Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 87 (November 1998) 25-31.
Sir Isaac Newton was a man of many talents. After his great scientific discoveries he had a remarkable second career as Warden of the Mint, where he implemented a difficult reform of the coinage that may have saved the British nation from financial disaster. He personally investigated cases of counterfeiting and sent scores of malefactors to the gallows. It is as if Einstein, after producing the Theory of Relativity, had served capably as Secretary of the Treasury or Attorney General. In any competition for the most intellectually gifted human being of all time, Newton would deserve to be on everyone’s short list.
Michael White’s biography does not stint Newton the great achiever, but its primary emphasis, as the subtitle indicates, is on the "sorcerer"—specifically Newton the alchemist and decipherer of hidden prophecies in the Bible. This disreputable (and unsuccessful) side of Newton was long suppressed or minimized by historians who were determined to portray him as one of the founding fathers of Enlightenment deism. It first came to public attention when John Maynard Keynes purchased a large collection of Newton’s papers in 1936 and subsequently described Newton as "the last of the magicians . . . , the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago."
Newton did not believe that God merely wound up the clockworks and then let the universe run by itself. On the contrary, he insisted that God was constantly active in the physical world, and, with a dedication bordering on obsession, he developed his heretical Arian theology in secret. He took the Bible seriously as a collection of data derived from a supernatural source, and he studied the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation with methods as rigorous as those he applied to gravity and optics. He devoted the greater part of his professional life to alchemical experiments that were both physically and legally dangerous. The physical danger was due to the constant fires and the use of toxic chemicals like mercury. The legal danger arose because alchemy had been made a felony by gold-hoarding sovereigns who feared that the alchemists might succeed.
Not even Newton could do the impossible. He learned a great deal from alchemy about chemistry and experimental technique, but he never found the philosopher’s stone or turned base metals into gold. As for biblical prophecy, Newton meticulously developed a grand scenario predicting that the Jews would return to reclaim Jerusalem in 1899 and that the second coming of Christ would occur precisely forty-nine years later. That might look pretty good, if we could reinterpret those dates as rough predictions of the beginning of modern Zionism and the founding of a Jewish state. But such post hoc adjustments constitute cheating when one is trying to be scientific.
Modern scientific materialists regard Newton’s devotion to alchemy and theology as a regrettable distraction from his scientific achievement, but it is another form of cheating to divide a genius so neatly into his reputable and disreputable parts. Michael White makes the case that Newton’s supernaturalism was closely linked to his scientific achievement, particularly his theory of gravity. He even suspects that Newton invented the famous apple story to conceal the scandalous fact that his theory of gravity grew out of his alchemical researches. There is reason to credit this. Gravity, conceived as a nonmaterial force acting instantaneously over vast distances, may have seemed more occult than alchemy to the seventeenth-century mind. Indeed, Leibniz dismissed Newtonian gravitation as "a chimerical thing, a scholastic occult property." Newton for his part disparaged mere "hypotheses," by which he seems to have meant vague or speculative ideas that cannot be tested by experiment. The theory of gravity is one of the greatest achievements of the scientific mind precisely because it explicates something which can be known (the precise effects of gravity), and leaves untouched the underlying mystery (the nature of gravity) which Newton’s science could not penetrate.
Newton’s attempt to turn alchemy into a genuine science was nowhere near as unpromising from a seventeenth-century viewpoint as it seems today. The premise that one can transform one kind of metal into another was in no way absurd, considering that the science of our own time teaches that the chemical elements were created from primordial hydrogen and helium in the interior of stars. Impressive transformations do occur in chemical laboratories, and alchemists (like modern evolutionary biologists) must have considered it arbitrary to set limits to what they could achieve. We know now that gold is itself an element that cannot be created by conventional chemistry, but we know such things because of scientific developments that owe a great deal to the failed efforts of the alchemists. The problem was that the alchemists were trying to accomplish something that required a far more advanced knowledge than they possessed. Perhaps some of our contemporary scientific projects, when viewed from the perspective of a future century, will look like alchemy in this respect.
