THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 136, August 27, 2001
Everybody's a Critic!
The Scientific Case Against Evolution
by Robert Locke
Exclusive/Special to TLE
I am not a creationist, and must confess that until recently, I treated people who questioned evolution with polite dismissal. But there has recently emerged a major trend in biology that has been suppressed in the mainstream media: evolution is in trouble. More importantly, this has absolutely nothing to do with religion but is due to the fact that the ongoing growth of biological knowledge keeps producing facts that contradict rather than confirm evolution. These two books Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis and Michael J. Behe's Darwin's Black Box describe this phenomenon.
The first surprising thing Denton points out is that there has always been a dissident faction of highly distinguished scientists, of impeccable credentials and no religious motivations, who have declined to concede that evolution has been proved. This is inconvenient for evolutionists who would like to dismiss their opponents as Bible-thumping hicks and claim that questioning evolution is tantamount to questioning the value or validity of science. He also points out biologists like Richard Owen, who were prepared to allow that evolution had taken place but thought that other causes were involved in bringing about the origin of species.
The first big problem with evolution is that the fossil record increasingly does not, honestly viewed, support it, a fact that famous Prof. Steven Jay Gould of Harvard has described as "the trade secret of paleontology." Evolutionary theory claims that there once existed a whole series of successive forms of the various organisms alive today. These supposedly changed by infinitesimal amounts with each generation as they evolved into the present varieties, so the fossil record should show these gradual changes. But it doesn't. Instead, it shows the sudden emergence of new species out of nowhere, fully complete with all their characteristics and not changing over time. It is almost entirely devoid of forms that can plausibly be identified as intermediates between older and newer ones. This is popularly known as the "missing link" problem, and it is massively systematic across different species and time periods. Worse, this problem is getting worse, not better, as more fossils are discovered, as the new fossils just resemble those already found and don't fill in the gaps. In Darwin's day, it was easy to claim that the fossils were there but had not been discovered. Problem is, we now have hundreds of thousands of well-catalogued fossils, from all continents and geologic eras, and we still haven't found these intermediate forms. As Denton puts it,
"Despite the tremendous increase in geological activity in every corner of the globe and despite the discovery of many strange and hitherto unknown forms, the infinitude of connecting links has still not been discovered and the fossil record is about as discontinuous as it was when Darwin was writing the Origin."
The quantity, quality, and range of the recovered fossils is impeccable. But the more we dig, the more we keep finding the same forms over and over again, never the intermediates. Various ad hoc explanations for the gaps in the fossil record, like a temporary dearth in the environment of the chemicals needed for organisms to produce the hard body parts that fossilize well, do not stand scrutiny.
The usual response of evolutionists at this stage in the argument is a theory they call punctuated equilibrium, Gould's great contribution, which basically says that evolution occurs not gradually but in spurts. This would explain why there are gaps and not continuity in the fossil record. The problem with this theory, which is too complex to go into in detail here, is that while it explains away the non-existence of small gradations, it still requires there to be large ones (the individual spurts) and even these aren't in the record. Furthermore, for punctuated equilibrium to have occurred, a very precise set of conditions have to have obtained throughout the entire past period represented in the fossils, and this is unlikely.
Another development that has undermined evolution is the spread of computers into evolutionary biology. Basically, computers have shown that the neat evolutionary trees that get drawn up are in fact based on imaginary relations of similarity and difference that owe more to the human mind's tendency to perceive patterns than to the raw biological data. Computers have shown that when the characteristics of different living things are encoded in numerical form and the computer is asked to sort them into sequences based on their similarities and differences, the computer can find any number of ways of doing so that have just as much support in the data as those drawn up by humans to fit an evolutionary tree. The data say "no evolution" just as loudly as they say "evolution"; it's just the pattern-craving human mind that gives prominence to the former way of viewing it. This is known as phenetic analysis. When the computer is constrained to push the data into an evolutionary tree, (this is called cladistic analysis) it tends to generate trees with all species as individual twigs and no species forming the crucial lower branches of the tree that evolution demands. As a result of this, many biologists have in practice stopped using the idea of ancestors and descendants when classifying new species. When the British Museum of Natural History did this a few years ago, they started a small war in scientific circles.
Evolution also suffers from the problem that many putative sequences which look logical based on the progression of one set of anatomical characteristics suddenly look illogical when attention is switched to another set. For example, the lungfish superficially seems to make a good intermediate between fish and amphibian, until one examines the rest of its internal organs, which are not intermediate in character, nor are the ways in which its eggs develop. And if different species have common ancestors, it would be reasonable to expect that similar structures in the different species be specified in similar ways in their DNA and develop in similar ways in their embryos; this is frequently not so. So evolutionary relationships depend upon an arbitrary choice of which characteristics of the organisms in question are considered most important, and different relationships can be "proved" at will.
