We’re often told that the evidence for neo-Darwinian evolution — where unguided natural selection acting on random mutations is the driving force generating the complexity and diversity of life — is “overwhelming.” But hints of dissent from this position can be found throughout the mainstream scientific literature. One article in Trends in Ecology and Evolution last year acknowledged that there exists a “healthy debate concerning the sufficiency of neo-Darwinian theory to explain macroevolution”.
Likewise, Günter Theißen of the Department of Genetics at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany recently wrote earlier this year in the journal Theory in Biosciences:
while we already have a quite good understanding of how organisms adapt to the environment, much less is known about the mechanisms behind the origin of evolutionary novelties, a process that is arguably different from adaptation (Wagner 2000). Despite Darwin’s undeniable merits, explaining how the enormous complexity and diversity of living beings on our planet originated remains one of the greatest challenges of biology.
Even more striking criticism of what he called the “dogmatic science” of neo-Darwinian thinking can be found in a 2006 paper by Theißen, also in Theory in Biosciences:
Explaining exactly how the great complexity and diversity of life on earth originated is still an enormous scientific challenge. … There is the widespread attitude in the scientific community that, despite some problems in detail, textbook accounts on evolution have essentially solved the problem already. In my view, this is not quite correct.
What is most interesting is how these hints of dissent are often accompanied by statements disclaiming any support for intelligent design (ID), seemingly intended to help deflect attacks upon the dissenter. Theißen’s 2009 article is quick to protest that “‘anti-Darwinians’ should not be confused with people, such as creationists, that see Darwin as their opponent,” and his 2006 paper expressly disclaims any support for ID (where Theißen again inappropriately lumps with “creationism”):
There is the opposite view gaining ground mainly outside of scientific circles that living organisms are so complex that they must have been created by an external intelligence — a novel version of creationism known as “Intelligent Design” (ID). A philosophical analysis of whether ID is a scientific hypothesis at all is beyond the scope of this review. In any case, its ability to develop fruitful research programs has remained negligible so far (Raff, 2005). With few exceptions (e.g., see Lönnig, 2004, and references cited therein) biologists do not consider ID helpful in our endeavour to explain life’s complexity and diversity. This does not mean, however, that we already have a complete and satisfactory theory which explains how the complexity and diversity of life originated. Thus the rejection of ID or other varieties of creationism is not based on the comprehensive explanatory power of any existing evolutionary theory, but has to be considered as an epistemological presupposition and heuristic basis of biology as a natural science.
Significantly, Theißen’s disclaimer admits that his rejection of ID is “not based on the comprehensive explanatory power of any existing evolutionary theory” but due to an “epistemological presupposition,” namely materialism. This calls to mind Scott C. Todd’s statement in Nature in 1999 that “[e]ven if all the data point to an intelligent designer, such an hypothesis is excluded from science because it is not naturalistic.”
Theißen apparently feels it necessary to announce his rejection of ID and his commitment to material explanations in order for his “anti-Darwinian” ideas to have any hope of gaining traction. Yet his 2006 paper contains a stark lamentation admitting the opposition faced by even materialists who dissent from neo-Darwinism:
It is dangerous to raise attention to the fact that there is no satisfying explanation for macroevolution. One easily becomes a target of orthodox evolutionary biology and a false friend of proponents of non-scientific concepts. According to the former we already know all the relevant principles that explain the complexity and diversity of life on earth; for the latter science and research will never be able to provide a conclusive explanation, simply because complex life does not have a natural origin.
Theißen’s admission is telling in that it not only recognizes it is politically “dangerous” for a materialist to question predominant evolutionary thinking (what scientist wants to “becom[e] a target of orthodox evolutionary biology”?), but also that there is even more intense opposition awaiting “friend[s] of proponents of non-scientific concepts” who believe that “complex life does not have a natural origin.” If materialists face such dangers, imagine the opposition facing non-materialists seeking to have their views taken seriously in scientific journals.
This is by no means the only evidence dissent from neo-Darwinism is tolerated (and as Theißen indicates, just barely) only if one pledges allegiance to materialism. Last year, Nature published an article covering the Altenberg 16 conference where critics gathered to debate the sufficiency of the modern synthesis of evolution. Scott Gilbert was quoted in the Nature article stating that “[t]he modern synthesis is good at modelling the survival of the fittest, but not the arrival of the fittest.” Stewart Newman stated in the same article, “You can’t deny the force of selection in genetic evolution … but in my view this is stabilizing and fine-tuning forms that originate due to other processes.” Evolutionary paleobiologist Graham Budd was similarly open in the article about deficiencies in explanations of key evolutionary transitions:
These problems include some of the key turning points in evolution: the patterns and changes seen in the fossil record as new branches spring from the tree of life and new anatomies — skeletons, limbs, brains — come into being. “When the public thinks about evolution, they think about the origin of wings and the invasion of the land,” says Graham Budd, a palaeobiologist at the University of Uppsala, Sweden. “But these are things that evolutionary theory has told us little about.”
