In Defence of Darwinism

I used to believe that the theory of evolution was almost universally accepted as the most plausible and intellectually satisfying explanation for the complexity and diversity of biological life on our planet. I am talking about evolutionary theory based on natural selection as set forth by Charles Darwin and subsequently developed by many scientifically minded thinkers like Ernst Mayr and Richard Dawkins. But now, having read enough about Darwinism so that I believe, perhaps naively, that I have mastered most of its basic principles, I find that there are scholastic as well as religious schools of thought that question the fundamental premises of Darwinian evolution based on natural selection.

None of these opposing schools of thought make much sense to me. I shall attempt to refute them here. Probably the weakest part of my argument will be that I have inadequately or even inaccurately described these counter-beliefs. Let this essay therefore be considered the beginning of a debate, not the last word. I shall be happy to stand corrected to the extent I have missed or short-changed the arguments of Darwin’s critics, and explore the issues further.

Creationism:

Let’s start with the opposing school of thought that is most easily demolished. The fundamentalist, Bible-quoting creationists, as far as I am concerned, are a voice in the wilderness, opposing “Darwinism” not on intellectual grounds, but only because of nostalgia for a bygone era when everyone believed the cosmos could be explained by literal interpretations of the Bible. Serious critics of Darwinism do not, on the whole, explain biological diversity as an Act of God. For those who do, I offer the following very simple, very short argument:

Evolution based on natural selection offers a simple, logically consistent explanation for the emergence of human intelligence without requiring a prior intelligence at least as great as ours to begin the process or guide it. As Dawkins puts it, creationist theories “…assume the existence of the main thing we want to explain, namely organized complexity. The one thing that makes evolution such a neat theory is that it explains how organized complexity can arise out of primeval simplicity.”

This essay is directed at stimulating discussion with rational critics of Darwinism based on natural selection. I do not wish to argue with fundamentalist creationists because their arguments are not rational, they are based on faith and faith alone. Challenging that faith usually just gets them mad, and proves nothing.

On the other hand, some of the modern arguments I have seen against Darwinism and natural selection strike me as encapsulating elements of creationist faith cloaked in an imposing hull of modern-sounding verbiage. Where I detect such poison pills in their arguments, I shall say so, and let the fur fly from there.

Evolution and the Second Law of Thermodynamics:

Evolutionary theory based on the principle of natural selection, according to this argument, is unable to deal satisfactorily with the universal tendency toward entropy summed up as the “Second Law of Thermodynamics.” Things run down. Evolution works in the opposite direction. Why?

The immediate, common sense answer is that gravity is a universal law too, but we still have airplanes that go up. I don’t have to be an aircraft engineer to appreciate the fact that airplanes do actually fly. Similarly, I don’t have to explain the exact relationship between evolution and entropy to appreciate the fact that things do evolve in spite of entropy. The existence of entropy in other words is not a valid argument against believing that biological organisms evolve through a process known as natural selection. All the entropy concept does is introduce questions as to how things work. Many of these questions are scientifically valid and lead to interesting conclusions. Many of these conclusions can be discerned in the perceptive analyses of a host of evolutionary scientists like Dawkins and Mayr, and of course Darwin himself. There are still a lot of unanswered questions. Maybe there are still a few unanswered questions in aeronautical engineering. I still fly in planes when I have to.

The Existence of Irreducibly Complex Systems:

How wonderfully complex is the human eye!, the critic exclaims. And what use is half an eye? In other words, these critics question whether highly complex structures like a human eye could ever have evolved gradually, through a whole series of minor modifications, from whatever primitive sensory apparatus belonged to simple one-celled organisms swimming around in the primeval soup.

What these critics fail to appreciate is the incredibly long time span which natural selection has taken to produce present complex organisms. Go back in time a couple of billion years, and put yourself in the position of a primitive living organism in some ancient ocean. You have no capability for seeing, hearing, or smelling. You navigate mainly by touch. The sea around you is swarming with billions of other primitive life forms. Most of them are food, many are siblings and cousins like yourself, and a few are predators. Your purpose in life is to replicate yourself, and to do that you have to consume a fair amount of food without being eaten yourself. You bump around, and if you are lucky you ingest enough food to do your stunt and repeat yourself before a predator happens along.

Now suppose that alone among your siblings and cousins, you discover in yourself a rudimentary sense that allows you to tell where other creatures are even when they are a little distance away, a bit removed from the zone where you apprehend them by touch. You no longer have to bump into them to know they are there. You are going to have a ball, gorging yourself and replicating sooner than any of your peers. Eventually your descendants will have crowded out the descendants of the others that started out like you, but failed to develop that sense of outreach. If it were not for the predators, you would really have it made.

Move down a thousand generations or so. The party is getting rough. All your cousins have the same capability you do and competition for food is as stiff as it ever was. You find that you have, if you work on it, a new and rudimentary capability to sense whether that thing out there in the nearby vicinity is food or a predator. You can tell whether to attack or retreat. Bingo, you are off and running again, and pretty soon the ocean is full of your descendants rather than those of the other members of your peer group.

Repeat this process a thousand times, over a thousand thousand generations, and behold: the eye of the eagle, the ear of the lynx, the echo-location capability of the bat, and the sonar of the whale. There is nothing mysterious about evolution, if you grant a sufficiently generous time span when you look for an explanation of what has evolved. If there is time enough for great leaps to occur in small increments, great leaps can happen.

Evolutionary Theory is Unable to Predict the Future:

Sorry, folks, that’s the way it is. Evolutionary theory explains the past based on the assumption that the process is random. Beyond one simple principle: the differential survival of replicating organisms, there is no purpose, no direction, no inherent system or order. All the enormous variety of our planetary flora and fauna can be explained on the basis of individual biological entities getting a jump on the competition through small variations that gave them a competitive advantage in the particular environment they inhabited.

While natural selection does not in itself confer any powers of prediction, it does not prevent attempts to forecast the future based on other information and understanding. We have determined that unless certain steps are taken, the spotted owl will become extinct. In fact, that determination will perhaps have been facilitated by our understanding of how evolution works. Certainly the surviving spotted owls will fare better at the hands of evolutionists than they would if their fate were determined only by the “God put it there, God will decide” types.

Evolutionary Theory Cannot Explain Man’s Soul:

Not yet. But a serious scientist should have no problem, even if he is a convinced advocate of evolution through natural selection, in accepting the fact that he doesn’t know everything there is to know about our own species, including its perennial preoccupation with matters that are usually called “spiritual”. Evolutionary psychologists are finding out more very day about that mysterious archipelago of instinctive, hard-wired responses we know as “human nature”. Linguists and others are exploring how we think. The social sciences as a whole are in an exploratory mode, and new insights are rolling in all the time.

The situation is analogous right now to the knowledge Americans and Europeans had two hundred years ago about Africa–the “dark continent”. We could map its coast but not its interior, which we peopled with fabulous tribes and animals and customs, almost all of which proved non-existant as our knowledge increased.

Surely in another century or so we shall understand the nature and meaning of humanity’s spiritual side more fully and completely than we do now. And we will be in a better position to determine how that side of our nature evolved, and what issues that evolution raises for Darwin’s followers, than we are now. Frankly, I believe the Darwinists will contribute a lot more to that evolution in our understanding than will those who naysay Darwinism on the grounds that it doesn’t “explain” man’s soul.

Conclusion:

There are more arguments and more to be said, but this is enough for a beginning. Have at me, you critics!

Carl Coon 2/3/98

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9 Responses to In Defence of Darwinism

  1. Uiriamu says:

    Wow, i couldn’t agree more! I was actually laughing at the naked truth about creationists, when i read this. Well done!

    • Markmayf says:

      I’ll have a normal discussion with you anyday about creationism and also I have plenty of support for creationism watch Stephen Meyer

  2. Pat o says:

    It takes much faith to believe in evolution. I have no problem with biological changes occuring within a specific phyla bases on adaptation of environment…etc. I do however, strugle with the belief in Darwin’s poor hypothesis.

    Even after the discovery of millions of fossils we have seen no good evidence of this. We cant even say this is because of the non-vertebrae creatures that do not fossilize because we have seen fossil records of bacteri. We even have good sedimentary rocks dated pre-Cambrian. Nothing.

    I think it is interlectually laziness that causes one to eliminate a creator from the equation.

