Michael Denton - Evolution: A Theory In Crisis

I had this book recommended to me by several creationists who said it was "the best" book available for exposing "the myth of evolution". With that in mind, I did a thorough read and came away with the opinion that "the best" is not much better than the worst. The title is a serious misnomer. For the theory to be "in crisis", a large percentage of people educated on the subject would have to have substantial reservations. Not only is this not the case, but Denton doesn't even attempt to show that those qualified doubt evolution.

He begins the book by giving the reader a somewhat incorrect look at Darwin and Darwin's environment. As an example of one of his erroneous assertions, he states on page 17 that "the seed of the idea of organic evolution" was not in his mind before he left on the Beagle and that most scientists viewed nature in a "completely antithetical" light to organic evolution. Actually, there were many evolutionists before and during the early lifetime of Darwin and he knew of them before he set foot on the Beagle. What the other evolutionists hadn't yet grasped was the specific means by which evolution occurs. Denton also makes other false notions such as Darwin being a "Bible-quoting fundamentalist" on page 25. While it is true that Darwin occasionally quoted from the Bible, Denton's description of Darwin hardly fits for a Unitarian who rarely participated in any sort of orthodox church. Denton also makes it appear on page 28 as though everything about natural selection fell into place in Darwin's mind when he visited the Galapagos Islands. Darwin didn't fully understand what the species on the islands meant until he was back in England for a while. Why else would he have eaten many of species on the way back home instead of classify them like he did with those taken from other parts of the world? It took a bird taxidermist in England to point out what his finches might mean. Denton makes another blatant error on page 34 when he states, "...Wallace, who subsequently read with Darwin their famous joint paper to the Linnean Society in 1858...". Neither Darwin or Wallace read the papers. Darwin was ill and Wallace wasn't even in the country! It wasn't really a "joint paper" in the sense that joint papers are usually thought of either. It was a letter, a paper by Wallace, and portions of a 14 year old essay Darwin had written tied together--these three evidences showing that both Wallace and Darwin had independently come up with natural selection as a means for organic evolution.

On page 54, we learn that Darwin "must have seen that the elimination of meaning and purpose from human existence, which was the inescapable conclusion of his position, was...a profoundly disturbing reality to accept." First of all, Darwin never hinted that his theory eliminates "meaning and purpose" from life. On the contrary, he writes that "There is grandeur in this view of life" on the final page of Origin of Species. Which life has more "meaning and purpose"--one that is banking on a better life in the hereafter or one that seeks to fix problems, learn about reality, and be happy in the here and now? Page 67 continues this ridiculous line of reasoning when Denton says, "It was because Darwinian theory broke man's link with God and set him adrift in a cosmos without purpose or end..." Now Darwin is not only responsible for taking away life's meaning and purposes, but Denton claims that a single human was capable of breaking "man's link with God"! Denton's God must be awfully weak if "he" can't even take care of the one person who will break God's link to "his" chosen species. This doesn't remind me much of the Old Testament creature who supposedly wiped out nations and virtually every living thing on the earth on a whim. The 'evil' that a natural view of life is supposed to create has been a favorite line of religionists for hundreds of years. They don't have any evidence to back it up, but they continue to use it as some sort of defense mechanism against a reality, that for some unknown reason, they don't want to face.

Denton makes the absurd claim on page 58 that "Darwin's theory required...innumerable transitional forms" as if all the species in the past few billion years needed to be cryonically suspended in order for Darwin's theory to be correct. It is curious that theists require perfect evidence from science but don't need the slightest bit to justify their beliefs.

Denton uses the common creationist argument about eyes several times (and brings up the feathers argument and Archaeopteryx yet again). He completely ignores the fact that there have been answers to these arguments for well over a hundred years, and science (rather than the Bible) continues to shed additional light on these weak creationist excuses. At least 40 fundamentally different eye designs exist in nature and the spectrum for eyesight in nature covers the entire range from barely able to perceive light to vision humans can't even comprehend. There is no need to say that half an eye in terms of functionality isn't worth anything in nature. Denton doesn't bother to mention that the human eye is not formed in a "created at once" form as shown by many factors--one being that the retina is backward from how an "intelligent designer" would have created it. He also forgets to bring up the point that the human eye is not nearly as useful as those of many other animals. If humans are the pinnacle of God's creation, why did God give many other animals, birds, and fish better eyesight than "his chosen ones"? Why would such a being allow some humans to be born blind? Science can provide correct answers to these questions. Creationism does nothing but create more unanswerable questions.

