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The Death of Darwinism
GEORGE SIM JOHNSTON
Even orthodox Catholics can get into difficulties when they try to reconcile the creation account in Genesis with what they suppose science has demonstrated about the origin of the universe and of living things. The unfortunate result is a kind of schizophrenia that deems the first chapter of Genesis to be both the inerrant word of God and a scientific embarrassment. In confronting a theory like Darwin’s, Catholics should anchor themselves in the proposition that there can be no real conflict between faith and science. The danger occurs when scientists trespass into theology, or vice versa.
No book has so profoundly affected the way modem man views himself than Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, first published in 1859. The notion that man is the product of a blind, materialist process which did not have him in mind is part of the intellectual air everyone breathes. Even orthodox Catholics can get into difficulties when they try to reconcile the creation account in Genesis with what they suppose science has demonstrated about the origin of the universe and of living things. The unfortunate result is a kind of schizophrenia that deems the first chapter of Genesis to be both the inerrant word of God and a scientific embarrassment.
In confronting a theory like Darwin’s, Catholics should anchor themselves in the proposition that there can be no real conflict between faith and science. The danger occurs when scientists trespass into theology, or vice versa. The Galileo affair is a sobering reminder of what can happen when certain parties in the Church resist a scientific hypothesis on a priori biblical grounds. If the congregation of Cardinals that condemned Galileo had paid more attention to Augustine and Aquinas, who both held that the Holy Spirit, speaking through the sacred writers, was not teaching a system of astronomy, the disastrous split which occurred between religion and science in the seventeenth century might have been avoided.
Darwin's theory of natural selection
Although it is seldom aired in public, there is a sharp debate among scientists today about almost every aspect of evolutionary theory. The controversy is not over evolution per se, but over the means by which it happened. The crux of the issue is not evolution, but teleology. Either life forms came about by blind chance or they did not. Darwin’s theory of natural selection is the only one available which purports to explain how Homo sapiens and other species are exclusively the result of natural forces. This is why the debate over Darwin’s theory, and not evolution itself, is so important. It is Darwin’s theory, moreover, and not another, which is taught in our schools. And the fact that most writing on the subject does not make the crucial distinction between “evolution” and “Darwinism” simply muddles the issue.
Although his name is synonymous with the theory, Darwin did not create the theory of the evolutionary origin of life forms. It had been broached by ancient Greek philosophers, speculated on by Saint Augustine, and developed into a scientific hypothesis by the French zoologist Buffon a century before the Origin. Darwin’s unique contribution was to provide a plausible explanation of how evolution occurred, one that was purely mechanistic and dispensed with God. This was his theory of natural selection.
Darwin’s theory in a nutshell is that organisms produce offspring which vary slightly from their parents, and natural selection will favor the survival of those individuals whose peculiarities (sharper teeth, more prehensile claws, etc.) render them best adapted to their environment. Darwinian evolution, then, is a two-stage process: random variation as to raw material, and natural selection as the directing force.
Once he struck on this theory, Darwin spent much time observing pigeon breeders at work near his home in Kent. The first fifty pages of the Origin are mainly about pigeons, which often surprises (and bores) readers. Darwin noticed that through selective breeding, pigeons could be made to develop certain desired characteristics: color, wingspan, and so forth. Darwin extrapolated from these observations the notion that over many millennia species could evolve by a similar process of selection, the only difference being that the “breeder” is nature itself, sifting out the weakest and allowing the fittest to survive. By this simple process, Darwin claimed, some unknown original life form floating in the primordial soup evolved and diversified into the vast array of plants and animals we see today.
But a crucial point has to be made here, one that has been made often by Darwin’s scientific critics. What Darwin observed in the breeding pens is micro-evolution. Micro-evolution refers to the small changes that occur within a species over time. Such evolution is common. For example, people are generally taller today than they were a hundred years ago. The varieties of finches that Darwin saw on the Galapagos Islands are another example of micro-evolution. With no direct empirical evidence, Darwin claimed that over long periods of time these micro-changes could result in macro-evolution, which consists of really big jumps — from amoeba to reptile to mammal, for example. This is where his theory runs into problems which are still not resolved in the minds of many scientists today.
No facile explanations
There are two places to look for verification of Darwin’s theory: the fossil record and breeding experiments with animals. 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 major animal and plant groups. 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 my theory.” Enormous quantities of fossils have been dug up since, and, if anything, they make more glaring the gaps which troubled Darwin. Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard biologist, calls this lack of gradual change in the fossil record the “trade secret” of modem 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 550 million years ago at the beginning of the Cambrian era there was an explosion of complex life forms — mollusks, jellyfish, trilobites — for which not a single ancestral form can be found in earlier rocks. A man from Mars looking at the subsequent fossil record would say that species are replaced by other species, rather than evolve into them. Paleontologist Stephen Stanley writes that “the fossil record does not convincingly demonstrate a single transition from one species to another.”
