Spring 2002

Science and Environment

Equivocal Evidence

John C. Anderson

A molecular biologist reminds us that the theory of evolution is still just a theory. 

Questioning the basic idea of Darwinian evolution is to some unthinkable—an intellectual heresy worthy of the strongest condemnation. For them the concept of evolution is no longer simply a theory but an established fact. As Stephen Jay Gould, a prominent evolutionist, stated in an interview with American Biology Teacher (April 1998), “The intellectual issue of evolution’s factuality was decided a century ago.” 

Noted atheist and evolutionist Richard Dawkins, in a 1989 book review for the New York Times, confidently assured his readers: “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).”

Daniel C. Dennett, in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), was equally emphatic: “To put it bluntly but fairly, anyone today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution is simply ignorant—inexcusably ignorant.”

Though most in the scientific community believe evolution to be an unquestionable fact, many of the facts marshaled to support the theory are nonetheless questionable.

In his book Icons of Evolution (2000), molecular biologist Jonathan Wells lists 10 of the most commonly cited evidences for Darwinian evolution. “These . . . are so frequently used as evidence for Darwin’s theory,” he writes, “that most of them have been called ‘icons’ of evolution. Yet all of them, in one way or another, misrepresent the truth. . . . Some . . . present assumptions or hypotheses as though they were observed facts. . . . Others conceal raging controversies among biologists that have far-reaching implications for evolutionary theory. Worst of all, some are directly contrary to well-established scientific evidence.”

A review of a few of these icons will help shed light on the underlying weakness in the evidence used to support the Darwinian idea of evolution.

Origin of Life? 

In 1953 Stanley Miller and Harold Urey were able to synthesize amino acids by passing a spark through a closed system of glass tubes and flasks filled with a mixture of gases supposedly similar to the earth’s primitive atmosphere. The Miller-Urey experiment has often been used to illustrate how amino acids, a basic constituent of proteins, could have originated through natural chemical and physical processes.

Many biology textbooks contain diagrams of the experiment’s apparatus, with captions that give the impression that these experiments actually demonstrated how the building blocks of life were formed. For example, in Biology: Principles and Explorations (2001), a diagram of the Miller apparatus appears with the following caption: “Miller simulated the early Earth’s conditions as hypothesized by Oparian, Urey, and other scientists. His experiment produced the chemicals of life.”

What this caption doesn’t make clear is that the conditions “hypothesized by Oparian, Urey, and others” are now rejected. As noted in the body of the text, “we now know that the mixture of gases used in Miller’s experiment could not have existed on early Earth.”

Wells remarks that although it “is still featured prominently in textbooks. . . . for more than a decade most geochemists have been convinced that the experiment failed to simulate conditions on the early Earth, and thus has little or nothing to do with the origin of life.” Why, then, is this rejected model still being presented in this very recent biology textbook?

Why is this rejected model still being presented in this very recent biology textbook? 

Perhaps the reason is that Miller’s work is tantalizingly close to what evolutionists would dearly love to have: empirical evidence that the basic building blocks of life could easily be accounted for without outside intervention. If it were true, it would give evolutionary theory a first step in a postulated progression leading to life.

Numerous other ideas involving comets, meteorites, cosmic dust, geothermal vents, or bubbles in the ocean are now advanced to try to explain how compounds basic to life might have originated spontaneously. But each has its own weaknesses and none has been successfully demonstrated in a laboratory. Speculating on how something might have happened (paper chemistry) is a far cry from actually conducting a reproducible experiment to show that it could happen in a particular manner. That, in turn, is far less challenging than showing that it actually did happen in a specified fashion.

As far back as 1982, Harry Clemmey and Nick Badham commented in the journal Geology on the relevance of the Miller experiment: “The achievements . . . while being triumphs for experimental biochemistry, may have little relevance concerning the origin of life on Earth or the composition of the early atmosphere. Conjecture and speculation, based on a knowledge of the chemistry of living matter, gave to them the composition of their starting materials, and it would have been surprising if they had not achieved the results they did.”

Michael Behe, himself a biochemist, comments on a further difficulty in his book Darwin’s Black Box (1996): “Joining many amino acids together to form a protein with a useful biological activity is a much more difficult chemical problem than forming amino acids in the first place. . . . It involves the removal of a molecule of water for each amino acid joined to the growing chain. Conversely, the presence of water strongly inhibits amino acids from forming proteins.”

Proteins are highly complex substances that combine amino acids in very precise patterns in order to serve specific functions. To complicate things even further, evolutionists must provide a naturalistic explanation for the existence of DNA, the mechanism that encodes the patterns for a vast number of proteins and directs the development of successive generations. Ah, there’s the rub.

Dubious Record 

Though the inability to demonstrate how life could have spontaneously arisen is a fundamental weakness in the evidence for Darwinian evolution, it is not the only weakness. Another example is that of the fossil record.

One way fossils are used to support the belief in evolution is through charts purporting to show lines of descent. Basic to Darwinian evolution is the belief that all life developed from one or a few organisms that spontaneously came into existence and then, through a long sequence of small changes over vast periods of time, diverged into all the varied life forms we see on earth today. To demonstrate this, evolutionists arrange fossils in a branching, treelike pattern with a single stem at the bottom and many branches at the top to suggest how later forms could have developed from earlier ones.

If this hypothesis were true, one should see very few life forms, with only minor differences between them, in the earliest fossil layers. However, the exact opposite is actually the case.

As Wells notes: “When Darwin wrote The Origin of Species, the oldest known fossils were from a geological period known as the Cambrian. . . . But the Cambrian fossil pattern didn’t fit Darwin’s theory. Instead of starting with one or a few species that diverged gradually over millions of years into families, then orders, then classes, then phyla [the standard classification of life forms from most to least similar], the Cambrian starts with the abrupt appearance of many fully formed phyla and classes of animals. . . . Darwin was aware of this, and considered it a major difficulty for his theory. . . . [He] called this a ‘serious’ problem which ‘at present must remain inexplicable; and may be truly urged as a valid argument against the views here entertained.’”

Darwin hoped this problem would be overcome as more fossils were found. However, though millions of fossils have been uncovered over the past century and a half, the problem has not gone away. If anything, it has become worse.

Darwin hoped this problem would be overcome as more fossils were found. If anything, it has become worse. 

Jeffrey S. Levinton, a professor at the State University of New York, writes in the November 1992 issue of Scientific American: “All the known animal phyla [the most basic divisions within the animal kingdom] . . . appeared during the 60-million-year Cambrian period. . . . For that reason, some paleontologists refer to [it as] the Cambrian ‘explosion.’”

Though Levinton’s purpose in writing the article in Scientific American is to explain how very different life forms could suddenly appear when evolutionary theory would require a gradual development, he repeatedly has to admit that a problem exists. At various points in the article, he makes statements like these: “All in all, the facts still point to an explosion of complex life near the beginning of the Cambrian”; “Nevertheless, a Cambrian explosion in animal diversity certainly did occur”; “Evolutionary biologists are still trying to determine why no new body plans have appeared during the past half a billion years”; “The Cambrian explosion thus remains a mystery.”

Since these line-of-descent diagrams have been constructed to fit the generally accepted evolutionary scheme, using them to try to prove the very idea upon which they are based is simply circular reasoning.

In addition, if the diagrams have been drawn properly, each connection from one branch to the next should be designated by a series of dots to indicate an uncertain relationship—an unconfirmed line of descent.

Henry Gee, an evolutionist who rejects standard evolutionary classification, points out in his 1999 book In Search of Deep Time: “New fossil discoveries are fitted into this preexisting story. We call these new discoveries ‘missing links’, as if the chain of ancestry and descent were a real object for our contemplation, and not what it really is: a completely human invention created after the fact, shaped to accord with human prejudices. In reality, the physical record of human evolution is more modest. Each fossil represents an isolated point, with no knowable connection to any other given fossil, and all float around in an overwhelming sea of gaps.”

He comments further: “To take a line of fossils and claim that they represent a lineage is not a scientific hypothesis that can be tested, but an assertion that carries the same validity as a bedtime story—amusing, perhaps even instructive, but not scientific.”

In other words, the arrangement of fossils simply doesn’t prove that one descended from another.

Haeckelgate 

Another line of reasoning often cited as evidence of evolution is the similarity between embryos of different animals.

As Wells points out in Icons of Evolution, “Darwin concluded that early embryos ‘show us, more or less completely, the condition of the progenitor of the whole group in its adult state.’ In other words, similarities in early embryos not only demonstrate that they are descended from a common ancestor, but also reveal what that ancestor looked like. Darwin considered this ‘by far the strongest single class of facts in favor of’ his theory.”

Darwin relied on others for this information. Chief among them was German biologist Ernst Haeckel, whose drawings depicted similarities between embryos of very different species. These drawings have been used for roughly 150 years to support the theory of evolution.

In the September 5, 1997, issue of Science, Elizabeth Pennisi reports the findings of Michael Richardson, an embryologist at St. George’s Hospital Medical School in London.

She notes, “Richardson had long held doubts about Haeckel’s drawings. . . . So he and his colleagues did their own comparative study, reexamining and photographing embryos roughly matched by species and age with those Haeckel drew. Lo and behold, the embryos ‘often looked surprisingly different.’ . . . Not only did Haeckel add or omit features . . . but he also fudged the scale to exaggerate similarities among species, even when there were 10-fold differences in size.”

It looks like it’s turning out to be one of the most famous fakes in biology.”

Michael Richardson, Embryologist at St. George’s Hospital Medical School in London

Quoting Richardson, she writes, “It looks like it’s turning out to be one of the most famous fakes in biology.” She goes on to report that a hundred years ago Haeckel’s peers in Germany got him “to admit that he relied on memory and used artistic license in preparing his drawings. . . . But Haeckel’s confession got lost after his drawings were subsequently used in a 1901 book called Darwin and After Darwin and reproduced widely in English-language biology texts.”

In the March 2000 issue of Natural History magazine, Gould acknowledges that Haeckel “enhanced” his drawings, “exaggerated the similarities by idealizations and omissions [and], in some cases—in a procedure that can only be called fraudulent—simply copied the same figure over and over again.”

Gould, who admits to having been aware of the problem for more than 20 years, describes the fraud as “a famous argument that science disproved long ago but that popular culture has never fully abandoned.” He quotes a letter he received from Richardson in 1999, which asks, “If so many historians knew all about the old controversy, then why did they not communicate this information to the numerous contemporary authors who use the Haeckel drawings in their books? I know of at least fifty recent biology texts which use the drawings uncritically.”

Gould offers no answer other than to say that textbook authors “cannot be experts in all subdisciplines of their subject.” Yet as Wells points out, Gould, who teaches biology and the history of science, kept his own mouth shut until someone else exposed the problem. “And all the time,” he writes, “Gould was letting his colleagues become accessories to what he himself calls ‘the academic equivalent of murder.’”

Simple, Yet Complex 

There exists another very compelling argument against Darwinian evolution, and that is the irreducible complexity of biological systems.

Behe lays out the problem: “Darwin knew that his theory of gradual evolution by natural selection carried a heavy burden: ‘If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.’ It is safe to say that most of the scientific skepticism about Darwinism in the past century has centered on this requirement. . . . What type of biological system could not be formed by ‘numerous, successive, slight modifications’? Well, for starters, a system that is irreducibly complex. . . . composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.”

He then proceeds to illustrate one irreducibly complex cellular system after another. He writes: “The result of these cumulative efforts to investigate . . . life at the molecular level—is a loud, clear, piercing cry of ‘design!’ The result is so unambiguous and so significant that it must be ranked as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science. . . . The observation of the intelligent design of life is as momentous as the observation that the earth goes around the sun.”

Yet scientists do not cheer this momentous discovery. As Behe notes, “a curious, embarrassed silence surrounds the stark complexity of the cell. . . . Why does the scientific community not greedily embrace its startling discovery? Why is the observation of design handled with intellectual gloves? The dilemma is that while one side of the elephant is labeled intelligent design, the other side might be labeled God.”

While one side of the elephant is labeled intelligent design, the other might be labeled God.” 

Michael Behe, Biochemist

The dilemma is not scientific but philosophical. Modern philosophy is founded on the notion that there is no God; that idea has found popularity because it means people don’t have to evaluate their actions in light of what God says.

In the end, then, evolution is something its adherents choose to believe. In the concluding chapter of Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (1959), Gertrude Himmelfarb notes that Darwin himself had some doubts, admitting that belief in natural selection could not be grounded on any kind of proof. She also cites Thomas Huxley, a great supporter of Darwin’s ideas, who acknowledged in his review of The Origin of Species that “natural selection was not an established theory but a tentative hypothesis.”

Himmelfarb continues: “At the end of the century, the same doubts were being repeated by scientists who were themselves committed to the theory, but who recognized that their commitment was more an act of faith than of demonstration. . . . August Weismann, the geneticist and zoologist, was both perceptive and candid in describing the basis of his own evolutionary creed: ‘. . . We shall never be able to establish by observation the progress of natural selection. . . . What is it then that nevertheless makes us believe in this progress as actual. . . . Nothing but the power of logic; we must assume natural selection to be the principle . . . because all other apparent principles of explanation fail us, and it is inconceivable that there could be yet another capable of explaining the adaptations of organisms, without assuming the help of a principle of design.’” 

Though evolutionists such as Gould, Dawkins and Dennett assert that evolution is beyond question, they do so in the face of evidence to the contrary. The most commonly cited evidences for evolution are not incontrovertible, but as Wells points out, “all of them, in one way or another, misrepresent the truth.”

Darwinian evolution does not truly explain the existence of life in all its beauty and variety, but rather puts forth a belief about how life might have evolved without outside intervention. Having rejected the possibility of God’s existence or of His involvement in the development of life, one must rely on something like Darwinian evolution.

There is another way to understand the beautiful and awesomely complex nature of life on earth. It does not require merely “assuming . . . a principle of design” as Weismann expressed, but a willingness to admit the obvious: Life is too complex and interconnected to have come about by purely naturalistic means.

The existence of the universe and of life on the earth powerfully testify to the existence of God and His power and wisdom as Creator. As the apostle Paul commented over 1,900 years ago, “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Romans 1:20, New Revised Standard Version).