These scientists are not proponents of ID, and they are hopeful that materialist explanations of evolution will be forthcoming, but their dissent from neo-Darwinism is nonetheless noteworthy. The Altenberg conference’s co-organizer, Massimo Pigliucci, was careful to do some damage control after the conference, and he stated in the same Nature piece: “If there’s one thing we don’t want, it’s for people to get the idea that there’s a bunch of evolutionary theories out there, and that they’re all equal.” It would seem that Pigliucci was heeding the warnings given at the end of this Nature article:
[T]here was no sense at Altenberg of a desire to attack evolutionary theory from the left. Quite the reverse — the dominant political concern was a fear of attack from fundamentalists. As Gould discovered, creationists seize on any hint of splits in evolutionary theory or dissatisfaction with Darwinism. In the past couple of decades, everyone has become keenly aware of this, regardless of their satisfaction or otherwise with the modern synthesis. “You always feel like you’re trying to cover your rear,” says Love. “If you criticize, it’s like handing ammunition to these folks.” So don’t criticize in a grandstanding way, says Coyne: “People shouldn’t suppress their differences to placate creationists, but to suggest that neo-Darwinism has reached some kind of crisis point plays into creationists’ hands,” he says.
The message is clear: Dissent from neo-Darwinism is tolerated so long as it lends no credence or “ammunition” to proponents of intelligent design (whom they would lump with the “creationists” or “fundamentalists”). If dissent from neo-Darwinism is so difficult to make that one must carefully frame it so as not to lend any support to ID, imagine how difficult it is for ID proponents to promote their viewpoints in the academy.
Implications for the Pretensions of “Expelled Exposed”
So here we are, the apparently unwelcome proponents of intelligent design, quoting these scientists who are skeptics of the neo-Darwinian synthesis of evolution. Now of course I’ve made it clear that everyone quoted in this article disagrees with intelligent design and feels that materialist explanations of evolution will be forthcoming. But that’s the point, isn’t it? One can express scientific dissent from neo-Darwinism–albeit rarely, sheepishly, and full of disclaimers and political pledges to materialism–so long as that dissent is does not support intelligent design. At the very least, that much is quite clear from the articles quoted above.
This would seem to contravene the claims of the “Expelled Exposed” website, where the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) claimed that anyone can dissent from neo-Darwinism without facing persecution. Providing a short list of prominent scientists who successfully promoted ideas that dissented from standard neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, they conclude:
The scientific enterprise is open to new ideas, however much they initially may be challenged. Here are some examples of people who have challenged the scientific status quo and, far from being “expelled” from science, were lauded as visionaries — once they had successfully proven their ideas. … So the scientific consensus can be and is challenged regularly. There is no unchallengeable orthodoxy, which is what Expelled would have you believe. … Scientists are constantly questioning, refining, and expanding theories, including evolution — and natural selection theory. As Michael Shermer writes, “Anyone who thinks that scientists do not question Darwinism has never been to an evolutionary conference.” There is no reason why intelligent design proponents cannot follow in the footsteps of these distinguished scientists who overcame sometimes considerable opposition, sometimes for a very long time, before their scientific views prevailed.
The NCSE would have you believe that proponents of intelligent design have an equal footing to challenge neo-Darwinism as any other scientist. But clearly this is not reality: Articles by scientists in scientific journals not only indicate that it is politically “dangerous” for even materialists to challenge neo-Darwinism as they risk “becom[ing] a target of orthodox evolutionary biology,” but also that those who do challenge the orthodoxy must be careful to pledge allegiance to materialistic explanations of evolution and to not provide “ammunition” to intelligent design. The scientific literature has made it clear that dissent from the modern synthesis has potential to be tolerated only if it does not support intelligent design. The NCSE’s notion that “[t]here is no unchallengeable orthodoxy,” is plainly false, once you understand that while the orthodoxy is not simply neo-Darwinism, but materialistic accounts of evolution.
. Michael A. Bell, “Gould’s most cherished concept, review of Punctuated Equilibrium by Stephen Jay Gould. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007,” Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Vol. 23(3):121-122 (2008) (emphasis added).
. Günter Theißen, “Saltational evolution: hopeful monsters are here to stay,” Theory in Biosciences, Vol. 128:43–51 (2009).
. Günter Theißen, “The proper place of hopeful monsters in evolutionary biology,” Theory in Biosciences, Vol. 124:349–369 (2006).
. Scott C. Todd, “A view from Kansas on that evolution debate,” Nature, Vol. 401:423 (Sept. 30, 1999).
. John Whitfield, “Biological Theory: Postmodern evolution?,” Nature, Vol. 455:281-284 (2008).