Why should it matter to Catholics whether Darwinism survives or fades away? Hasn’t the Church tolerated evolution quite happily since it was first discussed at a Church Council seventeen hundred years ago? Didn’t the Holy Father all but endorse Darwinism in a 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences? Why should Catholics who are not six-day Genesis fundamentalists even bother to read this article?
For one very big reason, the same reason implied by John Paul II in his somewhat ambiguous 1996 address: Darwinism denies that God played a role in the creation of human beings.
This is a serious problem, because without God’s creation of the first two humans, there is no Fall, and, if no Fall, no original sin and therefore no need for a Redeemer. If no Redeemer, then no redemption and hence no sacraments, no faith, no Church.
As the Holy Father mentioned in his 1996 address, there are several theories of evolution. This is an important point to remember, because not all theories of evolution are hostile to the Catholic beliefs. Over the centuries, the Church has taught that:
- In the beginning God created everything out of nothing;
- He created the first man and woman specially and in some way;
- The soul is created by God, not produced by the parents;
- The first parents were tested, sinned, and fell from original innocence into original sin, which they passed on with all its painful consequences to their descendants.
There are a number of “theistic” theories of evolution that could be potentially compatible with these propositions. Such theories generally agree that God created matter, then set in motion laws of nature that allowed evolutionary change to occur. Some theistic evolutionists permit God to intervene from time to time to keep things moving in the right direction.
Most theistic evolution theories are tolerant of, or compatible with, the special creation of man. Some even interpret the molecular complexities of life as reflecting the designs of an intelligent being. Intelligent design theories of evolution can easily be harmonized with the Catholic faith.
But Darwinism cannot, for it assumes from the outset that God plays no role in biological existence. Darwinism assumes that the tendency towards evolutionary progress is an inherent feature of the universe and requires no divine involvement. God’s exclusion from nature is not a scientific observation, as Darwinians sometimes claim. It is an arbitrary philosophical starting point chosen before any biological data are even collected. Darwinism takes as given that evolution is a purely materialistic process that proceeds by random chance toward no particular goal. Since neither survival nor fitness matters to the empty Darwinian universe, “survival of the fittest” has no deeper meaning.
Dogma Disguised As Science
Darwinist apologists often stress data that support their philosophy and ignore data that do not. Hence it appears that, for many Darwinians, protecting atheistic philosophy is more important than preserving scientific objectivity. Darwinism is precisely the sort of materialist-origins philosophy the Holy Father warned us against in his oft-quoted address: “theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter are incompatible with the truth about man. Nor are they able to ground the dignity of the person” (Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 22, 1996).
Darwinism, with its modern genetic refinements (such as Neo-Darwinism), dominates mainstream evolutionary thinking and dictates the content of school textbooks. Children are taught as scientific facts that the universe exists by accident, that life arose spontaneously from non-life, that all species arose from a common primitive ancestor, and that all biological diversity can be accounted for by random genetic changes (usually, but not always, in small increments) chosen over billions of years by the process of natural selection.
Some Darwinian evolutionists who go so far as to assert that qualities of soul like love, altruism, or piety are merely extensions of animal instincts are bold enough to claim the status of “scientific fact” for such speculations.
But are any of those assertions scientific facts, or are they just materialist philosophical dogmas masquerading as science? Does biology support Darwinism, as so many journalists and scientific authorities assure us? Or is the Darwinist version of evolution less an established fact than a tax-supported official ideology with some of the trappings of an established religion?
Let us begin where biology is presumed to begin, by considering the possibility that non-living matter could spontaneously generate life. Harold Urey, who won the Nobel Prize in 1934 for trying (unsuccessfully) to create life in the lab, wrote, “All of us who study the origin of life find that the more we look into it, the more we feel that it is too complex to have evolved anywhere. We all believe, as an article of faith [emphasis added], that life evolved from dead matter on this planet. It’s just that its complexity is so great, that it’s hard for us to imagine that it did” (Christian Science Monitor, January 4, 1962, p. 4).
To help understand Urey’s point, imagine a lifeless swamp a few billion years ago that “wishes” to generate life. It will have to build some proteins, the building blocks of life. Proteins are chains of amino acids. Assume that by some unknown process your swamp is able to generate amino acids. By natural generation, half of the amino acids will be left-handed, the other half right-handed.
But right-handed amino acids damage protein structure, so your swamp will have to find a way to get rid of them. Most biological proteins are strings of one hundred or so left-handed amino acids, assembled in exactly the right sequence. The sequence has to be exact, or the protein’s shape changes; change the shape significantly and you destroy the protein’s biological value.
