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Answering Objections to the Dissent from Darwinism List


Yesterday, I discussed the contention by advocates of Darwinian evolution claim that there are no legitimate scientific problems with their viewpoint. Supporters of Darwin’s theory often seek to portray those who doubt evolution as being moved by strictly religious or political motivations. The Scientific Dissent from Darwinism List shows that many objections to Darwinian evolution are scientifically based. But because numerous pro-Darwin activists cannot admit this, they have developed a variety of strategies for attacking the Scientific Dissent from Darwinism List.

Strategy 1: Misrepresent the List by Pulling a Bait and Switch.
One common tactic among critics of the list is to define evolution as microevolution (what I have called Evolution #1) or universal common descent (Evolution #2) and then claim that if Dissent List signers accept one or both of those definitions, then they really don’t doubt “evolution” and don’t belong on the list. Such a bait-and-switch tactic redefines the term “evolution” in a way that is not intended by the list. This fallacious objection wrongly claims that some list-signers don’t challenge a definition of “evolution” that the list never intended to use.

The Dissent List has always been called “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism” because it challenges the most basic tenet of modern Darwinian theory (also called “neo-Darwinism”) — the view that random mutation and natural selection are the main forces generating the complexity of life. The list is not about skepticism on common descent or microevolution. It’s about skepticism regarding the sufficiency of the neo-Darwinian mechanisms of mutation and selection.

One article from the pro-Darwin lobbying group National Center for Science Education (NCSE), “Why Teach Evolution?,” employs this bait-and-switch approach. It attacks the Dissent from Darwinism list by taking the focus off random mutation and natural selection and putting it instead on common ancestry or other, less important forces involved in the evolutionary process.

The article first states: “Biological evolution is a scientifically settled theory. Among scientists, this means that its fundamental principle — he shared ancestry of living organisms — has overcome all scientific challenges.” This assertion promotes a standard NCSE talking point — that there are no scientific doubts about modern evolutionary theory. However, we’ve already seen that is a false claim. Moreover, by putting the focus on common ancestry, the NCSE has pulled a bait and switch. There are scientists who accept common ancestry but still doubt the neo-Darwinian model of evolution. The Scientific Dissent from Darwinism List shows that there are hundreds of credible scientists who doubt neo-Darwinian evolution.

The NCSE article is apparently aware of this fact, because it quotes the Dissent List’s statement and then attacks it as follows:

This statement is misleading; it implies that evolutionary theory is based merely on random mutation and natural selection. In the past 140 years, many sources of biological change have been identified and incorporated into evolutionary theory. First, the statement describes evolutionary theory incorrectly. Then it implies that being skeptical of the incorrect definition is the same as being skeptical about biological evolution. This is a classic “straw-man” argument.

The NCSE is of course correct that there are other forces cited in modern evolutionary theory besides natural selection and random mutation, but the Dissent list never states otherwise. What the NCSE misses is that most evolutionary scientists have claimed that natural selection and random mutation are the primary forces driving evolution in living organisms and building new complex adaptive features. Many biologists have affirmed that neo-Darwinian evolution is based primarily upon random mutation and natural selection:

  • Douglas Futuyma’s 2005 textbook Evolution defines “neo-Darwinism” as “[t]he modern belief that natural selection, acting on randomly generated genetic variation, is a major, but not the sole, cause of evolution.”1
  • Strickberger’s textbook Evolution equates “neo-Darwinism” with the “modern synthesis,” defining it as “a change in the frequencies of genes introduced by mutation, with natural selection considered as the most important, although not the only, cause for such changes.”2
  • A letter by scientists published in the world’s top scientific journal, Nature, states: “The two central elements of neo-darwinian evolution are small random variations and natural selection.”3
  • A paper by two scientists in the journal Science, the top scientific journal in the United States, notes: “According to neo-Darwinian theory, random mutation produces genetic differences among organisms whereas natural selection tends to increase the frequency of advantageous alleles.”4

The Dissent List thus correctly focuses on random mutation and natural selection because these are said to be the primary forces driving the evolution of life and building adaptive complexity in living organisms. Rather than misrepresenting modern evolutionary theory, the Dissent List focuses on challenges to the most important biological mechanisms undergirding the modern theory of evolution.

