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How I Came to Take Leave of Darwin 

Neil Thomas

Editor’s note: We are delighted to host a new series by Neil Thomas, Reader Emeritus at the University of Durham, “How I Came to Take Leave of Darwin,” of which this article is the first installment. Professor Thomas’s recent book, Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design, is available now from Discovery Institute Press.

I guess few people with busy personal and work lives have the mental repose required to spend too much time considering the existential imponderables of life, and in my own case I was well in to my retirement years when the realization came to me that nothing I had learned about Darwinism — a polite fiction I had allowed myself to accept on trust for decades — stacked up logically. In the light of cool analytical thought, it appeared to me that Darwinism was a badly supported and even ludicrous theory. This realization drove me towards what, as a lifelong rationalist, I deemed to be the responsible course of action: researching the whole subject properly, something which, regrettably, I had omitted to do heretofore.

Can Nothing Produce Something?

Stephen Hawking once claimed that the world could have formed from nothing at all as the result of the force of gravity, but as Oxford mathematics professor John Lennox briskly counters, “[gravity] is not nothing,”1 adding with pardonable sternness, “Nonsense remains nonsense even when talked by world-famous scientists.” The stubborn question remains: How did gravity come to exist in the first place? Who lit its blue touch paper? Hawking’s speculations were in Lennox’s judgment more in the nature of metaphysics than physics proper. Similarly, in the course of my own researches it became clear that, whether I cared to acknowledge it or not (and I had been a secular humanist for many decades) a form of cosmic intelligence would have been required to initiate and superintend the whole course of life and evolution. To simply invoke the notion of a quasi-mystical automatism (glossed variously as chance, “self-assembly,” a “cosmic imperative,” or “natural selection”) now seemed to me absurd. 

In logical terms, I felt, there could be no effect without a cause despite the siren counterclaims of such as Hawking, Darwin himself, Richard Dawkins, Nobel Prize-winner Christian de Duve, Peter Atkins, and, notably, Lawrence Krauss, who has defended that position both in written form and in a number of recent cosmology-themed TV programs.2 From that point onwards I began to view the very notion of mindless creation/evolution with unqualified skepticism. What I had come to see as the wholly unconvincing attempts made by Darwin and his successors to circumvent the philosophic necessity for a first cause only strengthened my conviction that there must be an almighty (Almighty?) initiator of all things.

“What a Piece of Work Is Man”

I have to confess that I had once assumed that any opposition to Darwin must necessarily be confined to the ranks of such as Biblical fundamentalists. However, my attention was somewhat belatedly caught by some more substantive (and less easily disregarded) opposition arising from the ranks of Darwin’s latter-day peers in the ranks of scientific academe whose accumulated evidence could in no way be glossed as stemming from any religious parti pris. Michael Denton, the pioneering biologist in what later came to be known as the intelligent design community, concluded in his seminal book, Evolution. A Theory in Crisis (1985), that the scarcely conceivable complexity of life could hardly have evolved from the contingent dynamics of natural selection. For him and for other non-Darwinian scientists such as the Americans Michael Behe, William Dembski, and others writing in the 1990s and 2000s, the “irreducible complexity” of such organs as the eye and human brain provide unarguable counter-indications to any inference that the blunt tool of natural selection could have been the mechanism of their making. Given the interdependent nature of these organs’ structuring, their component parts could hardly have achieved their exquisitely harmonized form and synergetic functionality in an exclusively additive way (since natural selection is of course held to advance randomly by small modifications accumulating over time).

Criticism of the Darwinian model became even more acute, I found, when the unequivocally non-material aspects of life, such as consciousness, thought, and the subjective self, came into the picture. It lacks logical coherence, assert the ID scientists, to suppose that sentience could have evolved template-less from any purely material matrix. How could the entirely random interplay of impersonal forces have all unwittingly been instrumental in the creation of persons? For Denton, the large improbability of intelligent life being shaped by forces bereft of all cognitive capacity themselves provides nothing less than a “formal disproof” of the whole Darwinian paradigm, famously dubbed by him “the great cosmogenic myth” of the modern era.

Next, “Darwin on Trial (Again).”

Notes

  1. John C. Lennox, Gunning for God Why the New Atheists are Missing the Target (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2011), p. 32.
  2. Lawrence M. Krauss, A Universe from Nothing. Why there is Something rather than Nothing (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012),

Neil Thomas

Neil Thomas is a Reader Emeritus in the University of Durham, England and a longtime member of the British Rationalist Association. He studied Classical Studies and European Languages at the universities of Oxford, Munich and Cardiff before taking up his post in the German section of the School of European Languages and Literatures at Durham University in 1976. There his teaching involved a broad spectrum of specialisms including Germanic philology, medieval literature, the literature and philosophy of the Enlightenment and modern German history and literature. He also taught modules on the propagandist use of the German language used both by the Nazis and by the functionaries of the old German Democratic Republic. He published over 40 articles in a number of refereed journals and a half dozen single-authored books, the last of which were Reading the Nibelungenlied (1995), Diu Crone and the Medieval Arthurian Cycle (2002) and Wirnt von Gravenberg's 'Wigalois'. Intertextuality and Interpretation (2005). He also edited a number of volumes including Myth and its Legacy in European Literature (1996) and German Studies at the Millennium (1999). He was the British Brach President of the International Arthurian Society (2002-5) and remains a member of a number of learned societies.

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Charles DarwinChristian de DuveDarwinian theoryDarwinismevolutionEvolution. A Theory in CrisisfundamentalistsgravityHow I Came to Take Leave of Darwin (series)intelligenceintelligent designIrreducible Complexityjohn lennoxLawrence KraussMichael BeheMichael Dentonnatural selectionNobel PrizePeter AtkinsRichard DawkinsStephen HawkingWilliam Dembski