|Feature Article - December 1996|
|by Do-While Jones|
Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay entitled "Evolution as Fact and Theory" which first appeared in Discover Magazine, May 1981. It was published in a book in 1983 and republished again in 1994.1 It is one of the best-known defenses of the theory of evolution, written by one of the best known evolutionists.
In this essay, Gould's first point is that creationists "play upon a vernacular misunderstanding of the word 'theory' to convey the false impression that we evolutionists are covering up something rotten at the core of our edifice." He then develops this point by saying:
In the American vernacular, "theory" often means "imperfect fact"-part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess. Thus, creationists can (and do) argue: evolution is "only" a theory, and intense debate now rages about many aspects of the theory. If evolution is less than a fact, and scientists can't even make up their minds about the theory, then what confidence can we have in it? Indeed, President Reagan echoed this argument before an evangelical group in Dallas when he said (in what I devoutly hope was campaign rhetoric): "Well, it is a theory. It is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science-that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was."
Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away while scientists debate rival theories for explaining them. Einstein's theory of gravity replaced Newton's, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air pending the outcome. And human beings evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin's proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered.
You might have been surprised by this opening. You have probably been led to believe that the theory of evolution is rock-solid, and that the belief in evolution is the inescapable conclusion one must reach when one looks at the facts. The truth is that evolution is an ancient philosophical belief that has been looking for a foundation for centuries. In 1859, Darwin published a theory that seemed plausible at the time. But modern science has found many flaws in Darwin's theory. As President Reagan correctly pointed out, many scientists are questioning or rejecting it.
As far back as back in 1981, Gould recognized that the scientific basis for the theory of evolution was crumbling, and was preparing his retreat. Fifteen years ago he was preparing the ground to defend the "fact" of evolution even when the theory would be completely discredited. He believes in the "fact" of evolution by faith, even though science doesn't support it.
Gould compares evolution to gravity. Is that a valid comparison? It is true that few people know why gravity works, and those few who think they know might be wrong. Gravity does exists even if we can't explain it. We know gravity exists because we can measure the force of gravity. The experiments are repeatable. We can prove gravity exists, even if we don't understand why it exists. The same cannot be said for evolution.
A better analogy is to compare the "fact" and "theory" of evolution with the "fact" and "theory" of Santa Claus.
An evolutionist goes into the forest and sees all kinds of plants and animals under the trees. To him, this is undeniable evidence that evolution happened. How else could all those creatures have gotten there?
A child goes into the living room on Christmas morning and sees all kinds of presents under the tree. To him, this is undeniable evidence that Santa Claus has been there. How else could all those presents have gotten there?
Every Christmas, humorous articles are written by engineers about the theory of Santa Claus. They make some reasonable assumptions about the number of houses in North America, the speed of Santa's sleigh, and compute the average length of time Santa can spend at each house. The conclusion, of course is that Santa can't possible make the trip in one evening. If you try to use these facts to convince a child that Santa can't make the trip, he won't believe you. There are presents under the tree. Santa must have been there. You just can't deny the fact of Santa Claus, even though the theory is shaky.
Similarly, mathematicians have conclusively demonstrated the impossibility of chemicals randomly combining to form a living cell. Engineers have shown that the energy required to put together the more complex molecules would have destroyed the partial products. But evolutionists continue to believe that the first living cell formed by chance. There are creatures under the trees. Evolution must have happened. You can't deny the fact of evolution, even though the theory is shaky.
Children believe that Santa's reindeer can fly. They have never seen a reindeer fly. There isn't any scientific explanation as to how they could fly. But reindeer must fly because they pull Santa's sleigh through the air. Furthermore, there is proof that Santa's reindeer live at the North Pole. The proof is that they aren't found anywhere else. Since they must live somewhere, they must live at the North Pole.
Evolutionists believe that animals change from one species to another. Nobody has every seen it happen. After 130 years of searching the fossil record, there is no fossil evidence to indicate that it has happened in the past. But, as you will soon see in Gould's explanation, the lack of transitional fossils is proof that these fossils must exist. It is the North Pole Reindeer Proof.
So, the comparison of evolution with Santa is much better than the comparison of evolution with gravity. But Gould doesn't stop with his comparison of evolution to gravity. He goes on to say:
Our confidence that evolution occurred centers upon three general arguments. First, we have abundant, direct observational evidence of evolution in action, from both field and laboratory. This evidence ranges from countless experiments on change in nearly everything about fruit flies subjected to artificial selection in the laboratory to the famous populations of British moths that became black when industrial soot darkened the trees upon which the moths rest.
Gould should know better. Artificial selection isn't evolution. The well-known Peppered Moth example 2 demonstrates selection, not evolution. Before the industrial revolution, dark Peppered Moths were rare because they were easily seen on tree branches and were eaten by birds more often than the light colored moths. When soot made the tree branches darker, the light moths became rare and the dark moths were more common. Natural selection changed the relative proportion of light and dark varieties. But white moths did not become black as Gould claims. All that happened was that the distribution of pre-existing varieties changed. A new species did not evolve. The peppered moth example is not proof that one species of insect can give birth to a different species of insect, which is what evolution requires.
Gould says, "The second and third arguments for evolution-the case for major changes-do not involve direct observation of evolution in action. They rest upon inference, but are no less secure for that reason." (It seems to us the security depends upon who is doing the inferring! )
According to Gould, "The second argument-that the imperfection of nature reveals evolution-strikes many people as ironic." Gould then gives a few examples of imperfect creatures. It is a shortened version of his famous Panda's Thumb essay. In case you haven't read it, the gist of that argument is that the panda's thumb is very badly designed. Gould claims God would have done a better job if God had designed it. The imperfection of the panda's thumb is evidence that it came about by chance rather than divine design.
The Panda's Thumb argument is entirely theological. Since Science Against Evolution doesn't deal with theological arguments, we will leave it to the churches to advance the argument that Adam's sin caused a curse on the whole world, including plants and animals, which turned the perfect creation into an imperfect one. All we will say about Gould's second argument is that it is simply his personal statement about how he believes the God (which he doesn't believe in) should design things. It is a theological argument without scientific basis.
Gould then makes his third argument:
The third argument is more direct: transitions are often found in the fossil record. Preserved transitions are not common-and should not be, according to our understanding of evolution (see next section)-but they are not entirely wanting, as creationists often claim. The lower jaw of reptiles contain several bones, that of mammals only one. The non-mammalian jawbones are reduced, step by step, in mammalian ancestors until they become tiny nubbins located at the back of the jaw. The "hammer" and "anvil" bones of mammalian ear are descendants of these nubbins. How could such a transition be accomplished? the creationists ask. Surely a bone is either entirely in the jaw or in the ear. Yet paleontologists have discovered two traditional lineages of therapsids (the so-called mammal-like reptiles) with a double jaw joint-one composed of the old quadrate and the articular bones (soon to become the hammer and anvil), the other of the squamosal and dentary bones (as in modern mammals). For that matter, what better transitional form could we expect to find than the oldest human, Australopithecus afarensis, with its apelike palate, its human upright stance, and a cranial capacity larger than any ape's of the same body size but a full 1,000 cubic centimeters below ours. If God made each of the half-dozen human species discovered in ancient rocks, whey did he create an unbroken temporal sequence of progressively more modern features-increasing cranial capacity, reduced face and teeth, larger body size? Did he create to mimic evolution and test our faith thereby?
We will again defer to the churches to explain why, "God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie." (2 Thessalonians 2:11) We will simply point out that Gould believes that the God he believes doesn't exist would not create many similar creatures. He also believes that reptile jaw bones decided to make the incredible journey to a place at the side of the head where they could connect with a not-yet existent eardrum and auditory nerves so a future mammal could hear better, gain a survival advantage, and listen to Beethoven. His evidence for this is that some reptile jaw bones look a little bit like mammal ear bones. This is speculation and faith, not science.
The reference to Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) would be understandable in 1981. In those days, Lucy was thought to be a human ancestor because she walked upright. Subsequent analysis of her rib cage has indicated it would have been very hard for her to breathe while standing erect; and her curved feet were much better suited for tree-climbing than walking. Lucy is just an extinct ape. We are surprised Gould did not remove the reference to Lucy from the 1994 reprint.
Gould's statement that "Preserved transitions are not common-and should not be, according to our understanding of evolution" is the Reindeer at the North Pole argument. Evolutionists used to expect that transitional fossils would be common. Darwin himself addressed this problem in Chapter 6 of his Origin of Species. He said:
But, as by this theory innumerable transitional forms must have existed, why do we not find them embedded in countless numbers in the crust of the earth? It will be much more convenient to discuss this question in the chapter on the Imperfection of the geological record; and I will here only state that I believe the answer mainly lies in the record being incomparably less perfect than is generally supposed.
The theory of evolution once predicted many intermediate species. Why don't evolutionists expect to find them any more? Because they have been looking for 130 years and haven't found them. The geological record is so much better now than in Darwin's day that they can no longer use the imperfect geological record excuse. So they use the Reindeer argument. The fact that we don't find them is proof that they exist. Gould says:
I count myself among the evolutionists who argue for a jerky, or episodic, rather than a smoothly gradual, pace of change. In 1972 my colleague Niles Eldredge and I developed the theory of punctuated equilibrium. We argued that two outstanding facts of the fossil record-geologically "sudden" origin of new species and failure to change thereafter (stasis)-reflect the predictions of evolutionary theory, not the imperfections of the fossil record.
The two outstanding facts of the fossil record, according to Gould, are (1) that species appear in the fossil record without any trace of an ancestor and (2) that they don't change form after they appear. In other words, there is a compete lack of evidence that evolution created them; and a complete lack of evidence that they evolved after they were created. This is exactly what you would expect if the theory of evolution is false. But they claim this lack of evidence in the fossil record was predicted by evolutionary theory in 1972. Did they also predict the outcome of the 1971 World Series at the same time?
In summary, Gould argues that evolution will still be a fact even if the current theory is wrong. He believes that changes in population ratios of existing variations of a single species proves that natural selection can create new species. (We will talk more about that next month.) He believes that God would not have created imperfect creatures, so imperfect creatures must have been created by evolution. He believes that God would not have created similar species, so similar species must be evidence of evolution from a common ancestor. And most paradoxically, he believes that a fossil record that shows sudden appearance of species with no traces of ancestors, and no subsequent changes in those species, is strong evidence for evolution.
Gould's essay also includes some attacks upon creationists. But whether or not creationists are right is irrelevant to the question, "Is the theory of evolution a sound theory supported by scientific fact?" The answer to that question is a clear, "No!"
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1S. J. Gould, Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes,
published by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
2See the Encarta 95 encyclopedia, or almost any other encyclopedia. (Ev)