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Volume 44, Number 2 (Winter 2006)

Up From Scientism

Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing
edited by William A. Dembski.
ISI Books (Wilmington, Delaware) 366 pp., $28.00 cloth, 2004.

D. J. Mullan

book cover imageThis book contains a provocative collection of essays in which the educational and cultural authorities of modern America are taken to task for their dogmatic approach to Darwinism. The fifteen essays are written by authors from a wide range of backgrounds, including philosophers, lawyers, mathematicians, and scientists. There is something for everyone here.

From my perspective in academia, a chilling quotation in the Introduction sets the stage for how the Darwinian dogma, with its demand for unquestioning allegiance, operates on college campuses: “I would strongly advise graduate students who are skeptical of Darwinian theory not to make their views known” (Michael Behe, Professor of Biochemisty at Lehigh University).

In the book’s Introduction, Dembski describes the various “myths” that Darwinists have developed in order to defeat their opponents. The myths include ad hominem arguments, elitist arrogance, hand-waving discussions, and belief that Darwinism is much broader in it scope than the evidence allows. In other words, in the hands of its polemicists, the scientific evidence for evolution has been transformed into the ideology of “scientism.” Dembski does a good job of summarizing the attacks that have been mounted against Michael Behe’s concept of “irreducible complexity,” and how these attacks have not achieved their goal of driving out those who doubt Darwinist ideology. The remark that Darwinism “is no longer merely a scientific theory but an ideology” alerts the reader to the possibility there is more at work in this field than rational inquiry alone.

In his essay, historian of science James Barham points out that since living things strive to survive, they “value life.” But if Darwin is correct, and life emerged from a purely mechanical process, how did the ability to value anything (including life) arise? “Inanimate matter does not struggle to survive.” When Darwinists talk about natural selection (“survival of the fittest”), the tendency is to discuss what makes one organism “the fittest.” This teeters on the tautological: a trait is the most fit for survival and so it is adaptive, and it is adaptive because it is the most fit for survival. But if one does not discuss where the urge to survive came from in the first place, then “the explanatory logic of Darwinism is backwards.”

Mathematician Marcel-Paul Schutzenberger admits that the union of chance mutation plus natural selection “has a certain descriptive value,” but it is not an explanation. Effects of natural selection can be established after the fact, but in that case, we are dealing merely with ecology: the effects provide no support for Darwin’s theory. In connection with the development of human beings, Darwinism has no explanation for the near simultaneous emergence of (at least) four biological systems that distinguish humans from the higher primates: bipedalism, dexterous hands, phonation, and recognition of speech. As the author Walker Percy famously described in his work “The Message in the Bottle,” the uniqueness of speech to humans (out of 2 million species on Earth) begs for an explanation. Schutzenberger concludes: “Confronted with such questions, the Darwinian paradigm is conceptually bankrupt.”

As a scientist, I consider it significant that among the fifteen authors, Dembski was able to recruit professors of chemistry, biophysics, biochemistry, and genetics. In Darwin’s day, one could afford to wave one’s hands about evolutionary processes, and rely on some “just-so stories” of how any particular aspect of the living world might have come about. But nowadays, scientists can get down to the molecular level, and hand-waving has to be replaced by sharper arguments. The scientist authors in the present book are knowledgeable in this regard, and I found it an eye-opening experience to read what they have to say.

Especially impressive, in my opinion, is Michael John Denton’s essay. Denton, a researcher in genetics, became well-known for his 1984 book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, in which he marshalled arguments against the gradualism of Darwinian evolution, without however proposing anything in its place. His views have developed since then, including contact with Schutzenberger on the origin of language. In 1998, Denton published Nature’s Destiny, in which he proposed a specific alternative to Darwin: “the whole pattern of life is built into nature and directed by natural law.” In a fascinating section of his essay in Uncommon Dissent, Denton describes how he and his colleagues, in their study of protein folding, discovered a set of rules that predict a finite number of protein folds based on minimizing energy. This seems to me to be a remarkable discovery, on a par with Mendeleev’s insight into the periodic table of the elements. The conclusion is striking: biological order (at the level of individual proteins) is not to be found in genes or in mechanism, but in nature itself, “where it resided before the Darwinian revolution.” He mentions the prospect of a “final union of biology and physics…a fully rational and lawful biology…as profoundly anti-Darwinian” [i.e. not dependent on chance] “as could be imagined.”

