Over the years I’ve repeatedly reviewed books detailing debates about the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution through natural selection. I’ve done so not because of any special competence in biological science but because (following C.S. Lewis) I understand the importance of the atheistic, naturalistic philosophy undergirding it. As Arthur Koestler observed half-a-century ago, neo-Darwinism gets its “inspiration” from “the zeitgeist of reductionist philosophy which prevailed during the first half of our [20th] century,” and it seems clear, as the acclaimed philosopher of science Karl Popper concluded,in his autobiography (Unended Quest), that “Darwinism is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research program.” Still more, I think it’s important to appreciate how many of the “settled science” assertions upholding naturalistic evolution are hotly debated within highly-respected scientific circles. For example, in November 2016 the Royal Society in London “convened a group of scientists to discuss ‘calls for revision of the standard theory of evolution,’ acknowledging that ‘the issues involved remain hotly contested.”
One of the more interesting—and eminently readable, delightfully illustrated, historically informed—evolutionary biologists dissenting from the Darwinian hypothesis is J. Scott Turner, a professor of biology and physiology at State University of New York. In Purpose & Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It (New York: HarperOne, c. 2017), he dissociates himself from the “Darwinian thickets” within which most evolutionists (e.g. Francis Crick and Richard Dawkins) are entangled, resulting in the “grumbling nihilism and meaninglessness” that Turner finds unwarranted. Rather than insist things appear to be designed, Turner argues they are in fact shaped by “life” itself and clearly manifest “intentionality, purposefulness, . . . wants and desires” (#301). Thus, instead of a random process of natural selection, he thinks there is a certain intelligent agency at work within all living things intentionally shaping them.
Modern Darwinism, Turner says, cannot answer some of the most important biological questions, such as the origin of life, the origin of the gene, or “even what an organism is.” In fact, right at the heart of Darwinism—as logicians have long recognized—is a meaningless tautology (setting forth a conclusion that is included in the premise of the argument). Central to the notion of natural selection is adaptation. “What is adaptation?” you ask? “The product of natural selection!” you’re told. “What is natural selection? The outcome of adaptation!” Saying this is patent, circular nonsense! It’s what Turner calls “The Problem.” So for a better explanation than natural selection, Turner invokes homeostasis, defined as “‘a state of internal constancy that is maintained as a result of active regulatory processes’” (#541). For example, our bodies, unlike our automobiles, maintain a constant temperature because of this wonderful self-regulating process. Homeostasis was celebrated by Darwin’s contemporary, the great physiologist Claude Bernard, who noted that ‘“The constancy of the internal environment [a milieu interieur] is the condition for a free and independent life’” (#576). Living beings radically differ from non-living beings, and mechanistic theories such as Darwin’s fail to explain why. So Bernard invoked a venerable vitalistic tradition, finding something immanent in all that lives, giving it intelligibility and purpose. In earlier centuries, this position was called “essentialism: life is special because it is imbued with a special vital essence, or vis essentialis. Life exists because this vis essentialis infuses and animates otherwise inanimate matter” (#739).
In Darwin’s day many influential scientists shared Bernard’s perspective. To a degree they all followed Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, one of the 19th century’s greatest biologists, who “proposed that living systems are uniquely imbued with at least two vital forces. One is the pouvoir de la vie (life power), which is more accurately, or more cumbersomely, rendered in French as la force qui tend sans cesse a composer l’organisation (the force that tends perpetually to make order,’ or perpetual order-producing force)” (#1454). The second force is an “adaptive force” attuning the organism to its environment. Bernard’s views closely paralleled Lamark’s, and Turner proposes that we revive their perspective, acknowledging that purpose and desire are genetically encoded and thus embodied in all that lives. Even bacteria and termites, he argues, are “agents” with certain “cognitive” capacities.
In the final analysis, “something beyond mere chance seems to have drawn life into being, helping it up from the dead world. But what could that something be?” (#3516). That, indeed, is The Question! Theists have an answer: God is that Something! Unwilling to embrace such a straight-forward theistic explanation, Turner posits an elusive creativity in the energy-flow of the universe that has spun out creatures endowed with cognition and intentionality. “A deep intelligences is at work in life, its operations and its history, and it cannot be denied. Yet that is precisely what modern Darwinism asks us to do” (#4272). So it’s time to recognize the failure of Darwinism and look for better theories.
