Dogmatic Darwinism

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In a 2007 edition of the venerable peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of  Sciences, Indiana University biologist Michael Lynch makes the startling claim that no observations exist supporting the idea that natural selection has been primarily responsible for the evolution of complex multi-cellular life from earlier single-celled organisms. Lynch goes so far as to say, "It is impossible to understand evolution purely in terms of natural selection."

Now, Lynch is no creationist; he is an academic biologist who fails to find compelling evidence for natural selection, preferring instead to consider other models for evolution based on non-adaptive evolutionary processes. If Lynch is right about the lack of a firm evidentiary basis for natural selection, how do we account for the fact that natural selection has been—and continues to be—promoted as the most well-established scientific theory ever devised (or as the greatest single idea anyone has ever had, as Daniel Dennett calls it)? Is it possible that natural selection is more philosophical dogma than evidence-based science?

In the aftermath of the publication of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" in 1859, few thinkers accepted Darwinian natural selection as the driving force of evolution (a period sometimes referred to as the eclipse of Darwinism). The list of non-selectionist thinkers reads like a "Who's Who" of turn-of-the-century biology: T. H. Huxley, Asa Gray, Hugo De Vries, William Bateson, Thomas Hunt Morgan, Francis Galton (Darwin's own cousin), and even the playwright George Bernard Shaw. Natural selection did not come to dominate evolutionary thinking until the development of population genetics in the 1920s and 1930s, leading to what is often termed the evolutionary synthesis of the 1940s which enshrined natural selection as indisputable fact.

An early champion of natural selection was the British population geneticist Ronald A. Fisher. In his classic 1930 book "The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection," Fisher dismisses the many non-Darwinian theories of evolution current at his time and writes:

The sole surviving theory is that of natural selection and it would appear impossible to avoid the conclusion that if any evolutionary phenomenon appears to be inexplicable on this theory it must be accepted at present merely as one of the facts which in the present state of knowledge seems inexplicable.

This is not a scientific statement. Fisher accepts natural selection by default and then defines away potentially contradictory evidence, rendering natural selection an unfalsifiable—and therefore unscientific—theory! But why did the biological establishment rally around this dogma rather than some other?

The modern Darwinian critic, Michael Denton, points out that the Darwinian model of evolution is the only one based on well-understood physical and natural processes—random genetic variability and natural selection. Other theories of evolution (orthogenesis, neo-Lamarckism, saltationism, intelligent design) all leave themselves open to the possibility of a metaphysical or supernatural interpretation. Denton writes, "Reject Darwinism and there is, in effect, no scientific theory of evolution." This is a key insight when viewed in the light of the work of science historian Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis.

Smocovitis argues convincingly that the enshrining of natural selection as a purely naturalistic understanding of evolution was at least in part driven by the attempt to create a modern science of biology in the early 20th century to rival physics, the paradigmatic example of true science at the time. Biology had to be divorced from its natural theology roots, cleansed of any metaphysical understandings, and set up as a rigorous empirical and quantitative discipline. Since natural selection, as Denton points out, is the evolutionary mechanism most consistent with a naturalistic understanding, it not surprisingly was enshrined as the center-piece of biology despite its ambiguous evidentiary basis.

This idea is demonstrated well in the work of noted evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin. In a 1997 review of Carl Sagan's "The Demon Haunted World," Lewontin laments the difficulty of dispelling the irrational myths and supernatural explanations held by so many people. For Lewontin, science is the only begetter of truth and scientists by definition must commit themselves to a materialist philosophy. Lewontin continues in an oft-cited passage:

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

Science here is pronounced materialistic by definition, not because materialistic explanations are necessarily more compelling. Interestingly, another influential evolutionist appears to agree.

George Gaylord Simpson is considered one of the most influential paleontologists in history and a shaper of the modern evolutionary synthesis of the 1940s. In his classic 1944 text "Tempo and Mode in Evolution," Simpson decries the tendency of some scientists to appeal to the unknown, calling it metaphysical speculation that has no place in science. But he goes on:

The metaphysical explanation might, indeed, be true, but no hypothesis for which there can be no rigidly objective test should be accepted as a conclusion or working principle in research.

He further elaborates in a footnote:

As a matter of personal philosophy, I do not here mean to endorse an entirely mechanistic or materialistic view of the life processes. I suspect that there is a great deal in the universe that never will be explained in such terms and much that may be inexplicable on a purely physical plane.

So the scientific adherence to material causation is driven by the need to maintain the scientific integrity of biology, but it may not necessarily lead to the apprehending of truth.

