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Is Scientific American unscientific?

June 2004 | by John Peet

Last month we began to look at the attempts made by the popular science journal Scientific Americanto refute 15 creationist arguments (or more strictly, arguments attributed to creationists). We considered seven of these points and now complete our examination of the remainder.

In each case, the heading summarises the argument in question. This is followed by the ‘refutation’ offered by Scientific American’s editor John Rennie and, finally, my own response.

Mathematically, it is impossible for evolution to occur by chance processes

Rennie begins by denying that evolution depends on chance to create proteins, organisms, etc. Natural selection, he claims, harnesses non-random change by preserving ‘desirable’ features and eliminating ‘undesirable’. He refers to a computer simulation that resulted in a Shakespeare play in 4½ days.

On the former issue, he will be hard put to supply any evidence that natural selection can, in fact, achieve the results claimed. On the latter point, no sensible person will fall into his trap.

How did the computer program know when random changes (corresponding to mutations) produced something ‘meaningful’ that should be saved and protected from further mutation? Clearly, by comparing the results with the text of the original play!

If this proves anything about the origin of biological systems (which it probably doesn’t) it would show that they ‘evolve’ towards a pre-determined result, which is certainly not what most evolutionists want to believe!

Evolution contravenes the second law of thermodynamics

Rennie claims that the law is misunderstood and then proves he does not understand it! He cites the way atoms form an orderly pattern when they crystallise and claims that the sun’s energy is all that is needed to create such local order.

He misses the important fact that to generate order (a decrease in entropy) requires not only energy but also information. The physical information in the crystallising atoms or molecules controls the process of crystallisation.

Similarly, in photosynthesis, chlorophyll is a key source of information for the generation of sugars. Without information, the input of raw energy results in melting rather than crystallisation, photolysis and decomposition rather than synthesis.

Moreover, there is a vast difference between simple repetitive order (as in a crystal) and complexity (as in functioning biological systems). The latter requires information of such a sophisticated kind that it has to be stored using the genetic code.

Mutations only eliminate traits and do not produce new features

Rennie quotes examples of ‘point mutations’ in bacteria leading to antibiotic resistance. He mentions that mutated genes cause legs to replace antennae in fruit flies. This shows that mistakes can produce complex structures.

But the mutations in question actually produce organisms that are overall less fit for survival (as he admits). Mutations involve a loss of genetic information, not a gain, and therefore cannot drive an evolutionary process.

We accept that changes in organisms occur at the species and genus level, but believe that the potential for such changes was programmed at creation – organisms were created with the ability to adapt to changing environments.

Natural selection cannot explain the origin of new species

He argues for the origin of new species through natural selection. He claims that mitochondria (DNA-containing bodies found outside the cell nucleus) have evolved symbiotically with other ancient organisms.

Creationists acknowledge that new species and genera may form by natural selection or related processes within biblical kinds, but draw attention to the fact that such cases involve no new genetic information.

The mitochondrion hypothesis is just that – it has no supporting evidence. In fact, the recent discovery of organelles in a bacterium is a serious blow to this theory (see Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 100 [2003] 7423).

Rennie makes a remarkable claim: ‘Science welcomes the possibility of evolution resulting from forces beyond natural selection. Yet those forces must be natural; they cannot be attributed to the actions of mysterious creative intelligences whose existence, in scientific terms, is unproved’.

Rubbish! Science does no such thing. We see Rennies’ materialistic prejudice coming to the surface. Scientific methodology excludes divine involvement in creation simply because it has no way of studying or measuring it.

No one has seen a new species evolve

He quotes examples of the formation of new species (‘speciation’). As indicated above, we do not dispute that the original ‘kinds’ of Genesis have diversified within their own boundaries.

In fact, the biblical model depends on such changes. For example, to achieve the variety of life we observe today in the 5,000 or so years since the Noahic Flood requires rapid speciation (see Arthur Jones’ work referred to in Part 1).

Recent papers in the secular scientific press on the cichlid fishes confirm the research done by Jones and emphasise the amazingly rapid process of speciation. But the fish remain fish (and of the same type) no matter how far they diversify.

A lack of transitional fossils

Rennie claims to know many examples of transitional fossils and quotes Archeopteryx (reptile to bird), Eohippus (horse) and Ambulocetus (whale evolution). He then states that over twenty hominids have been found that fit between ‘Lucy’ and Homo sapiens.

But none of these are true intermediates. For example, Archeopteryx is a true bird and not an intermediate. A true intermediate would involve the existence of half-formed features, like partly evolved feathers (the feathers are, in fact, fully formed and functional).

There is no evidence that Eohippus is an ancestor of the horse – this is an assumption based on similarities interpreted as ancestral because that is what the theory of evolution requires! This is circular reasoning.

Consider also the fish to amphibian transition. The closest ‘fossil relatives’ in the two categories are totally different in their limbs, the way these link to the backbone, the skin, the respiratory and digestive systems, the blood system, the eyes and so on.

‘Lucy’ was an ape, not a human. All the so-called intermediate forms are either apes or human. Evolutionists will have to produce many transitional forms to make a case.

Intelligent design is a better explanation of origins

Rennie sees this approach as the ‘backbone of most recent attacks on evolution’ and claims that researchers have identified primitive eyes that show how modern eyes could have evolved.

It is a classic manipulation of the data to describe the earlier eyes (on an evolutionary timescale) as ‘primitive’. In the evolutionary scenario, the most primitive eye must have been that of the trilobite – but even evolutionists who have studied it have been stunned by its complexity and would hesitate to call it primitive.

Complex structures at the microscopic level are irreducibly complex

This is an extension of the intelligent design argument. He picks on two examples put forward by Michael Behe – the bacterial flagellum and blood clotting. He claims that the former case has been shown to be possible through the existence of simpler flagella elsewhere in nature. But what about their complexity? And how did they get transferred from one already developed life-form to another?

In the case of blood clotting, Rennie points out that the intermediate proteins can be modified from those used in digestion. But this completely misses the point of Behe’s argument. He is not talking about the origin of the individual proteins involved, but how they work together to create a carefully balanced functional system.

To take the mouse-trap (which Rennie decries as an example), the components could be scavenged from other things around the home, but only when they are assembled into a working mouse-trap do they catch mice – and that needs design.

Behe has published clear defences of his case (see, for example, In Defense of the Irreducibility of the Blood Clotting Cascade, Discovery Institute, 31 July, 2000, available on www.discovery.org).

Rennie makes the classic mistake of setting up a straw man – he thinks we subscribe to a ‘God of the gaps’ philosophy, which is not the case.

Dembski has specifically responded to this charge. He points out that an archaeologist concludes that an unearthed vase is a product of intelligent design (not chance or natural process). But no one accuses him of being intellectually lazy by invoking a ‘vase-maker of the gaps’!

Conclusion

Yes, we do believe in the miraculous – in deliberate intelligent design. We also believe in mutations, natural selection and molecular processes – but deny absolutely their power to create new genetic information and thus create biological complexity.

We believe, rather, in a sovereign God who is over all. He has created all things through Jesus Christ and oversees everything in his providence.

To summarise, Rennie has produced a ‘straw man’ that misrepresents to his uninitiated readers what creationists believe. His claims often reveal an ignorance of what informed creationists actually say.

When his arguments in support of evolutionary theory are examined, we find them wanting. He proposes at the outset – and as a philosophical principle – a naturalistic process that excludes an intelligent Creator. He then argues in a circle to conclude that there is no Creator.

If this is the best that the evolutionary community can produce, they demonstrate once again that they are building on sand.

The author acknowledges the helpful comments of Paul Garner in the presentation of this response.