Missed opportunities and bad timing often seem to go together. Military history has several notable examples of commanders who “seized defeat from the jaws of victory” when they delayed to bring closure to a war immediately after a major victory—often because they failed to see how fragmented their opponent truly was. The costly blunder by Great Britain’s General William Howe when he deferred a decisive pursuit of General George Washington’s disintegrating Continental Army in the early days of the American Revolution comes to mind. Time and again when one side can’t recognize how divided their opponent is and lets them off the hook, that opponent can rally, rebuild, counterattack, and win.
That military truism has a lot to do with today’s creation-evolution conflict. Many evolutionists are seriously divided over the most basic explanations of how evolution happens. In fact, different factions have diametrically opposite explanations. The split isn’t a minor dustup over trivial difference. Yet when talking with other creationists at ICR events, I discover that nearly all are unaware of this serious divide. That’s somewhat like General Howe’s lack of intelligence on General Washington’s condition. Our efforts to refute and replace evolutionary theory are greatly weakened if we’re not up to date on the fundamental problems that currently divide evolutionists.
Leading Evolutionists Are Surprisingly Divided
Evolutionary biology is experiencing its most serious division over the structure of evolutionary theory since the development of the modern synthesis nearly 100 years ago. The modern synthesis is the name for current evolutionary theory that synthesizes Darwin’s concepts of the selective agency of nature and survival of the fittest, facts about genetics that Darwin lacked (later including the notion of random mutation as the primary source of genetic variation1), and statistical models of populations. In November 2016, Great Britain’s prestigious Royal Society held a conference to deliberate if evolutionary theory needed to be extended, reformed, or totally overhauled to accommodate fresh ideas from new discoveries.2
The vital importance of this conference was framed in the science journal Nature in a point-counterpoint style article, “Does evolutionary theory need a rethink?” The authors note that “researchers are divided over what processes should be considered fundamental.”3 A division over basic processes at the core of any theory suggests that the theory could be incomplete, misleading to both research and conclusions, or wrong.
One researcher advocating for what is essentially a major revision in evolutionary theory, though modestly labeled as the extended evolutionary synthesis (EES), is Kevin Laland of the University of St. Andrews. He said:
The data supporting our position gets stronger every day. Yet the mere mention of the EES often evokes an emotional, even hostile, reaction among evolutionary biologists. Too often, vital discussions descend into acrimony, with accusations of muddle or misrepresentation.3
The acrimony, per Laland, is generated since “this is no storm in an academic tearoom, it is a struggle for the very soul of the discipline.”3 In John Hands’ first-hand report on the conference, “Is it time to drop Darwinism?” he described the modern synthesis as:
This paradigm—a combination of Darwinism, population genetics, and what Francis Crick called the central dogma of evolutionary biology—is known as NeoDarwinism, or the Modern Synthesis. Popularised by Richard Dawkins in his bestselling 1976 book The Selfish Gene, it is a statistical model validated not by observation or experiment, but by simplistic games models borrowed from 1940s economics.4
It was not only online articles that chronicled these deep divisions. The article “Schism and Synthesis at the Royal Society” in the leading science journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution by one conference organizer explains why “the discussion witnessed little meeting of minds.”5 Framing the acrimony as a bitter dispute between “incumbent” advocates of the evolutionary status quo versus revolutionary “rivals,” the outspoken evolutionist Perry Marshall noted:
Incumbents were anxious that the conference might pronounce that evolutionary theory is due for a complete overhaul. Rivals worried that the [Royal] Society might smear new lipstick on the same old pig, continuing to plead “natural selection” as the be-all end-all of everything. The tension in the room was palpable, sharpened by the history of this topic being fraught with politics, bitter feuds and bad blood.6
The Debate: What Causes Adaptive Innovations?
Interestingly, divisions at the Royal Society illustrate an important point that creationists have been saying. Evolutionists often claim that they “have data” to support their position and imply that creationists have none. Creationists contend that they have the same data but interpret it very differently. Similarly, Laland represented the minority position at the conference. He also observed, “This tension was manifest in the discussions where different interpretations of the same findings were voiced….The conference brought home a key point – these debates are not about data but rather about how findings are interpreted and understood.”5 So, in both cases the debate isn’t over which side has data but about the best explanation of the same data.
Scientists at ICR would also agree with Laland that “at least as important” as basic research of biological systems “are different notions of how the scientific process works, or ought to work. Those speakers at the meeting pushing for change tend to emphasize the role of conceptual frameworks in shaping what questions are asked, what data are collected, and what factors are viewed as causally important.”5 A theory serves both as a working hypothesis that tries to pull together different observations to explain the cause of a biological phenomenon, and also as a framework used to guide interpretations of new observations.
Christians must know that in terms of basic research, the numerous mechanisms of adaptation the “rivals” were insisting be discussed at the Royal Society meeting powerfully confirm ICR’s design-based creationist theory that emphasizes active, problem-solving organisms capable of self-adjusting to fill dynamic environments. ICR’s framework predicts that organisms were engineered with internal capabilities to continuously track environmental changes. This could happen through developmental bias and plasticity, epigenetic mechanisms, and many other mechanisms that would enable organisms to track changing conditions and fill new niches. Tracking conditions and filling new environments would happen within the lifetime of a parent and enhance the ability of its offspring to do so.
For example, one Royal Society conference topic was embryonic development. The EES faction contends that for some organisms specific traits “could be predicted with knowledge of their mechanisms of development. For these biologists, a bias in development that produces some morphologies more readily than others can shape the course of adaptive evolution. Douglas Futuyma, by contrast, presented a more traditional standpoint in attributing the adaptive characteristics of organisms solely to selection.”5
This sharp division at the Royal Society also highlighted completely different conceptual frameworks for the identification of causality for the traits. Internalists tried to describe observable mechanisms, while externalists repeatedly invoked the concept of natural selection. Passionate exchanges between speakers and attendees dramatically highlighted the difference between those who frame nature as exercising agency through the invocation of Darwinian natural selection versus those who appeal to an organism’s highly regulated innate systems as a way to explain the same biological outcomes.
Perry Marshall spells out: “But in the Neo-Darwinian view, for any cell to evolve purposefully is unthinkable. So of course ‘natural selection’ always ends up being the answer” and that throughout the meeting incumbents were “towing the standard Neo-Darwinian line, which insists that in the end, all comes down to ‘selection, selection, selection.’”7 One science reporter at the conference stated:
The event would have benefited from someone in the wings with a hook restraining speakers who insisted on relying on the mantra of natural selection to fill in the blanks of their science. Repeated references to the term became almost comical. Sir Patrick Bateson finally came to the rescue, cautioning against overuse of the “metaphor,” saying further that “natural selection is not an agent.”8
A Widely Held Conclusion: Darwinian Selectionism Is Fatally Flawed
Selectionism is fatally flawed for two important reasons. First, the actual findings of how adaptation happens are inconsistent with the ways it should be characterized per the modern synthesis, which are: undirected, random, gradual, and without any purposeful product. Yet, numerous mechanisms are being discovered that routinely characterize adaptation as highly regulated, usually rapid, repeatable, and with targeted goals that are even predictable.
The second reason is that selection is an inherently mystical concept—which the discovery of internal mechanisms in organisms is making easier to see. As far as we know, the environment is unconscious and, thus, the analogy comparing it to a conscious human breeder has always been illegitimate. When selectionists invoke natural selection, they magically project onto nature intelligence and volition that they envision as exercising agency. Selectionists habitually summon selection to “act on,” “favor,” “work on,” “punish,” etc. an organism. The repeated use of this language at the Royal Society is why Sir Patrick Bateson had to admonish attendees that “natural selection is not an agent.”8 In causal explanations framed within the modern synthesis, this environmental pseudo-agency is vital to supplant the true agency of organisms that’s expressed through the outworking of their innate mechanisms.