In this light, can intelligent design theory be considered a valid scientific alternative to Darwinian evolution? Not if science is defined as the search for naturalistic explanations. But denying intelligent design the status of science is not tantamount to denying its potential truth value. The question of evolution's mechanism must therefore remain an open question, even if the search for an answer leaks beyond the naturalistic boundaries so firmly policed by the scientific disciplines. As even philosopher Thomas Nagel, an avowed atheist, can say:

Even if one is not drawn to the alternative of an explanation by the actions of a designer, the problems that these iconoclasts [intelligent design theorists] pose for the orthodox scientific consensus should be taken seriously. They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met. It is manifestly unfair.

Fortunately, the search for truth transcends human-created academic disciplinary boundaries and much to Darwin’s chagrin, evolutionary questions may not be fully answerable by naturalistic science alone. Religion and philosophy may still have a valid place at the table. Score one for the interdisciplinarity of the liberal arts.

Robert Shedinger

Robert Shedinger

Robert Shedinger is a professor of religion at Luther College. He is the author of several books, including the 2015 "Jesus and Jihad," "Was Jesus a Muslim?: Questioning Categories in the Study of Religion" and "Radically Open: Transcending Religious Identity in an Age of Anxiety."

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  • December 1 2014 at 8:26 pm

    Don't suppose it ever occurred to you to talk to some biologists. Why don't you try that, and then you won't be an example of Proverbs 17:28.

  • December 1 2014 at 9:07 pm
    Robert Shedinger
    Thanks for your comment, GalapagosPete. I think the people I cited--Lynch, Fisher, Lewontin, Simpson--all qualify as biologists!
  • December 2 2014 at 5:36 am
    Richard Forrest
    Creationists (and that includes of course the ID movement) are very fond of demanding that we reject "naturalistic science". As a matter of idle curiosity, how does one engage in a scientific investigation other than under the assumption of naturalism? For example, if I let go of a ball and it drops to the ground do I assume that naturalistic processes such as gravity are at work, or do I suggest that it might be because some unspecified non-naturalistic force is acting on the ball to make it move towards the ground? If so, what prevents the ball moving upwards when I let it go? Or, for that matter, what prevents it from turning into a bunch of petunias? Perhaps you can explain why a non-naturalistic approach is of any value?
  • December 2 2014 at 12:39 pm
    Robert Shedinger

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Richard. I don't really have a problem with science being based on a naturalistic premise, but I do resist the idea that science's naturalistic orientation can provide all answers to all questions (as biologists like Richard Lewontin propose). The idea that naturalistic science can be the arbiter of all truth is itself not a scientific statement, but a philosophical premise. Therefore, I see no good reason, scientific or otherwise, to assume that only naturalistic explanations have validity, especially when those naturalistic explanations do not seem to be based on a solid empirical basis, which seems to me to be the case with natural selection (this is less of a problem when it comes to gravity!). On what grounds, other than personal bias, would you base a preference for the supremacy of naturalistic explanations as the sole arbiter of truth?