As your swamp lines up its amino acids just so, it has to keep them from reacting with each other and with water, oxygen, calcium, magnesium, and a host of other chemicals—even though amino acids are highly reactive with many substances. Your swamp must also protect its amino acids from ultraviolet light, because UV light denatures protein. Since the sun is above the horizon roughly half the time, UV light is present roughly half the time.
All these factors make it hard for a swamp to produce a protein. Even if it did, one protein would not be enough. It would take about two thousand different proteins to make the simplest imaginable one-celled organism, and it would have to make all two thousand in virtually the same instant. Why? Because proteins and amino acids get rancid within hours of exposure to oxygen and/or ultraviolet light.
The chemical odds of two thousand proteins arising spontaneously in this way have been estimated by Darwinians at approximately one chance in ten with forty thousand zeroes after it. That is about as close to statistically impossible as can be, no matter how many billion years you wait for it to happen.
And to make matters worse, for spontaneous generation no help can be expected from evolution, because chemicals don’t evolve. Neo-Darwinism requires DNA to pass on information to descendants. But your swamp is nowhere near ready to produce DNA. Small biological proteins don’t have descendants for natural selection to choose between.
Your swamp also needs to create sugars and fats—but again, as with amino acids, not just any sugar or fat will do. Biological sugars must be right-handed, since left-handed ones sabotage biological structures. Statistically, right- and left-handed sugars form naturally in equal quantities. And biological fats must be the cis form, even though the mirror image trans form is the chemically stable type preferred by nature. Your swamp needs cis fats to make cell membranes, but trans fats—the type nature prefers—damage or destroy cell membranes. And as you might expect, cis and trans are found in equal amounts. So your swamp has to find a way to get rid of the left-handed sugars and the trans fats.
It also needs to produce a genetics system. It is probably impossible to assemble the components of DNA in the lab, even with high-priced technicians and modern equipment. Indeed, some parts of the DNA molecule have never been synthesized by human chemists. Is it reasonable to think these parts could be synthesized in a lifeless swamp?
Other parts of the DNA molecule cannot be synthesized in water. They must be synthesized dry, then somehow introduced into a water-based living creature without being destroyed on contact with water. No mere human scientist knows how to do that.
To make matters more complicated, DNA does not function unless it has several dozen regulatory proteins present. These are produced by DNA, but must be present before DNA can actually produce them. You need the whole genetic system all at once. There is no value in having just part of it. Asking the genetics system to produce itself and its autoregulatory proteins simultaneously is like asking your neighbor to become her own grandmother.
The need for the whole genetics system all at once (and not by small increments accumulating over time, as demanded by Darwinian theory) led a biological probability conference some years ago at the University of Paris to conclude, “We believe there is a considerable gap in the Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. We believe this gap to be of such a nature [that] it cannot be bridged with the current conceptions of biology” (Schutzenberger in Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution, pp. 73, 75).
Darwinians are not deterred. In the words of George Wald, my old biology professor at Harvard University, “The reasonable view was to believe in spontaneous generation; the only alternative [was] to believe in a single primary act of supernatural creation. There is no third position. For this reason, many scientists a century ago chose to regard the belief in spontaneous generation as a ‘philosophical necessity.’ . . . Most modern biologists, having reviewed with satisfaction the downfall of the spontaneous generation hypothesis, yet unwilling to accept the alternative belief in special creation, are left with nothing.
“I think a scientist has no choice but to approach the origin of life though a hypothesis of spontaneous generation” (“The Origin of Life,” Scientific American, August 1954, p. 46).
It would seem “scientific facts” have been replaced by “articles of faith” and “philosophical necessities.” But let us get back to science.
Of Genes and Embryos and Five-Digited Beasts
Everyone agrees that many species have extremities that end in five digits. Humans have five fingers on each hand and five toes on each foot. Whale flippers, bird wings, and mammalian paws all end in five digits. The Penguin Dictionary of Biology assures us that this sharing of five-digited extremities is strong evidence that all life shares a common ancestor and is a major proof of the truth of Darwin’s theory.
Maybe when Darwin wrote, a century and a half ago ago, it seemed obvious that the sharing of five-digited extremities suggested descent from a common ancestor. But if human hands and animal extremities are variations on a theme pioneered by a common ancestor, it would be reasonable to expect that the genes of that common ancestor ought to be the baseline from which human hands, dog paws, bird wings, and whale flippers branch off as variations on a common theme. They are not.
Similarly, if these digits descended from a common ancestor, one would expect them to begin in roughly the same place embryologically, then branch off as they develop into hands, flippers, or wings. They do not.
