A Theory in Crisis

The 1986 book by Michael Denton, "Evolution: A Theory in Crisis," is a secular critique of orthodox Darwinism. It is thoughtful, logical, empirical and well-written. Denton is sympathetic and fair, showing rare insight and compassion towards Charles Darwin. He distinguishes "microevolution" from "macroevolution." The first occurs within genotypes. Darwin's Galapagos finches illustrate microevolution, as does the circumpolar overlap among species of gulls, and the many varieties of fruit flies in the Hawaiian islands. However, selective breeding of pigeons, chickens, turkeys, cattle, horses, dogs, cats, and many other domestic animals yields similar results over less time.

Macroevolution, the second type, had to occur if evolution were to get to the first cell, or to leap across genotypes, say, from a reptile to a bird. While microevolution is evident in the geographical distribution of many living species[2] and in selective breeding, it sustains only Darwin's "special" theory of evolution--variation within genotypes. The "general" theory, change across types on the other hand (macroevolution), requires upward rather than lateral movement.

For macroevolution the problem is how fully developed viable life-forms might arise completely by accident. Denton cites Monod who said, "Chance `alone' is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind."[3] Chance supposedly gave rise to the first organism--perhaps a bacterium, alga, or protozoan. Later, the theory says, chance resulted in complex invertebrates and plants, followed by fish, then amphibians, reptiles, birds, and, finally, mammals.

According to Denton, proof of such a sequence requires at least one of two kinds of evidence: either an unbroken chain of transitional fossils or surviving intermediates; or, plausible reconstructions of such series together with their respective ecological niches. The trick is to show how each link could be viable long enough for the next to get going. Only by establishing complete transitional series can the hypothesized connectedness in the hierarchy of genotypes be made plausible--empirical proof, of course, is a much taller order. Here the issue is mere plausibility. If such transitions ever happened, intermediate forms should be found in the fossils and in living organisms. Existing classes should overlap. Clear boundaries ought to be exceptional rather than normative.

Though Darwin hoped fossil transitions would appear eventually, none did. Only trivial cases of microevolution, hardly rivaling selective breeding, were evident. Nor for more than a hundred years would any accurate measure of distances between existing classes become possible.

Or, take the Coelacanth. On the basis of fossil evidence, evolutionists believed it was intermediate between fish and amphibia. Reconstructions showed Coelacanth to have both amphibian and fish-like characteristics. Later, live Coelacanths turned up in the Indian Ocean near Cape Province, South Africa. They were fish. The reconstructions had been wrong. All of which shows that fossils provide a poor basis for detailed inferences about proposed links between classes.

However, Denton points out that advances in microbiology make possible a new sort of evidence. It is now possible to compare directly the basic building blocks--the proteins--of living things. Denton notes that proteins determine "all the biology of an organism, all its anatomical features, its physiological and metabolic functions. . . ."[4] It is hard to believe that protein structure and evolution could be unrelated. Denton writes: The amino acid sequence of a protein from two different organisms can be readily compared by aligning the two sequences and counting the number of positions where the chains differ. [5]

And these differences

can be quantified exactly and provide an entirely novel approach to measuring differences between species. . . .
As work continued in this field, it became clear that each particular protein had a slightly different sequence in different species and that closely related species had closely related sequences. When the hemoglobin in two dissimilar species such as man and carp were compared, the sequential divergence was found to be about fifty percent. [6]

Such comparisons make possible the testing of hypotheses suggested by neo-Darwinian orthodoxy. For instance, suppose bacteria have been around much longer than multicellular species, e.g., mammals. Suppose further that bacteria are more closely related to plants than to fish, amphibian, and mammals, in that order. If so, we should see evidence of these facts in the sequences of amino acids of common proteins. For example, all the mentioned groups use cytochrome C, a protein used in energy production. The differences in that protein should fit an evolutionary sequence. However, bacterial cytochrome C compared with the corresponding proteins in horse, pigeon, tuna, silkmoth, wheat, and yeast show all of them to be equidistant from the bacterium. The difference from bacterium to yeast is no less than from bacterium to mammal, or to any of the other classes.

Nor does the picture change if we choose other classes or different proteins. The traditional classes of organisms are identifiable throughout the typological hierarchy, and the relative distances between them remain similar regardless of hypothesized evolutionary sequences. For example, Denton observes that amphibia do not fall between fish and terrestrial vertebrates. Contrary to the orthodox theory, amphibia are the same distance from fish as are reptiles and mammals. [7]

In all comparisons, the hypotheses of general evolution are false. Denton writes:

The really significant finding that comes to light from comparing the proteins' amino acid sequences is that it is impossible to arrange them in any sort of evolutionary series. [8]

The upshot is that

the whole concept of evolution collapses[9] [because] the pattern of diversity at a molecular level conforms to a highly ordered hierarchic system. Each class at a molecular level is unique, isolated, and unlinked by intermediates. [10]

Moreover, accidental design adjustments, as necessary for general evolution, are logical disasters. Random mutations from radiation, replication errors, or other proposed sources, rarely result in viable design adjustments, never in perfect more advanced designs.

Evidence for general evolution is altogether lacking and predictions from the theory are false. Darwin confessed that

the distinctness of specific forms and their not being blended together by innumerable transitional links is a very obvious difficulty. [11]

Still he insisted on gradual change due to natural selection which he said

can produce no great or sudden modifications; it can act only by short and slow steps. [12]

More than a century later the fossil record still does not fit Darwinian orthodoxy. Ironically, by admitting this "trade secret of paleontology"[13] Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould has achieved fame and glory. From Darwin forward, everywhere in the biological hierarchy researchers came to uncrossed chasms. Yet they pretend the gaps did not exist. This set the stage for Gould's saltational theory--an idea Darwin explicitly rejected.

Gould's idea is like the fantasies of Fred Hoyle [14] and Francis Crick [15] about extraterrestrial civilizations. While Gould, along with colleague Niles Eldridge, proposes miraculous sudden leaps in evolutionary progress,[16] Hoyle and Crick propose panspermia--life seeds from some extra-terrestrial civilization. All such theories merely postpone thinking. Denton rejects them and concludes that perfect design implies supreme intelligence. But, unlike Gould, Eldridge, Hoyle, and Crick, he does not reach his own proposal by wild imagination, but by a ruthless application of logic.

He notes that the design problem and its solution find a nearly perfect analogy in the difficulty of generating texts in a language. While the number of possible texts is large, the number of nonsensical strings is larger by orders of infinity. It is an understatement to say that the probability of generating by chance even one grammatical text of just a few hundred words is vanishingly small. Any such string implies intelligence.

In the same way, viable sequences of life's material are an infinitesimal proportion of possible arrangements. The question is how a viable sequence could arise by accident. Denton considers the odds. He cites Hoyle and Wickramasinghe who estimate the chance of a single living cell spontaneously coming into existence as 1 in 10/40,000 tries--"an outrageously small probability . . . even if the whole universe consisted of organic soup." [17] Referring then to the "elegance and ingenuity of an absolutely transcending quality, which so militates against the idea of chance, . . ." he asks:

"Is it really credible that random processes could have constructed a reality, the smallest element of which--a functional protein or gene--is complex beyond . . . anything produced by the intelligence of man?"[18]

In the end, Denton suggests, the advocates of orthodox evolution are like Lewis Carroll's Red Queen. When Alice protested that there's no use trying to believe impossible things, the Queen said:

"I dare say you haven't had much practice. . . . When I was your age I did it for half an hour a day. Why sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."[19]


[1] This paper is a review of Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Bethesda, Maryland: Adler and Adler, 1986, 368 pgs. Denton is a molecular biologist and medical doctor. He is not a creationist and none of his arguments and evidences relate to religious considerations.
[2] The geographical distribution of organisms was, Denton says, Darwin's main source of inspiration: "the origin of all my views." See Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 6th ed., 1872, reissued in New York: Collier, 1962, p. 25 (as cited by Denton, op. cit., p. 45).
[3] Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity, London: Collins, 1972, p. 110 (as cited by Denton, op. cit., p. 43).
[4] Denton, op. cit., p. 303.
[5] Ibid., p. 275.
[6] Ibid., p. 276.
[7] Ibid., p. 285.
[8] Ibid., p. 289.
[9] Ibid., p. 291.
[10] Ibid., p. 290.
[11] See Charles Darwin, op. cit., p. 307 (as cited by Denton, op. cit., p. 56).
[12] C. Darwin, op. cit., p. 468 (as cited by Denton, op. cit., p. 57).
[13] Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda's Thumb, New York: Norton, 1980, p. 181 (as cited by Denton, op. cit., p. 194).
[14] Fred Hoyle, The Intelligent Universe, London: Michael Joseph, 1983. Also see, Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, Evolution from Space, London: Dent, 1981.
[15] Francis Crick and L. E. Orgel, "Directed Panspermia," Icarus 19, 341-346; and also see Francis Crick, Life Itself, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.
[16] Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould, "Punctuated equilibria: an alternative to phyletic gradualism," in T. J. M. Schopf, ed., Models in Paleobiology, San Francisco: Freeman, 1973, pgs. 82-115.
[17] Hoyle, F. and Wickramasinghe, C. 1981. Evolution from Space. London: Dent and Sons, p. 24 (as cited by Denton, op cit., p. 323).
[18] Denton, op. cit., p. 342.
[19] Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking-Glass, London: Macmillan, 1880, p. 100 (as cited by Denton, op. cit., p. 342).

*Dr. Oller is Professor of Linguistics at the University of New Mexico.

Cite this article: John W. Oller, Jr., Ph.D. 1988. A Theory in Crisis. Acts & Facts. 17 (6).

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