THE EVOLUTIONARY IDEA
The evolutionary idea is so much a part of Western thinking that there can be no one with a Western education unaffected by it. But with ideas that are built into our minds from earliest childhood, we are often unaware of what precisely we are harbouring. This chapter is therefore devoted not to determining whether "evolution," in the usually understood sense, took place, but to unpacking the "idea" to see what it actually contains, and to what, without their often realising it, it is committing Christians when they start trying to "baptise" it.
Even highly qualified people often launch into the topic as though unaware that the word "evolution" now has four quite distinct meanings. These are supported by evidence, or open to objections of varying weight and value, so it is not surprising that the subject is such a thorny one. We are all familiar with those different meanings in a rough and ready way, but they tend to exist in our minds in one single undigested lump.
However, since a situation has come about where to offer even a mild criticism of evolutionary theory exposes one to the danger of being written off as a crank, I first want to ensure that, if I do make some critical comments, I am seen to be in good company. Here then are four quotes from men of impeccable scientific credentials:
One could make a long list of such statements, but we do not have unlimited space. 102
A second introductory point: evolution is about change. So before embarking on the subject we ought at least to be clear in our minds about the difference between the two main kinds of change.
These are accidental and substantial change. Accidental changes are the ones that modify the appearance or "surface" of a thing without making it a different thing. Substantial change (in so far as it is possible) turns one kind of thing into an altogether new thing. It has received a different nature or form. It has been transformed. Alternatively, it is broken down into its physical components and ceases to exist as that particular thing — as happens to our bodies at death. 103
This immediately helps us to see the difference between evolution and the apparently similar but actually different form of change we call "development." The two words used to be used interchangeably for any movement from one state of affairs to another. But since Darwin it has become necessary to distinguish between them.
Evolution is basically about substantial change, one class of things becoming another class of things. Development, in contrast, is not about things becoming different things, but about things becoming more fully themselves. It is about the unfolding of a thing's hidden powers and possibilities, even though the thing itself remains what it was. It could be called the highest kind of accidental change.
We are now perhaps better prepared to pursue our original purpose.
Descent from a single life form
The first meaning of the word "evolution" is the one we know best. According to this theory, the different kinds of animals and plants were not created different from the start, but came into existence through descent from a single primitive life form and through a process of change and transformation lasting millions of years. Higher forms, including men, "grew" or were drawn out of break-away groups of lower forms. The French word transformisme, initially used sometimes as an alternative for "evolution" to describe this real or supposed process, gives the best idea of what is supposed to have happened. 104 X
Evolution in this first most basic sense is not an established fact but a scientific hypothesis suggested by the work of 18th and early 19th century naturalists like Buffon, Linnaeus and Cuvier who were interested not so much in how the different kinds of animals and plants came to be the way they are, but in classifying them into groups and sub-groups (orders, families, genera, species, etc.) based on their anatomical similarities and the position of fossils in the rock strata. If living forms could be grouped in families like this, might they not all descend from a single common ancestral type rather than a group of separate and distinct archetypes? Darwin did not invent this idea. Lamarck seems to have been the first to formulate it systematically. But Darwin collected the greatest body of information about animal and plant life in apparent support of it.
In saying this I am not denying that Darwin's formidable powers of observation, patience, attention to detail and tenacity of purpose place him among naturalists of the highest rank. Unfortunately, the nature of his studies, and still more what seemed to him their implications, carried him into the world of philosophy and metaphysics which he was not equally equipped to deal with. In developing a cosmology and anthropology which ignore questions of an order higher than the geological and biological — questions like the origins and role of goodness, beauty, love and intelligence — he ended, even if unintentionally, like Marx and Freud, in turning the public mind of the Western world upside down, and not, by and large, to its benefit. 105
In spite of this, evolution in this first sense is not incompatible with belief in God. God could have brought animals and plants into existence in this way. The important question is: did He in fact do so? Is the evidence advanced in favour of the theory adequate? As we have just seen, not all scientists think that it is — at least not on the evidence we have seen so far.
