The romance between Christianity and the physical sciences has not been a painless one since at least the Renaissance. From the 17th century to the 21st century Christianity and physical science have quarreled over astronomy, geology (twice), biology, psychology, and cosmology. Of course, the most serious squabble between science and Christianity, since the 19th century, has been over Darwinian evolution, and the original article and my response to it, demonstrates, I think, how divided Christianity has been over the idea that life on earth has evolved.

In an article entitled, “The Neo-Catholic Planet of the Apes,” Christopher Ferrara, insists that neo-Darwinism (ND), especially as popularized by the likes of Richard Dawkins and other New Atheist writers, and the theory of evolution (TOE) generally, undermine the whole of the Christian faith. And in articulating this vision Mr. Ferrara has a three-fold argument: (i) the TOE is empirically false and conceptually muddled, (ii) the TOE cannot be reconciled with the plain statements of Genesis’ early passages and doctrines that have been born from those passages, especially original sin, and (iii) the denial of design in nature is virtually the denial of God—this conviction is tacitly assumed throughout the article.

What can one say about this argument, beyond the obvious historical fact that it is, more or less, unchanged in form since at least 1860—although, Bishop Wilberforce’s historical portrait on the subject of evolution is not at all flattering, he was not an obscurantist, for he denounced the TOE for what it was in his own time—largely conjecture.

I should state, at the outset, that I agree with Mr. Ferrara that ND, understood in reductionist and scientific dualist terms, is incompatible with Christianity—it is, more or less, a speculative naturalistic metaphysical thesis after all. However, reductionist, dualist, and purely speculative forms of ND, by which I mean theses that advocate a metaphysics of naturalistic materialism as the message of evolution, is not the TOE, which, simply put, is Darwin’s theory of evolution, as developed in the light of Mendelian genetics and our understanding of the place of DNA in the transmission of inherited information. And Mr. Ferrara seems determined to equate the logical incoherence and mendaciousness of reductionist, scientific dualist, and adaptationist forms of ND with the TOE, as his article intimates rather clearly, which I think is an inappropriate and intellectually second-rate, exceedingly second-rate really, isomorphism, ceteris paribus.

Truth be told, overlooking the false synonymy, Ferrara’s implicit argument (iii) advocates the notion that God can be located somewhere out there in the cosmos, in the natural order, a cause among causes, which very well may be heresy, at least when Ferrara’s argument is interpreted in terms of classical Christianity (I’ll expound on this in the second post). But let us try to meet the initial thrust of his argument, (i) and (ii), on its own terms.

For starters, at least in my own research, Richard Dawkins is in the minority among evolutionary biologists in thinking that the explanation of complex design is the central problem in evolutionary biology, although many adherents of the New Atheism probably agree with Dawkins on this point (which is unsurprising given their metaphysical commitments.) I say that because no one even knows what a good fit between organisms and environment means as a question, much less explain it.

Of course, most evolutionary biologists believe natural selection to be responsible for complex design, as complex design is popularly understood, but complex design is a rather vague concept with no clear way to understand it in a biological sense. Not to mention, Dawkins’ explanation of complex design rests on a number of tendentious assumptions about the causal primacy of genes and an inherently problematic adaptationism—for instance, a lock and key understanding of niches. Of course, Dawkins is an imbecile (The Selfish Gene has to be the worst “science” book ever written. And it is certainly the worst metaphor in the literature for how evolution works), so there’s that.

The point is, though, that the problem of explaining complex design is a conceptual confusion. Indeed, the problem of explaining complex design is only a problem for a specific understanding of the TOE—reductionist, dualist, and purely speculative neo-Darwinism, where metaphysical commitments control scientific hypotheses. Insofar as that is true, I would argue that the problem of explaining complex design is a pseudo-problem for most of evolutionary biology—it works grammatically as a question but it is meaningless nonetheless.

