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Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The Great Debate

Part One

The Darwinians say:

Nature is all there is. There is no purpose in the universe. It is unscientific to invoke a creator to account for anything. Therefore something like Neo-Darwinism must be the scientific explanation for life and its diversity.

The Sceptics say:

We grant that the universality of DNA and the fact that many species have similar body plans suggest that all living beings are in some way related. We further grant that that it is possible (or even probable) that all existing species are the descendents of earlier species.

However, speciation has never been observed. The fossil record does not begin to indicate that the "tree of life" grew as Darwin supposed it did. The evolution of spectacularly complex organs by mutation and natural selection strains credulity.

Moreover, Darwinism does not come close to having an explanation for the origin of life. Nobody has the slightest idea of how the first living cell came into existence. That amino acids were spontaneously synthesized from inorganic molecules is speculative in the extreme. Furthermore, even if it were proven to have happened, amino acids are a long way from proteins and proteins are a long way from cells. We have to plead ignorance.

The Darwinians say:

You are simply trying to undermine a proven scientific fact so that you can smuggle in theology/dogma/mysticism/mythology/superstition.

The Sceptics say:

You have had 150 years to assemble the "proofs". Darwinism remains what it was in 1859 - a speculation. As time goes by and as we know more about the almost unbelievable complexity of biological systems and as the rocks continue to withhold the longed-for evidence, steadfast faith in the truth of Darwinism looks increasingly unjustified.

As for having a theological agenda, we sceptics are simply sceptics. The burden of proof is on you. Where is it?

If some of us who are sceptical about Darwinism allow ourselves to speculate about whether science can detect any evidence of design in the universe, we have no reason to be ashamed. We do not claim that science has proved that the universe is designed. Some of us find this speculation intriguing.

Some of us find the application of Darwinian theory to other realms disquieting. Just as Darwinism has been claimed to "explain everything", so there is a danger of its being used to justify anything. The hard men of the left and right have embraced the application of Darwinism to politics, society and history. The hard men have a lot to answer for. Their enthusiasm for the theory in no way invalidates it as a biological theory. But if they act in accordance with faith in a "scientific" theory, that theory had better be well substantiated.

Part Two

Hardline Darwinians frequently seem to believe that they understand the thought processes of the sceptics. They assert that the sceptics are disingenuous. They argue that those who fail to accept that Darwinian evolution is a proven fact do so only because they have an unreasoning and dogmatic (perhaps secret) commitment to 'creationism'. This is simply untrue. Many of us sceptics came to our undogmatic scepticism belatedly, and indignantly, only when we became aware of the fragility of the Darwinian account.

I say 'undogmatic' because most sceptics do not claim to be able to give a rival account. They are content to confess ignorance. Perry Mason always unmasked the real murderer but in law it is, and in science it should be, enough to cast reasonable doubt for the case to be thrown out or for the theory to be reappraised. [I forget to whom I owe the Perry Mason figure - Phillip Johnson?]

I say 'indignantly' because for most of us educated in the twentieth century the Darwinian account was the only serious game in town. We were taught that the only rival (and absurd) account was that of 'fundamentalist' Christians, who believed that God created the world in six days in 4004 BC. They were to be ridiculed and opposed as being anti-scientific.

We were taught evolution without ever hearing about the 'Cambrian Explosion'[1]. We were taught that the 'missing link' was a fossil which (when found) would complete the story of human evolution. We were not taught that the entire fossil record consists almost exclusively of missing links - the 'trade secret of palaeontology'[2]. We were not taught that serious scientists had reservations about the ability of mutation and natural selection to fashion complex organs like the eye. We were not taught that some of the 'evidence' from embryology was simply fraudulent. We were not taught that the Peppered Moths in the photographs had been pinned to the trunks of trees, their preferred place of rest being under the foliage. Nor, importantly, that the phenomenon of a changed preponderance of one shade over another had nothing to do with any new genetic material. It was not drawn to our attention that drought or floods in the Galapagos islands never created a new species of finch. We were given imaginary illustrations of evolution (horses, apelike humans, the 'tree of life') in scientific text books. If these were imaginary, what were they doing in science books?

When subsequently we stumbled upon undeniable facts about the flaws in the case, we smelled a rat; we were indignant.

Self evidently, there are people who are dogmatically committed to a scriptural account. They have, perhaps, been inoculated against 'scientific materialism' by their faith and culture. They are honest about the fact that they oppose Darwinism because of their faith in the literal truth of scripture. They take an admittedly philosophical/theological stance. In this they resemble hardline Darwinians. The difference being that hardline Darwinians protest that their position is not philosophical but scientific. They reject religion on the grounds that it conflicts with science. This is a myth. Whatever you or I may believe, Science has done nothing to disprove Religion. If we did have a complete, authenticated, scientific account of how life in all its myriad manifestations did come to be and it turned out to identical with the first chapters of Genesis, I for one would be very surprised. However, assuming this hypothetical account to be at variance with Genesis, I would not for that reason reject all religion.

I confess now that I, like the hardline Darwinians, believe that I understand their thought processes. I believe their starting point is a dogmatic commitment to atheistic scientific materialism. In other words, I accuse them of exactly the same offence as that of which they accuse us sceptics, and which I deny - that my position (scepticism) is a result of a prior commitment to "creationism". It's not that I want Darwinism to be false. I just don't believe Darwinism holds water.

They want materialism to be true and they want purpose excluded from the universe. They think Darwin is going to help them lock the door against any possibility of God being brought into the picture. Some of them have been frank and honest about why they cannot stomach the idea of God: “If God, then we cannot indulge all the desires we wish to indulge”[3].

Why am I innocent and they guilty? Well, Dawkins seems to me to confirm his guilt: "Darwinism makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist". The accompanying "phew" is almost audible. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were characterised by an increase in agnosticism, atheism and anti-clericalism. Many believed that the discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton (pious men all) had already dethroned God, or at least cast doubt on the biblical account. They were anxious to reject the Bible's account of life's beginning and variety. Their relief in 1859 at having a scientific rival was palpable. Huxley was an atheist before he read Darwin. He gratefully seized 'Evolutionism' and swung it gleefully at the church.

Interestingly, most Christians (in Europe, at least) accept Darwinism largely uncritically. They do not find that it compels them to disbelieve. I suppose Dawkins would regard them as being exactly half as stupid as creationists. In their defence, I would say that the great mystery is not how and why we have diverse organisms - grant for a moment that Darwinism is right, as far as it goes - but how and why we have organisms at all, or a universe for them to live in. Dawkins is complacent in entrusting his intellectual fulfilment to a materialistic theory that explains so little.

Hardline Darwinians are convinced atheists who need to believe in a purely materialistic explanation of the universe. Darwin's theory of evolution is the best purely materialist theory anyone has come up with to account for the variety of species; but it's not fit for a convinced young atheist's purpose. It completely ignores the origin of life. Darwin supposed that simple (lower) life forms evolved into more complex (higher) life forms; but he and his cheerleaders are silent about where the simplest life forms came from. There is no 'struggle for existence' among inorganic objects. Darwin's theory not only does not, but cannot have anything to say about the origin of life.

Let us be a bit more charitable to Darwin. It is unfair to blame him for what he didn't deal with in the book and, it must be admitted, his central theory was pretty brilliant actually. The title is misleading, though: the Origin is what he most conspicuously fails to address. Darwin isn't really much help after all to your poor convinced young atheist in search of intellectual fulfilment?

Darwinians (ignoring all internal disputes) claim that Darwinian evolution is a scientific fact, as well established as Newton's laws or the General Theory of Relativity. Well, of course, it patently is not. It is speculation, largely unsubstantiated. In the light of what we now know about complex biological systems, it takes men of Dawkins' and Dennett's heroic credulity to be satisfied that everything that needs to be demonstrated has been demonstrated. We see them leaping from crag to crag of Mount Improbable - they pretend to be inching painfully up the slope; but that's just their modesty. But if you need 'science' to buttress your atheism, what choice have you got?

This is my plea to those who are new to the scientific controversy over the truth or otherwise of Darwinism (and most educated people are scarcely aware that such a controversy exists): Follow the evidence wherever it leads. If further evidence points unambiguously to Darwinism's truth, so be it. If further research detects unambiguous evidence of design, so be it.

The jury is still out. Will we ever know beyond reasonable doubt that Darwinism is true? Perhaps. There may be scads of fossils out there of just the type and quantity that evolutionary palaeontologists would murder their grandmothers for. And make them deeply regret that Alfred Nobel had not had the foresight to endow a prize for palaeontology.

Will we ever know for certain how life arose in the first place? Probably not. The first step would be to create life artificially, following the example of Miller and Urey with their artificially created amino acids. Having got amino acids and having convinced ourselves that our construction was truly a re-construction, then we would then have to get these amino acids to assemble themselves into proteins (in real life this doesn’t happen without a manual – DNA/RNA, molecules of mind-blowing complexity). Then we would have to conjure up a cell wall and invent (and somehow implement) metabolism. All this, remember, without “natural selection” which only kicks in (by definition) when you have conspecifics struggling with each other for survival. We would then, perhaps, be able to say these were, at least some of the steps by which it might have happened in Nature. Of course, if we succeed in this awesome task, we will have to admit that the life created in our laboratory was designed.

Quote from Richard Lewontin – Geneticist, Darwinian and Marxist:

“It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

How embarrassing! Where on earth did this a priori adherence come from. Is it a “meme” that has infected some minds but not all? Or is Lewontin the product of a favourable mutation? In what way, then, will/does/can it favour the perpetuation of Lewontins?

What, by the way, was the initiation ceremony he underwent? Who performed it? Did it hurt more or less than circumcision?

Lewontin has to explain my scepticism and his credulity (or vice versa) in evolutionary terms. Evolution is not, of course, interested in “truth”. So, in his terms, “truth” cannot exist – his or mine. He can’t believe anything is true: that he did not imagine Darwin, that communism is a desirable state of affairs, that water freezes at 0 degs Celsius, that his wife is faithful, that he is not in a padded cell.

In the unlikely event that he asks me, my answers are ready:

You didn’t.
It isn’t.
It does.
She may be.
You’re not but…

In short, you have to ask yourself: not what do I want to believe but where does the evidence point. And if the evidence is inconclusive, your position has got to be: I/we don’t know. Nobody (neither Creationists nor Darwinians) has the right to say of scientific issues, “I don’t know much about Biology; but I know what I like.”

[1] During a very short period, in geological terms, a huge number of species apparently came into being with absolutely no evident precursors.
[2] The term used by Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University, himself an Evolutionist, to describe the absence of evidence for evolution.
[3] Both the Huxleys, Thomas and Aldous, say as much in so many words.

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