Nearly a century and a half has passed since the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Evolution has been taught as an undeniable fact in high school textbooks for well over a half century. Why all of the sudden do we find the cover of the November 2004 issue of National Geographic emblazoned with the question, “Was Darwin Wrong?” Isn’t that like asking “Was Copernicus Wrong?”
So…what’s up? When we turn to the first page of the article, we find the same question again, this time written across the gray feathered breast of a domestically bred Jacobin pigeon, the outlandish plumage of which reminds one of the costumes of the late Liberace. Flip to the next page and we find our answer, a resounding “NO” printed in a font a third of the page high.
But if the answer is such a large and definitive NO, why would the venerable National Geographic entertain (even rhetorically) the apparently foolish question “Was Darwin wrong?”
If you read the article, you’ll wonder what all the shouting is about. The author David Quammen paints a calm picture of an established science unburdened by serious criticism. The only critics, so we are told, are “fundamentalist Christians, “ultraorthodox Jews” and “Islamic creationists,” all of whom view evolution as a threat to their scientifically uninformed theology. Obviously, they aren’t the ones ruffling National Geographic’s feathers.
Who else arouses the great NO? As it turns out, “Other people too, not just scriptural literalists, remain unpersuaded about evolution. According to a Gallup poll…no less than 45 percent of responding U.S. adults agreed that ‘God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.’” “Why are there so many antievolutionists?” they ask impatiently.
Why indeed? Unfortunately, you won’t find the real answer in the article, which merely offers a fluff and flash, unambiguous public relations presentation of evolution.
The real answer is this. To the question “Was Darwin Wrong?” the proper answer is not a clamorous “NO” but a well-informed “Yes and No.” While there are merits to his theory, there are also serious problems, serious scientific problems.
Listen to these words: “despite the power of molecular genetics to reveal the hereditary essences of organisms, the large-scale aspects of evolution remain unexplained, including the origin of species [emphasis added]….So Darwin’s assumption that the tree of life is a consequence of the gradual accumulation of small hereditary differences appears to be without significant support.”
Are these the words of a “fundamentalist Christian,” “ultraorthodox Jew,” or an “Islamic creationist”? No, they are the words of Dr. Brian Goodwin, professor of biology, one of a growing number of scientists who find that the powers of natural selection are woefully insufficient to perform the amazing feat—promised in the title of Darwin’s great work—of producing new species.
But that was the great promise of Darwin. Small variations among individuals are “selected” by nature because they make the individual more “fit” to survive. Those more “fit” characteristics are passed on to the offspring. Add enough little changes up over time, and the species becomes gradually transformed. Given enough time, evolution will have produced an entirely new species.
So it was that Darwin assumed that little changes in character and appearance (microevolution) would eventually yield, through natural selection, enormous changes (macroevolution). From a single living cell, given millions upon millions upon millions of years, the entire diversity of all living things could be produced.
That was the grand promise of Darwin’s theory. And Darwin wasn’t wrong about microevolution. But the case for macroevolution is far from closed. In fact, biologist Mae-Wan Ho and mathematician Peter Saunders contend that “All the signs are that evolution theory is in crisis, and that a change is on the way.” Darwin’s theory is in crisis, they argue, because it has failed to explain the one thing that made its promise so grand—how new species arise.
I quote the words of Brian Goodwin, Mae-Wan Ho, and Peter Saunders because they represent the growing number of scientific dissenters from orthodox Darwinism (or more accurately, neo-Darwinism). National Geographic makes no mention of them. That would make the quick and confident “NO” into a rather sheepish “well…sort of.”
They also purposely avoid mentioning the growing Intelligent Design movement, a group of scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians who have very serious doubts about many other aspects of Darwin’s theory. One suspects—reading between the lines—that the real reason that National Geographic suddenly “doth protest too much” against doubters of Darwinism, is that the Intelligent Design (ID) movement has done so much to bring the scientific and philosophical problems with evolutionary theory into the public spotlight. They cannot draw attention to the ID movement, however, or people might become more informed about the difficulties that beset Darwinism.
So, we return to the question, “Was Darwin Wrong?” National Geographic says “NO.” But readers who aren’t satisfied with such simple answers should read the following books.
- Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis
- Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box
- Brian Goodwin, How the Leopard Changed Its Spots
- John Angus Campbell and Stephen Meyer, Darwinism, Design, and Public Education
- William Dembski, Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing
- Mae-Wan Ho and Peter Saunders, Beyond Neo-Darwinism
- Edward Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion
- Benjamin Wiker, Moral Darwinism