Darwinism strikes back

'Evolution in Action ... Breakthrough of the Year'Thanks to evolutionary science, we now know about the selection pressures that have played a part in the history of stickleback fish and the European blackcap, a species of warbler. For Science magazine, this was earth-shattering news. Its upbeat and jubilant editor Donald Kennedy proclaimed “Evolution in Action” as 2005’s “Breakthrough of the Year”.

Indeed, 2005 was the best of times for Darwinists in many ways. The Economist surveyed triumphantly humanity’s evolutionary history in its Christmas edition. A US District Court in Pennsylvania ruled that “Intelligent Design” should stay out of science classrooms. Parents in other states sued schools for deviating from Darwinian doctrines. These were fitting counterpoints in the year of the 80th anniversary of the famous Scopes Monkey trial, when two of America’s most famous lawyers debated whether Darwin or the Bible’s creation story should be taught in Tennessee schools.

And yet it was the worst of times. 2005 passed ominously for those dedicated to the dissemination of Darwinism in its most fundamental sense. Der Spiegel lamented the “fact” that “120 million Americans believe that God created Adam out of mud some 10,000 years ago and made Eve from his rib”[1]. Science magazine fretted over “increasing ID activity in Latin America and Europe”[2]. The Lancet asked: “what can be done to convince the public that Darwin's theory of evolution is as clear cut as Newton's description of gravity?” [3]

These have been the concerns of leading Darwinian apologists such as Daniel Dennett, of Tufts University in the US, and Richard Dawkins, of Oxford University in the UK, for some time now. Despite their efforts, it would seem an age of foolishness is approaching. Hordes of barbaric believers are set to push their age of wisdom into oblivion…

The question asked by the Lancet’s editorial is an important one. How can we establish an epoch of belief in the truth of evolution by natural selection? The idea originally set out by Darwin is powerful and intellectually satisfying. Modern discoveries have integrated the arguments clearly and cleverly. Why then, this incredulity? Are people stupid? Are they brainwashed? Are evolutionists wrong?

No doubt, some dissenters raise unreasonable objections to Darwinism and the alternatives they offer are often unsatisfying. But I would not go so far as Richard Dawkins. He finds it   “absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that).”[4]   

Richard Dawkins Evolutionists have also got it wrong when they seek a purely psychological account of religious belief and resistance to Darwinism. Take Richard Dawkins’ obviously loaded definition of biology: “the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose”.[5] This definition accounts for the history of biology: “so powerful is the illusion of design, it took humanity until the mid-19th century to realize that it is an illusion”[6] and allows the conclusion that “it is almost as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism, and find it hard to believe”.[7] Dawkins here demonstrates the intellectual elitism of the Enlightenment: only a privileged few bask in the light of truth, the majority of us are always in the dark.

Daniel Dennett calls belief in a designer a “deeply intuitive idea”. It must, he supposes, have evolved around the time of “tool-making man” Homo habilis. Paul Bloom writing The Atlantic Monthly goes further. Apparently, humans suffer from “hypertrophy of social cognition. We see purpose, intention, design, even when it is not there.”[8] In fact, he says, humans have evolved to be creationists. That’s why there are so many of them. It takes a special genius, an enlightened intellect to see the real truth of blind evolution.

This line of argumentation contains a level of self-ratification worthy of Freud or Feuerbach. You start with the conviction that God or design is an illusion, then go about trying to work out how this illusion came about.

If the Lancet really wants to know why Darwinism isn’t popular, it would do well to look at obstacles within the scientific community. In brief, we can consider three obstacles.

The first is the salient hostility of the Dawkinses and Dennetts towards religion. Dawkins is convinced that “faith is one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate”.[9] Dennett, on the topic of religious beliefs, predicts that “times are coming when they will no longer be viable, except in zoos and other preserves.”[10] The pair pepper their writings with quips about the promise of 72 virgins, the second coming and the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

For Dawkins, religion is the source of all conflict and hatred in the world. Taking advantage of the September 11 attacks, the polemicist declared his own war: “My last vestige of "hands off religion" respect disappeared in the smoke and choking dust of September 11th 2001, followed by the "National Day of Prayer," when prelates and pastors did their tremulous Martin Luther King impersonations and urged people of mutually incompatible faiths to hold hands, united in homage to the very force that caused the problem in the first place.”[11]

Talking tough on religion may be personally satisfying for Dawkins but his approach is alienating and may push people away from even the basic ideas of Darwinism. That debates should be courteous is long-established. In the medieval university it was the “principle of charity”; since the Enlightenment it has been “tolerance”. That Dawkins does not even consider religion worthy of debate is merely a manifestation of his approach. More tact might be expected from the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science.

