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Probe Ministries > Faith and Science > Origins > The Five Crises in Evolutionary Theory

The Five Crises in Evolutionary Theory Print E-mail
Dr. Ray Bohlin

Written by Dr. Ray Bohlin

This article is also available in Spanish.

The Case of the Missing Mechanism

The growing crisis in Darwinian theory is becoming more apparent all the time. The work of creationists and other non-Darwinians is growing and finding a more receptive ear than ever before. In this discussion I want to elaborate on what I believe are the five critical areas where Darwinism and evolutionary theory in general are failing. They are:

1. The unsubstantiation of a Darwinian mechanism of evolution
2. The total failure of origin of life studies to produce a workable model
3. The inability of evolutionary mechanism to explain the origin of complex adaptations
4. The bankruptcy of the blind watchmaker hypothesis
5. The biological evidence that the rule in nature is morphological stability over time and not constant change.

Much of the reason for evolution's privileged status has been due to confusion over just what people mean when they use the word evolution. Evolution is a slippery term. If evolution simply means "change over time," this is non-controversial. Peppered moths, Hawaiian drosophila fruit flies, and even Galapagos finches are clear examples of change over time. If you say that this form of evolution is a fact, well, so be it. But many scientists extrapolate beyond this meaning. Because "change over time" is a fact, the argument goes, it is also a fact that moths, fruit flies, and finches all evolved from a remote common ancestor. But this begs the question.

The real question, however, is where do moths, flies, and finches come from in the first place? Common examples of natural selection acting on present genetic variation do not tell us how we have come to have horses, wasps, and woodpeckers, and the enormous varieties of living animals. Evolutionists will tell you that this is where mutations enter the picture. But mutations do not improve the scenario either. In speaking of all the mutation work done with bacteria over several decades, the great French zoologist and evolutionist Pierre-Paul Grasse' said:

What is the use of their unceasing mutations if they do not change? In sum, the mutations of bacteria and viruses are merely hereditary fluctuations around a median position; a swing to the right, a swing to the left, but no final evolutionary effect.

When I speak of evolution or Darwinism, it is the origin of new biological forms, new adaptive structures, morphological and biochemical novelties that I am referring to. This is precisely what has not yet been explained. When people question the popular explanations of the origin of complex adaptations such as the vertebrate limb, or sexual reproduction, or the tongue of the woodpecker, or the reptilian hard-shelled egg, they are usually given a litany of reasons why these structures are beneficial to the organisms. More precisely, the selective advantage of these structures is offered as the reason they evolved. But this begs the question again. It is not sufficient for an evolutionist to explain the function of a particular structure. What is necessary is to explain the mechanistic origin of these structures!

Natural selection does explain how organisms adapt to minor changes in their environment. Natural selection allows organisms to do what God commanded them to do. That is to be fruitful and multiply. Natural selection does not, however, explain the crucial question of how complex adaptations arose in the first place.

The Origin of Life

We have been led to believe that it is not to difficult to conceive of a mechanism whereby organic molecules can be manufactured in a primitive earth and organize themselves into a living, replicating cell. In fact, the ease by which this can (allegedly) happen is the foundation for the popular belief that there are numerous planets in the universe which contain life. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Early experiments suggested that it was relatively simple to produce some of the building blocks of life such as amino acids, the components of proteins. However, the euphoria of the Miller- Urey experiment of 1953 has given way to a paradigm crisis of 1993 in origin of life research. The wishful, yet workable atmosphere of ammonia, hydrogen, methane, and water vapor has been replaced by the more realistic, but stingy atmosphere of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and hydrogen cyanide. This is the stuff that volcanoes belch out. This atmosphere poses a much more difficult challenge. Molecules relevant for life would be much rarer. Even more damaging is the possibility of the presence of molecular oxygen in the atmosphere from the break-up of water vapor. Molecular oxygen would poison any reaction leading to biologically significant molecules.

Coacervates, microspheres, the "RNA world," and other scenarios all have serious flaws obvious to everyone in the field except those who continue work with that particular scenario. Some have privately called this predicament a paradigm crisis. There is no central competing model, just numerous ego-driven scenarios. Even the experiments in which researchers try to simulate the early earth have been severely criticized. These experiments generally hedge their bets by using purified reactants, isolated energy sources, exaggerated energy levels, procedures which unrealistically drive the reaction toward the desired product and protect the products from the destructive effects of the energy sources which produced them in the first place.

The real situation was summed up rather well by Klaus Dose:

More than 30 years of experimentation on the origin of life in the fields of chemical and molecular evolution have led to a better perception of the immensity of the problem of the origin of life on earth rather than to its solution. At present all discussions on principal theories and experiments in the field either end in stalemate or in a confession of ignorance." [From Interdisciplinary Science Review 13(1988):348-56.]

But all of these difficulties together, as staggering as they are, are not the real problem. The major difficulty in chemical evolution scenarios is how to account for the informational code of DNA without intelligence being a part of the equation. DNA carries the genetic code: the genetic blueprint for constructing and maintaining a biological organism. We often use the terms of language to describe DNA's activity: DNA is "transcribed" into RNA; RNA is "translated" into protein; geneticists speak of the "genetic code." All these words imply intelligence, and the DNA informational code requires intelligent preprogramming, yet a purely naturalistic beginning does not provide such input. Chemical experiments may be able to construct small sequences of nucleotides to form small molecules of DNA, but this doesn't make them mean anything. There is no source for the informational code in a strictly naturalistic origin of life.

The Inability to Account for Complex Adaptations

Perhaps the single greatest problem for evolutionary biologists is the unsolved problem of morphological and biochemical novelty. In other words, some aspects of evolutionary theory describe accurately how existing organisms are well adapted to their environments, but do a very poor job of explaining just how the necessary adaptive structures came about in the first place.

Darwinian explanations of complex structures such as the eye and the incredible tongue of the woodpecker fall far short of realistically attempting to explain how these structures arose by mutation and natural selection. The origin of the eye in particular, caused Darwin no small problem. His only suggestion was to look at the variety of eyes in nature, some more complex and versatile than others, and imagine a gradual sequence leading from simple eyes to more complex eyes. However, even the great Harvard evolutionist, Ernst Mayr, admits that the different eyes in nature are not really related to each other in some simple-to-complex sequence. Rather, he suggests that eyes probably had to evolve over forty different times in nature. Darwin's nightmare has never been solved. It has only been made 40 times more frightening for the evolutionist.

In his 1987 book, Theories of Life, Wallace Arthur said:

One can argue that there is no direct evidence for a Darwinian origin of a body plan--black Biston Betularia certainly do not constitute one! Thus in the end we have to admit that we do not really know how body plans originate.

In 1992, Keith Stewart Thomson wrote in the American Zoologist that:

While the origins of major morphological novelties remain unsolved, one can also view the stubborn persistence of macroevolutionary a challenge to orthodoxy: resistance to the view that the synthetic theory tells us everything we need to know about evolutionary processes.

The ability to explain major morphological novelties is not the only failing of evolutionary theory. Some argue that molecular structures are even more difficult to explain. The molecular architecture of the cell has recently described by molecular biologist Michael Behe as being irreducibly complex systems which must have all the components present in order to be functional. The molecular workings of cilia, electron transport, protein synthesis, and cellular targeting readily come to mind. If the systems are irreducibly complex, how do they build slowly over long periods of time out of systems that are originally doing something else?

While publishing hundreds of articles pertaining to molecular homology and phylogeny of various proteins and nucleic acids over the last ten years, the Journal of Molecular Evolution did not publish one article attempting to explain the origin of a single biomolecular system. Those who make molecular evolution their life's work are too busy studying the relationship of the cytochrome c molecule in man to the cytochrome c molecule in bacteria, rather than the more fundamental question of where cytochrome c came from in the first place!

Clearly then, whether we are talking about major morphological novelties such as the wings of bats and birds, the swimming adaptations of fish and whales, the human eye or the molecular sub- microscopic workings of mitochondria, ribosomes, or cilia, evolutionary theory has failed to explain how these structures could arise by natural processes alone.

The Bankruptcy of the Blind Watchmaker Hypothesis

In his 1986 book, The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins states, "Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." He explains that

Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purposes in view. Yet the living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with the appearance of design as if by a master watchmaker, impress us with the illusion of design and planning.

Darwinism critic, Philip Johnson, has quipped that the watchmaker is not only blind but unconscious!

Dawkins later suggests just how this process may have brought about the development of wings in mammals. He says:

How did wings get their start? Many animals leap from bough to bough, and sometimes fall to the ground. Especially in a small animal, the whole body surface catches the air and assists the leap, or breaks the fall, by acting as a crude aerofoil. Any tendency to increase the ratio of surface area to weight would help, for example flaps of skin growing out in the angles of joints...(It) doesn't matter how small and unwinglike the first wingflaps were. There must be some height, call it h, such that an animal would just break its neck if it fell from that height. In this critical zone, any improvement in the body surface's ability to catch the air and break the fall, however slight the improvement, can make the difference between life and death. Natural selection will then favor slight, prototype wingflaps. When these flaps have become the norm, the critical height h will become slightly greater. Now a slight further increase in the wingflaps will make the difference between life and death. And so on, until we have proper wings.

This can sound rather seductively convincing at first. However there are three faulty assumptions being used.

The first doubtful assumption is that nature can provide a whole chain of favorable mutations of the precise kind needed to change forelimbs into wings in a continuous line of development. What is the larger miracle, an instantaneous change or a whole series of thousands of tiny changes in the proper sequence?

The other assumption is "all things being equal." These mutations must not have secondary harmful effects. How is the creature's grasping ability compromised while these wingflaps grow? These little shrew-like animals may slowly be caught between losing their adaptiveness in the trees before they can fully utilize their "developing" wings. Or there might be some seemingly unrelated and unforeseen effect that compromises survivability.

A third faulty assumption is the often used analogy to artificial selection. "If artificial selection can do so much in only a few years," so the refrain goes, "just think what natural selection can do in millions of years." But artificial selection works because it incorporates foresight and conscious purpose, the absence of which are the defining qualities of the blind watchmaker. In addition, artificial selection actually demonstrates the limits to change since an endpoint in the selection process is usually reached very quickly.

The blind watchmaker hypothesis, when analyzed carefully, falls into the category of fanciful stories that are entertaining--but which hold no resemblance to reality.

The Prevalence of Stasis over Mutability

Rather than observing organisms gradually evolving into other forms, the fossil record speaks of "sudden appearance" and "stasis." New types appear suddenly and change very little after their appearance. The rarity of gradual change examples in the fossil record were revealed as the trade secret of paleontology by Steven J. Gould of Harvard. Gould also refers to stasis as "data" in the paleontological sense. These are significant observations.

Darwin predicted that there should be innumerable transitional forms between species. But the reality of paleontology (the study of fossils) is that new forms appear suddenly with no hint of the "gradual" change predicted by evolution. Not only that, but once these new forms have appeared, they remain relatively unchanged until the present day or until they become extinct.

Some animals and plants have remained unchanged for literally hundreds of millions of years. These "living fossils" can be more embarrassing for the evolutionist than they often care to admit. One creature in particular, the coelacanth, is very instructive. The first live coelacanth was found off the coast of Madagascar in 1938. Coelacanths were thought to be extinct for 100 million years. But most evolutionists saw this discovery as a great opportunity to glimpse the workings of a tetrapod ancestor. Coelacanths resemble the proposed ancestors of amphibians. It was hoped that some clues could be derived from the modern coelacanth of just how a fish became preadapted for life on land, because not only was there a complete skeleton, but a full set of internal organs to boot. The results of the study were very disappointing. The modern coelacanth showed no evidence of internal organs preadapted for use in a terrestrial environment. The coelacanth is a fish--nothing more, nothing less. Its bony fins are used as exceptionally well-designed paddles for changing direction in deep-sea environment, not the proto-limbs of future amphibians.

Nowhere is the problem of sudden appearance better demonstrated than in the Burgess Shale found in the Canadian Rockies. The Burgess Shale illustrates that in the Cambrian period (which evolutionists estimate as being over 500 million years ago) nearly all of the basic body plans (phyla) of animals existing on earth came into existence in a geological instant (defined as only 20-30 million years), and nothing that new has appeared since that time. The Cambrian explosion as it is called is nothing less than astounding. Sponges, jellyfish, worms, arthropods, mollusks, echinoderms, and many other stranger-than-fiction creatures are all found to suddenly appear in the Cambrian without a hint of what they descended from nor even how they could all be related to each other. This is the opposite expectation of Darwinism which would have predicted each new body plan emerging from pre-existing phyla over long periods of time. The Cambrian explosion is a direct contradiction of Darwinian evolution.

If Darwin were alive today, I believe he would be terribly disappointed. There is less evidence for his theory now than in his own day. The possibility of the human eye evolving may have caused him to shudder, but the organization of the simplest cell is infinitely more complex. Perhaps a nervous breakdown would be more appropriate!


©1993 Probe Ministries

About the Author

Dr. Ray BohlinRaymond G. Bohlin is Vice President of Vision Outreach at Probe Ministries. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois (B.S., zoology), North Texas State University (M.S., population genetics), and the University of Texas at Dallas (M.S., Ph.D., molecular biology). He is the co-author of the book The Natural Limits to Biological Change, served as general editor of Creation, Evolution and Modern Science, co-author of Basic Questions on Genetics, Stem Cell Research and Cloning (The BioBasics Series), and has published numerous journal articles. Dr. Bohlin was named a Research Fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture in 1997, 2000 and 2012.

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