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Living Tradition, Oblates of Wisdom, P.O. Box 13230, St. Louis, MO 63157, USA
|No. 117||Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program||May 2005|
MICHAEL DENTON'S NATURE'S DESTINY
Michael J. Denton, Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe
(New York: The Free Press – a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1998)
1. No Scientific Evidence for Evolution by Chance Alone. Michael J. Denton has an M.D. from Bristol University and a Ph.D. in developmental biology from Kings College, London. He is an expert in human molecular genetics. In the November 1989 issue of Living Tradition, I reviewed Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis [ETC] (Bethesda: Adler and Adler, 1986), an outstanding scientific study of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and its contemporary implications. In this earlier work, Denton brought out that Darwin’s arguments for the evolution of biological species by random mutation and natural selection had not been validated by a single empirical discovery or scientific advance since the publication of his The Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin knew that he did not have sufficient evidence to back his theory, and none has appeared since then, and yet within a little more than twenty years after 1859, Denton recalled, Darwin’s theory had become an "unchallenged dogma" among modern biologists and remains so to the present day. Darwin’s theory embodied the claim that all biological life on Earth had arisen from exclusively natural and random processes and not from any creative acts of God, but Darwin had no direct empirical evidence that large-scale evolution had ever occurred, and he was not able to point to a single bona fide case where natural selection had actually generated an evolutionary change of any kind, let alone a new species (Denton, ETC 62). Denton pointed out that, in the hierarchy of living biological species, one could continue citing almost ad infinitum complex defining characteristics of particular classes of organisms which are without analogy or precedent in any other part of the living kingdom and are not led up to in any way through a series of transitional structures" (ETC 107), and he went on to show that, if the hierarchic patterns themselves are suggestive of some kind of theory of descent, they do not tell us how the descent may have occurred or "whether the causal mechanism was Darwinian, Lamarckian, vitalistic or even creationist" (ETC 155). Denton went through all of the fields of biological science and showed in great detail how the Darwinian theory of chance mutations had no solid evidence to back it up. The reader would do well to read my extensive review of this earlier book in Living Tradition, number 26 (www.rtforum.org/lt/lt26.html), and then, all the better, to read the book, which is available on the Internet at Amazon.com
2. Weaknesses of the Darwinian Theory. Just to mention a few of the weaknesses of the Darwinian theory of evolution treated by Denton in his 1986 book, consider the following: a) the total absence of transitional forms in the fossil record (prescinding from a handful of exhibits that are all suspect of fraud or misinterpretation); b) the absence of any plausible idea of a mechanism of upward change from the less complex to the more complex or even just to a different species; c) the tremendous complexity of all organisms right down to the living cell, as has now been demonstrated by molecular biology; d) the many organs, such as the lung of a bird and the feather, which could not have been formed "by numerous, successive, slight modifications;" e) the enormous gap between non-living matter and the living cell; f) the necessity of perfect coadaptation of many other components of a living organism in order that one feature may change; g) the fact now known that the life of a living cell depends upon the integrated activities of thousands of different protein molecules.
3. Refusal to Give Up Darwinism. In his Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, Michael Denton expressed the following judgment about Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution: "The Darwinian theory of evolution is no more nor less than the great cosmogenic myth of the twentieth century. . . . (I)t satisfies the same deep psychological need for an all embracing explanation for the origin of the world which has motivated all the cosmogenic myth makers of the past, from the shamans of primitive peoples to the ideologues of the medieval church" (ETC 358). Yet Denton, also for emotional reasons, continued to hold to the Darwinian theory. To him the fact that before Darwin natural scientists accepted the idea of the creation of the world only underlines "the enormous intellectual gulf" that separates the outlook of natural scientists of that period from "the secular ethos of today" (ETC 23), and it was his conviction that "the Darwinian model is still the only model of evolution ever proposed which evokes well-understood, physical and natural processes as the causal agencies of evolutionary change." Denton’s conclusion was: "Reject Darwinism and there is, in effect, no scientific theory of evolution" (ETC 355).
