Review of Evolution: Still A Theory in Crisis

Dr. Michael Denton's latest book

Dr. Michael Denton’s latest book

Back in January, I read that Dr. Michael Denton was about to release a new book on evolution. I ordered it right away and started reading it as soon as I could, because I thought that his previous book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, was amazing. For a long time, I considered it the best discussion of evolution that was available to the general public. However, like all books on scientific issues, much of the information became outdated over the years, so I was really excited that he was releasing a new book on the same subject.

Dr. Denton earned an M.D. from Bristol University and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from King’s College London. After earning his Ph.D., he was appointed to the faculty at La Trobe University in Australia. He then did pathology work in England, Canada, and Australia. Eventually, he ended up on the faculty at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Currently, he is a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, which tells you he is a member of the “intelligent design” community. His dual training in medicine and biochemistry, as well as his experience working in several different countries, gives him an interesting perspective on science in general and evolution in particular.

Like his previous book, this one is encyclopedic. It covers a wide range of topics, but unlike his previous book, it is focused on the difference between structuralism and functionalism. The way he constructs the two positions, all Darwinists fall into the functionalism camp. They believe that structures develop in nature because they are functional. After all, natural selection is constantly weeding out poor adaptations and preserving useful ones. As a result, whether or not it is functional determines whether or not it exists in the biological world. Denton, however, argues for structuralism, a view that was quite in vogue in the 18th and 19th centuries. In this view, there are certain structures that are inherent in the world, and life makes use of those predefined structures. As Denton writes:

It is hard to imagine two scientific frameworks as diametrically opposed as structuralism and functionalism. Where functionalism suggests that function is prior and determines structure, structuralism suggests that structure is prior and constrains function. (Kindle e-reader, Chapter 1: Introduction)

Actually, I can think of scientific frameworks that are more diametrically opposed (Newtonian physics versus quantum mechanics, for example), but his overall point is valid. Those who believe in structuralism look at biology quite differently from those who believe in functionalism.

As a structuralist, then, how does Denton view biology? He says that there are structures that define specific groups of living organisms, and those structures provide a clear separation between the groups. Furthermore, there are no functional intermediates that connect these structures. One of the many examples he brings up is the enucleate red blood cell. In all mammals, the red blood cell (which carries oxygen in the blood stream) has no nucleus, because it is ejected while the cell is developing.

As Denton points out, since enucleate red blood cells exist in all mammals, but they do not exist in the animals from which those mammals supposedly evolved, enucleate red blood cells must have been an innovation that occurred in the common ancestor of all mammals. However, he wonders what could possibly be an intermediate. A cell that has half a nucleus? A cell in which the nucleus has been partly ejected or compartmentalized in some way? How could a series of small, stepwise mutations lead to such a dramatic change for a cell, especially given the complex machinery that the cell uses to eject its nucleus? In addition, how could those intermediates be functional in any way?

Denton does this with many, many different structures that define various groups of organisms. In some cases (such as the enucleate red blood cell), he does a convincing job of showing how the structure could not have formed by any Darwinian process. In other cases (such as the five-digit limb in vertebrates), he doesn’t do nearly as good a job. Often, his argument devolves into “I can’t imagine a way that this could be important for function in all these different species.” In those moments, he is significantly less convincing.

Overall, however, I do think he makes a case for structuralism. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to see what structuralism really implies. Despite the fact that he makes it clear that there are gaps between many groups in the living world, and despite the fact that he says there is no way to bridge these gaps through any Darwinian process, he still believes in common descent, the idea that all species come from a common ancestor or a small group of common ancestors. In fact, he claims:

But common descent, or “descent with modification,” has never been in doubt since Alfred R. Wallace’s famous “Sarawak Law Paper” (written in Borneo in February 1855)… (Kindle e-reader, Chapter 5: Evo-Devo)

Now, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Common descent is very, very much in doubt, and the more we learn about genetics, the more in doubt it becomes. Orphan genes, for example, provide strong evidence against common descent. Denton even discusses them in the context of structuralism, but he doesn’t see how they argue against common descent.

