The Last Straw—Does This Break Evolution?
A book review for Adventists of:
Michael J. Behe, DARWIN DEVOLVES
—The New Science About DNA That Challenges Evolution;
New York, HarperOne, 2019.
by Jack Hoehn | March 20, 2019 |
My library has at least three shelves stuffed with books attempting to define, defend, deny, or destroy the theory of life that Charles Darwin began to write about (noted especially by Adventists) in 1844. It is possible that this definitive book may be the last one needed. As the back-cover blurb states, Darwinian “evolution is broken.”
Using the same 19th-century culture, language, and logic that both schooled English and self-educated American thinkers of that time would share, On the Origin of Species was written in England, then published reaching American minds by 1860. More than most people Seventh-day Adventists pay attention to 19th-century books whose origin dates to 1844, but in this case, they are not alone.
Darwin won over the minds of the world by noting that all life forms appeared more or less related. Fossils being discovered demonstrated changes of increasing complexity and diversity age after age after age. Changes (evolution) in life forms could be observed in the present day in the intentional breeding of dogs, cattle, pigeons, and plants. He suggested that an entirely natural process might ultimately imitate (small step by small step) purposeful design. His brilliant speculation was supported by visual appearances: All creatures appear related by common descent. It seemed possible that changes (evolution) could be driven by multiple small alterations passed to descendants selected by “natural selection”—the survival of those best able (the “fittest”) selecting subsequent generations.
More than Science
With a devoted Christian wife Emma (Wedgewood) and 10 beloved children, this trained physician/clergyman-turned-world-changing naturalist inherited enough income that it allowed Darwin to look full time at the created realities he lived with. This included not only unique species of finches on the Galapagos Islands, but also the painful death of their beloved 10-year-old daughter Anne. The available science of the day was on review by this polymath, but also the theology of the day claiming to reveal an omniscient, omnipotent God that created all things including the bacteria that killed his daughter. Offering an alternative to a recent specific species by species Creationism Charles Darwin was in one sense trying to get God off the hook as responsible for the creation of so many harsh and cruel natural realities.
Darwin knew nothing of genes and chromosomes, nothing of DNA or RNA, nothing of the proteins folded and shaped to make the intricate cellular machinery of life. He considered cells simple structures filled with protoplasm soup. His imaginative proposition of things just happening and progressively changing or evolving by chance was an alternative to what Darwin’s church thought Genesis taught—the separate, individual, immediate, and recent creation of each species in an assigned place. God, they said, on a very busy Thursday created the fish in every ocean, lake, and river, the hummingbirds in South America, the storks to nest in Hungary, the ostrich to run in the Sahara, and the duck-billed-platypus in Australia—or did He save that last one for Friday? On the next day God was said to have been equally as busy with grass-eating cows for Sweden, grass-eating goats for Palestine, grass-eating reindeer for Lapland, and grass-eating lions for an Edenic Africa. “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all,” was in Darwin’s hymnal as it is in yours.
Darwin’s 19th-century American Adventist contemporary, the spiritually gifted Ellen G. White, had the same tools Darwin had: her eyes, Bible, reason, death of an infant son in 1860 and the death of a firstborn teen-aged son in 1864. Ellen White acknowledged her world with sickness and death rivaling the supposed goodness of God—and fashioned what many consider an inspired explanation. A cosmic conflict between good and evil supernatural forces acting on an intelligently designed creation. Instead of replacing the Genesis creation story with random mutations and survival of the fit, she modified it by suggesting that besides an Intelligent Designer there was an Intelligent Destroyer involved in the story of life.
Evidence in Galapagos
Please understand that the following is entirely inadequate as a summary and can only serve if you get Michael Behe’s book and give it the careful reading it deserves. But if there is one book that could be the coup de grace to Darwinian, neo-Darwinian, or Extended Evolutionary Synthesis evolution it could be this book.
Behe’s point is now that the biochemical molecular basis of life is more fully understood, the evidence that things can change by past, present, or proposed Darwinian mechanisms is severely limited in scope and potential. Darwin’s proposed random, unguided mutations, and “natural selection” (survival of the advantageous changes) works at a fairly simple level. But it cannot explain the major advances seen in the history of life. The changes that random mutations can make are now known to overwhelmingly happen by changes that damage or destroy existing functions, not by creating new or complex new functions. Only rarely and in very limited instances do random mutations gain new or novel abilities. Darwinian evolution we now know works by devolution of cellular functions.