I would even defend Newton’s attempt to treat the Bible as a source of data from which scientific predictions could be derived. Michael White explains that Newton’s aim was very much like that of the boldest scientists of our own time. "He was interested in a synthesis of all knowledge and was a devout seeker of some form of unified theory of the principles of the universe." That aim is shared today by Newton’s successor as Lucasian Professor at Cambridge, Steven Hawking, who wrote for an admiring public that unification of the four fundamental forces of physics would permit mortals to "know the mind of God." Similar dreams of a "theory of everything" are shared by biologists like Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson, whose recent book Consilience urges us to found our ideas about things like religion and literature upon the solid rock of Darwinian evolution. Newton’s premise that you need more than physics and chemistry if your ambition is to understand everything seems far more sophisticated to me than the narrow reductionism of his modern successors. I grant that Newton was drilling a dry hole, but I would still argue that, if your wish is to know the mind of God, it makes sense to start with the assumption that God has a mind.
I enjoyed White’s biography, but I want to put his portrait of Newton to good use rather than merely to appreciate it. How would Isaac Newton have approached the investigation of our modern versions of alchemy and biblical prophecy? From White and other sources I derive a picture of the Newtonian mind which has the following characteristics:
First, in comparison with twentieth-century scientists, Newton was metaphysically unprejudiced. He would take seriously questions, particularly those involving supernatural influences, which the materialists of his day and ours would reject out of hand. Second, whether he was dealing with gravity or alchemy, Newton disliked vague theories and purely logical concepts, which add little to our understanding. He wanted theories to be expressed precisely, preferably in mathematical terms, so that they predicted certain very definite outcomes and excluded others. Third, Newton had a certain creative genius for testing empirically those precisely defined theories. Fourth, even Newton was successful only when he focused his mighty intellect on a problem that could be solved with the technology available to him, and unsuccessful when he picked the wrong puzzle to solve. If Newton had tried to discover the nature of gravity rather than its precise effects, he probably would have been as unsuccessful as he was with alchemy.
With that background, we can better understand how the Newtonian mind might approach two modern problems that would have fascinated both the scientist and the sorcerer in him.
Gerald Schroeder is a physicist and Bible scholar who taught at MIT before moving to the Weizmann institute in Israel. His book The Science of God is a wide-ranging attempt to reconcile the Torah with scientific knowledge. Much of it consists of an attempt to present a non-Darwinian approach to evolution, and I will discuss this aspect of the book later, along with other books advocating "guided evolution." For now I am interested in Schroeder’s most original contribution, which is his use of relativity’s "time dilation" principle to reconcile the six-day creation described in Genesis with the approximate age of fifteen billion years that modern science estimates for the universe.
Schroeder starts by noting that the generations of humans starting with Adam adds up to 5757 years. The biblical "clock" for this purpose starts after the initial six days, a mysterious preliminary period which ancient commentators said contains "all the secrets and ages of the universe." Before Adam, and especially before the creation of the earth, the Bible speaks of time from the viewpoint of the universe as a whole, which Schroeder interprets to mean at the moment of "quark confinement," when stable matter formed from energy early in the first second of the big bang.
Relativity theory teaches that time passes much more slowly in conditions of great gravitational pressure than it does on earth. Using these familiar principles, Schroeder calculates that a period of six days under the conditions of quark confinement, when the universe was approximately a million million times smaller and hotter than it is today, is equal to fifteen billion years of earth time. Genesis and modern physics are reconciled.
I leave it to Schroeder’s fellow physicists to say whether he has done the math right. My interest is more in the significance of the correlation. Why does a respectable scientist risk God only knows what ridicule from his peers to establish a harmony between Genesis and science about such matters as the age of the universe and the lifespans of the patriarchs? (Schroeder accepts the biblical dating as literally accurate after the creation week, and so he believes that Methuselah really did live 969 years, due to slower metabolism in antediluvian times.) Why are Jewish audiences fascinated by a kind of argument that has previously been thought to be attractive only to fundamentalist Christians? According to the dominant modern theories, the book of Genesis was pieced together from a variety of legendary sources, all stemming from ancient peoples who were utterly ignorant of modern science. If such a book happened to get the age of the universe right, it would be a fluke. Any correspondence between the six days of Genesis and the scientifically determined age of the universe must therefore be a meaningless coincidence—unless the author of Genesis knew something modern science thinks he couldn’t have known.