4. Directed Evolution by Natural Processes Alone. Denton continued his research for a dozen more years into the theory of evolution, and then, in 1998, brought out another outstanding work, entitled Nature’s Destiny [ND]. In this new book he continues to defend the theory of evolution and he continues to deny that it could have come about randomly and by chance. The difference from his earlier work is that he now steadfastly proclaims in a new and better way the intelligent design of the universe and of all biological species, which he had also defended in his earlier work as "a purely a priori induction based on a ruthlessly consistent application of the logic of analogy" (ETC 341). He says at the outset that his new book is aimed "to present the scientific evidence for believing that the cosmos is uniquely fit for life as it exists on earth and for organisms of design and biology very similar to our own species, Homo sapiens", and secondly "to argue that this ‘unique fitness’ of the laws of nature for life is entirely consistent with the older teleological religious concept of the cosmos as a specially designed whole, with life and mankind as its primary goal and purpose" (ND xi). But he remains a naturalist, and so the evidence that he presents is construed in keeping with the naturalistic presupposition that "the cosmos is a seamless unity which can be comprehended ultimately in its entirety by human reason and in which all phenomena, including life and evolution and the origin of man, are ultimately explicable in terms of natural processes. This is an assumption which is entirely opposed to that of the so-called ‘special creationist school’" (ND xviii).
5. Intelligent Design of the Universe. Denton shows how the laws of physics "are fine-tuned for carbon-based life" (ND 7), and that more and more physicists are coming to this conclusion. While admitting that the "new anthropic vision" of modern physics is diametrically opposed to the world-view of Darwinian evolution, nevertheless, "it is doubtful whether modern biology can for long resist the new teleological current now flowing within cosmology and the physical sciences" (ND 17). Among many examples, the living cell "is uniquely and ideally fit as the basic unit of carbon-based life." Even the membrane of the cell is ideally fit, "in that its selective impermeability to charged particles confers additional electrical properties, which form the basis of nerve conduction" (ND 209). While thus excluding the likelihood of evolution by random change, Denton believes that these and many other facts do conform to the idea of directed evolution. Thus, he says that DNA "is remarkably fit for directed evolution" and implies the existence of "generative laws to guide a series of self-replicating systems from chemistry to the cell," in such a manner that the whole tree of life may be built into the natural process (ND 265). Denton concludes that the long chain of "coincidences" composed of many, many examples and the evidence for directed evolution lead convincingly to the unique end of life and fit into "a beautiful self-consistent teleological whole," whose credibility "has relentlessly grown as scientific knowledge has advanced throughout the past two centuries" and has provided a significant body of evidence that "our own carbon-based life is unique and that the laws of nature are specifically tailored to that end" (ND 384). Of course, the traditional way to avoid this conclusion is to appeal to "chance" operating over an infinite period of time, but this, he says, is not a scientific hypothesis, because it leaves no opening for possible refutation (ND 386-387).
6. Evolution Designed in the Genes? In his earlier work, Denton seems to have shown clearly that there is no evidence for an upward evolution on the larger scale between major divisions of living species, but in the later work which we are now examining he adduces evidence from the structure of DNA that upward evolution could have been programmed for smaller jumps within certain limits, in punctuated intervals not requiring the expression of a series of small changes in the phenotypes [developed organisms] themselves. This is an attempt to provide some idea of a mechanism of change for a theory that has heretofore been without any plausible mechanism. For this argument he brings forth the "surprising discovery" that "the genomes [sets of inherited genes] of all organisms are clustered very close together in a tiny region of DNA sequence space forming a tree of related sequences that can all be interconverted via a series of tiny incremental natural steps." As a result, organisms that look very different on a visible level can be very close together at the DNA level. For instance, all the sequences in the hemoglobin gene cluster in man, chimp, gorilla, gibbon, etc., can be interconverted via single base change steps to form a perfect evolutionary tree relating the higher primates together in a system that looks as natural as could be imagined" (ND 277). Denton gathers this information into a general statement where he says that "the whole evolutionary tree of life is in essence nothing more or less than a vast set of closely related DNA sequences clustered close together in the immensity of DNA sequence space, where each individual sequence is capable of specifying a viable life form, and where all sequences are interrelated and ultimately derivable via a series of steps from an original primeval sequence, which was the genome of the first life form on earth" (ND 278). Having visualized this "interconnected network of functional islands" in DNA space, Denton concludes that "the evolutionary process of tracing out the tree of life becomes a perfectly natural phenomenon; the inevitable unfolding of a preordained pattern, written into the laws of nature from the beginning" (ND 282).
