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On Darwinism and the Abdication of Reason

Neil Thomas
Image: Thomas Love Peacock, National Portrait Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Those of us who had once assumed that religious controversies in the Western world had been more or less consigned to the past have found many seemingly superannuated controversies alive and well in evolutionary studies. Darwin’s long shadow has certainly created a populous arena for crypto-theological arguments. Furthermore, these disputes are apt to assume a hard-edged binary form, often being not so much dispassionate debates about evidence as head-to-heads between supporters of theism and the opposing philosophy of (atheistic) materialism. Hence from time to time one hears the claim made that any and every objection to Darwinism must be fueled by some or other form of religious sentiment, either overtly or covertly.1 This contention, however, is not supported by the evidence since scientific objections to Darwinism typically focus four-square on the lack of evidential foundation and explanatory force of evolutionary theory.

Doubts about Darwin

Hence already by the 1890s the eminent botanist F. W. Bateson, shortly thereafter to be instrumental in pioneering the new science of Mendelian genetics in Cambridge at the beginning of the 20th century, came out firmly against the Darwinian paradigm. Bateson pointed out that the vagueness of Darwin’s description of natural selection as occurring by insensible and imperceptible stages gave us no clue as to what the precise operative mechanism might consist in, or indeed if such a claimed mechanism truly existed at all. More than a century after Bateson that “mechanism” is no clearer, would-be explanations in biology now as before tending to be couched in Delphic terms of organisms having “evolved” from simpler systems without supplying any detailed descriptors of the operational modalities claimed to have occasioned such changes.2

Hence it is hardly surprising that in his recent attempt to pin down the precise phenomenological status of “natural selection,” David Brown concluded that the term is more of a fuzzy imaginative construct than a phenomenon we might locate in the natural world itself.3 The term lacks an adequately defined referent because such a referent has never been empirically locatable or observable in nature — making the term something of a phantom without any empirically testable evidence for its existence. It certainly cannot be claimed to be a mechanism or what the Victorians termed a vera causa. Natural “selection” (recte preservation)4 is at bottom simply a statistical observation and analysis of accumulated biological faits accomplis. It possesses no motive force or innovative/creative power. The term represents an imaginative attempt to provide an explanation of how nature could function but reveals no empirically defensible insight into how it actually does function.

Intellectual Dissenters

The most trenchant opposition to Darwinian notions has come not so much from theists as from biologists, the literary and linguistic intelligentsia,5 and from those professional logicians we term philosophers. This fact was made known to Darwinian advocate Richard Dawkins in no uncertain terms after the publication in 1976 of his The Selfish Gene brought forth the kind of philosophic vitriol which might have daunted a lesser man.6 This must surely have alerted its author to the fact that that his principal opponents were academics and other professionals rather than those he had caricatured as unthinking backwoodsmen. 

Reason, rather than that form of unreflecting faith known historically as fideism, has in point of fact played the major part in peoples’ thinking ever since written records began. Turning to the beginnings of ideas of creation and evolution, we find that mankind’s earliest speculations about the world sprang from rational inference, not revealed faith.7 The matter was one of dispassionate philosophical debate long before it became the ideological football it has become for many today. Indeed, both “pagan” and later Christian thinkers found themselves singing from a very similar hymn sheet. Major pre-Christian and medieval philosophers alike were unanimous that the universe must have had a first cause.

Aristotle, Aquinas, Lord Herbert of Cherbury

Aristotle’s ancient inference about the necessity for an unmoved mover was elaborated by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, and this had the effect of integrating first-cause inference into formal Christian theology. What is particularly significant is the fact that Aquinas registered a universal consensus on the grounds of logic alone that there must be a source and sustainer of all things. His point was that it was not necessary to be an adherent of the Judeo-Christian tradition to assent to the acceptance of a first cause.8

This eons-old majoritarian understanding was not surprisingly to become a bedrock of Western thought. In the philosophical writings of Lord Herbert of Cherbury in the 17th century, for instance, the logical necessity for an initiator of all things was a “truth of first inscription,”9 that is, something self-evidently true because people’s everyday observations of effects requiring causes provided clear evidence for the operation of a universal law. Hence the thinking of “pagan” and Christian philosophers alike, building on peoples’ observations of the unchanging laws of causality, came together in a unanimous conjunction on this issue — with the single exception of that small group of ancient philosophic outliers termed atomists who proposed that the world had come about by the chance collisions of atoms.

Hume and Atomism

The idea that the superabundance of intricate creations we observe in the world around us could have come about by chance was disdained as an absurdity in Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and even in the Enlightenment era save for David Hume’s flying a somewhat ambiguous kite for it towards the end of the 18th century.10 It was only after the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859 that the ideas of the ancient atomists were able to hitch a ride from Darwinism, since the idea of chance mutations followed by “natural selection” could be construed as being conformable with the wholly aleatory vision of atomism which speculated that the world arose from nothing more than a grand crucible of chance.11

As perverse as it might appear, the merging of these two lines of boundless speculation seems to have become mutually reinforcing, providing a rare historical example of two wrongs coming together to (purportedly) make a right. For after 1859 what had been widely regarded as the lunatic fringe of philosophy in the ancient world was brought in from the cold under the scientific shelter provided by Darwinism, whereupon the weightier philosophers of Antiquity became cold-shouldered. By dint of the rehabilitation of the atomists prompted by the Darwinian example, the ancient philosophical school that defied all accepted canons of logic and probability has today achieved the historically unprecedented status of orthodoxy and the once hallowed Aristotelian tradition been sidelined. This has taken place under the protective aegis of a burgeoning Darwinist creed no longer confined to explaining a restricted range of biological phenomena. For Darwinism has recently acquired more imperial ambitions and often now sails under the grandiose flag of “universal Darwinism” — meaning a total method of explanation able to illuminate all the universe’s mysteries, cosmological as well as biological. 

Existential Revolution

How should one react to this astounding revolution in many educated persons’ existential understanding of their world and themselves which has taken place in the last 160 years plus? The absolute philosophical reversal might in a wider historical context seem more than a little surreal. It is rather as if Biblical scholars, turning their backs on the carefully considered canon-formation of the New Testament established through innumerable “peer reviews” by early Christian councils in the Patristic era, should suddenly take it upon themselves to advance some of the more bonkers apocrypha to canonical status in preference to the four previously accredited Gospels.12

Some may find it difficult to resist the feeling that after 1859 the inmates must have somehow contrived to take over the asylum, abdicating eons-old reason in favor of empirically unattested guesswork. For the evidence prompts us to develop a rather different explanatory narrative. The last half century or so of microbiological research has shown us that nature’s generative programs are designed in such subtly encoded biological imperatives as to remain almost entirely resistant to human fathoming. It is in fact instructive that the language of biology both before and after Darwin abounds in (involuntary) “purpose-talk.” This in itself gives the lie to the random processes postulated by “atomism” and Darwinism alike.13 Such purpose-talk must represent, whatever its users may prefer to think, an involuntary homage to the logic of Aristotelian teleology.

The Wisdom of the Past

Darwinism’s unavailing attempts to gloss over huge and unfathomable complexities — to the extent of denying that the mysteries of life were mysteries any longer — serve only to show up more clearly the intractable nature of the problems they fail to solve. It is a pity that Darwin’s homeland no longer boasts a satirist of the caliber of Thomas Love Peacock to exploit this rich seam of comic absurdity. For Darwinism surely represents a far graver fallacy than those comically deranged but harmless “crotchets” (fashionable theories) cherished by the early 19th-century beau monde and so amusingly lampooned by Peacock, the independent-minded autodidact who spurned the opportunity to attend either Oxford or Cambridge University and who was unremittingly scathing about intellectual overreach and the overblown claims this frame of mind can give rise to.14 It is in fact all too easy to nod in quiet assent with Peacock in his choice of the short stanza he chose as a preface to his first satirical novel of ideas, Headlong Hall (1816):

All philosophers, who find

Some favourite system to their mind

In every point to make it fit,

Will force all nature to submit.15

Almost two centuries later that quatrain has lost nothing of its force and relevance. In the attempt to explain the inexplicable, the scientific philosophers of our own day are frequently guilty of forcing nature to submit to explanations which appear Procrustean to a truly fantastical degree. I refer to such cosmological theories as the world having arisen unguided by anything but “natural law” (sans law-giver) or the notorious “multiverse” hypothesis. Similarly, natural selection as an autonomous force is quite simply not supported empirically, despite the fact that Darwinians have employed the concept as a virtually self-evident proposition — something we are constantly leaned on to believe just must be true. Against the unreflecting acceptance of this proposition, Phillip Johnson once concluded with considerable justice that “chance assembly is just a naturalistic way of saying miracle” — a fiction pressed into service by “scientists unwilling to face the possibility that beyond the natural world is a reality which transcends science.”16

The Abdication of Reason

This whole disputational imbroglio would certainly provide fertile ground for a Peacockian satire or absurdist drama since any abdication of reason cannot but be disquieting and hence eminently worthy of “problematizing” in one or another literary genre. Perhaps that much abused and virtue-signaling term “reason” might best be served by heeding the sager scientists’ warnings against making claims which are simply unamenable to reason. If this means taking a modest step back to the status quo ante before 1859 and an acknowledgement that the world is a place of inscrutable mystery, so be it. Perhaps the beginning of wisdom would be to summon up the humility to acknowledge as a matter of simple logic that the biosphere could not have just “evolved” (aka developed by a form of entirely unspecifiable automatism). It must have been informed by some form of special dispensation. We cannot, alas, know what that dispensation might have been, and so it must remain a mystery to be placed alongside those other existential imponderables which we puzzle over as children but with maturity come to realize are unanswerable.

The stubborn reality remains that Darwinism provides no convincing answers to the problems it claims to solve because the existential questions it attempts to confront lie beyond the proper domain of empirical science and its strictly delimited methodological parameters. Ultimate questions will always be beyond the scope of empirical science as it is conventionally defined and I do not think it does any harm to admit this. It might in fact have been truer to Darwin’s lifelong anguish about the viability of his theory if he had applied the expression he used about the origin of life to its sequel and simply stated that the whole question of human creation/evolution was a work in progress and, as to definitive conclusions, these must remain in Darwin’s words “ultra vires [beyond our powers] in the present state of our knowledge.”

Postscript

It has become something of a cliché that the would-be omniscient tones of today’s more militant materialists have made them particularly splendid recruiting-sergeants for religion. The fact that Darwin’s later adherents can bid us all “pass on, job done, nothing to be seen here” (when there is clearly so much still to be discovered) only heightens my apprehension of what the early 20th-century German theologian Rudolf Otto termed the “numinous” dimension of reality. This referred to a reality which can be dimly sensed but not understood in precise terms — a notion already well known to Middle English mystic writers such as the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing or to the German Meister Eckhart who described his apprehensions of the divine as being “wortelos” (= ineffable, incommunicable in conceptual terms). There is surely a rich irony in the fact that Darwinism, when subjected to rationalist critique, reveals itself to be so completely unconvincing as to propel me, a heretofore lifelong secularist, in the direction of theistically oriented speculations on life’s ultimate realities. 

Notes

  1. “Pretend as they will to scientific credentials, the anti-evolution propagandists are always religiously motivated, even if they try to buy credibility by concealing the fact. In most cases, they know deep down what to believe because their parents recommended an ancient book that tells them what to believe. If the scientific evidence learned in adulthood contradicts the book, there must be something wrong with the scientific evidence. Since all radiometric dating methods agree that the earth is thousands of millions of years old, something obviously has to be wrong with all radiometric dating methods. The holy book of childhood cannot be, must not be, wrong.” Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: Penguin, 1986), Introduction, pp. xiv-xv.
  2. See on this point Neil Broom, How Blind is the Watchmaker? Nature’s Design and the Limits of Naturalistic Science (Downers Grove and Leicester: Intervarsity Press, 2001) p. 39, note.
  3. David Brown, Incarnation and Neo-Darwinism (Durham: Sacristy Press, 2019), pp. 21-46.
  4. At the urging of many colleagues Darwin at length came around to acknowledging that his analogy of the domestic breeder and Nature was a poor one and that preservation, rather than selection, was what he had really meant.
  5. As early as the 1950s two of America’s foremost intellectuals came out in opposition to Darwinism. See Jacques Barzun, Darwin, Marx, Freud: Critique of a Heritage (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1958) and Gertrude Himmelfarb, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (London: Chatto and Windus, 1959). See also for instance Arthur Koestler, The Ghost in the Machine (London: Hutchinson, 1967) and Noam Chomsky, Language and Mind (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972).
  6. See for instance the flurry of academic objections in the volume edited by Steven and Hilary Rose, Alas Poor Darwin: Arguments against Evolutionary Psychology (London: Vintage, 2001)
  7. See David Sedley’s Creationism and its Critics in Antiquity (California: California UP, 2009).
  8. See Fergus Kerr, Thomas Aquinas: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2009), pp. 39-40.
  9. See Basil Willey, The Seventeenth-Century Background: Studies in the Thought of the Age in Relation to Poetry and Religion (London: Pelican, 1972), pp. 111-122.
  10. Hume used a dialogue form to represent different points of view in fictional characters rather than definitively endorsing one point of view in his authorial voice. See David Hume, Dialogues and Natural History of Religion, edited by J. C. A. Gaskin (Oxford: OUP, 2008).
  11. On this large topic see Curtis Johnson, Darwin’s Dice: The Idea of Chance in the Thought of Charles Darwin (Oxford: OUP, 2015).
  12. On canon formation see John Barton, A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths (London: Penguin, 2020), especially pp. 215-310.
  13. See on this point Samir Okasha, Philosophy of Biology (Oxford: OUP, 2019), pp. 30-31.
  14. See The Novels of Thomas Love Peacock with Introduction by J. B. Priestley (London: Pan, 1967). One of Peacock’s best squibs against misguided intellectual pretentiousness occurs at the beginning of his satire, Headlong Hall where the eponymous Squire Headlong, “seized with a violent passion to be thought a philosopher,” repairs to Oxford “to enquire for other varieties of the same genre, namely, men of taste and philosophy,” only to be assured by an elderly professor “that there were no such things in the University.” (p. 24) Ouch!
  15. The Novels of Thomas Love Peacock, p. xvix.
  16. Phillip Johnson, Darwin on Trial (Washington: Regnery, 1991), pp. 121, 133.