“When I looked under the microscope for the first time I saw the absolute need for humility in the face of Nature. I do not know if there is a God but what I do know is that man is no substitute”. These were the words of Professor Challenger in Tony Mulholland’s and Adrian Hodges’s screen adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, as he prepared for an adventure that would take him into the deepest parts of the Brazilian Amazon in search of prehistoric life (Ref 1). Conan Doyle’s The Lost World proved to be a resounding bestseller in its first year. Re-released on the centennial anniversary of The Origin Of Species, this action packed adventure clearly caught the public’s imagination. Although much has been made of this year’s Darwin bicentennial, it is a lesser-known fact that this year many are also celebrating the 150th anniversary of Conan Doyle’s birth through public readings of his iconic book (Ref 2).
Set in early 20th century Britain, The Lost World tells a story of four men who ventured out on a voyage of discovery in search of a plateau that, as Professor Challenger unswervingly maintained, harbored a multitude of dinosaurs (Ref 3, p.56). Challenger’s claims were initially met with utter disbelief and ridicule as he presented his case to the Zoological Institute in London. He began to set forth his plans for an expedition to the plateau amidst jeering and accusations of scientific misconduct (Ref 3, p.72). Challenger knew that his claims would have to be rigorously tested and that his whole career as a publicly-respected scientist was very much at risk were he to return from such an expedition empty-handed.
So it was that, amidst an air of total distrust not only from the scientific establishment but also from the members of his expedition (Ref 3, p.93, pp.102-103), Challenger set off on the adventure of a lifetime. He was determined to bring back the empirical evidence that in his eyes would win him a position as one of the ‘prophets’ of science alongside the likes of Galileo and Darwin (Ref 3, p. 73). As his fellow travelers reminded him, “he was a man whose veracity was upon trial”, a man who, “walked among his own judges” (Ref 3, p.122). His moment of triumph came as the expedition discovered “the most terrible beasts that have ever walked the earth” (Ref 3, p.214). With the Iguanodons, Megalosaurs, Plesiosaurs and Pterodactyls that Challenger and his judges observed (Ref 3, pp.174-216, p.261), the expedition had amassed the evidence it needed.
If Challenger’s expedition had returned without the slightest shred of observable evidence after having scoured the entire Amazonian jungle for the prehistoric plateau, his claim would have been classified as non-proven. As it was, the intrepid travelers came back triumphant. The expedition was met by an excited crowd of journalists and reporters eager to be the first to see the evidence that the travelers had brought back (Ref 3, p.291). As the Zoological Institute reconvened to hear the full details of the expedition, with the heavyweights of science conspicuously present in the audience, the four men – Professor Challenger, Professor Summerlee, Lord Rockston and Mr Malone – made their entry, accompanied by a standing ovation from the crowd (Ref 3, pp.292-294).
Summerlee began with an apology for his skepticism over Challenger’s claims on the existence of such a mysterious world. He then proceeded to give a detailed account of the incredible diversity of prehistoric wildlife that they had encountered (Ref 3, pp.295-297). Still, the audience made the hard but reasonable demand for solid proof in support of Summerlee’s accounts- science after all needs solid empirical data to test its hypotheses, not just ideas and inferences based on personal desires: “human nature was very complex. Even Professors might be misled by the desire for notoriety” (Ref 3, p.299).
As Challenger brought forward a packing case from amongst his most prized possessions, there appeared a creature so “malicious, horrible, with two small red eyes as bright as points of burning coal”- a prized pterodactyl from the Amazonian plateau (Ref 3, p.295). With panic setting into the crowd, those who had regarded Challenger with contempt could do nothing but stand in awe. The expedition members had not after all fallen prey to the desire for notoriety but had come back with hard evidence in support of their accounts. Challenger’s closing remarks were poignant: “No use to raise hopes and let them down again. But it’s facts, not hopes, with us now” (Ref 3, p. 315).
We learn many a lesson from Conan Doyle’s thriller perhaps the most important being the absolute need for strong evidence and empirical rigor in science. Ironically such a lesson is entirely relevant to discussions on the apparent solidity of the ‘facts’ of Darwinian evolution. While Darwin’s theory has been famously described as “one of the most illuminating scientific ideas of all time” (Ref 4), there is a growing body of respected scientists who are today skeptical about its macro-evolutionary aspects (Ref 5). Recently lawyer and geologist Casey Luskin summed up two areas of Darwin’s thesis that remain hotly contended (Ref 6). Concerning the fossil record, Luskin wrote:
“Many evolutionists accepted that the fossil record did not contain Darwin’s predicted transitional forms. David S. Woodruff, an evolutionary biologist who studied under Gould, implored his colleagues, “Evolutionary biologists can no longer ignore the fossil record on the grounds that it is imperfect”. Another article explains, “The fossil record in giving a clear account of evolutionary history has been questioned because of its incompleteness”…Rather than finding a record showing the slow evolution of organisms, the fossil record consistently shows a pattern where new fossil forms come into existence abruptly, which many have dubbed “explosions” in the history of life.” (Ref 6, p.96)
On the subject of molecular and morphological phylogeny, Luskin’s attack was equally emphatic:
“”Despite increasing methodological sophistication, phylogenies derived from morphology and those inferred from molecules, are not always converging on a consensus”. As the consensus becomes harder and harder to reach, Darwinian systematists have tried to construct phylogenies in which data from many genes are averaged together to produce a single tree. In this approach evolutionists construct phylogenies only after assuming common descent. They do not follow correct scientific method in trying to falsify the hypothesis by determining if trees based upon separate characteristics match one another. If they were willing to test their hypothesis, their method would be very different. With the advent of the biotechnology revolution and DNA sequencing it is now clear that conflicts exist not only between morphology-based trees and gene-based trees, but also between different types of gene-based trees.” (Ref 6, p.92)
Clearly there is much to be debated. It seems somewhat ironic therefore that the births of both Darwin and Conan Doyle should be brought together in a co-celebration of scientific and literary achievement (Ref 2). After all unlike Conan Doyle’s Challenger, Darwin quite clearly continues to walk amongst his own judges.
1. The Lost World, A BBC/A&E Home Video Co-production, distributed by New Video, c2002, Producer, Christopher Hall, Adapted by Tony Mulholland & Adrian Hodges
2. See The Lost World Read 2009 at http://www.lostworldread.com/
3. Arthur Conan Doyle (1959), The Lost World, Published by Looking Glass Publishers, Distributed by Random House
4. See Darwin 200 at http://www.lostworldread.com/darwin_200.htm
5. See Darwin Skeptics at http://www.rae.org/darwinskeptics.html
6. Michael Behe, Eddie N. Colanter, Logan Paul Gage, Phillip Johnson, Casey Luskin, J.P. Moreland, Jay W. Richards (2008), Intelligent Design 101: Leading Experts Explain The Key Issues, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, Michigan