Uncommon Dissent. By William A. Dembski (ed.). ISI Books, 2004
Have you ever met Ken Ham, president and founder of Answers in Genesis International? No? Well, really you must meet him—allow me to introduce you. Mr. Ham got his start in Australia twenty-five years ago, working for a fledgling organization called the Creation Science Foundation. As his reputation grew, he began accepting invitations to give talks in the United States. Mr. Ham found himself to be even more popular here than in his native Australia, and in 1986, he decided to move to the United States to work for the Institute for Creation Research. Mr. Ham soon moved to Kentucky, where he and several colleagues started up Answers in Genesis, an organization dedicated to the notion that the earth was created 6,000 years ago by God during the six literal days of Genesis. Since then, Answers in Genesis has grown rapidly, and is today a large, multinational organization with operations in much of the English-speaking world. Today, Mr. Ham is one of the most popular Christian conference speakers in the United States. His syndicated radio program, Answers with Ken Ham, is broadcast on hundreds of stations worldwide, and his brand new $25 million-dollar “Creation Museum” is currently under construction near Cincinnati, Ohio.
There. Now you two have been introduced. I’ll just bet that you haven’t met anybody quite like Ken Ham before. I’ll also bet that you think Ken Ham is off his rocker. But, although I imagine you’re a bit shocked by my description of Mr. Ham and his organization, you probably aren’t too taken aback. “After all,” you probably think, “that’s what all those nutty creationist people are like.”
That, however, is not quite fair, either to Mr. Ham or to scientists who object to evolutionary theory. Mr. Ham is by all accounts a nice person, albeit somewhat misguided. But more importantly for our purposes, Mr. Ham is really not representative of scientists who object to evolutionary theory. Many scientists would have you think so—according to a popular textbook, Molecular Biology of the Gene, scientists’ objections to evolution are “based not on reasoning but on doctrinaire adherence to religious principles.” But although that may be true of Mr. Ham, it is no longer true of a growing number of reputable scientists, both religious and irreligious, who object to Darwinian evolutionary theory on scientific grounds.
William Dembski’s new book, Uncommon Dissent, gathers into one easy-to-read volume the best of those objections from a wide array of respected academics. Dr. Dembski, a professor at Baylor University, asserts in his book that “dissatisfaction with Darwinian theory is reaching critical mass.” While that may or may not be true, his book at the very least signals that serious objections to Darwinism are here, and they are here to stay. Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins memorably said that those who object to evolution must either be “ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked,” but the objectors in Dembski’s volume come across as none of the above. Rather, their objections are for the most part quite reasonable, grounded as they are in sound science and having nothing to do with religion.
Three objections brought up in Uncommon Dissent particularly deserve our attention. First, Prof. Michael Behe of Lehigh University notes the existence of what he calls the “irreducible complexity” of the living cell. According to Dr. Behe, irreducible complexity exists when cellular machines must possess all of their components in order to maintain functionality. In these sorts of machines, the removal of any single component would render the entire machine worthless. Behe points to the complexity of flagella, which rotate in order to produce mobility for cells, acting much like miniature outboard motors. As Behe explains, “forty different proteins are required for a functional flagellum,” so that the absence of any single protein would prohibit the flagellum’s functionality. Irreducibly complex machines like the flagellum pose a serious problem for Darwinian evolution, which requires that each component of the flagellum would have to appear in succession, with each modification being beneficial to the cell in some way. No empirical evidence has been shown to explain what pathway the flagellum could have taken to evolve on its own.
Second, recent advances in genetics have become increasingly problematic for evolutionary theory. As every tenth-grader knows, evolution requires that all organisms descend from a common ancestor, creating a vertical succession of related species. New evidence from genetics, however, does not confirm the Darwinian paradigm, and instead shows that species are related through a complex series of interconnected “webs” or “nets” that are both vertical and horizontal. These sorts of horizontal relationships between species challenge the popular notion that all organisms descended from a common ancestor. Other discoveries in genetics have also muddied the Darwinian waters, notably the apparent bias shown by organisms toward the deletion of certain portions of DNA. Numerous studies have been done on the phenomenon of horizontal gene transfer, which typically increases the size of the genome. However, some bacteria have been seen to undergo horizontal gene transfer without a change in genome size. This can only occur when certain portions of bacterial DNA fall away when the bacteria reproduce, indicating a non-random bias toward deletion of DNA. This apparent non-randomness is of course problematic for orthodox evolutionary theory, which holds that all genetic changes are random.
Third, new findings about the complexity of proteins also cause problems for the Darwinian model. Biologists have long thought that single proteins acting in isolation perform specific functions within cells. New work has shown, however, that the process is not quite so simple. To the contrary, most cellular functions are instead carried out by highly complex protein machines. Again referencing Dr. Behe’s irreducible complexity argument, it is difficult to see how these complex machines could have been created by random processes. Each protein must have been individually beneficial in order to be produced, but no evidence shows how any single protein could have been useful by itself.
These arguments, as we have seen, have nothing to do with “religious dogmatism,” but instead are reasonable scientific objections to evolutionary theory. Those who object to evolution, however, must do more than pick holes in the Darwinian thesis—any sustainable objection must also deal with the positive arguments made on behalf of evolution. The authors of Uncommon Dissent do this as well, meeting head-on many of the strongest arguments in the Darwinian arsenal.
For years, one of the greatest puzzles for evolutionists was the origin of life. Evolution might be able to explain the great variety and complexity of life, but it could not account for the fact of life itself. How could living organisms emerge from non-living matter? A 1953 experiment by the biologist Stanley Miller showed that amino acids, which are necessary for building organic compounds, can be created in conditions that were thought similar to those found soon after the Earth’s formation. Since then, evolutionary biologists have pointed to Miller’s experiment as evidence for how life emerged from the legendary “primordial soup.” Those who object to evolution, however, find Miller’s account unconvincing. Amino acids do not simply and spontaneously form organic proteins—they must join together in a very specific way, and then must interact with each other in order to be functional. To complicate the matter, genetic information must be created and passed along to offspring. Simply put, there is an enormous gap between amino acids and the first living cells, and Miller’s experiment does not explain how that chasm might be crossed. Most honest biologists, indeed, will agree that the origin of life is a mystery which evolutionary theory does not adequately explain.
Perhaps the most visible argument for evolution is the fossil record. It seems like every other day, paleontologists make news for finding new “missing links” in the fossil record. When one digs deeper, however, the real story does not live up to the hype. When Darwin wrote his Origin of Species, he predicted that the fossil record at that time was incomplete, and that paleontologists would no doubt find countless intermediary organisms. His prediction, however, has not come true. Decades of work have failed to find the predicted transitional forms, leading some biologists, like the late Stephen Jay Gould, to revise dramatically their notions of evolution. Orthodox evolutionary theory, however, can account for life’s complexity and diversity in no other way than by millions of years of gradual change. This gradual change is simply not evident in the fossil record, and events like the Cambrian explosion (the sudden appearance in the fossil record of numerous different species with no apparent common ancestor) are highly problematic for the Darwinian paradigm.
By and large, then, Uncommon Dissent is successful in its goal: providing reasoned, scientific objections to evolutionary theory. In contrast to Ken Ham’s religious dogmatism, Dr. Dembski and his colleagues provide strong arguments against evolution that committed Darwinists should take seriously. A major weakness of the book, however, and of the larger movement of which it is a part, is the lack of an alternative system with which to replace evolution. In science, it is not enough to simply poke holes in a reigning theory. In order to affect a paradigm shift, one must be able to show that the existing data fits better in some new theoretical framework.
This has not been done. While the arguments set forth in Uncommon Dissent are no doubt powerful, they do not go far enough towards constructing a coherent alternative theory. Rhetoric does not a scientific theory make. However, there may yet be hope for Dembski and his fellow travelers—their arguments, while coming at evolution from many different angles, share something in common. Each argument essentially points to the inadequacy of time plus chance as a causal factor—in some way, they allege, design must be present in order for life as we know it to have emerged. It is possible that this central assertion might be able to integrate itself with current evolutionary theory. As it now stands, this admittedly seems like an unlikely proposition: evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins regularly assert (quite heatedly) that design theory is not science, and furthermore can never be science. Scientists like Dr. Dembski are regularly placed in the same category as Ken Ham and his $25-million-dollar Creation Museum; dismissed as religious dogmatists whose ideas are not worthy of debate. This response seems extreme, especially after one carefully considers their reasonable objections to Darwinism. Such heated responses are due, however, to a foundational principle of modern science: that all science must be done under the presupposition of philosophical naturalism. Essentially, this means that scientists cannot look at the stars and, instead of carefully examining how they might have come into being, throw up their hands and exclaim, “God made them!” In most cases, the assumption of philosophical naturalism has led to great discoveries and the unraveling of mysteries once thought to be impenetrable to human reason. The assumption, however, can be carried too far. From the assumption that any given phenomenon has a natural cause, one can easily begin to assume that all phenomena must have natural causes. This is what modern biologists have done, by asserting that any theory which includes design is not nor ever can be science. Design, to them, is too close to suggesting a divine Designer, which under the presupposition of philosophical naturalism is not scientific. But surely, a framework which states ex cathedra that God is unscientific is unsatisfactory. The existence or non-existence of God has nothing to do with sound science (as it is a non-falsifiable proposition), and should not be treated as such. Scientists should be free to integrate design into the evolutionary framework, and should not be expected to make judgments about its existence. That, in the end, is a matter best left up to the philosophers and theologians. Sadly, given the current state of things, it does not look as if modern biologists will admit their overreach anytime soon. Until they do, however, and until they give arguments like those found in Uncommon Dissent the credit they deserve, the contemporary debate about evolution will continue to generate too much heat, too little light, and far, far too many Creation Museums.
Chiduzie C. Madubata ’06 is a Biology concentrator in Mather House.