The Trouble with Darwinism
The 2006 best-selling book by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, represents an influential strand of anti-religious thinking which suggests that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has discredited the notion that the development of life is part of the purposeful unfolding of a divine plan. Concepts of providence, destiny, teleology, or whatever we want to call it, are dismissed as unnecessary to the theory and therefore are rejected as embroidery and delusion. In Dawkins’ view, because of Darwinism, “there is almost certainly no God” (Dawkins 2006).
But what does the theory of evolution really say? It is important to distinguish between (a) the theory of evolution insofar as it is widely agreed among scientists, and (b) the theory as Darwin himself understood it, and as polemical writers such as Dawkins have promoted it. The latter will be referred to in this paper, for brevity, as “Darwinism”, and it is a narrower concept than the evolutionism which is accepted by the majority of scientists and on which modern biology is based.
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The fact that life evolved over a period of billions of years is not contested. Nor is there any serious disagreement among scientists that Charles Darwin was basically on the right track when, in the Origin of Species, he argued that evolution proceeds through the natural selection of favourable characteristics in the struggle for life which takes place among the individuals of any species.
Of course, there has always been plenty of disagreement about the details of the theory. The theory of evolution in its simplest form leaves many questions open. For example, competition seems to occur not only between individuals but also between varieties, species, and larger units: so at what level does natural selection operate most powerfully? Species can originate not only by natural selection but also as a result of neutral genetic drift, so competition or “fitness to survive” does not really seem to be essential for the origin of a species. Another point is that, among simple organisms, characteristics are transmitted not just by vertical parent-to-offspring inheritance but also by lateral gene flow between unrelated individuals: in fact, it becomes rather difficult to define what we mean by a “species” at all. To take another well-known example: Darwin presented evolution as a gradual and continual process, but there is now a widely-held belief in “punctuated equilibrium”, with evolution occurring in bursts of rapid change separated by long periods of relative stability. But these problems with the theory of evolution, and others in the same vein, are in a sense unimportant. They are familiar issues to biologists, they are not regarded as undermining the core idea of evolution by natural selection, and they do not have significant theological implications.
Concerning the conflict with Christianity, however, Darwin and some of his followers believed crucially that the process of evolution is non-progressive – that evolution does not tend in any particular direction such as the augmentation of intelligence, the controlling of the forces of nature, or the emergence of freedom. This belief is central to the mindset of anti-religious biologists such as Dawkins. Because a direction in evolution is rejected, the fact that evolution has produced humans is viewed as a fluke of no enduring significance, and it is seen as an illusion for us to imagine that we are of any greater cosmic importance than crocuses or prawns. From this flows the incompatibility of Darwinism with Christianity.
The belief that evolution is non-progressive can rightly be labelled “Darwinism” because Darwin himself held this view. The exhaustive study of Darwin’s life and work by Adrian Desmond and James Moore confirms that “Darwin forswore any unidirectional change; life adapted to the quirks of habitat. It sprawled everywhere; animals were not climbing a mythical ladder, stretching up to the highest human rung” (Desmond and Moore, 1991). Darwin himself wrote, “in my theory, there is no absolute tendency to progression” (Desmond and Moore, 1991a).
Furthermore, Desmond and Moore make it clear that Darwin’s opinion on this point was very much his own personal view, and not part of the contemporary consensus among evolutionists: “Darwin’s non-human orientation was a total departure from radical wisdom, let alone religious convention” (Desmond and Moore, 1991b).
As the philosopher Mary Midgley put it in 1985, evolutionary progression
is no part of orthodox, Darwinian theory. The idea of a vast escalator proceeding steadily upward from lifeless matter through plants and animals to man, and inevitably on to higher things, was championed by Lamarck…. Darwin utterly distrusted the idea, which seemed to him a baseless piece of theorizing…. As far as Darwin could see, “no innate tendency to progressive development exists” (Darwin and Seward 1903).
Darwin saw no reason to posit a law guaranteeing the continuation of any particular change, nor did he pick out any one trend, such as increase in intelligence, as the core of the whole process.