  3. Curtis says:

    Hello.
    So, you’re telling me that in the millions of years that it takes for a beneficial mutation to happen, that most of everything died, take for example the bird. When it falls asleep, it’s legs lock up. That way, it doesn’t fall out of the tree and die when it hits the ground. So, based on your theory, whenever a bird fell asleep, it fell out of the tree, and died from impact. Until, one day, a bird that somehow didn’t fall asleep, and wasn’t killed by predators when the parents fell out of the tree when they fell asleep, developed the brain capacity to lock it’s legs when it went to sleep? Also, you killed your argument everytime you used huge amounts of time to explain everything, because, there’s no hard evidence of the in between factors. If you did a little research, you would find that the bones that you see in the Museums that claim to be part of a skeleton that was man and ape, are not even biologically related to one another.

  4. Matt says:

    Pat and Curtis, I would like to encourage you to look into more modern theories of evolution and avoid trying to oversimplify the process so that it seems absurd. The argument for Darwinism has been drastically altered since Origin of Species, because like most things in the scientific world, the explanation was not perfect the first time around.
    Today, most evidence of fossils proving that a species existed comes from one or part of one skeleton that has been found. The odds point to the fact that many more species lived at one point in time that we have not yet found that one example of. There is also a strong argument, referred to as punctuated equilibrium, that many of the intermediate species that Darwin would have expected never existed.
    The goal of science is to use evidence to explain what happened based off of the best evidence available at the time.
    I do not think it takes any more faith to believe in evolution that it does to believe in the fact that atoms are made of both protons or electrons or the fact that the same type of gravitational force that keeps me on the ground is what keeps the earth from floating away from the sun. The current theories of evolution are an attempt to explain why things like fossils exist as they do. It is not a perfect explanation, and scientists do not count current theories as absolutes. When more evidence is available then ideas will be refined, very similar to the conclusion that the earth orbits the sun which countered the historical view that it was the sun orbiting the earth.
    I am also not sure how it is intellectual laziness to eliminate a creator from the equation. We can use logic and evidence in our discussion, if you want to show evidence of a creator feel free to do so. When viewed from scientific point of view people use a collection of observations and try to compile a theory, and if you take the bible (not a scientific book) out of the picture and verifiable evidence I do not see how you ever arrive at the conclusion that a greater being whose existence can be verified through references in ancient texts, (which have many competing texts, all claiming other sorts of higher beings existed) but not any current scientific methods created everything using a some sort of willpower force that has never been detected.

  5. Claire says:

    I think more research is needed for a more reliable statement.

  6. Markmayf says:

    hey ok so I’m what you call a fundemental creationist who just gets mad at everything because you can’t comprehend faith. well just to let you know thats not me. I also should tell you this that you need to understand no rational scientist nowadays believes in Darwinsim. In fact Most conclude that we were created by aliens. interesting huh I watched alot of documentaries. Also here is some support for creationsim without faith. Go back far enough and you’ll see that that there was a zero point in everything. As all humans know we can’t have nothing come from nothing. if you watch doctor Stephen Meyer you will learn wear alot of basics for the how you are here for my beiefs come from please watch it all It will teach you alot it sure taught me. alot

  7. Kathyrn says:

    1. Could you provide evidence against creationism? You never developed an argument against it.

    2. How does evolution work with the 2nd Law? You never gave evidence nor an explanation for it. You just explained it by giving some analogy that has nothing to do with it.

    3. What evidence is there for Darwinism, aka macroevolution?

    4. How do you explain the Cambrian Explosion?

    5. How do you explain adaptational packages?

    6. Isn’t it true that evolution is based upon a religion, naturalism?

    7. Isn’t this argument via Darwinism a philosophical one and is not in fact real science? Science requires evidence and drawing an objective conclusion from it. Evolution has an explanation and tries to use science to fit that worldview.

  8. Carl Coon says:

    I hope all of you will take a look at my latest book, “A Short History lf Evolution”, which addresses most of the questions you have raised. It was serialized this spring in the AHA’s blog, The Humanist.com and you can get at it there, piecemeal, or buy it through amazon.com and other purveyors. It is short, cheap, and simple–as simple that is as the complexity of the issues permits.

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