Denton attempts to make scientific arguments over minor details in how natural selection proceeds look like the entire fact of natural selection is in question. He distorts Gould and 'punctured equilibrium' theorists to make false claims about the fossil record. As Gould himself said soon after Denton's book was published, "[Creationists have to] rel[y] upon distortion, misquote, half-quote, and citation out of context to characterize the ideas of their opponents." [Stephen Jay Gould, "The Verdict on Creationism", The Skeptical Inquirer, Winter 87/88, pg. 186]

Beginning on page 74, and throughout the rest of the book, Denton performs some serious spin doctoring of words. Evolution (instead of orthodox religion) becomes equivalent to dogma, natural selection (instead of the various creation stories in history) becomes a myth, an "eye of faith" must be used in science (instead of in faith-based religions), "mental gymnastics" become required to believe in evolution (in place of the normal "mental gymnastics" necessary for faith-based beliefs), and science (rather than superstition) relies on "metaphysics and myth". This reminds me of the tactics used by Phillip Johnson who has misnamed a couple of his books with titles such as, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds and Reason in the Balance. Open minds and reason are required by the science these Christian apologists are trying to redefine in their own image.

Also on page 74, Denton makes the inane assertion that since 1859, scientists have only adopted an evolution framework in order to be "fashionable and intellectually respectable". He goes on to misrepresent reality by saying that "there was less need to justify the idea of evolution by reference to the facts". These statements in a book which largely ignores the facts are highly ironic. He continues on page 77 stating, "Crucial problems such as the absence of connecting links or the difficulty of envisaging intermediate forms are virtually never discussed and the creation of even the most complex of adaptations is put down to natural selection without a ripple of doubt." He should of included the phrase "in creationist literature such as this" after "never discussed" and "correctly attributed" instead of "put down". Is he not a hypocrite when he doesn't discuss the numerous intermediate forms and then blame others for not discussing those that do and don't exist?

Finally, beginning on page 80, Denton begins to face the music and deal with the empirical evidence he previously stated doesn't exist. He provides several examples of direct observation of natural selection in action and the subsequent creation of new and distinct species. He then accepts 'micro-evolution' (which usually isn't defined by creationists as the development of new species) but draws the line when it comes to his definition of 'macro-evolution'. Even though he admits that the world is billions of years old, he can't bring himself to see that his short-term 'micro', which can and does occur (as he admits) in just a few generations, can easily be transformed into his 'macro' when performed over thousands and millions of generations. The thought that micro + micro + micro + . . . = macro never seems to have entered his mind. In fact, he uses a false analogy immediately after this section in a poor attempt to prove that the above formula is impossible. See Vuletic's review below for a discussion of Denton's poor word transformation example.

Denton postulates that unless someone can literally test and watch a process, it can't be considered empirical evidence. Later he accepts plate tectonics and other items which we know happened in the past based on his so called "circumstantial evidence" but he contradictorily won't allow a look at evolution based on similar "circumstantial evidences".

Beginning on page 100, we get a taste of perhaps Denton's biggest methodological problem. He enjoys using very old sources which have little or no relevance to today's debate. Some of his sources are over 150 years old! They were written even before Darwin had a decent grasp on natural selection. His cites from "The Fossil Record" chapter are almost all from pre-1970 sources--with most of them coming from the 1930s and 1940s. Not only are these dated scientifically, but because of their antiquity they are hard to refer to in order to check for Denton's accuracy in quoting them. He loves to dot out . . . some of the words he is quoting. Without available books to check up on, it becomes impossible to tell just how out of context he pulls his 'evidence'. Some of his used sources aren't typical for scholars writing on scientific issues. For instance, he sometimes quotes from encyclopedias and mainstream periodicals rather than scientific journals and other peer review type sources.

"No species can be considered ancestral to any other" is the quote Denton either takes out of context or uses even though it isn't true on page 139. Previously (on page 84) he admitted that there are ancestral species--thus contradicting himself again. We wouldn't expect to find two living different species to be directly ancestral to each other. That is the nature of Darwin's natural selection. Species come into being by means of a branching system that looked at on an overall basis appears to be a bushy tree. If natural selection was accomplished as Denton seems to think it is, by means of a single branch, then we would only expect one species to be in existence at any given time. Once the branch splits into two species through selection, isolation, etc. we no longer have one species "ancestral to any other"--we have two distinct species.

Chapter 7, "The Failure of Homology" is particularly weak. He takes Carter's statements on page 153 that,

There are many problems in evolution for which our present explanations are inadequate or incomplete. . . . It is clear that much more work must be done before we have a complete understanding of the process of evolution.
to mean that the theory of evolution should be thrown out rather than further researched and examined to complete our understanding of its intricacies.