A mixed-up reviewer of The Science of God in the Washington Post wrote that "Schroeder is no fundamentalist," and that "unlike the current proponents of the ‘Bible Codes,’ Schroeder takes the text seriously as a text." Jeffrey Satinover’s Cracking the Bible Code tells a different story. Among the most distinguished scientific proponents of the Torah Codes, Satinover lists Gerald Schroeder, who "after publishing more than seventy scientific articles . . . left it all to come to Jerusalem where he lectures to people from all over the world about the interface of science and religion." Satinover also writes that a first-century Judean kabbalist named Nechunya asserted that the hidden teaching of Genesis is that the universe is "not a mere few thousand years old as the text seems to claim on the surface, but is 15.3 billion years old, the very age arrived at only recently" by science. Once you understand that Schroeder is a believer in the existence of hidden codes in the Torah, codes that (if genuine) reveal a supernatural intelligence, then you can understand why he thinks that reconciling Genesis with modern science is a worthy project. Schroeder and other speakers on this subject draw large audiences because many educated people have become convinced that the Codes are real, and this is an important cultural phenomenon.
Rational discussion of the Torah Codes issue is impeded by the publicity given to a sensational book, The Bible Code, by Michael Drosnin, which was instantly repudiated by all the reputable mathematicians who deal with the subject. Journalists consigned the subject to the "sightings of Elvis" category, thus concealing the real debate from public awareness as effectively as the obsessive secrecy with which Newton concealed his alchemical researches. If you want to understand the real Torah Codes issue from the viewpoint of a fair-minded sympathizer, I recommend Jeffrey Satinover’s book and the review of it in this journal by William A. Dembski (August/September). If you want to read the negative case powerfully stated by a highly qualified (and Orthodox Jewish) critic, start with the web site of Cal Tech physics and math professor Barry Simon [http://www.wopr.com/biblecodes/TheCase.htm]. More books are anticipated, including one by Doron Witztum, the leading advocate of the Codes, and I am inclined to wait before coming to any opinion. I’ll just provide here a brief description of the controversy, as the necessary background for explaining the Newtonian approach.
The basic claim is that, if you take the Hebrew text of the Torah, running all the letters together and omitting the spaces, significant word patterns (such as names of persons, plants, and places) emerge at equidistant letter sequences (ELS). In other words, one finds the words and combinations by starting at some point and taking every sixth letter, or every tenth, or any other constant sequence, going either forward or backward. A great many of the resulting word patterns could be due to chance, but some examples appear to be intentional. A particularly simple and charming example comes from the opening passages of Leviticus, which describe the Aaronic priesthood. Surprisingly, there is no direct reference in the text to Aaron himself (AHRN in unvocalized Hebrew). The esteemed Israeli mathematician Eliyahu Rips checked the 716- letter passage by computer for appearances of AHRN at equidistant intervals, and found 25. Mathematical analysis predicted 8.3, and the odds against 25 occurrences was calculated at 1 in about 2 million. (The math is undisputed, but critics say that the statistical effect vanishes when a somewhat longer passage is tested.) Any single example of this sort might be a fluke, but if there are many similar examples (and that of course is the claim) then chance at some point becomes untenable as an explanation.
The above example illustrates what some call the "moderate" Torah Codes hypothesis. If the examples really are a deliberate coding, and not a product of chance or biased testing, then the Torah seems to have been written by an awe-inspiring (but not necessarily supernatural) intellect. This would be an immensely important discovery in itself, and would demolish the dominant theory that the Torah was patched together by many authors over a period of centuries. Of course, a basic premise of any Torah Codes hypothesis is that similar codes do not appear in other literary works, including other books of the Bible, when comparison tests are run. A Hebrew translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the customary control text for testing the uniqueness of the Torah in this respect.
There is also an "extravagant" Torah Codes hypothesis, illustrated by the "great sages" experiment that has been at the center of the Torah Codes controversy. Because an adequate description of the experiment would be distracting here, I refer readers to Satinover and the web pages for the specifics. For my present purpose it is enough to say that the Torah supposedly encodes not only information concerning matters which a human author of the Torah conceivably could have known, but also information about persons who lived centuries after the Torah was written—specifically famous persons of medieval and modern times, from Maimonides to Hitler. The extravagant hypothesis seems incredible, but it comes with an impressive show of meticulous verification from mathematicians and cryptologists and it has convinced some previously skeptical persons of high intelligence. For this reason the Codes are playing an important role in the rise of Orthodox fundamentalism in Israel, and have also attracted the attention of some Christians.
I expect readers join me in regarding the whole subject with suspicion, because we have so often seen the credulous taken in by similar-sounding claims. We may even be suspicious on theological grounds, because the whole thing sounds too much like the very unbiblical process of fortune-telling. (I wish the moderate hypothesis, so intriguing in itself, could be evaluated independently of the sensationalism that is inherent in the extravagant hypothesis.) Our suspicions are not to the point, however, when the subject is how Isaac Newton would have looked at the matter. The Torah Codes hypothesis combines elements of conventional biblical prophecy and alchemy, and I have no doubt that Newton would have seen it as a possible avenue to the ultimate truths that he was seeking. He would not have rejected even the extravagant version out of hand, but would have labored to make it specific and testable. This is also what both the Torah Codes advocates and their skeptical adversaries have tried to do.
How does one test whether the codes are genuine? I can best describe the basic principle by explaining how not to do it. If you take any large database and try out enough possibilities, you will eventually discover some amazing correlations. The inherent manipulability of statistical analysis is familiar to lawyers because of the "junk science" that is endemic in litigation. Exactly the same statistics can be used to prove that a drug either does or does not cause some disabling condition, and it is child’s play to make a case that any database of criminal sentencing decisions or hiring decisions embodies discrimination of some kind. All you have to do is try out enough combinations until you hit pay dirt, a practice that statisticians call data-dredging or "cherry-picking."
That is why it is critical to the credibility of the great sages experiment that the names of the sages and the accompanying details were selected on objective criteria from a standard Jewish encyclopedia, so that there was no opportunity for cherry-picking—if the experiment was done as advertised. Of course the skeptics suspect that the cherry-picking was done first, and then the encyclopedia may have been brought in as a post hoc justification for a combination that happened to work. (Some of the skeptics are reluctant to charge deliberate fraud, but it is hard to attack the methodology without suggesting that the advocates surreptitiously took advantage of "wiggle room" to pick the ripest cherries.) The skeptics have asserted that alternate spellings of the names could just as well have been used, in which case War and Peace would have fared better than the Torah. The proponents of the Codes respond that it is the skeptics who are doing the cherry-picking, and that’s where I’ll leave the matter for now. I wouldn’t look for either side to land a single knockout blow, but as the results of additional tests are published it will eventually become clear to unprejudiced observers that one side is finding its predictions confirmed and the other side is regularly taking evasive action to explain away the facts.
From a Newtonian perspective the scientific enterprise is working exactly as it should. A frankly supernatural hypothesis is not being dismissed on a priori grounds (although some of the skeptics would plainly like to do just that if they could) but is being debated on scientific grounds in public territory. The rigorous statistical methodology which both sides profess to practice provides a valuable lesson in how to tell the difference between genuine scientific testing and the counterfeit version which looks only for confirming evidence to buttress a favored belief. And that brings me to evolution.