So how can he argue that there are unbridgeable gaps between groups of organisms but all organisms are related to one another through common descent? As he says:

In short, nature is still very much an empirical discontinuum of invariant unique forms, and there is no direct evidence that the “gaps” were ever closed by the functional continuums demanded by Darwinian theory…This is not to claim that the Types were not actualized by natural processes. I believe they were and that the entire pattern of evolution was prefigured into the order of things from the beginning. (Kindle e-reader, Chapter 3: The Hierarchy of Nature)

In other words, Denton believes that these structures are the natural result of the way the world works. They did not evolve gradually, but popped into existence over time because of the order inherent in nature. Of course, he doesn’t use the term “popped.” He says that such structures were the result of “saltation” events that occurred throughout the earth’s natural history, and they occurred specifically because the universe was designed so they would evolve.

While Denton thinks the universe was designed that way (presumably by God), I would think that some atheists would also be comfortable with this view of biology. In Mind and Cosmos, for example, atheist Thomas Nagel recognizes that Darwinian evolution simply cannot explain the natural world, so he posits some “teleological” force that drove biological development. Presumably, that teleological force could also cause Denton’s saltation events.

While I agree with Denton’s structuralism, I strongly disagree with his idea that these structures are the result of saltation events that have occurred throughout the earth’s history. Instead, I think the conclusion one must reach from structuralism is rather clear: there are defined gaps between groups of organisms because God designed them that way. The minor variations that occur within these groups are the result of microevolutionary changes that have taken place since they were created.

Even though I think Denton comes to the wrong conclusion in his book, there is a lot of value in it. In addition to providing strong evidence for structuralism, he also discusses other things that are related to origins. For example, he gives a long list of problems associated with the absurd idea of abiogenesis. He also quotes several evolutionists who make the strong case that macroevolution is not just an accumulation of microevolutionary changes. That section alone is worth the price of the book.

If you read only a few books on the origins issue, however, this probably isn’t the best one for you. There are other books (such as Shadow of Oz) that address the issue in a better, more complete way. This is disappointing to me, since I was really hoping that Denton’s new book would be as powerful as his old book. Unfortunately, it is not.


  1. Robert Byers says:

    Denton is a great thinker and rightly famous. Its good for YEC.
    I agree that there is no reason to see common descent as demnding as the reason for likeness in biology.
    Yes there was original kinds but it doesn’r mean the offspring changed by modification process.
    The big example is people.
    People look very different since the ark but whites didn’t descend from blacks from asians etc. it was independent groups being influenced by the areas they lived in.
    for YEC also the case of the snake. All snakes are of one kind as they all lost their legs at the fall. yet all squeezers and spitters are from this one original type off the ark. So diversity came from mechanism but not from mere modification of the parent population.

    I agree there are kinds and so basic structures. I don’t agree there are mammals as a God created group and so one should be careful about a structure limit on that so called group like blood cells.
    Yet Dentons ideas on structures is excellent and shows evolutionism as unlikely because of these results of common structures.

  2. Chris says:

    I have just read the book and think by “descent with modification,” he means within the original kind. While he believes in saltational evolutionary events giving rise to those original kinds I think that created kinds would also fit the bill.

    1. jlwile says:

      I don’t think so, Chris. Consider what he says in Chapter 6:

      Descent with modification implies a pattern of descent through time, where extant forms have descended with modification from common ancestral forms, right back to the last common ancestor of all extant life. But the fact of descent with modification cannot be taken as evidence for Darwinian causation or as support for any sort of gradualism.

      Thus, he is referring to descent with modification as resulting in all life forms being traced back to a single common ancestor. He just thinks the mechanism for descent with modification is not Darwinian.

  3. Robert Byers says:

    NO . its not descent from kinds. not yEC. he is British. none there anymore.
    He intellectually just sees the failure of evolution by Darwins/and company idea.
    its a help and predictable non YEC would see this in time.

  4. Robert Byers says:

    I know there is a few but relative to numbers and heritage there is not much.
    Yes i know about the Victoria leagye etc. there were some famous scientists who right away saw a need to organize against evolution. Yet rather it should of been a insistence that evolution was only to be supported by biological evidence and so not about counting heads of how many “scientists” agreed with it.
    they should of concentrated on one or two opponents to take on Darwin and friends. A direct cage match.
    Evolution was instantly supported by the brit establishment and fighting that was a error.
    it was just about the merits of the case.
    more modern creationists should know about this early YEC group.

  5. Autymn D. C. says:

    Why are your comments disabled on older posts? You regularly make original claims and repeat other nonqualified “scientists'” claims but they can’t be addressed any more. (One of the many reasons why I hate blogs.) Thus there is no appropriate place to leave a general or older comment but on the newer posts. What do you think of censorship? Conservatives thrive on censorship; if they could not delete contrary information or block their messengers their followers and following would soon shrink and wither.

