Evolution: The Missing Link
Despite the prolonged ascendancy of Darwinian evolution in high school and college biology classes, the controversy over Darwin’s theory gets hotter with every passing year. A majority of the scientific community accepts it, but a majority of American citizens does not. Darwinism, and evolution in general, has an enormous credibility problem.
There are two sides or aspects to the evolution debate, the philosophical and the scientific. Paradoxically, large numbers of scientists who are fairly familiar with the scientific evidence tend to be very confused philosophically, while large numbers of laymen who know little of the physical evidence tend to have a better instinctive grasp of the philosophical issues. It is this, more than anything else, that creates the credibility gap between scientists and the general public. The man in the street concedes the superior technical knowledge of the scientist, but he also knows that when it comes to an overall grasp of reality, too many scientists are clueless.
Corresponding to these two aspects, two books really need to be written on the subject of evolution to instruct just about everybody. One would be a serious consideration of how human persons know: the nature of the intellect, the various sources of knowledge and how they intersect, the particular nature of scientific inquiry, the difference between evidence and inference, the profound influence of worldviews on both, and how various schools of thought sort out all these issues. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn and Avery Cardinal Dulles have been among the more notable intellectual leaders attempting to start a far-reaching discussion on precisely these themes.
The second book would be an impartial examination of the several schools of scientific thought regarding human origins. It would cover the presuppositions of each school, the explanatory scope of their respective theories, the data marshalled both for and against, the legitimate inferences to be drawn, the predictive success of each theoretical model, and the degree to which each theory is falsifiable, which is an essential criterion for valid scientific work.
The Evolution Controversy
The first book has not yet been written, but the second book was published just last month: The Evolution Controversy: A Survey of Competing Theories by Thomas B. Fowler and Daniel Kuebler. Kuebler is a professor of biology at Franciscan University of Steubenville and Fowler is a physicist, a senior information technology engineer, and a philosopher to boot. Tom Fowler is also a personal friend, but friendship aside, what we have here are two sound Catholic thinkers with the credentials necessary to treat the complex topic they have chosen.
The first part of the book provides a history of evolutionary thought, a brief review of the available evidence, and an explanation of the principal points in dispute. The second part dispassionately examines the evidence and inferences, strengths and weaknesses of the four major scientific schools of thought in contemporary debates over evolution. These schools are Neo-Darwinism, Meta-Darwinism, Creationism, and Intelligent Design.
The two Darwinisms tend to be identified with mechanistic or even atheistic scientists, though this is not necessarily the case. Neo-Darwinism is the prevailing school of scientific thought, a modification of Darwin’s original theory which posits that random genetic mutations coupled with natural selection is the sufficient and exclusive engine for the evolution of everything from lifeless matter to man. This depends on a very old earth and vast stretches of geological time. The Meta-Darwinian school accepts much of Darwin’s theory but believes it is insufficient by itself to explain certain features of the evolutionary record, such as relatively explosive periods for the appearance of new life-forms. Therefore this school argues that various other contributing causes have also been at work.
The other two schools of thought tend to be associated with people of Faith, but again not necessarily so. Creationism, which is sometimes but not always tied to the theory that the earth is actually very young, posits that God must have created the basic categories of living beings, but accepts certain forms of evolution within these broad categories. For the past half-century, Creationists have sought to provide purely scientific evidence for their position. Finally, Intelligent Design argues that the irreducible complexity of some features of nature make it impossible for random processes and natural selection to have produced them. The theory seeks to provide a means of effectively identifying those things which clearly possess such complexity. In other words, the Intelligent Design schools seeks to provide actual scientific evidence for the necessity of design.
The third part of the book covers the public policy implications of the evolution controversy and provides a convenient summary and assessment of the controversy as it currently stands.
Missing until Now
With respect to most past discussions of evolution, The Evolution Controversy is a critical missing link. The authors demonstrate a masterful command of both scientific evidence and legitimate inference; they have no particular axe to grind; and they are able to explain the strengths and weaknesses of the various schools of thought with a dispassionate clarity which serves three vital purposes. First, it is a tour de force of education about origins theory. Second, it gives a wonderful example to all sides of how legitimate scientific inquiry ought to proceed. Third, it provides a much-needed model for teachers of biology who would like to do a more even-handed and, in fact, better job of presenting the science of origins.
Committed Catholics have a tendency to draw conclusions about evolution based on certain philosophical and even theological insights (though generally not from a literal reading of Genesis). This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a very incomplete thing. It is much more satisfactory also to have a firm grasp of what the various scientific schools have to offer. Because Fowler and Kuebler are able to group their technical information around the precise points at issue in each theory, the reader is never lost in the details; rather he finds himself able to go far more deeply into the topic than before. The Evolution Controversy enables non-specialists, perhaps for the very first time, to gain a fascinating education in one of the two broad areas necessary to fully understand the issue.
And what about the other broad area, the philosophical one? When I last spoke with my friend Tom, whose name I am now freely dropping everywhere, I opined that his outstanding book fairly cried out for the other book as well. To my astonishment, he replied that he was already laying plans to team up with another author to write that book too. Nobody can do this overnight, however, so don’t postpone reading what we already have. The quarrel over evolution is a centerpiece of modern culture. Now, at last, you can begin to resolve it.
[Thomas B. Fowler & Daniel Kuebler, The Evolution Controversy: A Survey of Competing Theories. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2007. 382 pp. Paper. $24.99. Available from www.bakeracademic.com and Amazon for under $20, or ask your local bookseller.]
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