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1932236317
Trade Paperback
403 pages
Jun 2004
ISI Books

Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing

by William Dembski

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

INTRODUCTION

The Myths of Darwinism

Immodest ideas have a way of gathering mythologies, and Darwinism is no exception. Darwinism’s primary myth is the myth of invincibility: all of Darwinism’s other myths follow in this myth’s train. Darwinism, its proponents assure us, has been overwhelmingly vindicated. Any resistance to it is futile and indicates bad faith or worse. Thus Richard Dawkins has charged those who resist Darwin’s grand evolutionary story with being “ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).”1 Nor has Dawkins mitigated his position over time. More recently he added: “I don’t withdraw a word of my initial statement. But I do now think it may have been incomplete. There is perhaps a fifth category, which may belong under ‘insane’ but which can be more sympathetically characterized by a word like tormented, bullied, or brainwashed.” 2

The myth of invincibility recurs in the writings of philosopher Daniel Dennett who, in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, describes Darwinism as a universal acid that eats away every idea it touches. Dennett is so smitten with Darwinian evolution that he regards it as the greatest idea ever conceived, far ahead of the ideas of Newton and Einstein. This awe of Darwinism has now worked its way into the popular culture. Thus, novelist Barbara Kingsolver will describe Darwin’s idea of natural selection as “the greatest, simplest, most elegant logical construct ever to dawn across our curiosity about the workings of natural life. It is inarguable, and it explains everything.”3

Given such sentiments, it’s not surprising that discipline after discipline is now being “Darwinized.” Cosmology has its self-reproducing black holes governed by cosmological natural selection (see Lee Smolin’s The Life of the Cosmos). Ethics and psychology have now become evolutionary ethics and evolutionary psychology (see Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal and Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works). Even the professional schools are being overtaken, so that we now have books with titles like Evolutionary Medicine (medicine), Managing the Human Animal (business), Economics as an Evolutionary Science (economics), and Evolutionary Jurisprudence (law). And let’s not forget religious studies, in which God genes (i.e., genes that cause us to believe in God irrespective of whether God exists) and the Darwinian roots of religious belief have become a growth industry (see, for instance, Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought).

Such enthusiasm for Darwinism might be endearing except that its proponents are deadly earnest. For instance, in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea Daniel Dennett views religious believers who dissuade their children from believing Darwinian evolution as such a threat to the social order that they need to be caged in zoos or quarantined (both metaphors are his).4  Because of the myth of invincibility that now surrounds it, Darwinismhas become monopolistic and imperialistic. Though often associated with “liberalism,” Darwinism as practiced today knows nothing of the classical liberalism of John Stuart Mill. The proponents of “Darwinian liberalism” tolerate no dissent and regard all criticism of Darwinism’s fundamental tenets as false and reprehensible.

Yet according to Mill, “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and even if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.” Mill expanded:

    First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any object is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied. Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.5

Charles Darwin was Mill’s contemporary and fully accepted Mill’s lassical liberalism. In the Origin of Species, Darwin wrote: “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.”6

By contrast, many of Darwin’s contemporary disciples have turned stifling dissent into an art form. Because the myth of invincibility must be preserved at all costs, it is not acceptable to place doubts about Darwinism on the table for vigorous discussion. Rather, the doubts must be disqualified and repressed. To see this, consider the response by Darwinists to Senator Rick Santorum’s “Sense of the Senate” amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act:

    It is the sense of the Senate that (1) good science education should prepare students to distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science; and (2) where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject.7

An eminently reasonable amendment, no doubt. Indeed, the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly for it (91-8). Even Senator Ted Kennedy, rarely an ally of Santorum’s, voted for it. What’s more, by merely reflecting the “sense of the Senate,” this amendment was nonbinding. And yet, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Center for Science Education, and the American Civil Liberties Union (to name but a few) were up in arms over this amendment. Why? Because evolution was singled out for special treatment and opened to critical scrutiny. Why, detractors of the amendment demanded, wasn’t general relativity or the atomic theory of matter singled out for similar treatment?

