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Alchemy, Marxism, and the future of Darwinism

I recently found myself in a conversation with two college undergraduates, both of them seniors in the natural sciences (physics and biochemistry, respectively). At one point we were discussing alchemy, which they knew as a pre-modern attempt to transmute lead into gold. I asked them whether they could name any famous alchemists. They could not, though one of them dimly recalled hearing of “someone whose name began with A.”

I then predicted that Darwinian evolution would eventually fade into the same obscurity that now shrouds alchemy. Although I knew from previous conversations that my young friends were skeptical of Darwinian theory, they expressed considerable surprise at my prediction, if only because Darwinism is presently held in such high esteem by their professors.

So I proceeded to explain the basis for my prediction.

First, Darwinism is similar to alchemy in purporting to hold the key to transmutation. Alchemists sought the secret of turning lead into gold; Darwinists think they already possess the secret of turning bacteria into baboons.

The alchemists, of course, were looking in the wrong place, expecting to find their secret in physical mixtures or chemical reactions, when transmutation of the elements had to wait for radically new discoveries in nuclear physics. Darwinists are also looking in the wrong place, expecting to explain large-scale evolution by DNA mutations and natural selection, when abundant evidence already indicates that those processes cannot do the job. When biologists eventually unravel the true organizing principles of life, they will quickly put Darwinism behind them.

Of course, there are also significant differences between alchemy and Darwinism. One is that alchemists were self-consciously searching for The Answer; Darwinists think they already have It. Another is that alchemy contributed many insights, materials and tools to the development of modern chemistry; Darwinism has almost nothing to contribute to the development of biology. The insights, materials and tools used by Darwinists have almost all been lifted from animal and plant breeders, classical biology, Mendelian genetics, biochemistry, and molecular biology — none of which owe anything to Darwin’s theory. The only things Darwinism can call its own are speculations about common ancestry and the transmutation of species that look increasingly implausible with each new piece of evidence.

Finally, alchemists knew that philosophy and theology were as integral to their discipline as observation and experimentation; Darwinists think they are above philosophy and theology. Even though Darwin’s Origin of Species and subsequent defenses of his theory are inextricably tied to arguments about why God supposedly wouldn’t have made living things the way they are, Darwinists invariably accuse their critics of being religiously motivated while they think they’re just dealing with the facts.

Which reminds me of another conversation I had fifteen years ago with some communists. I was a graduate student in biology at the time, and we were discussing the nature of science. I stated that no science is entirely objective — that is, based only on the facts and free of subjective elements. One of the communists replied that he knew of such a science. I asked him what it was, expecting him to say physics (for which I already had a well thought-out response). But his answer was “The Marxist theory of history.”

Darwinists, like Marxists, tend to be blind to their own commitment to materialistic philosophy. In this regard, Darwinists are more like Marxists than alchemists. So instead of becoming, like alchemy, just a dim recollection (“someone whose name began with D”), Darwinism might, like Marxism, persist for a while (after passing into oblivion everywhere else in the world) — on American college campuses.

Jonathan Wells

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Wells has received two Ph.D.s, one in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California at Berkeley, and one in Religious Studies from Yale University. A Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, he has previously worked as a postdoctoral research biologist at the University of California at Berkeley and the supervisor of a medical laboratory in Fairfield, California. He also taught biology at California State University in Hayward and continues to lecture on the subject.