Does Darwinism explain life and evolution? Part 1

In two previous articles, I presented information showing evidence of design in physics and in chemistry. In this article, we begin to proceed into the province of biology and thus to biology’s ‘theory of everything’, Darwinism. The theory of Darwinian evolution is the intellectual basis for contemporary atheism. Richard Dawkins says it’s this theory which enables one to be “an intellectually fulfilled atheist’’. Darwin’s original hypothesis of the evolution of species through natural selection has since been modified by the discovery of the genetic mechanism by which natural selection is said to work. Darwin himself knew nothing of genetics or DNA, but his basic idea still stands as the foundation of evolution theory. The modified theory is often called neo-Darwinism - although I will continue to use the more familiar word.

It’s commonly assumed that biological evolution and Darwinism are identical, that the one requires, and effectively means, the other. To be an evolutionist is to be a Darwinist and vice versa. I’ll be challenging this assumption, but for now we will pass by.

Types of creationist

Opponents of evolution are often presumed to be irrational, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific bigots and religious fundamentalists who believe in creationism. This is a nice, sweeping, all-embracing, easily understood generalization. Like so many generalizations, it is also misleading. The fact is, all Christians are creationists. That is, all Christians believe that “God made the world and everything in it’’. However, not all creationists believe the same thing. Some Christian creationists are 7-day creationists (or perhaps more correctly, 6-day creationists) who interpret the creation account in Genesis literally, and believe God made the world some 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. They’re often referred to as Young Earth Creationists. Other Christian creationists believe that the Genesis account should be understood poetically, referring to stages of creation and not literal days. This group finds support in the fossil record, which chronologically roughly follows the order of Genesis, as well as in Scripture, where God is said to perceive a thousand years as but a day. Other Christian creationists fully accept the theory of evolution and its Darwinian explanation, though they believe God has somehow guided evolution, or started it off knowing the end point beforehand.

What some people are perhaps less aware of is another group of Christian creationists, who broadly accept the principle of evolution, but who deny the Darwinian explanation of it. They deny that evolution and Darwinism are effectively identical. This group is sensitive to the claim of Darwinism that evolution is, by definition, arbitrary and undirected, that it is purely random mutations and changes in the genetic code of organisms which produce the raw material on which natural selection works. Thus, there’s no guiding hand or mind behind evolution, and there’s no purpose or goal to which it’s directed. This group of Christian creationists are not ‘creationists’ as commonly understood, but neither are they conventional evolutionists. Instead, they adhere to something called ‘Intelligent Design’, or ID. Some of the most significant ID adherents are scientists working in various areas of biology, who have found their results cannot be explained by the conventional Darwinian explanation of evolution. Their scientific integrity and Christian faith have combined to propel them to make a stand against Darwinian orthodoxy, sometimes to the detriment of their careers. ID has been roundly condemned by the scientific establishment, who claim ID is not science since it’s not testable by scientific methodologies. On the contrary, ID does provide the basis for testable hypotheses, such as those proposed by Stephen Myers in his book, Signature in the Cell. Furthermore, even if it were true that ID isn’t testable by science, if science itself provides data that has clear theological implications, how is that not science? Surely, it’s then for further research to demonstrate that such theological implications are unwarranted, on scientific grounds. It’s wholly unscientific to deny, on purely secular philosophical grounds, the right of other scientists to interpret data theologically when it’s warranted. Such secular denials are not science, but scientism.

Problems with Darwin

It’s not just Christian or other religious scientists who’ve found problems with Darwinism. The late agnostic paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould, found that the fossil record didn’t contain the myriads of transitional species which Darwinism anticipates ought to exist. Instead of the expected smooth continuous gradual change, the fossil record reveals new species and classes arising apparently fully-fledged. Gould and Niles Eldredge proposed the theory of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ to explain it. That is, evolutionary changes go through concentrated periods of evolutionary branching, leaving little evidence in the fossil record, followed by long periods with few changes. The theory has been criticized by the scientific establishment, since there’s no known mechanism within purely Darwinian random genetic mutation by which it could work. But since Gould and Co held firmly to purely materialistic answers to the problem, they didn’t receive the depth of opprobrium accorded to those who’ve suggested a theological answer to the conundrum.

Another critic of Darwinism is the Catholic Christian, Michael Behe. Behe is a biochemist studying cellular biochemical systems. Only in the last 20 or so years has the astonishing complexity of the cell and multicellular organization become appreciated. Far from cells being uniform, glutinous masses of jelly in which all the essential biochemicals are dissolved, they’re now understood to contain an extraordinary complexity of micro-molecular machinery. Each cell is a labyrinth of amazing nanotechnology, with molecular machines involved in myriads of biochemical interactions.

In his book, Darwin’s Black Box, Behe presents some of his research into the bacterial flagellar motor. This is a molecular machine with 30 or more different protein parts, and which functions precisely like an outboard motor. This machine powers the bacterial ‘tail’, the flagellum, a rotating whip-like appendage which enables the bacterium to swim. Among other parts the motor has a rotor, a stator, bearings, a universal joint and a drive shaft. Behe argues that such a complex mechanism arising by chance mutations seems inherently improbable. He argues that, as with a mousetrap, every individual constituent part has to be in place for it to function, and there’s no biological advantage until they’re all in place. Indeed, a non-functional motor would be a drain on energy and cell function, and thus be highly disadvantageous and therefore selected against. Behe claims that the flagellar motor and many other sub-cellular systems are ‘irreducibly complex’, such that the absence of a single part renders the whole system inoperative. But how could such complex systems arise spontaneously from scratch without a directing organizing principle? In response, it’s been argued that the constituent parts may have been co-opted and adapted from other cellular procedures. Yet these smaller parts are themselves complex, and require complex mechanisms for their production, which themselves are the product of complex mechanisms.

Charles Darwin wrote in his Origin of Species that “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.” Until relatively recently, this was commonly thought of as applying at the scale of major organs, such as the eye or wings. Behe’s challenge is that Darwin’s point applies even more profoundly at the cellular level. Take a look at these You Tube videos for some digital representations of some amazing cellular mechanisms:

Everyone, even the most die-hard Young Earth Creationist, accepts that genetic mutations and small changes do occur. It’s been shown to have happened in nature many, many times. Most genetic change from generation to generation is the result of a reshuffling of the genes, like having a new deal at cards. The relatively rare occasions where changes are due to a gene mutation, like adding a joker into the pack, almost always causes harm to the organism rather than benefitting it. However, Darwinists argue that where beneficial changes do occur, they’re conserved by natural selection and accumulate over the centuries and millennia, resulting eventually in the formation of new species and genera.

While it’s undoubted that beneficial genetic alterations and mutations do occur, it hasn’t been demonstrated they can occur with sufficient frequency to provide the basis of evolution. It remains an assertion, an article of faith. Furthermore, there’s now much greater appreciation that the changes necessary for major alterations in form, such as the production of a new species, or for changes in an organ or an appendage, are dependant upon the ability of genetic mutations to generate new bio-molecular systems within the cell. No new systems have ever been shown to arise from such mutations.

Michael Behe has attempted to research whether beneficial mutations are able to provide a basis for evolutionarily significant change. In his most recent book, The Edge of Evolution, Behe attempts to discern the kind of changes at the sub-cellular level which can be caused by mutation. He looks in particular at drug resistance in one of the best understood, most rapidly reproducing organisms with huge population potential that is known to science, the malarial bacterium. In this study, Behe looked at the mutations which have given rise to resistance to the anti-malarial drug, chloroquine, and the frequency at which these mutations have occurred. It seems as though just two separate DNA mutations are required to give rise to this resistance, yet it’s happened less than 10 times since the drug was released around 50 years ago. Behe estimates it has needed a malarial population of about 100 million trillion to achieve it - 1020 bacterial cells; that is, one followed by twenty zeros, an extremely large population.

He then turns his attention to the much smaller population of primates in the ancestral line that has led to the human species during the last ten million years. He calculates this as just one trillion individuals (1012). Assuming that the rate of mutation in the human line is the same as that in malaria, two beneficial mutations, the equivalent to that needed for resistance to chloroquine, would not yet have occurred. It would require another one hundred million lots of ten million years to achieve the necessary population of 1020 – another thousand trillion years! As Behe points out, this is far longer than the age of the universe (13.7 billion years). Behe says that “it’s reasonable to conclude the following: no mutation that is of the same complexity as chloroquine resistance in malaria arose by Darwinian evolution in the line leading to humans in the past ten million years.” (Italics his.) Yet Darwinian evolution requires far more complex combinations of mutations than this. Behe comments that a genetic change twice as complex as that required for chloroquine resistance is beyond what is naturally possible, even for a fast-reproducing organism like malaria - that it’s beyond the edge of evolution. For long-lived species or those with low population levels, significant evolutionary changes will be far more difficult than for the malaria parasite. Hence, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that evolution requires something more for its explanation than the mechanism proposed by Darwinism.

The same conclusion is drawn by David Swift, in Evolution under the microscope, a broad and penetrating study of cell mechanisms and processes, and their implications for evolution. He quotes Dawkins and others who argue that the steps up Mount Improbable can be made as small as the evolutionist needs them to be. However this is totally fallacious at the biochemical level, because significant advances require both new genes and their control mechanisms, not just simple mutations. Swift says, “In conclusion, the smallest step by which substantial increase in biological complexity could arise entails at least one new functioning macro-molecule, but there is no way in which it might arise. Even more confounding from an evolutionary perspective is that any realistic advance almost certainly entails multiple genes – and that makes the whole idea totally untenable. In short, the fundamental evolutionary principle of incremental progress fails completely at the level of molecular biology.” (My italics.)