Site Meter Yehudi Yerushalmi: Darwinism - Science or Secular Religion?

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Darwinism - Science or Secular Religion?

by Jonathan Rosenblum
January 11, 2006

In the early 1930s, Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler set himself the task of battling the cult of science of his time. To his private students in London - mostly teenagers from Orthodox homes who attended public school - he first emphasized how circumscribed is the realm of science, and how little it has to say concerning the ultimate purposes of life.

Next Rabbi Dessler would show the inherent bias from which scientists too suffer. As one of his closest talmidim from that period, Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, puts it, "So successful did this method [of revealing the hidden premises and bias] prove that one of his followers, if faced with a conflict between a widely held contemporary view and a tenet of Torah, instead of putting himself on the defensive and groping for apologetics, will immediately endeavor to bring to light the bias, individual, social and otherwise, which has given rise to the divergent viewpoint."

Rabbi Dessler emphasized how the slightest self-interest is sufficient to prejudice the outcome of any decision-making process, and that this applied no less to scientific judgments than any other. He demonstrated the point by taking what might be a prototypical scientist for his example:

"Think of a person who, by the power of his intellect alone, wants to re-examine some fundamental problem - such as was the world created for a purpose. . . . Let us assume that the person possesses a keen intellect, is well-educated and well-informed. However, so far as character is concerned he is pretty average. He has never seriously tackled his moral failings. . . . [Now let us say that] we are talking about a very comprehensive problem . . . . On the solution will depend whether he will be obliged to struggle constantly with his baser desires, . . . or whether he will live with no restraints on his desires apart from those he deigns to place on them. . . ." Can we seriously believe, Rabbi Dessler asked, that he will arrive at a true conclusion merely by the exercise of his intellectual powers?

Scientists themselves have admitted their own susceptibility to various forms of bias. In his classic work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn describes scientists' resistance to abandoning a given paradigm until an acceptable alternative is proposed, no matter how much countervailing evidence has accumulated. Scientists are uncomfortable moving from a position of purported knowledge to one of ignorance. Stephen Jay Gould, one of the leading neo-Darwinists, discusses in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory the ways in which social and career incentives cause scientists to fail to fully grasp the import of the date they observe.

NOWHERE IS THE BIAS OF SCIENTISTS on more prominent display than with respect to the ever roiling debates over Darwinian evolution. Supporters of Darwin often find it convenient to obfuscate the extent to which they view his theory of natural selection among random mutations as a full refutation of all religious belief. But others are more candid. Richard Dawkins, perhaps the best known present day defender of Darwin, famously claims, "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." George Gaylord Simpson, another leading Darwinist, states the meaning of evolution: "Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind."

Cornell University's William Provine plays the role of the prototypical scientist in Rabbi Dessler's example, proclaiming, "a world strictly organized in accordance with mechanistic principles . . . . implies that there are no inherent moral or ethical laws. "

These scientists cannot claim that these views are merely the outgrowth of the overwhelming empirical evidence in favor of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. That theory rests not on empirical observation but on a priori assumptions. In a 1981 lecture at the American Museum of Natural History, Colin Patterson, the chief paleontologist at the British Natural History Museum, observed that both creationism and Darwinian observation are scientifically vacuous concepts, which are held primarily on the basis of faith. Patterson related that he had asked the members of an evolutionary morphology seminar at the University of Chicago to tell him just one thing about evolution that they knew to be true. The response was a long and embarrassed silence.

The scientific naturalism of the Darwinists - the belief that everything can be explained by natural, material forces -- is ultimately founded on rhetorical legerdemain that has nothing to do with science. First step: exclude all non-natural causes as a priori inadmissible. Second step: If Darwinian evolution were true, it would explain the observed taxonomic similarities between different living things. Third step: Since no alternative explanation currently exists to explain those phenomena, Darwinism must be true. (This step, to which Darwinists inevitably have recourse whenever the holes in the theory are pointed out, Philip Johnson astutely notes in Darwin on Trial, is the equivalent of preventing a criminal defendant from presenting an alibi until he can produce the real criminal.) Fourth step: Since Darwinism is true, all explanations based on non-natural causes are vanquished. Note how that which was a priori excluded at the outset is now deemed to have been somehow disproved.

Colin Patterson was right that the Darwinian theory of life developing through trillions of micromutations, sifted by natural selection, is not scientific. A scientific theory, as defined by Karl Popper, must be falsifiable. When Einstein introduced his General Theory of Relativity, for instance, he offered at the same time a series of bold predictions based on the theory and by which it could be tested.

