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Jason Rosenhouse, a Crude Darwinist

Image: Charles Darwin caricatured in Vanity Fair. Date: 1871

I am reviewing Jason Rosenhouse’s new book, The Failures of Mathematical Anti-Evolutionism (Cambridge University Press), serially. For the full series so far, go here.

For Rosenhouse, Darwin can do no wrong and Darwin’s critics can do no right. As a fellow mathematician, I would have liked to see from Rosenhouse a vigorous and insightful discussion of my ideas, especially where there’s room for improvement, as well as some honest admission of why neo-Darwinism falls short as a compelling theory of biological evolution and why mathematical criticisms of it could at least have some traction. Instead, Rosenhouse assumes no burden of proof, treating Darwin’s theory as a slam dunk and treating all mathematical criticisms of Darwin’s theory as laughable. Indeed, he has a fondness for the word “silly,” which he uses repeatedly, and according to him mathematicians who use math to advance intelligent design are as silly as they come.

Anti-Evolutionism or Anti-Darwinism?

In using the phrase “mathematical anti-evolutionism,” Rosenhouse mistitled his book. Given its aim and arguments, it should have been titled The Failures of Mathematical Anti-Darwinism. Although design theorists exist who reject the transformationism inherent in evolutionism (I happen to be one of them), intelligent design’s beef is not with evolution per se but with the supposed naturalistic mechanisms driving evolution. And when it comes to naturalistic mechanisms driving evolution, there’s only one game in town, namely, neo-Darwinism, which I’ll refer to simply as Darwinism. In any case, my colleague Michael Behe, who also comes in for criticism from Rosenhouse, is an evolutionist. Behe accepts common descent, the universal common ancestry of all living things on planet earth. And yet Behe is not a Darwinist — he sees Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection acting on random variations as having at best very limited power to explain biological innovation. 

Reflexive Darwinism

Rosenhouse is a Darwinist, and a crude reflexive one at that. For instance, he will write: “Evolution only cares about brute survival. A successful animal is one that inserts many copies of its genes into the next generation, and one can do that while being not very bright at all.” (p. 14) By contrast, more nuanced Darwinists (like Robert Wright) will stress how Darwinian processes can enhance cooperation. Others (like Geoffrey Miller) will stress how sexual selection can put a premium on intelligence (and thus on “being bright”). But Rosenhouse’s Darwinism plays to the lowest common denominator. Throughout the book, he hammers on the primacy of natural selection and random variation, entirely omitting such factors as symbiosis, gene transfer, genetic drift, the action of regulatory genes in development, to say nothing of self-organizational processes.

Rosenhouse’s Darwinism commits him to Darwinian gradualism: Every adaptation of organisms is the result of a gradual step-by-step evolutionary process with natural selection ensuring the avoidance of missteps along the way. Writing about the evolution of “complex biological adaptations,” he notes: “Either the adaptation can be broken down into small mutational steps or it cannot. Evolutionists say that all adaptations studied to date can be so broken down while anti-evolutionists deny this…” (p. 178) At the same time, Rosenhouse denies that adaptations ever require multiple coordinated mutational steps: “[E]volution will not move a population from point A to point B if multiple, simultaneous mutations are required. No one disagrees with this, but in practice there is no way of showing that multiple, simultaneous mutations are actually required.” (pp. 159–160) 

“Mount Improbable”

And why are multiple simultaneous mutations strictly verboten? Because they would render life’s evolution too improbable, making it effectively impossible for evolution to climb Mount Improbable (which is both a metaphor and the title of a book by Richard Dawkins). Simultaneous mutations throw a wrench in the Darwinian gearbox. If they played a significant role in evolution, Darwinian gradualism would become untenable. Accordingly, Rosenhouse maintains that such large-scale mutational changes never happen and are indemonstrable even if they do happen. Rosenhouse presents this point of view not with a compelling argument, but as an apologist intent on neutralizing intelligent design’s threat to Darwinism. 

Next, “The Silence of the Evolutionary Biologists.”

Editor’s note: This review is cross-posted with permission of the author from BillDembski.com.