The worst argument I ever had with an old and dear friend was about Darwin. It only occurred to me later that – like almost any argument we have today where someone expresses even a scintilla of doubt about Darwin, “Darwinism” and the theory of evolution – we were really arguing about God, and whether even a suggestion of the divine was appropriate in the realm of science.
His reaction was surprising to me, and remarkably vehement. All I had done was wonder if we might, or had already, moved beyond some of the assumptions of Darwin’s once-controversial idea that all life on earth, humans included, had evolved by chance from primitive forms of life. My friend, however, heard something different, and I found myself over dinner accused of espousing creationism.
I wasn’t questioning that basic premise – like most people, I regard evolution as an elegant and plausible explanation for biological diversity, speciation and the fossil record. This would be a mainstream and orthodox position, and one that has largely triumphed in the century and a half since Darwin published On the Origin of Species– a 2017 Gallup poll reported that only 38 per cent of Americans believed in creationism, down from 47 per cent in the 1990s.
There is, however, a hardcore dissent against Darwinism that persists, most of it centred around “intelligent design,” which insists that the mechanisms and details that have powered and been produced by evolution are simply too complex, and the impetus for adaptation too sophisticated to leave to mere chance – that “natural selection” is just too many random throws of the dice to arrive where we’re at, both as a species and as a global ecosystem of flora and fauna.
Much of that dissent has a religious component, insisting that anything that seems to have been so meticulously designed implies a designer. For defenders of Darwin, this is pseudoscience, and a mere Trojan horse meant to return young earth creationism to schools and public life. Interestingly, the same 2017 Gallup poll saw support for intelligent design tied with creationism among Americans, while belief in purely random evolutionary development without God’s input had risen to 19 per cent from a mere 9 per cent in 1981.
So it’s basically OK to have misgivings about Darwinism everywhere except in polite company (or the academy, politics or the media.) Which is why it was fascinating to read “Giving Up Darwin,” an essay by Yale computer science professor David Gelernter in the Claremont Review of Books’ spring issue.
It begins with undeniable admiration for Darwin’s achievement. “Darwinian evolution is a brilliant and beautiful scientific theory,” writes Gelernter. “Once it was a daring guess. Today it is basic to the credo that defines the modern worldview.
Accepting the theory as settled truth – no more subject to debate than the earth being round or the sky blue or force being mass times acceleration – certifies that you are devoutly orthodox in your scientific views, which in turn is an essential first step towards being taken seriously in any part of modern intellectual life. But what if Darwin was wrong?”
Gelernter – a controversial and provocative scientist even before he was the target of one of Ted “The Unabomber” Kaszinski’s mail bombs in 1993 – says that he didn’t question Darwinian orthodoxy until he read Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt, a 2013 book that paints the Cambrian explosion – a prehistoric event in the fossil record that saw the sudden and massive proliferation of life forms without apparent ancestors – as a potentially shattering phenomenan that Darwin himself anticipated.
The other flaw in his theory was one Darwin couldn’t have anticipated. Genetics was a fledgling science when Darwin wrote his theory, and he could not have imagined the emergence of DNA technology in the century that followed. In fact, the first major flaw to be found in his theory was his description of paint mixed in a pot as a metaphor for how he imagined the two lines of inherited characteristics from parents combining in an individual – an image that was woefully simple and inadequate long before we sequenced the genome.
There has been a lot of work done from the intelligent design camp to pick apart Darwin’s theory, but most of it is dismissed as pseudoscience or consigned to the same bin as die-hard young earth creationists like Ken Ham and his Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Some, like Meyer, take pains to avoid crediting divine intervention to the puzzles that confound strict Darwinian evolution, which explains how his book ended up at Harper Collins, a mainstream publishing house.
Other books pleading dissent against Darwinian orthodoxy are published by the Discovery Institute, a think tank formed to publicize intelligent design. Some of these books are sober and well-argued, but coming out with the imprint of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture renders them immediately dismissible by the very formers of opinion that the Discovery Institute clearly longs to influence.
In Darwin’s House of Cards, a Discovery Institute publication, author Tom Bethel points out that one of the cornerstones of Darwin’s worldview was the very Victorian idea of progress. Not just our material circumstances but mankind itself was moving forward inexorably to a better place. It begins with the subtitle of On the Origin of Species, which talks about “the preservation of favoured races.” This language sounds sinister to us today, in the shadow of eugenics and the misguided rise of “social Darwinism” in the 20thcentury.
Even during the centenary celebration of the publication of On the Origin of Speciesin 1959 it was imagined that science was on the verge of massive innovation and discovery, in artificial intelligence and discovery of extraterrestrial life (whose evolution on some other alien planet would prove Darwin irrefutably) and the use of radiation to speed up evolutionary change in organisms. (Geneticist Hermann J. Muller won a Nobel prize for his research into just such science in 1946, research that has been effectively abandoned since this forced mutation is inevitably destructive everywhere outside of comic books.)
“Technological progress still proceeds apace,” Bethel writes, “but faith in the benign transformation of human nature is dead today. That may be one of the most important cultural changes since Darwin’s day.”
Belief in science – not as a discipline but as a sort of secular faith – is now the foundation of our belief in catastrophe, not progress, as the inevitable endgame of modern society. The very success of human beings as thinking creatures, shaping their environment in ways no other animal could hope to achieve, is described as something very like original sin – not the only way in which our very secular understanding of man-made catastrophe takes on suspiciously religious trappings.
It is, in a dark way that only people like me can truly enjoy, wryly ironic that science and a “consensus of scientists” is invoked to warn us against the coming disasters that will soon overcome us – too many people, not enough food, resource depletion, a world too warm, a world too cold, oceans poisoned by plastics – when scientific progress is the cause of so much of this calamity.
When science is both our saviour and our enemy, and scientists are described more like a priestly caste than a group whose skill and motivation are as variable as any other profession, we might be at that point where scientific facts are less important than what we need to believe. Which is probably a better description of the 16thcentury than the 21st.
As I said to my very agitated friend over dinner, I have no interest in throwing out evolution or espousing either creationism or intelligent design. If I’m perfectly honest – and I wish most people could be just as candid – I’m hardly qualified to make pronouncements either on the current state of scientific consensus or the mind of God.
But I know that in the two centuries since Darwin’s birth, we have dismissed countless assumptions that were once held in consensus. From the fossil record to germ theory to the building blocks of matter to the size of the universe to the concept of time itself, our understanding of the world from the atomic to the stellar has expanded wildly. Is it too much to imagine that a thesis conceived before plane travel or antibiotics or electric streetlamps might have been built on more guesswork – elegant and beautiful as those might have been – than provable science?
Darwin’s concept of evolution was almost as much a work of literature or philosophy as it was science, an attempt to understand our place in the world, its success as much about how it resonated with the intellect and emotions as it aided scientific inquiry. When we tell the story of Darwin as hero, we inevitably portray the doubters who opposed him, from Bishop Samuel Wilberforce to William Jennings Bryan, as villains or fools. (Or both.)
The great gift of the last two centuries of scientific discovery is the idea of vastness – of time, of space, and of potential. It should make us humble, but we’ve become more arrogant, and imagine ourselves, individually and within our sympathetic tribe, in possession of some version of the truth that must be defended at all costs. That doesn’t sound very modern at all, and I wonder if that revolution in science that Darwin helped to inspire hasn’t finally bumped up against the limits of our imagination.