Right from the start, the major headache for evolutionists, non-Christian and Christian, has been the lack of what are called "intermediate forms:' If evolution happened as supposed, the rocks should surely be filled with the fossils of creatures in a state of semi-transformation between one species and the next. Not just the odd difficult-to-classify case, which with a stretch of the imagination might be an intermediate form, but literally thousands of indisputable intermediate forms. But they simply are not there.
As anyone who has gone into the subject knows, species appear in the fossil-bearing rock strata "very suddenly, show little or no change during their existence in the record, then abruptly go out of the record." So says the curator of the Field Museum in Chicago, David Raup, writing in 1979. Long before that, Darwin's friend and ally Thomas Huxley had noted that the idea of gradual change was incompatible with the fossil record. How too do we explain things like fossils of trees which run up through several rock strata (polystrata) that were supposedly laid down at intervals over millions of years? Or the innumerable mammoths found in the Siberian permafrost with fresh grass in their stomachs? (Without a sudden, catastrophic drop in temperature, the grass would have been found digested.) There are abundant examples of geological phenomena such as these which suggest that the challenge to gradual and lengthy geological change, one of the foundations of evolutionary theory, is still very much alive.
These and similar problems may not be conclusive arguments against an evolutionary origin of species, but they are not easily dismissable. In the present state of knowledge, what the rocks, fossils and animals have to tell us about the remote past remains deeply mysterious. It is like an inscription in a language which no one yet knows fully how to decipher.
The Church's most authoritative statement about evolution so far is to be found in Pius XII's encyclical Humani Generis (1950). Catholics, he said, may believe God could have created the animals and plants by some kind of evolutionary process, and even that He might have used the body of some kind of higher ape for the body of the first man. But the result was something utterly new and different. The body was united to an immortal human soul created directly by God, and was transformed in the process. With regard to evolution in general, the Pope warned, Catholics must remember that they are dealing with what is still only an hypothesis. Although the first chapters of Genesis are not history or a scientific description in the modern sense, they are not to be treated as a jumble of Jewish folklore without doctrine or truth of any kind. In some way, still to be determined, they do "come under the heading of history." 106
Choice by Chance
The second idea that people have in mind when they talk about evolution is the theory of "natural selection" or "the survival of the fittest." This is an hypothesis about how the transformation of one species into another actually works, and in its initial form this was indeed Darwin's creation, even if he drew heavily on the geological uniformitarianism of his friend Sir Charles Lyell.107 To mark the difference between these first two meanings of the word "evolution," we can therefore justifiably call the second "Darwinism."
"Natural selection" was not in fact an altogether new idea either. The fact that weak or unhealthy members of a species tend to get killed off is a matter of observation which had hitherto been interpreted as one of nature's ways of keeping a particular species healthy. The novelty of Darwin's theory was in turning the idea around and claiming that it could be the starting point for producing a fresh species. If nature kills off weak and ill-adapted members of a species, she must favour strong or better adapted ones. To this idea he then joined two other well-known facts, long exploited by gardeners and breeders of domestic animals. Not only do all members of a species vary slightly; by mating the ones varying in the same way you can emphasise a particular tendency until you get, not a new species, but a recognisably different sub-type. Variant forms, whether produced by men or nature, are the development of the hidden possibilities latent in a type or species. It is rather like a theme and variations in music. With regard to species as a whole, variation is always a matter of accidental change.
But might not nature do blindly, Darwin asked himself, what the selective breeder does knowingly, and even go much further? Bit by bit, generation after generation, might not an accumulation of small variations favourable to particular animals in their struggle for survival terminate in a new organ or body structure, eventually resulting in a new kind of creature, in the sense , of its being unable to interbreed with the 'parent' form from which it arose? In other words, might not a long chain of accidental changes somehow lead to a substantial change, not in individual members of a species, but in a section of the species itself? A "species" is of course an abstraction, so what is envisaged is a metaphysical change.
What Darwin was proposing was not, of course, "natural selection," since selection means choice, and only minds can choose. This is why his theory soon provided as many headaches for its inventor as had the theory of evolution.
Darwin, as we have seen, thought in terms of small variations and an environment that changes extremely slowly. An accumulation of small variations sufficient to produce a new organ or body structure must therefore take millions of years. But what value is a developing organ until it is fit for use?
The going gets harder still when we try to imagine the evolution of complex organs like the eye or the digestive system. We have to imagine a cluster of changes, each useless in itself, but all converging over millions of years towards a common end without knowing it. Today, critics of Darwinism describe such a hypothesis as violating the "principle of irreducible complexity." They are saying, in effect, that while it is possible to make additions to an already existing system (like, for example, the internal combustion engine) which were not foreseen from the start, it is impossible for the basic requirements which enable the system to function as the particular system it is to be a random collection of parts assembled without plan or purpose. 108
Darwin himself admitted that "in not a single case" could he prove that natural selection had "changed one species into another," 109 while Huxley confessed that the idea of gradual change was incompatible with the fossil record and wondered why, in the case of gradual change, variations should occur at alL
By the 1920s, Darwinians were finding it increasingly difficult to paper over the cracks. Renamed "neo-Darwinism:' the theory had already had to be modified to take account of discoveries in genetics, as it would later have to assimilate the findings of molecular or micro-biologists. Meanwhile a partial return to some of Cuvier's ideas was taking place. It could be called "neo-catastrophism." An increasing body of geologists and palaeontologists was re-exploring the evidence and deciding that the shaping of the earth's surface, far from having always been slow and uniform, was due in great part to periodic upheavals on a world scale, and that the various species we know today did not emerge slowly over the millions of years hypothesised by Darwin, but rapidly in "jumps" of thousands, even possibly mere hundreds of years. This aspect of neo-Darwinism, popularised by Stephen J. Gould, is described as "punctuated equilibrium?' When one of these catastrophies strikes, according to David Jablowski of Chicago University, "it is not necessarily the most fit that survive; often it's the most fortunate."
Small changes or "tweaks" in the genetic code, it is argued, possibly brought about by sudden ecological change, can effect large changes in the appearance of an organism. Obviously this is an attempt to get around the problem of the absence of intermediate forms. But how big a change? If the tweak produces what is still a variation, no matter how large, in an already existing species, then the need for intermediate forms in the rock strata remains with the addition of a new problem: the genetic code has to "know" how to give the kind of tweak exactly suited to the particular ecological disaster that precipitates it. If, on the other hand, a sufficiently strong tweak can produce a totally new species, then the whole Darwinian theory of transformism by natural selection is in ruins. For according to this version, the origin of species would lie not in a long process of supposed trial and error, but in sudden changes in the genetic code which occur for reasons and in ways that no one as yet knows. This can only mean that we are back where the whole debate began, on the mechanism which drives the evolutionary process from a single primitive life form.110
Yet another challenge to mainstream Darwinism (old and new) has come from the proponents of the "anthropic principle:' which means that, when looked at as a whole, the universe seems to have been "fine-tuned" specially to produce an environment capable of supporting human life. At innumerable points in the course of the universe's development, if things had gone only a little bit differently, human life would have been impossible. How could this possibly have happened by accident?
To parry this apparently lethal thrust, champions of a self-generating universe, like the indefatigible Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, have suggested that the existing universe is only one of an ever-multiplying number of alternative ones. Since the process is never-ending as well as self-generating, they claim that it is statistically bound one day to throw up a universe capable of supporting human life, without the help of any intelligent agent. If by nothing else, one cannot help but be impressed by their ingenuity and pertinacity. 111
But through all these adaptations, what in the eyes of Darwinists of every stamp is the essential feature of the theory has been preserved. Darwin made it possible for men who do not want to believe in God, to believe the impossible without seeming mad; namely, that things can make themselves.
So while the arguments for and against evolution in the first sense (transformism) have to do with evidence, those for and against it in the second sense (natural selection) are largely about logic, or trying to circumvent it.
