Distinguished Johns Hopkins M.D. Doubts Darwin

Jonathan Witt

Somebody forgot to get the word to Paul McHugh: Respectable intellectuals don’t doubt Darwin–ever! McHugh is a university distinguished service professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and former psychiatrist in chief of the Johns Hopkins Hospital. In the new issue of The Weekly Standard, he provides detailed evidence that Darwin’s narrative of the origin of species is in crisis, and that civilized discourse about the growing controversy surrounding his theory is all to the good:

Those who would expel all challenges to the Darwinian narrative from the high school classroom are false to their mission of teaching the scientific method.
“Scientists as they engage in dialogue with others should abhor attempts to close off the conversation by excessive claims for any privileged access to truth. Scientists should tell what they actually know and how they know it, as distinct from what they believe and are trying to advance. If all of us, scientists and non-scientists alike, accepted that guiding principle, the 80-year history of attempts to use law to stifle the teaching of science–stretching as it does from the courtrooms of Dayton, Tennessee, to those of Cobb County, Georgia–could perhaps finally be brought to a close.

McHugh essay is not pithy. He actually takes the time to wrestle with some specific problem’s with Darwin’s theory. One example I hope will encourage your reading of the full article:

Darwin himself understood that questions raised about his narrative had substance. In Chapter IX of On the Origin of Species, he noted that the fossil record had failed to “reveal any … finely graduated organic chain” linking, as he proposed, existing species to predecessors. He called the record “imperfect” and went so far as to say, “This, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory.” Darwin presumed that the problem rested on the “poorness of our palaeontological collections” and would be answered when more of “the surface of the earth has been geologically explored.”
In the same Chapter IX, Darwin also acknowledged that the fossil record does suggest the “sudden appearance of whole groups of allied species all at once.” He noted that if this fact were to stand, and “numerous species belonging to the same genera or families have really started into life all at once . . . [it] would be fatal to the theory of descent with slow modification through natural selection.” He forestalled that fatal blow to his theory by asking his readers not to “over-rate the perfection of the geological record.”
Any sympathetic reader of Darwin’s history would readily allow him the point–that earlier life forms might have all come and gone elsewhere than where later forms emerged and might have done so without leaving a fossil record to demonstrate the smooth gradation between species. But such a reader should admit, as Darwin did, that the absence of the record is a serious matter–especially when it persists to this day, nearly a century and a half after Darwin’s book was published. This imperfection of the historical record was, after all, sufficiently embarrassing to provoke some evolutionary biologists nearly 100 years ago to try to improve on the record by manufacturing the counterfeit fossil Piltdown Man.
Even among committed Darwinists, the imperfection of the fossil record has been a source of huge argument. The Darwinian fundamentalist Richard Dawkins of Oxford believes in smooth and gradual evolutionary processes. He became a vicious antagonist to Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard, who championed “punctuated equilibrium,” with abrupt species generation after millennia of stability.

The problem is so acute that a biology journal recently peer-reviewed and published this essay arguing that intelligent design was a better explanation than the Darwinian narrative of undirected evolution by natural selection.
Oh, but high school biology students wouldn’t find any of this interesting, would they? Don’t they prefer their science handed to them pre-digested, in the form of settled dogma, every mystery settled, all of the intellectual ferment safely buried in the past?
And we wonder why more of our kids aren’t pursuing careers in biology and medicine. McHugh has the right idea: It’s time to teach the controversy.

Jonathan Witt

Executive Editor, Discovery Institute Press and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Witt, PhD, is Executive Editor of Discovery Institute Press and a senior fellow and senior project manager with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. His latest book is Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design (DI Press, 2018) written with Finnish bioengineer Matti Leisola. Witt has also authored co-authored Intelligent Design Uncensored, A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature, and The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot. Witt is the lead writer and associate producer for Poverty, Inc., winner of the $100,000 Templeton Freedom Award and recipient of over 50 international film festival honors.