At the cost of being repetitious, here is the story:
Phillip Johnson is considered the godfather of the modern Intelligent Design movement. Digressing further, I make it a point to capitalize Intelligent Design in order to distinguish it from intelligent design. Also, it’s customary in American English to capitalize the names of religious movements (e.g., Catholicism, Islam).
Johnson is a retired professor of law at UC Berkeley and was notably law clerk for Chief Justice Earl Warren. The classical tale is that Johnson was taking some time off in London and kept noticing a book by Michael Denton in a book store there. The book is Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Johnson bought a copy and also a copy of Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker, and he read both.
Dawkins argues that 18th century Christian apologist William Paley was wrong in his argument for apparent design in nature. Denton does not so much (not at all, in fact) argue for evidence of design so much as he argues that the modern theory of biological evolution, closely aligned with Charles Darwin’s postulation of the theory, is totally unsupported.
Anyhow, Johnson returned to the United States and helped to inspire and to implement the modern Intelligent Design movement. He was also instrumental in setting the course for the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (CSC), the main organization advocating this modern form of creationism.
It’s really a shame I waited so long to read Theory in Crises, but I had to get some other things out of my life before I could really dig into it. Also, in the many years since I purchased my copy I have developed additional background on some of the topics Denton brings up. Now that I have read the book from cover to cover, I am prepared to discuss only a single chapter. That will be the book’s last chapter, namely “The Priority of the Paradigm.” In this chapter Denton sums up his argument against the modern theory of biological evolution, and it is interesting and quite telling to analyze his argument.
In the first 14 chapters Denton provides some background and then covers a comprehensive list of arguments against some absolutely essential components of the theory of evolution. In chapter 15 he brings it all down to continuity, or lack of it, in nature. Here is how it works.
The Darwinian theory of evolution (still incorporated into modern biology) posits a number of things:
- All modern life forms trace their ancestry back to a common organism in the distant past.
- The line of descent of modern organisms follows a branching path from that common ancestor.
- Branches in the line of descent are generated by accidental mutations. From time to time a mutation in the genome of a single organism will produce a small change in an individual of the succeeding generation.
- If that small change is beneficial to the survival of the individual or the species, then Malthusian economics will work to preferentially retain the mutation, and eventual the mutation will become dominant in the population of the species.
This is usually summarized as random mutations, coupled with natural selection of beneficial features has worked to produce the variety of life forms on the Earth today.
Anyhow, a critical feature of Darwinian evolution is gradualism. Most genetic mutations are harmful or, at best, neutral. Only a chance mutation will benefit future generations. A single point mutation will (but not always) produce a small change in the next generation. Multiple, simultaneous single-point mutations are required to produce large changes in the next generation. A little mathematical analysis shows that the occurrence of a large, beneficial change has a vanishingly small probability. Darwinian evolution supposes only single single-point mutations between generations.
And that is what gets us to the principle argument of Denton’s final chapter. Darwinian evolution implies a continuum of life forms from the original to the present. The first 14 chapters of Theory in Crisis argue that such a continuum never happened and could never happen. Darwinism hangs on a continuous progression through time, and the evidence, according to Denton, is that the continuity is not there.
The paradigm in the title of chapter 15 is just that. Denton argues that Darwinists (modern biologists) cling to the continuity of life where there is no evidence for it and no evidence that it is possible.
Denton does not deny outright the common descent of modern life forms, but he maintains the line of descent is discontinuous. And there’s the rub, to steal a little from Shakespeare. In all of 15 pages of chapter 15 Denton never explains how the chain of ancestry can be continuous. I am sure that Johnson saw it, and its name was God. But Denton hardly mentions God and never in this context throughout the book. We are left to wonder if Denton presumed we would find God in those gaps of the chain of ancestry.
Ultimately, Denton’s argument is straight-forward. Biologists cannot explain how (in the face of all of Denton’s arguments) ancestry can be continuous, and paleontologists cannot demonstrate an absolute continuity of descent, therefore life (and the entire universe) must be discontinuous.
Here is where I come in. I am going to argue, much as did Denton, that he did not demonstrate complete evidence for discontinuity of descent, and he did not demonstrate, even more, he did not even mention, how life could be discontinuous. Furthermore, there are point-for-point arguments that there is a continuity of life. A brief excerpt from page 345 illustrates Denton’s thesis.
Neither of the two fundamental axioms of Darwin’s macroevolutionary theory-the concept of the continuity of nature, that is the idea of a functional continuum of all life forms linking all species together and ultimately leading back to a primeval cell, and the belief that all adaptive design of life has resulted from a blind random process-have been validated by a single empirical discovery or scientific advance since 1859. Despite more than a century of intensive effort on the part of evolutionary biologists, the major objections raised by Darwins’s [sic] critics, such as Agassiz, Pictet, Bronn and Richard Owen have not been met. The mind must still fill up the “large blanks” that Darwin acknowledged in his letter to Asa Gray.
One hundred and twenty years ago it was possible for a sceptic to be forgiving, to give Darwinism the benefit of the doubt and to allow that perhaps future discoveries would eventually fill in the blanks that were so apparent in 1859. Such a position is far less tenable today.
Since the birth of modern biology in the mid-eighteenth century, nearly all advocates of the continuity of nature have attempted to explain away the gaps in terms of what ultimately amounts to some sort of sampling error hypothesis, very few professional biologists have adopted the alternative nominalist position and explained them away as convenient and arbitrary inventions of the mind.
What Denton is starting to say here, and what he emphasizes in other remarks is that nobody has ever observed the supposed continuity of life, and, even more, nobody has ever justified with other evidence the continuity of life.
And that is Denton’s argument. This is nearly the sum total of his argument in the book.
The problem is that Denton’s argument for discontinuity of life is no better and is even worse than he claims for Darwinian evolution. Nowhere and at no time has anybody ever observed, and nowhere and not at any time has anybody ever demonstrated the discontinuity of life. Additionally, there is good argument against the discontinuity of life. Take the two points one at a time.
First, we never observe discontinuity of life. I had two parents. Each of them had two parents. I knew all of these people. I am told, and a little research conducted on Ancestry.com bears out, that each of my grandparents had parents. I am now going to foolishly extrapolate that this process continues on back as far as anybody can trace. At no point in my line of descent was there a person who did not have two parents (parthenogenesis notwithstanding). Let’s go a little further. Study all of recorded human history, and you will not find any individual who did not have parents. This does not count the mythical figures of Adam and Eve of the Bible.
There may be one fly in my argument. I once worked for a man with an unusual name. A search does not reveal an appreciable number of people with that family name. Don told me that his grandfather came to his a town in East Texas from parts unknown, and nobody ever knew anything more about him. However, I am going to submit that Don’s grandfather had parents.
Now for the second part. How would a discontinuity of life to come about? Denton mentions the giraffe and seems to imply that the formation of such a biological monstrosity must have involved a discontinuity. How could such a discontinuity have happened?
There was an animal that was not a giraffe. It had many of the features of a giraffe, but it did not have all the features necessary for a giraffe. A giraffe has features in its circulatory system that allow its heart to pump blood several feet to its brain at the top of a very long neck. At the same time, when a giraffe drops its head to drink water, the giraffe does not collapse due to all the blood rushing to its head. Something drastic changed between the pre-giraffe and the modern giraffe. It was more of a change than could be produced by a single-point mutation. It was a significant discontinuity in the giraffe’s line of descent.
How do you explain this discontinuity? Discarding the idea of a single-point mutation, there must have been a combination of many mutations that produced a giraffe’s special features, and this giraffe was born of parents who were pre-giraffe and without these features.
Which brings up Shel Silverstein.
This is Donald,
A long-necked preposterous.
He’s looking around for a female,
But there aren’t any.
The “poem” is accompanied by a cartoon of a funny-looking bird with a puzzled look on its face. Donald will never find a mate and will never have children. And that is what would have happened with the first and only giraffe if Michael Denton’s idea discontinuous descent had any substance.
Except.. Except, if from time to time entire populations of new species were produced within a single generation, all with genomes matching sufficiently to allow procreation and production of yet another generation. Whether or not this sounds like God to you, it is at the very least a more absurd proposition than the propositions of Darwinian evolution that Denton has attempted to refute in the book’s first fourteen chapters.
And that’s as far as I am going to go with this review. There are many excellent reviews of Theory in Crisis. None of them are positive except from religious and creationists sources. Here are a few links.
Diagnosing the first fourteen chapters of Theory in Crisis is laborious, but I promise at least a chapter by chapter critique in future posts. Hint, the part about molecular homology is hilariously absurd, and many of Denton’s points are recapitulated in the creationist book Of Pandas and People by Dean Kenyon and Percival Davis (edited by Charles Thaxton), which appeared shortly after Denton’s book. Reading all of these creationist books leads one to ask whether all of these writers drink from the same well. That would be an interesting route to follow some day.
liFirst, we never observe discontinuity of life. I had two parents. Each of them had two parents. I knew all of these people. I am told, and a little research conducted on