Yes, one South American finch isolated to the Galapagos Islands can devolve into 6 to 15 (this is debated) species of finch, in each and every case by mutations knocking out some cellular functions that led to fortuitous advantage to the birds in different environmental stresses. Normal finch beaks by destruction of a protein became short and thick, which when drought changed available foods allowed the devolved finches with thick beaks an unplanned survival advantage with available food stuffs. Random mutation, survival of the mutated beaks = a new variety or species of thick billed finch by devolution, the loss of a previously existing function.
Evidence in Africa Lakes
One river cichlid fish swam into the newly rehydrated Lake Victoria 15,000 years ago after this huge but shallow lake last dried up. From that one genus and species of the cichlid family have evolved 500 new species of fish. Behe notes, “The huge number of brand-new cichlid species in Lake Victoria has been widely hailed as the most spectacular example of evolution in modern times…”
Some changes caused by loss of functions resulted in fish that survived better in shallow water, some changes did better in deeper water, some have different colors prized by tropical fish enthusiasts. And one single amino acid mutation actually created a new protein that slightly increased sensitivity to light, so a Darwinian mutation does rarely add a new or better function. But only when acting in a context with pre-existing functions. All the devolved or slightly improved new species remain cichlids! Darwinian mechanisms can give new cichlid species, new cichlid genus, but no new families of fish. Just different varieties of the same Family.
Beyond Lake Victoria Africa has Lake Tanzania, and further south, Lake Malawi. Those deeper lakes have not dried up for 10 million and 1 million years, respectively. Each lake also has unique species of cichlids in roughly the same numbers as in Lake Victoria. So in 15,000 years cichlids can rapidly adapt by altering existing cichlid functions into hundreds of related varieties, but then in 1-10 million years Darwinian evolution/devolution of the cichlid family didn’t progress any further. There was no evolution to a trout, a perch, a red snapper, or even a guppy. No new families, just lots of interesting and adapted cichlids.
Darwinian mechanisms for evolution worked quickly and at the lowest levels, mostly by destruction of existing functions, but have not worked or been shown how they ever could work to create the acknowledged major innovations needed for life as we find it. Each “>” below shows a major complicated, complex, essential transition needed for the creation of life as we find it. None of them have ever been demonstrated or rationally explained as to just how known Darwinian mechanisms could enable them:
Molecules> proteins> acellular life> membranes> cellular life>
prokaryotic cells> RNA> DNA> nucleated eukaryotic cells>
asexual reproduction> sexual reproduction>
fungi> plants> animals> individuals> colonies>
primates > primates with language and consciousness
Those 16 barriers (and more) prevent Darwinian evolution mechanisms getting from molecules to you. Those are barriers that random mutation and natural selection are incapable of breaching. Once by other mechanisms there is a complex purposively-designed “you” Darwin’s mechanisms might create in your offspring darker varieties of you, thinner varieties of you, curly haired varieties of you, taller varieties of you, even prettier varieties of you with known genetic and epigenetic mechanisms. But each and every randomly adapted/devolved/evolved offspring will remain in your human family, for 15,000 years or for 10,000,000 years, according to the scientifically established evidence.
Darwin could not have listed those major transition steps because the biochemical, molecular basis of life was unknown to him. He believed in a mythical cell content they called “protoplasm.” But protoplasm is dead. The simplest cell, a prokaryote with no nucleus, is not simple. Darwinists acknowledge, “Prokaryotes are extraordinarily complex biochemical systems.” There are no observational or experimental evidence-based ways for Darwin’s unintelligent, random, unguided mechanisms to provide any of the key changes listed above. What can we now say is required for the real evolution of life?
“Purposeful design is needed to account for life beginning from the very foundation of the nature (such as the fine-tuned laws of the universe), through the elegant machinery of the cell, at least down to the biological level” of kingdom, phylum, class, order, to family. Or put another way: “Darwinian processes (or any other non-intelligently planned process) cannot produce descendants that differ from their ancestor at the level of family or higher.”