7. Intelligent Design More Evident Than Evolution. With reference to the extensive controversy unfolding in these days over allowing or preventing the idea of intelligent design of the universe to be taught or even hinted at in the public school systems of the United States and other countries, Michael Denton’s earlier and later books have brought a breath of fresh air into the discussion from an acknowledged natural scientist whose information cannot be lightly dismissed. In Evolution: A Theory in Crisis [ETC], Denton has called to order those ubiquitous propagandists of mindless Darwinian evolution who claim to speak for science but who are either ignorant of or simply ignore the array of scientific evidence contrary to the presupposition of random change that is fundamental to the Darwinian theory. One cannot help but be impressed by the thoroughgoing and orderly way in which Denton has surveyed the relevant fields of natural science in showing the weaknesses of the notion of random change as the alleged cause of the physical universe and of all biological life on earth. On this subject he has made a great contribution to the contemporary discussion. But questions arise with regard to the overall picture into which he has fitted his data, and especially with his felt need to retain the philosophy of naturalism, as distinguished from the possibility of divine interventions, and to defend the theory of directed evolution, as distinguished from the Darwinian theory of undirected evolution. Denton admits that the evidence he sees for the design of the universe is stronger than is the evidence that he has for evolution as being the process by which this design has come into effect. And it is in this area that further reflection seems especially to be needed.
8. Vital Forces. In his earlier book, Denton noted also that before Darwin most zoologists "postulated ‘non-material, inner forces,’ or ‘vital drives’ of a basically mysterious nature which lay deep within organisms and which could even drive evolving organisms upward to an ever more complex and perfect state" (ETC 41), and in my review of 1989 I remarked that Denton, as a consistent naturalist and mechanist, was excluding the existence of such vital forces, not as an induction from the empirical data, but as a deduction from his metaphysics of materialism. What Denton saw as the problem of all vitalistic theories of evolution is that they must posit "some sort of mysterious intelligent feed-back device in every living organism which could directly influence the genetic make-up of its offspring in a particular and intelligent way so that its adaptations could be purposefully changed and improved" (ETC 41). I countered that, since Denton had shown convincingly that random processes cannot explain the design of living organisms, he must also logically admit that some intelligent cause is behind them, whether extrinsic to the organisms, and therefore a product of divine intervention, or intrinsic to the organisms and therefore in some way a "feed-back device." If such a vitalistic device is "mysterious," it is not nearly so mysterious as are the "mysterious forces" to which Darwinians often have recourse. But because the Darwinian theory excludes a priori any notion of an act of God, any notion of a soul or principle of life, any notion of intelligent design, therefore Darwinian evolutionists call their theory "scientific," and any creationist or vitalistic theory of origins is by them a priori excluded from "science." I found Denton’s defense of Darwinism unreasonable on the basis of his own evidence regarding the absence of scientific evidence for the theory, but I also noted his insight where he said that "despite the attempt by liberal theology to disguise the point, the fact is that no biblically derived religion can really be compromised with the fundamental assertion of Darwinian theory" (ETC 66). And I quoted Denton’s remarkably honest admission, where he says that "it has always been the anti-evolutionists . . . who have stuck rigidly to the facts," while the Darwinians have constantly had to present rationalizations which "are unconvincing to anyone not emotionally committed to the defence of Darwinian theory" (ETC 353).
