Recently, I wrote about the misuse of the poor Peppered Moth, in the service of its fickle master, neo-darwinian polemic. A good friend of mine, H, did not share my perspective and responded, saying “I do not understand why you cannot accept this, Kevin.” The ‘this’ referred to is the evolutionary paradigm which comes in a variety of guises, but which cumulatively is used to advance some kind of model of undirected biological change at a macro-level, in order to account for the myriad of forms and body-plans which we observe in nature. H’s statement doesn’t have a question-mark in it, but it does present a query that deserves an answer. As I reflected on the nature of that kind of answer, it became evident that the ‘why’ of my Darwin-skepticism is, in practice, the product of a journey, rather than derived from a single factor.
Like my friend H, the standard textbook account of Darwinian evolutionary theory formed part of the air I breathed whilst studying Biology, Chemistry and Physics at A’ Level. Since I intended to go on and pursue this subject at University, I found myself in the Chelmsford Library on Saturday mornings, reading Haeckel, Lamarck, Oparin, Miller-Urey and even beginning to wrestle with Richard Dawkins’ seminal text, The Selfish Gene, which was published in 1976. I had come to faith in Christ in my seventeenth year but I did not seriously question evolutionary theory, although I did swiftly become aware that it was being used as a blunt instrument to induce skepticism towards religious ideas in young minds. It simply wasn’t an issue. My teachers taught it, I respected them, and the subject was mapped out in our textbooks – so I accepted it. End of story.
Then I went to university to study Biology. One of the very first courses I pursued was in taxonomy or phylogeny. This proved to be a bit of an eye-opener. Firstly, our lecturers were at pains to stress that everything I had learned at A’ Level was either questionable or had been consigned to the Evolutionary Theory Parts Bin. This was a little difficult to swallow – we had used brand-new, recently published textbooks in my biology classes, so why were they teaching us stuff that the university lecturers argued had been superseded or disproved years ago? But there was more.
Back in the late 1970s and early 80s, the study of phylogeny was closely linked to Darwin’s tree of life, the map of common ancestry – and judging by what I encounter in secondary school textbooks, it still is. In relation to this key, core component of the theory, the course was a revelation – whilst the underlying Darwinian assumptions were never, for one moment, open to question, there was a continually repeated mantra which did, after a while begin to have an impact. It tended to take this kind of form: “We have no (fossil) evidence for this, but we believe that, at this point (in the Cretaceous period, or whenever) X evolved into Y“. That is to say, the assertions regarding key moments of biological change were never made in relation to the evidentiary basis for them, but were rather justified with the “we believe that” formulation. If any of us had the temerity to raise questions about this (few did), the issue of the evidentiary vacuum was always handled with the ‘jam tomorrow’ answer. The evidence was just bound to come along – after all, the theory is true, isn’t it? In many respects, this was simply a regurgitation of the stance taken by Darwin himself: the theory was so neat, so appealing, that the evidence was somehow bound to materialise at some point: the universe owed it to Darwin, and wouldn’t let him down. Riffing off Ovid’s Metamorphoses leads to a rebirth of Elizabethan alchemy.
Alongside this kind of holding pattern, the evidentiary vacuity was dealt with in various ways: evolution, as a process, is too slow to be observable in practice, we were told. Or, it was asserted, evolution proceeds by sudden, rapid jumps that leave no trace in the fossil record. Sneaky! – whatever the process is, it’s either too slow or too fast to be observable in practice. Or, a very great play was made of certain instances of things which superficially appeared to support the theory – Eohippus, Archaeopteryx and Drosophilla were favourites at the time – although why the appearance of anything might be deemed significant, in this strange world where nothing is as it appears, is difficult to understand. More recently, I guess we could cite Lenski’s long-running experiments showing bacterial adaptation to Vitamin C metabolism, and of course that re-evaluation of the Peppered Moth that I wrote about. Even at that time, it felt as if the actual evidentiary basis was simply too insubstantial to bear the weight of a theory which, in terms of its practical deployment, had been used to redefine how we viewed ourselves and our world. This seemed important, as university life seethed with with the kind of militant atheism where a central criticism of Christians was that our fanciful beliefs floated free of the real world, where evidence was required.
Of course, pursuing a Biology Degree is not really about developing one’s critical faculties. It is about gaining a Degree, and I do not think that I was any different to any of my compadres, other than in experiencing a growing sense of unease about the universal power of a theory which resisted one’s ability to pin it down, interrogate its basis, evaluate its integrity. My one piece of articulated skepticism about evolutionary theory, a written assignment, was returned by my tutor with red lines through it, and a humiliating grade. I learned the lesson well from this experience, although I do not think that my articulation of doubt was any more vacuous than the prevailing orthodoxy’s justification of its own claims. Many academics within this field swiftly learn how to play the game, and that serves to perpetuate the Darwinian myth that holds everything in its sway.
The experience of achieving a Biology Degree weakened the respect I held for Neo-Darwinianism, and whilst my understanding of Christian theology was progressing (slowly) at the same time, I think it perhaps significant that the primary driver of this change was not, as atheists tend to argue, ‘religious indoctrination’ but rather the nature of the academic approach itself. Subsequently, of course, I have learned a great deal more. I have read a great deal around the history of Darwin’s original, pivotal, publication in 1859 and have seen that it was more driven by (a) metaphysics, (b) Victorian modernism and (c) an emotional response to personal tragedy than it was by the ‘science’ itself. Darwin’s heartiest supporter when publishing ‘The Origin of Species’, T. H. Huxley, was not persuaded of the veracity of the theory, but he certainly understood its value as a blunt instrument to attack religious belief, something he did with great enthusiasm. Given that evolutionary theory delivers little practical value in purely scientific terms, that is precisely how it continues to be used, prolifically, within the media and educational system.
Randall Hedtke, in his useful treatise on the 6th edition of The Origin of Species, wherein he (successfully) argues that Darwin does effectively discredit his own theory, comments that:
Darwin was able to play fast and loose with scientific methodology because origins research is metaphysical, meaning no compelling practicality exists that would dictate how the evidence must be interpreted.
Randall Hedtke, Secrets of the Sixth Edition (Oregon, Master Books: 1983, 2010), p58.
A little later, whilst commenting on how evolutionary theory is taught in contemporary textbooks, he references a number of examples which demonstrate that,
One thing all the textbooks avoid is…counterinductive thinking in their presentation of the evolution evidence. Counterinductive thinking is critical thinking…Natural selection’s incipiency problem is censored from the curriculum.
Hedtke, Secrets of the Sixth Edition, p62.
And that has been precisely my own experience.