A critique of “Walking with Beasts”, by Ian Wishart, Investigate Magazine, June 2002

A Prominent English state school, Emmanuel City Technological College, has recently decided to include creationism as a viable alternative to evolution in the science classroom. In the wake of this, Ian Wishart of Investigate magazine has written an article, “Walking With Beasts”, in which he conveys the impression that the status of organic evolution is very fragile indeed. Therefore he asks: “If Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is on such shaky ground in the upper reaches of science, why are New Zealand high school students still being taught the subject without any reference to the many controversies now dogging it?”

The article is a mixture of the old and the new – arguments against evolution which have long been the province of young-earth creationism and some from the most recent version of creationism, Intelligent Design (ID) theory. ID theory has its roots in creation “science”, which probably accounts for the retention of some of the arguments associated with that movement, and in some ways it can be regarded as a more sophisticated version of its predecessor. Most significantly, when examined closely, it turns out to be the old Argument from Design in modern garb. At its core is the view that Darwinian theory is unable to account for life’s complexity – hence an Intelligent Designer must be invoked.

Sound familiar? William Paley’s watch immediately springs to mind. The only real difference between Paley and modern IDers is the incorporation of factors and processes at the biochemical and cellular levels of which Paley, of course, was unaware. Prominent names in the ID movement are Phillip Johnson (Darwin On Trial), Michael Behe (Darwin’s Black Box), Jonathan Wells (Icons of Evolution) and William Dembski (Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology).

A major contention of Wishart’s article is that “scientists are increasingly doubting the theory of evolution”. Unfortunately, he never really distinguishes clearly between the occurrence of evolution and its proposed mechanism, of which natural selection (Darwinism) is generally regarded as the chief agent of change. Consequently, the article switches from one aspect to the other in disconcerting fashion, such that, to the uninitiated, evolution itself appears seriously in doubt. Argument – the sign of a healthy science, not one in decline – now pertains to the “how” of the process.

The idea that evolution is on its last legs will be familiar to those conversant with creationist attacks over the years. The article repeats the hoary and long discounted argument that the fossil record lacks the expected transitional forms. “Nowhere,” writes Wishart, “are there fossils that show a cat-monkey, or a horse-giraffe, or any other of the alleged half-breed species said to have existed.” Setting aside such ludicrous caricatures, excellent examples of transitional forms between major groups do exist (see Evolution: the fossils say YES! NZ Skeptic, Summer 2001).

Somewhat ironically, Wishart sheds extreme doubt on the possibility of modern whales originating from a “carnivorous, cow-like creature about the size of a wolf … in a short period of geological time”. Apart from the “short period” amounting to at least 20 million years, the record of the rocks has revealed a fascinating series of forms, from whales with functional legs and ears like those of land mammals, to amphibious, wading and diving forms. (See Scientific American, May 2002). [Incidentally, based on new fossil evidence, the mantle of whale ancestor has shifted from the mesonychids (alluded to above) to a related group, the artiodactyls, and more specifically to the hippopotami.]

He is equally astray when he refers to “the lack of evidence for human evolution”. Apparently, he is unaware of early ape-like hominids, such as Ardipithecus ramidus, Australopithecus anamensis, and A. afarensis (“Lucy”), let alone later members of Australopithecus and early members of the genus Homo, the genus to which our species belongs. He is similarly dismissive of early bird evolution. Worth noting in this regard is a recent burst of fossil discoveries which has revealed a great diversity of Mesozoic birds; even older finds of feathered dinosaurs have corroborated prediction. Scientists await in keen anticipation further plugging of gaps in these and other transitional phases of vertebrate evolution.

Evolution well-supported

Has evolution occurred? The answer is a resounding “yes”! Darwin himself established this fact, based on an impressive consilience of evidence from several independent lines of inquiry: comparative morphology, embryology and geographical distribution, to name just a few. Since Darwin’s day, new research areas such as genetics, cell biology and molecular biology have only strengthened the level of consilience, as have many significant finds in the fossil record. Contrary to the impression continually being conveyed by anti-evolutionists, the occurrence of evolution is no longer an issue in biological science. The comparatively few scientists who seemingly question its validity are those who seem to have allowed their philosophical and religious beliefs to cloud their scientific judgment, to the extent, in some cases, of even advocating what amounts to the teaching of “theistic science”, and hence threatening the integrity of science in the classroom.

The key reason why ID and other forms of creationism must be kept out of science education is that the former have, as an inherent element, an appeal to an entity which lies outside the scope of science, whereas science deals with that part of reality amenable to empirical inquiry. Alternative explanations must be testable against the natural world. As Eugenie Scott, an American anthropologist and science educationist, has pointed out, science today is based on a necessary methodological materialism, which is not to be confused with philosophical materialism or naturalism, to which scientists and others may or may not adhere. (Wishart, to his credit, does seem to recognise the distinction between acceptance of evolution and non-scientific implications derived from it. Unfortunately, this distinction, like that between the reality of evolution and the “how” of the process, tends to become blurred in the writing.) Scott continually stresses that science neither denies nor opposes the supernatural, but ignores it for methodological reasons. She has expressed this necessary approach in colourful fashion: “You can’t put God in a test tube (or keep it out of one).” (For “God”, in the current context, read “Intelligent Designer”.)

Other points of confusion in the article are the conflation of “the origin of life” and “Big Bang theory” with organic evolution. There is a postulated continuity linking all aspects of an evolutionary universe, but each phase presents its own set of problems and requires its own specialised methodology. The conclusion that evolution has taken place, for example, rests on the evidence for it; the undoubted problems associated with the origin of the universe or with the origin of the very first life forms on this planet are irrelevant as far as organic evolution is concerned.

God of the Gaps

ID proponents tend to focus on such problem areas, which is akin to the God of the Gaps argument of earlier times. This unscientific approach is particularly apparent when a cornerstone (a very unstable one, I might add) of the ID movement is examined, namely, the idea of irreducible complexity, an idea alluded to in Wishart’s article. “By irreducibly complex”, writes Michael Behe, “I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively stop functioning”. He cites as examples of irreducible complexity, blood clotting and the movement of flagella (whiplike structures used by many microscopic organisms as swimming organelles). Such irreducibly complex structures and mechanisms, maintain IDers, could not have evolved in functional steps. The answer: intelligent design.

A Return to Paley

Setting aside the fact that reasonable naturalistic explanations do exist for many of these systems and structures (not yet satisfactorily formulated in other cases, admittedly), readers, I trust, will recognise a return to Paley in the whole idea of irreducible complexity. Drawing a line beyond which science is presumed unable to proceed is antithetical to the spirit of unfettered scientific inquiry. Is this the attitude we would wish to instil in developing and inquiring minds? And, as if this restriction were not enough, IDers would invoke some mysterious outsider as the “answer” to allegedly insoluble problems. (See the reviews of Darwin’s Black Box: Nature 383: 227-228; American Scientist 85: 474-475.)

The use of selective quotations is a favourite ploy of creationists. They are lifted from the evolutionary literature in such a way as to convey meanings not intended by their authors. In his article, Wishart provides several quotations intended to show that all is not well in evolutionary circles. Space restriction allows extended discussion of only two. However, these will serve to illustrate how misleading some selective quotations can be.

Lynn Margulis, Distinguished University Professor of Botany at the University of Massachusetts at Amhurst, is regarded in evolutionary circles as both innovator and maverick. She has been lauded for her work on cellular evolution, but her almost fanatical support of the Gaia hypothesis, considered by many scientists as unscientific, has not met with universal approval. In the article under review, several quotes by Margulis are gleaned from a profile article on her in Science 19 April 1991: 378-381. Here is how two of her statements (in italics for clarity) appear in Wishart’s article: “Darwinists, she goads, wallow in their zoological, capitalistic, competitive, cost-benefit interpretation of Darwin…Neo-Darwinism, which insists on [the slow accrual of mutation] is in a complete funk.”

The Statements in Context

Now let us consider Margulis’ first statement (in italics) in context: “Margulis defends herself and Gaia with the rhetorical verve that has long startled her colleagues. Her critics, she said in 1988, just wallow in their zoological, capitalistic, competitive, cost-benefit interpretation of Darwin – having mistaken him.” Note that Wishart makes no mention of Gaia; yet it is clearly its rejection on this occasion which particularly annoyed her and prompted this tirade. Such verbal salvoes may be grist for the creationist mill (especially when misused), but what really matters in the end is that disputes of this kind are generally resolved by the self-correcting mechanism of science.

The second statement (shown again in italics below) is preceded in the Science article with a brief discussion of Margulis’ valuable contribution to evolutionary change at the bacterial level. The writer then points out that “the controversial part of Margulis’ argument comes after that [with] her insistence that such changes could not have come through the slow buildup of chance mutations, and that therefore neo-Darwinism, which insists on that, is in a complete funk.” Addressing an audience at the University of Massachusetts, Margulis continues: “I have seen no evidence whatsoever that these changes can occur through the accumulation of gradual mutations. There’s no doubt, of course that they exist, but the major source of evolutionary novelty is the acquisition of symbionts – the whole thing then edited by natural selection. It is never just the accumulation of mutations.” [By acquisition of symbionts is meant the incorporation of free-living bacteria (e.g. mitochondria) into other bacteria to form a more complex organism.]

Original Setting Important

The above examples emphasize how vital it is to read selective quotations in creationist writings in their original setting. With reference to the second quotation, Margulis is not jettisoning natural selection entirely, merely playing down its influence as far as the production of evolutionary novelty is concerned. In this she is at odds with prominent evolutionists, a point which is stressed in the Science article. Most significantly, contrary to what might be concluded from Wishart’s article, she is not questioning evolution itself. In spite of differences with her colleagues, she is still very much an evolutionist. It is worth noting that in Wishart’s article the two quotations are linked, even though they were uttered about three years apart!

Hopeful Monsters

Wishart repeats the creationist mantra that the theory of punctuated equilibria “is similar to what became dubbed ‘the hopeful monster theory’ of the 1940s, whereby a dinosaur laid an egg and out of it hatched a bird.” This, continues Wishart, “is tantamount to admitting a miracle – divine intervention – according to creationists”. But, as Stephen Jay Gould, co-author of the punctuated equilibria theory, has observed, “the theory advances no defenses for saltational models of speciation…” (Saltation is postulated abrupt change resulting from a major mutation, that can give rise to a new class or type.)

The writer refers to the “many controversies” within evolutionary theory, which in his opinion receive curt coverage in the science curriculum. Certainly, if it is true that debate at 7th form bursary level is limited to “Darwin vs Lamarck”, then such concern is justified. However, what really concerns Wishart is revealed by the following: “Lamarck was an evolutionist like Darwin with a slightly different spin on the process. He wasn’t a Creationist.” (Emphasis added). Clearly, he wants ID creationism taught alongside evolution as an alternative explanation for biological reality.

People, of course, should be free to believe what they like, but when beliefs which are clearly non-scientific, such as the belief in an intelligent designer, are promoted as legitimate alternatives to evolution in a science curriculum, any opposition to such a move is entirely justified. It surely is the duty of educators and others genuinely concerned with the quality of science education, to resist any such intrusions and so uphold the integrity of science in the classroom.

Recommended Posts