From the April, 2006 issue of Touchstone

From Soup To Science by Phillip E. Johnson

From Soup To Science

The final 2005 issue of Harvard Magazine advertised on its cover a feature on “Evolution versus Intelligent Design,” which turned out to be an article titled “Intelligent Evolution,” by Edward O. Wilson, Harvard’s most prominent Darwinist. The article is taken from the Introduction and Afterword he contributed to a new edition of some of Darwin’s classic works.

Despite the title, Wilson denies that evolution is intelligent. With all the assumed authority of a pope of science, he proclaims that “we must conclude that life has diversified on earth autonomously without any kind of external guidance.” He continues: “Evolution in a pure Darwinian world has no goal or purpose: the exclusive driving force is random mutations sorted out by natural selection from one generation to the next.”

No doubt that is true, but the question Wilson does not raise, let alone answer, is whether we actually live in that hypothetical pure Darwinian world.

Darwinist Definitions

Darwinists often assert their claims in generalities like that, and I have learned to respond with a simple request for a definition: What is evolution? In one sense, “evolution” simply refers to the relatively trivial process that we commonly call “microevolution.” Microevolution involves only changes in gene frequencies in a population of a species that does not receive any new biological information or undergo any transformation that would require it to be reclassified as a different kind of animal.

Evolution in the more important and controversial sense is the grand creative process that began by producing unicellular life from non-living chemicals and then eventually produced far more complex organisms such as human beings. This grand creative process is generally called macroevolution.

When Wilson defends “evolution,” he clearly means grand-scale macroevolution, because he says that even the purposes and goals chosen by human beings have “evolved as adaptive devices by an otherwise purposeless natural selection.” Presumably, this explains Wilson’s promoting the theory of evolution and using it to replace any theistic understanding of the living world. This goal, like all others, must have been evolved as an adaptive device by an otherwise purposeless natural selection.

When he comes to science rather than philosophical speculation, however, Wilson describes only microevolution. He writes that the theory of evolution he is defending “states simply that if a population contains multiple hereditary variants in some trait (say, red versus blue eyes in a bird population), and if one of these variants succeeds in contributing more offspring to the next generation than the other variants, the overall composition of the population changes, and evolution has occurred.” Of course that conclusion is correct, if “evolution” means only microevolution.

To vary Wilson’s example only slightly, assume a population of humans, half of them blue-eyed, and the other half brown-eyed. If the blue-eyed adults have many children and the brown-eyed have few, then, assuming eye color to be heritable, a majority of the next generation will have blue eyes. If this breeding pattern continues indefinitely, eventually brown-eyed people will be very rare.

Microevolution is the only evolution that can actually be observed, and at that level Wilson’s logic is unassailable. No doubt the animals that leave the most offspring are the ones whose genes are most abundant in succeeding generations. No one, including creationists, denies that population variation in that non-creative sense is a mathematical certainty, when the necessary preconditions are assumed.

Yet even a Darwinist as devout as Wilson must be aware that observed microevolution tells us precisely nothing about how or why we have birds or people in the first place. Perhaps Darwin’s 1859 masterpiece should have been titled On Changing Proportions of Varietals in Pre-existing Species. In that case, nobody would have disputed his thesis or bothered to worry about its implications.

Design Anxiety

Wilson seems unaware that there are any problems with the extrapolation from microevolution to macroevolution, so all he sees that needs to be done to combat public skepticism is to repeat the Darwinian catechism, with the customary expressions of contempt for unbelievers. A better indication of the level of anxiety at Harvard was provided by an article in the Boston Globe last August about how, spurred by the challenge of the Intelligent Design movement, Harvard has launched a very expensive project to discover how life emerged from the chemical soup of early earth.

The article reported that “like Intelligent Design, the Harvard project begins with awe at the nature of life, and with an admission that, almost 150 years after Charles Darwin outlined his theory of evolution in the Origin of Species, scientists cannot explain how the process began.” A scientist was quoted as saying that this problem will still be remembered a hundred years from now. Surely it will be remembered at least as long as it remains unsolved.

Another article from The Boston Globe, published late last year, explained that the “looming presence of Intelligent Design” has motivated biologists at Harvard and elsewhere to begin considering how their discoveries might contribute to evolutionary theory. Most of them have done their laboratory work for many years without taking account of evolution.

Some theistic evolutionists have criticized me for publicizing deficiencies in Darwinian theory, because they think that the challenge will only encourage evolutionary scientists to redouble their efforts, with the result that inevitable scientific progress will only reconfirm the adequacy of naturalistic explanations of biological origins and thus confine God all the more securely to the margins of modern life. If that is the outcome, so be it. My purpose has never been to hinder scientists from discovering whatever they can, but to challenge assumptions and arbitrary extrapolations whenever these are presented in place of proof.

If anxiety over the challenge from Intelligent Design motivates Harvard’s scientists to recognize the flaws in their arguments and thus to support their position by making genuine discoveries rather than by relying upon intimidation and a priori assumptions, we should get credit for a major contribution to science.

Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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