Tag Archives: Darwinism

What Questions about Evolution Have Really Been Answered?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Microbiologist James Shapiro, in his book Evolution: A View from the 21st Century, makes some common sense statements about the controversy over evolution. Remember that Shapiro is no young earth creationist. He is firmly entrenched as an important figure in the world of evolutionary science. Here is what Shapiro says:

General discussions of evolution, especially in the context of the “Intelligent Design” controversy, suffer from an unfortunate conflation in the minds of the lay public (and also of scientists) of three distinct questions:

• The origin of life

• The evidentiary basis for an evolutionary process

• The nature of evolutionary change

Almost universally, the term Darwinism is assumed to be synonymous with a scientific approach that has provided satisfactory answers to all three questions. It is to be hoped that, by now, you realize that these three questions are individually complex and that two of them are quite far from having coherent scientific explanations.

We have little solid science on the origin of life, in large part because there is virtually no physical record, but also because we still have gaps in our understanding of what constitute the fundamental principles of life.

As to the actual nature of evolutionary change processes, you have seen in Parts II and III [of his book] that cytogenetic observations, laboratory experiments, and, above all, molecular evidence about genome sequence changes tell us that the simplifying assumptions made in the 19th and early 20th Centuries are plainly wrong. They fail to account for the variety of cellular and genomic events we now know to have occurred. It should be emphasized that many change events have been quite rapid and have involved the whole genome—notably, symbiosis, interspecific hybridization, and whole genome doubling.

Shapiro goes on to say that he does believe that the second question has been answered.

The one issue that has effectively been settled in a convincing way is the evidence for a process of evolutionary change over the past three billion years. The reason the answer to this question is so solid is that every new technological development in biological investigation—from the earliest days of paleontology through light microscopy and cytogenetics up to our current molecular sequence methodologies—has told the same story: living organisms, past and present, are related to each other, share evolutionary inventions, and have changed dramatically over the history of the Earth.

However, little evidence fits unequivocally with the theory that evolution occurs through the gradual accumulation of “numerous, successive, slight modifications.” On the contrary, clear evidence exists for abrupt events of specific kinds at all levels of genome organization. These sudden changes range from horizontal transfers and the movement of transposable elements through chromosome rearrangements to whole genome duplications and cell fusions.

I can agree with Shapiro, on this last question, to a point. I don’t think we are clear on how all organisms are related, but we certainly understand how some organisms are related. We can also see that life forms have changed dramatically over the history of the earth. I would also agree that the second question is immensely more settled than the first and third questions.

Unfortunately, as Shapiro remarks, scientists tend to conflate all three of these questions as if they are one and the same. I am thankful that a biologist of Shapiro’s stature  has attempted to clear up this confusion.

Was Darwinism Connected to National Socialism and Marxism? Part 3

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

In parts 1 and 2, we looked at philosopher David Stove’s claims that Darwinism was coopted by both the National Socialists and the Marxists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both of whom brought mass murder to a scale the world had never before seen. But what of these ties? Could they not be merely accidental? In his book Darwinian Fairytales, Stove answers those questions:

It will perhaps be said, in defense of Darwinism, that many and enormous crimes have been committed in the name of every large and influential body of ideas bearing on human life. Whether that is true or not, I do not know. But even if it is, there are great and obvious differences, among such bodies of ideas, in how easily and naturally they amount to incitement to the commission of crimes.

Confucianism, for example, or Buddhism does not appear to incite their adherents to crime easily or often. National Socialism, by contrast, and likewise Marxism, do easily and naturally hold out such incitements to their adherents, and indeed (as is obvious) owe a good deal of their attractiveness to this very fact. It is impossible to deny that, in this respect, Darwinism has a closer affinity with National Socialism or Marxism than with Confucianism or Buddhism.

But why does Darwinism have a connection at all with Marxism and National Socialism? Stove explains:

Darwin told the world that a “struggle for life,” a “struggle for existence,” a “battle for life”” is always going on among the members of every species. Although this proposition was at the time novel and surprising, an immense number of people accepted it. Now, will any rational person believe that accepting this proposition would have no effect, or only randomly varying effects, on people’s attitudes towards their own conspecifics? No.

Will any rational person believe that accepting this novel proposition would tend to improve people’s attitudes to their conspecifics – for example, would tend to make them less selfish, or less inclined to domineering behavior, than they had been before they accepted it? No.

Quite the contrary, it is perfectly obvious that accepting Darwin’s theory of a universal struggle for life must tend to strengthen whatever tendencies people had beforehand to selfishness and domineering behavior towards their fellow humans. Hence it must tend to make them worse than they were before, and more likely to commit crimes: especially crimes of rapacity, or of cruelty, or of dominance for the sake of dominance. These considerations are exceedingly obvious.