Comparisons of evolutionary theory with well-established theories of physics and chemistry display wishful thinking. The reason those theories were not singled out for critical scrutiny is, of course, because they are well established and evolutionary theory is not. This book will detail the weaknesses of Darwinian evolutionary theory and, going even further, argue that the preponderance of evidence goes against Darwinism. Regardless of one’s point of view, it’s actually quite easy to see that Darwinism is not in the same league as the hard sciences. For instance, Darwinists will often compare their theory favorably to Einsteinian physics, claiming that Darwinism is just as well established as general relativity. Yet how many physicists, while arguing for the truth of Einsteinian physics, will claim that general relativity is as well established as Darwin’s theory? Zero.

Once Darwinism becomes a target for critical scrutiny, its proponents change the target. Thus, when David Berlinski criticized Darwinism in his December 2002 article in Commentary (titled “Has Darwin Met His Match?”), biologist Paul Gross took him to task for making “Darwinism” the topic of controversy. According to Gross, only “those who do not know much evolutionary biology” refer to something called “Darwinism.”8 Evolutionary biology, we are assured, is far richer than the caricature of it called Darwinism.

Despite such protestations, Darwinism is in fact the right target. It is no accident that in debates over biological evolution Darwin’s name keeps coming up. Repeated references to Darwin and Darwinism are not made simply out of respect for the history of the subject, as though evolutionary biology needed constantly to be reminded of its founder. Darwin’s theory constitutes the very core of evolutionary biology; he therefore looms larger than life in the study of biological origins. Indeed, nothing in evolutionary biology makes sense apart from Darwinism.

To see this, we need to understand Darwinism’s role in evolutionary biology. Darwinism is really two claims. The less crucial claim is that all organisms trace their lineage back to a universal common ancestor. Any two organisms are n-th cousins k-times removed where n and k depend on the two organisms in question. This claim is referred to as “common descent.” Although evolutionary biology is committed to common descent, that is not its central claim.

Rather, the central claim of evolutionary biology is that an unguided physical process can account for the emergence of all biological complexity and diversity. Filling in the details of that process remains a matter for debate among evolutionary biologists. Yet it is an in-house debate, and one essentially about details. In broad strokes, however, any unguided Physical process capable of producing biological complexity must have three components: (1) hereditary transmission, (2) incidental change, and (3) natural selection.

Think of it this way: We start with some organism. It incurs some change. The change is incidental in the sense that it doesn’t anticipate future changes that subsequent generations of organisms may experience (neo-Darwinism, for instance, treats such changes as random mutations or errors in genetic material). What’s more, incidental change is heritable and therefore can be transmitted to the next generation. Whether it actually is transmitted to the next generation and then preferentially preserved in subsequent generations, however, depends on whether the change is in some sense beneficial to the organism. If so, then natural selection will be likely to preserve organisms exhibiting that change.

This picture is perfectly general. As I already noted, it can accommodate neo-Darwinism. It can also accommodate Lamarckian evolution, whose incidental changes occur as organisms, simply by putting to use existing structures, enhance or modify the functionalities of those structures. It can accommodate Lynn Margulis’s idea of symbiogenetic evolution, whose incidental changes occur as different types of organisms come together to form a new, hybrid organism. And it can also accommodate other forms of incidental change, including genetic drift, lateral gene transfer, and the activity of regulatory genes in development.

Evolutionary biologists debate the precise role and extent of hereditary transmission and incidental change. The debate can even be quite sharp at times. But evolutionary biology leaves unchallenged Darwinism’s holy of holies—natural selection. Darwin himself was unclear about the mechanisms of hereditary transmission and incidental change. But whatever form they took, Darwin was convinced that natural selection was the key to harnessing them. The same is true for contemporary evolutionary biologists. That’s why to this day we hear repeated references to Darwin’s theory of natural selection but not to Darwin’s theory of variation or Darwin’s theory of inheritance.

Apart from design or teleology, what could coordinate the incidental changes that hereditary transmission passes from one generation to the next? To perform such coordination, evolution requires a substitute  for a designer. Darwin’s claim to fame was to propose natural selection as a designer substitute. But natural selection is no substitute for intelligent coordination. All natural selection does is narrow the variability of incidental change by weeding out the less fit. What’s more, it acts on the spur of the moment, based solely on what the environment at present deems fit, and thus without any foresight of future possibilities. And yet this blind process, when coupled with another blind process (incidental change), is supposed to produce designs that exceed the capacities of any designers in our experience.

Leaving aside small-scale evolutionary changes, such as insects developing insecticide resistance (which no one disputes), where is the evidence that natural selection can accomplish the intricacies of bioengineering that are manifest throughout the living world (such as producing insects in the first place)? Where is the evidence that the sorts of incidental changes required for large-scale evolution ever occur? The evidence simply isn’t there. Robert Koons (chapter 1) helps us appreciate what’s at stake by imagining what would happen to the germ theory of disease if scientists never found any microorganisms or viruses that produced diseases. That’s the problem with Darwinism: In place of detailed, testable accounts of how a complex biological system could realistically have emerged, Darwinism offers just-so stories about how such systems might have emerged in some idealized conceptual space far removed from biological reality.

Why, then, does Darwinism continue to garner such a huge following, especially among the intellectual elite? There are two reasons: (1) It provides a materialistic creation story that dispenses with any need for design, purpose, or God (which is convenient for those who want to escape the demands of religion, morality, and conscience). (2) The promise of getting design without a designer is incredibly seductive—it’s the ultimate free lunch. No wonder Daniel Dennett, in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, credits Darwin with “the single best idea anyone has ever had.”9 Getting design without a designer is a good trick indeed.

But all good tricks need some sleight of hand to deflect critical scrutiny. With Darwinism, that sleight of hand takes the form of myths. Darwinism depends on several subsidiary myths to prop its primary myth—the myth of invincibility. Artfully invoked and applied, these subsidiary myths have been enormously successful at censoring all doubts about Darwinism. Altogether, there are four subsidiary myths, and it is instructive to see how they work in detail:

(1) The myth of fundamentalist intransigence. According to this myth, only religious fanatics oppose Darwinism. What else could prevent the immediate and cheerful acceptance of Darwinism except fundamentalist intransigence? Darwinism, to the convinced Darwinist, is a self-evident truth. Biologist Paul Ewald, for instance, writes: “You have heritable variation, and you’ve got differences in survival and reproduction among the variants. That’s the beauty of it. It has to be true—it’s like arithmetic. And if there is life on other planets, natural selection has to be the fundamental organizing principle there, too.”10 If Darwin’s theory is as sure as arithmetic, what could prevent people from seeing its truth?

Perhaps the failure of people to accept Darwinian evolution is a failure of education. One frequently gets this sense from reading publications by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, and the National Association of Biology Teachers. If only people could be made to understand Darwin’s theory properly, they would readily sign off on it. But since Darwinists hold a monopoly  on biology education in America, something else must behindering  Darwinism’s acceptance. Accordingly, a mindless fundamentalism must reign over the minds of a vast majority of Americans, leading them to dig in their heels and resist Darwinism’s truth, which otherwise would be plain for all to see.

Thus, what many Darwinists desire is not just more talented communicators to promote Darwinism in America’s biology classrooms, but an enforced educational and cultural policy for total worldview reprogramming, one that is sufficiently aggressive to capture and convert to Darwinism even the most recalcitrant among “religiously programmed” youth. That’s why Darwinists like Daniel Dennett, to all appearances a participant in and advocate of democracy, fantasize about quarantining religious parents. It seems ridiculous to convinced Darwinists like Dennett that the fault might lie with their theory and that the public might be picking up on faults inherent in that theory.

For the Darwinist, the myth of fundamentalist intransigence justifies all forms of character assassination, ad hominem attacks, guilt by association, and demonization. An increasing cultural groundswell against Darwinism has meant that Darwinists are no longer able to simply ignore their critics. Instead, they routinely begin their responses to critics by labeling them as creationists, which in the current intellectual climate is equivalent to being called a holocaust denier, a flat-earther, or a believer in horoscopes. Creationism, properly speaking, refers to a literal interpretation of Genesis in which God through special acts of creation brings the biophysical universe into existence in six literal twentyfour-hour days, somewhere in the last several thousand years. When Richard Dawkins replies to David Berlinski’s criticisms of Darwinism (see chapter 14), he will call Berlinski, who is a secular Jew, a “creationist.”This is not only name-calling, it is also incorrect. Recently Berlinski remarked: “I have no creationist agenda whatsoever and, beyond respecting the injunction to have a good time all the time, no religious principles, either.”11 If Berlinski can be branded a creationist, then woe to those who actually have religious convictions and oppose Darwinism.

(2) The Myth of Prometheus. This myth is the flipside of the previous one. If only religious crazies oppose Darwinism, then it is only the intelligent and courageous who embrace Darwinism and fully accept its consequences. In the original myth, Prometheus brought fire to humanity and thus gave human beings control over nature (a power previously reserved to the gods). Prometheus did this at great personal cost, incurring the wrath of the gods, who chained him to a mountaintop and decreed that birds of prey should forever tear and consume his liver. By opposing arbitrary limitations that the gods imposed on humanity, Prometheus symbolized liberation from ignorance and superstition. In place of comforting myths that assure us of a special place in the great scheme of things, Prometheus teaches us to spurn the gods and stare the ultimate meaninglessness of reality in the eye without flinching.

Darwinists enjoy styling themselves as Prometheus’s heirs. Accordingly, they are humanity’s benefactors, conferring scientific insights that tell us the grim truth about our biological origins and thereby liberate us from our benighted fundamentalist past. Darwinism views the organic world as a great competition for life in which all living forms are ultimately destined for extinction. This is a bitter pill, but it is the best medicine we have. Fundamentalism, by contrast, is an opiate that causes us to sleepwalk through life, accepting fairy tales about our biological origins as well as fairy tales about any life beyond death. (Conflating the language of fairy tales with the language of ordinary religious belief is a favorite among more extreme Darwinists such as Steven Weinberg.)

The myth of Prometheus has been a public relations bonanza for Darwinists, helping them to score some of their best propaganda points. Take, for instance, the movie Inherit the Wind, a fictional portrayal of the Scopes monkey trial in which the forces of reason in the guise of Darwinism struggle against the mindless fundamentalism of a backwater town. The movie portrays Darwinism as the defender of scientific truth and intellectual honesty and also as the great liberator from religious bigotry. Given only this movie, who in their right mind would not support Darwinism? Notwithstanding, the actual Scopes trial, as Edward Sisson recounts in chapter 5 of this book, provided a quite different picture. Clarence Darrow, the Darwinist attorney who defended Scopes, carefully arranged the trial so that Darwinism was never subjected to cross-examination.

Although the myth of Prometheus has lofty pretensions, for many Darwinists it provides an excuse for elitism and snobbery. Accordingly, they divide the world into the moronic masses who reject Darwinism and its consequences, and the smart people (themselves) who believe it. Take Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett’s latest attempt to make atheism more alluring to the wider culture. They propose the word “bright” to serve the same role with respect to atheism as the word “gay” serves with respect to homosexuality. Dawkins writes:

    Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, of Sacramento, California, have set out to coin a new word, a new “gay.” Like gay, it should be a noun hijacked from an adjective, with its original meaning changed but not too much. Like gay, it should be catchy. . . . Like gay, it should be positive, warm, cheerful, bright. Bright? Yes, bright. Bright is the word, the new noun. I am a bright. You are a bright. She is a bright. We are the brights. Isn’t it about time you came out as a bright? Is he a bright? I can’t imagine falling for a woman who was not a bright. The website www.celeb-atheists.com suggests numerous intellectuals and other famous people are brights. . . . A bright is a person whose world view is free of supernatural and mystical elements. The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic world view. . . . You can sign on as a bright at www.the-brights.net.12

Since an atheistic worldview is best nourished on Darwinism (it was Dawkins, after all, who said that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist), it follows that “brights” are also Darwinists. Perhaps in the future we shall see articles and books about “Darwin’s Bright Idea.”

(3) The myth of victory past. A scene in the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup illustrates this myth. Groucho Marx, president of Freedonia, presides over a meeting of the cabinet. The following exchange ensues between Groucho and one of Freedonia’s ministers:

    Groucho: “And now, members of the Cabinet, we’ll take up old business.”

    Minister: “I wish to discuss the Tariff!”

    Groucho: “Sit down, that’s new business! No old business? Very well—then we’ll take up new business”

    Minister: “Now about that Tariff . . .”

    Groucho: “Too late—that’s old business already!”

This exchange epitomizes Darwinism’s handling of criticism. When a valid criticism of Darwinism is first proposed, it is dismissed without an adequate response, either on a technicality or with some irrelevant point, or is simply ignored. As time passes, people forget that Darwinists never adequately met the criticism. But Darwinism is still calling the shots. Since the criticism failed to dislodge Darwinism, the criticism it self must have been discredited or refuted somewhere. Thereafter the criticism becomes known as “that discredited criticism that was refuted a long time ago.” And, after that, even to raise the criticism betrays an outdated conception of evolutionary theory. In this way, the criticism, though entirely valid, simply vanishes into oblivion. With the internet and an emerging intellectual community that refuses to be cowed by Darwinist bullying, that scenario is beginning to change, but historically that is how Darwinists have handled criticism.