9. Naturalism. Let us take the important question of the origin of biological life. Denton admits that no naturalistic theory of evolution has suggested a scientifically credible answer to this. In Denton’s own words: "But even if it seems very likely that the becoming of life is built in, it has to be admitted that at present, despite an enormous effort, we still have no idea how this occurred, and the event remains as enigmatic as ever" (ND 293). What he is saying in effect is this: Granted that creation by God is excluded, empirical scientists have no idea how biological life originated. And Denton excludes creation by God in keeping with his naturalistic presupposition that "the cosmos is a seamless unity" in which "all phenomena, including life and evolution and the origin of man, are ultimately explicable in terms of natural processes" (ND xviii). For Denton, this is "the basic naturalistic assumption of modern science" (see paragraph 4 above). With regard to this principle I would offer two distinctions. First of all, it is a basic assumption of many, probably most, modern empirical scientists that physical nature is a closed system ultimately explainable in terms only of itself, but this assumption is not essential to the findings and structure of modern science. Secondly, it is reasonable for an empirical science which as such is based strictly upon the observation and statistical recording of natural recurrences, not to be able to recognize within its own field of competence divine interventions or even interventions caused by free human decisions. But that does not entitle empirical scientists to exclude divine or human interventions that are observable in other fields of science, such as the fields of history, philosophy, and theology. Nor is an empirical scientist justified in limiting certified knowledge to the data of the empirical sciences and in thus excluding his need to acknowledge the results of other sciences. Hence, what comes particularly into focus at this point is the difference between simply not finding divine interventions within the special fields of empirical science and declaring, as an empirical scientist, that no such divine interventions have taken place or are even possible. The fact is that every empirical scientist is living in a larger world of reality and reasonably needs to fit his specialized knowledge into the knowledge of the larger world.
10. Empirical Science Not the Only Science. Modern empirical science is usually understood to be identified with the statistical verification of physical laws. But the assumption that physical nature is a system closed to the possibility of any supernatural interventions is not only not essential to modern empirical science; it is counterproductive. Empirical scientists do regard their sciences to be integrated systems of known facts dependent upon a set of laws that have been established by the valid use of the inductive method. Since the physical laws underlying the empirical sciences are determined by a large number of controlled observations of the ordinary workings of nature and limited to ordinary events perceivable by the senses, it is obvious that divine interventions of any kind are outside of their fields of study, as are also any effects brought about by acts of human free will. But what is outside of the field of observation of the empirical sciences is not necessarily outside of the field of observation of every science, and it is, therefore, unreasonable for empirical scientists to declare that only the data gathered by their approach can be considered certified knowledge. In other words, empirical science is not the only science; it is one set of sciences among several. Science in general may be defined as "certified knowledge of the real as such." Other disciplines, such as history, philosophy, and theology gather knowledge about real things according to their own methods, and, to the extent that they proceed by the use of a valid method of approach, their conclusions are as certified as are the conclusions of empirical science. Hence, naturalism is actually just a prejudice that impedes a perception of the full reality of the objects that are studied by empirical scientists.
11. Darwinian Evolution Not a Scientific Theory. It is actually incorrect to identify Darwinian evolution with the science of biology, because Darwinian evolution is not a scientific theory; it is an atheistic world-view that has been imposed upon the science of biology. As Denton rightly points out, the theory of evolution is an historical theory, not a scientific one. If Darwinian (or neo-Darwinian) evolution were a scientific theory, it would be based upon some physical laws. Darwin attempted to base his theory upon the "laws" of random mutation and natural selection. But random mutation, being random, has no law, and natural selection, while it can affect the size and persistence of populations of living species, cannot effect the production of those species. The problem with Darwin’s theory is that it is not based upon any physical law and it offers no tenable mechanism for the mutation of one species into another. As Walt Brown says, evolution is "a theory without a mechanism." It is an historical theory regarding how the species that are now living or did live at one time upon the face of the Earth actually came into existence, but historical theories need to be verified according to a valid historical method, and empirical scientists are notoriously ill-equipped in the use of historical method.
