Science in Christian Perspective


Letter to the Editor

Response to Newman

Keith Miller, ASA Member
Kansas State University
Manhattan, KS 66506-3201

From: PSCF 48 (March 1996): 66-68.

This letter is in response to the recent article (PSCF, Sept. 95) by Robert Newman entitled "Scientific and religious aspects of the origins debate." I was very disappointed with the sweeping, and inaccurate, generalizations made concerning "theistic evolution," a term which I assume is meant to include all those who accept evolution as a persuasive scientific account of origins. The article also repeats statements about evolutionary theory and the fossil record commonly encountered in popularized Christian writing, but that are wholly without support from the scientific literature.

I will first address some of the theological and exegetical questions raised. On page 172 Newman states that theistic evolution "

sees the account of the creation of humans in Genesis 2 as parabolic (fictitious history)... " This statement would seem to imply that anything but a literalistic reading of a scriptural passage is deemed somehow less true and is tagged with the pejorative term "fictitious history." Scripture is rich with many types of literary styles influenced by many different cultures and writers. The challenge of scriptural exegesis is to recognize the type of literature being employed and its theological intent. The superficiality of the exegesis employed by Newman is also reflected in his comment on page 170. To the claim that Adam was created by evolution from a hominid ancestor, Newman responds "If so, why did the Genesis account not make this clearer?" Scripture doesn't make many things clear! It also doesn't make clear that the history of the Earth spans billions of years, a position which Newman appears to accept. Such issues were simply foreign to the people of the time, and irrelevant to the purposes of the passage. The scriptural image of the creation of Adam from the dust of the Earth communicates quite effectively that our beginnings are rooted in the Earth. We are made of the same stuff as all of life, and thus are inseparably part of the rest of creation. It is an accurate, powerful, and theologically rich image.

It disturbs me that the author's critique of evolution seems to be driven by a fear that the questioning of widely held evangelical positions will "draw many young Christians into various forms of theological liberalism" (page 166). Because a particular idea raises doubts among some evangelical Christians, does that make it wrong? As Christians we believe that God is the God of truth, and that truth most certainly does not correspond in all particulars with what any group of believers accepts as true. There is much in scripture that is hard to comprehend and to integrate into an easily grasped picture of the nature of God and his interaction with the created universe and us, his image-bearers. The complexity, contradiction, and mystery present in both scripture and nature confirm for me the truth and reality of the Christian faith. A picture of God and nature that was not "bigger" than me, and that did not cause me to doubt and question, would not have the ring of reality, but of a human invention.

Newman repeats several widely held misunderstandings of evolution and the fossil record. He makes the completely unfounded assertion that there are absolute limits to evolutionary change. The anatomy and genetic composition of a given species imposes constraints on possible directions of morphologic change (at least in the near term) but not on the ultimate magnitude of change. I challenge Dr. Newman to provide a single example from the scientific literature in which an absolute fixed limit of morphological change has been demonstrated. He also perpetuates misunderstandings of the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium.

This model of evolutionary rate extends the theory of allopatric speciation in isolated populations to the fossil record. It proposes that most evolutionary change is associated with the speciation process. Contrary to Newman's claim (page 168), it is completely consistent with population genetics and natural selection. This theory in no way denies the existence of intermediate forms or of the occurrence of gradual transitions between species in some lineages.

As a paleontologist, I find Newman's statement that "...the fossil record is characterized by gaps between all the major biological types... " (page 169) particularly egregious. This claim is categorically false! The fossil record contains many examples of organisms with intermediate morphologies, as well as fossil series of transitional species or genera that cross family, order, and class boundaries. Intermediates are now known between many high-level vertebrate taxonomic groups. A few of the more well-known examples include: the transition from reptiles to mammals,1 from amphibians to reptiles,2 from fish to amphibians,3 and the recently discovered "walking whales" that bridge the transition from mesonychids to fully marine whales.4 For those with access to the internet, a visit to the Talk.Origins Archive) will provide many other vertebrate examples.

Lastly, the comment that "..virtually all the phyla appear suddenly at the Cambrian `explosion'... " (page 169) is not a statement of fact but a highly speculative, and I believe incorrect, interpretation of the fossil record. Actually, without significant qualification, it is demonstrably false. Many animal phyla including several living ones appear as fossils in the Late Precambrian. The Ediacaran (~580-560 My) was dominated by solitary and colonial coelenterates that may have included all four living cnidarian classes5 (Conway Morris, 1993). Also important in these ancient communities were burrowing and trail-making worms that may have included annelids, priapulids and palaeoscolecid worms.6 There is also evidence for the presence of arthropods as well as echinoderms before the beginning of the Cambrian.7 Furthermore, many of the organisms that did appear in the Cambrian possess morphologies that bear similarities to more than one phylum. This is, they are intermediates. For example, the Early Cambrian caterpillar-like lobopods occupy a transitional morphological position between several living phyla,8 and have morphological features in common with the arthropods.9 Similarly, a very important group of Cambrian slug-like animals bearing tiny cap-shaped and scale-like skeletal elements are mosaics of phylum-level characteristics, having similarities with both the mollusks and the polychaete annelid worms.10

Those who would critique evolutionary theory and "theistic evolution" should have at least as good a grasp of the arguments and evidence as the advocates of those positions. To do less invites those criticisms to be ignored or scorned.

 References

1Desui, M., 1991, "On the Origins of Mammals," in H.-P. Schultze and L. Trueb (eds.) Origins of the Higher Groups of Tetrapods: Controversy and Consensus, Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca, pp. 570-597. Hopson, J.A., 1991, "Systematics of the Nonmammalian Synapsida and Implications for Patterns of Evolution in Synapsids," in H.-P. Schultze and L. Trueb (eds.), Origins of the Higher Groups of Tetrapods: Controversy and Consensus, Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca, pp. 635-693. Crompton, A.W. and Parker, P., 1978, "Evolution of the mammalian masticatory apparatus," American Scientist, vol. 66, pp. 192-201.

2Benton, M.J., 1991, "Amniote Phylogeny," in H.-P. Schultze and L. Trueb (eds.), Origins of the Higher Groups of Tetrapods: Controversy and Consensus, Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca, pp. 317-330. Carroll, R.L., 1988, Vertebrate Paleontology and Evolution. W.H. Freeman & Co., New York, 698 p.

3Ahlberg, P.E. and Milner, A.R., 1994, "The Origin and Early Diversification of Tetrapods," Nature, vol. 368, pp. 507-514. Vorobyeva, E. and Schultze, H.-P., 1991, "Description and Systematics of Panderichthyid Fishes with Comments on their Relationship to Tetrapods," in H.-P. Schultze and L. Trueb (eds.), Origins of the Higher Groups of Tetrapods: Controversy and Consensus, Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca, pp. 68-109.

4Gingerich, P.D., Raza, S.M., Arif, M., Anwar, M., and Zhou, X., 1994, "New Whale from the Eocene of Pakistan and the Origin of Cetacean Swimming," Nature, vol. 368, pp. 844-847. Thewissen, J.G.M., Hussain, S.T., and Arif, M., 1994, "Fossil Evidence for the Origin of Aquatic Locomotion in Archaeocete Whales." Science, vol. 263, pp. 210-212.

5Conway Morris, S., 1993, "The Fossil Record and the Early Evolution of the Metazoa," Nature, vol. 361, p. 219-225.

6Crimes, T.P., 1992, "The Record of Trace Fossils Across the Proterozoic-Cambrian Boundary," in J.H. Lipps and P.W. Signor (eds.), Origin and Early Evolution of the Metazoa: Plenum Press, New York, pp. 177-202. Jenkins, R.J.F., 1992, "Functional and Ecological Aspects of Ediacaran Assemblages," in J.H. Lipps and P.W. Signor (eds.), Origin and Early Evolution of the Metazoa," Plenum Press, New York, pp. 131-176. Gehling, J.G., 1991, "The Case for Ediacaran Fossil Roots to the Metazoan Tree," in B.P. Radhakrishna (ed.), The World of Martin F. Glaessner, Memoir No. 20, Geological Society of India, Bangalore, pp. 181-223. Glaessner, M.F., 1976, "Early Phanerozoic Annelid Worms and their Geological and Biological Significance," Journal of the Geological Society, London, vol.132, pp. 259-275. Glaessner, M.F., 1979, "An Echiurid Worm from the Late Precambrian," Lethaia, vol. 12, pp. 121-124.

7Jenkins, R.J.F., 1992, "Functional and Ecological Aspects of Ediacaran Assemblages," in J.H. Lipps and P.W. Signor (eds.), Origin and Early Evolution of the Metazoa," Plenum Press, New York, pp. 131-176. Gehling, J.G., 1987, "Earliest Known EchinodermˇA New Ediacaran Fossil from the Pound Subgroup of South Australia," Alcheringa, vol. 11, pp. 337-345. Gehling, J.G., 1991, "The Case for Ediacaran Fossil Roots to the Metazoan Tree," in B.P. Radhakrishna (ed.), The World of Martin F. Glaessner, Memoir No. 20, Geological Society of India, Bangalore, pp. 181-223.

8Dzik, J. and Krumbiegel, G., 1989, "The Oldest `Onychophoran' Xenusion: a Link Connecting Phyla?" Lethaia, vol. 22, pp. 169-181.

9Budd, G., 1993, "A Cambrian gilled lobopod from Greenland," Nature, vol. 364, pp. 709-711. Dzik, J., 1993, "Early Metazoan Evolution and the Meaning of its Fossil Record," in M.K. Hecht, et al. (eds.), Evolutionary Biology, vol. 27, pp. 339-386.

10Dzik, J., 1993, "Early Metazoan Evolution and the Meaning of its Fossil Record," in M.K. Hecht, et al. (eds.), Evolutionary Biology, vol. 27, pp. 339-386. Bengston, S., 1992, "The Cap-shaped Cambrian Fossil Maikhanella and the Relationship Between Coeloscleritophorans and the Molluscs," Lethaia, vol. 25, pp. 401-420, Butterfield, N.J., 1990. "A Reassessment of the Enigmatic Burgess Shale Fossil Wiwaxia Corrugata (Matthew) and its Relationship to the Polychaete Canadia Spinosa Walcott," Paleobiology, vol. 16, pp. 287-303.