The Darwinian theory starts with facts that everyone acknowledges, and then goes on to make a gigantic extrapolation that is highly controversial. Organisms vary, and variations that are genetic in origin may be inherited. Some variations make the organism either more or less fit to survive and reproduce. Since only those organisms that succeed in reproducing leave descendants, it is practically true by definition that favorable variations will tend to spread through the breeding population, and unfavorable variations will tend to disappear. This may be termed a process of "change in gene frequencies," and that is the most common textbook definition of "evolution."
None of that is controversial, and none of it explains the interesting part of evolution, which is the part that tells us how we get all the varieties of plants and animals in the first place. Gene frequencies can and do vary in stable populations, and natural selection may simply be preventing change by weeding out the mutants. The standard Darwinian textbook claim, of course, is that the same process of constant variation that occurs in stable species sometimes results in the appearance of new species, and eventually in organisms that are as radically different as vertebrates and invertebrates, or even plants and animals. The grand theory is that all of evolution, from the first living molecule to human beings, is nothing more than the accumulation of small genetic variations over vast stretches of geological time. This is usually coupled in textbooks, however, with some vague qualification that "the details of the process are still being investigated," or even that "some scientists believe that other mechanisms are at work." Upon investigation, the "other mechanisms" turn out to be Darwinian after all (chance, punctuated equilibria) or else speculative (hopeful monsters, self-organizing systems). When the smoke has cleared, the standard neo-Darwinian model remains the only game in town.
Dissatisfaction with Darwinism emerges because well-informed persons who are not blinded by prejudice realize that the extrapolation from observed microevolution to a complete history of life is unsupported by evidence, and that scientists tolerate it only because of the difficulty of coming up with an acceptable alternative. I won’t detail the argument here, since I have made it in four books (especially Darwin on Trial), but I’ll just say that very few scientists, when pressed, will explicitly endorse the Darwinian extrapolation. They prefer to defend the vague proposition that "evolution has occurred," and to concede that there is little consensus on the precise mechanism. When evolution means only that variations happen, or that there is a pattern of relationship among living creatures (as there is among automobiles, symphonies, or judicial opinions), then this claim is uncontroversial because it is empty. It is as if Newton had announced that the explanation of gravity is "attraction." That’s not wrong; it’s just not very informative.
Physicist Gerald Schroeder, geologist John Cafferky, and biochemist Michael Denton are all skeptical about Darwinism, but insist that "evolution has occurred." The authors come not only from different scientific disciplines, but have differing motivations. As we have seen, Schroeder is primarily interested in reconciling science and Genesis, although this program does not mean for him what it does for Protestant fundamentalists. Because the Six Days of quark confinement time equal fifteen billion years of earth time, and because Jewish scholars have never read the first chapters of Genesis literally, Schroeder can easily accept most of the standard evolutionary story, provided that it is directed by divine providence and ends with God putting the breath of life (ruach, in Hebrew) into man and making him a living soul (neshama). Cafferky is a Christian who as a geologist saw the absurdity of the standard chemical evolution scenarios, by which life is supposed to have emerged from a (nonexistent) prebiotic soup. One might say that he accepts the geology of evolution (i.e., the standard fossil history, which he relates skillfully) but not the Darwinian mechanism. The latter has always found its primary support in materialist philosophy and doesn’t fit the fossil evidence much better than it fits the religious view that God created man and endowed him with a soul.
The biochemist Denton’s book is in some ways the most interesting, and in other ways the most baffling. Denton provides a wealth of information about just how marvelous the world is, and just how carefully each feature of it had to be "tuned" to make it possible for weird things like us to come into existence. Even a mundane substance like water has features that seem practically miraculous when you stop to think about it, and Denton rightly devotes a whole chapter to the astonishing properties of this "vital fluid." Denton thus carries forward into chemistry and biology an argument that has become almost standard in cosmology: the natural laws of the universe had to be so finely calibrated to make life possible that it is hard to avoid concluding that there is some purpose behind the whole show. At the present time biology is dominated by vehement materialists like Francis Crick, Richard Lewontin, Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Dawkins, whereas cosmologists frequently sound like budding theologians. (One prominent mathematical physicist, Paul Davies, has even won the Templeton Prize for "progress in religion.") Perhaps the time will come when biologists will follow the physicists and abandon their love affair with strict materialism, but they will have to pay a heavy price. Biologists have long committed all their prestige to defending Darwinism, and they can’t defend the theory without the philosophy.
