Reasons to Believe

Evolution and Stamp Collecting, Part 1 (of 2)

“In science there is only physics; everything else is stamp collecting.”

This quote, from Ernest Rutherford, a 1908 Nobel laureate described as the “father of nuclear physics,” seems especially relevant today as modern evolutionary biologists claim to find new “evidence” for the theory of naturalistic macroevolution.

For over 150 years, a principle problem with the Darwinian (and later neo-Darwinian) theory of evolution has been the absence of “missing links.” The exquisite tree of life displayed in most biology textbooks has actually been inferred based on the assumption of naturalistic evolution and is supported by scant fossil data. Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould confessed in 1977:

The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology. The evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data only at the tips and nodes of their branches; the rest is inference, however reasonable, not the evidence of fossils.1

In other words—contrary to a fundamental rule of the scientific method—evolutionary biologists have been using the theory of evolution to prove itself.

Today it is often claimed that this problem has been solved. Geneticist Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, wrote in 2006: “While there are many imperfections of the fossil record, and many puzzles remain to be solved, virtually all of the findings are consistent with the concept of a tree of life of related organisms.…[F]urther investigation has revealed the existence of transitional species, often at precisely the date and place that evolutionary theory would predict.”2 Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller, author of Finding Darwin’s God, delights in displaying such transitional forms in his presentations.

Collins and Miller are both Christians, and their witness in this regard has led other Christians to accept naturalistic macroevolution. No one doubts that the data suggest great complexity in the emergence of life-forms on Earth, and this causes problems for the static creationist model. Yet Rutherford’s observation seems to illustrate the fallacy of attributing this complexity to naturalistic evolution.

For sake of argument, assume for the moment that Collins, Miller, and evolutionary biologists are correct about the new transitional forms. Such an assumption is debatable, because the “evidence” is so subjective. Fossil evidence is indeed extensive and growing, including spectacular finds in China. Yet these new transitional forms are based mostly on fragmentary fossils, which can lead to dramatic mistakes despite the most sincere educated guess. For example, scientists initially interpreted a prehistoric creature known as Pakicetus as a transitional amphibian based on mere skull fragments, but they re-characterized the creature as a land mammal when more complete skeletal remains were discovered.

The advent of powerful modern computers generated the new discipline of Computer-Assisted Paleoanthropology (CAP), through which sophisticated computer modeling programs aid in the interpretation of fossil fragments.3 Computer modeling is a valuable technique, but it is only as good as the assumptions that underlie the model; and a biased computer program can mislead sincere scientists. The now-discredited “hockey stick” model of anthropogenic global warming illustrates how a poor computer model can lead to an incorrect result.4 Similarly, a faulty data analysis program led to the erroneous discovery of elements 118 and 116 at Berkeley, CA, in 1999—a “discovery” that was retracted in 2002.5 No one is charging CAP proponents with misconduct, but incidents like these expose the risk of putting too much reliance on computer modeling. Furthermore, in computer modeling and other efforts to infer complete animals from fossil fragments, there usually exists a bias that assumes naturalistic evolution, simply because it is the dominant biological paradigm.

In light of such subjective—and some might say biased—data analysisit is no mystery that the new transitional forms so inferred appear “often at precisely the date and place that evolutionary theory would predict.”6 Nevertheless, this article does not question these transitional life-forms; we proceed as if they are correct as inferred.

Rutherford’s point is that physics describes how and why things work, and the “how” and “why” is the essence of science. We physicists try our best to eliminate concepts like miracles and mysterious black boxes; we seek to explain nature with predictable cause-and-effect relationships. We think of science as the development of reproducible, predictive, and falsifiable theories. By contrast, other disciplines often described as “sciences” consist of meticulous and detailed recording of certain phenomena, which likely prompted Rutherford’s stamp collecting analogy. We are not saying this to denigrate such disciplines—merely to differentiate them. Paleontology is a good example. Modern paleontologists have come a long way since the time of Charles Darwin, but they still sort and categorize fossils in a way that does not differ dramatically from the way stamp collectors sort and categorize stamps, as will be addressed in the second part of this series.


Dr. Hugh Henry, PhD

Dr. Hugh Henry received his PhD in Physics from the University of Virginia in 1971, retired after 26 years at Varian Medical Systems, and currently serves as Lecturer in physics at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, KY.


Daniel J. Dyke, MDiv, MTh

Mr. Daniel J. Dyke received his Master of Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary 1981 and currently serves as professor of Old Testament at Cincinnati Christian University in Cincinnati, OH.


Part 1 | Part 2

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Endnotes:

1. Stephen Jay Gould, “Evolution’s Erratic Pace,” Natural History 86, (1977): 14.
2. Francis Collins, The Language of God (New York: Free Press, 2006), 96.
3. Christoph Peter Eduard Zollikofer, Marcia Ponce de León, and Robert Denis Martin, “Computer-Assisted Paleoanthropology,” Evolutionary Anthropology 6, (1998): 41–54; Colin Smith, “Ancient Blob-like Creature of the Deep Revealed by Scientists,” Imperial College London,  last modified August 4, 2010, http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_4-8-2010-10-32-13.
4. Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick, “Corrections to the Mann et. al. (1998) Proxy Data Base and Northern Hemispheric Average Temperature Series,” Energy & Environment 14, (2003): 751–771; McIntyre and McKitrick, “Hockey Sticks, Principal Components, and Spurious Significance,” Geophysical Research Letters 32, (2005) doi:10.1029/2004GL021750.
5. George Johnson, “At Lawrence Berkeley, Physicists Say a Colleague Took Them for a Ride,” New York Times, October 15, 2002, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/15/science/at-lawrence-berkeley-physicists-say-a-colleague-took-them-for-a-ride.html?src=pm.
6. Collins, The Language of God, 96.