Today marks the bicentennial of two notable birthdays, Abraham Lincoln's and Charles Darwin's. Lincoln is a hero to many Americans, but an international campaign is now under way to declare Feb. 12 Darwin Day.
According to many of his modern followers, Darwin is the world's greatest scientist, and his theory is the cornerstone of modern biology - if not the whole of modern science.
What, exactly, is Darwin's theory? It is not just "evolution." Evolution can mean "change over time," which no sane person denies. Or it can mean life on Earth has a long history, documented by the fossil record. Yet the general outlines of the fossil record were established before "The Origin of Species" appeared in 1859. And biblical chronology did not play a major role in the 19th-century Darwinian controversies, because by 1859 most educated Christians had accepted geological evidence for an old Earth.
Darwin's theory is that all living things are descendants of a common ancestor, modified by unguided processes such as random variation and natural selection. Although nobody doubts that variation and selection can produce minor changes within existing species ("microevolution"), Darwin claimed that microevolution leads to the origin of new species, organs and body plans ("macroevolution").
Eighty years after "The Origin of Species," evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky acknowledged there was still no hard evidence connecting microevolution and macroevolution. Unfortunately, since only microevolution can be observed within a human lifetime, Mr. Dobzhansky wrote, "We are compelled at the present level of knowledge reluctantly to put a sign of equality between the mechanisms of macro- and microevolution, and proceeding on this assumption, to push our investigations as far ahead as this working hypothesis will permit."
This assumption is still an assumption. No one has ever observed the origin of a new species by variation and selection - much less the origin of new organs and body plans. Not even modern genetics has solved the problem. No matter what we do to the DNA of a fruit fly embryo, there are only three possible outcomes: a normal fruit fly, a defective fruit fly or a dead fruit fly. Although Darwin's modern followers claim there is "overwhelming evidence" for his theory, nothing could be further from the truth.
Nor is Darwin's theory the cornerstone of modern biology. Most of the basic disciplines in biology were founded before Darwin's birth - including anatomy, physiology, botany, zoology, microbiology, systematics, embryology and paleontology. During Darwin's lifetime, Gregor Mendel founded genetics and Louis Agassiz and Richard Owen pioneered comparative biology. But none of these scientists accepted Darwinism.
Actually, Darwinism has always been more philosophy than science. Darwin called "The Origin of Species" "one long argument," and it took the following form: The features of living things are "inexplicable on the theory of creation" but fully explicable as products of unguided natural forces. Darwin lacked sufficient evidence for the latter, however, so he ruled out the former by simply declaring that only natural explanations are "scientific."
For most people, science means testing hypotheses by comparing them with the evidence. For Darwin and his followers, however, "science" became the search for natural explanations.
According to historian Neal C. Gillespie, "it is sometimes said that Darwin converted the scientific world to evolution by showing them the process by which it had occurred," but "it was more Darwin's insistence on totally natural explanations than on natural selection that won their adherence." The Darwinian revolution was primarily philosophical, and Darwin's philosophy limited science to "the discovery of laws which reflected the operation of purely natural or 'secondary' causes." Furthermore, "there could be no out-of-bounds signs. ... When sufficient natural or physical causes were not known they must nonetheless be assumed to exist to the exclusion of other causes."
The assumption that everything is explicable by natural causes follows from materialistic philosophy. Darwin did not propose a hypothesis that was then confirmed by evidence - as truly great scientists have done. Instead, like Marx and Freud, Darwin provided what evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma has called "a crucial plank to the platform of mechanism and materialism" that now dominates Western thought.
This explains why Darwin Day in the United States is a project of the Institute for Humanist Studies, which is dedicated to promoting "a nonreligious philosophy." It explains why some atheists want to establish Darwin Day as a secular alternative to Christmas.
Unfortunately, once in power Darwinism (like Marxism) tolerates no dissent. As the 2008 movie "Expelled" documented, scientists and teachers who criticize Darwinism risk ostracism, character assassination and termination of their employment. School boards that encourage students to learn the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolutionary theory are besieged by militant atheists who do not want students to question Darwinism.
That's why some people are now proposing that instead of "Darwin Day," Feb. 12 should be designated "Academic Freedom Day."
And let's not forget Lincoln's birthday.
Jonathan Wells is the author of "Icons of Evolution" and "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design," and is currently a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Wash. He has a Ph.D. in theology from Yale University and a Ph.D. in biology from the University of California, Berkeley.