In the reign of Queen Victoria, men of science were bringing huge improvements to mankind. They had invented vaccines to conquer childhood illnesses, and steam powered looms that turned cotton into sheets. Huge locomotives rushed trainloads of passengers to the other end of the country. Electric lighting, the discovery of X-rays, the beginnings of flight – there seemed to be no limit to the triumphs of the human brain.

Along with this revolution in society came a new questioning of belief in the Bible. The first chapter of Genesis says that God created life on the earth, and Christians had always accepted this as a fact. But now fashionably liberal thinkers started to ask whether we actually need to believe in a God? Could not natural forces alone have produced living things– simple at first, and then growing more complex with time? It was Charles Darwin who assembled this idea into a coherent theory, seeing animals and plants as related to each other by pathways of ascent from earlier and simpler forms of life, like a tree with many branches. Given time, said Darwin, the pressures of natural selection would always refine the adaptation of each species to its niche in the environment. Competition with other species and changes in conditions would prune out the unfit. Any minute changes that helped the survival of a species would be retained. So, by the survival of the fittest, he claimed, we have arrived at the amazing range of plants, animals and insects that populate the globe, from the birds that inhabit the sky to the giant molluscs at the bottom of the oceans.

Man in charge of the world?

The scientific progress of Darwin’s time seemed to t Darwin’s theory. Standing at the very pinnacle of evolution, it was assumed our species would eventually bring about a new and better world, where freedom, health and happiness would prevail.

That optimism was shattered by two world wars. Since then, pollution, destruction of the environment and the fear of climate change has tarnished the image of science as the saviour of mankind. But the dogma that science can explain the origin of life prevails. Children are taught in school that evolution is a fact. Wildlife television programmes by experts such as David Attenborough hammer out the message that evolution has produced an amazing variety of creatures, each perfectly adapted to its perch on the evolutionary tree. Hardly any biologist dares challenge the official line.

A century and a half of Darwinism has left people feeling that there is an impassable gulf between science and religion. The humanists – for example, the outspoken Richard Dawkins – openly deride the idea that God is in charge of the world. They see religion as outdated – a prop to comfort early man as he faced a hostile world. Science, they say, has entirely removed the need for a God. But is this true?

Science moves on

By definition, the Greek word from which we derive ‘Science’ means ‘knowledge’. Human knowledge is dynamic. It is always changing, adapting to new findings that challenge the old ideas and result in adjustments that can be quite drastic. Just over two hundred years ago, all scientists believed things burn because they contain a substance called ‘phlogiston’. It took the careful experiments of Lavoisier, one of the youngest members of the French Academy of Sciences, to prove that the key factor is in fact the element oxygen. Fifty years ago, food scientists argued fiercely that white bread is just as good for you as brown. Nowadays, they view the bread content of wholemeal bread as being a vital part of our diet. Science only represents the sum total of knowledge at the time. It is open to challenge as new discoveries emerge.

How does science progress? First, the facts about a particular topic are observed and gathered together. Scientists then look for a pattern or relationship between them. They suggest that there may be a rule that links the facts together. This suggested rule, the hypothesis, has to be tested by experiment. Scientists in different establishments will repeat the same conditions, and see if they observe the same results. If they do, and there seem to be few exceptions to the rule, it is elevated to the status of a theory. However, if new facts arise which contradict the earlier findings, or someone thinks up a more satisfactory hypothesis which has fewer exceptions, the theory may be revised or replaced. Only when a theory has been unassailed for a long time, and seems to t all cases, does it become a law. For example, Einstein observed a connection between energy, mass and the speed of light, and suggested a relationship – his famous equation, E=mc2. His general theory of relativity still stands, although attacks have been made upon it. One day it may be replaced. The theory of evolution has also been modi ed many times, as exceptions have been found to Darwin’s rules. His basic evolutionary ‘tree’, for example, has had to be lopped in the last few years, because advances in the study of genetics have shown that many of the apparent connections between species, that were based on their appearance, were false. The newly available studies of DNA, the genetic code that defines a living creature, have made very different links.

Experiments impossible

When we come to consider the origins of life on the earth, we are in a different situation to traditional science. By general agreement, life commenced a long time ago. There were no human observers at the time to record what happened. The facts are missing. We can look at the relationships between living things today, and draw up a theory about how they came into existence, but it is not possible to test the theory by repeating the conditions in a laboratory, because we do not know what the conditions were. If an alternative explanation seems to us more credible, we are perfectly at liberty to champion that cause, because nobody can prove anything. The study of the origins of life is not true science, like discovering the laws of physics or chemistry or mathematics. It is guesswork.

Some brave biologists have dared to stand up and reject the theory of evolution. These are not all religious people. They simply are not convinced that evolution can explain the complexity of life on earth. They do not see the evidence for upward change, from simple to complex forms of life. There is plenty of evidence for a species adjusting itself to changes in the environment or increased competition, like the finches that Darwin observed in the Galapagos Islands, or the moths that became darker in smoky industrial Britain. But for evolution to hold true, there has to be more than that. There has to be a progression from so-called ‘primitive’ single-celled organisms like bacteria, upwards to the more complex species such as mammals, fish and birds. The fact that both simple and complex forms exist side by side today does not prove that they had a common origin. They are each perfectly suited to their own niche in the ecological pyramid, which needs smaller organisms in vast numbers to act as food for those higher up the chain, and to recycle their dead bodies. The evolutionary links are highly conjectural, and the evidence for the intermediate forms of life, as development ‘progressed’ into the modern forms, is incomplete. Recent studies based on genomes (genetic ‘photographs’) rather than physical characteristics have completely changed the claimed links between species.To put it another way,Darwin’s evolutionary ‘tree’ has many branches, but no obvious trunk.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Christadelphian Auxiliary Lecturing Society (CALS) (To be continued)