It will also be seen that the debate over the origin of things is not a straightforward one between evolutionism and creationists; there are two intertwined debates. The first is between believers and unbelievers about whether you can have a "creation" without a Creator and "law" without a Lawgiver. The second is between believers about whether God brought things into existence rapidly, and as far as living things are concerned, from directly created species; or over aeons from a single initial life form ("creationists" versus "theistic evolutionists"). In point of fact, even if the "creationists" regard the Christian evolutionists as a Trojan horse in the City of God, both are "creationists" in the sense that they see God as the supreme and final cause of everything. What divides them is the methods God used and the nature of the difficulties to be overcome. While the creationists have to reconcile their position with the anatomical and geological data (why, for instance, was nature apparently "red in tooth and claw" before the fall of man?), the hardest question for the "extended creationists" or theistic evolutionists is how, if God did not directly intervene in the evolutionary process, he used secondary causes to bring about foreseen results. Natural selection, as we have seen, is incapable of accommodating the notion of foresight, although it is implicit in the very nature of biological forms. 112
Before leaving Darwinism, something should also be said about its social consequences.
Christians were not alone in foreseeing the brutalising effects that the theory was bound to have once whole populations learned to think that ruthless competition was the mechanism of progress. Marx, the Nazis, and unprincipled factory owners all appealed to it to justify their theories or practice, while unbelievers like Bernard Shaw, the philosopher-novelist Samuel Butler, and the socialist thinker Prince Kropotkin cried out in protest. Even Huxley; Darwin's ally, was aware of its implications. "The moral progress of society," he wrote, "depends not on imitating the cosmic process (i.e. the evolutionary struggle for survival) but on combatting it." 113 But why should there be such a thing as moral progress in an amoral purposeless universe, and how are we to explain, a blind cosmic process suddenly reversing itself to bring that progress about?
It is curious how few, if any, dedicated Darwinists are willing to face the inconsistency of their position in this regard. They are often pacifists and by and large anti-war, while refusing to recognise that their world view justifies, indeed demands, not only war but genocide. They believe in equality. But if we are descended from a multitude of competing hominids (polygenism) rather than a single human pair directly created by God (monogenism) there could well be superior and inferior races. Once again it is a case of residual Christian attitudes surviving in largely anti-Christian surroundings.
The root of the problem seems to lie in a scientific mindset which, over the last two centuries, has concentrated more and more on the first two of Aristotle's four causes of things, to the neglect of the third and fourth. The tendency makes its first noticeable appearance with Francis Bacon's Novum Organum (1620), and in the 18th century receives a powerful thrust forward from Diderot's Encyclopédic with its emphasis on the pursuit of purely "useful lcnowledge."
By "causes:' Aristotle meant the answers to the four most fundamental questions we ask when confronted with anything new. What is it made of (material cause)? How is it made and how does it work (instrumental cause)? What makes it and maintains it as the kind of thing it is (formal cause)? For what purpose was it made (final cause)? Whether the seemingly exclusive preoccupation of the majority of today's scientists with the material and instrumental causes, and their indifference to the formal and final causes, is a consequence or contributory cause of modern atheism is hard to say. What is unquestionable is the impoverished one-dimensional understanding of the cosmos it has generated.
No Christian should doubt that investigating the secrets of nature is good in itself. But where scientific inquiry is pursued without a modicum of interest or philosophical grounding in the formal and final causes, we also observe a tendency for it to become spiritually and even physically lethal. The original author of the Faust legend seems to have foreseen it a good half century before it began. 114
We now come to evolution's third meaning. Most people take it for granted that the process is still going on. For this, however, it is difficult to see evidence of any kind. If evolution were continuing, we ought to sec countless creatures with physical features in every stage of semi-development. But they are not only absent from the fossil record; they are absent, when they ought to be present, here and now before our eyes. It is no good saying, as people do,"Ah, but evolution works very slowly. That's why you can't see it happening." No matter how slowly it works, the logic of the theory demands a multitude of forms in every conceivable state of semi-development at every moment of biological history.
