On the Other Hand, How Intelligent Is Neo-Darwinism?

by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan

The large number of reader comments I have received about my recent column discussing ID has motivated me to share a few more of my thoughts with LRC readers on the sound and fury generated by the idea of evolution. My aim is not to judge the scientific merit of any biological theory, a task for which I am unqualified. Instead, I will argue that many a theory forwarded as pure science can harbor metaphysical assumptions, unjustified by any empirical evidence. Their categorical difference can easily be missed, so that the metaphysical parasites are mistaken for native features of their scientific host. In untangling the typical presentation of modern evolutionary theory, separating a few of the threads of science and metaphysics wound through it, I also will suggest that the genuinely scientific aspect of evolutionary theory is no threat to religious belief, and that it is only the extra-scientific metaphysics that prominent proponents of evolution commonly bundle in with the science that conflicts with spirituality.

Biblical Fundamentalism

However, before addressing evolutionary theory head on, I think it is worthwhile to examine the belief system most vehemently opposed to it, Biblical fundamentalism. First off, I'd like to suggest that just about nobody really believes that every phrase in the Bible must be taken literally by a good Christian. How many fundamentalists are so literal-minded that they insist the Earth really has "four corners"? I have never encountered one. What's more, no one demands a literal interpretation of that verse because it would so obviously conflict with experience, and not because of internal textual clues. But once someone accepts that even a single term in Scripture can be read metaphorically by a good Christian, it is hard to see how he can reasonably condemn someone else's non-literal reading of another passage as a failure of faith, rather than merely a difference of opinion as to whether a literal interpretation is coherent.

As early as the 4th century A.D., St. Augustine warned Christians against treating the Bible as a scientific textbook. Doing so might discourage pagans from discovering the essentially spiritual teachings of Christ by muddling them together with peripheral, empirical propositions that the potential converts could see were false. For the most part, although with some quite notable and unfortunate exceptions, the Catholic Church followed Augustine's advice, declaring that any portion of the Bible should be considered literally true, unless and until the weight of experience and reason rendered such belief absurd.

This approach appears eminently sensible to me. However strong is one's faith that Scripture is divinely inspired, it should be apparent that the expression of any revelation in a human language inevitably is accomplished by a particular individual, one whose realm of conceptual possibilities is bounded by his culture, so that the specifics of how he tried to communicate his epiphany to his contemporaries might require translation to speak to others in other times and places. What's more, I cannot see why, on occasion, God might not see fit to inspire one of His messengers to transcribe a tale with no historically factual basis, perhaps, for example, to focus our attention on the spiritual import of the story. And, most importantly, it seems to me that the essence of being a Christian is attempting to follow Christ's example of how to live. I cannot imagine what importance the question of whether the six days of Creation in Genesis literally took 144 hours or not has for that effort. I fear that some Christians may have fallen into the trap of spiritual pride in this regard, hoping to demonstrate their superior sanctity by attempting to accept more of the Bible as literally true than can the multitude of less credulous followers of Christ. That does not strike me as a very Christian stance.

Evolution Is Not the Same as Neo-Darwinism

Here it is worthwhile to stress a crucial distinction, one often blurred by combatants on both sides of the evolution war: The broad theory that all forms of life on our planet arose by a lengthy evolutionary process from a common ancestor in no way entails the central dogma of the Neo-Darwinian faith, which is that biological evolution is driven solely by random mutation and natural selection.

The salvos fired from the Creationist camp often seem to imply that the only alternative to believing in Genesis as a literal, true account of all natural history is accepting the atheistic, mechanistic vision of life as the meaningless product of the random jostling of senseless bits of matter. From the other camp — peruse, for example, a score or so of posts on TalkOrigins.org — it is suggested that doubting any aspect of the Neo-Darwinist creed is to reject science itself and posit a world where living creatures simply popped out of nowhere as God thought them up.

Now, I consider the evidence that 1) all of the creatures living on the Earth today evolved, over many, many millions of years, from a common ancestor, to be about as conclusive as we can ever expect an empirical case to be. Furthermore, I think there is little cause to doubt that 2) random mutation and natural selection do take place, or that their effects can transform the character of living forms across generations. But Neo-Darwinism asserts something far stronger than simply the conjunction of those two propositions, namely, that 3) life is nothing more than the chance outcome of random mutation and natural selection, and that evolution can be completely explained on the basis of those two mechanisms. The support for 3) is much, much thinner than is that for 1) or 2). And, I think if you examine the arguments typically presented by Neo-Darwinists, you will discover that they repeatedly offer evidence for 1) or 2) as if it were evidence for 3), probably, I suspect, because they have confused the joint assertion of 1) and 2) with the assertion of 3) themselves. Look, for example, at this summary of the "evidence for evolution." It offers many findings recommending 1) or 2), but no collection of such findings, however extensive, can ever necessitate the leap to believing 3). That third, most speculative hypothesis is embraced, I contend, based on the non-scientific, metaphysical assumption that the only real causal factor at work in the universe is the mechanical interaction of blind, material forces. (Much to the author's credit, this essay at TalkOrigins explicitly recognizes that strong evidence for 1) does not imply the truth of 3).)

It is further worth noting that 1) and 2) are compatible with most religions, excluding, to the best of my knowledge, only those Christian sects that require members to accept the Bible as a literal account of natural history (except when it isn't). For a century now, the Catholic Church has recognized that neither 1) nor 2) conflict with its spiritual teachings. (For a succinct, modern statement of the Church's position on evolution, see this article by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn.) Buddhism and Hinduism typically took an evolutionary view of life long before it was proposed by Western science. It is only the advocacy of 3) that pits modern evolutionists against religion — and that is because 3) is not really a scientific theory at all, but a rival system of metaphysical belief.

The Metaphysical Dogmas of Neo-Darwinism

An unabashed statement of the metaphysical stance of most Neo-Darwinists was made by the American scientist Will Provine: "Modern science directly implies that the world is organized strictly in accordance with deterministic principles or chance. There are no purposive principles whatsoever in nature. There are no gods and no designing forces rationally detectable." (Quoted from Cardinal Schönborn.)

Richard Dawkins, in his recent book The Ancestor's Tale, is quite emphatic that we must avoid thinking that biological evolution has a general direction, a goal, or an objective scale of "less evolved" and "more evolved." He declares that is only our own bias towards our species that leads us to conceive humans as, in some sense, the most advanced product of evolution, or to regard intelligence as the proper measure for that advance. Bird historians of evolution, he contends, would regard flight as the true goal of evolution, and their kind as being at its apex. And what scientific evidence does he present for ruling any suggestion of a direction in evolution to be a fundamental "error"? As far as I have discovered, none at all. A disinterested overview of the history of life might suggest, as an at least plausible hypothesis, that evolution has been progressing towards ever more complex and sentient organisms. As Cardinal Schönborn puts it:

"But if [the evolutionary biologist] steps back [from the minute details of genetic variation] and looks at the sweep of life, he sees an obvious, indeed an overwhelming pattern. The variation that actually occurred in the history of life was exactly the sort needed to bring about the complete set of plants and animals that exist today. In particular, it was exactly the variation needed to give rise to an upward sweep of evolution resulting in human beings. If that is not a powerful and relevant correlation, then I don't know what could count as evidence against actual randomness in the mind of an observer."

Dawkins, in his witty invocation of avian biologists, glides past the fact that, to the best of our knowledge, there have never been any feathered scientists, that no bird has ever contemplated its relative station in the tree of life, and that man appears to be unique in these respects. Isn't it even worth wondering if life has been striving to bring about creatures capable of reflecting on its own nature? Many of the greatest biologists of the past, beginning with Aristotle, made some form of teleological causation central to their understanding of life. (A teleological cause explains an event in terms of an end towards which it moves, e.g., I explain my getting in the car by my goal of buying groceries.) But Dawkins rejects any consideration of such a factor. That a priori dismissal is based, as far as I can detect, only on his metaphysical belief that the universe is fundamentally mindless and mechanical, and that life, mind, consciousness, and meaning are only accidental by-products of its pointlessly turning gears.

In summary, I again cite Cardinal Schönborn: "It comes as no surprise that reductionist science cannot recognize those very aspects of reality that it excludes – or at least, seeks to exclude – by its choice of method."

December 23, 2005

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives