People seem to need an overarching explanation of things — of origins, meaning, purpose, and destiny. Christianity provided these things for a long time but, at the close of the Enlightenment, was losing its luster among the educated. Too much in Christianity just didn’t make sense in light of continuing discoveries. The sciences were more compelling, and a better fit for the changing mood of the times.
When the Origin of Species appeared in 1859, it offered a plausible and rational alternative to God Did It. Evidence in its favor existed. Selective breeding of animals greatly changed them. That this might have occurred by natural selection made sense.
But natural selection did not explain where life came from in the first place. The notion of abiogenesis — that life began by accident in remote primal seas — was tacked on to Darwin. Scientists passed sparks through flasks of chemicals hoped to represent the primal seas, and molecules of compounds usually found in living things were discovered afterward. This was exceedingly thin evidence, but it pointed in the desired direction, and was accepted.
Finally, in 1964, the 3K background radiation pervading the universe was discovered, and described as the result of a postulated Big Bang. We now had Genesis without God: the creation of the world, the creation of life, and its divergence into all creatures, including us. Instead of debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, we talked of the state of the world 10^—44 seconds after the Big Bang.
To people thinking logically, as scientists not infrequently do, the three elements of this narrative were separable. The world could have come into being other than by the Big Bang, yet accidental abiogenesis might have occurred. Life might have arisen by means other than in the oceans by inadvertence, yet evolution by natural selection might still have occurred. In the minds of many, however, all three merged into a seamless creation story, and then acquired the emotional importance accruing to ideological dogma or religious faith.
In many respects it was a religion manqué. Faiths usually have standards of right and wrong, of morality, of Good and Evil, but evolutionism didn’t, and couldn’t, being in the philosophical sense purely material. The best it could do was to try to make moral behavior somehow conducive to the passing on of one’s genes. It could not begin to explain consciousness, and so ignored it. The central question of religious concern, what happens when we die, evolutionism could not even ask, as doing so would imply the existence of realms beyond the material.
Though strictly speaking evolution doesn’t imply progress toward anything, people want very much to believe that there is purpose or direction in life. Thus the ineradicable belief in the non-Christian popular mind that evolution is a straight-line advance from the primitive and inferior to the higher and better, with (who could have guessed it?) us at the pinnacle. Continuing motion toward perfection was sure to come.
Scientific inquiry is separated from ideological rigidity by a willingness to entertain questions and admit doubt. The giveaway of ideology is emotional hostility to skeptics. Evolutionists today have it in spades. Just as the church once reacted punitively to Galileo for abandoning the party line, so do ideological evolutionists to those who do not accept the dogma of evolutionary political correctness.
An example: In a column I once wrote regarding the alleged accidental formation of life, asked: “(1) Do we actually know, as distinct from hope, suspect, speculate, or pray, of what the primeval seas consisted? (2) Do we actually know what sort of sea or seas would be necessary to engender life in the time believed available? (3) Has the accidental creation of life been repeated in the laboratory? (4) Can it mathematically be shown possible without making highly questionable assumptions? And (5) If the answers to the foregoing are “no,” would it not be reasonable to regard the idea of chance abiogenesis as pure speculation?”
The response was violent. I found myself accused of “trying to tear down science,” of wanting “to undo the work of tens of thousands of scientists.” I wouldn’t have thought the tearing down of science within the destructive powers of this column, but perhaps I am playing with a loaded gun. I pictured smoking shards of laser physics, embryology, and organic chemistry lying in dismal mounds on a darkling plain.
The evolutionarily correct take apostasy seriously. Razib Khan, who largely runs the website Gene Expression, flew into a rage and deleted all mention of me from his web site (to which I had never posted anything). I was, he said, arrogant and ignorant and just no damn good. What he actually said was, “Anyone engaging in a Fred Reed impersonation, that is, talking about shit they know nothing about shamelessly and without any humility in light of their ignorance, will now be deleted at my discretion.”
I pondered this flood of unleashed humility, typical of its kind, and thought, “Huh? I asked questions. A question is an admission of ignorance. How is that arrogant?” And if my questions were stupid, why were so many of his readers, who are not at all stupid, impersonating me?
His reaction was less that of a scientist to questions than of an archbishop to heresy. Why the savagery? He or any other of my circling assailants could simply have answered my questions. For example, “Actually, Fred, residual pools of the ancient seas have been discovered, and you can find a quantitative analysis at the following link.” Or “Craig Venter has in fact replicated the chance formation of life, but it didn’t make the papers. Here’s the link.” (I made those up.)
I would have responded civilly, “Holy Catfish, Batman! I didn’t know. Thanks.” And that would have been that. But no one, not one soul, actually answered them. Why, I wonder?
If the answers to all four questions were “no,” it wouldn’t establish that the asserted abiogenesis didn’t happen, but only that we didn’t know whether it had happened. So why the blisterish sensitivity?
Because (or so I suspect) “no” answers would be conceding that the middle link of the Big Bang-abiogenesis-natural selection chain was pure speculation. It would be like asking a Christian to say, “Well, we don’t really know that Jesus was the son of God, but he could have been.”
Richard Feynman said that "science is the culture of doubt." Never happen.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. His latest book is Curmudgeing Through Paradise: Reports from a Fractal Dung Beetle. Visit his blog.