Proffering Some Advice

From: PSCF 45 (June 1993): 147-148.

Owen Gingerich is frustrated with Phillip Johnson (PSCF, June 1992, p. 142). John Wiester is frustrated with Owen Gingerich (PSCF, December 1992, p. 249). We are all frustrated with Carl Sagan and undoubtedly he is frustrated with us.

Christians have a reason to be frustrated when the world's leading scientists insist that the origin of all biological information must be attributed to purely mechanistic, materialistic processes. Most of the frustration stems from the fact that modern science is limited by methodological naturalism. Creation events are by definition non-natural, and are, therefore, not subject to the scientific method. However legitimate methodological naturalism may be, when it is folded, spindled, stapled and mutilated into philosophical naturalism, it distorts the natural sciences in ways far beyond those attributed to the Medieval Church. The illogical leap from not being able to study creation events scientifically to assuming that God played no role whatsoever in creation has left scientists with little alternative but variations on neo-Darwinian theory, a theory which, if geological succession is correct, forces scientists to literally ignore the pervasive patterns in the natural history of life on earth. Yet no other theory seems to be possible once we consider the subject of origins (from time, space, matter, and energy to biological information) to be legitimately within the realm of the natural sciences.

As Christians we all acknowledge that we are more than the result of natural processes that did not have us in mind. The Cosmos is not all that is, or ever has been, or ever will be. This knowledge gives the scientist working within a Christian framework much greater latitude in studying the natural world than any scientist working within the bounds of philosophical naturalism could possibly have. The unbeliever has but one option: the assumption that the origin of life and the origin of all biological diversity and disparity must be the result of purely mechanistic and materialistic processes. The Grand Evolutionary Story and the Theory of Common Ancestry must be a fact, Fact, FACT! Evolution, as Sagan, Gould, Simpson, or Dawkins define it, is an unfalsifiable truth.

The Christian, on the other hand, should not only be open to the possibility that God may have created sufficient processes and initial conditions to allow the universe to unfold naturally (Van Till's "functional integrity"), but should also be open to the possibility that natural processes alone are insufficient to account for origins. This latter possibility seems to have been a major theme of the ASA's Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy and Johnson's Darwin on Trial. Unfortunately, it also seems to be the cause of Gingerich's frustration, "So what does he (Johnson) want us to do about all this? ...he seems to offer no prescription. If he understood how science functions, perhaps he could have proffered some advice."

The frustrating thing about the "insufficiency of natural processes" approach is that it leaves the scientist with little alternative but to continue on the path of naturalism to find purely mechanistic solutions to today's unsolved problems of origins. It also leaves the theist with little more than a series of gaps which God is allowed to bridge for the time being.

A third alternative exists for the Christian which eliminates the God-of-the-gaps and insufficiency problems, undermines philosophical naturalism, and offers scientists an alternative research program subject to methodological naturalism. The alternative is developing a theory of "macrostasis" to describe the natural processes which prevent major evolutionary change from occurring and which account for the natural phenomenon of higher taxon-level stasis. At the level of chemical evolution the alternative includes the study of natural processes which prevent life from arising spontaneously, the mechanisms which account for Pasteur's Law of Biogenesis.

This alternative involves a shift in focus away from the question of origins to the question of change. Do life forms gradually transform into substantially different body plans through time or do they retain their original "functional integrity" (with apologies to Van Till) throughout their tenure on earth?

Although critiquing current macroevolutionary theories is important, it is even more important to provide scientists with an alternative research program. Developing a theory of "macrostasis" would constitute a paradigm shift in science away from developing theories which explain data which paleontologists don't have, to theories which explain the data they do. As Stephen Jay Gould put it, "Stasis is data." Fossil after repeatable fossil documents stasis. The study of macrostasis would certainly shift science back to a more empirical base.

Another major advantage of focusing on the questions of change and stability rather than on origins is that both macroevolution and macrostasis, unlike creation and evolution, can be studied under the same rules of methodological naturalism. Opening science to the study of macrostasis requires that we do more research, not less. The evolutionist can continue his attempt to explain how major evolutionary change could occur without leaving any transitional forms leading to the higher taxa, while the scientist explains why major transformations in body plans do not occur naturally by either saltation or gradualism. It may ultimately turn out that natural processes do not exist which can overcome the genetic, developmental, and environmental constraints which account for macrostasis. However, there would be no reason to abandon macroevolutionary research if results looked promising.

Refining neo-Darwinian theory, however, does not look very promising:

1) Darwin had to virtually ignore the pervasive patterns natural history in order to preserve his theory of evolution. The two key features of the fossil record are stasis and sudden appearance, not gradualism. This is true at lower taxonomic levels and becomes even more pronounced at higher taxonomic levels.

2) Darwinian theory (including punctuated equilibrium) predicts that the accumulating diversity of the lower taxa will ultimately produce the disparity of the higher taxa. Natural history, however, reveals that disparity preceded diversity. From a systematic point of view, Darwinian theory is in reverse order to geologic succession.

3) Speciation acts to restrict evolution to minor changes, changes which do not accumulate to create major disparity. Speciation also prevents major evolutionary change from occurring by saltation. In fact, speciation even reduces microevolutionary potential as gene pools are subdivided.

4) Natural selection tends to eliminate incipient and transitional stages thus preventing major evolutionary change from occurring on a gradual step-by-step basis.

Despite these shortcomings, it may be premature to take Occam's chainsaw to neo-Darwinian theory. The theory still explains the transitional forms we don't have better than any other theory (although the God of Chance would certainly have an easier time without the constraints of speciation, natural selection and that frustrating geological data). The time is definitely ripe, however, for a theory which explains why the major kinds of plants and animals retain their basic body plan and "functional integrity" throughout their tenure on earth. Stasis is the basis for a new research program which all scientists should welcome.

There is nothing like a good theory, and neo-Darwinism is nothing like a good theory. Knowing that some of the world's leading scientists still defend it should bring great comfort to Christians. If this is the best there is, what threat could it possibly be to "what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life" (1 John 1)? Just whose faith is empirically based anyway?

Art Battson

7668 Dartmoor Avenue
Goleta, CA 93117