But Darwin defenders routinely express frustration at Darwinism being tied to these kinds of crimes. Do they have a leg to stand on?

There was therefore never any excuse for the indignation and surprise which Darwinians and neo-Darwinians have nearly always expressed, whenever their theory is accused of being a morally subversive one. For the same reason there is, and always was, every justification for the people, beginning with Darwin’s contemporaries, who made that accusation against the theory.

Darwin had done his best . . . to separate the theory of evolution from the matrix of murderous ideas in which previously it had always been set. But in fact, since the theory says what it does, there is a limit, and a limit easily reached, to how much can be done in the way of such a separation. The Darwinian theory of evolution is an incitement to crime: that is simply a fact.

Was Darwinism Connected to National Socialism and Marxism? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

National Socialism (Nazism) and Marxism are, for the most part, dead and buried as movements. However, it is incumbent on us, the caretakers of the cemetery, to remind everyone of the past so that it won’t be repeated.

Perhaps you believe that we are just beating a dead horse by mentioning the profound effects that Darwin’s ideas had on the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I disagree. Darwin’s ideas, although certainly blunted and modified over time, are still an important foundation for our culture.

The theme of “survival of the fittest” can be found everywhere in the entertainment industry. Just take a look at the recent TV series Revolution. This post-apocalyptic narrative of life on earth after electrical power ceases repeatedly trades on the idea that civilized men revert back to savages when food and shelter become more scarce. As a culture, we continue to be fascinated by Darwin’s ideas.

So what movements found allies in Darwin in the beginning of the 20th century? Philosopher David Stove, in his book Darwinian Fairytales, first briefly recounts the connection between Darwin’s ideas and National Socialism.

It is less well known, but still is fairly well known, that Adolf Hitler found or thought he found an authorization for his policies in the Darwinian theory of evolution. He said, for example, that “if we did not respect the law of nature, imposing our will by the right of the stronger, a day would come when the wild animals would again devour us-then the insects would eat the wild animals, and finally nothing would exist except the microbes. By means of the struggle the elites are continually renewed. The law of selection justifies this incessant struggle by allowing the survival of the fittest. Christianity is a rebellion against natural law, a protest against nature.”

Hitler justified his policies because he was merely acting on the “law of selection” that demands that only the fit survive. Stove continues with a description of the link between Darwinism and Marxism.

What deserves to be well known, but has in fact been virtually forgotten, is this: that if Darwinism once furnished a justification, retrospective or prospective, for the crimes of . . . National Socialists, it performed the same office to an even greater extent, between about 1880 and 192o, for the crimes, already committed or still to be committed, of Marxists.

It is in fact scarcely possible to exaggerate the extent to which Marxist thought in this period incorporated Darwinism as an essential component. Marxists do not believe, of course, that there will be any struggle for life among human beings in the future classless society. But it was that Darwinian conception which Marxists at this time adopted as their description of human life under capitalism.

In part 2, we will look at some examples of period Marxist literature which lean on Darwin’s ideas for their justification.

Is Darwinian Evolution Falsifiable?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I have long suspected that it is not.  I was listening to another Unbelievable? podcast the other day which featured a debate between ID proponent Michael Behe and ID opponent Keith Fox – both are biochemists.  During the discussion Behe talked about the longest running lab experiment to test the effects of Darwinian evolution on E. coli.  Professor Richard Lenski has been growing trillions of E. coli over more than a decade and he has produced tens of thousands of generations.

According to Behe, the net effect of natural selection and random mutation on the E. coli has been mostly to break biological systems that were already in place.  No new complex systems have been formed by Darwinian evolution in the experiment.

Keith Fox agreed with Behe’s assessment of the experiment, but claimed that it did not prove anything about the limits of Darwinian evolution to produce complex new biological systems (which is a central claim of Darwinists).  Behe asked Fox, “If this experiment doesn’t prove anything about Darwinian evolution, then what kind of lab experiment could falsify Darwinian evolution?”  Fox’s answer: none.

According to Fox, lab experiments can never replicate the natural selection pressures that E. coli or any other organism face in the natural world.  These pressures can not be simulated in a lab.  It seems that the mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection must be assumed – they cannot be falsified by experimental biology.

What we have here is an unfalsifiable theory.  No matter what experiments are run to test Darwinian evolution, the results can never, according to Fox, disprove its ability to generate new biological systems.  Aren’t scientific theories supposed to be falsifiable?  Am I missing something?

California Science Center Settles Lawsuit with Pro-Intelligent Design Group

Post Author: Bill Pratt

California Science Center

You may recall that in January of this year, we posted about the California Science Center, a public institution, reneging on the screening of a pro-intelligent design (ID) movie.  The Discovery Institute, a pro-ID organization, filed a lawsuit when the Science Center refused to turn over all documents related to the cancellation of the screening.