For the true Darwinist, therefore, evolution cannot represent any concept of universal “progress”. This may be surprising to some, because it is not obvious from a casual reading of the Origin of Species. On the contrary, some of Darwin’s phrases almost suggest that life, instead of stumbling in all directions, has followed a highway onward and upward from humble beginnings to pre-ordained grandeur. But, as we have seen, in spite of any impression that Darwin may have given in the lofty prose of books like the Origin of Species and the Descent of Man, he did not personally believe that the process of evolution had any kind of inherent direction.
One might ask: why did Darwin not make his non-progressivism plainer in the Origin of Species? To hazard a guess: perhaps Darwin was conscious that, although he could argue strongly that evolution was a real phenomenon and that natural selection brought it about, non-progressivism was an intuition on his part, a scientific hunch not supported by any firm evidence. The central argument of the Origin of Species would only have been weakened if Darwin had yoked it to the unprovable claim of non-progressivism. Another factor to be borne in mind is that the Origin of Species was published in the context of the announcement that the same theory of natural selection had been arrived at independently by both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace: it would have muddied the water if Darwin, by insisting on non-progressivism, had made his theory different from Wallace’s.
Darwinism, in the sense of non-progressive evolutionism, has been championed by a number of prominent biologists over the years since Darwin’s own time. Richard Dawkins has not been alone. The idea was promoted by the distinguished populariser of the theory of evolution, the late Stephen Jay Gould, whose thinking was reported by the journalist Jeremy Cherfas in 1984:
Natural selection is not progressive, and there is no way to extract any kind of directionality from its postulates. If organisms produce more offspring than can possible survive, and if they vary, and if some of that variation is inherited, then natural selection will be an inevitable consequence. “On average,” as Gould explained, “survivors will be those whose morphology and behaviour is better suited to the local environment and they will in general pass those traits on to offspring. Natural selection therefore operates to produce adaptations to local circumstances. That’s all it can do. You cannot get any tale of cosmic progress out of that”.
But is it really true that “natural selection is not progressive” and that “you cannot get any tale of cosmic progress out of that”? It cannot be overstated that Darwinism, in the sense of non-progressivism, is not a necessary feature of the theory of evolution by natural selection, and many biologists have instead believed that the structure of the universe is such that evolution by natural selection must entail some form of inexorable progress. Long ago, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin argued passionately for a kind of universal evolution towards divinization, pointing out that evolution apparently involves increasing intelligence and intercommunication – towards his ultimate “noosphere” – and therefore strongly supports the Christian vision (Teilhard de Chardin 1956).
Teilhard was not only a theologian but also a scientist who supported his ideas with the best palaeontological evidence available at the time. To take a classic example, in Le Groupe Zoologique Humain (Teilhard de Chardin 1956) he illustrates the development of the brains of successive species of horses over the last 55 million years of their evolution. The fossil evidence gives an overwhelming impression of steady growth in the animal’s brain size, as if evolution necessarily entails steadily increasing intelligence. However, the validity of such evidence has been strongly challenged by non-progressivists such as Gould (Cherfas 1984).
The central question – whether or not evolution has a built-in directionality, such that its actual outcome on Earth (large, complex, intelligent, and ultimately human-like creatures) was inevitable – has continued to resound through the history of biology ever since the days of Darwin and Teilhard. In recent years, the question arose in the context of the “Burgess Shale” debate: does the fossil evidence show that life forms have become less diverse since the “Cambrian Explosion” half a billion years ago? Evolution certainly turns out to be a convergent phenomenon in some instances, but is convergence an inevitable feature of evolution? Would “rerunning the tape” of the evolution of life on Earth lead to any fundamentally different outcome? (Conway Morris 1998).
Those who accept that evolution is progressive have had different views about the exact mechanics of the progress. In an influential paper written many years ago, Alfred Lotka (1922) proposed that evolution might be directed towards the increasing exploitation of energy by organisms. Others, such as Johnstone (1921) suggested that evolution is linked with entropy, a quantity closely related to information, organisation and complexity. Brooks and Wiley (1986) have explored this very promising theme in detail. More recently, topics such as compositional evolution have come to the fore: Richard Watson (2006) and others have pointed out that some of the most important developments in the history of life arose through symbiosis, i.e. the joining together of previously unrelated species. Indeed, the greatest step in the evolution of life on Earth, the development of eukaryotes, did not come about by Darwinian evolution but by the amalgamating of cells with different ancestries, one cell line being absorbed symbiotically into the other (Margulis and Sagan 2002). Compositional evolution provides a conceptual framework for understanding how evolution necessarily involves the emergence of complexity and also why punctuated equilibrium, rather than Darwinistic gradualism, may have been the norm throughout the history of life. It is notable that this research involves not only biologists but also mathematicians, computer scientists and others in shedding light on exactly how natural selection can lead inevitably in the direction of complexity and organisation. Valuable insights into this field have been provided recently by Stephen Wolfram’s New Kind of Science (2002).
Other writers have considered the nature of evolution from other standpoints. From a philosophical and epistemological point of view, Karl Popper (1977) famously promoted the notion that evolution has continued beyond biology into the realms of technology and science, with the progressive development of collective human understanding. This is not to say that Popper would have regarded the theory as supporting Christianity, but he surely did not believe that evolution leads nowhere. More recently, related ideas have been put forward by the biologist Henry Plotkin (1994), arguing that human culture and the growth of knowledge are part and parcel of the evolutionary process.
Perhaps the most comprehensive account of biological and cosmic evolution from a present-day scientist, including an eschatology which is closely coherent with Christian expectations, is that of Frank Tipler (1994). Using modern physics, cosmology and information theory, Tipler has demonstrated how, at the end of time, life may embrace the universe in a final yet eternal moment of total knowledge.
Because all these issues are still far from settled, it is misleading for writers like Richard Dawkins to suggest that the scientific consensus supports non-progressive Darwinism. If anything, it now seems more likely that Darwin was wrong on this point, and that evolution is directed naturally towards the rise of “higher” forms of life, and particularly towards intelligence capable of taking the evolutionary process into new domains beyond brute biology.
Moreover, non-progressivism, like atheism, is an essentially negative idea. It is notoriously difficult to logically prove a negative. Even if the evolution of life by natural selection seems at first to have no directionality, it is possible that it might later turn out to be profoundly linked with some still-to-be-discovered parameter, related perhaps to information storage. So, while we should have respect for Darwin’s hunch that evolution is non-directional, there is no reason to suppose that he was correct; and indeed, if he was correct, then a great deal of the most exciting present-day research on evolution is misguided.
Some readers may be open to the idea that evolution is progressive but may not quite see why this should be regarded as a confirmation of Christianity. The answer is that a scheme of progressive evolution, taken to its logical conclusion, will almost certainly have humanity at centre-stage and point to a Christian-like future in which intelligence seizes the cosmos. The classic exposition is that of Teilhard de Chardin, but there are also more recent accounts such as that of the theologian John Haught (1984). Of course, it depends on exactly what you mean by Christianity: there is a broad spectrum of opinion among Christians, and no doubt many Christians, as well as Darwinians, will disagree with this paper. However, a Christianity which emphasizes ideas from John the Evangelist, Paul the Apostle and John Eriugena resonates strongly with progressive and continuing cosmic evolution within a creative universe. (“Creationism” in the sense of biblical literalism is a different matter and is arguably not Christian at all.) Conversely, if evolution is not progressive, then humanity is transient and meaningless and there is no reason to believe that the far future holds anything. This is why the Darwinism of Dawkins refutes Christianity but evolution with directionality supports it.
In conclusion: Darwin’s rejection of any “innate tendency to progressive development” was probably mistaken. In fact it is perfectly possible to get a “tale of cosmic progress” out of evolution. Many scientists have had reservations about how it was expressed by Teilhard de Chardin, and indeed about Frank Tipler’s more recent formulati n; but it is certainly possible that current research will reveal that the evolution of life has a natural direction towards intelligence, knowledge and the conquest of death; and therefore that the theory of evolution, far from supporting Dawkins’ view of the “God Delusion”, amounts to an extraordinary vindication of Christianity.
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Cherfas, J. (1984) The Difficulties of Darwinism, New Scientist, 17 May 1984.
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