Also, as mentioned above, Mr. Ferrara equates a very specific understanding of neo-Darwinism (e.g., the understanding of Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, Sam Harris et al) with the TOE, and that is a false equivalence relation. That sort of neo-Darwinism does not equal the theory of evolution. And I don’t see how it could. Reductionist, dualist, and purely speculative forms of ND are basically metaphysical theses, and adaptationist forms of ND have serious conceptual and empirical difficulties, but the TOE does not equal those explanations of evolutionary history, although the TOE has certain metaphysical assumptions built into it—regularity of nature, intelligibility of the world, and so forth and its own problems. But the central tenets of Dawkinsian ND, so to speak, have more to do with a naturalist metaphysics than with a strictly scientific account of natural phenomena—ideas about determinism, materialism, ultimate purpose, etc.

The TOE, as Kim Sterelny and Griffiths suppose, on the other hand, merely “stipulates, that variation, heritability, differential fitness, and conditions admitting of cumulative selection resulting in selection on organisms, produce gradual change in populations over time. Such gradual change, continued over long periods of time results in both adaptation and differentiation as distinct populations become adapted to distinct environments,” and of course at some point speciation occurs, usually when two populations are reproductively isolated. Of course, there is a lot to unpack in that statement, and some of it is up for debate like the degree to which selection is operative, the nature of speciation, and so on, but the basic idea—life on earth evolved—is not up for debate, and nothing in the scientific literature proposes such a thing.

Yet still others state the TOE even more simply (too simply for my taste) and claim that evolution is simply changes in gene frequencies within populations, which is basically what most reductionist, dualist, and adaptationist neo-Darwinists would claim, although, to my mind, that overestimates the evolutionary “specialness” of the gene—the gene is not the only unit of selection capable of forming lineages over evolutionary time. But I digress.

The point is that the TOE is not a metaphysical thesis, it is not a theory about metaphysical reality, it is simply a theory about the workings of the natural world; it is merely a theory about the process of life’s diversification, about its causes and mechanisms, not some master philosophy about the whole of reality. And, as such, the TOE is of a completely different nature than the propositions of a reductionist and dualist ND. Indeed the TOE is a collection of factual statements, not philosophical ones. Of course, factual questions have repercussions for philosophical views, and so perhaps our digression had a point.

 The Fossil Record and Transitional Forms

Mr. Ferrara states, “The innumerable transitional forms preceding emerging new species that Darwin expected the fossil record to show were never forthcoming, even though evolution by small mutations conserved by natural selection would logically produce vastly more transitional than terminal forms.”

Of course, this is true in part. While it is estimated that somewhere between 20 million and 4 billion species have existed on earth in its history, we only have record of about 250,000 or so fossil species, which puts us at possessing around less than 1 percent of the fossil record.

So, yes, the fossil record is incomplete, but the problem is that for the majority, probably around 90 percent, of the history of life, all species were soft-bodied, and soft-bodied parts of plants and animals are not easily fossilized, because once an organism dies, it is usually destroyed by bacteria, weather, other creatures, and so forth. (Think of a dead carcass on the side of the road.) So, very few organisms were and are even fossilized, and of that number even fewer are actually discovered—could you, dear readers, find your buried childhood pets, which is orders of magnitude more likely than finding thousands of millions of years old fossils?

Indeed it is not at all surprising, taking into account the large number of soft-bodied species to have existed and the amount of time involved in the evolution of life on earth, that we don’t have more information on transitional forms.

However, even though the fossil record is tremendously incomplete, we do have enough fossil evidence to give us a good idea about how evolution occurred within lineages, something for which Mr. Ferrara says he has no objection in principle. A few examples:

  • (a) Over an 8 million year period there is clear evidence in the fossil record that the species Globorotalia conoidea evolved.
  • (b) Trilobites. Clear evolutionary change in the pygidial ribs.
  • (c) Pseudocubus vema. Clear evolutionary change in thorax size.

And how lineages broke away from each other. A few examples of transitional forms:

  • (d) Tiktaalik roseae—intermediate between (lobe-finned fish) Eusthenopteron foordi and (tetrapod) Acanthostega gunnari. This transitional form is noticeable in its limbs and ribs, which has a bone structure between that of the lobe-finned fish and the tetrapod. And there are numerous others between fish and amphibian.
  • (e) Archaeopteryx lithographica. Intermediate between reptile and bird.
  • (f) Sinornithousaurus millenii. Intermediate between modern birds and its ancestors.
  • (g) Microraptor gui and Mei long—more intermediate bird-reptile creatures
  • (h) The whale fossil record—we have a great fossil record of transitional whales.
  • (i) Sphecomyrma freyi—transitional ant.
  • (j) Haikouella lanceolata—transitional snake.
  • (k) Hyracotherium to Equus—fossil record of the horse
  • (l) Hundreds of fossil homininds

These examples should make perfectly clear that evolution occurred, and the fossil record demonstrates this by showing gradual change within lineages (a-c), the breaking off of lineages (d-l), and transitional forms (d-l).

