December 04, 2009

Skepticism about Evolution

By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, December 3, 2009)

Skepticism about Evolution
I am skeptical of (at least) one sense of evolution. To explain, I will do the following: First, I will clarify several senses of “evolution”; second, I will specify the sense of evolution about which I am skeptical; third, I will set out some reasons for my skepticism.

1. The word “evolution” has several meanings, which, for the sake of clarity and truth, should be kept distinct.

Evolution can mean mere physical change over time, as, say, stars “evolve”—i.e., change—after they burn for a few million years.

Or evolution can mean chemical evolution, that is, a coming together of non-living material stuff to form the first living cell.

Or evolution can mean common descent, which means that all organisms have the same ancestor somewhere in the distant past.

Or evolution can mean, as it usually does mean, neo-Darwinian evolution, which is to say that, after the first life has begun, natural selection operates on random genetic mutation to produce the various complex organs and forms of life we now observe.

Or evolution can mean a combination of all of the above.

Moreover (to add a bit more complexity to the issue), each of the above meanings of “evolution” or combinations thereof can be understood either theistically (i.e., as guided by the Creator who created matter and its properties/laws) or atheistically (as wholly unguided and undesigned).

Furthermore (to add one last wrinkle), “evolution” can also be understood in a much more limited neo-Darwinian sense, that is, as micro-evolution, which is natural selection operating on genetic mutation merely to produce small-scale changes in an organism’s development.

An example of such small-scale or micro-evolution would be the changes in the beak sizes of the finches Darwin observed on the Galapagos Islands, changes which occurred as the type of available food changed. In contrast, an example of macro or large-scale neo-Darwinian evolution would be the production, via natural selection and genetic mutation, of the beaks of Darwin’s finches, and the finches themselves, in the first place.

2. I am skeptical of “evolution”—whether understood theistically or atheistically—when it means large-scale neo-Darwinian evolution, that is, when it means that after the first life began, the various complex life forms we now witness are wholly or primarily due to natural selection operating on random genetic mutation.

3. Why am I skeptical? First, I think that the arguments for large-scale neo-Darwinian evolution are not strong. Also, there are some claims from important scientists and philosophers, claims about large-scale neo-Darwinian evolution, claims that push me further in the skeptical direction:

“Molecular evolution is not based on scientific authority. There is no publication in the scientific literature…that describes how molecular evolution of any real, complex, biochemical system either did occur or even might have occurred. There are assertions that such evolution occurred, but absolutely none are supported by pertinent experiments or calculations.” Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box (The Free Press, 1996, 2006). Behe is professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania.

“We must concede that there are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical system, only a variety of wishful speculations.” Franklin Harold, The Way of the Cell (Oxford University Press, 2001). Harold is emeritus professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Colorado State University. According to Oxford University Press, Harold is “one of the world’s most respected micro-biologists.”

"We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.” This is from a 2008 document titled “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism,” signed by 700 highly credentialed scientists. The list of scientists who signed this document can be found at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (click on "Dissent from Darwinism").

The Center for Science and Culture adds: “The list is growing and includes scientists from the US National Academy of Sciences, Russian, Hungarian and Czech National Academies, as well as from universities such as Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and others.”

So, is it reasonable to be skeptical about large-scale neo-Darwinian evolution? I am inclined to think so.

P.S. I am inclined to think that it’s also reasonable to be skeptical about unguided chemical evolution, i.e., the purely accidental coming together of non-living material stuff to form the first living cell. But this is a topic for another column. See for starters my column “DNA & Intelligent Design” (March 26, 2009). See too Stephen C. Meyer’s recently published book Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2009).

P.P.S. For a fine debate between a highly-respected scientist and defender of large-scale neo-Darwinian evolution (Francisco Ayala) and a highly-respected philosopher and proponent of intelligent design (William Lane Craig), I encourage readers to check Apologetics315.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College. Van der Breggen’s views do not always reflect the views of his colleagues at the college at which he teaches. Some colleagues are young-earth literal six-day creationists, some are theistic evolutionists, and some are intelligent design proponents. Nevertheless, all are disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.)


Chris H said...

Have you seen Ben Stein's movie "Expelled?" I thought it was wonderfully done. He has quite the debate with Dr Dawkins and, in my humble opinion, shows the good doctor for the blustering blowhard he has a tendency to be.


Human Ape said...

You wrote "Why am I skeptical?"

It's because you're an uneducated moron.

Have you ever considered studying the discoveries of real scientists, instead of getting all your information from professional liars for Jeebus?

chrish, Expelled is a propaganda movie for uneducated hicks like yourself.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hi Chris,

It's good to hear from you! I hope that all is well.