Again, on page 159, he makes the claim that living missing links are "required by evolution". Evolution by natural selection "requires" just the opposite. One would expect to only find dead links (or portions of the once living tree) and living branches in a system such as that postulated by Darwin. We would expect to find living species which also existed millions and billions of years ago in the fossil record if creationism (and a single stick phenomena) were true. We don't--except for a few smaller organisms (like bacteria). Even though some of these smaller organisms still exist, they too have changed over the millennia.

After distorting the evidence to make it look as if none of Darwin's "missing links" have been found, Denton acts surprised on page 161 when some 600 million year old fossils don't turn out to be related to the species of today. He thinks this is somehow negative evidence even though we know that most of yesterday's species are not related to today's. There were several mass extinctions including one 250 million years ago which wiped out 95% of the species of marine invertebrates and the one 65 million years ago which wiped out the dinosaurs and many other life forms on the planet. Because of these and other mass extinctions most of the species that once lived no longer do so, and by the same token those that now exist evolved from the remnant species of the last mass extinction. By definition a species that went extinct over 65 million years ago can't be a direct "missing link" for a species that exists today.

On page 164, Denton states that "the fossil record as it stands today was superbly summarized" by Simpson. He goes on to quote from an article Simpson wrote in 1959--almost 30 years before Denton's "today"! How can he honestly equate "today" with 30 years ago? Even the dated source he quotes doesn't back his theory since sequences in the fossil record do exist--they are just not as common as we would like them to be or as perfect as Denton requires them to be. Until a species obtains bones, shells, or other hard substances we wouldn't expect to have an abundance of their fossils. Even then, we shouldn't expect a huge number of fossils if we are talking about species which existed billions of years ago and/or species which may have consisted of small populations. Because he doesn't address these issues, it appears that he does not understand, or even worse--he intentionally ignores, the basics of natural selection and paleontology. After the summary Denton uses, he misinterprets it to mean that we have "none of the crucial transitional forms required by evolution." The summary doesn't say that however. It says that "perfectly complete sequences of numerous species" are rare. It also states that, "gaps among known species are sporadic and often small." How can Denton equate these statements to his summary that we have "none of the crucial transitional forms required by evolution"?

It is interesting to note that even though his book was published just a year after the ramifications of the "Turkana Boy" findings were well known, he completely omits any discussion of the near complete homo erectus skeleton found or any of the other so called 'missing links' that aren't missing anymore. As Richard Leakey stated about 5 years ago, we now have over 1,000 full or partial skeletons which are over one million years old for hominoids which are 'between' homo sapiens or other currently non-existent non-primates and our primate ancestors. Much to the chagrin of those like Denton, this number is only going to grow in the future as we continue to uncover additional evidence of our past.

Most of the remainder of the book deals with issues that have been thoroughly discussed (refuting Denton's assertions) in recent years. Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker, for instance, includes excellent examples and data to counter the holes that Denton sees. Given the fact that The Blind Watchmaker's first edition was two years after Denton's book, Dawkins may have been writing it as a sort of rebuttal.

Some of the logic and reasoning in the final chapter are the most faulty of the entire book. Denton claims that microevolution backed by "rigorous empirical documentation" and evidence "only serve to highlight" the failure of macroevolution. On page 346 the very incorrect statement that "the gaps are as intense today as they were in the days of Linnaeus (early 1700s)" is made. In a unintentionally humorous analogy, Denton presents for us a comparison between the inability of science to give up Darwin's theory of evolution by means of natural selection and religion's inability to give up the idea that the earth is the center of the universe in Galileo's day. Denton's final wish seems to be that science be put on hold so that there will continue to be mystery in the universe. Perhaps his fantasy is to go back and live in the dark ages. Those who don't read this book critically will soon find their minds trapped in those very ages of day's gone by.

Several creationists responded to this page by claiming that Denton is not a Christian or Creationist. They claimed he is an agnostic. The title of his new book, Nature's Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe, show that Denton is certainly an advocate of intelligent design or 'fine tuning' of the Universe by a personal god. For an excellent look at the subject it appears Denton is covering see George Williams' The Pony Fish's Glow : And Other Clues to Plan and Purpose in Nature.

A Review of Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis by Mark I. Vuletic

John W. Oller's review (he is a creationist who thinks that this book is a secular critique)

Sequences and Common Descent Wesley R. Elsberry corrects Denton's erroneous views on sequence data

Although not a critique of this book, you can find the problems with Denton's methodology in this review of Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box. (paperback) (Behe's latest apologetics)

American Scientist review of the Behe book which shows additional problems with Behe's and Denton's thoughts.

Gert Korthof's summary and critique