Does Denton’s work mean that we need look no further for a “designer” in nature? Not at all. While the work hints at how three-dimensional complexity (i.e. a sort of “design”) might be built into nature at the level of individual proteins, Denton does not address the higher order processes that are at the heart of Behe’s “irreducible complexity.” The latter applies at the level of the organism, where multiple proteins are assembled in such a way that they can act in a coordinated manner on a macroscopic scale.

Cornelius G. Hunter, a researcher in biophysics, highlights some areas that are commonly claimed to support evolution. One is the occurrence of small-scale change, such as in the beak-lengths of finches in the Galapagos Islands: such examples of microevolution are often claimed as evidence in support of macroevolution. But there is no evidence for this: microevolution relies on changes in a single gene, whereas macroevolution requires coordinated alterations in multiple genes, with the organism remaining successfully reproductive at every point along the way. Hunter points out that the fossil records, and connections between those records, are by no means as clear-cut and definitive as Darwinians claim. In this regard, he includes a telling quotation from Niles Eldredge (of “punctuated equilibrium” fame) about an exhibit of horse evolution on display at Eldredge’s institution: “an awful lot of stories, some more imaginative than others…presented as the literal truth in textbook after textbook…I think that is lamentable, particularly when the people who propose those kinds of stories may themselves be aware of the speculative nature of some of that stuff.” This quotation deserves to be known by a wide audience.

Ronald F. Hirsch, an analytical chemist with the US Department of Energy, discusses how genome studies are uncovering complexities that were not anticipated by Darwinism. I found the discussion about horizontal gene transfer (HGT) truly astounding: it indicates that significant pieces of the genome of any species do not come “vertically,” i.e. they do not come from the ancestors of that species. Rather, they have come from neighboring species. For example, bacteria in which photosynthesis occurs, “are found in five quite different phyla” of the animal kingdom, and the gene properties cannot be reconciled with Darwinian inheritance. Although HGT was at first thought to be confined to bacteria, Hirsch cites an explosion of articles in 2003 on HGT in higher organisms. The existence of HGT endangers one of the favorite images of Darwinian theory: the so-called “tree of life.” Now, it emerges that there is no longer a single tree, but rather “a web or net of interconnections that are both vertical and horizontal.” Hirsch also covers the topic of protein folding, and how it is somehow guided by nature. (Denton’s essay develops the topic in more detail.)

I cannot possibly cover all of the significant pieces of information offered by the gifted authors of the essays in Uncommon Dissent. I hope that what I have mentioned will encourage readers to take the plunge. But caveat lector: readers will need to don their thinking caps: this is not light reading. I freely admit that I had to go through the book from cover to cover twice before I extracted many of the nuggets that are tucked into the essays.

When I finished the book for the second time, what came to mind was a note penned by Winston Churchill during World War II. In the darkest days of that conflict, after two years of blitzkrieg had subjected the British and Russian armies to a series of defeats, Churchill wrote: “Renown awaits the Commander who first in this war restores artillery to its prime importance on the battlefield” (The Grand Alliance). In a metaphorical sense, I view the editor of Uncommon Dissent, William A. Dembski, as a commander after Churchill’s heart. In these essays, Dembski has assembled artillery that will be of significant value in the battles of the culture war, a war in which our opponents consider you and me as purposeless agglomerations of molecules.

D. J. Mullan is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware.

Posted: March 21, 2007

A “conservative character [is] suspicious of doctrinaire alteration, respectful toward history, preferring variety over uniformity, acknowledging a moral order composed of human persons, not of mere political and economic atoms subservient to the state.”

Russell Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, 1954

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