The Evolution Controversy: A Survey of Competing Theories
In the spring of 2008, the movie Expelled hit the theaters. Ben Stein, famous for his dead-pan act in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, interviewed scientists who claimed that their disagreement with the Neo-Darwinian party line jeopardized their careers and made them the targets of discrimination. While some of the claims of this movie are almost certainly overblown (seehttp://www.asa3.org/ASA/resources/Schloss200805.html), it probably cannot be written off completely. The origins debate still strikes at the heart of who we are, and disagreement over this issue gets people hopping mad. Many onlookers simply shake their heads and say that it is all too complicated for them. Where can readers go to learn more?
Into this gap, two scientists, Thomas Fowler, an engineer, and Daniel Kuebler, a biologist, have written a guide to the Creation/evolution options from a Christian perspective. Their goal is to inform without necessarily making proselytes. The book is well organized, and, for the most part, rather easy to follow.
Fowler and Kuebler begin by introducing the origins debate. They identify four “major schools of thought regarding evolution” (29): the Neo-Darwinian, Creationist, Intelligent Design, and Meta-Darwinian schools. The Neo-Darwinian school represents hardcore, selectionist evolutionary biologists, of which Richard Dawkins is the most well-known. The Creationist school refers to Recent or “Young-Earth” Creationism only. The Intelligent Design (ID) school represents the views of ID theorists like William Dembski, Michael Behe and Philip Johnson. The Meta-Darwinian school is a category created by Fowler and Kuebler and represents all neutralists, advocates of punctuated equilibrium, evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo), endosymbiosis, and complexity theory.
These classifications serve the authors’ purposes, but they are somewhat problematic. Restricting the Creationist school to recent Creationism excludes many old-earth Creationists. Likewise, most modern evolutionary biologists are Neo-Darwinian/Meta-Darwinian hybrids of one sort or another in their perception of evolution. Meta-Darwinists affirm natural selection and its ability to change gene frequencies in populations, but do not view it necessarily as the major force in shaping organisms. Thus the differences between Neo-Darwinists and Meta-Darwinists are more over the rate of evolution and the magnitude of the role played by natural selection, which renders this division somewhat artificial. It also detracts from the crux of this controversy, which is between a naturalistic approach to origins and one that requires some type of divine intervention.
The second chapter recounts the history of evolutionary thinking, followed by a chapter that summarizes the evidence for the theory of evolution, focusing on Neo-Darwinism in particular. The final chapter in the first section identifies the issues over which there is disagreement in the origins debate, which are: 1) common descent of all living things; 2) ability of genetic mutations to create new genetic information; 3) adequacy of natural selection and random mutation to account for biological change; 4) age of the universe; 5) age of the earth 6) scope of naturalistic explanations; and 7) the use of bona fide scientific methods and theories.
The second section consists of chapters that discuss how each major school of thought addresses each issue described at the end of the first section, and the evidence for and agains teach of them. Fowler and Kuebler try to acknowledge the diversity within each school. The third and final section addresses the public policy implications of the Creation/evolution controversy and their own take on what it all means.
The book has a textbook-like feel, and the writing is, in places, somewhat dry. This will make the book a tough slog for the general reading public. However, the authors have many useful tables, figures and diagrams that can lead the reader through the material. Several chapters consist of large summaries of scientific literature that draw some conclusions that are over-generalized, not nuanced sufficiently or fail to note present controversies. There are many such examples but there is room to mention only a few. In one case, the authors seem quite convinced that Edward Blythe and his formulation of natural selection as a conservative force in nature influenced Charles Darwin’s construction of natural selection as a creative force (23, 27, 53-54). However this is by no means clear, and the large Darwin biographies by Janet Browne or Adrian Desmond and James Moore do not confirm this. Secondly, the authors state that a prediction of Darwin’s theory was that “nature will preserve even the slightest variation that proves beneficial,” but that “population genetics calculations show that single mutations, even if positive, usually only have a small chance of survival” (57). This, however, is only true in large populations where the gene that determines this trait is inherited in a recessive manner. In smaller populations, Darwin’s prediction would hold in some cases. It depends on the size of the population, strength of selection in favor of the trait, and the manner in which the gene that codes for the beneficial trait is inherited. All of these can take a slightly beneficial trait at a low frequency in a population and make it a more frequent trait.
Second, even though the authors have very noble intentions in writing a book that presents the four schools dispassionately while trying to allow the reader to decide for herself, not all hypotheses are worthy of equal weight. At times the authors wish to give credit to hypotheses that simply deserve no credit. For example, on pages 205-206, the authors mention the “Gravitational Time Dilation” explanation used by recent Creationists to explain why the universe appears old. This assertion claims that the Earth is near the center of the universe, but at the bottom of a deep gravitational well. Thus relativistic effects result in billions of years passing in the rest of the universe while only thousands pass near the Earth, which explains how billion-year-old stars and galaxies can exist in a universe only a few thousand years old. However, if the Earth were in such a gravity well, light from distant galaxies should be blue-shifted, but instead, it is red-shifted. This “theory,” therefore, fails to explain basic astronomical observations and does not deserve to be considered further, much less mentioned in a science classroom. Also the discussion of allegedly irreducibly complex structures in cells does not take stock of the fact that Behe’s asseveration that eukaryotic flagella or the blood clotting cascade, like a mousetrap, cannot work if a part is removed has been shown to be false (262-271). Several eukaryotic organisms have flagella that do not display the standard 9 + 2 arrangement. Behe avers further in his book, The Edge of Evolution, that the intraflagellar transport (IFT) machinery is required to assemble and maintain flagella, thus corroborating the claim of their irreducible complexity. However, genomic analyses of several flagella-making protozoans, including Plasmodium, the species that causes malaria, show that these organisms lack IFT, and make their flagella a different way, which rebuts Behe’s claims. Similarly marine mammals and puffer fish clot their blood by means of a coagulation pathway that is very similar to humans, but whales and dolphins lack Hageman factor (factor XII) and puffer fish lack factors XI, XII, and prekallikrein; proteins, all of which humans possess. Thus these systems are decidedly not irreducibly complex and teaching it in a classroom serves no useful purpose.
Third, the book misses a primary problem with alternatives to evolutionary theory –scientific assertions must pass through the flames of peer-review and colleague confirmation before they are admitted into a classroom. Theories have to earn the right to be heard. Just because someone has asserted a theory and given it the patina of scientific rigor does not secure it the right to be taught. The theory must win the minds of active scientists as useful and providing a more approximately accurate view of reality before it can be taught in the classroom. However, in the final chapter of this book the authors seem to think that the Creationist and ID alternatives should be discussed just because they make scientific assertions and there are gaps in the explanatory power of present evolutionary theories (356-360). Many of my colleagues and I would say to such new theories, “Earn the right, then we will talk about it.”
Despite these concerns, certainly Fowler and Kuebler make many good points. For example:
Creationists already have a great deal of credibility – not with most scientists, but with tens of millions of Americans who naturally incline to their point of view. Whether this is good or bad or indifferent, it is a fact. Evolutionists, by refusing to defend their views in a public forum, actually give more credibility to Creationists, because the public’s impression is then that evolution is not true and cannot stand up to scrutiny. (233)
To this I can say nothing other than, “Amen!”
In the end, Fowler and Kuebler have written an interesting book that succeeds in telling the evolution controversy story. The tone is measured and objective, and devoid of the vitriolic polemics that surround the origins debate. Even though their treatment of the Creationist and ID schools is less skeptical than it should be, Fowler and Kuebler try hard to be fair, even with those with whom they might disagree.