Taking Leave of Darwin

Neil Thomas

p11 Prologue

p11 Describes how he was "taken in" by the confident proclamation of the truth of Darwinism in school.

p12 Describes the shock of our Victorian forbears to be projected into "a suddenly mechanistic world without a mechanic" (Noel Amman). Implicated not only Darwin but also Freud in the "man from monkey" theme introduced in The Descent of Man.

p15 Ch 1, The Battle Is Joined

p15 Quotes atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel in the kind of comment in "Mind and Cosmos" that stimulated a Time Magazine cover depicting Nagel as being burned at the stake by other philosophers.

p15 Brief discussion of the eulogy and celebration of the 100th anniversary of The Origin of Species where Julian Huxley, grandson of Thomas Huxley, declared "fact" for natural selection.

p15 In 1897 FCS Schiller, Oxford philosopher in skeptical statement about the testing of things that occurred millions of years in the past. called Darwin's evolutionary treatise "a methodological device" rather than "an incontestable fact".

p17 "So the two parts of neo-Darwinism are random genetic mutations and natural selection."..."The process is purposeless. Darwin repeatedly stressed this point."

  • p18 Thomas Malthus greatly influenced Darwin. p19 His "Principle of Population" gave Darwin the "fittest" idea.
  • Thomas Hobbes and his Leviathan influenced Malthus. The idea that man is totally selfish.
  • p21 Asa Gray, Harvard professor, plea for teleology, frequent correspondence cfp63
  • p21 Charles Lyell 'Principles of Geology' 1830 inspired Darwin on HMS Beagle voyage.
    • Strongly committed to theistic teleology.
    • Origins of life's variations involved "causes so high and transcendent a nature that we may well despair of ever gaining more than a dim insight into them."
    • Lyell's uniformitarianism as opposed to flood geology and catastrophism gave Darwin hope that he would be an ally, but Lyell persisted in retaining a commitment to teleology.
  • p24 Other contemporary influential opinion-formers reacted strongly against the idea that natural selection could produce new species:
    • Duke of Argyll Scottish nobleman with serious and respected interest in naturalist ideas.
    • St. George Mivart a leading London science professor.
    • Richard Owen England's leading paleontologist of the period.

p27 Ch 2, The Evolution of a Myth

p27-29 After a meandering educational path, Charles Darwin joined the ship HMS Beagle for a five year trip to South America and the South Sea Islands. Cataloguing the flora and fauna along this trip settled him into the path of a naturalist.

p30 Darwin knew and admired William Paley's "Natural Theology" Thomas cites Paley's "Watchmaker" with a page and a half quote. His quote is actually longer than my quote linked above, but most of it is further detail of the watch structure to strengthen the argument.

p32 Quote of Hume's skeptical character Philo, supposed to argue strongly against the design inference, seems unconvincing to me. But Hume is often cited as the voice that reduced the influence of Paley's Watchmaker and his natural theology.

p32-33 Cites John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, Tennyson, in context of reviewing the weakening of traditional religion in the time of Darwin.

p34-35 The growth of "higher criticism" of the Bible riled the public about the "scientific" claims of Darwinism and its dependence on "deep time".

p35-37 Samuel Butler, though not a scientist, wrote compellingly about "Luck or Cunning as the Main Means of Organic Modification" and denounced Darwinists as "apostles of luck".

p38-43 Discusses grandfather Erasmus Darwin and his book Zoonomia and its influence on Charles. Moves on into discussion of ancient Greek discussions of the idea of evolution.

p43-45 More detail about Erasmus Darwin's thought - remained a theist, skeptical of divine revelation.

Moving closer to Charles Darwin in time:

p61 Ch 3, The Challenge of Intelligent Design

A broad survey of those who opposed Darwin plus a few supporters with emphasis on evidence of design and teleology.

p61 "If the world's finest minds can unravel only with difficulty the deeper workings of nature, how could it be supposed that those workings are merely a mindless accident, a product of blind chance?" Paul Davies, Superforce p235-236.