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The critique of Neo-Darwinism J. Scott Turner sets forth in Purpose and Desire was earlier enunciated in his The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, c. 2007) wherein he endeavored to show “why organisms work well, or to put it another way, why they seem to be ‘designed’” (#10). To disassociate himself from the “Intelligent Design” movement, he stresses he finds intelligence indwelling the material world whereas the ID folks locate it apart from, superintending creation. In philosophical terms, he is pantheistic rather than theistic. But he does in fact insist the world makes sense only when understood as something designed by the mysterious power of homeostasis.
To most folks it’s generally easy to discern the difference between design and chance. For example: both a stick and a crowbar may be used to pry things, but the crowbar is clearly designed to do so efficiently. Thus most of us see the natural world as manifestly designed. The process of “natural selection” obviously explains much about evolution and deserves its rightful place in biological science. But it cannot explain everything, much less the most important things, because there are “agents of homeostasis” at work designing the living world. These agents—“Bernard machines”—are fully teleological in nature and make physiological realities such as fibroblasts laying down collagen to heal wounds understandable. In fascinating chapters Turner shows why blood vessels, bones, embryos, guts, retinas, minds, etc. all illustrate intricate intentionality and intelligence.
In profound ways Plato saw the truth long ago, positing “a powerful omnipresent intelligence that structured and set in motion the universe as we experience it. Eventually, Christian theologians came to identify the Master Craftsman of Timaeus with the God described in the Gospel of John: the logos, the Word, predating the universe, time, and eternity itself” (#1653). Rather than speculating with Plato about invisible realities, his pupil Aristotle focused on the very visible physis, finding intentionality within the material world rather than above it. And though Turner thinks these ancient Greeks failed to fully provide final answers to modern questions they do illustrate important ways whereby we should include intentionality in biology (i.e. the study of life). More than reductionistic natural science is required.
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In Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, c. 2017), Denis Noble—an emeritus professor of biology at Oxford University, former President of the International Union of Physiological Sciences as well as a Fellow of the Royal Society— provides an “holistic” alternative to the prevailing gene-centered dogma of Neo-Darwinism, the “Modern Synthesis” which asserts that “natural selection working on chance variations in genetic material” fully explains “all evolutionary change” (#2946). On the contrary, says Noble: “The central message of this book is that living organisms are open systems” within which genes are passive rather than active, “used” rather than obeyed (#201). Cells control their DNA rather than enacting its prescriptions. “The chromosomes are literally like puppets on strings, dancing to the tune of the cell” (#2599). In one of his earlier books, The Music of Life, he said “Music as a metaphor for the processes of life,” likening the genome to a vast pipe organ, a passive instrument mysteriously played by a higher, more intelligent power. Noble’s point is not particularly novel, for: “As Barbara McClintock wrote in 1984 after receiving her Nobel Prize, the genome is an ‘organ of the cell’, not the other way round” (#3357). To biologists such as McClintock and Noble, much Neo-Darwinian rhetoric, such as Richard Dawkin’s talk of “selfish genes,” is clever nonsense!
Noble conducts a fascinating survey of modern science, illustrating the complexity and deep mysteriousness as well as purposefulness of the natural world. Think, for example, about the processes of heat and cold, of air currents and jet streams, responsible for the weather! The better we understand it—or the heart’s circadian rhythm or the body’s immune system or brain waves or even amoeba behavior—the more the purposeful it seems. Then think seriously about the “miracle of co-operation” evident in the process of symbiogenesis identified by Lynn Margulis. Or consider recent research into epigenetics. Through illustration piled on illustration, evidence added to evidence, Noble prods us to see orchestrated, purposeful behavior everywhere we look. “People who tell us that there is no meaning or purpose in the universe are wrong. They can only maintain this view by atomizing the universe, as though its components and their behavior can be seen as isolated” (#1965). In fact, all the organisms we study seem demonstrably “endowed with a natural purposiveness, however that may have arisen. The organism can use that natural purposiveness to seek non-random changes in response to an environmental stimulus” (#4490).