The only reason people believe in continuing evolution, I think, is that once you have committed yourself to the existence of such a process, it is difficult to explain why it should stop. The biologist Julian Huxley and his friend Fr Teilhard de Chardin tried to get round the difficulty by maintaining that the "evolutionary drive" now expresses itself through human progress. It is no longer bothered with animals and plants. But this is just a supposition to get around an inconvenient fact.
Evolution as Demiurge
The fourth and final idea that people seem to have in mind when they talk about evolution is that something called Evolution with a big "E" is responsible for the whole history of the universe. Under the impulse of this mysterious force everything is continually changing into something different and better, in spite of hiccups like the First and Second World Wars.
At this point we have moved from science to philosophy, even if it does not sound much as if it deserves the name "philosophy." It is really just the Enlightenment's doctrine of perpetual progress biologised and cosmologised.
But what do the apparently unchanging physical and chemical laws which governed the formation of the galaxies, the planets and the Earth have in common with the random process called "natural selection"? Do atoms and molecules vary like animals and plants so that some are "selected" by favourable circumstances for further development and others rejected? Do stars struggle with each other for survival? If not, why include their formation under the concept of evolution? Giving a single name to activities in different fields operating according to different laws should bring a blush to the cheek of any genuine scientist or philosopher.
Evolutionists of this stamp also tend to leave out of their account the evidence for things having in many places moved from a better to a less good state — deserts, for instance, where there were once savannahs and forests. The Earth and the universe often show more signs of running down than being built up. They could be compared to a car, which will one day wear out, but meanwhile has enough energy and staying power to carry its passengers to their destination — a view which seems to chime with the second law of thermo-dynamics and the notion of entropy, not to mention Christian eschatology.
When unbelieving scientists and philosophers talk about evolution as a kind of demiurge responsible for the origin and history of the universe, they are simply bringing in a substitute for God through the back door after kicking Him out of the front door. This is because the universe so obviously has intelligence, design, purpose and foresight written all over it, that it is impossible to talk about any part of it for long without falling into the language of intelligence, design, purpose and foresight. 115 It is equally impossible to think about the thing as a whole without looking for a single ultimate cause, the way Einstein was always looking for a single formula that would explain all physical phenomena. To be forever seeking all-embracing causes is the natural bent of the truly scientific mind. But must not the supreme cause of the universe be something other than the universe itself?
Talking about Evolution with a big "E" enables people to enjoy the luxury of a supreme cause which is halfway between a Something and a Someone, and both "in" the universe while not quite identical with it. It allows them, when convenient, to talk about it as if it had a mind, and when inconvenient, as if it didn't. What matters is that it should not have a plan, so that men are left free to run the world as they please.
One sees how wise Pius XII was to warn Catholic scholars to exercise "the greatest caution" when studying the scientific hypothesis and trying to reconcile any authentic findings with the data of revelation; and he could have said the same about the philosophical theory.
It has been one of the Church's misfortunes that the man who made the most ambitious attempt at a reconciliation, Fr Teilhard de Chardin, should have been totally impervious to these warnings.
102. The above and similar quotations in this chapter are taken from Fr. Stanley Jaki's The Purpose of It All. Other statements critical of the theory by qualified authorities can be found in Darwin On Trial (Inter-Varsity Press, 1991) by Phillip Johnson of Berkeley University, California, Darwin's Black Box (1996) by Michael Behe, and The Design Inference (1998) by William A. Dembski. The most recent book to summarise the inadequacies of Darwinism from the philosophical and scientific perspectives can be found in Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing. edited by William A. Dembski, ISI Books, 2004.
103. Fairy stories are full of substantial changes — princes changing into frogs, etc. — but in real life, outside what Catholics believe happens in the Mass, there seems to be much less substantial change than we imagine. With good reason we all the change from caterpillar to butterfly, or sinner to saint, a transformation; but it is still the same being in a different physical or spiritual state. Perhaps the history of civilisations and governments provides us with the best examples of substantial change or "transformism."
