Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design, by Neil Thomas, newly released by Discovery Institute Press.
Life on Earth has traditionally and for good reason been termed the mystery of mysteries, and there is much to ponder in the contention of 19th-century Harvard professor Louis Agassiz that life’s mysteries were no nearer to being solved after the publication of The Origin of Species than they had been before it. Needless to say, neither Darwin nor Wallace would have been minded to see things in that way, because both were responding to their own internalized challenges in the competition to find something no one else had been able to find in generations of evolutionary thinking: a cogent explanation for the diversification of life that made no appeal to a directly interventionist natural theology.1 Both men pressed on, acting as much in the spirit of conquistadors as discoverers. (Darwin famously rushed out the publication of Origin when he feared Wallace might pip him to the post.)
Their goal, albeit not of course explicitly acknowledged (in deference to that laudable Victorian code of gentlemanly reticence which has fallen into disuse in the last half century), was to become recognized as the Lyell of Biology. They thereby hoped to establish the prestige of a discipline which, they were determined, should slough off old-fashioned and discredited biblical notions and so place biology within the prestigious sphere of “pure” science. By analogy with Lyell’s geological work, which had rendered the biblical flood superfluous, the quest of Darwin and Wallace was to render the Christian God superfluous to the rolling out of the universe after the moment of Creation, or at least after the appearance of the first self-reproducing organism. But in order to advance their new paradigm, they were obliged to transfer agency to the process of natural selection which, unfortunately, contained within it an insurmountable problem, as Wallace later acknowledged.
Two Problems with Natural Selection
Actually there were two problems. The less fundamental but hardly trivial one was the lack of empirical evidence for the power of natural selection to generate new forms. Darwin appealed to the success of plant and animal breeders to fill the evidential gap, but even setting aside that artificial selection is purposive and therefore an odd stand-in for a mindless process, there is also what Bishop “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce underscored. Contrary to the common caricature of him as an unctuous and obscurantist buffoon, Wilberforce was an Oxford First in Mathematics with a keen interest in natural history and a good working knowledge of animal breeding methods. In his 1860 review of the Origin, he noted that domesticate breeders never succeed in breeding a fundamentally new animal form, and what progress they do make always comes with trade-offs. “The bull-dog gains in strength and loses in swiftness; the greyhound gains in swiftness but loses in strength,” wrote Wilberforce. “Even the English race-horse loses much which would enable it in the battle of life to compete with its rougher ancestor.”2
The more fundamental problem is that the “agency” of natural selection invoked by Darwin and, less expansively, by Wallace,3 was held to operate unselectively, with no notion of purpose permitted to obtrude into the multiple revolutions of its biological lottery. It’s not unlike the bonkers situation of a car salesman marketing a car without an engine underneath its hood, the fellow assuring his customer that the car would nevertheless function perfectly well.
Darwin wanted to have his cake and eat it too. Natural selection is a mindless process; Darwin was adamant about that. Yet he habitually repaired to purposive terminology in his descriptions of it, as when he limned natural selection’s construction of the eye: “We must suppose that there is a power always intently watching each slight accidental alteration of the transparent layers [of the eye]; and carefully selecting each alteration which, under varied circumstances, may in any way, or in any degree, tend to produce a distincter image.”4
One might legitimately ask, how it is possible to “intently watch” and “carefully select” unintelligently? That is entirely discrepant with what Darwin elsewhere claimed for the process he invoked. The contradiction points to a more than trivial conceptual confusion, and I would surmise that the very phraseology Darwin uses reveals that he must have had some awareness of the illogicality of his own position, even if only at some barely conscious level of apprehension.
An Apartheid-Like Antipathy
In the course of my professional life in higher education, an area that proudly regards itself as inclusive, it has often struck me as disturbingly contrary to that ideal that some colleagues in science departments betray an almost apartheid-like antipathy to philosophers, with philosophy coming second only to theology in the demonological hierarchy of some of their number. My vague understanding of this antipathy has, however, become much clarified in the course of preparing this volume. For it is philosophers in particular who have typically been the ones responsible for calling out many “mad genius” ideas put forward by representatives of the scientific community — a task for which said philosophers have received few thanks, needless to say — and which doubtless explains something of the animus towards them.
The problem with “natural selection” for philosopher Antony Flew was that it no more resembles any kind of conscious selection procedure than “Bombay duck is a species of duck.”5 It has been described as a would-be materialistic although in reality miraculous explanation. As Le Fanu put it, “Darwin’s explanation was in its own way profoundly ‘metaphysical’ in that it attributed to natural selection powers that might reasonably be thought to be miraculous — that it should somehow fashion perfection from a blind, random process, and transform one class of animal into another.”6
Again, we come up against the difficulty of scientists having to impute creative powers to phenomena with no creative capacity, rather like the way Richard Dawkins anthropomorphizes genes as being “selfish” — apportioning perception and decision to inanimate entities quite incapable of any decision or action whatsoever, selfish or unselfish, as philosopher Mary Midgley and others have pointed out,7 some going so far as to accuse him of animism.
