The Death of Darwinism

Author: George Sim Johnston

The Death of Darwinism By George Sim Johnston Christian Order Magazine February, 1996

No book has so profoundly affected the way modern man views himself as Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, first published in 1859. The notion that man is the product of a blind, materialist process which did not have him in mind is part of the intellectual air everyone breathes. Even orthodox Catholics can get into difficulties when they try to reconcile the creation account in Genesis with what they suppose science has demonstrated about the origin of the universe and of living things. The unfortunate result is a kind of schizophrenia that deems the first chapter of Genesis to be both the inerrant word of God and a scientific embarrassment.

In confronting a theory like Darwin's, Catholics should anchor themselves in the proposition that there can be no real conflict between faith and science. The danger occurs when scientists trespass into theology, or vice versa. The Galileo affair is a sobering reminder of what can happen when certain parities in the Church resist a scientific hypothesis on a priori biblical grounds. If the congregation of Cardinals that condemned Galileo had paid more attention to Augustine and Aquinas, who both held that the Holy Spirit, speaking through the sacred writers, was not teaching a system of astronomy, the disastrous split which occurred between religion and science in the seventeenth century might have been avoided.

Darwin's theory of natural selection

Although it is seldom aired in public, there is a sharp debate among scientist today about almost every aspect of evolutionary theory. The controversy is not over evolution per se, but over the means by which it happened. The crux of the issue is not evolution, but teleology. Either life forms came about by blind chance or they did not. Darwin's theory of natural selection is the only one available which purports to explain how Homo sapiens and other species are exclusively the result of natural forces. This is why the debate over Darwin's theory, and not evolution itself, is so important. It is Darwin's theory, moreover, and not another, which is taught in our schools. And the fact that most writing on the subject does not make the crucial distinction between "evolution" and "Darwinism" simply muddles the issue.

Although his name is synonymous with the theory, Darwin did not create the theory of the evolutionary origin of life forms. It has been broached by ancient Greek philosophers, speculated on by Saint Augustine, and developed into a scientific hypothesis by the French zoologist Buffon a century be fore the Origin. Darwin's unique contribution was to provide a plausible explanation of how evolution occurred, one that was purely mechanistic and dispensed with God. This was the theory of natural selection.

Darwin's theory in a nutshell is that organisms produce offspring which vary slightly from their parents, and natural selection will favour the survival of those individuals whose peculiarities (sharper teeth, more prehensile claws, etc.) render them best adapted to their environment. Darwinian an evolution, then, is a two-stage process; random variation as to raw material, and natural selection as the directing force.


Once he struck on this theory, Darwin spent much time observing pigeon breeders at work near his home in Kent. The first fifty pages of the Origin are mainly about pigeons, which often surprises and bores readers. Darwin noticed that through selective breeding, pigeons could be made to develop certain desired characteristics: colour, wingspan, and so forth. Darwin extrapolated from these observations the notion that over many millennia species could evolve by a similar process of selecting, the only difference being that the breeder is nature itself, sifting out the weakest and following the fittest to survive. By this simple process, Darwin claimed that some unknown original life form floating in the primordial soup evolved and diversified into the vast array of plants and animals we see today.

But a crucial point has to be made here, one that has been made often by Darwin's scientific critics. What Darwin observed in the breeding pens in micro-evolution. Macroevolution refers to the small changes that occur within a species over time. Such evolution is common. For example, people are generally taller today then they were a hundred years ago. The varieties of finches that Darwin saw on the Galapagos Islands are another example of micro-evolution. With no direct empirical evidence, Darwin claimed that over long periods of time these micro-changes could result in macro-evolution, which consists of really big jumps from amoeba to reptile to mammal, for example. This is where his theory runs into problems which are still not resolved in the minds of many scientists today.

No facile explanations

There are two places to look for verification of Darwin's theory: the fossil record and breeding experiments with animals. If Darwin's theory is correct, the fossil record should show innumerable sight gradations between earlier species and later ones. Darwin was aware, however, that the fossil record of his day showed nothing of the sort. There were enormous discontinuities between major animal and plant groups. He accordingly entitled his chapter on the subjects, "On the Imperfections of the Geological Record." He hoped that future digging would fill in the gaps, which he admitted to be "the gravest objection to my theory." Enormous quantities of fossils have been dug up since, and, if anything, they make more glaring the gaps which troubled Darwin. Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard biologist, calls this lack of gradual change in the fossil record the "trade secret" of modern palaeontology.