On June 14, the Discovery Institute reported that the Science Center has settled the case, agreeing to pay all attorneys’ fees, and releasing all of the documents that should have been released in the first place.

All I can say is that the California taxpayers should be furious at the leadership of the Science Center for wasting their money over something so silly.  If they had just gone ahead with the screening, all of this could have been avoided, but the pro-Darwin side is so angry with anyone who disagrees with the Darwinian story that all kinds of pressure was placed on the Science Center to shut down the screening.

As I asked before, what are they afraid of?  Let everyone make their case and stop censoring those who disagree with you.

Are You Skeptical of Global Warming and Evolution?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

A recent NY Times article linked people who are skeptical about evolution with people who are skeptical about global warming.  The author noted that there seems to be a correlation, that if you doubt one, then you likely doubt the other.

This really has me thinking about why that is, as there is no obvious connection between them.  I am a skeptic of both, but for different reasons.

My initial skepticism about evolution came from my religious views, because I was taught that only a young earth (which does not accommodate evolution) could align with the creation accounts in the Bible.  As I researched both biblical interpretation and the science behind evolution, I eventually moved to a new position.

I now believe that the earth is probably old and that this fits with literal interpretations of the Bible.  I also understand, though I don’t necessarily agree with, why common descent (the idea that all plants and animals are part of a gigantic family tree) is the dominant theory of the origins of species: it has a lot of explanatory power and there’s not a more developed contender out there right now.

But I think that the evolutionary community has no idea what the mechanisms are that would modify plants and animals to the massive extent we see.  Natural selection and random mutation just don’t cut it.  Other proposed mechanisms likewise remain utterly unconvincing to me.  Evolutionary theorists constantly provide micro-evolutionary mechanisms as examples of how macro-evolution works over long periods of time.  The extrapolations don’t convince me.

What about global warming?  I started out skeptical of global warming because it was being exclusively evangelized by political liberals, whom I generally distrust as people who value intentions over truth.  I moved beyond that initial skepticism and tried to think about it scientifically.  As an engineer, I understand how to analyze data and how to test models, and I fail to see how it is possible to accurately model the global climate over long periods of time, given the multitude of variables that must go into these climate models and the incredible uncertainty of predicting climate changes in the distant future.

My suspicions about the data have proved to be correct as some brave climate scientists have admitted that their models have failed to predict the flat-lining of global temperatures over the last 15 years. The truth is that models of the climate have a long way to go before we can bet the farm on them.

So, what is the common denominator for me?  I started out suspecting evolution for religious reasons, and I started out suspecting global warming for political reasons.

I am conservative politically and I am a believer in traditional Christianity, but these don’t necessarily go together.  It seems like there must be something deeper.  The author Thomas Sowell possibly offers an explanation.  In his book, A Conflict of Visions, he argues that a person’s view of the nature and capability of man drives opinions about political, moral, judicial, economic, and even scientific matters (see my post on his book).  His theory makes a lot of sense; maybe he has found the common link.

I don’t have any certain answers to this question, but I’m very curious to know what others think.  What about you?  Are you skeptical about both of these issues?  Why or why not?  Please register your vote in the poll below and leave us some comments about your choices.

Two Atheist Academics Take On Darwinism

Post Author: Bill Pratt

If I could count how many times I’ve been told that only ignorant, fundamentalist Christians doubt the truth of Darwinian evolution, I would be a rich man!  Alas, the worst nightmare of Darwin defenders occurs when non-Christians, and non-theists at that, write books criticizing Darwin’s ideas.

In their new book, What Darwin Got Wrong, Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini do exactly that.  I have often told people that my doubts about Darwin have little to do with my religious beliefs, but from what I know of science.  Here are two atheists that likewise find the science to be lacking.

Salon.com interviewed Fodor recently and asked several provocative questions.  In one exchange, they ask Fodor about the standard evolutionary story about giraffes evolving long necks because they needed to adapt to food high up in trees.  Here is Fodor’s response:

The inference runs that there’s this creature that has a long neck, so this creature was selected for having a long neck. That inference is clearly invalid. A creature that has a long neck may have that neck because a different trait was selected, and the long neck came along with it.

And in a sense, there are no such things as traits. The environment selects creatures. Animals can have long necks and toenails, but if you try to break such creatures apart into traits and you say, OK, “What selected this trait?” and, “What selected that trait?” you’ve made a mistake right from the beginning. The disintegration of the organism into traits is itself a spurious undertaking. Biologists have said for a long time that organisms aren’t like Swiss apples, you can’t tap them on a table and have them fall apart into distinct wedges. Selection is operating on whole organisms.

In another exchange the interviewer asks what the implications are for Darwinism being wrong.  Fodor answers:

If this is true, then we need to rethink the implications of Darwinism. Maybe the right question to ask is not what environmental variables are doing selection, but what kinds of complexes are they selecting on. One sees, even without God, how this Darwinian story could turn out to be radically wrong. You could see a massive failure of the evolutionary project, because wrong assumptions were made.

Again, these guys aren’t fundamentalist creationists, but they recognize that the Darwinian story of the origin of species just does not work.  There are far too many holes in it.  Make sure you read the entire interview with Fodor.  It’s well worth it.

What is Social Darwinism? – #4 Post of 2009

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Social Darwinism is the theory that persons, societies of people, and races develop and evolve in much the same way that biological organisms evolve due to natural selection.  It is frequently described by the phrase, “survival of the fittest,” which was coined by British philosopher Herbert Spencer just a few years after Darwin wrote Origin of the Species.

The theory speculates that those people groups who are superior in intelligence, creativity, and industriousness would naturally overcome their weaker neighbors.  In doing so, they would become more successful as measured by wealth and prosperity.  This view led to a belief in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that human “class stratification was justified on the basis of ‘natural’ inequalities among individuals, for the control of property was said to be a correlate of superior and inherent moral attributes such as industriousness, temperance, and frugality.”

The ethical ramifications of social Darwinism are immense.  Following its logic, if nature is removing the inferior races of men in order to preserve the superior races, then mankind ought to cooperate.  Even though this is a clear example of the is/ought fallacy, the social Darwinists employed the theory to justify all sorts of behavior.  At the individual level, there was a moral obligation to not help those people who were biologically unfit.  After all, evolution is attempting to remove these people from the population pool.  If a person is born blind, let her die of starvation rather than fit her for glasses.  If she reproduces, she is weakening the gene pool.

With regard to ethnic groups, there arose an ethical basis for racism and nationalism; if a person’s society is shown to be socio-economically superior to others, then ignoring the plight of the inferior races and societies is completely justified.  “At the societal level, social Darwinism was used as a philosophical rationalization for imperialist, colonialist, and racist policies.”

Social Darwinism saw its greatest impact in the Nazi and communist regimes of the twentieth century.  According to Sir Arthur Keith, a strong proponent of biological evolutionary theory, “We see Hitler devoutly convinced that evolution produces the only real basis for a national policy. . . . The means he adopted to secure the destiny of his race and people were organized slaughter, which has drenched Europe in blood. . . . Such conduct is highly immoral as measured by every scale of ethics, yet Germany justifies it; it is consonant with tribal or evolutionary morality.”

Nazi Germany is generally thought to have exterminated about twelve million innocent people and the regime largely based its policies on the idea that the Aryan race was superior.   It was the duty of the German people to populate the world and eliminate the inferior races.

Marxist regimes also believed that Darwinism could be used to build a legitimate philosophical framework.  Karl Marx was heavily influenced by the writings of Charles Darwin and believed that the dethroning of the bourgeoisie was completely justified to bring about the evolution of mankind that he envisioned.  Marxist governments were responsible for murdering tens of millions of people during the twentieth century.  Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Tse Tung massacred their own people in order to create a new order that they based ultimately upon the concept of “survival of the fittest.”

Although few people claim to be social Darwinists today, the ideas of social Darwinism still surface from time to time.  Our next post will analyze this theory of ethics to see whether it can be grounded in the seven aspects of morality we discussed in What Do We Know About Morality?

[quotation references can be provided on request]

What Didn't Darwin Know?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Quite a bit, it turns out.  The leaps in knowledge of cellular biology and genetics over the last 150 years would boggle Charles Darwin’s mind.  Some argue that if he were alive today, he would abandon the very theory named after him because of all the contrary evidence that now stands against it.

In any case, please follow this hyperlink to a video which features two scientists and a medical doctor who explain how they came to be skeptical of Darwinism.  They explain in very clear terms the challenges facing Darwinian evolution based on what scientists know today that Darwin never knew.

It’s well worth your time.

Ida Not the Missing Link?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

A few months ago, the History Channel trumpeted the missing human link, Ida.  Ida is a 47 million year old fossil that was claimed to be a human ancestor.  At the time, I wrote a blog post shaming the scientific community for making sensationalistic claims like this.  The evidence from the fossil record cannot establish direct ancestral relationships over millions of years.

Here we are in October and already paleontologists are re-thinking Ida.  Check out this article at ABC News.

Bottom line: take the claims of “missing links” with a grain of salt.  Paleontologists need to stop allowing themselves to be used by the media and present new fossil discoveries with more humility.