Thus the microscopic “how” details of biology must be harmonized with the macroscopic “why” perspective of Einsteinian relativity and natural philosophy. Everything is connected and nothing can be fully understood in itself. Thus “living organisms are multi-level open stochastic systems in which the behavior at any level depends on higher and lower levels and cannot befall understood in isolation” (#3750). Years ago, beginning his scientific studies, Nobel was a dogmatic materialist, reducing all that is to matter-in-motion. But he had an interest in physics and philosophy, sharing the view of Henre Poincare, the great physicist who “pointed out, in connection with eh relativity principle in physics, that the worst philosophical errors are made by those who claim they are not philosophers. They do so because they don’t even recognise the existence of the conceptual holes they fall into” (#5394). So when a professor suggested he read Spinoza he opened his mind to non-Darwinian perspectives. He discovered in Spinoza the clue to it all, for in one of his letters Spinoza wrote: “‘every part of nature agrees with the whole, and is associated with all other parts’ and ‘by the association of parts, then, I merely mean that the laws or nature of one part adapt themselves to the laws or nature of another part, so as to cause the least possible inconsistency’” (#3886). This statement succinctly anticipated the “Biological Relativity” Nobel endorses. Still more: we should embrace Aristotle’s prescient and still relevant analysis of causation—to understand anything we must fully consider its material, formal, efficient, and final causes.
As was evident to Aristotle and Spinoza and now to Denis Noble, we cannot, as humans, avoid asking the “why” questions that seem intrinsic to both our “religious” and “scientific instincts,” and the Neo-Darwinian fixation on the genome as the “book of life” has turned out to be a “blind alley” for anyone seeking truth. To help us understand why some of the most acclaimed contemporary biologists doubt the “dogmas” of many in their peers, reading this book proves enlightening.
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For an up-to-date, readable assessment of current biology I commend Tom Bethell’s Darwin’s House of Cards: A Journalist’s Odyssey Through the Darwin Debates (Seattle: Discovery Institute, c. 1917). Bethell studied at Oxford University half-a-century ago and early-on questioned many of the main Darwinian theses. He finds his youthful suspicions still confirmed inasmuch as it’s clear that Enlightenment-rooted evolutionary thinkers such as Darwin took Progress to be inevitable, something programmed into the sinews of the material world. (As an Audi commercial puts it: “Progress is an unstoppable force.” ) When Darwin concluded The Origin of Species he opined “that ‘all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection’” (#4156), clearing the way for a host of his successors, such as the astronomer Carl Sagan, who (his biographer Kay Davidson says) “believed uncritically in Progress.” This was “obviously in harmony with the revolutionary and romantic temper” of the 18th and 19th centuries, as C.S. Lewis said, and to Bethell “Darwinian evolution can be seen as a way of looking at the history of life through the distorting end of Progress” (#4191).
Yet, as Bob Dylan says, “the times, they are a changing.” Convinced the time has come to cogently critique Darwinism, Bethell endeavors to show that “the science of neo-Darwinism was poor all along, and supported by very few facts” (Kindle #261). The cardinal plank in the Darwinian platform is “natural selection,” and as soon as On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 learned critics discounted it. Louis Agassiz, then the world’s acknowledged authority on fossils, said Darwin had made “‘a scientific mistake, untrue in its facts, unscientific in its methods, and mischievous in its tendency’” (#3990). The noted English biologist St. George Jackson Mivart doubted that natural selection alone could have resulted in such complex phenomena as the eye, and his doubts have been frequently repeated. Decades later the geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1933 and famed for his work with fruit flies, concluded that natural selection “has not produced anything new, but only more of certain kinds of individuals. Evolution, however, means producing new things, not more of what already exists” (#1301). More recently Harvard’s Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology, Richard Lewontin, declared that “‘Darwin’s whole theory of evolution by natural selection bears an uncanny resemblance to the political economy of early capitalism as developed by the Scottish economists’” who celebrated the “survival of the fittest” in the marketplace. “‘What Darwin did,’” Lewontin said, was take early nineteenth century political economy and expand it to include all of natural economy’” (#1026). Evolution through natural selection, it seems, is more a philosophical premise than a scientific demonstration.
