Intelligent Design

Denton’s “Theory Still in Crisis”: Introduction

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This is the first of a series of posts reviewing Michael Denton’s new book Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis.

The fossil record has always been a problem for Darwinism, as Darwin himself was the first to note.  In Origin of Species he asserted that if his theory of gradual transformation of organisms through the accumulation of micro-adaptions over eons of time were true, “then the number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed, [must] be truly enormous.”  And in the very same paragraph he admitted that:  “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 my theory.”  Darwin tried to save his theory by suggesting the fault was not in his theory but in an extremely “imperfect record.”  But he was candid enough to admit that, “[he] who rejects these views on the [imperfect] nature of the geological record, will rightly reject my whole theory.  For he may ask in vain where are the numberless transitional links which must formerly have connected the closely allied or representative species . . .”

Here we are over 150 years later and as far as the fossil record goes, things have gotten no better for Darwinism.

“What is missing [in the record] are the many intermediate forms hypothesized by Darwin, and the continual divergence of major lineages into the morphospace between distinct adaptive types.”  Robert L. Carroll, “Towards a New Evolutionary Synthesis,” Trends in Ecology and Evolution 15 (2000): 27

“I wish only to point out that [gradualism] was never ‘seen’ in the rocks.”  Stephen Jay Gould, “Evolution’s Erratic Pace,” Natural History 86 (May 1977), 14

“Stasis is now abundantly well documented as the preeminent paleontological pattern in the evolutionary history of species.”  Niles Eldredge, Reinventing Darwin: The Great Evolutionary Debate (New York: John Wiley, 1995), 77

Enter biochemist Michael Denton, who helped touch off the ID movement over 30 years ago with his seminal Evolution: A Theory in Crisis.   Dr. Denton is perhaps uniquely qualified to speak to this issue.  As a religious agnostic, he has no doubt that evolution occurred and that the process though which it occurred was entirely natural.  Moreover, he is firmly convinced that the diversity of life can be accounted for based on “descent with modification” from a common ancestor.

So what sets Denton apart from your run of the mill materialist Darwinian such as Richard Dawkins?  Just this:  From the days of Darwin himself to this present moment, the Darwinist has said that if the fossil data do not conform to the theory, so much the worse for the data.  In contrast to this approach, Denton subscribes to the crazy notion that one should try to conform his theory to the observations instead of the other way around.  Denton’s approach has profound implications for evolutionary theory. At a fundamental level it means that a theory of evolution that synchs with the observations must account for the discontinuities that are all but ubiquitous in the fossil record, instead of always struggling to write such discontinuities off as an artifact of an imperfect record.  In Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis Denton sets out to do just that.

In his Introduction, Denton begins by defining two key schools of thought – structuralism and functionalism – that will be contrasted throughout the book.

According to the structuralist paradigm, a significant fraction of the order of life and of every organism is the result of basic internal constraints or causal factors arising out of the fundamental physical properties of biological systems and biomatter.  In other words, these constraints do not arise as adaptations to satisfy particular functional ends . . . These internal constraints, or ‘laws of biological form’ as they were referred to in the 19th century, were believed by many biologists before Darwin to limit the way organisms are built to a few basic designs or Types, just as the laws of chemical form or crystal form limit chemicals and crystals to finite sets of lawful forms.  This view implies that many of life’s basic forms arise in the same way as do other natural forms — ultimately from the self-organization of matter — and are genuine universals.

In contrast to structuralism Darwinists hold a “functionalist” view of evolution:

According to the opposing paradigm, often referred to as functionalism, the main fundamental organizing principle of biology is adaptation to serve various functional ends. On this view, the main type-defining homologs (pentadactyl limb, etc.) are not the result of physical law. Instead, functionalists see homologs as a result of adaptations built by cumulative selection during the course of evolution to meet particular environmental constraints.  Adaptations built in this way are contingent in the sense that they are undetermined by natural law. . . . This is, of course, the currently prevailing and mainstream view. All Darwinists, and hence the great majority of evolutionary biologists, are functionalist by definition, as all evolution according to classical Darwinism comes about from cumulative selection to meet functional ends.

I found Denton’s reference to laws of biological form very interesting in light of my recent post entitled ID for Materialists.  In that post I argued that materialists should stop running from the overwhelming teleology that even the most cursory glance at the data reveals and instead join the search for “natural telic laws” that Thomas Nagel described in Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.  And indeed Denton cites Nagel in his book.

In this regard, the first important thing I learned from Denton is that the idea of natural telic laws long predates Nagel.  Denton notes that as early as 1866, Richard Owen, the father of Anglo-Saxon structuralism, argued that life on earth is the result of a lawful natural process.  In his Anatomy of Vertebrates, Owen claimed that the path of evolution was “preordained . . . due to innate capacity or power of change, by which nomogenously-created [generated by law] protozoa have risen to the higher forms of plants and animals.”

This does not mean that structuralists believe Darwinism is completely wrong.  They give Darwin his due.  But they argue that Darwinian adaptations (such as the famous finch beak) are merely an “adaptive mask” on the basic Types.  For example, all tetrapods exhibit the basic taxon-defining character of the pentadactyl limb (five fingers and five toes).  This is one of the “Types” to which Denton referred in the above-quotation.  Structuralists acknowledge, however, that the differences in the morphology of the pentadactyl limbs of the various tetrapod species likely came about through Darwiniam mechanisms.

This means that while the functionalist asserts that organisms are infinitely malleable and arose through a fundamentally stochastic and contingent process, structuralists assert that the development of organisms is constrained by natural telic laws.  The Types arose spontaneously and abruptly as a result of the innate properties of biomatter acting in accordance with natural telic law, and only relatively minor adaptations of the Types can be attributed to Darwinian processes.

The structuralist view, of course, has the advantage of being consistent with the fossil record.  That record does not show, as Darwin suggested, a finely graduated organic chain between major Types.  Instead, it shows abrupt appearance of various Types followed by stasis.  Again, using the pentadactyl limb as an example, Denton has no doubt that the limb evolved from the fins of fish.  Yet the fossil record simply does not support the view that the evolution of the limb from the fin occurred gradually over eons of time.  The fossil record is instead conspicuous for the absence of transitional forms from fish fin to pentadactyl limb.  This means one of two things if a purely naturalist account of evolution is true:  (1) all of the evidence for the gradual evolution from fish fin to pentadactyl limb has been swallowed up by time, and we have to take the Darwinian account on faith in the teeth of the evidence; or (2) the Darwinian (i.e., functionalist) account is false and something like the structuralist account is true.

There is, of course, a third alternative, and that is the Types arose as a result of the conscious choices of a designer.  Interestingly, though Denton is considered a leading luminary of the ID movement, he never argues for that alternative.  As I suggested in my recent post, certain forms of ID are compatible with a materialist paradigm IF there is such a thing as a “natural telic law.”  Denton argues for this kind of ID, and as we shall see as we explore his book in future posts, he makes a powerful case.

24 Replies to “Denton’s “Theory Still in Crisis”: Introduction

  1. 1
    Robert Byers says:

    Good thread on it.
    But
    But
    But.
    The geology record is not rightly to be evidence for a biological hypothesis pro or con!
    No!
    The fossil record does not follize mechanism. Just data points about creatures at their death.
    Darwin sucks in people to admitting to the geology record as important and as true on timeframes.
    In short rejecting criticisms the geology claims of long time are bogus.
    Darwin admitted with the geology one should put down his book.
    Well I insist Darwin should put down a biology hypothesis if its determined on a non biological subject.
    Geology says nothing about mechanisms and results. Just people reading into it and reading it into ideas of deposition over long time .
    THIS is the fatal flaw in Darwins idea being a biological scientific hypothesis.
    Its not on biology but on geology greatly.
    Deny Darwin saying evolution is based on BIOLOGY evidence.

    Methodology must come first. Not failure of th fossil record to show intermediates/progression.
    If the geiology is wrong then the biology is.
    If this is so then is it admitted evolution is not based on biology but on geology for its glorious evidence.
    How is that science?
    Make Darwin and company prove evolution by biology evidence.
    The creationist shouldn’t have to FIRST discredit the geolgy stuff to discredit the biology.
    Id tries but its a trap .

  2. 2
    tjguy says:

    Ii read Denton’s first book and found it extremely interesting, even though he disses creationism in the beginning of the book.

    This should be a good book too and I’m looking forward to Barry’s articles.

    Again, using the pentadactyl limb as an example, Denton has no doubt that the limb evolved from the fins of fish. Yet the fossil record simply does not support the view that the evolution of the limb occurred gradually over eons of time. The fossil record is instead conspicuous for the absence of transitional forms from fish fin to pentadactyl limb. This means one of two things if a purely naturalist account of evolution is true: (1) all of the evidence for the gradual evolution from fish fin to pentadactyl limb has been swallowed up by time, and we have to take the Darwinian account on faith in the teeth of the evidence; or (2) the Darwinian (i.e., functionalist) account is false and something like the structuralist account is true.