The genes controlling the formation of five-digited extremities are completely different in each of these species. Embryologically, each of these structures begins in a different place, and develops through radically different routes into hands, flippers, or wings. Different genes produce different patterns of development, yet arrive at similar (five-digited) structural outcomes.
In other words, modern genetics and embryology show us that these similarities are not signs of divergent evolution from a common ancestor. The scientific data suggests that five-digited extremities might offer mechanically superior engineering. Whether this implies intelligent design or suggests convergent evolution is a matter of philosophical interpretation, not scientific fact.
A Theory with No Fossil Fuel
The fossil record is equally hostile to Darwin. His basic theory stated that evolution progresses by slow, cumulative changes over time. According to Darwin, individual species change gradually through series of intermediate forms into different species. Very few fossils had been discovered when Darwin formed this hypothesis. He expected that many fossils would be found of species intermediate between ancestral organisms and their descendants and admitted that if such fossils could not be found it would disprove his theory.
By Darwin’s own criterion his theory has been disproved. In the past one hundred fifty years, the fossil record has become nearly complete, yet there are still no intermediate fossils. Scientists have found fossils of 97.7 percent of land vertebrates worldwide, and almost one hundred percent in North America, and still they have not found the intermediate fossils Darwin said had to be there in order for his theory to be true.
No less an authority than the late Stephen Jay Gould called the absence of fossil support for evolution the “trade secret” of paleontology. (Gould, of course, did his part to keep it a secret in his years of evolutionary commentary on PBS, although he wrote quite honestly about these problems in the scientific literature.)
What you find in the fossil record is the sudden appearance, 600 million years ago in the “Cambrian Explosion,” of a wide range of mature fossils. Some of these lasted for a while, then died out. Others have survived into the present. None changed into anything else.
Later, other fossils appeared abruptly in their mature forms, persisted, then either died out or survived to the present. None changed into anything else. There are no intermediate forms. The predominant fossil theme is stasis: species appear, stay the same, and either die out or persist into the present. The fossil record provides no evidence that any species was ancestral to any other species and no evidence of intermediate forms showing ancestral relationship.
One of the Darwinist hopes of the 1960s was that chemical traces could be found of ancestral relationships in the amino acid sequences of proteins common to various species. Literally dozens of proteins have been sequenced, in dozens of different species, but the data show isolated species, or families of species, chemically clustered in the same way Linnaeus clustered creatures by physical appearance over two hundred years ago, with no intermediates to suggest ancestral relationships. Once again, there is no reason to connect the dots.
Darwinists have defended their turf by postulating that a “biochemical clock” created the spaces between species. Their critics point out that it would be an odd clock that evolved at the same rate in mice and elephants, despite the huge difference between their generation times, yet ran at radically different speeds for different proteins.
On the whole, biochemistry has proven as depressing for Darwinists as the fossil record.
Worst of all for Darwin—and the final death knell for his theory—is the modern subject of irreducible complexity.
To be “irreducibly complex,” a system must not only be very complicated but also must need every one of its many parts to function. An irreducibly complex system cannot function if any one of its parts is taken away. We saw an instance of irreducible complexity with the genetics system in our hypothetical swamp.
Such a system could not be created by a Darwinist approach, because Darwinism requires that complicated systems or organs be built up one piece at a time. In Darwinism, each piece must ordinarily confer a survival advantage, one chosen by natural selection.
Pieces that do not confer a survival advantage might be tolerated from time to time, but only as exceptions to the rule that natural selection results in changes that make survival more likely. Scientists assume that natural selection does not like to waste energy on useless items.
Irreducibly complex systems like the genetics system, the immune system, the blood-clotting system and the retina of the eye (to mention only a few) contain many elements that are of no value on their own. Some—particularly in the clotting and immune systems—contain dozens of elements, some of which would be fatal on their own without the balance provided by the rest of the system. Others would uselessly consume energy on their own and therefore might be a survival disadvantage, to be rejected by natural selection.
There is no way to develop irreducibly complex structures in a Darwinian way, as the theory currently exists.
Finally, there is no scientific evidence that microevolution—the adaptation of species to environmental change—can generate macroevolution—the development of new species.
Here is the bottom line: Darwin’s philosophical materialism is every bit as outmoded and sterile as was Marx’s. Perhaps we can look for a day when the Berlin Wall of textbook Darwinism collapses, and students will at last be free to study biology without Harold Urey’s encrusted atheistic “articles of faith” or George Wald’s godless “philosophical necessities.”
Scientists outside the English-speaking world, particularly in France and China, are already far more skeptical about Darwinism than biologists in this country. Perhaps in the future a less ideologically driven biology will develop theories that explain the diversity of life in ways that provide a better fit with the biological data. In the meantime, Darwinism is not fit to survive.