  • p62 Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker both eminent biologists, were allies of Darwin, but neither was convinced of the validity of natural selection.
    • Huxley attracted because it furthered his passionate anti-theist cause.
  • p63 Asa Gray, Harvard professor, plea for teleology
  • p63 Charles Lyell geologist, pleas for teleology rather than mere chance.
  • p63 George Mivart argued for principle of development in the fetus,and also for the evolution of life over time.
    • p64 Was and remained Darwin's principal opponent.
    • Wrote "The Genesis of Species" a decade after Origin. Argued that natural selection not capable of development of structures, and argued for saltation.
    • Pointed out the absence of fossils to provide intermediate forms.
  • p63 Richard Owen foremost anatomist of early 19th century, argued that primary evolutionary force must be inside the animal, not merely natural selection.
  • p65 Fleeming Jenkin critic whom Darwin respected but feared almost as much as Mivert. Scots engineering professor, didn't doubt minor variations to 'make a hare a better hare', but didn't buy organ development to make a new species.
  • p65 William Bateson, who introduced Mendel's genetics to British science near end of 19th century, strongly rejected natural selection.
  • p66 Gregor Mendel's genetics led to neo-Darwinism early 20th century, but Darwin was unaware of Mendel.
  • p66 Henri Bergson ~1907 Nobel Prize, proposed elan vital. Similar to Behe's later 'irreducible complexity', he argued that complex organs must have varied at all parts contemporaneously and not by one tiny random step at a time.
  • p67 Michael Denton's 1985 "Evolution, A Theory in Crisis" had accompaniment by
    • Pierre-Paul Grasse argued for more directed form of evolution.
    • Sir Peter Medawar 1960s Nobel Prize, argued against reductionist approaches to biological complexities.
    • Arthur Koestler in 1960s argued that natural selection was far too simplistic to explain nature's complexities.
        "Given the number of 'interlocking parts' which would have to come together in a perfectly synchronized way, he concluded that 'the doctrine of their coming together due to blind coincidence is an affront not only to common sense but to the basic principles of scientific explanation.'(The Ghost in the Machine[1967], P129)"
  • p68 Stephen J. Gould , "world evolution authority" and his "punctuated equilibria" and "separate magisteria" for science and humanities.
    • p77 1972 with Niles Eldridge put forward the punctuated equilibria to account for gaps in the fossil record.
  • p68-69 A rather remarkable discussion of objection to Darwin on the basis of human linguistic ability from the Victorian period forward. The human vocal tract is so profoundly different from the apes that it sounds like no one was buying the Descent of Man hypothesis that it evolved in Darwinian fashion.
  • p68-69 Friedrich Max Muller a legendary linguistic scholar at Oxford, 1860, sympathy for some of Darwin's ideas, but was adamant that human language could not have developed from animal sounds. Words are related to mental concepts, and animals had not developed any understanding of concepts.
  • p69 Norm Chomsky American linguistic expert, mid-20th century. "argued the case for an inbuilt universal grammar which he thought to be embedded in the neuronal circuitry of the human brain. He was convinced that language competency was largely innate, not something that had to be acquired after birth." Bottom line, it was an unsolved mystery.
  • p69-71 Alfred Russel Wallace contemporary with Darwin and in agreement early, but later parted company with him on the subject of the human mind in particular. Reflected on human consciousness and self-awareness and saw natural selection as powerless in that arena.
    • p73 "Late in life ...espousing a full-on form of intelligently guided evolution, arguing that numerous innovations in the history of life were beyond the reach of random variation and natural selection ..teleological process.."
  • p71 Thomas reflects on "the brain, the acknowledged jewel-in-the-crown of homo sapiens, a subject that inevitably brings in its train the intangible, non-material phenomena of consciousness, thought, and the subjective self. In the course of the of the last half century, neuroscience has shown that the human brain is something of such awe-inspiring complexity that no hyperbole can do it justice. The hundred billion (yes, billion) neurons in our brains are all connected to other neurons by small fibers (dendrites) to allow instantaneous communication. There are more than a quadrillion electrical connections or synapses which make it the most complex piece of 'machinery' known to mankind, though the term 'machinery' fails utterly to capture its sophistication. Even describing it as a sort of wetware mainframe computer is a vastly belittling comparison. I defy anyone not to rub his or her eyes in wonder when reading Denton's description:"
  • p72 "Even that fine description evokes only physiological mechanisms of the brain. Notwithstanding science's growing knowledge of the brain's physiological structures, it cannot purport to explain how the firing of literally billions of neurons translates into thought and emotion. Subjective experience, mind, appears to occupy some as yet invisible and indeed unvisualisable order of reality inexplicable in terms of material properties." (dualism) "A dualistic view was espoused by philosopher Sir Karl Popper in the latter part of the twentieth century, whereas orthodox Darwinism tends to regard humankind's self-consciousness as a mere epiphenomenon, meaning an accidental outcome of the mechanical workings of the brain." "For Darwinin dissenters it simply lacks logical coherence to suppose that sentience, baffling to the best scientists and thinkers to this day, could have evolved template-less from any purely material matrix."
  • p72-73 for Denton "the large improbability of intelligent life being formed by forces bereft of all cognitive capacity provides nothing less than a 'formal disproof' of the whole Darwinian dogma, dubbed by him 'the great cosmogenic myth' of the modern era."
  • p73-74 From Cuvier the Law of Correlation: no part of a body could change without the whole changing - co-adaptation.
  • p74-76 Criticism of the "deep time" dependence of Darwin by Fleeming Jenkin in 1867 and by Fred Hoyle in 1983.
  • p74-77 Discusses the problem of the lack of transitional fossils. Includes Gould.
  • p77-79 Cambrian Explosion
  • p78-83 Darwin's Descent of Man opened much controversy about monkey to man.
    • Dawkins' The Selfish Gene (1976) got pounded by philosophers Mary Midgley and Antony Flew "logically perverse to claim that genes could be 'engaged, whether selfishly, or unselfishly, in any conscious or chosen pursuit of anything.'"
    • E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology (1975) was hammered for "licensing the type of thinking which would validate racism, eugenics, and sexism, even Naziism."
  • p84 Long quote by Darwin to try to support the development of the human eye by chance and natural selection.
  • p85-86 Thomas charges that Darwinian evolution advocates have had to resort to bluffing and storytelling to try to preserve the evolutionary hypothesis against our common sense.
    • p86 Neil Broom "megatime becomes the instrument of creative change. It is used as a kind of magic wand, waved at appropriate points in the argument in order to accomplish quite remarkable feats of materialistic magic."
    • p86 Nagel "I believe that the defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude for challenging a scientific world view that owes some of the passion displayed by its adherents to the fact that it is thought to liberate us from religion."