Evolutionists are so deeply divided over their beliefs about the basic cause of evolution that a number of them feel that new findings have battered current theory beyond repair and call for it to be replaced. Three attendees summarize the sentiment of many evolutionists:
The Modern Synthesis, while undoubtedly productive for a time, is a misconception of reality that has reached the limits of its explanatory power. The problems are fundamental. No amount of cosmetic surgery is going correct them.9
In another exchange, Fellow of the Royal Society Patrick Bateson of Cambridge replied to a questioner in no uncertain terms: “Natural Selection is not an agent.” (Translation: Blind Watchmaker must be stripped down to the engine blocks and rebuilt from the ground up.)6
While some speakers defended the current paradigm, others called for an extension of the NeoDarwinian evolutionary synthesis to accommodate these alternatives. However, such mechanisms contradict NeoDarwinism. You can’t extend something that is broken. After 70 years it is time to move on, and use ideas supported by evidence to develop a new paradigm for evolutionary biology.4
A recent essay by Dr. Paul Nelson, who also attended the Royal Society meeting and is an articulate advocate for research by the Intelligent Design (ID) community, summed up perfectly the need to move on from only attacking or tweaking evolutionary theory toward replacing it altogether. Nelson realizes “the abject futility of trying to construct a theory of biological design within a philosophical framework, naturalism, fundamentally committed to another goal. Reform it altogether, said Hamlet to the players.”10
A Transient Opportunity Before Evolutionists Regroup
Evolutionary theory is in a “struggle for the very soul of the discipline”3 due to the discovery of pervasive internal mechanisms facilitating self-adjustments that is contradictory to current theory. Evolutionists are fully aware that division weakens their position against creationists and the high theological ramifications at stake. So, it is only a matter of time before they rally, rebuild, and counterattack with a new and improved version of their anti-designer theory. Unlike General Howe, creationists are now informed of the deep divisions among evolutionists. So, what should we do?
The precise reason for the division centers on the avalanche of new information that’s contrary to evolutionary theory. This same information solidly supports a theory of biological design. Creationists should be pressing this truth at every opportunity. In November 2020, I discussed a golden, time-sensitive opportunity that was based on a flood of research over the last 25 years:
Creation scientists have an extremely rare, transient opportunity to get out in front and frame all of these new findings before the evolutionists do. A theory of biological design would enable us to set both the interpretive and research agendas.11
The theory that ICR is working on expects active, problem-solving creatures designed to track changing conditions to “fill the earth,” showcasing the wisdom of their Creator—the Lord Jesus Christ.
- Stamp, M. Mutation, Design & Randomness. Creation Science Update. Posted on ICR.org May 17, 2021.
- New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives. November 2016 scientific meeting. The Royal Society. Posted on royalsociety.org, accessed April 20, 2021.
- Laland, K. et al. 2014. Does evolutionary theory need a rethink? Nature. 514 (7521): 161-164.
- Hands, J. Is it time to drop Darwinism? Science Focus. Posted on sciencefocus.com November 22, 2016, accessed April 17, 2021.
- Laland, K. N. 2017. Schism and Synthesis at the Royal Society. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. 32 (5): 316-317.
- Marshall, P. Royal Society’s “New Trends in Biological Evolution” – A Bloodless Revolution. Evolution2. Posted on evo2.org November 30, 2016, accessed April 16, 2021.
- Ibid, emphasis added.
- Mazur, S. Pterosaurs Hijack Royal Society Evo Meeting. HuffPost. Posted on huffpost.com November 21, 2016, accessed April 15, 2021.
- MacAllister, J. Environmental evolution: effects of the origin and evolution of life on Earth newsletter. Posted on envevo.org January 2017, accessed April 16, 2021.
- Nelson, P. Reform It Altogether — More on the Naturalistic Parabola. Evolution News & Science Today. Posted on evolutionnews.org September 18, 2020, accessed April 15, 2021. Emphasis in original.
- Guliuzza, R. J. 2020. The Power of the Next Idea. Acts & Facts. 49 (11): 5-7.
* Dr. Guliuzza is President of the Institute for Creation Research. He earned his M.D. from the University of Minnesota, his Master of Public Health from Harvard University, and served in the U.S. Air Force as 28th Bomb Wing Flight Surgeon and Chief of Aerospace Medicine. Dr. Guliuzza is also a registered Professional Engineer and holds a B.A. in theology from Moody Bible Institute.