by David Deming
by David Deming: Global
Warming and the Age of the Earth: A Lesson on the Nature of Scientific Knowledge
Some time ago
I received an email asking how, as a scientist and geologist, I
could associate myself with the Discovery
Institute by signing their Dissent
from Darwinism statement. The statement reads, in toto, "We
are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural
selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination
of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged."
My critic seemed
to think that anyone who would agree with this statement was necessarily
a creationist, if not a Biblical fundamentalist that believed the
Earth was 6,000 years old. On the contrary, I'm an evolutionist.
I'm committed to naturalism in science, and I believe that radioactive
dating and other evidence shows the Earth to be about 4.6 billion
years old. The reason I'm an evolutionist is that science is based
largely on empirical evidence. The fossil record shows progressive
change in life through time. The farther back we go in time, the
more that life diverges from present day forms. If we do nothing
but look at the fossils, we see a process of natural change, or
There is no
scientific reason that one-hundred percent of biologist and geologists
should not sign the Dissent from Darwinism statement. Who
can disagree that "careful examination of the evidence" is indicated
for every scientific theory? And there is plenty of skepticism in
the scientific literature regarding the ability of natural selection
alone to account for the changes we infer from the fossil record.
A 2009 paper published in the Proceedings
of the National Academy of Science began with the words
"I reject the Darwinian assumption...[of] a single common ancestor."
A 2005 review paper published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution
noted that "the many intermediate forms hypothesized by Darwin"
were "missing." These are but two examples that illustrate a pervasive
theme of skeptical deliberation.
With the possible
exception of global warming, I am not aware of any other area in
science where scientists can be so unscientific, close-minded, and
dogmatic. Darwin is a sacred cow that cannot be questioned. Especially
in the field of zoology, there is a fanatical core of atheists and
materialists who have created a false dichotomy. One must either
accept Darwinian evolution as dogma or risk being labeled as a Biblical
fundamentalist. But in fact there are alternative theories of evolution
that do not rely primarily upon natural selection.
largest problem with Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection
is that it contradicts the fossil record. The theory predicts uniform,
gradual, and continual change. If Darwin's theory were correct,
every fossil would be a transitional form. But transitional
fossils are rare. As early as 1812, Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) documented
that the fossil record shows stasis punctuated by rapid change.
Organisms suddenly appear and disappear. Transitional fossils are
not unknown, but they are scarce. A 2009 paper published in the
of the Royal Society noted "the relative rarity of truly
informative fossil intermediates."
If one should
happen to mention that transitional fossils are uncommon, Darwinists
typically respond that is it not true that there are no transitional
fossils. But no one ever said that transitional fossils don't exist,
only that they are rare. Distorting an opponent's position into
a straw-man that is easily knocked down is a classic intellectual
fallacy. Debating a dogmatic Darwinist can be frustrating, because
it's like arguing with a twelve-year-old child that has no critical
are oblivious to the empirical data, they're only acting in the
best tradition. It was Darwin himself who initiated the practice
of explaining away the evidence. But in fact the story begins much
In the sixth
century BC what we know today as science began when the Greek natural
philosophers rejected supernatural explanations and invoked naturalism.
The necessary corollary to naturalism is uniformity, the supposition
that nature acts uniformly and predictably throughout both space
and time. Without uniformity, naturalist explanations are no better
than supernatural. Unless nature acts according to uniform and invariant
law, its acts are as capricious as those of the gods. With naturalism
and uniformity, the universe became a cosmos, an ordered place that
could be understood through observation and reason.
Mathematica (1687) Isaac Newton characterized uniformity
as the "foundation of all philosophy." Newton was not only the greatest
physicist of all time, he was also a Biblical fundamentalist who
believed that the Earth was no more than a few thousand years old.
Newton advocated intelligent design, and wrote that "the true God
is a living, intelligent, and powerful Being," not an abstract spiritual
principle. But ironically, Newton was also the godfather of Charles
The line of
academic descent from Newton to Darwin is unmistakable. The Scottish
mathematician, Colin Maclaurin (1698–1746), was a protégé of Isaac
Newton. At the University of Edinburgh, one of Maclaurin's students
was the geologist, James Hutton (1726–1797). In the English and
American tradition, Hutton is recognized as the founder of the modern
science of geology because he was the first to insist on uniformity.
But James Hutton
had little contemporary influence because his writing was terribly
prolix. The person who really founded uniformitarian geology was
Charles Lyell (1797–1875). Lyell wrote Principles
of Geology as an exposition of Hutton's uniformitarian geology.
The book was published in twelve editions from 1830 through 1875.
Enormously influential, Lyell's Principles virtually created
the modern science of geology. Among Lyell's readers was the young
Charles Darwin. Darwin took a copy with him on the voyage of the
Beagle, and later wrote "I studied [Principles] attentively;
and the book was of the highest service to me in many ways."
Lyell was the
single largest influence on Darwin. Darwin dedicated his book, Voyage
of the Beagle (1839), to Lyell. In his autobiography, Darwin
confessed "I saw more of Lyell than any other man." After Darwin
of Species (1859) he was warmly congratulated by Lyell.
Lyell was largely a polemicist and scientific fraud. It was Lyell
who taught Darwin to ignore evidence that contradicted theory. Lyell's
Principles was not so much a textbook on geology as a polemical
argument for an extreme form of uniformity. Lyell went far beyond
Newton and the ancient Greeks. He espoused a radical uniformitarianism
that relied not just upon invariant natural law, but invoked, without
justification, uniform causes, processes, and rates over geologic
time. These were Lyell's "principles" of geology.
In a letter
written shortly before the first edition of Principles was
published, Lyell admitted that "all my geology will come in as illustration
of my views of those principles." In other words, Lyell frankly
admitted his intention to reverse the normal scientific process.
Instead of collecting facts and inductively inferring a plausible
and testable theory, Lyell intended to start with a theory and then
selectively search for facts that supported his preconceived idea.
overtime at torturing the evidence to fit into his theoretical framework.
If the geological facts appeared to contradict absolute uniformity,
Lyell's favorite trick was to dismiss the evidence as inconclusive.
In the nineteenth century geologists found fossilized ferns on the
frigid island of Sptizbergen, north of Iceland. If tropical plants
once grew north of the Arctic Circle, it was evidence of dramatic
or even catastrophic climate change. But such change was antithetical
to Lyell's rigid uniformitarianism. Confronted with apparently irrefutable
evidence of climate change, Lyell confessed "I have tried in all
my travels to persuade myself that the evidence was inconclusive."
of evolution by natural selection is nothing but the uniformitarian
geology of Hutton and Lyell applied to biology. No one questions
natural selection. The fact that those organisms who are best adapted
to their environment are the ones that survive and reproduce is
a virtual tautology. But that doesn't answer the critical question.
Does natural selection have the creative power to account for the
dramatic changes we see in the fossil record?
was aware of the problem. He characterized the lack of intermediate
forms in the fossil record as "the most obvious and serious objection
which can be urged against the theory." Following Lyell's example,
Darwin argued that if the geologic evidence failed to match his
theory, it was because the fossil record was too fragmentary to
be conclusive. He devoted an entire chapter of Origin of Species
to what he termed the "imperfection of the geological record."
or geological record is indeed incomplete. In the year 1859, Darwin's
argument was plausible. But more than a hundred and fifty years
of fossil collecting has not produced the missing fossils or corroborated
Darwin's theory. Transitional fossils remain rare. Life on Earth
for the last several hundred million years has been characterized
by stasis punctuated by episodic and rapid change.
None of this
is an argument for supernaturalism. There are many scientific
alternatives to natural selection. Endosymbiotic
theory proposes that multi-celled organisms arose not through
natural selection, but through the interaction of single-celled
bacteria. We beginning to become aware that horizontal
gene transfer may have played an important role in evolution.
We don't know how life began, and we don't understand all the mechanisms
by which life evolved on Earth. And we most certainly are not aware
of what we don't know. It is relatively easy for us to assess the
extent of our knowledge, but impossible to fathom the extent of
dogmatically insisting that we have all the answers, we ought to
be highlighting gaps in our knowledge. And there are many. Thomas
Kuhn wrote that discovery in science "commences with the awareness
of anomaly." By "anomaly," Kuhn meant an area where facts do not
match theory. We can't make positive progress unless we first focus
on the negative. This is the lesson that Socrates taught in the
fifth century BC.
In 2008, I
published a critique of intelligent design theory in the peer-reviewed
Science Reviews. I concluded that intelligent design cannot
be construed as a scientific theory, and that the apparent goal
of the intelligent design movement was to restore Christian theology
as the queen of the sciences.
But I also
argued that to the extent creationists were highlighting areas in
which scientific theory was inadequate they were doing better science
than biologists. We ought to stop pretending that science has all
the answers. Science is an empirical system of knowledge, and we
never have all the data. It is the fate of every scientific theory
to be superseded. Even the invincible edifice of Newtonian mechanics
crumbled before the onslaught of relativity theory.
why I signed the Discovery Institute's Dissent from Darwinism.
Not because I'm a creationist, but because I'm a scientist. Religion
is conservative and dogmatic. But science is progressive and skeptical.
We can't save science by turning it into religion.
Deming [send him mail] is
associate professor of arts and sciences at the University of Oklahoma,
and the author of Science
and Technology in World History, Vols. 1 & 2.
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