There is no doubt that the earth is very old, about 4.6 billion years old by most calculations and that life appeared on it a very long time ago although no-one is sure when. It is certain also that all the multifarious forms of life we know evolved from a common ancestry. What is not so certain is how. How did life begin and what was the mechanism by which species divided off, and prospered or not as the case may be?
For 150 years the dominant answer to these questions has been "Darwinism." Darwinism is not a synonym for evolution; rather, it is a particular theory about how evolution occurs. Darwinism posits that random variation and natural selection are the two mechanisms which gave rise to all the various species that have ever lived and by which life itself began. There have been other theories over the last century and a half and a determined rearguard battle on behalf of those who are incapable of thinking metaphorically and thus need to accept the literal truth of the Genesis account, but by and large Darwinism has reigned supreme. Given that so much of Western Science is interconnected, and that such questions as "where do we find oil", "how do we fight this disease?" or "where will the next earthquake occur?" have a large evolutionary component in their answers, the commitment to evolution amongst scientist is almost universal. Unfortunately debate over evolution has become narrowly focused into a square off between Biblical creationism on the one hand and Darwinism on the other. This has led to a diminution of thinking about evolution, as any questioning of the Darwinian orthodoxy is seen as caving into the totally unacceptable creationist alternative.
Unfortunately, there is much that Darwinism can't explain about our evolutionary history. The origin of life, for example, and the development of organisms at a sub cellular level. The questions left by Darwinism are met amongst hard core Darwinists with a faith that would do any Christian credit. "The answer is not apparent, but it will be found, and probably soon" is the stock response. The gaps in Darwinism are what gave rise to the Intelligent Design movement. Intelligent Design thinkers such as Michael Behe noted the difficulty of Darwinism in explaining the existence of simple organisms which, when subject to microscopic examination, turn out to be enormously complex and appear to have no more primitive forms out of which they might have developed. The questions were good ones, but the Intelligent Design movement was quickly hijacked by the Biblical creationists who quite wrongly assumed that an attack on Darwinism was an attack on the whole concept of evolution, and that if Darwin was proven wrong, everyone would shrug and return to Genesis. The Intelligent Design movement has lost most of its credibility in this battle, but the questions have not gone away.
Right now, in Altenburg in Austria there is a meeting of sixteen leading evolutionary theorists who are discussing ways in which the obvious shortcomings of Darwinism may be addressed . They are suggesting innovative ways of explaining the obvious fact of evolution in terms of the new knowledge given us by quantum physics and genetics. This may well be one of the most significant scientific gatherings in the history of Western science. Just as Darwinian thinking has given a paradigm that has influenced politics, business and interpersonal affairs for over a century, so now a new way of thinking about ourselves is emerging. It is exciting news not just for evolutionary biologists and geneticists but for all who are interested in truth.