  • December 2 2014 at 3:37 pm
    Richard Forrest
    I suggest that if you think that natural selection is not supported by empirical evidence, you are rather undermining our argument! We have observed natural selection in action in the natural world and studied it in exquisite detail, to the level not just of the specific mutations which provide the variation on which selection can act, but to the changes to the base pairs of amino acid which form those genes. How much more empirical evidence do you want? Science doesn't claim to offer truth: it offers provisional explanations for phenomena which can be observed and measured and does so under the assumption that any such explanation is subject to revision or rejection if that is what the evidence demands. However, even though it doesn't offer truth, it has advanced our knowledge and understanding of the nature of the universe vastly more in the past century than in the previous hundred millennia of our existence. To reject the findings of science for no reason other than it contradicts religious belief - as is implied by your comment on natural selection - seems bizarre.
  • December 2 2014 at 9:39 pm
    Robert Shedinger
    I did not say that we reject the findings of science simply because they contradict religious belief. My question is on what scientific grounds can we say that science is the only valid way to move toward truth--even if we can't get entirely get there? As for the issue of natural selection, this brief comment space is not nearly large enough to go into the issues. But I am sure you are aware that there are many biologists who question the ability of natural selection to fully account for the full diversity of life. There are theories of epigenetics, evolutionary developmental biology, and natural genetic engineering that all pose that natural selection working on inherent genetic variability, while it can account for small scale evolution within species, cannot account for the development of the higher taxa.
  • December 3 2014 at 2:35 am
    Richard Forrest
    You claim not to reject the findings of science because they contradict religious belief, yet reject natural selection as not based on evidence - which is clearly not the case. For what reason other than because it contradicts your religious belief do you do so? Natural selection is one of several mechanisms which contribute to evolution. Nobody with any knowledge of the subject would argue that natural select "fully accounts for the diversity of life". However, to assert that it is not "based on a solid empirical basis" is simply wrong. As a phenomenon of nature It is very solidly grounded on empirical evidence, as generations of scientists working in the field of evolutionary biology can attest, and as has been recorded in numerous scientific papers. It's worth adding that natural selection can account for the origin of new species. Many observed instances of speciation are recorded in the scientific literature, and in most cases natural selection is the driving force. As for "moving towards truth", how can we know if something is true if we can test it? Many religions offer truth, but as those truths are largely mutually exclusive, how can one determine which is really true and which is not? I should add that arguments from personal conviction hold no water because for every individual with a string personal conviction that their particular version of their particular religion holds the truth, there is someone else with just as strong a conviction that it their beliefs which are true.
  • December 3 2014 at 12:15 pm
    Robert Shedinger
    Clearly we will not agree on this. But I will say that many of the observed speciation events are in plants and the result of polyploidy which is not a result of natural selection acting gradually on small genetic variations. In may other cases of observed speciation, natural selection is the inferred mechanism, but there is a big difference between inferring that something has occurred and actually demonstrating it to be the case. Many evolutionary biology textbooks continue to trot out the research from the 1950s by Bernard Kettlewell on industrial melanism in peppered moths as proof of natural selection in action, ignoring all the research since the 1950s showing that Kettlewell's experiments were terribly flawed and not trustworthy. If natural selection has such a wealth of empirical evidence in favor of it, why don't the textbooks do a better job with this?
  • December 3 2014 at 12:55 pm
    Richard Forrest
    Yes, some instances of speciation are caused by polyploidy, in particular in plants. In many other cases, speciation occurs through natural selection acting on the variation in the genome introduced by mutations. There is nothing "inferred" about a process which we have studied in as much depth as is the case with natural selection. We can track changes to the genome down to the level not just of genes, but to the individual base pairs which make up the genes. I fail to see in what way natural selection is not demonstrated. As for Kettlewell's experiments on peppered moths, contrary to the outright falsehoods so widely promoted in creationist sources, they provide robust experimental evidence for natural selection in action, and have been replicated by a number of researchers subsequently, in particular by Majerus. There is an excellent article in wikipedia ( which sets out not just the scientific support for natural selection in peppered moths, but also addresses the way in which creationists have distorted, misrepresented and lied about the scientific case. Perhaps you can explain why rejection of the views of the scientists who have studied these matters in favour of creationism is motivated by anything other than religious dogma?
  • December 3 2014 at 1:55 pm
    Kolin Walker

    Dr. Shedinger,


    I am a senior Biology and Chemistry double major who has both taken Luther's course in Evolutionary Biology and read sections of Darwin's On the Origin of the Species.  While it is in fact true to say that Lynch denies the idea that natural selection is the sole driving force in evolution, I do not think it is as surprising a statement as you make it out to be.  Evolutionary Biology is a very difficult subject to wrap your head around, no matter who you are and popular culture does us no favors in the misconstruction of Darwin (as well as Lewontin and other biologists in the field).


    To say that natural selection is "philosophical dogma" rather than "evidence-based science" is a gross oversimplification of the ideas of evolution and the principles of scientific thought.  In Table 1 of the paper you cite (Lynch 2007: "The frailty of adaptive hypothesis...") his first misconception listed is "Evolution is natural selection."  This is far from the case.  There are other factors at work in the evolutionary process, including genetic drift, random mutation, etc.  Not necessarily all evolution is driven by a need to adapt, although that was the type of evolution that Darwin observed.  So it is inherently true that evolution is not 'primarily' driven by natural selection.  However, this also does not mean that Darwin's theory is necessarily wrong or that Lynch "fails to find compelling evidence for natural selection."  He simply does not see natural selection as the sole driving force of evolution.

  • December 3 2014 at 3:43 pm
    Robert Shedinger
    Thanks, Kolin, for your very thoughtful comments. You are correct in saying that evolutionary biology is very hard to wrap your head around and I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. I do think it is the case, however, that natural selection does get framed as the primary driver of evolution at least in terms of the wider public, which as you say, does not necessarily represent the field, where other mechanisms are seen to operate. You say in your response that "it is inherently true that evolution is not primarily driven by natural selection." So I wonder what you do see as the primary driver of evolution.
  • December 3 2014 at 4:04 pm
    Robert Shedinger
    Thanks, Richard for your continuing thoughtful comments. I will check out the Wikipedia article. You, however, may want to check out the review of Majerus's book by Jerry Coyne (U. of Chicago) published in the journal Nature (Vol.396[1998]: 35-36). After reading about the flaws in Kettlewell's work (which Coyne did not previously know about), Coyne says his reaction was like the dismay at finding out that it was not Santa who brought the presents on Christmas Eve. He confesses to embarrassment at the thought that he had been teaching the standard peppered moth story for years. He concludes that for the time being at least, the peppered moth story must be discarded as a well-understood example of natural selection in action, although it is clearly a case of evolution. You might also check out the article "The 'Classical' Explanation of Industrial Melanism: Assessing the Evidence" that appeared in the journal Evolutionary Biology (Vol. 30[1998]:299-322). The authors conclude that there is little persuasive evidence , in the form of rigorous and replicated observations and experiments, to support the classical story of the peppered moths as an example of Natural selection in action. They believe the story is probably true, but that it hasn't been proven. So on what grounds do they believe it is true? I do think articles in peer-reviewed journals like Nature and Evolutionary Biology are probably more authoritative than Wikipedia.
  • December 4 2014 at 2:51 am
    Richard Forrest
    And perhaps you should read about the follow-up to those criticisms of Majerus since 1998. When issues in science are not resolved, or doubt is cast on the validity of scientific findings, scientists use the tools of science to try to find resolution. They don't cling to older studies as authoritative but test and question them.\n The conclusion of this study is that \n "The new data, coupled with the weight of previously existing data convincingly show that ‘industrial melanism in the peppered moth is still one of the clearest and most easily understood examples of Darwinian evolution in action’."\n By the way, you still haven't explained in what way your rejection of the views of the scientists who have studied these matters is motivated by anything other than religious dogma.
  • December 4 2014 at 9:39 am
    Kolin Walker
    The odd thing about evolution is that it isn't driven. It is a natural process that, for lack of a better phrase, just "happens." As far as we know there is nothing causing evolution to act in one way or another. The idea that evolution has a goal or that it acts as a means to an end is another common misconception. In fact it is much better represented as a trial and error type process. Because of this, I think your final conclusion may need some rethinking. While the search for ultimate truth is not solely determined by science (and in a way never can be), the answer to evolutionary questions ARE fully answerable by naturalistic science because that is the discipline they were developed to investigate. Evolutionary questions are not any deeper than foundational biology. Yes, it is true that philosophical questions can be asked about these topics and it is also true that science cannot provide all of the answers to those philosophical questions. But to assert that science cannot fully understand its own definitions, concepts, or explanations is a violation of the foundational ideas around which the discipline is based. While I think your arguments are valid from a religious or philosophical standpoint, they simply do not hold water when looking at them from the biological context in which they were written.
  • December 4 2014 at 11:00 am
    Robert Shedinger

    Thanks again, Kolin, for your very thoughtful responses. You are correct that in classical evolutionary theory, natural selection is not something driven, it is something that just happens. It is nothing more than differential reproduction. What I find interesting, however, is that evolutionary biologists introduce teleological (purpose driven) language into their discussions of natural selection all the time. See my blog post from early November titled "Darwinian (Dis)analogies" for just a few of many many examples. Why can't biologists avoid introducing teleological language into their discussions of what they argue is a non-teleological process?

     I find your final sentence interesting. How can an argument be valid from one perspective but not another? An argument is valid or it is not. Part of the purpose of my work here is to disturb the neat dichotomy we try to maintain between what we call science and what we call religion. This is an artificial construction that we humans impose on the world, it is not a description of how the world really is. It is a modern idea with a history of its own. Even Copernicus relied on "religious" reasoning in proposing the "scientific" theory of the heliocentric universe. So I don't think we can so neatly separate the religious from the scientific, or in so doing, we may missing deeper truths than either can apprehend on its own.

    Once again, thanks for your thoughtful and substantive comments that are helpful to me in clarifying my own thoughts. You are a great example of the type of intellectual engagement that Luther College seeks to develop in its students.




  • December 9 2014 at 4:16 pm
    Bill Rohan
    Truth is the ambiguous word here. The author believes there is scientific truth and there is that other kind of truth that science cannot deal with. Is truth type one and truth type two a problem? What kind of truth is it that is noT based on scientific theory and methods? Is there natural truth and human truth?!
  • December 9 2014 at 4:59 pm
    Bill Rohan
    Religious type two truth is declared and science type one truth is discovered.
  • December 10 2014 at 11:11 am
    Robert Shedinger
    Thanks for your comment, Bill. There is of course only one truth. The question is how many ways are there to apprehend it. Is science the only valid method? I'm not sure it is.
  • April 25 2015 at 1:53 am
    Alex Dmitriev

    Generally, “entropy” stands for “disorder” or uncertainty. The entropy we talk about here was introduced by Claude E. Shannon in his 1948 paper “A Mathematical Theory of Communication

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