First PSCF Review


EVOLUTION: A Theory in Crisis 
by Michael Denton.

Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler, 1986. 368 pages. Hardcover; $19.95.

R. E. Woodward
Professor of World Missions
Trinity  College of Florida
P. O. Box 9000, Holiday FL 34690

From: PSCF 42 (December 1988):240-241.                                                                       Kuhn Responds

One of the most cogent endorsements thus far comes from MIT Emeritus Professor Murray Eden. In a letter to Denton, he said the book "should be required reading for anyone who believes what he was taught in college about Darwinian evolution. it seems to me, you have demolished rather thoroughly the simplistic view of evolution taught nowadays in virtually all elementary biology courses." Even more perceptively, however, Eden adds, "For those who think that only Bishop Wilberforce and religious fundamentalists disagreed with Darwiri in his day and the creationists in our own, your arguments should come as a shock ......

Denton's central thesis is that while Darwin's rnicroevolntionary theory is now well-supported by biological evidences, his "grand claim"-rnacroevolutionary development across the greater divisions of nature and common ancestry of all life-is utterly devoid of any empirical support. It is only the .. priority of the paradigm" that but-tresses the current dornination of Darwinian macroevolution (parallel to the domination that the phlogiston theory of Ptolemaic astronomy once enjoyed). It is the ingrained paradigm that renders invisible the countless gross implausibilities or problems that the theory entails.

Denton, who has identified himself recently as an "agnostic," does not offer anything to take the place of the Darwinian paradigm. He merely points to other gaps in our current knowledge and offers a vague hope that some "unknown property or characteristic" of life might be discovered which would explain the development of life. Furthermore, Denton avoids any direct discussion of the plausibility of an intelligent cause, although his excellent chapter "The Puzzle of Perfection" presents a very sophisticated and tightly argued case for intelligent design at the molecular level of the biology of the cell.

Chapters 1-4 present a very careful historical review of the development of Darwin's thought and the factors that led to its rapid acceptance in spite of cogent arguments against it from naturalists such as Owen and Agassiz. Denton's critique begins in chapter 5, and surveys evidence from many fields that, taken together, argue overwhelmingly for life being a discontinuous phenomenon (as per classical typology of the pre-Darwinian naturalists), and not the continuous pbenomenon that Darwinism requires. Separate chapters are found on homology, taxonomy, the fossil record, and an excellent one called "Bridging the Gaps" which explores the problem of "hypothetical reconstruction" of plausible intermediates.

The most provocative chapter is surely the one on molecular biology, called "A Biochemical Echo of Typology." Here Denton marshals an extensive body of evidence for a phenomenon he refers to as "equidistant isolation" of amino acid sequences in homologous proteins. The problems of harmonizing this pattern with Darwinian evolution are discussed lucidly, and the several molecular clock explanations are analyzed and found wanting.

The plausibility of mutations and natural selection producing genuine macroevolutionary transitions is helpfully analyzed in "Beyond the Reach of Chance." It is here that Denton attempts to deal with the claims of the punctuated equilibrium proponents by showing how remote the chances are for minor variations which afford "biologically coherent" intermediates, let alone macromutational origin of new genetic texts.

Response from the scholarly community has varied widely. French biologists, many of whom are intellectual heirs of the late Pierre Grasse', have enthusiastically responded to the French translation. British and American reviews by evolutionary scientists have been surprisingly positive, given the forcefulness of Denton's anti-Darwinian thrust, although a few have attempted to dismiss Denton as a religiously motivated "demolition expert" of Darwinian evolution. Niles Eldredge wonders aloud (Quarterly Review of Biology, Dec. 1986) if Denton represents a "case of parallel evolution towards 'secular creationism."

To summarize, Denton has argued persuasively-in a broad sweep of historical analysis and yet welcome richness of biological detail-that Darwinian macroevolution is indeed a theory deeply mired in intellectual crisis. He shows, without succumbing to polemical tones, why the Darwinian paradigm manages to retain its powerful grip on the scientific world.

This reviewer found Denton's work to be an unprecedented intellectual and spiritual feast, displaying the awesome wonders of the "discontinuous phenomenon" that is life. Christians who are interested in the struggle of science to come to terms with the origin of the biosphere in all its variety should read this book and ponder its argumentation. The result, I submit, will not be greater heat but new and welcome light.