Strategy 2: Overstate the Degree of Support for Darwinian Evolution in the Scientific Community.
Some critics of the list say that its 900+ signers represent only a small percentage of the scientific community, thereby showing that Darwinian evolution must be correct. However, attempts to argue against the Dissent List in this way rely upon three false assumptions:

(1) These arguments wrongly assume that virtually all of more than three million scientists in the world are aware of the Scientific Dissent from Darwinism List and chose not to sign it. In reality, we do not proactively advertise the Dissent List to scientists, so the vast majority of scientists are probably not even aware that the list exists, and thus have never made any decision about signing (or not signing) it.

(2) These arguments wrongly assume that even among those scientists are aware of the Dissent from Darwinism List, all who doubt Darwinism have chosen to sign the list. The truth is that many PhD scientists who doubt Darwinian theory — especially professional biologists — have told us they would very much like to be able sign the list, but are afraid to do so because they fear that their career as a scientist would be threatened if they sign the list.

(3) These arguments wrongly assume that if most scientists accept an idea, then it must be correct and you ought to accept it. This is not true. The “consensus” can be right, but the history of science shows it can also be wrong. Every scientific revolution started off as a minority scientific viewpoint. Indeed, as recently as the 1960s, the “consensus” held that the continents are fixed in place, but today we can observe continental drift in real-time. In science, what matters isn’t vote-counts, but the evidence.

When Darwin advocates cite the “consensus” or tout the percentage of scientists who support evolution, what they’re really trying to say is, “Most scientists support evolution and therefore so should you.” This should raise a red flag in the minds of independent thinkers. What they want you to do is to stop looking at the evidence and to stop thinking for yourself. In other words, they want you to stop thinking and stop acting like a scientist.

Ideally, scientists should never accept a viewpoint simply because other scientists do. They accept (or reject) a view because the evidence supports it (or doesn’t support it). You should do the same.
Critics miss the point of the Dissent List. Its point is not to say that “many scientists doubt Darwinism and so should you.” Rather, the purpose is to rebut a common argument from evolution advocates — that there is no credible scientific dissent from Darwinism.

The Dissent List provides evidence of a genuine scientific debate over Darwinian evolution. This means you have to look at the evidence to decide who is right rather than simply asking “What does the consensus say?”

Strategy 3: Deny the Scientific Controversy and Make It Seem Uncool to Doubt Darwinism.
Another common strategy is to play on personal insecurities about whether doubting Darwinism is socially or intellectually acceptable — that is, whether or not it’s “cool.” For example, the NCSE article noted above states: “Biological evolution is a scientifically settled theory” and that opposition to evolution “results from a poor understanding of evolutionary theory and how it is applied in the sciences.” Yet as we have seen, the Scientific Dissent from Darwinism List shows that many credible and well-informed scientists doubt Darwinian evolution, and that there are valid scientific reasons for doing so.

One biology textbook, for example, takes this approach. It devotes half a page to attacking the Scientific Dissent from Darwin list, attempting to flatter the student as a “Savvy Reader,” but only asks students to “critique” the Dissent List.5 The purpose of the “Savvy Reader” section is to encourage students to accept arguments from authority rather than form their own views after examining the evidence.

But simply agreeing with the “consensus” while disregarding the actual evidence isn’t “savvy.” A genuinely savvy student, or any thoughtful person, would weigh the evidence carefully and make an independent judgment — whether on evolution or any important subject all. Whatever viewpoint you come to on evolution, make sure you follow Darwin’s advice: “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.'”

[1.] Douglas J. Futuyma, Evolution, p. 550 (Sinauer, 2005).
[2.] Monroe W. Strickberger, Evolution, p. 649 (3d Ed., 2000).
[3.] C. M. Newman, J. E. Cohen, and C. Kipnis, “Neo-darwinian evolution implies punctuated equilibria,” Nature, Vol. 315: 400-401 (May 30, 1985).
[4.] R.E. Lenski, J.E. Mittler, “The directed mutation controversy and neo-Darwinism,” Science, Vol. 259: 188-194 (January 8, 1993).
[5.] Colleen Belk and Virginia Borden Maier, Biology: Science for Life, p. 251 (Benjamin Cummings, 3rd ed., 2010).

Image by ceridwen [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.