Can a ‘Scientific’ Theory
of Evolution be Inherently
Atheistic, or merely Capable of Atheistic Interpretation?
Another curious aspect of the theory of evolution is that everybody thinks he understands it.
Although there was much that led up to it, I guess you could say I lost the last remnants of my faith in God during biology class in high school. So profound was the experience that I could take you back to the very seat where I was sitting when I first was taught that evolution explained the origin and development of life. The implications were clear: Charles Darwin’s theory eliminated the need for a supernatural Creator by demonstrating how naturalistic processes could account for the increasing complexity and diversity of living things.
Lee Strobel (from The Case for Faith, 2000)
In November 2009 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation did a four part series celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s, On the Origin of Species. At the beginning of Part I, program host Paul Kennedy commented, “Darwin showed us . . . that over time all living things adapt and evolve or perish, and above all, [that] this is a natural process, not the result of divine intervention.”
It’s easy to find examples of religion and/or theism with which evolutionary biology is clearly incompatible. And I would argue that it’s not that difficult to find examples of them which are compatible. Clearly, there are examples of people who claim to hold this position. So now the question becomes whether or not these people are deeply mistaken in some way about either the implications of their version of religion or theism or about the implications of evolutionary biology. There seems to be a number of people who hold that evolutionary biology implies metaphysical naturalism [aka materialism] and a number of people who hold that it does not.
The more you understand the significance of evolution, the more you are pushed away from the agnostic position and towards atheism.
One of the web pages at www.talkorigins.org—an extensive website dedicated to the discussion and defense of evolutionary biology—is entitled “God and Evolution.” In answer to the question ‘Does evolution deny the existence of God?’ it states, ‘No. There is no reason to believe that God was not a guiding force behind evolution.’ (see Q5)
In his Research and Progress Professor Max Westenhofer writes in 1937: ‘All the larger groups of animals, e.g., fishes, amphibians, reptiles, mammals seem to have appeared suddenly on the earth, spreading themselves in an explosive manner in their various shapes and forms. Nowhere is one able to observe or prove the transition of one species into another, variation only being possible within the species themselves.’
The fossil record does not convincingly demonstrate a single transition from one species to another.
Steven M. Stanley (paleontologist)
In 1931 Professor H. F. Osborn of the United States, described by Britain’s Royal Society as the greatest palaeontologist of the day, made the following statement to a congress of the British Association: “We are more at a loss than ever to understand the causes of evolution. One after another, the Buffonian, Lamarckian, Darwinian, Weissmannian, and De Vriesian theories of causation have collapsed. . . All that we can say at present is that Nature does not waste time or effort with chance or fortuity or experiment, but that she proceeds directly and creatively to her marvellous adaptive ends of biomechanism.”
(Nature, September 28, 1931)
Some leading Darwinists now acknowledge that new creatures appear suddenly in the fossil record, and with a few possible exceptions are not preceded by transitional creatures. Moreover, once they appear, they remain unchanged, except for variations within narrow limits, until they go extinct. There are so-called ‘living fossils’ on earth today, such as the horseshoe crab, that have not altered significantly for hundreds of millions of years.
[Karl Popper is famous for asserting that empirical falsifiability, rather than empirical verifiability, was the criterion of demarcation between science and non-science. So when that atheist philosopher remarked that ‘Evolution is nothing but a metaphysical research project,’ he was not denying evolution as a fact, but only denying the scientific status of any theory that purports to be a complete explanation of the origin of life.]
Life itself has very little survival value in comparison with the inorganic matter from which it sprang. A rock survives for hundreds of millions of years, whereas even a tree lasts only a thousand years. If ‘survival’ was what Nature aimed at, why should life appear at all? Again, why should the trend of evolution be upward, so that higher and higher types are evolved? The upward trend cannot be due to the influence of the environment, for the lower types are just as well adapted to their environment as are the higher types. In fact the higher types, particularly man, actively attack their environment.
I believe, but I cannot prove, that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all “design” anywhere in the universe is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection.
[Is it fair to say that, with respect to the explanatory power of Darwinian natural selection, Daniel Dennett is a man of much greater faith than Noam Chomsky?]