A second obstacle to the public understanding of evolution is the inflexible attitude taken by some Darwinists to the relationship between science and faith. The late Stephen Jay Gould was an exception; he argued that the two fields occupied non-overlapping magisteria. Philosopher Mariano Artigas has suggested that the bridges between the two should be built by metaphysics.[12]

For Dawkins however “the alleged convergence between religion and science is a shallow, empty, hollow, spin-doctored sham.” Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson is adamant “The two world views -- science-based explanations and faith-based religions -- cannot be reconciled.”[13] For Dennett, and others, Darwinism should not stop at dismantling religion: “the idea that we should protect the social sciences and humanity from evolutionary thinking is a recipe for disaster”.[14]

Anthony FlewThese claims had already become artefacts of an outdated worldview in the late 20th century. Now they just sound like the weather channel. Besides, many of the modern discoveries are pointing in precisely the opposite direction. The delicate architecture of the universe seems to point, more than anything, to a remarkable convergence between scientific and religious truth, rather than an antagonism. Wasn’t it the evidence of science that high-profile philosopher Antony Flew cited for his recent conversion from atheism to deism? [15]

The final obstacle to the dissemination of Darwinism is the media presentation of the research done into human evolution. The field is plagued by a propensity to sensationalism and overstatement. The Economist’s survey is a classic example. The brazenly confident tone in which discoveries are reported suggest that the history is a fait accompli. But some of the “plausible explanations” advanced for phenomena are hardly satisfying. How much are we supposed to hang on the idea that humans took on an upright stance to avoid being sunburnt on the savannah? Or the proposal that a good memory and colour vision gave monkeys a selective advantage while hunting for ripe bananas? Add to this the fact that the study of human evolution has been replete with paradigm shifts since its inception (what happened to Neanderthal man?) and one has to question the confident narratives of the press.

The explanations offered for the evolution of rationality are even less convincing. The “science” calls on “multi-stage processes” and “mental step-changes” to explain poorly-defined phenomena. To call it arm-chair philosophy would be an insult to philosophy.

There is much to be learnt from the study of evolution, and much to recommend it. But for the public to share in the fruits of this study, the promoters of Darwinism must stick to the facts and avoid the fiction. In particular, they must be wary of a Dickensian tendency to caricature, division and hyperbole.

Phillip Elias is studying medicine at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

[1] Spiegel interview with philosopher Daniel Dennett ‘Darwinism Completely Refutes Intelligent Design’ 26/12/2005 http://service.spiegel.de/cache/international/spiegel/0,1518,392319,00.html
[2] Editorial ‘Breakthrough of the Year’ Science Vol. 310 23/12/05 p.1869
[3] Editorial ‘Is intelligent design worth debating?’ The Lancet 2006; 367:2
[4] “Put Your Money on Evolution”  The New York Times  (April 9, 1989)  section VII  p.35
[5] The Blind Watchmaker  (1996)  p.1
[6] NewScientist  September 17 2005 p.33
[7] The Blind Watchmaker  (1996)  p.316
[8] Paul Bloom ‘Is God an Accident?’ The Atlantic Monthly  December 2005. 296(5): 105-112. 
[9] ‘Is Science a Religion?’ Humanist Jan/Feb 1997
[10] Darwin's Dangerous Idea  (1995)  p.514[11] The Devil's Chaplain (2004)
[12] The Mind of the Universe (2000) see especially pp.20-26[13] The Devil's Chaplain (2004)[14] [14] Spiegel interview with philosopher Daniel Dennett ‘Darwinism Completely Refutes Intelligent Design’ 26/12/2005 [15] Atheist Becomes Theist: Exclusive Interview with Former Atheist Antony Flew


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  • Phillip Elias