12. Mindless Evolution vs. Directed Evolution. While Denton maintains that the Darwinian (or neo-Darwinian) theory of mindless evolution has no scientific or historical evidence to back it up, he also proposes designed changes in the genes as a possible mechanism for the small developments known as microevolution, and he speculates that the jumps over larger gaps might some day also be explained in the same way (ND 280), but he also admits that the mechanism for the jump from chemistry to living organisms remains to this day, even granted intelligent design, a total mystery (ND 292-293). However, the jump from chemistry to life is a total mystery only for those who, like Denton, adhere to the doctrine of naturalism and, therefore, cannot accept as certified knowledge the divine revelation underlying the account of the creation of the world written in the Book of Genesis. If one should ask why Denton, considering that, in his earlier work, he had identified mindless Darwinian evolution as "the great cosmogenic myth of the twentieth century," continues, nevertheless, in both his earlier and his later works, to adhere to the Darwinian theory in the revised form of directed natural evolution, the reason is that this theory constitutes the world-view in which he believes, as expressed in the following words: "The entire scientific ethos and philosophy of modern western man is based to a large extent upon the central claim of Darwinian theory that humanity was not born by the creative intentions of a deity but by a completely mindless trial and error selection of random molecular patterns. The cultural importance of evolution theory is therefore immeasurable, forming as it does the centrepiece, the crowning achievement, of the naturalistic view of the world, the final triumph of the secular thesis which since the end of the middle ages has displaced the old naive cosmology of Genesis from the western mind" (ETC 357-358). To Denton the fact that before Darwin natural scientists accepted the idea of the creation of the world only underlines "the enormous intellectual gulf" that separates the outlook of natural scientists of that period from "the secular ethos of today" (ETC 23).
13. Intuitive Science. I call intuitive sciences those solid disciplines that are not based upon statistical reasoning, and they include historical science, philosophical science, and theological science. They involve the ability to stand back and look at the objects under consideration. Take this hypothetical example. Suppose that an empirical study were made of the front wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, in which every crack and fissure, every irregularity of plaster and paint were carefully observed and measured from close up right down to the molecular level, and then an elaborate statistical report were published in which it was concluded that there is no intelligent design in or on the wall, but everything occurred by chance. This report could look very scientifically impressive, but all that a critic would have to do is stand back and see Michelangelo’s Last Judgment painted on the wall. However, such an observation might be denounced by materialists as "unscientific," because it was not statistically verified. And this is often the case with the mechanistic approach to biology. Denton has stepped back far enough to see the design on the face of nature, but he has not been able in Nature’s Destiny to take the further step to recognizing the Designer. And, while the fact that life is something more and higher than a mere arrangement of the molecules in an organism is intuitively obvious to the philosophical thinker, it is systematically denied by mechanistic biologists. They call the notion that the animal soul is the principle of life in living organisms an unscientific and "metaphysical concept," because it exceeds their materialistic purview. And the same with the notion of divine creation and the invoking of "supernatural causes" of effects that for them must be contained within a closed system of nature. For naturalists, a supernatural cause is no cause at all, because it exceeds the bounds of their closed natural world. But there is no scientific need to have the world-view of a naturalist or a mechanist, and it is to be hoped that a fuller view of the world, embracing as well its metaphysical and supernatural underlying realities, will soon become dominant even among empirical scientists, as the reasonable outcome of the scientific process.
14. Michael Denton’s Final Conclusion. Denton’s work is a pathfinder for the sincere Darwinian who is striving to find his way out of the purposeless world of "evolution by chance alone." Denton’s concluding statement about the design of the universe is an eloquent tribute to a reality that goes beyond the misconstrued world of Darwinism and deserves to be quoted here in full: "All the evidence available in the biological sciences supports the core proposition of traditional natural theology – that the cosmos is a specially designed whole with life and mankind as its fundamental goal and purpose, a whole in which all facets of reality, from the size of galaxies to the thermal capacity of water, have their meaning and explanation in this central fact. Four centuries after the scientific revolution apparently destroyed irretrievably man’s special place in the universe, banished Aristotle, and rendered teleological speculation obsolete, the relentless stream of discovery has turned dramatically in favor of teleology and design, and the doctrine of the microcosm is reborn. As I hope the evidence presented in this book has shown, science, which has been for centuries the great ally of atheism and skepticism, has become at last, in these final days of the second millennium, what Newton and many of its early advocates had so fervently wished, - the ‘defender of the anthropocentric faith.’" (ND, 389).
Michael J. Denton, Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe
(New York: The Free Press – a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1998)
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