Instead of constructing such tests for their theory, Darwinists start by assuming the truth of theory and then looking for corroboration, a travesty of Popper’s definition of science. Studies of the fossil record, for instance, that fail to buttress the theory are deemed failures and never published. Gareth Nelson of the American Museum of National History describes the process by which Darwinian "ancestors" are picked: "We've got to have some ancestors. We’ll pick those. Why? Because we know that they have to be there, and these are the best candidates. That's by and large how it has worked. I'm not exaggerating."

According to Darwin, whales, rats, human beings, dophins and tigers all descended from a common small mammal. But the claimed creative power for natural selection has never been observed. The argument for such a power is based on wild extrapolation from the observation that black moths fare better vis-à-vis their natural predators against a sooty backdrop and light colored moths do better against a cleaner backdrop. The fact that different traits within one species may provide a comparative advantage in certain circumstances, however, is a very far cry from proving that natural selection can create new species or account for the vast differences between different species of mammals.

Nor have the Darwinists shown how natural selection could have produced complex systems based on interaction of many separate parts, none of which parts would offer any comparative advantage by itself. The human eye, hemoglobin, the avian feather, the poison of the blowfish (in which neither the poison nor the delivery system would confer any advantage absent the other) are just a few of the large number of examples that cannot be explained. The best Darwinists can offer in response are what Harvard professors Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin call "just-so" stories about how each of the postulated (but never observed) changes in each part of the system conferred some advantage.

Darwin's theory of gradual change through micromutations filtered through natural selection is filled with holes. Darwin's theory predicts a vast number of transitional types. But those transitional types are largely absent from the fossil record. Species and groups of species appear suddenly in the fossil record rather than at the end of a chain of evolutionary links. Gould calls the rarity of transitional forms "the trade secret of paleontology. Admits Niles Eldridge, "We paleontologists have said that the history of life supports the story of gradual adoptive change, all the while knowing that it has not."

Darwin himself stated "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive mutations, my theory would absolutely break down." But the fossil record fails to provide, according to paleontologist Stephen Stanley, a singe example of "major morphological transition." Moreover, leading prominent geneticists and mathematicians have concluded that the number of necessary mutations to produce complex systems, like human sight is impossible.

So despite themselves, latter day Darwinists have had to introduce major leaps, or "saltations", into their account of the development of life. Thus University of California geneticists Richard Goldschmidt hypothesized that stable macromutations must somehow be possible, and paleontologist Otto Schindewolf speculated that the first bird somehow hatched from a reptile egg. To account for the problems in the fossil record, Gould and Eldridge developed a theory of punctuated equilibrium, which again introduced large scale changes.

The result, however, was to save Darwin only by rejecting his abhorrence of saltations - i.e., by introducing a deus ex machina in the middle of his naturalistic theory. The terrible choice facing would be defenders of a purely naturalistic account of the development of life is, as Eldridge put it, between maintaining Darwin's theory, despite its notoriously poor fit with the facts, and positing models that require the "embrace of a rather dubious set of biological propositions."

That scientists are willing to engage in which such wild speculations, absent any mechanism explaining the large jumps in developmental stages they posit, only shows how deeply engrained is their bias in favor of purely natural causes. Some form of Darwinian evolution is, Philip Johnson puts it aptly, the "creation story of scientific naturalism."

The scientists could have spared themselves the effort of saving Darwin, for the effort to preserve a purely mechanistic universe ultimately breaks down in any event over the origin of life itself. Cambridge astronomer Fred Hoyle has described the chances of fashioning a living organism by accident from the pre-biotic soup as roughly equivalent to that of a tornado sweeping through a junkyard and fashioning a Boeing 747. Even the simplest one-cell bacterial cell makes a spaceship seem low-tech by comparison.

Hoyle also discovered that the carbon, the basis of all organic life, could only have been created in the original solar pressure cooker because of the perfect nuclear resonance between two sets of simpler elements. His conclusion: "A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature."

Just what we always believed.


hyoomik said...

Interesting. But also, Darwin in the final chapter of Origin of Species affirms the work of the Creator. The last sentence: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

For evolution to "work", there must be very elegant mutations. Darwin did not think that "pure chance" governed mutations, but also said that that investigating the big plan (providence) was outside the competence of science. (A paraphrase, no exact reference, probably in his letters.)

I think that if the complexity of living things arose by mutations, this is more an argument for very special providence than for a meaningless atheistic universe.

Anonymous said...

As the Lubavitcher Rebbe said, the Torah (which is the blueprint of creation) says that G-d created the world in six consecutive 24 hour days, and mankind on the morning of the last day. It won't even matter if scientists find that their version was possible, because we know that it happened the way the Torah describes.

There's a whole lot more here, in this excellent book.