 The Cambrian “Explosion”

Ferrara continues: “…the “Cambrian explosion,” in which the basic body plans of the animal phyla appear abruptly in the fossil record without prior incipient stages, confounds evolutionists to this day, despite their flimsy attempts to explain away this massive embarrassment for their beloved theory.”

First, there seems to be some scholarly agreement that there was an explosive diversification of animal life early in the Cambrian. However, there is a difference between diversification—number of species—and disparity—more basic body plans. Mr. Ferrara’s understanding of the Cambrian depends upon the latter, and disparity is a rather murky concept. I am not even sure disparity is a real and biologically important property. It seems, at least to me, that disparity is more eisegesis than exegesis, as NT scholars say. That is, more of a projection onto (reading into), than an objective feature of nature (reading out). But even if it is an objective feature of nature, how does one measure disparity? Or how is it genealogically informative? Gould tried to formulate it precisely, so that it might be tested, but failed, does Mr. Ferrara have some clarification on the matter? None is offered in the article, and I doubt any could be.

Second, a number of the creatures found in the Burgess fauna have been reclassified and put in extant phyla. So, the degree to which disparity was greater—more body plans—is questionable indeed, at least among arthopods (insects, crabs, and kin), which is Gould’s exemplar. Indeed the status of this “explosion” remains a matter of controversy—the Precambrian animals only failed to survive to our time, and were soft-bodied, so we haven’t detected them in the fossil record, which gives us the appearance of an explosion, is one famous explanation for the “explosion”. Also, the relation between the Cambrian fauna and the Ediacarian fauna, its predecessor, is highly contested—Edicarian fauna was present worldwide, so there was animal life before the Cambrian.

Third, as Ridley has pointed out, it seems straightforwardly fallacious to infer from features that are currently exemplified to greater disparity in the Cambrian. How do features that are now present have any bearing on greater disparity then? That is, the fact that chelicerates and trilobites look a certain way now does not say anything about greater disparity in Cambrian, because what importance is a trait that allows us to distinguish between chelicerates and trilobites now have to do with disparity in the Cambrian?

Fourth, no one rules out, not even Dawkins, that a major evolutionary change can occur in a single generation—by some wildly advantageous mutation or cataclysmic event or what have you. Everyone just agrees that such changes are exceedingly rare, and that most adaptive change occurs in a long series of small alterations—cumulative selection—as the record of the history of life bears out, even Gould agrees with this aspect of the TOE. And nothing in Mr. Ferrara’s article contradicts that belief.

Last, and perhaps most importantly, the Cambrian explosion has to do primarily with animal life. Single-celled organisms and plant life are excluded. If anything this should diminish any extravagant claim about the diversification of life during the Cambrian; we should be very careful about privileging our evolutionary theory too much in favor of one area of evolution–metazoan. For instance, vascular plants evolved on land after the Cambrian, which means that plant diversity did not peak in the Cambrian. Also, bacterium, the most common organism, has very great disparity, in Gould’s sense, at the present time, given how very different their basic metabolic systems are, so why prejudice our talk about disparity in favor of metazoan evolution? Why not say we have greater disparity in the Holocene than at any other epoch?

Gould, Adaptationism, RNA, and Cells

Ferrara maintains: “…that model is under increasing pressure from revisionists within the evolution establishment who know a loser when they see one. In 1980 the late Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard, then the world’s most renowned evolutionist, reluctantly conceded that it would seem that model “as a general proposition, is effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy.””

But Gould is not challenging evolution as such, but a certain understanding of evolution that places undue importance on natural selection and the causal primacy of genes: adaptationism. For Gould, chance plays a more important role than genes. In fact, chance plays a huge role when populations are small—this is the basic idea of genetic drift. Also, mass extinction looms large in Gould’s thought in explaining evolutionary history. That is, survival is more about good fortune than fitness. As a result, selection plays a less powerful role for Gould, because selection needs a good amount of variation, and Gould thinks the amount of variants available to any population is limited.