The fossil record shows exactly what it showed in Darwin's day-- that species appear suddenly in a fully developed state and changed little or not at all before disappearing (99 out of 100 species are extinct). About 550 million years ago, at the beginning of the Cambrian era, there was an explosion of complex life forms-- mollusks, jellyfish, trilobites--for which not a single ancestral form can be found in earlier rocks. A man from Mars looking at the subsequent fossil record would say that species are replaced by other species, rather than evolve into them. Palaeontologist Stephen Stanley writes that "the fossil record does not convincingly demonstrate a single transition from one species to another."

What about those pictures in museums and textbooks, those charts showing how large horses gradually evolved from small ones, and so forth? These portrayals of ancestral descent are conjectural and are constantly being discarded. Palaeontologists, in effect, find a fossil of an extinct species and make up a scenario connecting it with a later or earlier animal, but they never find the transitional forms which Darwin's theory demands.

The famous series of pictures at the American Museum of Natural History showing the "evolution" of horses, the diminutive Eohippus slowly changing into modern Equus, has been quietly discarded even by orthodox Darwinists. Eohippus remained Eohippus; it was followed or accompanied by numerous species of horses, some larger, some smaller. The chart is nonetheless widely reprinted in text-books. John Bonner, a biology professor at Princeton, writes that textbook diagrams of evolutionary decent are generally "a festering mass of unsupported conclusions."

The ancestry of man changes as often as the weather, as the few bits of hominid fossil are shuffled about. There have been Java Man, Piltdown Man, Nebraska Man, Ramapithicus, and numerous others which have been rejected for one reason or another. The two most famous figures in hominid paleotology today, Richard Leakey and Donald Johnsen (discoverer of Lucy), are in complete disagreement over man's ancestry. Australopithecus afarensis has been rendered in textbooks with faces ranging from ape to human, depending on whose side the artist is on. Richard Lewontin, professor of zoology and genetics at Harvard, sums up as follows:

We don't know anything about the ancestors of the human species...Despite the excited and optimistic claims that have been made by some palaeontologists, no fossil hominid species can be established as our direct ancestor.

A new breed?

Since we do not see species changing into other species in the fossils, the only other place to look is in breeding experiments. But here the evidence also goes against Darwin. Breeders can change the colour of a pigeon or the size of a cow to some degree, but they can only go so far. In fact, all breeders have the same experience: if they try to go too far in one direction, the animal or plant in question either becomes sterile or reverts to type.

The most famous breeder of all, Luther Burbank, found no evidence of the unlimited plasticity of species, which Darwin's theory demands, and posited the "Law of Reversion to Average." Richard Goldschmidt, a leading geneticist who taught at Berkeley, spent years observing the mutation of fruit flies and concluded that biologists had to give up Darwin's idea that an accumulation of "micro" changes creates new species. If you have a thousand-point mutation in the genes of a fruit fly, a statistical impossibility, it is still a fruit fly.

Goldschmidt published a famous list of seventeen items--including teeth, feathers, the poison apparatus of the snake and whalebone--and challenged anyone to explain how they could have evolved on a step-by- step basis. If natural selection were the mechanism for major changes in species, Godschmidt pointed out, then every intermediate form must be useful to the organism. This problem of explaining the usefulness of incipient organs--five percent of an eye, for example--has been a persistent problem for Darwinists. As one biologist puts it, "Since the eye must be either perfect, or perfectly useless; how could it have evolved by small, successive, Darwinian steps? Otto Scindewolf, the great German palaeontologist and anti-Darwinist, rejected out of hand the idea that transitional forms could be found or even imagined:

It should be emphasized that there is no way that there could be transitional forms as they have often been envisaged and required...A placenta cannot be absent and present simultaneously...

Schindewolf, who died in 1971, was largely ignored in the Anglo- Saxon countries, while Goldschmidt was the subject of a savage campaign of vilification for suggesting that evolution must have involved the appearance of "hopeful monsters"-- that is, sudden genetic freaks which somehow manage to function rather than minute gradations sifted by natural selection. But scientists like Gould of Harvard now claim that both men were on the right track after all, that the story of evolution is one of rapid, dramatic changes followed by long periods of stasis. But in downplaying the role of natural selection, Gold, Stanley, and other scientists are stuck with the problem of providing a plausible mechanism that can explain how the bacteria and blue-green algae that appeared on this planet over the two billion years ago randomly mutated into the highly complex fauna and flora we see today. Modern genetics shows that DNA programs a species to remain stubbornly what it is. There are fluctuations around a norm, but nothing more. Dogs remain dogs; fruit flies remain fruit flies.

The development of Darwinism

There are other serious problems with classical Darwinian theory. Among them are the fact that scientists see very little struggle for survival in nature many species tend to cooperate and occupy ecological niches which do not compete; the fact that all the major body plans we see today in animals and insects appeared at once in the Cambrian era; a fact which does not fit Darwin's model; and that many species like the lungfish have not changed at all in over 300 million years despite important shifts in the environment, which flatly contradicts the constant fine-tuning Darwin attributed to natural selection.

Darwin himself was increasingly plagued with doubts after the first edition of the Origin. In subsequent editions, he kept backing off from natural selection as the explanation of all natural phenomena. Loren Eiseley writes:

A close examination of the last edition of the Origin reveals that, in attempting to meet the objections being launched against his theory, the much-laboured-upon volume had become contradictory...The last repairs to the Origin very shaky Darwin's theoretical structure had become.

Darwin's unproven theory nevertheless became dogma in the public mind.

Yet there was sharp scientific opposition from the start. As Swedish biologist Soren Lovtrup points out, most of Darwin's early opponents, even when they had religions motives, argued on a completely scientific basis. Most of these critics did not reject evolution per se, but rather Darwin's explanation of it. In the decades following Darwin's death in 1882, his theory came increasingly under a cloud. Lovtrup writes, "During the first third of our century, biologists did not believe in Darwinism." Hans Driesch in Germany, Lucien Cuenot in France and Vernon Kellog and T.H. Morgan in America, biologists and geneticists with international reputations, all rejected the theory during this period. Cuenot wrote that "we must wholly abandon the Darwinian hypothesis," while the Dictionnaire Encyclopedique des Sciences in 1925 dismissed Darwin's theory as "a fiction, a poetical accumulation of probabilities without proof, and of attractive explanations without demonstrations."

The great irony, is that the Scopes trial in 1925, which the American popular imagination still regards as putting to rest the whole case against Darwin, took place against this background of general dissent. The scientific issues were never properly discussed at that trial; a fossil tooth was proffered as the remains of something called "Nebraska man," thought it later turned out to belong to a pig; and William Jennings Bryan made the mistake of allowing his fundamentalist beliefs to be ridiculed in court by Clarence Darrow, who was a kind of "Village Atheist" raised to the national level.

The Scopes trial proved nothing about the scientific validity of Darwin's theory, but it did plant in the America mind the notion that in the debate over evolution the only available choices are "Bible- thumping" fundamentalism and Darwinism. G.K. Chesterton pointed out at the time that the Catholic Church, which does not treat the Book of Genesis as a source book of scientific data and does not have a serious philosophical problem with evolution ( properly understood), was entirely outside the fray.

Julian Huxley: "synthetic theory"

Because of the obvious shortcomings in Darwin's original theory, the so-called synthetic theory emerged in the 1930's. This theory incorporated genetics, molecular biology, and complicated mathematical models. But it remained completely Darwinian in its identification of random variations preserved by natural selection as the driving force of evolution. Julian Huxley, the chief spokesman for the synthetic theory, claimed that Darwinism had risen Phoenix-like from the ashes. But the synthetic theory had as many problems as classical Darwinism and over the next forty years its supports fell away one by one. In 1979, Stephen Jay Gould echoed the sentiments of many scientists when he declared: "The synthetic effectively dead, despite its persistence as text- book orthodoxy.

Gould and Eldredge

Since the synthetic theory originally arose in response to the collapse of classical Darwinism, where does that leave us today? "Punctuated Equilibrium" would be the reply of the average biology teacher or science columnist. This is the famous hypothesis which Gould and Niles Eldredge came up with in the early 1970's, when they and other palaeontologists began to insist that the gaps in the fossil record must be taken at face value. According to this theory, small groups of animals break off from the heard, migrate to peripheral locations "at the edge of ecological tolerance," and mutate very rapidly into "hopeful monsters" who then replace the old herd. Because the changes occur so quickly, there is no fossil evidence--which means that the theory can be neither proved nor disproved. Scientists once said that evolution is so slow that we cannot see it; now they say that it is so fast that it is invisible.