Michael Behe’s challenge to Darwinian evolution provides a recent case study in the myth of victory past. Certain biochemical systems are molecular machines of great sophistication and intricacy whose parts are each indispensable to the system’s function. Such systems are, as Behe defines them in his 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box, irreducibly complex. What’s more, as Behe also notes, such systems resist Darwinian explanations. Indeed, the biological community has no detailed, testable proposals for how irreducibly complex systems might have arisen through Darwinian means, only a variety of wishful speculations. Biologists like James Shapiro and Franklin Harold, who have no “creationist” or “intelligent design” agenda, admit that this is so.13 Nevertheless, it is routine among Darwinists to declare that Behe’s ideas have been decisively refuted and even to provide references to the biological literature in which Behe’s ideas are supposed to have been refuted.

But what happens when one tracks down those references in the biological literature that are said to have refuted Behe? David Ray Griffin, a philosopher with no animus against Darwinism or sympathy for Behe’s intelligent design perspective, remarks:

    The response I have received from repeating Behe’s claim [that the evolutionary literature fails to account for irreducible complexity] is that I obviously have not read the right books. There are, I am assured, evolutionists who have described how the transitions in question could have occurred [i.e., how, contra Behe, Darwinian pathways could lead to irreducibly complex biochemical systems]. When I ask in which books I can find these discussions, however, I either get no answer or else some titles that, upon examination, do not in fact contain the promised accounts. That such accounts exist seems to be something that is widely known, but I have yet to encounter someone who knows where they exist.14

It will help to see how this Darwinist technique of “passing the buck” actually plays out in practice. The National Center for Science Education is now the premier watchdog group for keeping concerted criticism of Darwinism outside the public arena. At the time of this writing, the Public Broadcasting Service is airing a Nova-style video program titled Unlocking the Mystery of Life. This program is critical of Darwinism and features Michael Behe’s ideas about irreducible complexity. The National Center for Science Education has a critical response to this program on its website (www.ncseweb.org) written by Andrea Bottaro, an immunologist on the faculty of the University of Rochester Medical Center. Here is what Bottaro says about irreducible complexity:

    The crucial argument . . . widely discussed in the video is the concept of “irreducibly complex” systems, and the purported impossibility of conventional evolutionary mechanisms to generate them. Although it was quickly rejected by biologists on theoretical and empirical grounds, [ref#6] “irreducible complexity” has remained the main staple of [Intelligent Design] Creationism. Ironically, this argument was just recently delivered a fatal blow in the prestigious science journal Nature, where a computer simulation based entirely on evolutionary principles (undirected random mutation and selection) was shown to be able to generate “irreducibly complex” outputs. [ref#7]15

This all sounds quite impressive and damning until one follows the paper trail. Indeed, what are the references #6 and #7 that Bottaro cites? Reference #6 refers to the articles on Kenneth Miller’s evolution website.16 What’s on this website? Prominently displayed is Miller’s 1999 book, Finding Darwin’s God. Despite Miller’s promises to the contrary, don’t look for a refutation of irreducible complexity there. None of Miller’s arguments against irreducible complexity withstands scrutiny. Behe claimed that the biological literature is bereft of detailed Darwinian explanations for the origin of irreducibly complex biochemical machines. Miller refers his readers to “four glittering examples of what Behe claimed would never be found.” Go to the articles that Miller cites, however, and you’ll find that Miller’s four glittering examples not only fail to be detailed but also fail to be irreducibly complex. Miller isn’t even in the right ballpark. Behe shows this clearly in his article “Irreducible Complexity and the Evolutionary Literature: Response to Critics.”17

What about the rest of Miller’s website? Miller lists several articles critical of Behe: “Design on the Defensive” (actually a collection of four articles directed at Behe), “A Review of Darwin’s Black Box,” “Answering the Biochemical Design Argument,” and Miller’s most recent essay, “The Flagellum Unspun: The Collapse of ‘Irreducible Complexity.’” Ironically, Miller wrote this last article for a book that Darwinist Michael Ruse and I are editing together for Cambridge University Press (Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA ). What’s more, Behe is a contributor to the book.

“The Flagellum Unspun” was Miller’s big chance to put his best foot forward and wipe the floor with irreducible complexity. And yet Miller’s entire argument consists not in providing a detailed Darwinian pathway to the irreducibly complex system that has become the mascot of the intelligent design movement (i.e., the bacterial flagellum), but in pointing out that such pathways are not logically impossible because irreducibly complex systems (like the flagellum) include subsystems (like the type III secretory system) that perform functions in their own right and therefore could be acted on by natural selection.

Four years after the publication of Finding Darwin’s God, Miller’s core argument against Behe is that the subsystems within irreducibly complex systems might, or could logically, be acted on by natural selection. He repeats this argument in the other articles critical of Behe on his website (the biological systems change from article to article, but the core argument remains unchanged). According to Miller, the parts of an irreducibly complex system are never totally functionless. Rather, those parts have functions and thus are grist for selection’s mill. Accordingly, selection can work on those parts and thereby form irreducibly complex systems.

For the Darwinian faithful, such a handwaving argument is all that’s required to refute irreducible complexity. The unconverted, however, want to know not why nothing is stopping natural selection from producing irreducible complexity but why we should think that natural selection can actively foster irreducible complexity (as it must if Darwinism is true—the biology of the cell, after all, is chock-full of irreducibly complex biochemical machines). To understand the difference, imagine yourself randomly sampling Scrabble pieces from an urn. Nothing is stopping the pieces from spelling the first few lines of Hamlet’s soliloquy. But if they do spell the first few lines of Hamlet’s soliloquy, something more than chance was involved. Likewise, with irreducibly complex systems, their emergence implicates more than just Darwin’s selection mechanism.

To sum up, Bottaro’s reference #6 purports to justify the rejection by the biological community of Behe’s work on irreducible complexity. In fact, all it does is point the reader to the rationalizations employed by the biological community for sidestepping the challenge posed by irreducible complexity. Reference #6 is therefore an exercise in misdirection.

What about reference #7? This reference is to Richard Lenski et al.’s May 8, 2003 paper in Nature titled “The Evolutionary Origin of Complex Features.”18 This paper describes a computer simulation and thus contains no actual biology. Go to the discussion section, and you’ll read: “Some readers might suggest that we ‘stacked the deck’ by studying the evolution of a complex feature that could be built on simpler functions that were also useful. However, that is precisely what evolutionary theory requires. . . .” In other words, the computer programmers built into the simulation what they thought evolution needed to make it work. The validity of this study therefore depends on whether the simulation faithfully models biological reality.

Unfortunately, the simulation presupposes the very point at issue. It therefore begs the question and doesn’t prove a thing about real-life biological evolution. The Lenski simulation requires that complex systems exhibiting complex functions can always be built up from (or decomposed into) simpler systems exhibiting simpler functions. This is a much stronger assumption than merely allowing that complex systems may include functioning subsystems. Just because a complex system can include functioning subsystems doesn’t mean that it decomposes into a collection of subsystems each of which is presently functional or vestigial of past function and thus amenable to shaping by natural selection.

The simulation by Lenski et al. assumes that all functioning biological systems are evolutionary kludges of subsystems that presently have function or previously had function. But there’s no evidence that real-life irreducibly complex biochemical machines, for instance, can be decomposed in this way. If there were, the Lenski et al. computer simulation would be unnecessary. Without it, their demonstration is an exercise in irrelevance. Bottaro’s “fatal blow” against irreducible complexity is nothing of the sort. Behe’s ideas about irreducible complexity, and in particular the criticism they raise of Darwinism, remain very much alive and discussed among biologists.

(4) The myth of the scientific juggernaut. Despite all the propaganda to the contrary, science is not a juggernaut that relentlessly pushes back the frontiers of knowledge. Rather, science is an interconnected web of theoretical and factual claims about the world that are constantly being revised. Changes in one portion of the web can induce radical changes in another. In particular, science regularly confronts the problem of having to retract claims that it once boldly asserted.

Consider the following example from geology. In the nineteenth century the geosynclinal theory was proposed to account for the origination of mountain ranges. This theory hypothesized that large troughlike depressions, known as geosynclines, filled with sediment, gradually became unstable, and then, when crushed and heated by the earth, elevated to form mountain ranges. To the question “How did mountain ranges originate?” geologists as late as 1960 confidently asserted that the geosynclinal theory provided the answer. In the 1960 edition of Clark and Stearn’s Geological Evolution of North America, the status of the geosynclinal theory was even favorably compared with Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Whatever became of the geosynclinal theory? An alternative theory, that of plate tectonics, was developed. It explained mountain formation through continental drift and sea-floor spreading. Within a few years, it had decisively replaced the geosynclinal theory. The history of science is filled with such turnabouts in which confident claims to knowledge suddenly vanish from the scientific literature.

The geosynclinal theory was completely wrong. Thus, when the theory of plate tectonics came along, the geosynclinal theory was overthrown. Often, however, theories are not completely wrong but offer some legitimate insights. Nevertheless, upon further investigation it is evident that they need to be revised, frequently by being contracted. When theories are first proposed, their originators try to push them to account for as much as possible—indeed, for too much. Only later do the limitations of the theory become evident.

It is always a temptation in science to think that one’s theory encompasses a far bigger domain than it actually does. This happened with Newtonian mechanics. Physicists thought that Newton’s laws provided a total account of the constitution and dynamics of the universe. Maxwell, Einstein, and Heisenberg each showed that the proper domain of Newtonian mechanics was far more constricted than scientists first believed. Newtonian mechanics works well for medium sized objects at medium speeds, but for very fast and very small objects it breaks down. In the latter case, we need to invoke, respectively, relativity and quantum mechanics. So, too, the proper domain of the Darwinian selection mechanism is far more constricted than most Darwinists would like to admit. In particular, large-scale evolutionary changes in which organisms gain novel, information-rich structures cannot legitimately be derived from the Darwinian selection mechanism.

Sometimes, as in the geosynclinal case, theories are replaced in their entirety by completely new theories. At other times, as with Newtonian mechanics, theories prove inadequate outside a certain range of phenomena and need to be supplemented. No one any longer learns  geosynclinal geology, but all freshman physics students still learnNewtonian mechanics, though later in their course of study they also learn about quantum mechanics and relativity theory. In both these instances, however, defective theories give way to new and improved theories. But that’s not always the case. It’s also possible for theories to be overthrown or contracted without offering a replacement theory.

Consider the case of superconductivity. When the experimental evidence went against the existing theory, science did not require that a replacement theory be ready and available before establishing that the existing theory was inadequate. Such case studies are particularly important in the debate over evolution because they show that one may legitimately criticize Darwinism without having to argue for the adequacy of a replacement theory. Instead of trying to shoehorn recalcitrant data into theories that are empirically inadequate, science is regularly forced to give up overconfident claims that cannot be adequately justified. The rational alternative to Darwinism, therefore, need not be intelligent design but rather, as David Berlinski points out in chapter 14, intelligent uncertainty.

With regard to superconductivity, the Dutch physicist Kamerling Onnes discovered the phenomenon in 1911. Superconductivity refers to the complete disappearance of electrical resistance for materials at low temperatures. When Onnes made his discovery, however, there was no theory to account for superconductivity. Such a theory was not proposed until 1957. It was called the BCS theory after scientists Bardeen, Cooper, and Schrieffer, who received the Nobel Prize in physics for it in 1972. The first paragraph of the Nobel press release describes the BCS theory as providing “a complete theoretical explanation of the phenomenon.”19 But the theory didn’t stay complete for long. In the 1980s Bednorz and Müller discovered superconductors at much higher temperatures than previously identified and explained by BCS. To date, no replacement theory for BCS has been found that extends to high-temperature superconductors. BCS, instead of being “the theory of superconductivity,” now merely explains a quite limited range of superconductors.

Science can get things wrong—indeed, massively wrong. What’s more, sometimes we can tell that science has gotten something wrong without having to tell what the correct or true explanation is. Also, unlike religion, science has no prophets to tell us what course science must take or avoid taking. Different courses need to be tried, and only after they are tried does it become clear what was fruitful and what was fruitless.

*****

The aim of this book is to expose and unseat the myths that have gathered around Darwinism. Of course, by itself this book will not accomplish that end—Darwinism’s myths are simply too entrenched in our intellectual culture for a single book to overturn them. As David Berlinski once remarked to me, “A shift in prevailing scientific orthodoxies will come only when the objections to Darwinism accumulate so forcefully that they can no longer be ignored.” Think of this book, therefore, as ramping up the objections to Darwinism and its chapters as straws that, along with other straws, eventually will break Darwinism’s back.