big bang refers to the beginning of the universe 13.73 billion years ago as a homogeneous substance of great energy and density. The substance expanded, and protons and neutrons were formed one-millionth of a second later. Matter and energy has entirely different properties than the nothingness that preceded the big bang. I see nothing detrimental to scientific discovery to hypothesize that God created the big bang.

Even the existence of hydrogen atoms may be the result of a creative act by God. Unbound electrons and protons combined to form hydrogen atoms 379,000 years after the big bang. It is true that Feynman diagrams predict the properties of a hydrogen atom with remarkable accuracy: mass, energy levels, total charge, and size. However, the Feynman/Schwinger/Dyson calculations are dubious because of a lack of mathematical rigorousness. It may be that electrons and protons do not possess the potential to form hydrogen atoms. If this is the case, then hydrogen atoms must have been created by an intelligent designer.

What drove Richard Feynman (1918–1988) was the assumption that the universe is intelligible. A universe in which a large brain can produce free will and conscious knowledge is an atheistic fantasy, not an intelligible universe. The transitions from nothingness to matter, from nonliving matter to living organisms, from plants to conscious animals, and from animals to human beings meant the appearance of new and entirely different properties. To assume, without reason, that these transitions occurred because of the potentialities inherent in the antecedents is unreasonable and unscientific. It is reasonable and scientific to hypothesize that the transitions occurred because of God’s creative power.

David Roemer graduated from Fordham College in 1964 with a B. S. and from New York University in 1971 with a Ph. D. in physics. He became a science teacher for the New York City Department of Education in 1984, after working in sales and marketing for manufacturers of radiation therapy equipment. Since 1998, he has been working as a copyeditor and writer of science textbooks and ancillaries.

Read the entire article on the David Roemer website (new window will open). 2008 David Roemer.

Posted: 09-Nov-2008



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