Darwin Hits It, “Bear-ly”
Behe notes, “It’s easy to fall in love with evolution. Reading about a simple variant of a common moth that survives in a polluted environment better than its predecessor or bacteria that can eat industrial runoff can give one hope for the future… New, pretty species of birds and fish evolving even in our own lifetime exemplify the fecundity of nature and in Darwin’s lyrical phrase, its endless forms most beautiful. He was certainly right that there is grandeur in that view of life.”
Most Creationists now agree that God likely did not create all the existing varieties and species of life together at one time in the Garden of Eden. He created things and tasked them with reproducing and filling the earth “after their kinds.” Created plants and animals can and do adapt, change, evolve to fit different changing environments on this planet. Mastodons and mammoths needed furry coats near Ice Age climates. African and Asian elephants don’t need insulating fur. And this change of function can happen by random mutations during reproduction of cells, plants, and animals. Small random changes that are neutral or not fatal can be passed on so that the children of an animal are in small ways different than their parents. And when the changes have some benefit, that change can thrive in a new environment. Darwin’s proposed mechanism of small changes selected by survival of the fittest can be observed to work. New species can evolve. Like in bears.
The genes of an Alaskan brown bear that control pigment can be damaged by a random mutation many places on that complex gene, causing it to fail in melanin production. That changed cub losing this designed function becomes a whiter bear. A different single mutation in that whiter cub’s offspring in the long segment of DNA that controls the ancestor brown bear’s fat storage genes could make that cub store excessive fat. Excessive fat storage might not have helped survival of chubby Alaskan brown bears, but increased insulation can be helpful to a colder Polar bear. So random changes of a damaging nature can by chance adapt a new type of formerly brown bear to better survive farther north near the pole. This change in one Ursus (Ursus arctos) to another Ursus (Ursus maritimus) is not by creation of new functions, but by Darwinian loss of existing ones that turned out to be useful for survival of a bear in extreme circumstances.
Minor random variations around a designed blueprint are possible and can be helpful, but are severely limited in scope. Each anatomical organ is actually a stupendously complex aggregate system composed of many kinds of active cells and molecules. What all can now know is that Darwin’s proposed mechanisms for change do not offer answers to the big question:
Where did life’s genetic, cellular, and multicellular complexity come from in the first place?
Creation of even the smallest mini-irreducibly complex feature is a huge problem for random evolution. In 19th-century ignorance it was easy for a thoughtful dreamer like Charles Darwin to imagine mysterious protoplasm might stretch and shape itself into anything. But now there is no mysterious level of life for imagination to retreat to. The key proposition of Intelligent Design (ID) is this:
We recognize design in the purposeful arrangement of parts.
Evidence now available to the molecular level of life leads to the most basic rational conclusion:
There has been a mind at work, and it had a plan.
Why Does Darwinism Survive?
As irrefutable as this argument may now appear to us, the dominant philosophy of the educated and educating of our age is materialism. And materialism at its core denies that there is a Mind, even our own. Francis Crick is famously quoted as writing: “The Astonishing Hypothesis is that ‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules…You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”
Yet absolute materialism and its foundational Darwinian scheme of life is manifestly false. Random mutation and natural selection are powerless to build anything remotely as complex as a brain, or the “unshakeable conviction of free will,” or “consciousness,” or “intelligence,” or “mind.” So Darwinian evolution cannot prove “no mind needed.”
“The machinery of life is stunningly sophisticated, so much so that the overpowering appearance of design is acknowledged by virtually everyone, even by those who doggedly resist that conclusion.”
Science has claimed that to be science, it must only look at the material—purpose, plan, mind are excluded by definition. This separation may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it wasn’t. Reason is a unity, and arbitrary divisions of reason can lead to cognitive disaster.
“A good definition of science would be ‘The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena.’ There is no reason this has to exclude purpose, evidence of design, planning, mind. If we have lost the ability to recognize the work of another mind in the powerfully purposeful arrangements of nature, we lose the ability to recognize even our own minds.”
