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Science versus the Bible – A Response Part 2

Last week we considered the division theistic evolutionists draw between the books of scripture and nature. The first, they claim, instructs us in the why questions of existence, the second answers the how questions. I hope my blog helped you to appreciate the theological and philosophical difficulties in their approach.

Such an approach might seem reasonable to many: spiritual and scientific truth are two separate realms; when there is apparent conflict between the two then surely it’s better to simply recognise that they are non-overlapping spheres of truth. To paraphrase Stephen Jay Gould, the preacher tells us how to go to heaven, the scientist explains how the heavens go. Both are telling the truth, but about different realities.

But once the division is established, a clear hierarchy develops in the relationship of these two spheres. Whenever traditional interpretations of scripture (eg, a litero-historical reading of Genesis 1-3) conflict with the regnant assumptions of Science, it is the Christians who are forced to modify their beliefs. Nevertheless, today many Christians, whether driven by fear that biblical literalism would present too many easy targets to sceptical scientists, or because they accept naturalism (at least as an investigative methodology), are willing to concede to the division.

But their concession is both futile and unnecessary. Its futility is evident when we consider the triumphant tone of the more militant atheists when describing the ascendance of Darwinism. Richard Dawkins famously declared that Darwin had made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist, while more recently Daniel Dennett has described Darwinism as a ‘universal acid’ eating into and reshaping every field of human thought. If well-meaning Christians believe that marking a border between religious and scientific truth will mollify their critics, they need to think again.

And it’s unnecessary because Darwinism is incapable of fatally wounding Biblical Christianity. Not because it’s in some way compatible with our beliefs – it emphatically isn’t – but because it’s a failed artefact of nineteenth century thought that deserves no more than a place in the museum of philosophy beside other curiosities such as Marxism, phrenology, and eugenics.

That might surprise you, but I’m really not overstating my case. Darwin proposed his theory in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the scientific world was still largely ignorant of the complexity of life at the sub-cellular level. (That ignorance would only properly begin to lift with the invention of the electron microscope in the 1930s). Darwin based his theory on observations at the gross anatomical level and never imagined that there were layers upon layers of highly elaborate organisation below that. We’ll return to that problem in a moment.

Darwin’s argument relied heavily on extrapolation from the improvements in breeding that had taken place from the end of the eighteenth century. His contemporaries were able to produce impressive variations within species over the course of only a few generations, and he argued that, given sufficient time, nature could use the same process to produce not just variations but whole new species. His logic was simple, elegant and extremely persuasive.

Unfortunately it was also empirically very weak. What selective breeding actually demonstrated was that there were strict limits to variations even within species. Darwin was also honest enough to admit that the innumerable transitional forms anticipated by his theory were simply missing from the fossil record. He conceded this absence was ‘the most obvious and gravest objection that can be urged against my theory’ but attempted to explain it away by asserting that the geological record was imperfect and that subsequent discoveries would validate his ideas. They haven’t. The geological record is now so hostile to Darwin’s gradualistic explanation of species development that some palaeontologists (including Gould) have felt compelled to propose radically new hypotheses to account for the still- invisible missing links. One such theory is punctuated equilibrium which, in simple terms, suggests that evolution must have happened with massive saltations, or leaps, with new species being formed almost instantaneously without the need for intermediates. Needless to say, this idea is not very popular among traditional Darwinists such as Richard Dawkins; but it is a clear concession by palaeontologists that Darwin’s conjectures simply do not match the observable facts.

And if Darwin thought that geology presented grave problems, he would have simply flung up his hands in surrender if confronted with modern biochemistry. He accepted that ‘If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.’ He confidently asserted that he could find no such case – but we must remember that he was wholly ignorant of life’s most complex organs, those found at the sub-cellular level.

The problems presented at that level have been highlighted by the biochemist and ID advocate Michael Behe in his book, Darwin’s Black Box. Behe describes a range of microbiological systems (such as bacterial and protozoan flagella, immune systems, blood clotting and cellular transport) that feature numerous elements in such complex, interdependent relationships that no credible, step-by-step Darwinian model could be proposed to explain how they might have gradually arisen from simpler systems. Their complexity cannot be reduced without destroying them and the larger biological systems they support. Behe’s arguments have been criticised by many Christian Darwinists because, they claim, of their appeal to a faulty God-of-the-gaps logic. But, as we saw last week, ID argues from an increase in our knowledge, not from its gaps.

And the conundrum identified by Behe is reflected in the professional literature. Despite an exhaustive trawl through journals such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the Journal of Molecular Evolution, Behe was unable to locate a single paper that ‘proposed detailed routes by which complex biochemical structures might have developed.’

It’s fair to say that Darwin raised the bar quite high when proposing standards for his theory’s testability: one complex system which defied his stepwise explanation would be enough to collapse it. However, his disciples have spent the last century-and-a-half lowering that same bar to the point where it’s almost impossible not to get over it.

Such bar-lowering was on display at the Grosvenor Road talk in February. When pressed, the microbiologist claimed that there was ‘incredible, compelling evidence’ for Darwinism and suggested what was probably, to his mind, one of the strongest examples: endrogenous retroviruses (ERVs). These are non-coding elements of DNA that are situated on corresponding locations of the genomes of closely related species such as humans and apes. It must be noted that this evidence is incredible and compelling to Darwinists not because it establishes a step-by-step pathway for biochemical evolution but because it suggests a common ancestor.

Nevertheless, ERVs at first blush provide a very solid plank in the argument for common ancestry. If they are non-coding and have no obvious role in their respective genomes, it’s quite reasonable to suggest that they were initially inserted into the DNA of our common ancestor and maintained their (now redundant) positions as the several species followed their divergent evolutionary paths. Certainly the microbiologist sounded convinced when he announced ‘There’s absolutely no explanation for that other than the fact that we must have had a common ancestor.’

Or it would be a solid plank if science hadn’t revealed its rot. Research  published as recently as 2008 has established that, far from being redundant junk, ERVs actually play an important role in the transcription of close to 25% of human DNA.

The most interesting aspect of this case is how it reveals Darwinists’ incapacity for self criticism. ERVs were compelling evidence for a common ancestor because there ‘was absolutely no other explanation’ for them; lack of knowledge was used as evidence for the Darwinian hypothesis of descent. Although rightly opposed to the God-of-the-gaps, Darwinists have no hesitation in invoking an Ancestor-of-the-gaps.

So Christians have no need to concede any intellectual ground to Darwinism. The theory’s empirical problems were evident even to its author when first proposed in the nineteenth century. Since then, supporters of evolution have been constantly forced to revise it and to lower Darwin’s high standard of testability in order to rescue it from destruction by true science. And those advocates indulge in exactly the same science-stopping logical fallacies which they so quickly accuse others of committing.

Next week we’ll take a look at how Science and the Bible can truly complement each other.