What about those pictures in museums and textbooks, those charts showing how large horses gradually evolved from small ones, and so forth? These portrayals of ancestral descent are conjectural and are constantly being discarded. Paleontologists, in effect, 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 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 modem Equus, has been quietly discarded even by orthodox Darwinists. Eohippus remained Eohippus; it was followed (or accompanied) by numerous species of horses, some larger, some smaller. The chart is nonetheless widely reprinted in textbooks. John Bonner, a biology professor at Princeton, writes that textbook diagrams of evolutionary descent are generally “a festering mass of unsupported conclusions.”
The ancestry of man changes as often as the weather as the few bits of “hominid” fossil are shuffled about. There have been Java Man, Piltdown Man, Nebraska Man, Ramapithicus, and numerous others which have been rejected for one reason or another. The two most famous figures in hominid paleontology today, Richard Leakey and Donald Johansen (discoverer of “Lucy”) are in complete disagreement over man’s ancestry. Australopithecus afarensis has been rendered in textbooks with faces ranging from ape to human, de ding on whose side the artist is on. Richard Lewontin, professor of zoology and genetics at Harvard, sums up as follows:
A new breed?
Since we do not see species changing into other species in the fossils, 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 the “Law of Reversion to Average.” 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 the genes of a fruit fly, a statistical impossibility, it is still a fruit fly.
Goldschmidt published a famous list of seventeen items — including teeth, feathers, the poison apparatus of the snake, and whalebone — and challenged anyone to explain how they could have evolved on a step-by-step basis. Goldschmidt pointed out that if natural selection were the mechanism for major changes in species, then every intermediate form must be useful to the organism. This problem of explaining the usefulness of incipient organs — five percent of an eye, for example — has been a persistent problem for Darwinists. As one biologist puts it, “Since the eye must be either perfect, or perfectly useless, how could it have evolved by small, successive, Darwinian steps?” Otto Schindewolf, the great German paleontologist and anti-Darwinist, rejected out of hand the idea that transitional forms could be found or even imagined:
Schindewolf, who died in 1971, was largely ignored in the Anglo-Saxon countries, while Goldschmidt was subject to a savage campaign of vilification for suggesting that evolution must have involved the appearance of “hopeful monsters” — that is, sudden genetic freaks which somehow manage to function — rather than minute gradations sifted by natural selection. But scientists like Gould of Harvard now claim that both men were on the right track after all, that the story of evolution is one of rapid, dramatic changes followed by long periods of stasis. But in downplaying the role of natural selection, Gould, Stanley and other scientists are stuck with the problem of providing a plausible mechanism that can explain how the bacteria and blue-green algae that appeared on this planet over two billion years ago randomly mutated into the highly complex fauna and flora we see today. Modem genetics shows that DNA programs a species to remain stubbornly what it is. There are fluctuations around a norm, but nothing more. Dogs remain dogs; fruit flies remain fruit flies.
The development of Darwinism
There are other serious problems with classical Darwinian theory. Among them are the fact that scientists see very little “struggle for survival” in nature (many species tend to cooperate and occupy ecological niches which do not compete); the fact that all the major body plans we see today in animals and insects appeared at once in the Cambrian era, a fact which does not fit Darwin’s model; and that many 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 of all natural phenomena. Loren Eiseley writes:
Darwin’s unproven theory nonetheless became dogma in the public mind.
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.” Most of these critics did not reject evolution per se, but rather Darwin’s explanation of evolution. 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, and Vernon Kellog 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 Dictionaire Encyclopedique des Sciences in 1925 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 dissent. The scientific issues were never properly discussed at that trial; a fossil tooth was proffered as the remains of something called “Nebraska Man,” which later turned out to belong to a pig; and William Jennings Bryan made the mistake of allowing his fundamentalist beliefs to be ridiculed in court by Clarence Darrow, who was a kind of “Village Atheist” raised to the national level.
The Scopes trial proved nothing about the scientific validity of Darwin’s theory, but it did plant in the American mind the notion that in the debate over evolution the only available choices are “Bible-thumping” fundamentalism and Darwinism. G.K. Chesterton pointed out at the time that the Catholic Church, which does not treat the Book of Genesis as a sourcebook of scientific data and does not have a serious philosophical problem with evolution (properly understood), was entirely outside the fray.
Because of the obvious shortcomings in Darwin’s original theory, the so-called “synthetic theory” emerged in the 1930’s. This theory incorporated genetics, molecular biology, and complicated mathematical models. But it remained completely Darwinian in its identification of random variations preserved by natural selection as the driving force of evolution. Julian Huxley, the chief spokesman for the synthetic theory, claimed that Darwinism had “risen Phoenix-like from the ashes.” But the synthetic theory had as many problems as classical Darwinism and over the next forty years its supports fell away one by one. In 1979, Stephen Jay Gould echoed the 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 us today? “Punctuated Equilibrium” would be the reply of the average biology teacher or science columnist. This is the famous hypothesis which Gould and Niles Eldredge came up with in the early 1970’s, when they and other paleontologists began to insist that the gaps in the fossil record must be taken at face value. According to this theory, small groups of animals break off from the herd, migrate to peripheral locations “at the edge of ecological tolerance,” and mutate very rapidly into “hopeful monsters” who then replace the old herd. Because the changes occur so quickly, there is no fossil evidence — which means that the theory can be neither proved nor disproved. Scientists once said that evolution is so slow that we cannot see it; now they say that it is so fast that it is invisible.
Scientists once said that evolution is so slow that we cannot see it; now they say that it is so fast that it is invisible.
Besides the punctuationists, there are two other evolutionary camps today: those who cling to classical Darwinism because they say there is no better explanation for the origin of species (a position which is metaphysical rather than scientific), and those who reject Darwin entirely, including a well-known group of “cladists” at the American Museum of Natural History. Skepticism about Darwin’s theory is more widespread among scientists than is generally supposed. For example, the theory is rejected by most French biologists, including the most eminent, the late Pieffe R Grasse, president of the French Academy of Sciences and editor of the 28 volumes of the Traite de Zoologie, who calls Darwinism a “pseudo-science” that is “either in conflict with reality or cannot solve the basic problems.” Scientists Re Grasse nonetheless call themselves “evolutionists” because they recognize that all life forms share basic characteristics such as DNA and so may be descended from a single ancestor; but they are frankly agnostic about how this happened.
An anti-Darwinist biologist who works at the American Museum of Natural History once summed up to me the situation of evolutionary theory today: “We know that species reproduce and that there are different species now than there were ahundred million years ago. Everything else is propaganda.”
The church and evolution
The Catholic Church has never had a problem with “evolution” (as opposed to philosophical Darwinism, which sees man solely as the product of materialist forces). Unlike Luther and Calvin and modem fundamentalists, the Church has never taught that the first chapter of Genesis is meant to teach science. F.J. Sheed writes in his classic Theology and Sanity that the creation account in Genesis,
Pius XII correctly pointed out in the encyclical Humani Generis (1950) that the theory of evolution had not been completely proved, but he did not forbid that the theory of evolution concerning the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter — for Catholic faith obliges us to hold that human souls are immediately created by God — be investigated and discussed by experts as far as the present state of human science and sacred theology allows (no. 36).
In his catechesis on creation given during a series of general audiences in 1986, John Paul II provided the following discussion on the first chapter of Genesis:
The Church’s quarrel with many scientists who call themselves evolutionists is not about evolution itself, which may (or may not) have occurred in a non-Darwinian, teleological manner, but rather about the philosophical materialism that is at the root of so much evolutionary thinking. John Paul II puts the matter succinctly:
This remark was aimed at biblical exegetes, but it certainly applies to Darwinian science, which contains hidden philosophical additives.
In the area of theology, the Magisterium has warned against the teachings of the French paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who concocted from evolutionary theory a kind of process theology that, among other things, implicitly denies original sin and the existence of first parents of the human race who differed in kind from whatever may have preceded them. In Humani Generis, Pius XII also condemned polygenism, championed by Teilhard, Rahner and other theologians, which holds that we are descended from multiple ancestors rather than from one historical person named Adam (no. 37).
The Church insists that man is not an accident; that no matter how He went about creating Homo sapiens, God from all eternity intended that man and all creation exist in their present form. Catholics are not obliged to square scientific data with the early verses of Genesis, whose truths — and they are truths, not myths — are expressed in an archaic, pre-scientific Hebrew idiom; and they can look forward with enjoyment and confidence to modem scientific discoveries which, more often than not, raise fundamental questions which science itself cannot answer.
Johnston, George Sim. “The Death of Darwinism.” Lay Witness (June 1995).
Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.
Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.
George Sim Johnston is a writer living in New York City and a contributing editor with Crisis magazine and the National Catholic Register. His most recent book, Did Darwin Get it Right?: Catholics and the Theory of Evolution is published by Our Sunday Visitor and may be ordered by calling 1-800-348-2440.
Copyright © 1995 Lay Witness