    There is, of course, a third alternative, and that is the Types arose as a result of the conscious choices of a designer. Interestingly, though Denton is considered a leading luminary of the ID movement, he never argues for that alternative. As I suggested in my recent post, certain forms of ID are compatible with a materialist paradigm if there is such a thing as a “natural telic law.” Denton argues for this kind of ID, and as we shall see as we explore his book in future posts, he makes a powerful case.

    There is yet a 4th option. The creationist points out the same lack of transitional forms and comes to yet a 4th conclusion.

    Because of what the Bible teaches and supported by the lack of transitional forms which serves as evidence, he concludes that that the limb did not evolve from the fish fin!

    How weird is that?! He concludes that the Designer(God of the Bible for creationists) created the dinosaurs and the fish as separate kinds and that they are not biologically connected to each other in a common descent type of a way.

    True. Not “scientific” per se, and not testable per se, but that doesn’t mean it is wrong.

    I’m really not sure that any of those 4 options are actually testable.

  3. 3
    Barry Arrington says:

    tjguy,

    You might be surprised to learn that even some Darwinists agree with at least as far as the evidence from the fossil record is concerned:

    In any case, no real evolutionist, whether gradualist or punctuationist, uses the fossil record as evidence in favour of the theory of evolution as opposed to special creation.

    Mark Ridley, “Who Doubts Evolution?” New Scientist 90 (June 25, 1981): 832.

  4. 4
    jerry says:

    This commentary of each chapter should be good. I have the Kindle version and have read the first couple chapters. So the analysis by Barry adds to the understanding. This OP on the introduction added insight that I did not pick up.

    Structuralism suffers from the same problems as functionalism. No way even remotely it could happen. If there is something in a natural law driving the type, that would be incredibly interesting and incredibly complicated.

  5. 5
    Robert Byers says:

    BA##
    What? No evolutionist uses the fossil record as evidence for evolution?
    Oh yes they do and thats most of it!
    Something else must of been meant.
    If the fossil record made no difference then referring to it, on any side, would be in vain.
    The fossil record indeed is silent bio process. YET evolutionists etc do infer bio conclusions from the fossil record. They do connect the dots and then describe the connecting tissue.

    The deposition(geology) of the creatures fossilized is the essence for most evolutionist evidence.
    Darwin said PUT DOWN MY BOOK if the reader doesn’t already accept geology ideas of timelines and deposition of fossils therein the geology segments.
    Darwin knew his biology hypothesis was wrong if the geology was wrong.
    Therefore LOGICALLY the fossil record is not bio evidence as IF IT was it wouldn’t matter if the geology was wrong.
    A fatal flaw was made here by Darwin and company and still today.
    Evolution is not a bio hypothesis as it has no bio evidence or really claims too.
    Its an inference from bio DATA within other disciplines data.
    ID folks should not cooperate in using the fossil record except to trip them up with their own ideas.
    RThe fossil record does not disprove any hypothesis of biological processes. It is silent on the matter.

  6. 6
    goodusername says:

    Interesting introduction. The centuries long debate between structuralists/formalists and functionalists/adaptationists is fascinating.

    I never thought of the structuralists and functionalists as being in two camps though – at least not since the advent of Darwinism – but more of a spectrum similar to the way that there are “lumpers” and “splitters” among taxonomists.

    Prior to Darwinism there probably was more of a break between the two. But Darwinism wasn’t completely from the side of functionalism, but borrowed from both camps.
    The idea, for instance, that many living things have functionless organs or parts that are homologous to other living things originated from pre-Darwinian structuralists. Louis Agassiz, the rabid anti-evolutionist, was such a structuralist, and argued against functionalists/adaptationists such as Paley:

    The argument for the existence of an Intelligent Creator is generally drawn from the adaptation of means to ends, upon which the Bridge-water Treatises, for example, have been based. But… beyond certain limits, it is not even true. We find organs without functions, as, for instance, the teeth of the whale, which never cut through the gum, the breast in all males of the class of Mammalia; these and similar organs are preserved in obedience to a certain uniformity of fundamental structure, true to the original formula of that division of animal life, even when not essential to its mode of existence. The organ remains, not for the performance of a function, but with reference to a plan.

    (Essay on Classification pgs 9-10)

    I think Darwin saw himself as sorta uniting structuralism and functionalism together, rather than being on the side of functionalism and battling structuralism. One of the headings in Origin is: “The law of Unity of Type and of the Conditions of Existence embraced by the theory of Natural Selection.”

