A review of Uncommon Dissent…Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing edited by William A. Dembskiby Bruce S. Thornton
If you believe what you hear in the mainstream media, the critics of Darwinian evolution are wild-eyed creationists who believe that Genesis literally describes the origins of life, and so are equivalent, as William Dembski says in his Introduction, to a “holocaust denier, a flat-earther, or a believer in horoscopes.” Arrayed against them are those presumed paragons of rational thought who simply believe what the facts of science have established as the truth. It doesn’t take much to figure out which side the media thinks wears the white hat. It’s the supposedly enlightened sophisticates who are protecting us from the narrow-minded fundamentalists itching to take us and our children back to the dark ages of ignorance and superstition.
As usual, the media has it backwards. Although creationists use the work of Darwin’s critics, most of the latter are not advancing the creationist or any other religious view of life’s origins. Instead, they are doing what scientists and intellectuals are supposed to do: exercise “a hungry mind and a willingness to question received opinion,” as John Wilson says in his Foreword. After all, isn’t that how science works, through a relentless skepticism that subjects each and every theory to the questioning of its assumptions and claims, not to mention the evidence that is supposed to support both?
As this collection of essays shows, the best critics of Darwinian evolution are precisely that: intellectuals and scientists scrutinizing the claims of Darwinian theory, and pointing out its flaws and weaknesses. As Edward Sisson says in “Teaching the Flaws in Neo-Darwinism,” “The proponents of intelligent design whom I find persuasive do not argue that evolution must be suppressed because of some conflict with the Bible. Instead, they argue that unintelligent evolution should be questioned because the scientific evidence offered to support it is weak.”
In fact, frequently it is the Darwinians who display an intolerance of dissent and impatience with criticism more typical of the fundamentalist mentality, as evidenced by the readiness with which some Darwinians resort to ad hominem attacks and personal disparagement of their critics. One tactic is simply to avoid any argument and label a critic with the scare-epithet “creationist,” as arch-Darwinist-popularizer Richard Dawkins did in response to David Berlinksi’s article in Commentary magazine (reprinted in Uncommon Dissent along with other readers’ responses and Berlinski’s replies). Elsewhere Dawkins has asserted that “if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid, or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).” Such shrill, juvenile reactions suggest not a scientific but a narrowminded sensibility — which Darwinists would themselves stereotype as “religious” — which is threatened by any challenges to its orthodoxy.
Another tactic used to dismiss critics of Darwinism is to smugly assert that all criticisms have been answered and so should no longer be taken seriously. For example, Michael Behe’s idea of “irreducible complexity” argues that the finely calibrated biochemical mechanisms regulating cell function could not have been created by the accumulation of incremental random mutations selected for survival value, since the many parts that perform the function must be present at the same time. As Behe says in the current volume, “Irreducibly complex systems are headaches for Darwinian theory because they are resistant to being produced in the gradual, step-by-step manner that Darwin envisioned.”
Yet according to Andrea Bottaro, writing for the National Center for Science Education, the idea of irreducible complexity has been “delivered a fatal blow” by a computer simulation that used “undirected random mutation and selection” to create an “irreducibly complex” outcome. This assertion is supported by two references, yet when these are analyzed, as Dembski does in his essay, the “fatal blow” turns out not even to be a flesh wound.
The first reference, as Dembski notes, merely points “the reader to the rationalizations employed by the biological community for sidestepping the challenge posed by irreducible complexity.” The second refers to the computer simulation that “built into the simulation what they [the authors] thought evolution needed to make it work” and so “presupposed the very point at issue.”
For many defenders of evolution, Darwinism indeed is part of a religious system whose tenets are as much a consequence of faith as of reason. This religion is atheism, a belief that arises not from evidence but from faith, as any sophomore philosophy major can tell you. The first principle of atheism is materialism: the belief, equally unproven by science, that all reality is material and so everything must be explained by material causes and forces blindly following the laws of physics. In other words, as Robert C. Koons notes, “Darwinism has been part of a metaphysical attack on the very idea of agency, both human and superhuman, that has been ongoing for two hundred years.”
Thus Darwinism, like Freudianism and Marxism, is another example of modernity’s attack on the very idea of the human, a reduction of people to mere things in the world completely determined by the brute forces of nature. Needless to say, to dismiss free will and spiritual reality is to make not a scientific claim, but rather a philosophical or a religious one: “What the science educators propose to teach as ‘evolution,” Phillip E. Johnson notes, “and label as fact, is based not upon any incontrovertible empirical evidence, but upon a highly controversial philosophical presupposition.” God, however, has not been done away with by evolution; all his creative and purposive powers have now been bestowed on “random mutations” and “natural selection.”
Recognizing the non-scientific roots of a commitment to Darwinism helps explain the reluctance of many to deal with the problems with the theory. Some of these problems are logical, such as the circular reasoning of Darwinian evolution: “Time and time again,” David Berlinski writes, “biologists . . . explain the survival of an organism by reference to its fitness and the fitness of an organism by reference to its survival.” It’s reminiscent of the Panglossian belief that noses were designed to support spectacles.
Or consider the problems created by a commitment to a purposeless universe. The evolutionary process is driven by random mutations that by sheer accident improve a creature’s fitness for survival and reproductive success. But isn’t the drive to survive and reproduce a goal-driven purpose supposedly impossible in the Darwinian scheme? “What is it,” James Barham asks, “about living matter that makes it care about its own self-preservation?” There might be a scientific answer to this question, but evolutionary theory so far hasn’t provided it.
Then there is the uncomfortable lack of fossil evidence supporting evolution: “The fossil evidence,” Johnson notes, “is very difficult to reconcile with the Darwinist scenario. If all living species descended from common ancestors by an accumulation of tiny steps, then there once must have existed a veritable universe of transitional intermediate forms liking the vastly different organisms of today, such as moths, trees, and humans, with their hypothetical common ancestors.”
Yet when forced to acknowledge the appearance in the fossil record of numerous species already fully formed, as in the “Cambrian explosion” of species 600 million years ago, apologists for evolution advance a variation of the “dog ate my homework” argument: there is a gap in the fossil record because for some reason the fossils didn’t survive. The issue is not that a few apparently transitional fossils like that of archaeopteryx, the feathered dinosaur, exist, but that millions more don’t.
Darwinian evolution increasingly resembles the old Ptolemaic picture of the universe, in which all the planets revolved around a stationary earth. Over the years those committed to it on the basis of faith in biblical authority adjusted the model to account for new evidence, until finally the evidence against the model became so overwhelming that its core assumption, a central stationary earth, had to be discarded. A new instrument, the telescope, provided the new evidence that did in the geocentric cosmos. So too today; new observational instruments have revealed the biochemical and genetic bases of life whose remarkably intricate complexity pose powerful challenges to the Darwinian picture of gradually accumulated random changes.
Proteins, for example, must “fold” into a particular shape before they can perform a function in the cell. But as Roland F. Hirsch observes, “This folding process is possible only because it is guided. A process of folding in which the protein chain bends entirely in random ways could not achieve the functional fold of that protein in any useful period of time.” When one considers the incredible number of proteins necessary just for one cell to function, not to mention their interconnections, then one is faced with the question Hirsch raises: “How could a function requiring multiple proteins in a cellular machine ever arise through the required random mutations that developed, one protein molecule at a time and in a stepwise manner; mutations that provided no intermediate product with any function that would allow Darwinian natural selection to work?”
Similarly, DNA encodes the pattern of about 250 amino acids that make up a protein. An estimate cited by Berlinksi puts the number of viable proteins at ten to the fiftieth power-the raw material of all life that has ever existed. Yet the number of “all possible proteins of a fixed length (250 [amino acid] residues, recall) is computed by multiplying twenty by itself 250 times (twenty to the 250th power).”
Even so, we are supposed to believe that the tiny subset of proteins that makes possible all living things arose by accident out of that vast ocean of possibility. This is about as likely as thousand monkeys randomly pounding typewriter keys and producing even one line of Shakespeare, which cannot happen unless something can save the right letters when they are accidentally hit upon, because that “something” knows what the target line is. In evolution, that “something” is natural selection, which is now given the powers of purpose, intention, and design once reserved for God.
The point ultimately of this valuable collection is not, contrary to what the media would have you believe, that the biblical account of creation should be taught in schools. Rather, it is that scientists should behave as scientists and be willing to question their own assumptions and meet criticism with reasoned debate rather than with insult, caricature, and appeals to authority. Skepticism is science’s most valuable tool; its absence among too many advocates of Darwinian evolution suggests that something other than science is driving their beliefs.
copyright 2004 Bruce S. Thornton
Bruce Thornton is a professor of Classics at Cal State Fresno and co-author of Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age and author of Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization (Encounter Books). His most recent book is Searching for Joaquin: Myth, Murieta, and History in California (Encounter Books).