When Darwin’s Foundations Are Crumbling, What Will the Faithful Do?

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Last fall, Dilbert creator Scott Adams held his first online “Troll College.” Sitting in front of a wonky whiteboard, the satirist extraordinaire and sarcastic poker-of-fun at all things pompous, taught seven rules for would-be internet trolls. One capitalized on the straw man fallacy, which involves misstating your target’s argument, then criticizing the misstatement. Others focused on rhetorical strategy: always issue a “halfpinion,” for example, which reduces a complex issue to one variable, rather than a real opinion, which would require taking all factors into account.

“You should also pretend,” Adams said, moving on to rule number five, “that you as a troll [do] something called ‘understanding science.’ . . . Just make the assumption that you know more about science than other people.” And like a good teacher, he modeled how it should be done. “Ah huh huh huh,” he guffawed, demonstrating the condescending, arrogant, mocking tone you should assume. “You don’t know anything about science, ah ha ha. . . .” A troll should never give reasons for what he “understands.” What matters is the attitude.

Adams isn’t talking about any specific field of science, but David Klinghoffer saw the video and observed that trolls behave a lot like internet ID critics. “Not only the anonymous Darwin trolls (that would be obvious),” he wrote at Evolution News & Science Today, “but tenured biology professors and mainstream journalists who write under their own name, aka ‘the critics.’”

Klinghoffer was spot on. Early reviewers of biochemist Michael Behe’s latest work, Darwin Devolves: The New Science About DNA that Challenges Evolution, seemed to be following the script. “They are creating a situation where average practitioners in a field will ‘know’ that they do not need to take Behe’s criticism of Darwin seriously,” wrote Denyse O’Leary at Uncommon Dissent.

Tenured professors and mainstream journalists abandoning sound science for troll tactics? The shrewd, science-minded onlooker might ask, What is it that they don’t want taken seriously? Naturally, to answer that question, we should find out what Behe is saying.

From Groupthink to the Lab

First a bit of background. By the mid-twentieth century, Darwin’s ideas had blossomed into a comprehensive vision of natural history called the modern evolutionary synthesis or the neo-Darwinian synthesis. Although Behe was a lifelong Catholic, he had no qualms about standard evolutionary theory, even well into his postdoctoral work. Eventually, though, he realized he’d been led to accept Darwin’s theory, not because of any evidence for it, but for sociological reasons. It was the way “educated people were expected to think.” When he realized this, he resolved to decide for himself what the evidence showed.

Behe’s first book, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (1996), put the challenge of irreducible complexity, as seen in biological nanomachinery, on the table. His second, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (2007), upped the ante by suggesting that, while Darwin’s mechanism can explain some changes in evolutionary history, there is an “edge” to evolution, a line beyond which Darwin’s theory becomes inadequate to account for the data.

Disambiguating Darwin

And now, with Darwin Devolves, he’s ratcheted things up another notch. Part of the reason for the contention and confusion surrounding evolution is that Darwinian evolution is not one hypothesis. It’s actually an assemblage of several separate hypotheses. Two of them—the ideas that species change over time and that, given variations, natural selection favors some over others—are generally undisputed. Behe doesn’t dispute them either. He does, however, devote attention to two other ideas that are inextricably bound up with the Darwinian narrative. Both were assumptions on Darwin’s part, and Behe refers to them simply enough as Darwin’s first and last theories.

Darwin’s first theory was purely philosophical. Darwin insisted that the variations on which natural selection would act were entirely random. Why did he make a point of this? At the time, no one understood how traits were inherited. (It wasn’t until much later that genes were discovered and genetic mutations were incorporated into the synthesis as the source of variations.) “At a profound level,” says Behe, “Darwin was rejecting teleology—the idea that life is directed toward some end, either by unknown laws of nature, some internal drive, or an intelligent agent external to nature.” This was a radical departure from prior scientific thought. Until Darwin, virtually all naturalists believed that living things were ordered to some kind of purpose. Teleology, from the Greek telos (“end”) and logos (“reason”), has to do with things being end-directed or ordered to a purpose.

In the new Darwinian lexicon, though, “random” became shorthand for “unguided” and “unplanned” by anyone, including (or especially) God. Behe mines Darwin’s personal writings to uncover his driving rationale. “It turns out that an unstated yet fundamental premise of Darwin’s entire project—the contention of utter randomness—was based on a bald, simple-minded theological assumption: God wouldn’t have done it that way.”

This assumption on Darwin’s part didn’t spring from anything science-related, but from the problem of animal suffering in nature. Here’s how Darwin explained it in a letter to his friend Asa Gray, a Harvard botanist, minus the complicated biological terminology: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created [life that way. Therefore,] I see no necessity in the belief that [complex life] was expressly designed.” It turns out, then, that Darwin’s reasoning, indeed the entire Darwinian proposition, began, not with anything scientific, but with Darwin’s own personal disinclination to countenance theism.

Darwin’s last theory was related to biology, and it is this hypothesis that is the focus of Behe’s central argument in Darwin Devolves. Darwin conjectured that multiple rounds of natural selection operating on random variations would, over time, build the vast array of complex biological forms we have today. We were all taught this basic tenet of evolution from grade school on, but chances are you weren’t taught that this was a bare postulate at the time. To be fair, the technology of Darwin’s day didn’t provide any way for it to be tested, but it remains a bare postulate to this day. (You probably weren’t taught that either.)

And here is where Darwin Devolves is certifiably groundbreaking. Darwin’s conjecture relied on variations, but no one knew what caused the variations. In his day, the cell was thought to be little more than a blob of protoplasm, molecules were still a theoretical concept, and DNA was unknown. It wasn’t until recent decades that actual changes (mutations) in DNA could be pinpointed and traced at the molecular level.

With the development of advanced lab techniques and automated DNA sequencing, then, Darwin’s last theory could finally be evaluated experimentally, and questions about the nature of the mutations—how they work and what they can and cannot do—could be answered, not by reference to theoretical speculations or computer simulations, but from actual experiments and empirical data—the gold standard of the scientific enterprise.

Here’s a summation of the evolutionary picture that has emerged, according to Behe:

• The large majority of mutations are degradatory, meaning they’re mutations in which the gene is broken or blunted. Genetic information has been lost, not gained.

• Sometimes the degradation helps an organism survive.

• When the degradation confers a survival advantage, the mutation spreads throughout the population by natural selection.

In genetics, a loss of information generally translates into a loss of function, so it might seem counterintuitive to suppose that a degradatory mutation would confer a survival advantage. Behe gives several examples, though, of instances where damaged genes have been shown to aid survival. In the case of the sickle-cell gene, for example, a single amino acid change causes hemoglobin to behave in a way that inhibits growth of the malaria microbe. It’s a loss-of-function mutation, but it confers a survival advantage in malaria-prone regions.

The upshot of all this is that Darwin was right in believing that natural selection operating on random variations can cause organisms to become adapted to their environments, but he was wrong in believing that the process was constructive. Nowhere has the Darwinian mechanism been shown to build a complex system. It has only been shown to modify an already-existing system, usually in a loss-of-function manner.

This is significant enough to upend the Darwinian narrative, but it gets worse. The same factors that contribute to adaptation work to prevent a species from evolving much further. Random mutation and natural selection quickly adjust species to their environmental niches, Behe writes, and then they maroon them there. He cites results from the long-running experiment conducted by Michigan State microbiologist Richard Lenski, whose E. coli lineage has surpassed 65,000 generations (equivalent to more than a million years for a large, complex species like humans), as sound evidence that random mutations wreak havoc in a species—and then that havoc gets frozen in place by natural selection.

Behe sums up his main argument like this: “beneficial degradative mutations will rapidly, relentlessly, unavoidably, outcompete beneficial constructive mutations at every time and population scale.”1 The only Darwinian examples of evolution that have been observed have followed this pattern and resulted in evolutionary dead ends. Darwin devolves.

The Knowledge Wars

Returning to Darwin’s first theory, it was all perfectly permissible for him to choose his philosophical starting point. But expressions like “I cannot persuade myself” and “I see no necessity” tell us exactly nothing about science but plenty about Darwin. Everyone has a philosophical starting point, and he came forth with his. Behe’s detractors, and the ID critics more broadly, also have their starting points. As an article of faith, the Darwin faithful know that Darwinian evolution has occurred. They know this because, well, because here we are, and we know that’s how we got here. Understanding science, they spring to the defense of Darwin, invoking references to studies and papers and jargon that those of us not “in the know” get lost in by the second paragraph. Maybe we just don’t understand science (ah ha ha . . .).

Then again, maybe, like Behe, we’ve broken out of the groupthink. Maybe we just understand from a different starting point. Ultimately, the debate reduces to a conflict of epistemologies, which usually traces back to a conflict at the worldview level.

In any event, where the debate is a question of science, let it take place according to the rules of empirical science. If Darwin’s theory doesn’t work at the molecular level, Behe contends, it doesn’t work anywhere. If the critics want to answer the challenge this poses, here is what they need to do: positively demonstrate that random, unguided processes can indeed produce constructive biological change. This is what they say Darwinian evolution can do. Let them demonstrate it. In this way, they can also demonstrate that they do, indeed, understand science.

Note

1. https://evolutionnews.org/2019/02/train-wreck-of-a-review-a-response-to-lenski-et-al-in-science.

is a freelance writer and blogger on apologetics and matters of faith.
This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #49, Summer 2019 Copyright © 2019 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo49/darwinism-dissembled