The confusing part about Denton is his own philosophy. His subtitle says that the book is about "How the laws of biology reveal purpose in the universe." This implies that the laws are one thing, and the purpose behind them is something else. Intelligent agents have purposes, and to talk about the universe having a purpose is either to talk about God or to attribute God-like qualities to the universe itself. Yet Denton also insists with emphasis that "the cosmos is a seamless unity which can be comprehended ultimately in its entirety by human reason and in which all phenomena, including life and evolution and the origin of man, are ultimately explicable in terms of natural processes." Then whose purpose are we talking about, and does the purpose itself come about through natural processes? Furthermore, what empirical evidence is there that the laws of biology and physics are sufficient (as opposed to merely necessary) to produce life? Denton explains that he means to exclude a priori any possibility that God acted during the course of cosmic history, and hence to disavow special creation. This move is understandable for an author who is under suspicion and wants to persuade the scientific world to take his ideas seriously. (Denton’s first book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, was much more radically critical of evolutionary naturalism, and hence was dismissed by Darwinists as "creationist.") I am sympathetic with Denton’s problem, but I predict that the Darwinian materialists will be implacable. They will realize as I do that, once the existence of a purpose-giver external to the material world is admitted, it will not be so easy to confine such explanations by a priori stipulations.
Evolutionary biology, whether practiced by strict materialists, theists, or Aristotelian teleologists, bears a striking resemblance to alchemy. Both disciplines involve transformations, and both have a certain scientific basis in that some transformations actually do occur—within limits. The genuine science becomes alchemy when ambitious investigators assume dogmatically that they can extrapolate from one kind of change to another, and imagine that they know how to transform lead into gold, lifeless chemicals into living organisms, and bacteria into human beings. I am sure Isaac Newton would tell us that the way to find out whether these claims are true is to make them specific, and hence testable, and then to see if they pass objective tests. I’ll provide three examples, one from each author under review, to illustrate how this can be done. I need to emphasize that scientific testing cannot prove a negative, such as that "macroevolution does not occur," or that "there is no code of any kind concealed in the Torah." All that testing can do is to consider a specific prediction, and say whether it is confirmed or disconfirmed.
1. Fossil Studies. Like many fossil experts, John Cafferky uses the extinct therapsids, or "mammal- like reptiles," as his prime example to prove that at least one macroevolutionary transition has occurred, although he also cites it as evidence against the Darwinian mechanism. Very briefly, mammals have three ear bones and reptiles have only one. The therapsid class contains species which seem intermediate between reptiles and mammals in this respect, with jaw bones in transition towards the ear. The claim is sometimes made that specific therapsids actually are ancestors of today’s mammals, and at other times in the more modest form that the therapsids illustrate certain characteristics that the true ancestors would be likely to have had. Cafferky says that "for those who want to dispute the ‘fact’ of evolution, this is the case to crack."
What’s wrong with the proof? Well, it’s flagrant cherry-picking. The fossil record, like the Torah, is a database. If armies of Darwinists, convinced on a priori grounds that their theory is true, go through millions of fossils looking for confirming examples, they are bound to find something that looks like a possible transformation. This is not scientific testing, and the Torah Codes proponents would never dare to try to get away with anything so blatant. The way to test any hypothesis is to say in advance precisely what you expect to find, and then to examine without prejudice all the available data to see whether the prediction is generally confirmed. Because the fossil record is incomplete, greater weight should be given to areas where fossils are relatively plentiful (marine invertebrates) than to areas where fossils are relatively rare (land vertebrates, like the therapsids). Test any specific evolutionary theory in this manner, and you will come out with the conclusion that hard evidence of transformations at the higher levels of the taxonomic hierarchy (e.g., phyla, classes) is conspicuous by its absence.