Michael Behe now has three books challenging Darwin’s proposition. His 1996 Darwin’s Black Box was the most scientifically credible challenge to Darwin’s theory to that time. In 2007 in The Edge of Evolution he suggested that things clearly did change (evolve) over time, but that only limited changes could happen by random mutations and natural selection. Along with the masterful books by Stephen Myers (Signature in the Cell, and Darwin’s Doubt—The Cambrian Explosion) they were the most scientifically credible cases for what is known as Intelligent Design.
This present book uses the scientific tools unlocking the molecular basis of life that have become available and applicable to life sciences during the past 25 years. The DNA code of life, the RNA methods for reproduction of that code, the single nucleic acid errors in transcription giving rise to changes in the proteins produced by those genes, and the machines producing those proteins are now being unraveled in all their layered complexity. The latest careful ongoing studies of evolution (by evolutionists) both in laboratory flasks of bacteria and in the natural worlds of Galapagos birds and African fishes can use these new DNA elucidating tools. The answers being discovered are not favorable to Darwin.
Darwinian fanatics have already written blind condemnations of Behe’s book they may have yet to read. More thoughtful evolutionists actively search for alternative materialistic mechanisms for the evolution of life. Behe discusses most of them. The most common pro-Darwin action is the ubiquity of writers throwing in the word “evolution” unsupported by the slightest experimental evidence. Just as a matter of faith the word “evolution” is tacked onto a statement. The sentence, “Humans have evolved a sense of self that is unparalleled in its complexity” adds nothing to the factual “Humans have a sense of self that is unparalleled in its complexity” except a science-y, content-free, evidence-unsupported genuflection to Darwinian faith. There exists no experimental or solid theoretical way to show that consciousness can have developed by any possible Darwinian mechanism of “evolution.”
Other theoretical excursions like “Neutral Theory” may have merit but do not support Darwin. “Constructive Mutations” remain a foggy, amorphous, undifferentiated theoretical category that is assumed but has little experimental or observational support.
And the king of speculative theories, “Multiverse Theory” proposes that any physical event—no matter how unlikely—that is not absolutely forbidden by physical law will happen an infinite number of times. This audacious, 100% speculative, data-free leap of faith explains no functional aspect of life—everything of importance is simply posited as existing from the beginning. How convenient!
“Self-organization,” “Complexity Theory,” “Pre-Self-Organizing Theory,” “Evo-Devo,” “Niche Construction,” “Developmental Plasticity,” “Natural Genetic Engineering,” “Chemotons,” “Hypercycles”—all are more or less intelligently designed words for attempts to replace Darwin’s theory failings with something other than a Mind with a Plan. Behe discusses most of them. I’m afraid that this appears to me to be what Patrick Leigh Fermor once described as attempts at “defining obscurity with obscurity.”
Truth Cuts Both Ways
You will want to read this book slowly and with frequent references to your computer or cell phone because it can be an education, a refresher course, or an accessible introduction to the biochemistry of life as revealed during discoveries of the last 25 years. My copy has underlining, marginal notes, and I think I found one small typographical error that I have sent to Dr. Behe’s editors. But the book is fully understandable if you take your time.
Creationist readers, however, must be prepared to give this book, and the subject of evolution, “time” in another sense. I don’t see how it is possible to cling to a short-term chronology of creation if you want to see Darwinian evolution honestly, fact-based, scientifically refuted by a scientist like Behe. The evidence that proves the changes and development/evolution of life could only happen by intelligent design also accepts that evolution (change over time) indeed happened. It just didn’t and couldn’t have happened without input from a Mind with a Plan, without intelligence and design.
As illogical and irrational as the Darwinist denying the reality of Mind is the illogical irrationality of a dogmatic Creationist denying the abundant evidence that life is ancient, that its development was progressive (one might say “day by day), and could not possibly have happened as we now find it over any fixed short-term week with no changes since.
Truths in Behe’s books are much like the truths the Bible claims “cut both ways.” The presented scientific evidence should be a death knell to Darwinian claim that unguided processes can explain the complexities of life beyond minor variations on a designed theme. But the same evidence requiring a Mind and a Plan confirms that life has indeed changed and adapted, evolved and gained new and impressive abilities over time. The evidence suggests that Darwin may in fact be correct that all life appears to be from common ancestors. Should common ancestry of all life be a problem for those of us who claim life was created by one Lord Creator?
An Evolving Creation
If Seventh-day Adventists wish to introduce the scientists and scholars of the world to the Mind and Planner revealed in scripture, then why not begin with an admission that in some things Darwin’s observations were correct, and in some things our 19th-century Christianity was wrong? Over time things have changed or evolved, progressed from simple firmament formers to plants, then to sea life and air life forms, then lastly to land life forms more complex and interesting from age to age in geological time, just as they did from day to day in the ancient Genesis story.
Many adaptations or experiments in life, as the fossil records show, have not survived the multiple catastrophes in the history of earth. Your Bible clearly acknowledges the existence of eras and catastrophes—Noah, anyone? Because the geologic, genetic, molecular recorded history of life now shows the need for planning and design in its many major transitions, why not let Christians begin to use the word “evolution” when we talk about the progressive intelligently designed changes?
Does this mean Christians now have to become “Theistic Evolutionists”? Not if you mean that God created using Darwinian principles of evolution—that didn’t and can’t happen. But it may mean we need to accept that the intelligent creation of life was spread out over a very long time, with progressive stages. Some of us call ourselves Progressive or Old-earth Creationists. But if some want to stay in the comfort of “Theistic Evolution—Non-Darwinian” how could we object to that? Let’s talk.
Both Charles Darwin and our Adventist Ellen White lived in an age of limited scientific information. We do not. Faith must always go beyond reason, but it never needs to go against reason. Our world and everything in it was truly Intelligently Designed. (It has also likely been Intelligently Despoiled, which is what I find to be a distinctive Adventist contribution needed in the ID debate.)
End or Beginning?
Theories and interpretations are offered to be evaluated, tested, and if need be, to be broken and replaced with better ones. The facts of this glorious creation and its very visible problems beg to be better explained by newer, deeper, and more inclusive theories, theories ruling out nothing except error and ignorance. Theories capable of considering design and mind as well as materials.
What I hope is that careful study and evaluation of Behe’s book, added to previous published evidence and the most up-to-date scientific information, might just be the final straw of evidence and reason needed to break the backs of both dogmatic, godless Darwinian evolution and dogmatic, evidence-ignoring Genesis literalism. This could open a path for Adventists to evolve a fresh and more credible, God-honoring presentation of life’s beginnings.
 The touching, genuine, loving relationships Darwin had with his wife and their children, especially his daughter Anne, are well recounted in the book Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution by Randal Keynes.
 In the depths of depression after daughter Anne’s death he wrote complaining of the “clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature!”
 K. Sterelney “Evolvability Reconsidered,” in The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), pp 91-92.
 F. Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, p. 3.
 Michael J. Behe, Darwin Devolves: The New Science About DNA That Challenges Evolution;
(New York: HarperOne, 2019), p 265.
 Behe, p 275.
 See work of University of California-Berkeley ichthyologist George Barlow. The Cichlid Fishes—Nature’s Grand Experiment in Evolution. https://www.amazon.com/Cichlid-Fishes-Natures-Experiment-Evolution/dp/0738205281
 Typical Amazon.com written in anticipation of the release date of book: “Pure crap, cited fake sources, ignores reality and basically is pseudoscience. Only for creationists and the willfully ignorant.” Amazing how dogmatic one can be before the book is published!
 Hebrews 4:12. “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow.”
 John 1:3, “All things were created through him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created.”
 Genesis Great Creation Day 2, “Let there be a firmament” formed by photosynthesizing bacteria?
 Genesis Great Creation Day 3, “Let the earth produce vegetation.”
 Genesis Great Creation Day 5, “Let the waters swarm and let…every winged creature according to its kind.”
 Genesis Great Creation Day 6, “Let the earth produce living creatures…wildlife…livestock…creatures that crawl…man in our image.”
 Ellen White in her 19th-century perspective also acknowledged past ages differed from the present, “Relics found in the earth do give evidence of conditions differing in many respects from the present…..” Patriarchs and Prophets, page 112.
Jack Hoehn is a frequent contributor to both the print and online versions of Adventist Today. He has served on the Adventist Today Foundation board since 2012. He and his wife Deanne live in Walla Walla, Washington. He has a BA in Religion from Pacific Union College, and an MD from Loma Linda University. He was a licensed minister of the Adventist church for 13 years when serving as a missionary physician in Africa.