    Since then Darwinists have been on a spectrum with some leaning more one way or another.
    I’ve always seen Darwin as somewhere in the center of the spectrum.
    In Origin he writes:

    This resemblance is often expressed by the term “unity of type;” or by saying that the several parts and organs in the different species of the class are homologous. The whole subject is included under the general name of Morphology. This is the most interesting department of natural history, and may be said to be its very soul. What can be more curious than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern, and should include the same bones, in the same relative positions?

    and even follows that up with an agreement with Richard Owen, the arch-structuralist, that homology is not due to utility:

    Nothing can be more hopeless than to attempt to explain this similarity of pattern of members of the same class, by utility or by the doctrine of final causes. The hopelessness of the attempt has been expressly admitted by Owen in his most interesting work On the Nature of Limbs.

    Darwin explains that evolution occurs via “slight modification”, and thus the “unity of type” is due to the slow rate of change and tight constraints imposed by the body plan:

    The explanation is manifest on the theory of the natural selection of successive slight modifications,—each modification being profitable in some way to the modified form, but often affecting by correlation of growth other parts of the organisation.

    Or as Darwin elsewhere puts its: “On my theory, unity of type is explained by unity of descent.”

    It would be interesting to see Denton’s take on this. I’ll have to check the book out when I get a chance.

  7. 7
    Mung says:

    On my theory, unity of type is explained by unity of descent.

    Common descent does not explain the origin of the type nor the unity of the type.

    Darwin punted.

  8. 8
    Zachriel says:

    Barry Arrington: Darwin tried to save his theory by suggesting the fault was not in his theory but in an extremely “imperfect record.”

    Actually, Darwin provided several testable reasons why the fossil record would be imperfect:

    Darwin, Origin of Species 1866:

    1. Only a small portion of the world has been geologically explored.
    2. Only organic beings of certain classes can be preserved in a fossil condition, at least in any great number.
    3. Many species when once formed never undergo any further change, but become extinct without leaving modified descendants;
    4. and the periods, during which species have undergone modification, though long as measured by years, have probably been short in comparison with the periods during which they retained the same form.
    http://darwin-online.org.uk/Va.....-1866.html

    Darwin is very clear that periods of stasis are longer than periods of change. Indeed, he repeats the point.

    Darwin, Origin of Species 1866: It is a more important consideration, clearly leading to the same result, as lately insisted on by Dr. Falconer, namely, that the periods during which species have been undergoing modification, though very long as measured by years, have probably been short in comparison with the periods during which these same species remained without undergoing any change.
    http://darwin-online.org.uk/Va.....-1866.html

    Furthermore, he offered a theoretical reason why this should be the case.

    Darwin, Origin of Species 1866: We may infer that this has been the case, from there being no inherent tendency in organic beings to become modified or to progress in structure, and from all modifications depending, firstly on long-continued variability, and secondly on changes in the physical conditions of life, or on changes in the habits and structure of competing species, or on the immigration of new forms; and such contingencies will supervene in most cases only after long intervals of time and at a slow rate. These changes, moreover, in the organic and inorganic conditions of life will affect only a limited number of the inhabitants of any one area or country.
    http://darwin-online.org.uk/Va.....-1866.html

    So, per Darwin, change is limited in time *and* space; hence, a reason for the imperfection of the fossil record.

    We pointed this out to you previously (November 21, 2015 at 12:32 pm), so not sure why you forgot.

  9. 9
    Zachriel says:

    Barry Arrington: Again, using the pentadactyl limb as an example, Denton has no doubt that the limb evolved from the fins of fish. Yet the fossil record simply does not support the view that the evolution of the limb from the fin occurred gradually over eons of time.

    We have several good fossil intermediaries, such as Acanthostega, Panderichthys, and Tiktaalik. Over the timescales involved, this qualifies as gradual, though it probably wasn’t continuous change.

  10. 10
    Mung says:

    Zachriel, nothing you wrote rebuts what Barry has written.

  11. 11
    Zachriel says:

    Mung: nothing you wrote rebuts what Barry has written.

    Barry Arrington suggested that Darwin thought the discrepancy between the expectation of a multitude of intermediates and the fossil record was solely due to the imperfection of the fossil record. In fact, Darwin pointed to several reasons, both practical and theoretical. Furthermore, the imperfection of the fossil record is demonstrably true — otherwise, it would be impossible to find new fossil species.

  12. 12
    Mapou says:

    Zachriel the sociopath will never get tired of preaching his stupid dirt-worshipping religion. That is, not until he’s too old and decrepit to use a computer.

  13. 13
    Mung says:

    Zachriel, if the fossil record was “complete” or “perfect” what would it look like and how would that support Darwinian theory?

    In essence, you have Darwin talking out of both sides of his mouth.

    Darwin:

    Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory.