p87 Ch 4, Cosmos and Chaos

p87 Introductory quote from physicist and Nobel Laureate Charles H. Townes

p87 Followed by the pessimistic "Bertrand's basement" quote of Bertrand Russell.

p88 Richard Dawkins was a follower of Russell, and his "pitiless indifference" quote is included.

88 From there Thomas takes a turn and begins to describe our "Goldilocks" cosmos and planet. "In the last half century, advances in the world of cosmology have revealed that our planet turns out to be biofriendly to a well-nigh miraculous degree - a verdant oasis fine tuned in a dizzying number of ways for life, in contradistinction to the little less than Hadean depths found in possibly the entire remainder of the observable universe."

  • p89 Brandon Carter and his 1973 anthropic principle talk: "Large Number Coincidences and the Anthropic Principle in Cosmology," Symposium-International Astronomical Union 63 (1974):291-98, doi:10.1017/S0074180900235638. Carter formalized planetary and cosmological fine tuning and started further discussions.
    • "..strange connection among a number of otherwise unexplained coincidences in physics.It emerged that many of these mysterious values could be explained by one overarching fact: the values had been necessary for the origin and preservation of human and other life.
    • Electromagnetic force and gravity balance to many decimal places
    • Magnetic shield of Earth protects life -- and the list goes on.
    • "Paul Davies elaborates on the growing awareness of astronomers that the fitness of our earthly environment for life seems all too great to be accidental, and that the laws of physics appear to be uncannily fine tuned to support mankind." Contrasts with George Gaylord Simpson's "did not have us in mind".

p92-93 Search for life on Mars

  • p94-95 William Whewell: special nature of Earth by divine favor
  • David Waltham: same special fitness, without the divine favor assumption, "lucky us".
  • p96 George Mivart opposition to Darwin partly theologically motivated
  • p97 August Weismann favor of Darwinism from anti-theistic materialism. (echoes Lewontin)
  • p98 Paul Davies explains that he is not religious but "through my scientific work I have come to believe more and more strongly that the physical universe is put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as a brute fact."
  • p98-99 Antony Flew explained in his book "his conversion from atheism was precipitated by his grappling with fresh scientific evidence not available in his youth."
    "This evidence, Flew explained, stemmed largely from the sheer intricacy of microbiological structures, which can only now be fully appreciated by analogy with the miniaturizations enabled by advanced nanotechnology. He wrote in 2010, 'It now seems to me that the findings of more than fifty years of DNA research have provided materials for a new and powerful argument to design.'"

p100 "In any case, to set the record straight, Flew is not known to have become a Christian; he merely accepted the existence of God. He described his new position as a form of deism, accepting that there is supernatural intelligence responsible for creating the universe, but he rejected special revelation in the form of the Bible and the notion of a personal god in the sense of one who watches over his terrestrial flocks. He expressed and openness to the possibility of special revelation but made it clear that his present view was that God does not intervene, and has not intervened, in human affairs since Creation. To quote Flew in his own terms:

"I must stress that my discovery of the Divine has proceeded on a purely natural level, without any reference to supernatural phenomena. It has been an exercise in what is traditionally called natural theology. It has had no connection with any of the revealed religions. Nor do I claim to have had any experience of God or any experience that may be called supernatural or miraculous. In short, my discovery of the Divine has been a pilgrimage of reason and not of faith."

p101 "Denton, Flew, Behe, Dembski, and other prominent defenders of intelligent design focus squarely on the substantive issue of the theoretical and empirical inadequacies of the Darwinian paradigm, and what they see as the superior explanatory power of the design inference."

p103 Ch 5, The Mystery of Mysteries

p103 "Scientists should never present themselves as certain when there is doubt. The very success and truthfulness of science is founded on doubt and scepticism. It moves forward by continually rethinking, reobserving and rechecking against reality again and again to expose the flaws in current ideas." Fern Elsdon-Baker, Philosopher of evolutionary science.

p103 Norm Chomsky divides "matters of human puzzlement" into problems and mysteries, with problems solvable and mysteries not. List of suggested mysteries:

  • free will
  • human consciousness
  • origin of life
    • self-replicating molecules bearing genetic information
    • genetic code
  • Why our Goldilocks zone for life?
  • Where do the laws of physics come from?
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?

p104 Cites John Lennox p40 "laws of physics are descriptive and predictive but not creative in their own right."

p109 Dawkins Life is "almost unimaginably complicated in directions that convey a powerful illusion of deliberate design.".. "Does it sound to you as though it would need a miracle to make randomly jostling atoms join together into a self-replicating molecule? Well, at times it does to me too."

p109 "Just like that" for a phrase titling a section to sum up the "magical" approach to evolution. He ends with "Yeah, right."

p111 Einstein "the laws of nature manifest the existence of a spirit vastly superior to that of men, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble."

p111 Highlights James Le Fanu, medical doctor and writer.

  • "marked discrepancy between the beguiling simplicities of evolutionary theory and the profundity of the biological phenomena it seeks to explain."
  • "Every day, writes Le Fanu, we are the unwitting beneficiaries of an incalculable number of invisible natural wonders, such as the purifying function of the liver (which is able to perform more functions than the largest chemical refinery), or the autonomous functioning of the heart ...or our physiological capacity for bodily self-repair (compares it to a bicycle puncture repairing itself). .. What seems amusingly preposterous in the case of human manufacture is perfectly practicable in human physiology via the cleansing function of the liver."
  • p113 "Curiously, many complex wonders of nature have been, as it were, hiding in plain sight for decades, even centuries. ...By contrast, the post-Enlightenment centuries brought with them a steady 'disenchantment' of the natural world, and a tendency to regard our natural surroundings as prosaic 'givens' of little account." "Such dullness before nature is the more culpable today, writes Le Fanu, because, unlike previous generations, we now know of the deep complexities that underpin the effortless simplicities of our daily lives."

p112 Also highlights Linda Gamlin on the complexity of the human immune system.Gamlin has written on a lot of fronts, from immunology to evolution to life's origin to philosophy.
"Faced with the onslaught of microbes, how does the normal human body defend itself and stay healthy? To begin with, it keeps out as many potential pathogens as possible with barriers such as the skin and other non-specific defenses. The skin, which is waterproof, is impenetrable to most invaders, and it provides fatty acids that many microorganisms find toxic. Areas not covered by the skin, such as the eyes, mouth, lungs and digestive tract, are more vulnerable, but they have alternative defenses. Tears, saliva, urine and other body secretions contain lysozyme, an enzyme that can kill certain types of bacteria by splitting the molecules found in their cell walls. Mucus in the nose and airways engulfs bacteria and stops them from penetrating the membranes. Cilia - tiny beating 'hairs' - then push the mucus out of the airways into the throat, where it is swallowed. In the stomach, acid kills most of the microorganisms in food, as well as starting the digestive process." "The Human Immune System:Origins," The New Scientist inside Science, ed. Richard Fifield (London:Penguin,1992), 225-226.

p113-114 Thomas waxes eloquent about all the things we take for granted and their amazing complexity.

p114-115 Compares and discusses Darwin and Wallace

p115-116 Darwin and Wallace were "obliged to transfer agency to the process of natural selection"

  • Natural selection's problems:
    • lack of empirical evidence for the power of natural selection to generate new forms.
    • the "agency" of natural selection "was held to operate unselectively, with no notion of purpose permitted to obtrude into the multiple revolutions of its biological lottery"

p121 Ch 6, Paradigms Regained

p121 "I believe that one day the Darwinian myth will be ranked the greatest deceit int he history fo science." Embryologist Soren Lovtrup in "Darwinism: The Refutation of a Myth" (London: Croom Helm, 1987) p422

p123 After quoting Cosmologist Sir Harold Jeffreys "all accounts of the origin of the solar system are subject to serious objection ...conclusion would be .. the system cannot exist" Thomas said that statement made him feel a little less inadequate about "my inability to comprehend how any agency could have been responsible for the ultra-complexity of human and animal life." "At this point one gains the irresistible impression of science straining at the leash, its reach in sniffing out our place in the cosmos inadequate to the scale of the challenge before it."
"I feel even more challenged now than I did before researching this subject, simply because I can now make a more informed estimate of the truly intimidating impenetrability of the enigma to be resolved."

p126 After concluding that "Life..is not just an emergent property of chemistry.." Thomas writes a remarkable pair of paragraphs:

"The possibility of a material explanation for the mystery confronting us therefore seems to be so vanishingly small that we might simply have to conclude that biogenesis was a one-off, quasi-miraculous occurrence of unknown etiology. The present scientific failure to account for it leaves us precious little alternative than to revisit the possibility of an intelligent mode of causation, even perhaps a supranatural intelligence. That option, which we observed philosopher Antony Flew choosing in a previous chapter, seems to be the only conclusion which is unassailable on strictly logical ground, however unwelcome that conclusion will seem to many readers, in whose number I count myself. However, it is the only conclusion which I find to be defensible as a logical inference from the data available, a conclusion I arrived at only after assessing the gross explanatory inadequacies of all other theories."

"It is in the wake of that comparative exercise that I find myself forced back onto this conclusion, albeit one I endeavor to hold to provisionally and with due modesty, given the scant physical evidence available and the remote nature of the events in question."

p127 "As agnostic astrophysicist Paul Davies observed, when we finally come to the review an extended explanatory chain, 'sooner or later we will have to accept something as given, whether it is God, or logic or a set of laws or some other foundation for existence ... whether we call this deeper level of explanation God or something else is essentially a semantic matter.'"

p127 "As Flew's case shows, it is a rich irony of recent history that science, once thought to be the cause of religion's demise, has revealed unsuspected worlds of microscopic precision engineering that goes far beyond the reach of human competence, or even of human comprehension....Biological science, once hailed, with more than a little triumphalist glee, as the universal solvent of metaphysical beliefs,is now precisely the force which is making many reassess their philosophical materialism."

p130 Describes the Wistar Institute (Cited p37-38 in Doubts About Darwin by Woodward.) From the comments of Murray Eden "It is our contention that if 'random' is given a serious and crucial interpretation from a probabalistic point of view, the randomness postulate is highly implausible and that an adequate scientific theory of evolution must await the discovery and elucidation of new natural laws ..."

p131-132 Discusses Bergson and the 'elan vital', about which he lacks enthusiasm. Brings him to some discouragement but not lack of eloquence as he moans "we may just have live with the fact that there is an order of reality resistant to human apprehension, and simply resolve to 'get over it'." "Facing this possibility, it may be difficult to resist the unwelcome presentiment that we might all have been press-ganged by some prank-playing cosmic joker as bit players in some dismal cosmic drama of the absurd."

133 "I don't mean here to negate my earlier confession of finding myself surprised by the relative strength of the design hypothesis in the wake of several modern discoveries in cosmology and biology." Cites Oxford theology professor emeritus Richard Swinburne.

"To suppose that there is a God explains why there is a physical universe at all; why there are the scientific laws there are; why animals and then human beings have evolved ... In fact, the hypothesis of the existence of God makes sense of the whole of our experience and it does so better than any other explanation that can be put forward and that is the grounds for believing it to be true."

p133 "In the interest of full disclosure, I have to confess that the human brain seems to me to be so ineffably complex that I sometimes find it difficult to conceive of any agency being responsible for its sublime intricacies - even a divine one!"

p134 "As Paul Davies commented more recently, we can pursue rational inquiry till the cows come home, but "my instinctive belief [is] that it is probably impossible for poor old homo sapiens to get to the bottom of it all."

p134-136 Discussion of Darwin's later years with a good collection of quotes from letters. Comments on "Mivart's unremitting attacks" and Darwin's ambivalence about God.

p137 Commentary on Wallace who became a theist, and had a productive old age, much happier than Darwin's.

p137 Comments on the mystery of life's origin.

p138 Remarkable paragraph about Agassiz and Sedgwick. Representative of the type of historical research and commentary of Thomas.
"In this remarkable historical about-turn, the wholly unanticipated philosophic, even potentially theistic developments brought about by the contemporary intelligent designn movement's critique of modern evolutionary theory gives a form of belated vindication to two of Darwin's contemporaries thought to have been consigned to historical footnotes, name, Louis Agassiz and Darwin's Cambridge tutor, Adam Sedgewick. Both men thought that science's inability to plumb the mysteries of nature was itself evidence of the divine. As historian Neal Gillespie observed, 'There was in some - one thinks of Sedfwick and Agassiz - a pious gladness in this inability to probe to the depths of the serets of nature, as if God's being was glorified in man'w weakness.' Both men, if I might be permitted to ndulge my imagination for a moment, could very well (posthumously) be enjoying the last laugh."

p138-139 Harold Urey and Robert Shapiro cited as part of the discussion of "The Materialist Paradigm: A Flawed Hypothesis?".

p140 "As philosopher Richard Spilsbury once noted, 'The basic objection to neo-Darwinism is not that it is speculative, but that in confers miraculous powers on inappropriate agents. In essence, it is an attempt to supernaturalize nature, to bestow unthinking processes with more-than-human powers.'" Providence Lost: A Critique of Darwinism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974) p19.

p143 "The genesis and evolution of our fine-tuned cosmos and biosphere must in the end come down to a clear binary: either nature did the fine tuning and selecting or God did (however that latter entity may be conceived and glossed). To say that 'God did it' obviously does not sit well with people holding a non-theistic worldview. To say that 'nature did it' arguably carries even less plausibility, so that many persons may feel themselves torn between two equally improbable positions. However, with the naturalistic/materialistic alternative having failed so signally, we are left with no other choice but to consider the possibility of the 'God hypothesis.' Faced with the sheer unfeasibility of a purely natural explanation, logic leaves us with little other choice."

p145 Epilogue

p146 "My own position, as a long-standing humanist with no allegiance to any revealed faith, remains that we each have to come to terms with an inscrutable universe in the best, and most morally accountable, way we can. Others should be free to come to their own conclusions on an issue in which there may be no unalloyed truth-bearers, only truth-seekers, in whose number I very much still count myself."

Reading Reference
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