Besides the punctuationists, there are two other evolutionary camps today: those who cling to classical Darwinism because they say there is no better explanation for the origin of species (a position which is metaphysical rather than scientific), and those who reject Darwin entirely, including a well-known group of "cladists" at the American Museum of Natural History. Skepticism about Darwin's theory is more widespread among scientists than is generally supposed. For example, the theory is rejected by most French biologists, including the most eminent, the late Pierre P. Grasse, president of the French Academy of Sciences and editor of the 28 volumes of Traite de Zoologie, who called Darwinism a "pseudo-science "that is "either in conflict with reality or cannot solve the basic problem." Scientist like Grasse nonetheless call themselves "evolutionists" because they recognize that all life forms share basic characteristics such as DNA and so many be descended from a single ancestor; but they are frankly agnostic about how this happened.

An anti-Darwinist biologist who works at the American Museum of Natural History once summed up for me the situation of evolutionary theory today: "We know that species reproduce and that there are different species now than there were a hundred million years ago. Everything else is propaganda.

The Church and evolution

The Catholic Church has never had a problem with "evolution"(as opposed to philosophical Darwinism, which sees man solely as the product of materialist forces). Unlike Luther and Calvin and modern fundamentalists, the Church has never taught that the first chapter of Genesis is meant to teach science. F. J. Sheed writes in his classic Theology and Sanity that the creation account in Genesis tells us of the fact but not of the process: there was an assembling of elements of the material universe, but was it instantaneous, or spread over a considerable space of time? Was it complete in one act, or by stages?

Piux XII correctly pointed out in the encyclical Humani generis (1950( that the theory of evolution had not been completely proved, but he did not forbid that the theory of evolution concerning the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter for

Catholic faith obliges us to hold that human souls are immediately created by God-be investigated and discussed by experts as far as the present state of human science and sacred theology allows (no. 36). In his catechesis on creation given during a series of general audiences in 1986, John Paul II provided the following discussion on the first chapter of Genesis:

This text was above all religious and theological importance. There are not to be sought in it significant elements from the point of view of the natural sciences. Research on the origin and development of individual species in nature does not find in this description any definitive norm...Indeed, the theory of natural evolution, understood in a sense that does not exclude divine causality, is not in principle opposed to the truth about the creation of the visible world as presented in the Book of Genesis...; It must, however, be added that this hypothesis proposes only a probability, not a scientific certainty. The doctrine of faith, however, invariably affirms that man's spiritual soul is created directly by God. According to the hypothesis mentioned, it is possible that the human body, following the order impressed by the Creator on the energies of life, could have been gradually prepared in the forms of antecedent living beings (General Audiences, January 24 and April 16, 1986).

Philosophic materialism

The Church's quarrel with many scientists who call themselves evolutionists is not about evolution itself, which may (or may not) have occurred in a non-Darwinian, teleological manner, but rather about the philosophical materialism that is at the root of much evolutionary thinking. John Paul II puts the matter succinctly:

The Church is not afraid of scientific criticism. She distrusts only preconceived opinions that claim to be based on science, but which in reality surreptitiously cause science to depart from its domain.

This remark was aimed at the biblical exegetes, but it certainly applies to Darwinian science, which contains hidden philosophical additives. In the area of theology, the Magisterium has warned against the teachings of the French palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who concocted from evolutionary theory a kind of process theology that, among other things, implicitly denies original sin and the existence of first parents of the human race who differed in kind from whatever may be preceded them. In Humani generis, Pius XII also condemned polygenism, championed by Teilhard, Rahner, and other theologians, which holds that we are descended from multiple ancestors rather than from one historical person named Adam (no. 37).

The Church insists that man is not an accident; that no matter how He went about creating Homo sapiens, God from all eternity intended that man and all creation exist in their present forms. Catholics are not obliged to square scientific data with the early verses of Genesis, whose truths, and they are truths, not myths, are expressed in an archaic, pre- scientific Hebrew idiom; and they can look forward with enjoyment and confidence to modern scientific discoveries which, more often than not, raise fundamental questions which science itself cannot answer.

Note: This article first appeared in the June 1995 edition of Lay Witness, the publication of Catholic United for the Faith>

Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN