Doubting Darwin

Recently by David Deming: Global Warming and the Age of theEarth: ALesson on the Nature of ScientificKnowledge

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 evolution.

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.

The single 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 Proceedings 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 thinking skills.

If Darwinists 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 earlier.

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.

In Principia 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 Darwin.

The line of academic descent from Newton to Darwin is unmistakable. The Scottish mathematician, Colin Maclaurin (1698–1746), was a protg 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 published Origin of Species (1859) he was warmly congratulated by Lyell.

But Charles 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.

Lyell worked 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.”

Darwin’s theory 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?

Darwin himself 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.”

The fossil 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 our ignorance.

Instead 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 journal Earth 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.

And that’s 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.