Darwin’s House of Cards: A Journalist’s Odyssey Through the Darwin Debates by Tom Bethell

We're going to dive right into a really fascinating book that I think you'll find very stimulating and enriching.

Darwinism is a fascinating topic on many levels. On one hand, it's recognized throughout the world as the leading–perhaps the only acceptable–theory of how earth and its inhabitants came to be. Its assumptions permeate the media, popular culture, and the scientific community. Yet at the same time millions of people remain unconvinced of its explanatory power; some even reject it outright–for reasons theological, philosophical, and even scientific.

Evolution. Natural Selection. Common Descent: the press write stories on hundreds of topics in ways that assume a monolithic consensus on these issues among the scientific community. This is often totally innocuous–the media needs a basic canvas of shared assumptions on which to paint, and so a boring and uncontroversial scientific consensus provides that for the story at hand. Yet the truth is thankfully far more interesting and intricate. The scientific conversation over these issues is not like a peaceful pool of undisturbed water, but rather a roiling cauldron of critique and counterattack, not always friendly and certainly not always intellectually honest.

And so I highly recommend Darwin's House of Cards by Tom Bethell. With the eye of an investigator and the explanatory prose of a seasoned journalist, Bethell takes a look at Darwinism from multiple vantage points. He packages a very readable and engaging overview of the battle fronts in the scientific community–past and present–regarding multiple facets of the Darwinian paradigm. What follows is a brief overview of some of the topics he covers, the inconsistencies he points out, and the conclusions we both draw.

The Origin of Life Question

Natural selection, commonly referred to as “survival of the fittest,” is often used to explain the origin of life, but the reality is that the concept assumes self-replicating entities, so it is necessarily downstream of the origin question. Logically, there must be some other explanation for life's origin other than Darwin's signature concept. It's also unequivocally true that nobody has yet to observe natural selection resulting in one species transforming into another. This is immensely significant but often overlooked or outright ignored. More on this later.

Common Descent

This is the idea that all living things descended from a common ancestor. In other words, we're all in a massive family tree, and at the very top is the very first organism. We are all tangentially related. I won't go into the details, but Bethell cites a variety of problems with this view and writes that “…the verdict on common descent must be: ‘unproven.’ The evidence for it is weak. The genetic code is not universal.” (56)

Natural Selection

This is used as the one-size-fits-all solution for literally any problem posed to Darwinism, but modern research continues to show that natural selection–or minor genetic mutations that accumulate over time–is far more likely to be destructive to cellular organisms that to construct new functionality. One way we've been able to test this is with studying bacteria, which have such a short life cycle and replicate so quickly that we have observed millions of generations and monitored genetic mutation in action. Genetic mutation is how bacteria develop antibiotic resistance, for example. Bethell quotes biochemist Michael Behe, who argues that bacterial resistance is “good evidence that mutations can do little more than break things. And occasionally those breaks have a beneficial side effect.” But this process “certainly isn’t building anything.” (76)

As I mentioned a moment ago, natural selection is pulled out to explain away virtually every objection to evolution. It's the skeleton key of Darwinians. Here is Bethel:

“Has any researcher ever been able to show such ‘indefinite departure from the original type’? [sidebar: this means a shift from one species to another.] If not, what reason do we have for accepting Darwin’s theory is true? Meanwhile, natural selection is perpetually affirmed by proponents as the mechanism built into nature that can account for whatever is observed to exist. Its details do not have to be observed. Whatever exists, natural selection explains it. Darwin continues to be the hero of materialism because he ‘discovered’ an unguided mechanism that can be brought on stage to explain everything that exists in biology, without having to resort to the supernatural. So far, however, there is no evidence to show that this process is actually responsible for the fantastically diverse array of species that populate our world. [and here's the money quote:] Natural selection functions in the realm of philosophy, not science. (80-81)

Extinction of Species

Natural selection is the trouble-maker again. The way it's used amounts to circular reasoning. Here is Bethell quoting public intellectual Norman Macbeth: “It is all too easy to say that a species becomes extinct because it failed to adapt, while establishing its failure to adapt only by its becoming extinct.” (86)

Variation Within Species

We've all heard about the Galapagos finches, right? Or the moths that changed colors to match the polluted climate. Or the wolves who evolved to be white in order to blend in with the snow and thus survive. The problem is that these examples are used to make a leap into assertions that this process of minor variations within species also creates new species. But the existing research clearly indicates that species adapt to conditions within a specific range of their “mean” (or benchmark) state, and never go beyond those bounds and become something new. Even when human intervention prompts and guides variation–i.e. animal breeding–it has failed to exceed inherent boundaries. This is more evidence of the classic–and still unanswered–distinction between microevolution, which virtually nobody denies, and macroevolution (or jumps between species). As the environments change, the species inevitably revert back to their starting point.

The scientific term for this is unlimited variation (or indefinite departure). Bethell writes that this “has not yet been observed. If it had been, we would never stop hearing about it. It has been deduced by assuming the truth of the theory that it is meant to confirm. The continued advocacy of indefinite departure by biology department amounts to the triumph of ideology over science; or perhaps, we might say, to the triumph of hope over experience.” (102)

And later he notes that “What the evidence shows us is not indefinite departure but oscillation about a mean.” (105)

Other Topics

Bethell dives into convergence, homology, the fossil record, objections from Intelligent Design Theory, and problems posed to evolution by information theory and what the experts call “complex specified data.” For example, the mathematical probabilities involved with randomly generating even one of the proteins required for life boggle the mind and immediately create hurdles that the average person would identify as insurmountable.

Here's a quick summary of information types. Complex information is something that is statistically unlikely but not necessarily designed, such as a particular hand of cards that gets dealt, or 20 letters arranged in a particular order. Specified information actually contains meaning, or real content in a message. Specified complexity, information that is both statistically unlikely on its face AND which contains meaning, is so unlikely to arise randomly that it should be considered statistically impossible. Or, you might say, to believe it happened due to unguided natural processes requires a certain measure of….faith.

Methodological Naturalism

Finally, Bethell gets to a topic that I've read a lot about over the years and wrestled with where to land on: Does science, by logical necessity, have to be tied to philosophical or methodological naturalism, or can they be extricated from each other? Theologians like John Walton have argued that one can and must embrace methodological naturalism in order to “do science,” all the while keeping it separate from the philosophical variety (indeed, Walton rejects that kind). But I have long worried that this simply cedes too much ground to the secular evolutionists.

There are many outspoken and viciously anti-theistic Darwinists out there. One has to ask: are they that way because they hold to evolution? Or do they hold to evolution because they are anti-theists?

For Darwinists, once the materialist philosophy is assumed and moved past, then of course evolution is true, and natural selection is the default answer to any objection, no matter how strong. Evidence doesn't even matter, because any other answers are dismissed out of hand, a priori. Here's Bethel: “At this point Darwinism becomes little more than a deduction from a philosophy. The science is redundant. There is no need to bother with information theory, enumerate mutations, whether favorable or unfavorable, or fuss about fossils. Darwin’s theory is embedded in its underlying materialism.”

Listen to Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of DNA:

“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 are nothing but a pack of neurons.” (169)

To me, the main reason Darwinism continues to resist the critiques brought on by reason and evidence is that it’s fundamentally grounded in philosophical naturalism and materialism, not observable phenomena. The fight is not over evidence but epistemology.

As new research in biochemistry and genetics continues to pile up mountain of counter-evidence against natural selection, the responses of fully committed Darwinians have become increasingly ridiculous. They will grasp at any straw, no matter how unlikely, to avoid any explanation that might undermine their secularism. Francis Crick and Richard Dawkins both posited what amounts to an “aliens seeded our planet” explanation, which simply kicks the can that is the original of life dilemma further back in time. Biologists initially scoffed at the supposed “junk DNA” that fills up most of our cells, claiming vindication of natural selection, only to be embarrassed as further research continues to reveal its complex function and incredible value to cellular life.

I'll close with one final observation. It's really fascinating to note that later in his life Darwin appealed to theological justifications for the correctness of his theory. They were standard theodicy-type objections–you know, “problem of evil” stuff. It was clear that Darwin was looking for a reason NOT to believe in God. But the key point is that teleology–or purpose–was there in his theory from the very beginning. It was never purely about science, following the evidence wherever it led. Some Christians, like the BioLogos crowd or theologian John Walton, attempt to separate the science from teleology and from the philosophical naturalism and materialism that too often accompanies it among mainstream secular scientists. As I noted above, I've wrestled with whether I think that separation can actually happen, or whether natural selection is inextricable from materialism. For a while I was open to being convinced they could be kept separate, but I am increasingly convinced they cannot.

Why should we cede epistemology to the Darwinists when their edifice is crumbling? There is no reason to give away the store. We should continue to critique Darwinism–even on its own terms and according to its own premises–and wait for the dominoes to fall. It's only a matter of time.

Bethell's book provides a very straightforward, readable account of the major flaws inherent to Darwin's theory and the significant challenges posed from without. I highly recommend it to skeptics and adherents of Darwinism alike–indeed, to anyone interested in science or philosophy.

Buy it on Amazon.

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Thanks to LEVV and David Ramirez for the intro/outro music.