Neo-Darwinism has proven especially poor in explaining the origin of life, the most fundamental of all biological questions. Darwin hoped subsequent research would show how life could have emerged from a “warm little pond,” but the mystery remains. Researchers “‘still do not have even a plausible coherent model, let alone a validated scenario for the emergence of life on Earth,’ says Eugene Koonin, a senior investigator at the National Center for Biotechnology Information.” In fact, Bethell says: “No non-living thing has ever been able to reproduce itself without assistance from an intelligent (human) agent” (#305). So too Darwin hoped subsequent geological research would find definitive fossil proof for his theory by showing a “finely graduated organic chain” of species evolving into other species. But an astounding number of “gaps” still remain. Virtually out of nowhere, within a 10 million-year epoch and without known progenitors, “almost all the animal phyla appear abruptly in the fossil record of the Cambrian” (#2184).
Yet another pillar of the Darwinian theory is the “common descent” of all creatures, which means all creatures great and small derive their being from a singular entity! As long as one looked superficially about the world, as did Darwin in 1859, such belief seemed plausible. But now, in the light of increasingly sophisticated genetic studies, it looks less likely. Thus J. Craig Venter, one the leaders in sequencing the human genome, recently denied “that the genetic code is universal” or that “all organisms on Earth share a common ancestor” (#842). The popular “tree of life” still celebrated in biology textbooks, Venter says ,“‘is an artifact of some early scientific studies that aren’t really holding up.’” “‘So there is not a tree of life”” (#859). So too the “homology” stressed in the textbooks—showing, for example, the resemblance of forelimbs of bats, horses, and humans—seems less and less persuasive as a proof of common descent. Modern geneticists have found that “structures that are not homologous are sometimes produced by organisms with similar genes, while, as Michael Denton pointed out, ‘apparently homologous structures are specified by quite different genes in different organisms’” (#1803).
In a series of chapters Bethell describes a variety of non-demonstrable Darwinian assertions. The biological reality of “convergence,” for example, runs counter to the standard evolutionary narrative. Simon Conway Morris, the world’s preeminent scholar dealing with this phenomenon, notes that within “‘the tapestry of evolution you see the same patterns emerging over and over again,’” something that “‘means that life is not only predictable at a basic level, it also has direction’” (#1979). If directed, it cannot be random or aimless! If so, one of the main Darwinian beliefs—the denial of teleology—cannot be sustained. In the purely materialistic universe taken for granted by Darwinists, nothing exists apart from atoms randomly circulating through space that happen to come together in remarkable ways. Matter alone exists and makes whatever is, and our “mind” is nothing more than a matter-in-motion brain exuding thoughts. To Francis Crick, “your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. . . You’re nothing but a pack of neurons’” (#2279).
Darwin plotted this position, for he himself espoused a “full-blown materialism, encompassing what he termed ‘the citadel itself.’ That was the human mind” (#2704). In one of his notebooks, written 20 years before The Origin, Darwin declared: “‘Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy [of] the interposition of a deity. More humble & I believe truer to consider him created from animals’” (#3553). Accordingly, decades later in The Descent of Man he said he wanted “‘to shew that there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties’” (#3562). Consequently—and inescapably for committed Darwinists—we now witness a fashionable misanthropy widely expressed. Inasmuch as man is viewed as “exeptional” it is because he is exceptionally bad (indeed cancerous) for the environment!
To Professor John Searle, a distinguished U.C. Berkeley philosopher who is no friend of theism: “‘There is a sense in which materialism is the religion of our time, at least among most of the professional experts in the fields of philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, and other disciplines that study the mind. Like more traditional religions, it is accepted without question and it provides the framework within which other questions can be posed, addressed and answered’” (#2735). Darwinian “science” is, consequently, “little more than a deduction from a philosophy. The science is redundant” (#2742). The oft-quoted confession of Harvard’s Richard Lewontin merits repeating: “‘We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. . . Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door’” (#2741).
To “allow a Divine Foot in the door” is certainly one of Bethell’s objectives in House of Cards. Rather than revere “Evolution” or “Progress,” he suggests considering the Reality of a Divine Designer in accord with the Intelligent Design thinkers associated with the Discovery Institute which published this treatise.