A Skeptic’s View of Natural Selection

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A Skeptic’s View of NaturalSelection

by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken

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It’s become somewhat de rigueur in recent election cycles to ask politicians about their beliefs regarding biological evolution. This was an issue again this year with several Republican candidates earning the condemnation of pundits over their views on the matter. The issue rears its head occasionally, mostly in the context of public schooling, but rarely is any actual discussion on the matter allowed. The question is only asked to make a political point, and never to discuss specifics.

Whether applied to political candidates or not, the immediate response in any case in which any person expresses some skepticism around evolution is to suggest or suspect that the skeptic is therefore some kind of young-Earth creationist who thinks the Earth was created in 6 days about 10,000 years ago.

This is a false dichotomy. Creationism is hardly the only alternative to devout and orthodox Darwinism, and evolution is not synonymous with Darwinism. Evolution is one thing, and Darwinian natural selection is another, but ever since the days of the Scopes Monkey Trial, creationism is the straw man repeatedly set up to illustrate the alleged foolishness of those who express even the slightest doubt about the infallibility of Darwin and natural selection. The favored strategy is to suggest that the choice is only between Darwinism on the one hand, and creationism on the other.

This approach is nonsense. Evolution as a general concept has been a well-accepted theory among the educated since the ancient Greeks. Saint Augustine in the 4th century rejected the notion that the scriptures should be used as a guide to natural history, and an acceptance of evolution was widespread in Europe well before Darwin ever came on the scene.

Darwin’s innovation was the theory of natural selection which is a specific mechanism used to explain evolution.

What’s interesting is that the most venomous condemnation of skeptics seem to come from those who know nothing about evolutionary science whatsoever. Those who have read anything about the field at all know that natural selection as an explanation of evolution, while generally accepted by most biologists, is nevertheless a theory that is critiqued and questioned in scholarly publications.

As with any scientific theory, natural selection needs to be evaluated based on how well it explains natural phenomena. It is a theory like general relativity or quantum theory. Sometimes it explains natural phenomena quite well and sometimes it does not.

The reason physicists search for a "unified theory" is because the theories of Einstein and the great physicists of the past have their shortcomings. Does one therefore embrace "superstition" if he notes that general relativity is "a theory" and that another theory might be shown to better explain the universe? I suspect not.

In the same way, natural selection is a theory that has hardly proven itself as infallible. As this article by W.E. Lonnig illustrates, problems with the theory have been pointed out for years by biologists and other physical scientists who have encountered scores of natural phenomena that natural selection cannot fully account for.

Obviously, the scientists found questioning natural selection in scholarly texts are not arguing for any kind of creationism. They are, however, pointing out that the empirical evidence is insufficient to prove that natural selection is an adequate theory to explain all aspects of evolution.

Although refereed journals are hardly the last word on scholarly matters, they are helpful in illustrating what is considered acceptable discourse among most scholars. This bibliography of peer-reviewed articles questioning the validity of natural selection well illustrates that natural selection is indeed "a theory," and that a defense of the theory as unassailable smacks more of dogmatic metaphysics than of a healthy and open mind regarding scientific theories.

If one accepts generally accepted notions of empirical analysis, a theory must be regularly analyzed for its ability to describe the phenomena that it is supposed to describe. If it is found wanting, then the theory obviously has its shortcomings and remains but a theory. The fact is that natural selection has, on more than one occasion, been found wanting. Does this prove it is a useless theory? Not necessarily. But it does prove that it is not an immutable fact of life, and we would be right to harbor doubts about it.

The idea that science, if left to the scientists, would proceed unmolested by ideology and politics is unserious in the extreme. Scientists, physical and otherwise, all function within a little world probably best explained by the philosopher Paul Feyerabend in which scientific “progress” is not a matter of rational acceptance of a better theory over a worse theory, but is really a reflection of the ideologies of those who decide what is "scientific" and what is not.

Anyone who has spent any time in academia at all knows full well that the ideological and economic concerns of the gatekeepers dictate what is acceptable research at least as much as the quality of the research itself.

Beyond labeling everything they disagree with as superstition or religious extremism, the pundits who vilify critics of natural selection as creationists or religious nuts merely illustrate their own dogmatism about theories to which they have ascribed a devotion of religious proportions. When it comes to Darwin, they would do well to rely a little less on faith, and a little more on reason.

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] teaches political science in Colorado.

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