Evolution As A Scientific Theory
(Editors note: Garret Vanderkooi is assistant professor at the Institute for Enzyme Research at the University of Wisconsin. This article is reprinted from the May 7,1971 issue of Christianity Today.
In light of the numerous recent articles on evolution and the historicity of Genesis 1-3, it seems appropriate for one who is engaged in molecular biological research to write also, in order to clarify the present status of evolution as a scientific theory.
The theory of evolution has been in existence and more or less accepted for more than a hundred years. A large body of circumstantial evidence, much of which was available to Darwin already a century ago, is explained by it. This includes such things as the fossil record, similarities in form among animals and plants, and the geographical distribution of animals and plants. The theory put forward to explain these data is one of gradual development over long periods of time, the logical starting point being inorganic matter, and the logical end point, man.
A theory with such a vast scope, and which by its very prehistoric nature cannot be proved, would undoubtedly be passed off as idle speculation, if it were not for its theological implications. As we all know, the theory offers a naturalistic alternative to the creation account contained in the Bible and this is considered to be a highly desirable thing by those who do not want to recognize the Creator. The proponents of evolution have done such an effective job of propagandizing this religious theory, in the name of empirical science, that some formerly orthodox theologians are revising their interpretation of the Bible to make room for it.
From the scientific point of view, evolution may have been a plausible hypothesis in Darwin's day but it has now become untenable, as a result of fairly recent developments in molecular biology. Darwin was aware that his theory contained various unproved assumptions, which would have to be tested by future generations of scientists. The foremost assumptions were that life could develop from non-life by natural means, and that, given the first cell, all the varied forms of life that we now have could be produced from it.
At one stage, Darwin proposed the supernatural creation of the first cell, but he apparently rejected this notion later in life; the idea was certainly not accepted by his followers. On the second point, Darwin observed that there was sufficient variation among the individuals of a given species to make it possible to breed better strains of domestic cattle or grain, and that a similar process ("natural selection") occurred in the wild. The assumption has not been borne out either experimentally or by the fossil record. On the contrary, the fossil record would seem to indicate that new classes always appeared suddenly, rather than gradually, as would have been expected by the Darwinian theory.
In the past, evolutionists were confident that the problem of the origin of life would be solved by the new science of biochemistry. To their dismay, the converse has occurred. The more that is learned about the chemical structure and organization of living matter, the more difficult it becomes even to speculate on how it could have developed from lower forms by natural processes. The pat answers given in high school and beginning college textbooks on the origin of life simply do not hold up when submitted to a biochemical analysis.
There is no theory in existence today that even begins to explain the origin of life by natural means. The individual molecules in a living cell are extremely complicated precisely made, and arranged in a varied but highly ordered network. Both the structure of these molecules and their cellular organization (and thus life itself) are passed on from generation to generation. To think that such a system could ever have come into being by itself is unbelievable. A calculation of the time involved to produce even one of the required molecules by chance shows that four billion years (the estimated age of the earth) is by comparison a very short time.
The weakness of the evolutionary hypothesis is recognized and acknowledged by some members of the scientific community; it is becoming more common to find doubts and reservations concerning the theory expressed in the scientific literature. As a prime example, we may quote from a recent book by two prominent biochemists, Dr. D. E. Green and Dr. R. F. Goldberger (Molecular Insights Into the Living Process, Academic Press, 1967, pp. 406,407):
There is one step [in evolution] that far outweighs the others in enormity: the step from macromolecules to cells. All the other steps can be accounted for on theoretical grounds — if not correctly, at least elegantly. However, the macromolecule to cell transition is a jump of fantastic dimensions, which lies beyond the range of testable hypothesis. In this area, all is conjecture. The available facts do not provide a basis for postulation that cells arose on this planet. This is not to say that some paraphysical forces were at work. We simply wish to point out that there is no scientific evidence.
A footnote adds that it would be begging the question to suggest that life arose elsewhere, and was transmitted here through space.
These scientists do not propose creation (paraphysical forces) as a way out of the dilemma, because they are speaking as scientists, and supernaturalism is outside the range of empirical science. A scientific appeal to supernaturalism to get out of difficult problems leads to a "god of the gaps;" such a god dies when the gaps are filled with natural explanations.
The origin of life on earth is not properly placed in the domain of science. Scientists might propose mechanisms by which it may have arisen, but how it actually happened is in the domain of history. The mute evidence of the fossil record does give us some historical insight: it tells us, for example, that there are many extinct species; it also tells us that all life apparently did not come into existence at the same time, but that there were several widely separated times at which major new classes of animals or plants appeared. To construct an elaborate causal, historical framework on the foundation of the fossil record is speculation, not science. A written record by someone (an intelligent being) who was present during the events in question is required, before it is possible to say what were the causes and what were the effects.
It is a commonly accepted fact that there were no human beings around to witness the first appearance of life on earth. How then can we have written record of these events? Only through the revelation of them from God to man. This revelation has occurred, and is recorded for us most fully in Genesis, although numerous references to these events are also found elsewhere in the Bible.
The Genesis record does not contain all the details that we would like to have, but it does give us more than enough information to settle some fundamental questions. For one thing, it tells us that life did not arise spontaneously, but was a creation of God. God did not create only the first cell; rather, at several times he decreed that new forms of life should come into existence. Finally, the first two human beings were direct creations by God; they did not develop from apes. It should be clearly noted that these statements do not contradict science, but actually solve the difficult scientific problems mentioned above. Concerning the last point, it may be noted that the fossil record in no way proves that humans developed from apes, but only shows their similarities, which we knew already from visits to the zoo.
In the minds of many people, it is impossible to reconcile the Genesis account with the observations of natural science. There are two principal reasons for this. In the first place, the observations are frequently confused with the interpretations of natural science; it is also difficult at times to distinguish between valid interpretations based on sound evidence, and mere speculation. I have tried to show above that the general theory of evolution falls into the latter category.
In the second place, the Genesis account is frequently over interpreted. Problems certainly will arise in reconciling the valid observations of science if we maintain that the six days of creation were six consecutive twenty-four-hour periods. If, on the other hand, we accept the word of those conservative Hebrew scholars who say that it is an over interpretation of the Hebrew language to hold to this view and that it is equally valid to interpret the days of periods of time of unspecified length, then though many questions still remain as to the details of the interpretation of both science and Genesis, their basic agreement is evident. This would indeed be expected if they are both forms of revelation from God.