Why couldn’t the most important thing of all be something that arose from unimportant things? Why should the importance or excellence of anything have to rain down on it from on high, from something more important, a gift from God? Darwin’s inversion suggests that we abandon that presumption and look for sorts of excellence, of worth and purpose, that can emerge, bubbling up out of “mindless, purposeless forces”. . . If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law.
Daniel Dennett (from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 1995)
While it’s true in a very vague sense that the systems that we now have have developed through evolution, through natural selection, it’s important to recognize how little we are saying when we say that. For example, it is certainly not necessarily the case that every particular trait that we have is the result of specific selection. In fact there are striking examples to the contrary, or apparently to the contrary. Take, for example, our capacity to deal with abstract properties of the number system.
Noam Chomsky (Interview with Bryan Magee)
The emergence of life from lifeless matter necessarily involves the kind of process which may roughly be described as a miracle. The reader can choose between a grotesquely improbable miracle, and a rational miracle. He can believe, if he wishes, that the complicated structure of a cell, with the power to reproduce itself, floated off the primeval seas as the result of pure chance, or alternatively that this cell was created by a supernatural act of God.
Arnold Lunn (from Now I See, 1933)
The origin of life appears to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to be satisfied to get it going.
Those who think the human mind is nonalgorithmic should consider the hubris presupposed by that conviction. If Darwin’s dangerous idea is right, an algorithmic process is powerful enough to design a nightingale and a tree. Should it be that much harder for an algorithmic process to write an ode to a nightingale or a poem as lovely as a tree? Surely [Leslie] Orgel’s Second Rule is correct: Evolution is cleverer than you are.
The Darwinians are trying to prove Darwinism by hypothesis. The Anti-Darwinians are not trying to prove anything; except that the Darwinians have not proved it.
G. K. Chesterton (from Fancies versus Fads, 1923)
It’s almost a paradox that Darwin’s book is called The Origin of Species because, in fact, Darwin deconstructs species. One of the things the book shows is that species disappear. This common sense category disappears as some kind of ontologically special level of reality. That is, there is no such thing as dog. Dogs are part of a grade of environmental expressions of certain genetic properties. . . And so all creatures start to grade one into the other. Species are simply snapshots of the world given to us by the fact of our mortality.
Scott Atran (Interview)
Evolution does not especially deny the existence of God; what it does deny is the existence of man.
G. K. Chesterton
Why did it take so long for a Darwin to arrive on the scene?. . . For [Ernst] Mayr, the culprit was the ancient philosophical doctrine of—to give it its modern name—essentialism. The discovery of evolution was held back by the dead hand of Plato.
Richard Dawkins (from The Greatest Show on Earth, 2009)
More Thoughts about Evolution
Certainly it’s hard to believe that our reasoning power was brought by Darwin’s process of natural selection to the perfection which it seems to possess.
The difference between the Darwinian and the intelligent supernaturalist is not that one thinks evolution true and the other thinks it false. Rather it is that one believes evolution to be a complete explanation and the other is quite sure that it isn’t.
Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
Evolution is a religion. It was true in the beginning and it is still true today.
Evolution is accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur or . . . can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible.
D. M. S. Watson
After reading his copy of the Origin Darwin’s elder brother Erasmus wrote back, ‘The a priori reasoning is so entirely satisfactory to me that if the facts won’t fit in, why so much the worse for the facts is my feeling’
(Darwin’s Life and Letters, ii, 223).
It has become inordinately difficult even to begin to think about constructing a naturalistic theory of the evolution of that first reproducing organism.
The problem of the origin of life has turned out to be much more difficult than I, and most other people, envisioned.
It is not even possible to make a caricature of evolution out of the paleobiological facts. The fossil material is now so complete that the lack of transitional series cannot be explained by the scarcity of the material. The deficiencies are real, they will never be filled.
N. Heribert Nilsson (botanist, geneticist)
I have been reluctant to admit it, but . . . the synthetic theory [neo-Darwinism] . . . is effectively dead, despite its persistence as text-book orthodoxy.
Stephen Jay Gould
Problems with Darwin’s ‘gradualism’ prompted Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge to propose, in 1971, ‘punctuated equilibria,’ a theory which attempts to account for the sudden evolutionary spurts apparent in the fossil record.
Why should not the origin and evolution of species have been the result partly of natural and partly of supernatural agencies?
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