Editor’s note: We are delighted to present a series by Neil Thomas, Reader Emeritus at the University of Durham, “Why Words Matter: Sense and Nonsense in Science.” This is the third article in the series. Find the full series so far here. Professor Thomas’s recent book is Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design (Discovery Institute Press).
It seems uncontroversial to say that nobody could now mention Bernard de Fontenelle’s lunar lakes or Percival Lowell’s Martian canals, which I discussed yesterday, with a straight face. Those postulations were unmasked retrospectively as being “just words”: without real-world referents or implications. Such examples are, however, not simply isolated historical curiosities, and we certainly have no right to assume that condescending tone towards the past which later ages are often prone to adopt.
A Fatuous Hypothesis
With reference to the biological world, in the aftermath of the 1976 publication of Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, philosopher Mary Midgely pointed out the fatuousness of the “meme” hypothesis in painfully direct terms which are doubtless well-known to readers of her articles.1 Her critique has since been reinforced by others. Philosopher David Stove2 subjected the Dawkinsian conjecture to the most comprehensive critique. Latterly, John Gray, with habitual trenchancy, has written of “the cod-science of memes” — those supposed “replicating” forces postulated by Dawkins which have no more referent in the real world, Gray fulminates, than the non-existent substance of phlogiston.3
In the course of opposing Dawkins’s attempt to extend further the Darwinian imperium into the realm of “universal Darwinism,” philosopher Antony Flew even disputed whether the term “natural selection” had any genuine meaning at all, questioning the selective power Darwin claimed for it.4 His British colleague Richard Spilsbury concurred, writing in regard to the question-begging term “complexification” (postulated as a process leading — by intermediate steps wholly unknown — from unicellular species to the eventual evolution of homo sapiens) that “to say that these developments might have come about through the selection of chance variation is not evidence that they did.”5
To establish a conceptual possibility was far from advancing a concrete proof, Spilsbury objected. To assent to that proposition was as futile as it would be to support Charles Darwin’s long disproved theory of pangenesis and the associated idea of “gemmules” in heredity.6
Next, “Considering ‘Abiogenesis.’”
- See her Evolution as Religion (London: Routledge, 2002) and the various essays edited by Hilary and Steven Rose in Alas Poor Darwin: Arguments against Evolutionary Psychology (London, Vintage, 2001).
- Darwinian Fairy Tales (New York: Encounter Books, 2009).
- Seven Types of Atheism (London: Penguin, 2019), p. 14.
- Antony Flew, Darwinian Evolution, second edition (London: Transaction, 1997).
- Providence Lost: A Critique of Darwinism (London, New York, Toronto; OUP, 1974), p. 8 and passim.
- Since he knew nothing of Mendelian genetics, pangenesis was Darwin’s best guess for how heredity operated. He hypothesized (without evidence) that each part of the body released small particles which pooled in the genitals and contributed heritable information to the gametes.