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Physicist David Snoke on Denton's Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis

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I highly recommend reading a review, by University of Pittsburgh physicist David Snoke, of Michael Denton's Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis. It's fascinating and wonderfully lucid. While expressing some disagreement, he concludes that the book deserves to sit on the same shelf with Stephen Jay Gould's work -- a high compliment whatever your position on evolutionary questions.

I think that Dr. Snoke's comments as a physicist are particularly helpful and illuminating. He draws a comparison to the "topological argument" well known in his profession:

We are all so programmed by the current evolutionary debate to see Darwinian evolution as the only viable materialist theory that it is hard to understand at first what Denton is proposing, if not intervention from a spirit world, and it is hard to grasp that there were evolutionists who preceded Darwin, with strong arguments against Darwin's ideas. To understand Denton's view (and Owen's) it is crucial to realize that it is first and foremost an empirical theory. Science has a long tradition of empirical theories which simply state the facts in unifying language without proposing any mechanism at all to explain them. Thus, for example, Newton famously proposed that gravity force could act at a distance, without proposing any explanation why. We are all so used to Newton's laws now that we forget how empirically driven it was. The same empirical approach was used to build the Periodic Table of chemistry, long before quantum mechanics explained why it has the form it does. In the same way, Denton, following Owen, draws us to look at a glaring and obvious fact of nature: that living organisms do not exist in a continuum of small differences with gradual transitions between them; rather, they exist in highly distinct types and forms, with specific identities and unique features for each type. Thus, for example, mammals all have four limbs, five digits per limb, two eyes, mammary glands in pairs, etc. These patterns persist over hundreds of millions of years despite all manner of selective pressure in different directions.

Darwinian evolutionists are familiar with these properties, of course, and have a standard explanation that they are leftover vestiges from archetypal ancestors. Against this, Denton has two main arguments. First, the record strongly supports the view that new Forms appear suddenly, without precursors. This is known as "saltation" -- the sudden appearance of a fully formed new structure. In all of the cases we know, the "transitional forms" between one type of organism and another do not consist of creatures with half-novelties, but rather, creatures with whole and complete novelties. Their transitional nature is identified because they have a subset of a larger set of several wholly novel features belonging to later descendants. But in each step that we see along the way, that which is new is whole and complete. The problem this creates for Darwinian evolution is similar to what is called a "topological argument" in physics. There are some things that can be continuously transformed into other things, while some things cannot. In the canonical example, a coffee cup can be transformed continuously into a doughnut, but not into a saucer. In the same way, all feathers are tubular, which requires a follicle with circular form, while reptile scales are flat sheets. Topologically, a flat sheet cannot be continuously transformed into a tube. (It was fascinating to me to hear that the dinosaurs-acquiring-feathers story actually creates new problems for Darwinism.) There are also more generalized topological arguments. Some molecular cycles in the cell are circular -- the so-called "chicken-and-egg problems" in which element A is required to create element B, and B is required to create C, but C is required to create A. These loops therefore have the same toplogical problem of lack of continuous generation from a prior process.

The transitional forms which indicate common descent also therefore create huge problems for gradual change via Darwinian selection as a mechanism. The most plain reading of the data is "descent with saltation." This occurs at every level. New organs occur suddenly, new processes occur suddenly (such as human language), and new genes occur: in every form of life there are whole genes (known as ORFans) that appear to be utterly unique to that form, with no homolog in any other type of creature. In some cases, even when genes from an ancestor are used, they are pressed into service to perform utterly new functions via the sudden appearance of a completely new set of switches and timers.

Snoke wrote his review for the Christian Scientific Society, so not surprisingly he asks about the relevance for Christians of Denton's "heavily empirical and materialist book." The "materialist" descriptor may be a little confusing, since Denton's view also "sounds a lot like neo-Platonism." Anyway, Snoke says this about anatomical features that seem to serve no purpose:

The idea of robust Forms is worth examining for the Christian. As Denton notes, much Christian thinking has been as utilitarian as Darwinist thinking. We tend to assume that everything in living systems must have a useful function. Perhaps some things, especially overall architectures, have their particular form not for function but for beauty or diversity. This leads to, for example, a helpful way of looking at the problem of male nipples. If we ask "What are male nipples for?" we are assuming a fully utilitarian view of living forms, and can get into knots trying to decide what they are good for, or if God has made a mistake. If we adopt a view of Forms, we can say that male nipples exist because the proper form for human bodies is to have nipples there.

Also, regarding the implications of Denton's thinking that run contrary to Darwinian racism:

The idea of Forms also makes a difference when think about race and racism. Darwinism has always had an ugly flirtation and sometimes open marriage with racism. If all of life is a continuum of gradual changes, then it makes sense that various subgroups of humans would be at different stages in evolutionary development, some closer to apes and others closer to the next upward step. Darwin argued in The Descent of Man that "lower" versions of humans such as Hottentots were proof of his theory of evolution. But Denton makes the case that, like other creatures, humans have had a stable single Form since they first existed, with all the basic gifts of language and culture in all geographical locations from the very beginning.

Snoke observes the irony that current evolutionary thinking is so hidebound -- "calcified," is how he puts it -- that it took Discovery Institute, leading advocate of intelligent design (not a materialist theory), to give a forum to Dr. Denton, whom Snoke sees as a sort of latter-day Gould. I think Denton's structuralism is in fact best understood as a form of ID. But the point is well taken. In today's orthodox evolutionary circles, protected from criticism behind walls of academic prestige, the spirit of intellectual exploration and discovery is largely extinguished.

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Image: Möbius strip, by David Benbennick (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.