Michael Hart on evolution; and big discussion on whether Darwin and God are compatible
Though it was only a passing point in Mr. Hart’s article, the thread following the article has turned into an exchange with several commenters (starting here) on whether Darwinian evolution and the existence of a God who is directing evolution are compatible. I of course say that they are not. But the conviction on the other side is formidable. Michael Hart is the author of The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, and, most recently, Understanding Human History, a study of the role of intelligence in human history over the last 60,000 years (reviewed here by me). I am very pleased that he has written the following article for VFR on why he believes in the Darwinian theory of evolution. Below his article I offer some comments.
by Michael H. Hart
Although I think that most proponents of Darwin’s theory overstate their case, and that some are unfairly intolerant of those who disagree with them, I believe that Darwin’s notion of biological evolution by natural selection is basically correct. In what follows, I have attempted to present the most important arguments for and against the modern form of his theory. (Note: Much of the factual data in this article is presented in greater detail in Michael Denton’s excellent book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, published by Adler & Adler in 1985). I also wish to thank Larry Auster, who although disagreeing with my final conclusions on this topic, has graciously permitted me to explain my views on his website.
A typical dictionary defines the word evolution as “a gradual process in which something changes into a significantly different (especially a more complex) form” or “the theory that groups of organisms may change over time so that their descendants differ morphologically or physiologically from their ancestors.” The central idea is therefore descent with modification. Note that the definition does not prescribe the method by which the process occurs, and therefore includes both processes which proceed by conscious planning and those which occur automatically, or by chance.
However, since the definition of evolution I’ve just given is a broad definition that includes the possibility of non-Darwinian explanations of evolution, i.e., evolution through intelligent design or special creation, and, further, since many non-Darwinians accept the fact that different and more complex life forms have followed others over geological time, while questioning whether the later forms are descendants of the earlier forms (a reasonable question given the absence of transitional forms, which remains the greatest single objection to the Darwinian theory), it might be more accurate to define evolution as “succession with modification” rather than as “descent with modification.”
The notion of biological evolution has a long history. Several ancient philosophers, noting the marked similarities among various species, suggested that it might be due to their being descended from a common ancestral form. None of them, though, was able to propose a mechanism by which such evolution could occur.
However, in 1859 Charles Darwin described a possible mechanism, natural selection, by which such evolution could occur without any conscious planning. He pointed out that many traits of organisms appear to be inherited, at least in part. He then reasoned that if some lions, for example, inherited greater speed, or greater strength, or sharper claws, or greater resistance to disease, then they would be more likely to survive and reproduce than other lions who did not inherit those traits. Therefore, he reasoned, the descendants of the surviving lions would (at least on average) be more likely to possess those more useful traits than earlier generations did, and less useful traits would be selectively eliminated. The same process would occur in all species, and would explain how “microevolution” (adaptation within a species) occurred.
Had Darwin stopped there, his ideas might not have engendered great controversy. However, at that point he made a bold leap and suggested that a long series of small changes might in time result in the formation of a new species, somewhat resembling the original one. This would explain how “macroevolution” (the formation of new species from prior ones) had occurred. Furthermore, he speculated, the gradual evolution of new species might in time result in a new genus, or even a new family of species. Given enough time, he conjectured, the process could even produce a new class of vertebrates, or even new phyla (the largest divisions of the animal kingdom). Since each new species produced would be well adapted to its environment, they would give the impression of having been deliberately designed. Each, however, would have been produced merely by “natural selection” without any planning being involved.
In discussing Darwin’s theory there are therefore four separate questions to be considered:
1) Has microevolution occurred?
2) If so, can it occur by natural selection (the process Darwin described) without any deliberate planning?
3) Has macroevolution occurred?
4) If so, has it occurred by natural selection, without any deliberate planning?
The formation of new breeds of domestic animals and plants is well known. It is therefore obvious that microevolution has actually occurred, although in most of those cases it arose through the actions of intelligent designers (i.e., human beings).
Can microevolution occur through natural selection alone? There seems little reason to doubt this. (1) None of the main arguments (described below) against macroevolution by natural selection apply to microevolution; and (2) It is hard to see how natural selection could fail to result in microevolution. (Note also that the occurrence of microevolution does not contradict anything in the Book of Genesis.) It therefore seems overwhelmingly likely that microevolution by means of natural selection has been a common occurrence throughout geologic time.
There are very ancient strata of rocks in which we see the fossil remains of ancient fish, but not of other vertebrates—amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. In rocks formed at a somewhat later date, we observe the remains of fish and amphibians, but not of reptiles, birds, or mammals. In rocks from even later times, we observe the remains of fish, amphibians, and reptiles, but not of birds or mammals. In even more recent strata of rocks we observe the remains of fish, amphibian, reptiles, birds and mammals. Such sequences (and there are many such sequences) make it absolutely clear that macroevolution has somehow occurred. They do not, however prove that macroevolution occurred by natural selection.
Enthusiastic supporters of Darwin’s hypothesis often claim that it is an established theory, i.e., a hypothesis—like Einstein’s theory of relativity—from which so many testable predictions have been made and confirmed that it seems very likely to endure. However, no predictions of previously unknown phenomena have been made from Darwin’s hypothesis that macroevolution occurred by natural selection. It is therefore not an established theory, but merely a very interesting conjecture which may turn out to be correct.
There appear to be two main reasons for believing that the macroevolution shown by the fossil record has occurred by means of natural selection.
1) It enables a single explanation for both micro- and macroevolution. According to the principle of “Occam’s Razor” (which is one of the major principles of science), we should always prefer the simplest theory that is consistent with the observed facts, and the simplest theory is that which makes the least number of independent assumptions.
2) The only alternative explanation for macroevolution that anyone has been able to think of is special creation—the notion that some intelligent being (presumably God) has deliberately designed each of the millions of separate species we see in the world today and in the fossil record. However, we have not directly observed such an intelligent designer at work in evolution, and scientists are reluctant to explain physical events by merely positing that some invisible intelligent agent caused them. After all, any set of observations can be “explained” in such a fashion; but such “explanations” do not permit any predictions, and are therefore fatal to the entire scientific process. (Positing the existence of a “rain god” who arbitrarily decided where and when to make it rain did not assist us at all in understanding the natural world, and scientists do not wish to go back to such a mode of thinking.)
Many people found these arguments persuasive; and within a few decades of the publication of Darwin’s book the majority of the intellectual community had accepted his theory. However, various objections (not based on religious doctrine) have persisted, and continue to cast doubt on Darwin’s theory. Two of these objections seem particularly troublesome:
1) Darwin’s theory predicted that there were numerous intermediate forms between a species and the species ancestral to it, and those ancestral forms have not usually been observed.
2) Analogies to Darwinian evolution generally fail when applied to topics other the biological world.
IV) Lack of intermediate forms
Darwin mentioned this problem himself in The Origin of Species. In chapter VI he says, “Why, if species have descended from other species by insensibly fine gradations, do we not everywhere see innumerable transitional forms?” Even more strikingly, he says in chapter XIV, “Why does not every collection of fossil remains afford plain evidence of the gradation and mutation of the forms of life? We meet with no such evidence, and this is the most obvious and forcible of the many objections which may be urged against my theory.”
Darwin’s answer to this objection was the extreme imperfection of the geologic record, and in chapter IX he points out (correctly) that “only a small portion of the surface of the Earth has been geologically explored, and no part with sufficient care.” Darwin generally avoided making explicit predictions, but implicit in his statements is the prediction that if the geologic record were to be is examined more extensively then most—or at least many—of these “missing links” would be unearthed.
This was a plausible argument at the time when his book appeared, in 1859. However, in the intervening century and a half the number of individual fossils unearthed has risen 1000-fold, and alas, the gaps in the fossil record have not been filled in. Most fossils found in that time have been of species already known in Darwin’s time, and most of the new species discovered have been “siblings” to those already known, rather than ancestors. A few wholly different forms have been uncovered, but these are clearly not the intermediate forms that Darwin’s theory claims must have existed.
For the most part, what the fossil record displays are various species, each of which arises suddenly (and is at the outset clearly distinct from any prior species), then persists virtually unchanged for hundreds of thousands or millions of years, and then eventually dies out. (An excellent discussion of the facts—replete with pictures—can be found in chapter 8 of Michael Denton’s book.) Instead of the fossil record providing proof of Darwin’s theory, it has mostly provided problems to be explained away!
Furthermore, according to Darwin’s theory, there must have been a larger number of intermediate forms between distinct genera of animals than between closely related species; and more intermediates still between higher divisions (such as families, classes, orders, and phyla). However, the fossil record does not bear out this prediction.
Worse still, in many cases we have not only failed to find the intermediate forms, but we cannot even imagine what they might have looked like. For example: What intermediate forms could we expect to find between the “in-and-out” airflow in the lungs of reptiles and mammals, and the “flow-through” design of the lungs of birds? (Chapter 9 of Denton’s book discusses in detail this problem and similar ones.) Note also that, according to Darwin’s theory, each of the intermediate forms must be an improvement on the immediately preceding form (with regard to increasing the probability of survival and reproduction.)
Richard Dawkins—perhaps the most prominent and articulate defender of Darwinian theory—dismisses this objection by saying that our inability to envision the intermediate forms merely demonstrates our lack of imagination; and he urges us to believe that all such missing forms must have existed. Possibly he is correct; but plainly in this case he is the one who is saying (like the religious Christians he so denigrates), “believe and ye shall be saved.”
V) Failure of analogies
Improvements in aircraft design during the twentieth century provide a clear example of evolution. As a matter of historical fact, we know that the evolution of aircraft did not proceed by natural selection, but rather by deliberate planning by intelligent designers. But we can still ask the question: Had there been no deliberate planning, could modern aircraft have evolved by natural selection?
Suppose that in manufacturing an airplane, the builder had always used blueprints of earlier aircraft, but that occasional random errors were made in copying those blueprints. As a result, some of the resulting aircraft would not get off the ground at all; others would crash; and some would perform capably, but not better than their predecessors. A few, however, would perform better than their predecessors, and in such cases the manufacturer would use the blueprints of that model to build future aircraft.
Under those circumstances, natural selection would result in a (very) slow improvement in aircraft design. However, it is plain that such a process of gradual evolution could never result in a shift from propeller-driven aircraft to jet aircraft. Such a shift would necessitate the simultaneous addition of many separate parts, which would have to fit together perfectly for the plane to function at all. The aircraft we see today all evolved by intelligent design, and could not have arisen by natural selection.
The same is true of the evolution of firearms. Starting with a primitive musket, natural selection could result in firearms with longer (or shorter) barrels, or with higher (or lower) width, or with rifled barrels. But there is no way that single-shot firearms could have ever evolved into automatic weapons without an intelligent designer who carefully planned the numerous additional parts that were needed, what size each would have to be, and how they would fit together. Without careful planning, the intermediate forms would not be an improvement on single-shot weapons: and in fact, they would not function at all. The same is true of most other complex mechanisms, such a watches, computers, automobiles, and television sets.
VI) Why, then, do I believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution?
In view of the foregoing, some readers may wonder why I still believe in Darwin’s hypothesis that macroevolution has been driven by natural selection, rather than by any deliberate planning. I agree that the fossil record (or, at any rate, the portion that we have so far observed) does not prove Darwin’s theory; and indeed is more readily compatible with the view that some deity occasionally intervenes so as to produce a new species, family, or phylum. Nevertheless, I think there are good reasons for tentatively accepting the basic outlines of his theory of evolution. These two points are central to my viewpoint:
1) To accept the view that our failure so far to find an adequate explanation for the lack of intermediate forms “proves” that Darwin’s theory is wrong, and that God must therefore have intervened (repeatedly and unpredictably) in biological developments would amount to abandoning the entire outlook of science.
2) It is reasonable to suppose that a good explanation for the so-far mysterious lack of intermediate forms will eventually be found.
With regard to the first point, it is sensible to consider the history of science. At every stage in that history, there have been some facts that could not yet be explained by orthodox scientific theory; and at every stage there have been those who have claimed this showed the necessity of invoking a deity to explain the mysterious phenomena. Had we accepted that argument, modern science (and the technology that derives from it) would never have developed. Instead, a long series of scientists chose to accept the basic outlook of science; and one-by-one most of the “mysterious” phenomena have been explained.
A time may perhaps come when—after centuries of ingenious experiments and careful analysis—we may be forced to concede that science cannot explain certain phenomena, and that only the intervention of a deity will resolve the problem. Plainly, though, as of now—only five decades after out discovery of the structure and functioning of DNA, and at a time when new discoveries in both genetics and in historical geology are proceeding at a rapid rate—that point has not been reached with respect to organic evolution.
With regard to the second point, history provides many notable instances of the scientific community accepting elegant theories that were seemingly refuted by the then-known facts, and eventually being justified by later discoveries. (In each such instance, the preference for a theory that would satisfy Occam’s Razor provided the motive for their belief.)
For example, when the heliocentric hypothesis—the notion that the Earth revolves about the Sun—was presented by Copernicus and was in dispute, both sides agreed that there was a crucial observation that could settle the argument. If his hypothesis was correct, then the nearby stars should appear to shift position (relative to the distant stars) in the course of the year. Copernicus and his supporters admitted that this shift (called “stellar parallax”) had never been observed; but they asserted (without evidence) that parallax really did exist but was too small to detect with existing equipment.
Even the invention of the telescope in 1608 did not result in parallax being observed. Nevertheless, by 1700 almost the entire scientific community had accepted the Copernican view. Stellar parallax was finally detected in the 1840s; and that showed beyond question that the heliocentric hypothesis was correct.
Other examples of theories that were accepted by the scientific community despite obvious problems include Newton’s law of gravitation; Maxwell’s laws of electromagnetism; and the germ theory of disease. Because each of those theories was (like Darwin’s) able to explain so much from a few simple assumptions scientists were willing to tentatively accept it even before the apparent conflict with observations had been fully explained; and in each of those cases the theory turned out to be correct.
Might additional facts, or a more careful analysis, provide answers to the difficulties we now see in Darwin’s theory? It certainly seems possible. In the first place, it is still possible that we will in time unearth a sufficient number of “missing links” to remove that objection to Darwin’s theory. In the second place, hypotheses (such as the notion of “punctuated equilibrium” suggested by Gould and Eldridge) have already been made that (when worked out in greater detail) might adequately explain the rarity of intermediate forms. Thirdly, it should be remembered that many scientific theories are often modified or improved. Indeed that has already occurred a few times to Darwin’s original theory. For example:
1) Darwin made only passing references to mutations, did not know what caused them, and did not seem to understand the crucial role they played in evolution.
2) Nor did he know anything about genes; and without them his theory would be undercut by “blending inheritance.” That is, if an advantageous variation appeared in an organism, say, greater speed, then, as soon as it mated, the mean between its greater speed and the slower speed of its mate would be half its speed. And in the next generation, it would be reduced to one quarter. Any advantageous variations would therefore be soon lost. This was a major problem with Darwin’s theory that he became very much aware of, and it made him doubt his theory. The discovery of Mendel’s research into the mechanisms of genetics in 1900 showed that genetic traits do not simply blend in offspring but are passed on to offspring in a discrete package. This discovery made Darwin’s theory of the natural selection of advantageous traits plausible.
3) Nor did he talk about “genetic drift,” which is now considered a significant process in evolution.
4) The widespread occurrence of altruistic behavior originally seemed incompatible with Darwin’s theory. However, in the twentieth century, the notion of “inclusive fitness” seems to have solved that problem completely.
For all these reasons, I feel it is rash to assume that no explanation for the current lack of intermediate forms will ever be found, and that we must therefore conclude that Darwin’s theory is wrong, and that only the intervention of a deity can possibly explain the variety of species we see on Earth today.
Supporters of Darwin’s theory often assert that their opponents are motivated primarily by religious dogma, rather than facts. Doubtless, that is sometimes the case. However, the motives of the person presenting an argument do not determine whether or not the argument is logically correct. (The opposite claim is the ad hominem fallacy.)
But if one chooses to argue ad hominem, one should note that many proponents of Darwin’s theory also have ideological reasons for their views. After all, if Darwin’s theory is false, then it is difficult not to accept the notion of “god-the-creator,” since other than Darwinism, no other theory exists that can come close to explaining the existence of the amazingly complex biological organisms we see around us.
Indeed, that seems to be a stronger ideological motive than opponents of his theory have. After all, one can accept that Darwin’s theory is basically correct, and still believe in God. Various religious believers have suggested that Darwinian evolution is simply the method chosen by God to produce the variety of species we see today.
The theory of organic evolution by means of natural selection appears to be a satisfactory explanation of microevolution (adaptation within a species). However, the evidence that it accounts for macroevolution (the formation of new species, families, or phyla), is inconclusive, and indeed there are observations that seem to contradict it. However, since the theory is so elegant and explains so much, and since abandoning it would amount to abandoning some of our basic assumptions about science, it seems wisest at this time to accept it (tentatively) as a basically correct but probably incomplete theory.
Lawrence Auster writes:
I thank Mr. Hart very much for this article. To a degree greater than any Darwinian I know of, he plainly acknowledges that the gaps in the fossil record put the Darwinian theory into question, and he approaches the controversy in a genuinely open and scientific spirit.
Stewart W. writes:
I just have to say, thanks again for the work you do. Mr. Hart’s essay is an excellent example of why this is one of the finest blogs on the web, and the discussions you prompt on this matter are not to be found in many other places.Olivier van Renswoude writes from the Netherlands:
Grateful am I to both Mr. Hart and Mr. Auster for this interesting and (refreshingly) courteous exchange of arguments and ideas. Let me state right away that I am a theist and a skeptic of Darwinian evolution. But I do find Darwinian evolution scientifically compelling in the same way Mr. Hart does, while I very much agree with Mr. Auster that the scientific community doesn’t need to invest so much in “selling” Darwinian evolution.LA replies:
Whether in the universe or out of it, if God intends things to reach a certain result, and if the universe he expressly created to reach that result reaches it, it is not random.A. Zarkov writes:
Suppose for the sake of argument, both micro and macro evolution are really the product of interventions of one or more intelligent agents. Must these agents be divine? Why can’t they themselves be part of the natural universe? I don’t see any reason why humans won’t advance to the point where they can improve on current species (micro evolution) and even invent new species (macro evolution) by DNA technology. In other words, we humans could one day become the intelligent agents creating a new universe of organisms. And we are hardly divine. In short I see no necessary theological implications should we somehow disprove the theory of evolution. I doubt we will ever disprove it for the reasons discussed by Hart.LA replies:
It’s true that we don’t have to think of the guiding intelligence in biblical terms. We could hypothesize an intelligence in life itself, that drives life to express itself in different and higher ways. Or we could speak of “the self-organizing universe.” But however we put it, we are speaking of a quality of mind, something non-material that guides matter, and this is something that materialist reductionist scientists cannot accept any more than they can accept Biblical Revelation.LA continues:
Here’s a funny thing that would only happen at VFR. Of the last two comments, the first was from Mr. van Renswoude, who believes in both Darwinism and God, and who posits evolutionary mutations which are both directed by God and are random; and the second was from Mr. Zarkov, who seems to disbelieve in both Darwinism and God, and who posits god-like humans who create their own universes and the organisms that populate them!Jon W. writes:
Thank you for pursuit of truth about evolution and all your other intellectual nourishments and calisthenics.LA replies:
I can’t even dice your carcass into large pieces, because your comment is over my head! There are certain issues, like pre-destination, that I don’t have a handle on at all.Olivier van Renswoude writes:
Thank you for posting my comment and replying to it. I see, however, that you state that I believe in Darwinism. But really, I do not. I said at most that I find it scientifically compelling and that I believe it doesn’t contradict theism necessarily. But as a skeptic I have no intention of subscribing to Darwinian evolution just yet.LA replies:
You said you find it scientifically compelling. To me that’s the same as saying that you believe it’s true.Patrick H. writes:
Thanks to both you and Michael Hart for a superb discussion of issues surrounding evolution. While I am generally impressed with Michael Hart, and was also impressed by his essay, he failed, significantly, to address your strongest objection to evolution. I must note that I use the word “strongest” to mean both the objection to which you seem most committed, and which also seems to me to be the cornerstone of your opposition to Darwinism: namely, that speciation cannot have been brought about by any combination of natural selection and random mutation. Michael Hart does not mention random mutation in his essay, and seems to me therefore to have missed the gravamen of your objection. He does address natural selection and its contribution to speciation (“macroevolution” in his essay), but he ignores the fatal weakness: the inability of random mutations to provide the kind of complex transformations that need to be induced in a species in a short period of time and in a coordinated manner for macroevolution to occur. [LA replies: In fairness to Mr. Hart, his essay was not written as a response to my ideas, but in order to explain his own position on evolution. He has not yet had an opportunity to reply to my comments on his essay.]Jon W. writes:
Let gobbeting begin.LA replies:
I make the same reply I made to Patrick H. and also in previous discussions of this issue. People keep returning to the idea—which they express in a variety of ways and terminologies—that if events seem random to us, then they’re random. From which it follows that if mutations are generated by God, but seem random to us, then mutations are both random AND directed, and the theistic direction of evolution is compatible with Darwinian evolution by random mutation and natural selection.Laura W. writes:
But, the existence of altruism remains an enormous thorn in the side of Darwinism. The theory of inclusive fitness is the equivalent of a shot of mace in the eyes. It confuses and obfuscates, but does no real damage. If inclusive fitness made sense, and all altruism could be explained by genetic relatedness, sibling altruism would be as common and as strong a force as parental altruism. Incest would be common or at least more prevalent. David Stove makes these and other persuasive points in a lengthy examination of inclusive fitness in his book, Darwinian Fairytales. “If the theory of inclusive fitness were true, the world would be awash with kin altruism, and we would all, from bacteria up, be swimming (or drowning) in an ocean of love,” he says. “It would not be ‘the problem of altruism’ which gnaws endlessly at the vitals of Darwinism. It would be the ‘problem of selfishness’; and the problem would be where to find any of it.”Robert R. writes:
I think you gave the wrong answer to Jon W. There’s nothing irrational about the argument people are putting forward. It’s quite possible that in the sphere of our knowledge—the universe—that events could appear random but are actually not when viewed from a perspective that goes beyond the universe. The correct answer to someone who puts forward such a statement is that it takes us outside the realm of science and as such is of no interest to scientists who are trying to understand the natural world. Hart already addressed this when he said “such ‘explanations’ do not permit any predictions, and are therefore fatal to the entire scientific process.” I think it perfectly valid, however, for non-scientists to put forward such theories as POSSIBLITIES.LA replies:
Well of course it takes us outside the natural world, since it is religious believers who put forward this idea that God is actually guiding the Darwinian process. The problem is not that they make supernatural arguments. The problem is that they want to have it both ways, that God is directing things, and that Darwinian evolution is true. I am not discussing this as a matter of science vs. religion or of science vs. philosophical speculation. I am discussing it as a matter of basic logic. Entity X cannot be characterized by Quality A in the same moment and in the same respect as it is characterized by Quality not-A. If a mutation occurred randomly, then it did not occur as a result of God’s direction toward some end. If a mutation occurred as a result of God’s direction toward some end, then it did not occurr randomly.James M. writes:
Does Christianity not teach us that we possess free agency, yet simultaneously are being directed by God’s plan? Is this not exactly the same sort of contradiction that you have rejected during this discussion? Help me understand the difference, or is my understanding of doctrine misinformed?LA replies:
The question of man’s free will versus God’s determination is not relevant to this discussion. We’re not talking about human action. We’re talking about genetic mutations in living organisms.LA continues:
This discussion has been a strange experience for me. I’ve been making what I think is a straighforward, logical point which any person ought to be able to understand. Yet the resistance to it is endless.Daniel P. writes:
The crux of Mr. Hart’s argument seems to be that not believing in Darwinism will lead to the destruction of science. He misses the point that the only reason to believe in something is that it is true; the possible practical effects of a belief are irrelevant to its truth.Hannon writes:
You write “..Yet the resistance to it is endless.”LA replies:
Hannon’s point is most interesting and describes very well the motivations of the people who have the “both are true” position. But that doesn’t make the position true (obviously), and it also doesn’t make it politically helpful in lessening leftist demonization of conservatives, as Hannon believes it to be. After all, vast numbers of religious believers in America also believe in Darwin, including virtually all Catholics. Has this lessened the hatred of the secular left for Christians in general and the Catholic Church in particular? To the contrary, such hatred has been increasing in recent years, with the all out demonization of religion by aggressive atheists such as Richard Dawkins. Also, it gives the left a wedge issue, since, even while attacking Christiantiy as such, they can play a double game of distinguishing between the “tamed” Christians who sign on to modernity, and the evil “Christian right” who don’t.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at February 11, 2008 07:45 PM | Send