    Cladoghenesis beyond speciation (where new genera or families are supposed to arise) mainly needs mass extinctions so the survivors can inbreed and amplify their recessive traits no longer in equilibrium; the Wilson supercontinent and Milancovitch glaciation cýcles drive these extinctions.

    The creationists say that latent structures, atavisms, still don’t prove evolution, only common design. Like some babies are born with tails that must be cut off. And these: Do you agree with them?
    “The creationist denial of evolution comes from their interpretation of a few verses of the days of creation story, namely where it drops certain kinds of life. However it doesn’t define what it means by kinds except for one verse: Other books use the term without any sense of fertility in mind. 1:24 defines three kinds of live land animals: cattle, creepers, and live animals repeated (where translations say wild animals). One understands that cattle didn’t always use to be cattle; they came from wild animals like the aurochs, boar, and wolf until man tamed them. So even 1:24 is wrong if you think kinds can’t become other kinds.”

    1. jlwile says:

      Comments are disabled on older posts for two reasons, Autymn. First, it is the default option in the software that runs this blog (WordPress). Second, that default option makes a lot of sense. The internet is full of trolls, and any blog that has accumulated a lot of articles has trouble controlling those trolls. One way to reduce the time and effort necessary for troll control is to disable comments on older posts. That way, you limit the number of places that trolls can comment. It isn’t an issue of censorship. It is one way to try to enforce polite conversion in an environment where many people don’t care to be polite. Of course, the other way is to simply turn off all comments. Many blogs from many different perspectives simply turn off their comments to keep away the trolls. Turning off comments in old posts is a compromise. This is not a conservative or liberal thing. It is a troll control thing.

      Cladoghenesis needs a lot more than mass extinctions. It needs a method by which novel information can be added to a genome. This is why macroevolution is not simply an extension of microevolution, as many evolutionists now admit. Microevolution can happen when recessive traits are amplified. However, macroevolution cannot happen that way, because macroevolution needs more than traits that are already there.

      Babies are never born with tails. They are born with fatty extensions that come from the caudal eminence. As discussed in a 2004 report in Cells Tissues Organs:

      The eminence produces the caudal part of the notochord and, after closure of the caudal neuropore, all caudal structures, but it does not produce even a temporary ‘tail’ in the human.

      (Müller F and O’Rahilly R., “The primitive streak, the caudal eminence and related structures in staged human embryos,” Cells Tissues Organs. 177(1):2-20, 2004)

      As far as chickens that have teeth, this isn’t surprising and has nothing to do with common ancestry. We know many extinct birds (like the enantiornithines) had teeth. Thus, the information necessary to produce teeth was in the genome of many (if not all) original birds. The fact that most birds have lost their ability to make teeth simply means that their genomes have lost some of that information. This tends to be how microevolution happens – the loss of genomic information.

      I can’t speak for all creationists, of course, but my denial of evolution doesn’t come from any specific Biblical interpretation. I have said repeatedly that evolution is not incompatible with Christianity. My denial of evolution comes from the data. The data speak so strongly against it, that as a scientist, I cannot believe in it.

      Like many Hebrew words, the Hebrew word for kind (min) can mean many different things. Here is a good discussion of that from a creationist perspective.

  6. As Denton points out, since enucleate red blood cells exist in all mammals, but they do not exist in the animals from which those mammals supposedly evolved, enucleate red blood cells must have been an innovation that occurred in the common ancestor of all mammals. However, he wonders what could possibly be an intermediate. A cell that has half a nucleus? A cell in which the nucleus has been partly ejected or compartmentalized in some way? How could a series of small, stepwise mutations lead to such a dramatic change for a cell, especially given the complex machinery that the cell uses to eject its nucleus? In addition, how could those intermediates be functional in any way?

    1. Erythrocytes or red blood cells (RBCs) don’t just lose their nucleus as they develop. They likewise lose other organelles (e.g. ribosomes, mitochondria). So the evolutionist would presumably have to explain the loss of these other organelles in combination with the nucleus as well. What are the chances?

    2. Not only do RBCs lose other organelles, but RBCs replace these lost organelles with hemoglobin. So the evolutionist would presumably have to explain the stepwise evolutionary gain of hemoglobin too.