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KRONOS Vol VII, No. 4
ALTERNATIVES IN SCIENCE: The Secular Creationism of Heribert Nilsson
The memorable exchange of letters in KRONOS about the baleen whale found standing on its tail in a diatomaceous-earth quarry in Lompoc, California, concluded with Frederic Jueneman's lament (1977) that secular catastrophism is less heard of than is sacred catastrophism. Perhaps there will be some consolation in learning that secular creationism is hardly heard of at all. Yet it does exist. There are reasonable alternatives in science that the establishment never acknowledges.
The increasing popularity of Biblical creationism as championed by the flourishing Institute for Creation Research is a significant phenomenon of the past decade (e.g. Morris and Rohrer 1981). The ICR has done good service in publicizing the scientific case against the academic orthodoxy of Darwinism. But it would be unwise for the world to accept what is urged by the followers of both Darwin and Moses that this Biblically inspired "scientific creationism" (e.g. Morris 1974) is the sole alternative to the reigning academic orthodoxy. The evolutionary establishment has always made good use of the argument that there is only one alternative to the theory of evolution and it is incredible: "the theory of evolution itself [is] a theory universally accepted not because it can be proven by logically coherent evidence to be true but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible" (Watson 1929).
That a strictly secular theory of special creation has been worked out in some detail by a fully certified academic biologist should help in undermining this illegitimate (and obviously self-serving) argument a prime example of what Norman Macbeth has termed the "best-infield fallacy" (1971). However, almost no one in the English-speaking world, not even those who would profit simply by being able to point to it, seems to know of its existence. This theory was formulated by Heribert Nilsson, late Professor of Botany and Director of the Botanical Institute at Lund, Sweden - a scientist who gave much effort to studying and documenting the evidence for widespread diluvial catastrophes. Yet up to the very end of his long professional career, he thought of himself primarily as a geneticist devoted to forging an exact, experimental science of biology.
Nilsson's name is not unknown to students of Earth in Upheaval. But Velikovsky had nothing to say about Heribert Nilsson's theory of "emication". One reason for the omission is clear enough: Velikovsky had nearly completed work on Earth in Upheaval (1955) when he discovered the recently published Synthetische Artbildung: Grundlinien einer exakten Biologie (1953). There is reason to think that Nilsson's creationist theory would fit Velikovsky's catastrophism (or anyone else's) at least as well as does classical (Morgan) or neo-classical (Crick and Watson) genetics.
Creationism is not, however, evolutionism, and Velikovsky's final section in Earth in Upheaval is "Cataclysmic Evolution". This concludes with his eminently quotable: "The past of mankind, and of the animal and plant kingdoms, too, must now be viewed in the light of the experience of Hiroshima and no longer from the portholes of the Beagle.''(1) This light is massive radiation as a proven cause of extensive mutation. Velikovsky, quite justifiably, thought of cataclysmic evolution as the savior of evolutionary theory - as providing at one stroke radically new environments and radically new genetic candidates for survival in them:
From Nilsson's point of view, however, this would have so understated the case for catastrophism as to be evolutionary apologetics; Velikovsky would be just another evolutionist - whether Darwinian, Lamarckian, or what have you. Nilsson thought that the theory of evolution, in whatever form, had proven to be as a matter of empirical science beyond salvation:
Clearly Nilsson does not share with John Hadd, who represents a large constituency, concern for "reconciling the controversy" (1979). Deeply troubled as Hadd is by the imperious claims of evolutionists, he may have given the game away by arguing initially that "Proponents of the 'special creation' argument must end their lofty self conceit about the posture of man in the scheme of things and quit blinking at solid evidence" (p.19). The crux of the controversy is still what constitutes the solid evidence.
According to Nilsson, evolution has been refuted by both geological catastrophes and genetic stability (including the stability of intraspecific variation). Just as a century of uniformitarian geology had obscured the fact of a catastrophic past, so half a century of evolutionary genetics had obscured the fact of genetic stability. Velikovsky was pleased to refer to Nilsson's extensive documentation of the catastrophic evidence in German coal deposits, but despite the great amount of work that Nilsson did in paleobotany, it was all in the service of his central effort to replace a biased genetics with a rigorously neutral "genics".
From the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics, in 1900, to the discovery of the structure of DNA, in 1953 (a period that corresponded exactly with Nilsson's professional career), genetics was studied primarily as the science of mutability that accounted for evolution. Consequently, Nilsson coined the term "genics"
Nilsson is definitely not representative of any professional consensus, yet it is by no means clear that either his catastrophism or his creationism has ever been refuted. Indeed, after the great initial enthusiasm over the widely published "DNA revolution," which allegedly "discovered the secret of life," there seems to be a growing awareness that evolutionary genetics is in worse shape after the great discovery of DNA molecular structure than it was assumed to be before it. If Nilsson were around today to continue his crusade for an exact biology, he would almost certainly continue to maintain that "The idea of an evolution rests on pure belief" (p. 1212). And he would almost certainly deny that Crick and Watson's discovery constituted any revolutionary upset of his anti-evolutionary genics. After all, he could call for support on a major geneticist of the post-DNA generation who claims emphatically that "we know virtually nothing about the genetic changes that occur in species formation" (Lewontin 1974: 159). Nilsson would probably emphasize the irony of this passage as occurring in a book entitled The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change. This would clearly justify his rejection of "genetic" as little more than a tautological gloss on "evolutionary". So apparently inconsistent are Lewontin's title and conclusion that Nilsson might feel compelled to seek some ideological explanation. When he discovered that the author was an avowed Marxist who attempted to employ dialectical method in his genetic research, the explanation might well be at hand: thesis/ antithesis. But where is the synthesis? In the future.
Geneticist Michael White concludes his own important book on Modes of Speciation with a reference to Lewontin's italicized judgment, and he comments that this negative conclusion is "over-pessimistic" ( 1978: 324). But White also concedes that a positive book on the genetic origin of species probably cannot be written until "about the year 2000". By then, it will be 140 years since Darwin claimed in The Origin of Species to have provided the scientific solution to the problem. With geneticists discovering close chromosomal similarities between such diverse organisms as monotremes and mistletoe and little chromosomal similarity between such similar organisms as monotremes and marsupials,(3) it would seem that White is more realistically characterized as over-optimistic than is Lewontin as over-pessimistic.
As Darwin pointed out in 1859, evidence of species variation is all around; not only morphological differences but now also chromosomal differences are readily apparent. Yet the best efforts of several generations of geneticists to parlay a knowledge of mutations (whether large or small, whether natural or induced) into the evolution of new species that can survive and flourish in nature have failed. Nilsson emphasized that
This is what Nilsson meant by "exact science," that evolution be experimentally demonstrated in the natural state by survival of the fittest.
Yet for all the great success that geneticists, following the lead of H. J. Muller, have had inducing mutations by means of radiation and similar drastic means - none of the resulting species of plants or animals has proven viable beyond the walls of artificial environments. For nearly half a century, Nilsson himself attempted to launch a promising hybrid species (Salix polygena) as a vigorous natural competitor. His anti-evolutionism grew in part out of his failure as an evolutionary experimenter:
The same is true of animals, though Dobzhansky did not draw the same conclusions from Drosophila that Nilsson drew from polygena. The hundreds of new species of fruitflies are still in the laboratory - "they are never found in nature (e.g. not a single one of the several hundreds of Drosophila mutations), and therefore they are able to appear only in the favourable environment of the experimental field or the laboratory" (p.1186).
