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Icons of Evolution Home of Biologist and Iconoclast Jonathan Wells

The Problem of Evidence


If it isn’t testable, it isn’t science.

The present controversy over evolution is often portrayed as the latest battle in a centuries-old war between science and religion. According to this stereotype, Darwin’s theory was a milestone in scientific progress, based on evidence that is now overwhelming, and its principal opponents were–and still are–religious fundamentalists committed to a literal interpretation of Genesis chronology.

That stereotype, however, is false.

First, the “warfare” metaphor is historically inaccurate. With rare exceptions, such as the Galileo affair, science and religion got along just fine before Darwin.

Second, the problem is not “evolution”–which means many things–but rather Darwin’s theory that all living things are descendants of a common ancestor that have been modified by random variations and natural selection.

Nobody doubts that variation and selection can produce minor changes within existing species, or “microevolution.” But Darwin claimed much more: namely, that microevolution leads to the origin of new species, organs and body plans–“macroevolution.”

Yet despite the title of his 1859 book, The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, Darwin didn’t have evidence for natural selection. All he could do was “give one or two imaginary illustrations.” He called his book “one long argument,” which took the following form: The features of living things are “inexplicable on the theory of creation” but are fully explicable as products of unguided natural forces. Since Darwin lacked sufficient evidence for the latter, he ruled out the former by declaring that only natural explanations are “scientific.”

Before 1859 science meant (and still means, for most people) testing hypotheses by comparing them with the evidence. For Darwin and his followers, however, “science” is the search for natural explanations. Such explanations should be plausible–that is, they cannot blatantly contradict the facts–but instead of being based on evidence they are based on the assumption that everything can be explained materialistically.

According to Georgia State University historian Neal C. Gillespie, “it is sometimes said that Darwin converted the scientific world to evolution by showing them the process by which it had occurred.” But “it was more Darwin’s insistence on totally natural explanations than on natural selection that won their adherence.”

The Darwinian revolution was thus philosophical rather than scientific.

Darwin’s followers now claim that they have “overwhelming evidence” for their theory, but despite 150 years of research no one has ever observed the origin of a new species by natural selection–much less the origin of new organs and body plans.

Not even modern genetics has solved the problem. No matter what we do to the genes of a fruit fly embryo, there are only three possible outcomes: a normal fruit fly, a defective fruit fly or a dead fruit fly. Darwin’s claim that microevolution leads to macroevolution has never been empirically corroborated. Indeed, there is growing evidence that the claim is false.

Third, chronology as it is described in Genesis was not a major factor in the 19th-century controversies over Darwinism, because most Christians had by then already accepted geological evidence for an old Earth.

In fact, Darwin’s strongest critics were scientists, and the theologians who criticized him objected mainly to his philosophical insistence on natural causes and his denial of design–which Princeton’s Charles Hodge regarded as “tantamount to atheism.” Even today, many critics of Darwinism are not religious fundamentalists, and a growing number of critics are credentialed scientists.

Darwinism is now facing a serious challenge from intelligent design, or ID, the theory that some features of living things are explained better as the work of an intelligent cause than by unguided natural processes.

Darwin’s defenders portray ID as religious fundamentalism in disguise, but ID is based on evidence and logic, not the Bible or religious doctrines. ID does not even claim that one can know through science that the designer is God.

Nevertheless, since ID opens the door to non-materialistic causes, Darwinists oppose it regardless of the evidence. “Even if all the data point to an intelligent designer,” wrote Kansas State University biologist Scott Todd in 1999, “such an hypothesis is excluded from science because it is not naturalistic.”

Science follows the evidence wherever it leads, but Darwinism does not. So the present controversy over evolution is not a war between science and religion. It is primarily a war between Darwinism and evidence–and the evidence will win.

At Forbes.comFebruary 5, 2009

Jonathan Wells

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Wells has received two Ph.D.s, one in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California at Berkeley, and one in Religious Studies from Yale University. A Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, he has previously worked as a postdoctoral research biologist at the University of California at Berkeley and the supervisor of a medical laboratory in Fairfield, California. He also taught biology at California State University in Hayward and continues to lecture on the subject.