    Even Gould noted that Darwin’s argument that the fossil record is imperfect “persists as the favored escape of most paleontologists from the embarrassment of a record that seems to show so little of evolution directly.”

    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....91141.html

  14. 14
    Barry Arrington says:

    Zachriel:

    “Actually, Darwin provided several testable reasons why the fossil record would be imperfect”

    For the uninitiated, I will translate from Zachriel-speak into English:

    “Actually, Darwin engaged in a prolonged effort in special pleading to try to save his theory from the fossil record, which he knew beyond the slightest doubt not only did not support, but affirmatively refuted, his theory.”

  15. 15
    RexTugwell says:

    We have several good fossil intermediaries, such as Acanthostega, Panderichthys, and Tiktaalik

    I think when Darwinists refer to their intermediaries by name, it demonstrates just how sparse paleontology’s trade secret, the fossil record, really is, as opposed to Darwin’s “innumerable transitional forms” which are supposed to prove his theory.

    Panderichthys and Tiktaalik

  16. 16
    Barry Arrington says:

    Zachriel:

    “We have several good fossil intermediaries, such as Acanthostega, Panderichthys, and Tiktaalik. Over the timescales involved, this qualifies as gradual . . .”

    Another translation from Zachriel-speak: “We have several good fossil intermediaries, such as Acanthostega, Panderichthys, and Tiktaalik. Over the timescales involved, this qualifies as gradual, if by the word “gradual” one means something completely different from what Darwin and other functionalists have always meant by the word. Yes, here in Darwin-land, we can cling to our failed paradigm in the teeth of evidence by changing the meaning of words to suit us.”

    Also, Z, you are missing the point. Denton does not say there are no fossils that appear to be transitional between fins the limbs. He is saying that there are very few, because the rate of change was orders of magnitude faster than Darwin’s theory allows for.

  17. 17
    Mapou says:

    We have several good fossil intermediaries

    Several, eh? This is precisely why Darwinism is a religion of cretins. Major fail.

  18. 18
    Mapou says:

    To Arrington. This is an excellent first post in this review series. Easy to read and succinct prose. I like it.

  19. 19
    GaryGaulin says:

    Barry says:

    Denton does not say there are no fossils that appear to be transitional between fins the limbs. He is saying that there are very few, because the rate of change was orders of magnitude faster than Darwin’s theory allows for.

    I and others agree that Charles Darwin did not foresee chromosome speciation and other ways to quickly develop new species.

    What I do not understand is how that alone is evidence for “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause”. Exactly how would the said “intelligent cause” create a new species? What would we see happen?

  20. 20
    Mapou says:

    Nobody should reply to GaryGaulin. He’s just a stupid troll.

  21. 21
    Mung says:

    We have several good fossil intermediaries, such as Acanthostega, Panderichthys, and Tiktaalik.

    Intermediaries from what to what? The pentadactyl limb? No.

    But that’s a later chapter, so I’ll not get ahead of Barry.

    🙂

  22. 22
    wd400 says:

    Intermediaries from what to what? The pentadactyl limb? No.

    Well, actually, yeah. Pretty much.

  23. 23
    jerry says:

    I and others agree that Charles Darwin did not foresee chromosome speciation and other ways to quickly develop new species.

    From a review of Eldredge’s book, “The Triumph of Evolution and the Failure of Creationism”

    http://bit.ly/1L6Bano

    But where is the experimental evidence? None exists in the literature claiming that one species has been shown to evolve into another. Bacteria, the simplest form of independent life, are ideal for this kind of study, with generation times of 20 to 30 minutes, and populations achieved after 18 hours. But throughout 150 years of the science of bacteriology, there is no evidence that one species of bacteria has changed into another, in spite of the fact that populations have been exposed to potent chemical and physical mutagens and that, uniquely, bacteria possess extrachromosomal, transmissible plasmids. Since there is no evidence for species changes between the simplest forms of unicellular life, it is not surprising that there is no evidence for evolution from prokaryotic to eukaryotic cells, let alone throughout the whole array of higher multicellular organisms.

    So evidence of speciation is scant at best.

    What would we see happen?

    We would suddenly see a new species appear in the fossil record just as Gould and Eldredge said was the case for nearly every species

  24. 24
    GaryGaulin says:

    From my experience with paleontology, geology and ichnology at least 99% of the required historical evidence is still in the ground. Discovering a new ichnotaxa or never before seen animal is surprisingly easy.

    The problem I see is that the money is in complaining about what is being found, while throwing insults at all who are doing the required science work. These days a scientist normally needs a day job just to support themselves or else they become homeless and starve. All the money being wasted in order to stop their progress is downright creepy.

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