The Spectator, October 25 2003

The mystery of the missing links

by Mary Wakefield

It is becoming fashionable to question Darwinism, but few people understand either the arguments for evolution or the arguments against it. Mary Wakefield explains the thinking on both sides

A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend, a man who has more postgraduate degrees than I have GCSEs. The subject of Darwinism came up. 'Actually,' he said, raising his eyebrows, 'I don't believe in evolution.'

I reacted with incredulity: 'Don't be so bloody daft.'

'I'm not,' he said. 'Many scientists admit that the theory of evolution is in trouble these days. There are too many things it can't explain.'

'Like what?'

'The gap in the fossil record.'

'Oh, that old chestnut!' My desire to scorn was impeded only by a gap in my knowledge more glaring than that in the fossil record itself.

Last Saturday at breakfast with my flatmates, there was a pause in conversation. 'Hands up anyone who has doubts about Darwinism,' I said. To my surprise all three - a teacher, a music agent and a playwright - slowly raised their arms. One had read a book about the inadequacies of Darwin - Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis; another, a Christian, thought that Genesis was still the best explanation for the universe. The playwright blamed the doctrine of survival of the fittest for 'capitalist misery and the oppression of the people'. Nearly 150 years after the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, a taboo seems to be lifting.

Until recently, to question Darwinism was to admit to being either a religious nut or just plain thick. 'Darwin's theory is no longer a theory but a fact,' said Julian Huxley in 1959. For most of the late 20th century Darwinism has seemed indubitable, even to those who have as little real understanding of the theory as they do of setting the video-timer. I remember a recent conversation with my mother: 'Do you believe in evolution, Mum?' 'Of course I do, darling. If you use your thumbs a lot, you will have children with big thumbs. If they use their thumbs a lot, and so do their children, then eventually there will be a new sort of person with big thumbs.'

The whole point of natural selection is that it denies that acquired characteristics can be inherited. According to modern Darwinism, new species are created by a purposeless, random process of genetic mutation. If keen Darwinians such as my mother can get it wrong, it is perhaps not surprising that the theory is under attack.

The current confusion is the result of a decade of campaigning by a group of Christian academics who work for a think-tank called the Discovery Institute in Seattle. Their guiding principle - which they call Intelligent Design theory or ID - is a sophisticated version of St Thomas Aquinas' Argument from Design.

Over the last few years they have had a staggering impact. Just a few weeks ago, they persuaded an American publisher of biology textbooks to add a paragraph encouraging students to analyse theories other than Darwinism. Over the past two years they have convinced the boards of education in Ohio, Michigan, West Virginia and Georgia to teach children about Intelligent Design. Indiana and Texas are keen to follow suit. They sponsor debates, set up research fellowships, publish books, distribute flyers and badges, and conduct polls, the latest of which shows that 71 per cent of adult Americans think that the evidence against Darwin should be taught in schools.

Unlike the swivel-eyed creationists, ID supporters are very keen on scientific evidence. They accept that the earth was not created in six days, and is billions of years old. They also concede Darwin's theory of microevolution: that species may, over time, adapt to suit their environments. What Intelligent Design advocates deny is macroevolution: the idea that all life emerged from some common ancestor slowly wriggling around in primordial soup. If you study the biological world with an open mind, they say, you will see more evidence that each separate species was created by an Intelligent Designer. The most prominent members of the ID movement are Michael Behe the biochemist, and Phillip E. Johnson, professor of law at the University of California. They share a belief that it is impossible for small, incremental changes to have created the amazing diversity of life. There is no way that every organism could have been created by blind chance, they say. The 'fine-tuning' of t!
he universe indicates a creator.

Behe attacks Darwinism in his 1996 book, Darwin's Black Box: the Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. If you look inside cells, Behe says, you see that they are like wonderfully intricate little machines. Each part is so precisely engineered that if you were to remove or alter a single part, the whole thing would grind to a halt. The cell has irreducible complexity; we cannot conceive of it functioning in a less developed state. How then, asks Behe, could a cell have developed through a series of random adaptations?

Then there is the arsenal of arguments about the fossil record, of which the most forceful is that evolutionists have not found the fossils of any transitional species - half reptile and half bird, for instance. Similarly, there are no rich fossil deposits before the Cambrian era about 550 million years ago. If Darwin was right, what happened to the fossils of all their evolutionary predecessors?

Phillip E. Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial, hopes that these arguments will serve as a 'wedge', opening up science teaching to discussions about God. Evolution is unscientific, he says, because it is not testable or falsifiable; it makes claims about events (such as the very beginning of life on earth) that can never be recreated. 'In good time new theories will emerge and science will change,' he writes. 'Maybe there will be a new theory of evolution, but it is also possible that the basic concept will collapse and science will acknowledge that those elusive common ancestors of the major biological groups never existed.'

If Johnson is right, then God, or a designer, deposited each new species on the planet, fully formed and marked 'made in heaven'. This is not a very modern-sounding idea, but one whose supporters write articles in respectable magazines and use phrases such as 'Cambrian explosion' and 'irreducible complexity'. Few of us then (including, I suspect, the boards that approve American biology textbooks) would be confident enough to question it. Especially intimidating for scientific ignoramuses is the Discovery Institute's list of 100 scientists, including Nobel prize nominees, who doubt that random mutation and natural selection can account for the complexity of life.

Professor Richard Dawkins sent me his rather different opinion of the ID movement: 'Imagine,' he wrote, 'that there is a well-organised and well-financed group of nutters, implacably convinced that the Roman Empire never existed. Hadrian's Wall, Verulamium, Pompeii - Rome itself - are all planted fakes. The Latin language, for all its rich literature and its Romance language grandchildren, is a Victorian fabrication. The Rome deniers are, no doubt, harmless wingnuts, more harmless than the Holocaust deniers whom they resemble. Smile and be tolerant, just as we smile at the Flat Earth Society. But your tolerance might wear thin if you happen to be a lifelong scholar and teacher of Roman history, language or literature. You suddenly find yourself obliged to interrupt your magnum opus on the Odes of Horace in order to devote time and effort to rebutting a well-financed propaganda campaign claiming that the entire classical world that you love never existed.'

So are all Intelligent Design supporters fantasists and idiots, just wasting the time of proper scientists and deluding the general public? If Dawkins is to be believed, the neo-Darwinists have come up with satisfactory answers to all the conundrums posed by ID proponents.

In response to Michael Behe, the Darwinists point out that although an organism may look essential and irreducible, many of its component parts can serve multiple functions. For instance, the blood-clotting mechanism that Behe cites as an example of an irreducibly complex system seems, on close inspection, to involve the modification of proteins that were originally used in digestion.

Matt Ridley, the science writer, kindly explained the lack of fossils before the Cambrian explosion: 'Easy. There were no hard body parts before then. Why? Probably because there were few mobile predators, and so few jaws and few eyes. There are in fact lots of Precambrian fossils, but they are mostly microbial fossils, which are microscopic and boring.'

Likewise, palaeontologists say that they do know of some examples of fossils intermediate in form between the various taxonomic groups. The half-dinosaur, half-bird archaeopteryx, for instance, which combines feathers and skeletal structures peculiar to birds with features of dinosaurs.

'Huh,' say the Intelligent Designers, who do not accept poor old archaeopteryx as a transitory species at all. For them, he is just an extinct sort of bird that happened to look a bit like a reptile.

It would be fair to say that the ID lobby has done us a favour in drawing attention to some serious problems, and perhaps breaking the stranglehold of atheistic neo-Darwinism; but their credibility is damaged by the fact that scientists are finding new evidence every day to support the theory of macroevolution. There is also something a little unnerving about the way in which the ID movement is funded. Most of the Discovery Institute's $4 million annual budget comes from evangelical Christian organisations. One important donor is the Ahmanson family, who have a long-standing affiliation to Christian Reconstructionism, an extreme faction of the religious Right that wants to replace American democracy with a fundamentalist theocracy.

There is a more metaphysical problem for Intelligent Design. If we accept a lack of scientific evidence as proof of a creator's existence, then surely we must regard every subsequent relevant scientific discovery, each new Precambrian fossil, as an argument against the existence of God.

The debate has anyway been confused by the vitriol each side pours on the other. Phillip Johnson calls Dawkins a 'blusterer' who has been 'highly honoured by scientific establishments for promoting materialism in the name of science'. Dawkins retorts that religion 'is a kind of organised misconception. It is millions of people being systematically educated in error, told falsehoods by people who command respect.'

Perhaps the answer is that the whole battle could have been avoided if Darwinism had not been put forward as proof of the non-existence of God. As Kenneth Miller, a Darwinian scientist and a Christian, says in his book Finding Darwin's God, 'Evolution may explain the existence of our most basic biological drives and desires but that does not tell us that it is always proper to act on them.... Those who ask from science a final argument, an ultimate proof, an unassailable position from which the issue of God may be decided will always be disappointed. As a scientist I claim no new proofs, no revolutionary data, no stunning insight into nature that can tip the balance in one direction or another. But I do claim that to a believer, even in the most traditional sense, evolutionary biology is not at all the obstacle we often believe it to be. In many respects evolution is the key to understanding our relationship with God.'

St Basil, the 4th century Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, said much the same thing: 'Why do the waters give birth also to birds?' he asked, writing about Genesis. 'Because there is, so to say, a family link between the creatures that fly and those that swim. In the same way that fish cut the waters, using their fins to carry them forward, so we see the birds float in the air by the help of their wings.' If an Archbishop living 1,400 years before Darwin can reconcile God with evolution, then perhaps Dawkins and the ID lobby should be persuaded to do so as well.

File Date: 10.28.03