Rationalist Principles and the Darwinian Narrative
If the reigning materialist paradigm had even a tolerably convincing weight of evidence behind it, I would be the first to accept it. In fact, I would embrace it wholeheartedly and with a sense of relief, even closure, since it would provide an excellent fit with a prior educational formation which has habitually foregrounded rational, evidence-based criteria. However, it is those very rationalist principles which bid me reject the Darwinian narrative, in its original, neo-Darwinian, and extended manifestations. I find it the grandest historical irony that the most fervent defenders of Darwinism claim to be advancing the ideals of the European Enlightenment. My view is that they are in reality dishonoring the foundational principles of that admirable project by perpetuating a hypothesis without empirical foundation or even the slightest approximation to verisimilitude.
As philosopher Richard Spilsbury once noted, “The basic objection to neo-Darwinism is not that it is speculative, but that it confers miraculous powers on inappropriate agents. In essence, it is an attempt to supernaturalize nature, to endow unthinking processes with more-than-human powers.”8
The case might even be made that the Darwinian narrative can work only by implicitly disregarding the Enlightenment program through its appeal to ways of thought supposed to have died out countless centuries before Darwin was even born. By that I mean that to attribute creative potential to nature itself is a deeply archaic, animistic way of thinking which takes us back even to the paganism of the Homeric age.
In the imaginative works of those early eras, nature through its many deified incarnations is routinely credited with directive capability. Zeus, called the Thunderer by the poet Hesiod in his Theogony, was believed to be able, inter alia, to control the weather; Demeter, the fertility goddess, could exert an influence on the annual crop yield; Aeolus, Keeper of the Winds in the Odyssey, provides a gentle breeze to waft Odysseus back to Ithaca after his long travels. To the ancient Greeks and many peoples who preceded them, the gods were essentially personifications of different aspects of Nature itself. The pre-scientific mind imputed agency to Nature by way of the personification of Nature’s various aspects as individual divinities.
Darwin’s theory of natural selection, although it struck most at the time and even since as an intellectual innovation, appears in reality to be something of a throw-back to those earlier modes of thought. In what seems to be a confirmation of the “nothing new under the sun” adage, Darwin appears, wittingly or not, to have channeled the spirit of the older, polytheistic world by crediting Nature with an infinite number of transformative powers.
- For Wallace at least it would be going too far to say he was long intent on an anti-theistic model. In his 1856 article titled “On the Habits of the Orang-Utan of Borneo,” in Annals and Magazine of Natural History 2nd ser., vol. 17, no. 103, he is already hinting at the theistic direction he was contemplating and would eventually take. Historian Michael Flannery writes, “It is no exaggeration to see this 1856 essay, written in the wake of his Sarawak Law paper the year before and ahead of his famous Ternate letter, as an early creedal statement. It would mark the emergent tenets of his inchoate teleological worldview, which consisted of the following: a non-reductionist, holistic view of nature; an admission of inutility in the plant and animal kingdoms and this given as reasonable evidence of higher and even intelligent causation in nature; a special place for humankind in the appreciation of features beyond mere survival utility such as beauty of form, color, and majesty; and the allowance that all of this may be the intentional expression of a theistic presence or force.” Flannery, Nature’s Prophet: Alfred Russel Wallace and His Evolution from Natural Selection to Natural Theology (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2018), 64.
- Samuel Wilberforce, “On the Origin of Species,” Quarterly Review (1860), 237–238.
- Regarding natural selection, historian Michael Flannery notes (in private correspondence) that a major point of difference that came to separate Wallace from Darwin was the question of artificial selection’s evidential import. In On the Origin of Species Darwin offered breeding examples as analogous to natural selection. Wallace, from his Ternate paper (1858) on, clearly distinguished between the two, and by implication limited the explanatory power of natural selection. We find this in his paper presented to the Anthropological Society of London in 1864, and it led to his open break with Darwin in 1869.
- Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 141–142.
- Antony Flew, Darwinian Evolution, 2nd ed. (London: Transaction Publishers, 1997), 25. Bombay duck is a gastronomic delicacy composed of dry, salted fish.
- Le Fanu, Why Us?, 107.
- On this point see now John Hands, Cosmosapiens: Human Evolution from the Origin of the Universe (London: Duckworth, 2015), 382.
- Richard Spilsbury, Providence Lost: A Critique of Darwinism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 19.