Furthermore, Denton argues, the classic cases printed in biology textbooks to show the evolution of present-day organisms from their supposed ancestors are in fact highly conjectural if not downright false. We read the same examples coming up again and again in textbook after textbook because there are only a few species for which an even remotely plausible fossil genealogy can be propounded out of the 100,000 fossil species known to paleontology. He takes the horse as an example and points out that several of the standard claims about the pattern of equine evolution, such as the gradual reduction of the side toes, are extremely questionable and that the morphological distance covered from the earliest horse to the present horses is so small, compared with the vast changes that evolution must encompass, that it is questionable whether the series, even if true, proves much at all. And even microevolution, or the emergence of one species from another (as opposed to macroevolution, the origin of all species) has never been directly observed by science.
Another problem with evolution that continues to worsen is that it remains incapable of explaining how anything could evolve that doesn't make biological sense when incomplete. The wings of birds are the classic example: what good is half of one? Other examples abound. This is a problem that evolutionary theory has promised a solution to for a long time and not delivered. Worse even than visible examples like wings are the complex chemical reactions and molecular structures that living things are made of. This is the principal point of Darwin's Black Box (these micro-processes are the black boxes), a book too technical to be satisfying reading for the layman but that convincingly argues that many of these micro-processes make sense either complete or not at all. There are no plausible accounts of how they could have evolved from other simpler processes because as one hypothesizes back down the hypothetical chain of complexity, one comes to a point at which the process simply won't work if it gets any simpler. At this stage, the process couldn't have evolved from anything else because there is nothing simpler for it to have evolved from. And at this stage, the process is still far too complex to have been thrown together by any known non-living chemical event. At one time, knowledge of the complex processes of living things was limited enough, and hopes for the discovery of intermediate processes that they could have evolved from wide-open enough, that evolutionists could ignore this problem. But as biological research has progressed, this gap too has been filled with more and more inconvenient facts. As in the case of the other problems challenging evolution, the key thing here is the intellectual direction: research is consistently making the problem worse, not better.
Another similar example: one of the things that has happened since evolution was first proposed is that biology has achieved a precise cataloging of the thousands of different proteins that make up organisms. It was hoped that a thorough cross-species comparison of these would reveal the kinds of relationships of graded similarity that evolution implies. But it hasn't. Instead, it has given the same picture of distinct species that examination of gross anatomy does. It's the same old story of a tree with all twigs and no branches! Worse, analysis of the closeness and distance between different species reveals bizarre results. For example, according to the sequence difference matrix of vertebrate hemoglobins in the standard Dayhoff Atlas of Protein Structure and Function, man is as close to a lamprey as are fish! This problem repeats itself with other characteristics of organisms that have been brought within the scope of evolutionary comparison since Darwin's day.
Another problem with evolution that has only gotten worse with increasing biological knowledge is the question of how life initially emerged from dead matter. Evolution must explain this if it is not to remain stuck at simply proving microevolution, the reality of which is not controversial. As recently as the early 50's, it was still possible to hypothesize that discoveries would reveal the existence of entities intermediate between single-celled organisms and complex lifeless molecules. The existence of these intermediates (certain kinds of viruses were candidates for the role) would imply the possibility of an evolutionary transition from dead chemicals to intermediates to life. Unfortunately, the discovery of DNA in 1953 killed this hypothesis in its simplest form, and subsequent discoveries have only made the matter worse. Vast numbers of microorganisms are now known, as are vast numbers of complex molecules, but nothing in between. Furthermore, even the simplest possible cell imaginable within the limits of biology, let alone the simplest actually existing cell, is far too complex to have been thrown together by any known non-living chemical event. So even if evolution has an explanation of how species evolve from one to another, it has no way to "get the ball rolling" by producing the first species from something that is not a species.
There are even distinguished philosophers of science, like Sir Karl Popper, a man of impeccable credentials and no religious ax to grind, who have openly questioned whether evolution is a science at all, in principle and not just in practice, because its assertions are not potentially falsifiable. A true science, like physics, makes claims that can be tested and thus potentially falsified; this vulnerability is what makes it worthy of belief when despite this, the falsification does not happen. But evolution does not make claims of this kind. Furthermore, it is one of the touchstones of science that it is based on repeatable experiments. The data used to support evolution are neither experiments nor repeatable, nor can they be, since the origin of species on earth was a unique event. This doesn't necessarily make evolution nonsense, but it strongly suggests it doesn't have the right to demand the kind of acquiescence that physics demands on the strength of its being straightforwardly a science. What exactly evolution is, if Popper is right and it is not quite a science in the conventional sense, is an open question. It is probably not without significance that what is now called biology used to be called natural history, an older and perhaps more appropriate concept.
Anyone who doubts that the bulk of the scientific community could be wrong about a fundamental question like this should consider the case of Newtonian physics, which was thought to be unshakable until Einstein disproved it. Evolution is not a fraud being perpetrated upon the public, but it is a theory that has far too many problems to be treated as something that everyone is obliged to believe in on pain of being classified as a fool, as if it were the claim that the earth goes around the sun. Its credibility will continue to wane (or wax) with additional developments in biology over the coming years, but the absolute prerequisite for solving this intellectual puzzle is for free debate on the issue to be permitted again. I am quite happy to change my position if new facts come out, and I urge my readers that this is the only rational view.