Nilsson could not find in polyphylism, perhaps at the level of separate phyla, a compromise with evolution. He was unable to get via genetics even from one species to another; for him a whole forest of family trees was not much better than a single monophyletic tree:
The gradual evolution of different monophyletic phyla, or classes, or orders, etc. is still a matter of minute changes slowly accumulating in a more or less uniformitarian world. And in one way or another, this accumulation is directional - in the direction of better meeting specific needs of the individual organisms. Darwin himself was in the last analysis a crypto-Lamarckian (and shared with almost all later Darwinians a consequent need to contemptuously dismiss Lamarck). According to Nilsson, every believer in evolution does of necessity come to the same end: "evolution and Lamarckism are inseparable because they contain the same fundamental ideas" (p.1165). It does little to absolve oneself of Lamarckism by condemning the inheritance of acquired characteristics if there remains nothing but the unexplained accumulation of a whole suite of integrated traits that are said to increasingly satisfy a need of individuals in the struggle for survival and the acquisition of which they pass on to their progeny. What else is the inheritance of acquired characteristics?
Exaggerating the amount of time involved does not overcome the objection. Some big jobs can be accomplished little-by-little over long periods of time, but many cannot. Erosion (by water, wind, or ice) is an excellent negative explanation: everything can be worn away given enough time. But it is of little positive value. Geologists cannot convincingly explain with little-by-little how a huge rock formation is lifted in a single piece from its place of origin and left resting much higher on top of newer strata. Nor can they explain how a whale could be perfectly fossilized in marine sediments while standing on its tail. So it is with geneticists. They cannot convincingly explain the acquisition of a whole suite of integrated traits simply by changing slightly one trait at a time over millions of generations. However, quite aside from the failure of genetics to contribute anything positive here, paleontology actually provides the refutation. According to Nilsson, the failure of uniformitarian geologists is not the failure of geology:
The catastrophism of Nilsson is even more destructive than that of Velikovsky, and some of what Velikovsky reports secondhand, Nilsson knows firsthand from the paleobotany of German coal seams. But like Velikovsky, Nilsson is convinced that only an extra-terrestrial force could account for the magnitude of destruction clearly recorded in the various sedimentary deposits around the world. The fossil record is not fragmentary but rather presents an embarrassment of riches: "the lack of transitional series cannot be explained as due to the scarcity of the material. The deficiencies are real, they will never be filled" (p. 1212). What are these deficiencies?
Only one kind of explanation makes sense out of such abrupt, self-contained periods: periodically everything alive (with the possible exception of a few marine organisms) is destroyed in a diluvial catastrophe:
The magnitude of destruction is so great as to require an extra-terrestrial source, with the immediate consequence likely to be vast tidal inundation and sedimentation:
The extraordinary thickness of organic sedimentary strata (e.g. chalk, coal, diatomaceous earth), the vast quantities of fossils jumbled together in a single locale, the occurrence side by side of organisms from quite different climate zones and from fresh and salt water, the undecayed state of many fossil plants (to say nothing of fresh frozen mammoths) - these are the standard reasons for concluding that sedimentation is by and large not "autochthonous" (made up of local products) but "allochthonous" (made up of products washed together from widely different places). Uniformitarian geologists cannot, of course, accept very much allochthony without conceding the game to the catastrophists. But there is no alternative explanation. You accept allochthony, or you ignore much of the data.
That the peatbog theory of coal formation is still going strong despite the obvious impossibility of creating so much coal from so little local vegetation indicates that uniformitarianism still reigns:
A commercial size coal deposit requires the concentration of vegetation from widespread sources, and the undecayed state of many coal-seam fossils requires not a slow process over millennia but a force that can do the job in a matter of days.
Nilsson was not primarily concerned with providing a theory explaining the geological data but with the data as a clear refutation of biological evolution as commonly understood. He did, however, find intriguing the possibility of the approach of the Moon to the Earth and the gigantic tides that would necessarily result. As a contribution to the problem of the origin of species, he found the work of George Darwin (the son) of greater potential significance than the work of Charles Darwin (the father). George may or may not have been on the right track with his non-uniformitarian hypothesis about the Moon, but Charles was definitely on the wrong track with the hypothesis that species originate very gradually over immense stretches of time.
The enigma of coal, with its implication of massive flooding and thereby of a greatly shortened geochronology, unites the diverse opponents of uniformitarian orthodoxy. Not just Nilsson and Velikovsky but also Biblical creationists emphasize coal. The Institute for Creation Research proudly announced its acquisition of a young coal geologist from Pennsylvania State University (Morris and Rohrer 1981: 304-5). Steven Austin's doctoral dissertation ( 1979) is the very opposite of peat-bog and tidal-swamp orthodoxy, emphasizing instead the evidence for the floating-mat hypothesis and short-lived density currents generated by turbulent water. Nothing new coming from the academy in the past quarter century seems to have refuted Nilsson's catastrophism.
The very opposite of Darwin's theory of gradual evolution is Nilsson's theory of "emication". This means literally a flaring up. With it, Nilsson emphasized the seemingly unprepared-for eruption into the fossil record of whole groups of similar organisms (and in many cases an equally sudden extinction).
But if species do not evolve from other species, how do they arrive on the scene? From a naturalistic point of view, there are just two general possibilities - two answers to the archetypal question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? If you think the chicken came first, you are an evolutionist. If you think the egg came first, you are an emicationist. Nilsson did not think that a full-grown elephant suddenly stood in the wreckage of an extraordinary and unrepeatable world-wide catastrophe, but he did think that elephant gametes were synthesized in such circumstances and that these gave rise to a new species for which there was no ancestral precedent: "During palaeobiological times whole new worlds of biota have been repeatedly synthesized" (p. 1240).
Elephants, chickens, tulips, toadstools, were synthesized as eggs and then developed as they now do every day into adult forms that initially had no ancestors in any ordinary sense:
Evolutionists emphasize adult forms; emicationists emphasize the earliest stages of epigenetic development. One consideration that emicative bio-synthesis has in its favor is that epigenesis is obviously going on all about us all the time. It can be studied as an "exact science" in a way that evolution from species to species cannot be. For Nilsson, ontogeny does not recapitulate phylogeny - it is phylogeny:
An egg is not an egg until it proves itself by developing into a chicken. It does no good to say that given enough time an egg will become a chicken. If it is going to become one, it will do so within observable time. According to Nilsson, the problem of the origin of species will be solved, if ever, in the laboratory as the result of rigorous experimental science. However, the student of genics, like his rivals in genetics, has to admit the great statistical odds against emicative success in a world of chance where every change is almost certainly for the worst. A Mendelian mutation is almost always deleterious and thus necessarily counter-evolutionary. A Nilssonian biosynthesis, no matter in what sort of catastrophically altered environment, is almost certain to result in an "egg" that cannot develop into a viable organism capable of reproducing itself. In their different ways, both Nilsson and Dobzhansky must posit infinitely many rolls of the dice and an enormous number of biological rejects for each success - success judged not by competitive advantage but simply by viability. For Nilsson, natural selection is the great mechanism of the origin of species. But it operates not at the level of adults in a uniformitarian environment but at the level of gametes in a catastrophic environment. The great biological principle is not survival of the fittest but survival of the survivors, a candid tautology rather than a concealed one.
The bio-synthesis that evolutionists posit as happening a single time as the starting point for the whole history of monophyletic evolution, Nilsson posits as happening billions of times simultaneously at least as often as there are world-wide catastrophes. Presumably each new time of creation has a greater range of chemically prefabricated materials, complex molecules, to work with and thus the possibility of more potentially complex "eggs" being formed (in accord with the latest evidence for DNA transduction).(4) But the origin of species is still a matter of bio-synthesis of eggs that were not laid by any chickens:
Unlike the sacred creationist, this secular creationist will have nothing to do with initial miracles. Consequently, the basic weakness of Nilsson's theory is not so much the multiplicity of biological creations arising spontaneously from a mixture of inert molecules in a chaotic "soup". It is rather the difficulty of demonstrating even a single possibility. This is the problem that emication shares with evolution. Perhaps the second law of thermodynamics can be explained away, but experiments of the Miller-Urey sort still have a long way to go before demonstrating the possibility of any spontaneous creation of life. When finally forced to specify his unmoved mover, Nilsson is right there with the evolutionists. He concludes, rather anti-climactically:
Biblical scientific creationists have looked strong in wielding the sword of entropy against evolutionists, and emicationists would have no better protection. Not even the latest claim to have explained away the second law - with the mathematical model of Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine for "dissipative structures" - daunts those who have no vested interest in natural origins.(5) Juggling with the distinction between open and closed systems at the cosmic level seems just to push the problem one step back. No one is denying that the Sun's energy preserves the world of living organisms. The question is how it could have created that world. The evidence that Nilsson adduces for multiple creations at catastrophic divisions in history is more convincing than the evidence he adduces for the mechanism by which this was accomplished.
Nilsson has probably not solved the problem of the origin of species, and his chemical focus on proteins rather than on DNA sounds a bit old-fashioned. However, as an enthusiastic proponent of Oparin and origin-of-life chemistry, he is as representative of molecular reductionism as are those with more famous names. Nilsson too postulates the same vague but promising watery world rich in complex molecules that can be activated under certain unusual conditions of energy transfer. The chemistry of catalysts, especially as manifested in various industrial processes of synthesis (polypeptides, ferments, etc.), seems to Nilsson the key to emication:
But while Oparin, Miller, Urey, et al. postulate just one such epoch of catalyzable molecular soup, Nilsson postulates many - as many as there have occurred world-wide cataclysms:
We may assume with Nilsson that "during certain limited epochs there have been practically inexhaustible possibilities for the formation of bio-catalytic substances," but bio-broth is one thing, complex organisms are quite another. Yet Nilsson never hedges, and he himself asks "how these complexes have obtained such a constitution that they have become able to function biologically to produce vital organisms". His answer is as improbable as that of Darwin. Indeed, methodologically, it is Darwin's answer - natural selection among vast numbers of random combinations by which only a very few survive:
After each catastrophe there is presumably a biologically richer soup, and thereby presumably the potential for the synthesis of more complex gametes, but this kind of presumption goes much beyond the clear empirical evidence for repeated catastrophes. The problem of the vertebrate eye is as great for Nilssonian creation as for Darwinian evolution.
Who is to say when one kind of gross improbability in the very distant past outweighs another? We are dealing ultimately with analogies. Nilsson claimed a compelling analogy with the success of industrial chemists, just as Darwin claimed a compelling analogy with the success of animal and plant breeders:
While there are many representatives of monophyletic origin-of-life chemistry to choose from, there are very few who can adequately represent special-creation origin-of-life chemistry. Nilsson unequivocally occupies one of the two logical poles in the archetypal chicken/egg question. However, there seems to be developing now an effort by the establishment opposition to claim what ought to be recognized in all honesty as an enemy position. Or, if this is not an enemy position for lack of sufficient warriors to man the battlements, it is certainly a real intellectual alternative that is absolutely inconsistent with Darwinian evolution.
It is instructive to see the ease with which Darwinians can appropriate the terminology and metaphors of conflicting positions in support of their own and thereby deny the existence of alternatives. P. J. Darlington, as conservative a Darwinian as one could find in the current evolutionary establishment, actually claims that
Quite aside from seeming to agree with one of the most outspoken anti-Darwinists of all time, Darlington's appropriating of the emicative bio-synthesis answer to the chicken/egg question cannot be allowed to pass unchallenged. In Darwinian terms (as also in Mosaic), the original chicken egg was laid by an adult creature only imperceptibly different from the chicken to be hatched. This kind of answer is no more than a rhetorical ploy designed to ignore truly alternative positions as non-existent.
Nilsson, although he claimed to have explained the origin of species, did at least admit the existence of this "fundamental problem". However, the closest that the establishment of evolutionists comes to admitting the magnitude of the still unsolved fundamental problem of the origin of species is its willingness to admit the failure of evolutionary analysis to make sense out of some conspicuous groups of organisms. The monotremes are easily overlooked because there are so few of them. But similar problems with other groups loom large. As a botanist, Nilsson had his eye especially on the group that in the modern landscape is practically synonymous with plants:
So large do the problems of angiosperm evolution and phylogenetic relationships loom in biology that we should turn for confirmation not just to deniers of Darwinian evolution but also to authorities committed to the possibility of discovering a Darwinian solution. Such a one is Norman Hughes. His recent book, Palaeobiology of Angiosperm Origins. Problems of Mesozoic Seed-Plant Evolution ( 1976), does not claim to offer the answers but only "to encourage faith in the adequacy of the fossil record for making possible a continuing and effective solution" (p. vii). Specifically, this is "faith" in recently developed techniques for the study of fossil pollen. This is indeed an important new area of study, and much new knowledge has recently been gained. However, the problem remains:
And by "sudden," Hughes means more than can be handled by an equivocal term like punctuated equilibrium - recently popularized by Eldredge and Gould as "An Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism" (1972). Hughes means that nothing in or out of the fossil record can reasonably be the source of the botanical characteristics of angiosperms as a monophyletic group; there is no transition.
Fossil pollen is not the first great hope of solving the problem of angiosperms; study of non-fossil pollen (palynology) was to have done the same. The incentive is more than academic interest; there is a conspicuous inability to agree on a taxonomy that plausibly reflects (even if it does not actually embody) phylogeny. The great need is to establish
Not for the first time do we find that an increase in knowledge confuses rather than clarifies phylogeny. In such cases, the quest for a phylogenetic basis of classification fosters disagreement even among those taxonomists with common evolutionary goals.
Nilsson's theory of emication is now over a quarter of a century old, but nothing has been discovered in the meantime to undercut angiosperms as a prime example of it. So too, the possibility of drawing diametrically opposed conclusions from them in the catastrophism/uniformitarianism debate remains the same:
And with this reference to Harold Urey we are back where we began - with Jueneman's lament. Secular catastrophism is usually lost sight of in the brawl between the champions of Darwin and Moses, and when it is recognized to exist we find that, as Jueneman points out, although "the doyen of secular catastrophists of our own day is none other than Immanuel Velikovsky," his "heretical teachings of a quarter-century ago have been expropriated in current textbooks under someone else's by-line". The regrettable truth of this is probably not made easier to bear simply by learning that establishment science has been even more successful in burying the doyen of secular creationism. However, the more that such cases can be demonstrated to exist, the easier it becomes to give the lie to Isaac Asimov's claim ( 1977) that "science remains man's only self-correcting intellectual endeavor" and thereby to promote open debate as the one hope for responsible intellectual endeavor - whether in science or in would-be science.(6)
The great need now is not "reconciling the controversy" over evolution but admitting the full scope of the issues. When a concept as question-begging as punctuated equilibrium can be offered by scientists as a real "alternative," boldly purporting to reconcile the contradictions in Darwinian evolution and uniformitarian geology, the time is not ripe for reconciliation.
NOTES1. Which is in fact quoted as one of the epigraphs in my forthcoming book Evolution and the Revolution that Failed: The Semiotics of Taxonomy, from which much of this article is taken.
2. Quotations are from Nilsson's own English "Summary of the facts and leading principles concerning the non-evolutionary phenomena in the world of biota and the theory of emication" (pp.1139-1246).
3. Cf. Bick and Sharman 1975, White 1978 (p. 340), and Wiens and Barlow 1975.
4. E.g. Anderson 1970, Zhdanov and Tikchonenko 1974.
5. E.g. Henry Morris, in Morris and Rohrer (eds.) 1981, pp. 176-84. Representative of the opposition in the increasingly sophisticated debate over entropy and evolution is Freske 1981. This appears in the new little journal Creation/Evolution (an off-shoot of the Am. Humanist Assn.) "dedicated to promoting evolutionary science". The incentive for it is the admitted fact "that creationists today can often run circles around the people they debate". The editorial statement introduces the first issue - Summer 1980. The first article of this issue is Frank Awbrey's "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Creation Model". Needless to say, neither it nor any subsequent piece in the journal mentions the alternative, secular creationism of Nilsson.
6. E.g. linguistics: cf. Gray 1980, Hall 1981, Gray,1981.