In Gould’s mind, as Sterelny has made clear, species spend most of their life never-changing in body or behavior. Evolutionary change happens quickly, in bursts. Species come into existence, remain phenotypically the same, and then either go extinct or break off into other species. This is punctuated equilibrium.

Gould is also skeptical of Dawkins’ gene selectionism, because he doubts genes have a large enough effect on organismal fitness over, say, features of the environment.

So, sure, there are differences within evolutionary theory, between Gould et al and Dawkins et al, but Gould never questions the TOE as such, rather Gould is criticizing certain assumptions of and inferences drawn from the TOE that he thinks are conceptually confused, empirically lacking, and/or methodologically imprudent. Indeed Gould’s biggest criticism of adaptationism might be about its methodology—adaptationists tell just-so stories—a hypothesis about what a trait’s selective history might have been and what function it has now as a result.

However, nowhere does Gould question the basic biological fact that life has evolved over long periods of time.

Yet Ferrara continues: “Evolution’s credibility problem begins at the very beginning of evolutionary time: protein synthesis is impossible without the chromosomal DNA “code,” but DNA depends on proteins for its tightly coiled structure, self-repair, and the direction of protein synthesis itself—a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma. Worse, in a cell the DNA code imparts information to RNA for the assembly of proteins by a process called transcription. But how did DNA “evolve” this function without RNA already being present to serve as the transcript, and how did RNA arise without its DNA complement, especially in view of RNA’s highly unstable nature?”

That says nothing about the credibility of evolution as such, it disputes a very bad idea of how evolution works, that is, Dawkins’ gene selectionism. But it does not dispute evolution as such. Indeed it is no real surprise that the first molecule of life was not DNA, it was something like RNA, and that is a well-known fact in evolutionary biology.

Moreover, we know that RNA can play both roles—can have both the information-carrying capacity and the ability to catalyze chemical reactions. Indeed, one of the RNA catalysts that we know about has precisely the sort of activity that would be required at the beginning of life, as Cech and Altman demonstrated. Which is to say, it has the ability to construct other RNA molecules properly. And this discovery solves the chicken-and-egg problem because these RNA molecules—ribozymes—can fill the two roles of heredity and metabolism, roles usually filled by DNA and proteins. So it is perfectly plausible that RNA was serving this function at the beginning of life, so to speak, and other macromolecules like DNA and proteins came along later in the process.

But, of course, we don’t know, exactly, how life began. But we do know that reflexive chemical processes, in the absence of life and in early earth environmental conditions, can give rise to organic compounds, and recent work has demonstrated how ribosyme RNA molecules could have brought about that RNA evolutionary phase, so to speak.

However, Ferrara contends, “…there is the building block of animal life, the eukaryotic cell. Evolutionists have no credible explanation for how mindless processes could produce a biological world-within-a-world…”

Well, to borrow from Ayala, once RNA molecules were configured that could propagate by copying themselves but were susceptible to some error or mutation in the synthesis of new RNA molecules, then natural selection would happen, presumably, leading to more extensive molecular configuration and eventually to cells. First, of course, simple cells like bacteria (prokaryotes), and later to more advanced cells like animals (eukaryotes). One basic kind of prokaryote is the archaebacteria, which have a strange metabolism. This means that archaebacteria can survive in extreme environments and in incredible ways, for example, in deep ocean hydrothermal vents. The other kind is eubacteria, which are the bacteria that live in us and in our food, and the eubacteria are what the eukaryotes branched off from.

Now, as Ayala and Sober have argued, natural selection is just the differential reproduction of differing hereditary variants. So, once there were primitive cells capable of reproduction, some would, in theory, reproduce more effectively than others. Hence the traits of the cells that reproduced more effectively would increase in frequency amongst the population at the expense of those that reproduced less effectively. And the ones that reproduced more effectively were more than likely the ones that had a more precise heredity and more efficient metabolism.

While these occurrences are extraordinary, perhaps, even miraculous, to some extent, there is nothing in the above explanation that requires the intervention of occult forces, and nothing in the explanation violates any aspect of classical Christianity, properly understood.

Part II next…