Yes, I have seen the movie Expelled (a year or so ago) and, in spite of a few shortcomings in it, I thought it was a fine film. It did a good job of showing (a) the sociological influences/ pressures in science and (b) how some purportedly open-minded and tolerant people really aren't open-minded and tolerant.

A very good review of Expelled was done by the philosopher Douglas Groothuis. Groothuis's review can be found here.

Best regards,
Hendrik (a.k.a. Hank, Henk, Henry, Hey you!)

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Dear "Human Ape":

Your incivility and lack of courtesy are not welcome here. You are hereby banned from this blog.

Also, I encourage you to think about name-calling (i.e., your use of "moron" and "hicks" and "professional liars for Jeebus") and why educated people think name-calling isn't the same as cogent argument.

Good bye.

Mark said...

Of course, it's the human ape that flings crap. Natural selection has not been kind to you.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Let's remember to be respectful to those with whom we disagree...

Mark said...

It was one I couldn't resist.

Unknown said...

I do have to ask a somewhat philosophically pragmatic question, Dr. V.: what does it really matter how our origins came about?

On the one hand, we can claim by faith that God did it in either complete unvariated forms, or incomplete forms that are being guided to completion. But that is, afterall, simply a faith-claim.

On the other hand, we can sift the available evidence and cajole various incomplete theories out of the academic ether: Darwinian natural selection, intelligent design, theistic evolution, et al. But in this case we still have to concede that we really don't know the details concerning our origins.

So given that both the fideistic approach to origins (God did it), and the naturalistic approach (a collusion of molecules did it) are ultimately best-guess scenarios, wouldn't it be more rational to concede agnosticism on this issue?

From my perspective, remaining agnostic on the issue of origins seems the only reasonable position. Perhaps that's being overly pragmatic; perhaps it's being supremely uncommitted. In either case, the issue of origins is purely academic and really shouldn't provoke such insipid controversy between mature thinkers -- be they scientists, God-lovers, or neither.


Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hey Christopher!

It’s good to hear from you. I hope it’s not too chilly way up there in the Canadian North! We’re just beginning to get some cold temperatures, e.g., minus 20-something C, but I suspect that you’re hovering at about minus 30 or minus 40 C, or worse. Yikes!

Let me repeat your question, slightly reworded (hopefully for the sake of clarity): What does it really matter how our origins came about, if we can answer the question fideistically (i.e., we can say simply, wholly in faith, that God did it) or scientifically/ academically (i.e., we do investigations of the world, but this means we really don’t know the details concerning our origins)-- what does it really matter when in both cases we end up with best-guess scenarios only?

The question of origins matters, it seems to me, because, depending on how the question is answered, there are important philosophical-theological implications for what’s reasonable to believe about the universe, and this is especially significant for those persons who aren’t fideistic in their approach to religious matters.

Continued below...

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Comment continued...

Sure, we probably will never really know all the details concerning origins via scientific/ academic investigation, and, sure, we may end up with mere “best guess” scenarios. Nevertheless, it’s important to realize that, even if all we have is best guess scenarios, some best guess scenarios are, from the point of view of evidence and good reasoning therefrom, better than others. Moreover, it’s important to realize that a lack of absolute knowledge or a lack of knowledge of all the details doesn’t logically imply that all claims to knowledge are to be dismissed as mere guesses (where “knowledge” is understood as belief well grounded in good reasons and evidence). Reasonable belief, it seems to me, is a philosophically significant category that remains as an alternative, and some beliefs are more reasonable than others. Which ones are more reasonable depends on the quality of the arguments and evidence produced.

Also, I’m not a fideist, at least not in a full-blown sense of the word. I’m fideistic in the sense that I believe salvation is by faith only—i.e., by faith/trust in Christ’s work on the cross—but I’m not a fideist with respect to knowledge of the world and what it might say or suggest about God. I think that we can to various degrees have knowledge about the world, and I think it’s important to let the world tell us about itself. I think it’s important to let the world tell us about whether there’s evidence for a designer’s activity or not. It turns out, it seems to me, that the world does tell us that there are traces of a designer. I think this is interesting, philosophically. Also, I think that this is interesting apologetically and theologically, because these traces encourage us to take the reality of God as not mere fuzzy-feeling-religious-pie-in-the-sky stuff.

(By “world” I mean the physical world itself, including its history, which is investigated by the sciences. More broadly, as additional grist for philosophical reasoning, I would also include the following in the concept of “world”: human history, especially the historical evidence for Jesus’ teachings, life, death, and resurrection; human consciousness; the human mind’s ability to understand some deeps truths about the external world [much more than is needed for mere survival]; the external world’s deep intelligibility; logic, math, language; free will, morals; our experience of love, our experience of hate; plus our personal experience of what seems very much to be God.)

About what you call the “insipid controversy” over origins: Whether one judges the debate over origins as insipid or not (probably a more refined case-by-case assessment of the various discussions is more appropriate), I think it’s important to realize that this controversy is an opportunity for citizens living in a free society to learn to engage in the lost art of public argument and do so in such a way that shows respect to those with whom one disagrees. I think that the origins controversy is a wonderful opportunity to think hard and love well, to think seriously about the reality of God, and, for many, to consider of reconsider the claims of Christ. (Strangely, I feel like someone should now shout in a street-gang-like voice, “Amen, bro!”)

Best regards,

Unknown said...


Thank you for your responses. I enjoy our dialogues very much.

If I might ventures a few comments, the first being a summary of a point I think you made. Namely, you turned my criticism of the impracticability of the 'origins debate' around on me. You suggested that it is an important question simply due to the fact that it is a philosophically practical question because it segues quite nicely into more fundamental questions such as, Does God exist.

I think that's a fair point of view, and I appreciate your usual incisiveness. I can easily take that point of view on myself, and intend to.

So, in the interest of pursuing this subject further, I have to interrogate you a little. Specifically, you mentioned that you are "fideistic in the sense that I believe salvation is by faith only—i.e., by faith/trust in Christ’s work on the cross—but I’m not a fideist with respect to knowledge of the world and what it might say or suggest about God." You then went on to say that, "that the world does tell us that there are traces of a designer."

I don't think there is any contradiction in your admission. However, for the sake of conversation, I have to say that leaving those two statements side by each poses an excluded middle. I can see how you would move from a faith in Christ to concluding there is a grand designer. However, for those who are not fideistic regarding Christ, searching the natural world and concluding on a designer does not lead naturally to the conclusion 'therefore Christ'. So, how do your statements move together if they are reversed? That is, if one concludes there is a designer through scientific/academic observance, how does one conclude on Christ without glossing past a brace of other options and excluding a gaping middle?


Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hello again Christopher,

Thanks for your comments -- I enjoy our dialogues too.

It seems to me that if one concludes via scientific/ academic investigation that there is a creator-designer, then one can and should also look to history for possible evidence of whether the creator-designer has intervened in the world in some special way. This, it seems to me too, is where the historical evidence for Jesus' life, death, and resurrection is crucually relevant. Jesus' physical resurrection is a sign that gives us good grounds for taking seriously what Jesus says about metaphysical/ spiritual reality, i.e., Jesus' bodily resurrection is best explained as a supernaturally-caused event and thus provides good grounds for putting our faith in Him. (A miracle is a supernaturally caused sign; for more on this, see chapter 1 of my dissertation.) So I'm fideistic in the limited but very important sense that salvation is by faith and faith only in Christ (i.e., I trust Him, take it by faith that He is telling the truth when He makes claims about Himself and about God's forgiveness made available through His [Jesus'] death on the cross, and I trust that it's Christ's work and righteousness that save me, not my works). I'm not fideistic in the sense that all my knowledge about the historical stuff about Jesus -- i.e., about His life, death, and resurrection -- is by faith. I think that we can have reasonable belief about this stuff, i.e., reasonable belief gotten through our historical investigation of the world.

For a bit more on the evidence for Jesus' resurrection, see my April 9 2009 column "Did Easter Happen?" For much more (and better material) on the evidence for Jesus' resurrection, see the work of Gary Habermas and William Lane Craig.

I hope that this is helpful.

Best regards,

Anonymous said...

Hi Hendrik,

Happy new year.

I notice that you are skeptical, meaning you do not deny the possibility.

As for your supporting quotes, Behe's is an argument from ignorance: "no acccount, ergo it did not happen." Yet, he is lying. There are numerous accounts for the evolution of complex biochemical systems, all supported by several lines of evidence. There are even examples of simpler systems containing only a few of the many steps in more complex systems. Not all systems have been studied, evolutionarily speaking, as profoundly, yet accounts with evidence do exist.

Harold's is the same lie, only reworded.

The list of scientists under dissent from Darwinism again? I have gone through that list. People in prestigious universities seem to have vanished, or to belong to areas of study far removed from biology (which seems to be the case for most of the "dissenters"), and if we have to go by numbers, just take a look at project "Steve" where scientists who support evolution (not Darwinism, evolution, which contains the foundational ideas from Darwin, plus the knowledge we have gained ever since) is larger than the dissenters, includes well-renowned scientists, and most actually work in some area of biology. Note that the list only includes scientists with names close to the name "Steve."

The only part I agree with is: "Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged." This is true for anything.

I thus also agree that it is reasonable to be skeptical. What is not reasonable is to base your skepticism on a few liars, rather than on the proper understanding of the science under discussion.


Hendrik van der Breggen said...


Happy new year to you too!

About evolution (in the sense I take to task in my column), I think it's important not to judge credible dissenters as liars. As I mentioned, Oxford University Press describes Franklin Harold as "one of the world's most respected micro-biologists." Also, Michael Behe is truly a very bright fellow, and his replies to his critics help to clarify his claims and the misuderstandings of his critics. (By the way, from the point of view of logic and critical thinking, I have found Behe to be a much more careful thinker than many of his critics.) Surely, intelligent people can reasonably differ on how best to make sense of the evidence having to do with evolution, and do so without judging as liars those with whom they disagree. So I encourage you to hold back on the moral condemnation.

Also, if the broad outline of Thomas Kuhn's understanding of the history of science is correct, moral condemnation of proponents of a competing paradigm/ theory is often a sign that the dominant paradigm is in deep trouble.

In science, let's let the evidence and best reasoning therefrom win the day. Also, let's allow honest mistakes to be made. Moreover, let's do our best to learn from the mistakes, without turning the honestly mistaken folks into social or moral outcasts. As the Galileo affair should have taught us, sometimes those people whom the dominant social-scientific class thinks are mistaken are in fact not mistaken.

Best regards,

Anonymous said...


The moral condemnation coming from evidence is a signal that the liars are actually liars. Not that they are "Galileos."

You forgot the part where I said "argument from ignorance." He not knowing of evolutionary explanations is no excuse. It is not a matter of interpretation. If you do not know of any examples, search for them. I know that most of the information is often found dispersed among many articles. But Behe is supposed to be a scientist.

Let me give you an instance. I was once talking to Behe about a work he was presenting in which he pretended to demonstrate that most if not all mutations are deleterious ("reduce information" by his wording). The few examples he dared to show of positive mutations, he called "beneficial if we concede a lot."

It was curius that he did not find any of the articles showing humongous numbers of mutations that did not reduce not augment information (neutral to nearly neutral), along with the many more works showing lots of beneficial mutations, obtained randomly, yet accumulating under selection pressures. If he was searching for mutations in general, and their effects, he could not have missed those works.

So, if he is going to argue that there are no evolutionary explanations for any complex biochemical system, he has to honestly search the literature. Not just assume that, because there is no explanation that he knows about for a system he works with, it follows that no other system has been studied evolutionarily speaking. The problem is even worse if a system he mentions is one that has been studied by one of the strictest scientists around (like Russ Doolittle).

As for Harold. I do not know if he was consciously lying. It could be a quote taken out of context (a common practice of "apologists"), or, it could be that he has a special meaning for "detailed" explanation.

So, as I said. Been skeptical is not only fine. I would encourage it. But been skeptical because you do not know the details, by also giving preference to quotes by a few "dissenters" over the whole scientific community... I understand that if you are not an expert, you want to know what the experts think. Nothing wrong trusting the experts, yet a lot wrong trusting the few that support what you want to believe, in opposition to those who support the opposite view. Experience has shown me that "creationist scientists" are very "selective" about what they present, and tend to present half understood (half misunderstood) materials in support for their views. That makes me very skeptical of their "quotes." I still listen, yet I only get confirmation of these tendencies.

Will we get somewhere or should I just stop here?


Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hello again G.E.,

I will stick with my post and my last comment. I am skeptical regarding neo-Darwinian evolution's alleged large-scale creative capacities, and my experience of the arguments of Darwinian dissenters has been positive (i.e., positive from the point of view of logic and critical thinking). But I am also willing to follow the evidence and good argument therefrom in whichever direction it goes.

For the record, I'm not skeptical about the above-mentioned evolution because it's incompatible with God -- because it's not. Rather, I'm skeptical because it seems to me (and quite a few others) that the above-mentioned evolution is too large an extrapolation from the evidence. It seems to me (and quite a few others) that, for many, what undergirds the extrapolation (and does much of the work) is a philosophical assumption, i.e., methodolgical naturalism, which has been wed to "science".

This is a larger topic, which may be a topic for a future column or two, so I'll stop here.

In the meantime, I think you and I can agree that we all should think carefully about the pros and cons concerning evolution -- not just the pros, and not just the cons.

Best regards,