A great selling point of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is that it explains many things in nature. As the famous geneticist and evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”
In fact, it would be shocking if Darwinism did not explain many things. Science has one great virtue: all scientific theories are (or should be) subject to empirical data. Science doesn’t depend on holy books or philosophies or someone’s preconceptions. What counts in science is what can be seen, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled. Theories are supported if they can adequately explain new data, and they are disproved when they fail to reasonably explain data. Even if a theory explains many things (and Darwinism certainly does), it is typically rejected if it is inconsistent with the data.
Two areas of science are commonly presented as unambiguously supporting Darwin’s theory of evolution: the fossil record and the genetic similarity among organisms. So do the data from these two areas adequately support the theory of evolution, or do they call it into question?
the fossil record
In his book The Origin of Species, Darwin noted a problem for his theory of evolution. For it to be true, the geologic record should contain many fossils that are intermediate between creatures as distinct as humans and snails—but it does not. Recognizing this problem, Darwin asked, “Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely-graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against the theory.”
Darwin hoped that as time went on, intermediate fossils would be found that supported his theory. However, after more than 150 years of diligent searching, geologists have not found significantly more intermediate fossils. A few possible missing links have been identified, but Darwin’s theory demands abundant missing links, and the lack of them raises serious questions about his theory.
The fossil record presents another significant challenge to Darwinism. Deep in the geologic column, more and more fossils are being found that look remarkably similar to modern organisms. A dramatic example is the discovery of octopus fossils that look like modern octopuses. One of the discoverers noted that “these things are 95 million years old, yet one of the fossils is almost indistinguishable from living species.”
Evolutionary theory suggests that ancient octopuses should have looked primitive and evolved over long periods of time into the octopuses we see today. Perhaps, because fossil octopuses are very rare, the primitive ones existed even earlier than 95 million years ago, and we can say that a poor fossil record from ancient times explains why the octopus missing links have not been found. But this still means that the time for the evolution of modern-looking octopuses is reduced by 95 million years. How many millions of years can be taken away before there isn’t enough time?
Yet another problem for Darwinian logic is that complex organisms appear all at once in the geologic column without much apparent time to evolve. The most dramatic example is found in Cambrian rocks, which form the lowest geological layer where abundant animal fossils are found. These rocks contain the remains of numerous weird-looking animals. Some resemble those living today, some do not, but all of them are complex. We can assume that they had genetic and biochemical systems similar to modern organisms. But where did they come from? For the evolutionary theory to be true, these organisms would have had to descend from earlier organisms. The problem is that fossils prior to the Cambrian period are rare, and those that do exist don’t look like they were the ancestors of most Cambrian fossils. So the diverse organisms in Cambrian rocks appear to have evolved from nothing!
Thus, while the evolutionary theory can explain some of the evidence in the fossil record, other data do not fit the theory.
We find a similar situation in the field of genomics, which is the study of the genetic information in the DNA of organisms.
Most organisms have an inventory of 20 to 25,000 different genes, or parts, that they can use to build themselves. These genes can be compared to the parts available at a building-supplies store. Imagine the many different structures that can be built using bricks, wood, electrical wiring, nails, and other materials. One builder might build a hospital, another a shopping mall, and another a single-family home. In each case, pretty much the same parts could be used. There’s no need for the linoleum in a mall to be different from that in a hospital or a home.
The same principle seems to apply to genes, which explains why most organisms have an amazing number of genes in common. Some genes are unique to certain organisms, but the overlap in the general kinds of genes is remarkable. For example, most of the genes found in humans are also found in organisms as diverse as fish, birds, and frogs. A fair proportion of human genes are even found in corn and rice!