2. Embryology. Schroeder endorses a modified version of the "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" formula of Ernest Haeckel, Darwin’s unscrupulous German supporter, to illustrate how embryonic development resembles "evolution." Haeckel’s long-discredited notion survives in fragmented form, as in the common but false claim (repeated by Schroeder) that human embryos have gills. Schroeder also reproduces a set of drawings from the magazine Scientific American purporting to show that vertebrate embryos are similar at early stages of development, and develop the distinctive characteristics of their species in later stages. In fact the drawings are fakes, drawn by Haeckel to indicate what he thought the embryos ought to look like. The fraud has repeatedly been exposed, first during Haeckel’s lifetime and most recently by embryologists in 1997, but the drawings continue to be used in textbooks and in popular books on evolution. Photos of equivalent embryos actually show only a vague similarity, and in any case the different vertebrate embryos develop to this point of relative commonality by radically different methods. This unexpected variation in early embryonic states is entirely contrary to Darwinian predictions. I give this example not to embarrass Schroeder, who as a physicist reasonably assumed that he could trust the usual scientific sources, but to illustrate how the normal processes of scientific testing have been suspended in the field of evolution. This example involves more than just selective use of evidence; it involves the embracing by an entire scientific community of a fable, despite the continual availability of disconfirming evidence from experts.
3. Molecular genetics. Michael Denton makes the standard assumption that DNA contains a blueprint or recipe that specifies every detail of embryonic development. In his own words, "From the initial fertilization of the egg cell every single one of the unimaginable infinity of biochemical and developmental events which shapes the growing mass of embryonic cells into a human form is under the control of the DNA master tape." Even though this "DNA is everything" thesis is very widely assumed, it is not supported by the experimental evidence reported in the scientific literature. Proteins encoded by DNA affect development, but the complete "program" is as yet undiscovered. Although DNA mutations can produce spectacular birth defects, this does not mean that they can reprogram the developmental process. The notion that we can reprogram the developmental process by DNA mutations is likewise questionable. For example, a PhD dissertation by Paul Nelson, to be published in late 1998 by the University of Chicago’s distinguished "Evolutionary Monographs" series, explains in detail how all attempts to change the direction of embryonic development by inducing mutations have failed. This point is of central importance, because all existing macroevolutionary scenarios depend on the assumption that one can reprogram the DNA "recipe" by inducing mutations, and thus change the direction of development and produce a viable adult phenotype. If this assumption were restated as a testable hypothesis, and examined objectively, I see no reason to believe it would survive.
The battle between science and sorcery that went on inside Isaac Newton’s mind remains a living issue today, but it has taken new forms. Scientific materialists think that "science" is identical with their philosophy, which is why they accept Darwinism uncritically and think that they can understand everything if they have a complete theory of particle physics. I stand with Newton as a proponent of metaphysical open-mindedness, and think that any theory can be scientific if it is stated precisely and tested empirically. The price of sticking to testability is high, however. It is that scientists have to admit to the public, and to themselves, that there are a lot of important questions they cannot answer for now, including the mystery of how complex organisms came into existence.
I would not say that Newton was the last of the sorcerers. He went down some strange paths, but he tried to make his inquiries genuinely scientific. Some admirers have called Charles Darwin "the Newton of biology." It would be more appropriate to say that Darwin was the Sigmund Freud of biology, because like Freud he was a man with brilliant ideas and a persuasive manner who deliberately framed his theory so it could evade true empirical testing. His successors have followed his example. It is probably too much to hope that they will be the last of the alchemists.
Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer. By Michael White. Addison-Wesley. 403 pp. $27.
The Science of God: The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom. By Gerald Schroeder. Free Press. 226 pp. $25.
Cracking the Bible Code. By Jeffrey Satinover. Morrow. 346 pp.$23.
Evolution's Hand: Searching for the Creator in Contemporary Science. By John Cafferky. East End Books. 200 pp. $20 Canadian.
Nature's Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe. By Michael J. Denton. Free Press. 453 pp. $27.50.
Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds.
First Things journal is published by The Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.