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Is There Any Scientific Controversy Over Darwinian Evolution?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I am told again and again by blog commenters that there is absolutely no controversy over any aspects of Darwinian evolution among those who study biology in the scientific community.  Here is a typical quote from a recent commenter, who was speaking about the pro-intelligent design Discovery Institute’s advocacy of teaching the controversy over certain aspects of evolution:

There is no scientific controversy. None. Not one bit. At all. This is purely a religiously motivated, and intentionally manufactured one, to appear as a scientific controversy. But appearances can be deceiving, especially when it is done intentionally to try to create controversy where none exists in scientific terms, one that does not match up to the evidence science has revealed from the reality we share.

But this is simply not true.  There is plenty of controversy in the world of evolutionary biology.  You just have to read. 

I thought it would be helpful to point out just one prominent biologist’s disagreement with the standard evolutionary account.  His name is James Shapiro and he is a molecular biologist at the University of Chicago.  A pro-ID scholar, William Dembski, wrote a review of Shapiro’s latest book, Evolution: A View from the 21st Century, where he carefully describes Shapiro’s disagreement with the standard account.

Dembski starts by quoting evolutionary geneticist Jerry Coyne, who gives a succinct definition of evolution:

There is only one going theory of evolution, and it is this: organisms evolved gradually over time and split into different species, and the main engine of evolutionary change was natural selection.  Sure, some details of these processes are unsettled, but there is no argument among biologists about the main claims . . .  While mutations occur by chance, natural selection, which builds complex bodies by saving the most adaptive mutations, emphatically does not.  Like all species, man is a product of both chance and lawfulness.

Dembski continues:

Coyne here depicts the form of Darwinism that currently reigns, what is called the neo-Darwinian synthesis, which combines classical Darwinism (which holds to universal common ancestry, evolutionary gradualism, and natural selection) with modern genetic theory (which locates the source of heritable variation in genetic mutations, i.e., writing errors in DNA).

So, if this is the standard view of evolution, and there is no controversy over it, then we should expect Shapiro to agree with his colleague, right?  Wrong.  According to Dembski,

Of all these elements, Shapiro only subscribes to one, namely, universal common ancestry, or common descent, the claim that all organisms trace their lineage to a common ancestor (thus making all organisms alive today cousins). On every other point, Shapiro demurs.

Read that again.  Shapiro only agrees with common descent and disagrees with the rest of Coyne’s description of evolution.

Thus, when it comes to the claim that evolution proceeds gradually, Shapiro writes (p. 89): “Do the sequences of contemporary genomes fit the predictions of change by ‘numerous, successive slight variations,’ as Darwin stated, or do they contain evidence of other, more abrupt processes…? The data are overwhelmingly in favor of the saltationist school that postulated major genomic changes at key moments in evolution.”

If Shapiro simply left matters there, however, he might align himself with proponents of punctuated equilibrium who, keeping faith as much as possible with neo-Darwinism, see the principal source of biological variation in genetic copying errors, otherwise known as “mutations.”  But Shapiro rejects  this view as well.  For him, variation, which is always the creative potential of any evolutionary theory (no variation, no evolution), is not a random affair at all.  Rather, organisms intelligently control their variation and thereby facilitate the evolutionary process. 

Shapiro writes (143): “Living cells and organisms are cognitive (sentient) entities that act and interact purposefully to ensure survival, growth, and proliferation. They possess corresponding sensory, communication, information-processing, and decision-making capabilities.  Cells are built to evolve; they have the ability to alter their hereditary characteristics rapidly through well-described natural genetic engineering and epigenetic processes as well as cell mergers.”

Dembski then concisely summarizes Shapiro’s view of evolution:

Organisms behave purposefully.  They evolve themselves.  They do this by intentionally modifying their own DNA.  Within neo-Darwinism, DNA is a read-only memory subject to occasional copying errors.  For Shapiro, DNA is a read-write memory, with the organism itself deciding when and where to modify its DNA.

Enough said, I think.  Shapiro differs dramatically from evolutionary orthodoxy.  He is representative of the active debate that is occurring among scientists who study evolution.  Why should these differing views not be openly discussed?  Why am I told that there is no controversy when there clearly is?  Let’s just admit that there are scientific debates within the evolutionary community, instead of pretending they don’t exist.


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  • http://questionablemotives.wordpress.com/ tildeb

    Coyne responds to Shapiro:

    “What Shapiro fails to realize here is that these “innate features of the genome” that produce the appearance of “directed change” are themselves molded by a combination of random mutation and natural selection, creating a genome that operates in an adaptive way.”

    Coyne then explains in very specific detail to Shapiro’s example (that supposedly raises a scientific controversy about natural selection) exactly how and why Shapiro (based on Shapiro’s example, remember) does not understand natural selection.

    “In fact, Shapiro sees my natural-selection scenario above, which is accepted by virtually every biologist who works on the immune system or on contingency loci, as a “philosophical” difference between him and me: (direct quote from Shapiro). It’s not a philosophical difference, it’s a scientific difference, and all the facts are on my side. There’s no evidence that the immune system resulted from anything other than garden-variety natural selection—the same sort of selection that helps bacteria evade the defenses of their hosts.”

    That’s why quoting Shapiro as evidence for a scientific controversy is an empty gambit: There’s no contrary scientific evidence to make this a scientific controversy.

    Look, there is no scientific controversy about evolution by natural selection in exactly the same sense that there is no scientific controversy about the foundational theories of gravity, germs, or atoms. If there was scientific controversy about any of these fundamental understandings then our applications, technologies, and therapies would show evidence for this by not working for everyone everywhere all the time. But they do work.

    If people like Behe and Dembski want to use Shapiro’s misunderstanding to create a scientific controversy then it falls to them to provide scientific EVIDENCE to back up the hypothetical controversy that withstands scientific criticism. In this matter they continue to fail. Regardless of this sustained failure, they continue to imply a philosophical basis is enough to justify a scientific controversy. This is not legitimate. Until they do provide compelling evidence for a scientific controversy, the central pillar of understanding in biology remains evolution by natural selection.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    tildeb,
    We have two eminent evolutionary scientists who disagree about the scientific account of evolution. Therefore, there is a controversy.

    Science is not just about data gathering; it is also about interpretation of the data gathered. Shapiro and Coyne, both looking at the same exact data, disagree as to how the data should be interpreted.

    For you to claim that there is no scientific controversy just seems incredibly odd. I’m not sure how many books or articles I would have to point to before you would concede the point. Shapiro’s book is just the tip of the iceberg.

  • http://questionablemotives.wordpress.com/ tildeb

    Bill, you confuse disagreements on philosophical (and theological) grounds to be evidence for a scientific controversy. I don’t disagree that there are not only significant but incompatible controversies between the two. Just look at the goal of the Discovery Institute for plain evidence about this. The fact of the matter is that the supposed controversy is not based on either compelling evidence or good science. Sure, many books purport to be about a scientific controversy, but when the theses are taken apart, we find no valid scientific controversy. What we find – every single time – is a philosophical (and/or theological) difference packaged to appear as a scientific controversy.

    It is all too easy to forget that today’s form of evolution by natural selection that includes genetics (the Synthesis) is not some hypothesis that gathers support here but not there, that has good evidence here but not there, that works to inform this kind of technology/application/therapy here but not there. Evolution has successfully met all – all – challenges to it and has by scientific consensus over a century and half become better informed than any other scientific theory we rely on as knowledge. It is a stronger theory (meaning an explanation that accounts for all the evidence) than germ theory that informs modern medicine, stronger than atomic theory that informs modern physics, stronger than the theory of gravity that informs modern cosmology, stronger than kinetic theory of gases that informs modern engineering, and so on. In the role of theory – meaning an explanation that works for everyone everywhere all the time – evolution informs modern biology. Said another way, biology (and genetics) makes no sense if the theory is wrong.

    When you suggest there is a scientific controversy about evolution, what you’re really suggesting is that the explanation is considered wrong by many. If this theory is wrong, then what alternate theory works? This is where Intelligent Design falls flat: it’s not a theory but a position of untestable, unverifiable, non-predictive assumption that does not explain anything (therefore not a theory) other than “It sure looks designed!” That’s not science and it’s not grounds for a scientific controversy.

    Evolution by natural selection is an explanation that works cohesively and seamlessly in all areas of scientific inquiry about the development of life – clearly demonstrated by a multi-avenue convergence of all the evidence from even divergent sources – regardless of what other beliefs and/or assumptions you and I would prefer to use to explain how things are the way they are. That’s why it is a theory and why trivial differences of opinions like Shapiro’s doesn’t even start to dismantle the scientific edifice known as evolution by natural selection. In comparison, Shapiro has nothing but his philosophical (and perhaps religious) differences, whereas Coyne has all of biology, geology, genetics, geography, chemistry, physics, and cosmology at his beck and call. The two positions are not flip sides of the same coin but established science that works versus an extreme fringe that has no science behind it.

  • http://aisforatheist5760.blogspot.com A is for Atheist

    Let’s keep this simple Bill. If your god was “perfect” then he would not have creating beings that OBVIOUSLY have changed over time. They would have been PERFECT from the beginning. A perfect god would only create imperfect i.e. “changing” living things– on purpose. That means, according to what the bible says (i.e. the story of Adam and Eve) that he set living things up to fail–and change. This makes him a sadist of epic proportions…..

    Some Christians like to use the term “micro-evolution,” and this amuses me as they are only trying to defend their faith by using Humpty Dumpty semantics–claiming god allows small changes over time. How ridiculous……

  • Boz

    “Organisms behave purposefully. They evolve themselves. They do this by intentionally modifying their own DNA. DNA is a read-write memory, with the organism itself deciding when and where to modify its DNA.”

    this is interesting.

    any evidence for this? any tests?

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Read the comment guidelines. Consider this your first warning.

  • Walt

    couldn’t have said it better

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