The Darwinian explanation for why organisms have all these genes in common is that they inherited them from a common ancestor. So humans, according to Darwin’s theory, might have a common ancestor with a chimpanzee a few million years ago, while humans and chimps have a common ancestor with sea urchins that lived a billion years ago. The problem for Darwinism is that if humans and sea urchins share genes that both inherited from a common ancestor that lived a billion years ago, those genes had to be present a billion years ago. This means that the genes had to have evolved even before that. The problem mentioned earlier with the fossil octopuses emerges again, only this time it is a billion years that are removed. How many years can go by before evolution of the large number of genes shared among organisms becomes untenable? And how did organisms survive before essential genes evolved?
Let’s look at a specific example. A weird fish called a chimera, or ghost shark, swims over a mile deep in the ocean. These strange fish are very different from humans, but Darwinists believe they share an ancient common ancestor with us. Recently the chimera genome was sequenced, revealing, to everyone’s surprise, that they have color vision that works on the same principles as our human color vision. According to Darwinian thinking, this means that our common ancestor with chimeras must also have had color vision, and thus our color vision must have evolved prior to the several hundred million years since humans and chimeras went their separate ways, not during those years. Again, this limits the time for the evolution of human and chimera color vision.
Sometimes genes show up in organisms that are so different they can’t be reasonably explained by common ancestry. Darwinists accommodate this in two ways. The first is called “convergent evolution,” in which the same thing is thought to have evolved separately in different groups of organisms. Another rationalization is called “lateral gene transfer,” in which genes from one organism are transferred to another. This means that Darwinism explains things when they are the same because of common ancestry, and it explains similar things when they can’t share a common ancestry. This seems like too much explaining—or maybe none at all—and, without getting into the technicalities of both explanations, they seem more plausible the less one knows about how genes operate and how evolution is supposed to work.
Lateral gene transfer—the idea of genes being swapped between very different organisms—presents another set of problems. It means that over time, genes will get so shuffled up among organisms that there is not a clear ancestor-descendant relationship anymore. This turns out to be the case in bacteria and certain other more complex organisms, where different genes suggest different ancestor-descendent relationships. As a consequence of this, the traditional view of a single branching Darwinian tree of life is being abandoned for a kind of tangled bush of life.
If common ancestry explains things and lateral gene transfer explains things, and if Darwinism predicts either a tree of life or a tangled bush, one has to wonder what exactly Darwinism explains. It accommodates things when they are the same and when they are different, making Darwinism irrefutable with data. The evolutionary belief is so flexible that its adherents can simply shoehorn all data into it, but this is not science because it’s no longer subject to data.
Thus, while modern scientific data is routinely squeezed into Darwin’s theory of evolution, the amazing molecular machinery found inside cells and the intricate organisms preserved in the fossil record seem to stand in tension with it, even when Darwinian logic is used. And when Darwinism is extended from simply changing one organism into another to explaining the origin of life, it seems to impute occult properties to matter that matter does not have. In some ways, it’s less like science and more like animistic religions that attribute supernatural powers to rocks, fetishes, and other objects.
Of course, other theories about origins, such as special creation, are subject to the same criticism. The past is never as unambiguous as the present, and sometimes the present isn’t very clear either. Until scientists can travel back in time to see what actually happened, our ideas about the past will never be bias-free, and maybe not even then.
The theory that God created living things clearly has a religious aspect to it. And, like Darwinism, Creationism requires special accommodation of some of the data. Evil systems that look designed, such as the poison glands and fangs of an adder, require explanation within the context of a sinful world if God’s goodness along with His Creatorship are to be maintained. But this diverges into the realm of theology, and the reality remains that nature is replete with elegant systems that under any other circumstances would be interpreted as designed, whether they result in good or evil.
A hundred and fifty years of scientific study since Darwin published his Origin of Species has provided a more detailed understanding of the incredible worlds of biology and geology. For those willing to consider this empirical data unconfined by Darwinism, the biblical claim that God created nature seems reasonable, while many predictions arising from Darwinism remain problematic and more of a metaphysical project than a scientific theory.
Timothy Standish lives in Loma Linda, California. He is affiliated with the Geoscience Research Institute, which is also located in Loma Linda.