What did Richard Dawkins, the world's foremost champion of Darwinism, mean by saying that he believed in evolution but could not prove it?
At the start this year an intriguing internet initiative called the
World Question Center
120 leading scientists: “What do you
believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” One of the
respondents was the world’s best-known apologist for evolution, Richard
Dawkins. Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public
Understanding of Science at Oxford University and author of several
popular neo-Darwinian books. He is probably best known for popularising
his notions of “selfish genes” and “memes”, self-replicating units of
cultural evolution which explain human culture. He is also an ardent
and outspoken atheist who regards religion as a “virus of the mind”.
Dawkins answered what he believed but could not prove was this: “that
all intelligence, all creativity and all design anywhere in the
universe is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian evolution”.
In the light of an evangelical revival in the United States and the
consequent resurgence of fiery debates between creationists and
evolutionists, such a remark may be interpreted as a victory for
Biblical literalists. They have often claimed that evolution requires
as much faith as religion. Isn’t Dawkins, an outspoken critic of
religion, effectively admitting this?
Well, not really. In his interview with BBC Radio 4 on the question
Dawkins asserted that his “faith” was of “a different kind of
unproveability” to a religious one. In any case, Dawkins was not
talking about religion, at least on this occasion.
So what is Dawkins saying? Essentially this: that he is prepared to
take his belief in the explanatory power of Darwinism further than most
other scientists would currently allow. Underlying this response is
Dawkins’ position in a number of ongoing debates within scientific
circles. We tend to see evolutionary theory as a monolithic body facing
assaults from creationists and postmodernists. However, the internal
scientific disputes are perhaps just as compelling.
Many of the questions that puzzled Darwin remain points of contention
for scientists today. In addition, advances in genetics and molecular
biology, while strengthening to some extent the evidence for evolution,
have raised further anomalies.
The modern controversy inside evolution dates back to the mid-1970s.
While Dawkins and others at this time took for granted that evolution
proceeded at a regular rate (phyletic gradualism), American Marxist
Stephen Jay Gould was formulating quite a different approach. Gould
believed that the infamously incomplete fossil record could not be
explained by the slow and constant pressures of natural selection
proposed by Dawkins. He suggested a theory of “punctuated equilibria”;
that evolution lay dormant for long periods of time in between intense
and brief moments of change.
Gould’s co-author at the time, Niles Eldredge, describes the divide as
one of “ultra-Darwinians” (such as Dawkins and John Maynard Smith)
against “naturalists” (including himself and Gould) [Reinventing
1995] .The lines of dissent lie well beyond simply the
rate of evolutionary change. In 1979 Gould and colleague Richard
Lewontin published an article attacking the “synthetic theory”
developed earlier in the century by Theodosius Dobzhansky. This theory
was the standard amalgamation of Darwinian ideas with modern genetics.
It was based on the idea that organisms developed according to the
“adaptive advantages” provided by their genes. Gould and Lewontin
argued that in many cases it was simply external constraints and
contingencies that shaped species development.
Essentially this claim was one of many that go against Dawkins’
assertion that “all intelligence… is the direct or indirect product of
Darwinian evolution”. For Gould and others, natural selection is simply
not enough to explain many of the complex realities of the living
world. In particular, it is not enough to explain the human world.
Interestingly, the strongest opposition to the socio-biological
writings of the last 30 years has come not from religious circles but
rather from the humanist approaches of, for example, the Marxist Gould
or the atheist David Stove (Darwinian Fairytales
1996). These argue
that it is fanciful, if not dangerous, to base an anthropology purely
Besides rate and mechanism, there is a lack of consensus among
evolutionists on the target of evolutionary change. For Richard
Dawkins, the “selection” practiced by nature is an intensely individual
process. But biologist David Wilson and philosopher Elliott Sober have
put forward one of the more recent arguments for “group selection” --
that an organism’s ability to adhere to a group affects its chance of
survival more than individual genes (Unto Others: The Evolution and
Psychology of Unselfish Behaviour
1998). The theory raises questions of
sociability and altruism. Why in particular do humans seem to care
about others outside their relations? From whence comes this concept of
Dawkins’ reply to the World Question Centre can be viewed as an
affirmation of his position in any of the above debates. But
principally it is an affirmation of his belief in the ultimate
potential of empirical science to explain all reality. In this regard,
he opposes concerns that the “science” of modernism has failed in its
project to create a utopia for its believers. He also opposes a
movement among some scientists to propose limits to the explanatory
power of science. In the field of evolution, for instance, biochemist
Michael Behe has suggested that there are chemical pathways in living
bodies too complex to be explained by a random process of evolution
(Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution
Dawkins is rarely patient with his opponents, but he has been
particularly venomous when he attacks Behe.
Behe and others have argued for an Intelligent Design (ID) approach to
evolutionary science. For Dawkins this reeks of Christian obscurantism.
However the ID’s audience is not necessarily Christian. Recently the
prominent British philosopher Antony Flew announced his “conversion” to
theism, that is, to a belief that there must be some intelligent force
standing in the shadows of much of the complex reality we experience.
Dawkins has popularised many ideas about evolution but inside the field
his position is far from commanding. At one level he is one player
amongst many contesting questions of the rate, mechanism, target
and relevance of evolution. At another level, he is one of a dying
breed of scientists with an almost boundless confidence in the potency
of an empirical approach to knowledge.
Philip Elias is studying medicine at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.