104. For example, La else du transfonnisme, by F. Le Dantec (Paris. E Akan. 1910). Dantec, an avowed materialist, was a professor of physiology at the Sorbonne. As early as 1910 the theory was seen as being in a state of crisis.
106. Denzinger, 3898. Subsequently, in his less authoritative Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (22 October 1996), John Paul II spoke of evolution as a theory rather than a hypothesis, thereby attributing to it a greater degree of probability. This was the point given most attention by the media. More important, but largely unmentioned, was the Pope's insistence that each human soul is directly created by God. It is not a product of evolution or nature.
107. Uniformitarianism: the theory that the earth’s surface has been shaped slowly over immense periods of time by the same forces acting today in the same way as in the past. Lyell's Uniformitarianism, based on the theories of the Scottish geologist James Hutton, displaced the previously reigning "catastrophism," systematised by the French anatomist Cuvier — the theory that the earth's major physical features were the result of periodic world-wide geological cataclysms rather than small local earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and floods. Cuvier's theory fell into disrepute with many scientists of the post-Enlightenment period, partly, even I think one can fairly say largely, because it lent credibility to the biblical account of the Deluge, a narrative which is not of course limited to the Bible, but which is found in varying form in the traditions of many cultures around the world.
108. In the words of the philosopher and logician Professor Peter Geach,"there can be no origin of species, as opposed to an Empedoclean chaos of varied monstrosities, unless creatures reproduce pretty much after their kind; the elaborate and ostensibly teleological mechanism of this reproduction logically cannot be explained as a product of evolution by natural selection from among chance variations, for unless the mechanism is presupposed there cannot be any evolution:' (From "An Irrelevance of Omnipotence, Philosophy 48 (1973) p. 330, quoted Brian Davies, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, OUP 1993, pp. 112-113.) See also Neil Broom, How Blind is the Watchmaker?, chapter 10 (Inter-Varsity Press, 2001).
109. Nor, so far, has it been possible to produce a genuinely new species by selective interbreeding, even using the famously fast-breeding fruit fly. On the other hand, were a genuinely new creature to be produced by genetic engineering, it would of course be proof of intelligent intervention, not of evolution by natural selection.
111. In the 4th century BC, the Greek philosopher Epicurus also postulated the existence of an infinite number of universes. However in his case they seem to have come into existence and then disintegrated one after the other. (Cf. St Augustine, The City of God, Bk XI, chapter 5.)
112. I am, of course. simplifying a highly complex situation. Within and between these two groups there are many shades of opinion. Taking them together, they range from biblical fundamentalists at one extreme to Teillurdian pantheists at the other. In between we find, for instance, scientifically qualified anti-evolutionist, who, following the example of St Augustine, would not interpret the six days of creation literally, and base their objections entirely on scientifically observed and established facts. On the other hand, being a Christian evolutionist does not necessarily mean dismissing the first chapters of Genesis as irrelevant Jewish folklore; God is recognised as having had a purpose in allowing them to be composed as they were. I am talking in both cases about Christians who are seriously interested in the subject. As for the majority of today's Christians, I think their attitude could be summarised as: "No matter how you understand it, evolution is a fact. As for the way God fits into it all, heaven knows. Let the theologians worry about that."
115. The hidden "vitalism," the assumed, if not admitted, presence within the evolutionary process of a life-promoting drive or "striving to become," which is accepted by people who deny the existence of design and purpose, is elegantly explored by the philosopher E.Tomlin. At the everyday level it is most readily detectable in nature programmes on television where animals or plants are praised or blamed for having adapted well or badly to new challenges, as though each species had a collective mind and knew what it was doing. The problem had, of course, been confronted by the French philosopher Bergson over a hundred years ago. Realising that it is impossible in the long run to discuss the cosmos and its history intelligibly without recognising and trying to explain the apparent directive purpose behind or within the process, he posited his pantheistic élan vital or evolving God to explain it.
Copyright © Philip Trower 2006, 2011, 2018