Introduction (Revised Feb 2022)
“There is no controversy about evolution within science” is the line resolutely pronounced by spokespersons for the public understanding of science. The laws of biology, they unwaveringly reaffirm, have decreed that evolution is a fact, and that the primary mechanism of evolution – natural selection – has been satisfactorily explained and repeatedly observed. Evolution is not questioned by any scientist, they maintain, only by religious people. And yet anyone committed to a more thorough research of the scientific literature will discover that a significant minority of biologists, geneticists and paleontologists continue to question the accepted mechanism of evolution. So it is not quite true to say there is no controversy about evolution in science, or to claim that the mechanism of evolutionary change has been established beyond doubt. Challenges to evolutionary theory have always arisen from within the sciences, as well as without.
But there is a far greater implication here. If a proportion of legitimate scientists doubt the adequacy of long held mechanistic theories, then the scientific certainty ascribed to evolution – as a unified explanatory whole – begins to dissolve. This line of thinking becomes increasingly more uncomfortable for those devoted to the evolution-has-all-been-explained doctrine. Persisting doubts within science about how evolution could have happened will inevitably perpetuate doubts beyond science about whether evolution could have happened. Polls taken in America and Europe consistently show (for whatever reasons) that sizable percentages of the population do not accept, to some extent or other, accounts of evolution. For fear of spreading further doubt, members of the evolution fraternity (whose careers and reputations depend on the credibility of their science) have a clear motive for suppressing controversy within their ranks, and for extending this censorship to the education system and the public arena.
The usual presentation of evolution as ‘more or less explained with only the details missing’, is not an opinion shared by all. By bringing out into the open dissenting views, competing theories and disputed topics concerning, not merely the minor details, but some of the major tenets of evolutionary teaching, it is my hope to encourage other independent thinkers to form a rather different, and more honest opinion of the science.
I should state clearly at the outset that most of the quotations I use from scientific and educational sources relate to debates and disagreements about how evolution happens, and not about if evolution happens. Authors and researchers who diverge from the orthodox view are not usually questioning what they perceive to be the ‘fact’ of evolution. Yet it is this notion of ‘fact’ that is so troublesome. If the process of evolution is still unexplained, then in what sense is it a fact? It means little to simply declare “evolution happened”, when what happened is unknown. We might yet concede that “life must have evolved somehow”, but this is little removed from merely musing “life must have got here somehow” – it elucidates nothing! More than two centuries after Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed the first reasoned theory of transformism, biology is still searching for a general theory of origins that does not attract controversy.
Evolution versus Creation: A False Dilemma
The origins debate today is still largely rehearsed exactly as it was presented by Charles Darwin in the Victorian era: an argument supporting the mutability of species through natural selection, against the traditional Genesis account of special creation by God. Either you accept evolution according to Darwin, or you are a Bible creationist: this is the ‘with us or against us’ or false dilemma fallacy. While there are still many who hold uncompromising and highly polarised positions in this classical argument, the raucous publicity they generate should not prevent quiet consideration of other possibilities. There are at least three alternatives to this very divisive power dynamic:
- Biodiversity did arise through common descent, but scientific accounts of the mechanism remain unsatisfactory.
- The origins of highly organised biological systems cannot be explained by unaided laws of chemistry, pointing toward the need for an (unspecified) intelligent, conscious, or supernatural designing influence.
- Living things appear to comprise something more than just the sum of their chemical reactions, suggesting some unknown vital element or dark biology.
Following the general acceptance by the 1940s of the ‘modern’ evolutionary synthesis – natural selection acting on random genetic variation – as the principle causation in transformation of species, a steady trickle of individual authors and researchers have questioned the foundations of a tower of theory erected upon that premise. In the early 21st century, however, there have arisen more organised challenges to the supremacy of the ‘random variation plus selection’ model, notably in the visage of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES) and The Third Way.
The EES is a research project which aims, as the title suggests, to broaden the outlook of orthodox evolutionary theory to include other, possibly important mechanisms of heritable change. A diverse group of scientists believe that the gene-centric approach is stifling the exploration of multilevel interactive systems. Growing evidence from epigenetics, developmental plasticity and other fields seems to indicate that organisms may play a more direct role in their own modification across generations. Leading proponents of the EES attempt to present the project as scientifically justified, and as raising no threat to established thinking; but clearly it does elicit an uneasy tension between defending classical theory as ‘not wrong’ and identifying it as ‘in need of change’. There is no agreement among biologists as to the necessity of the EES, with many critics contending that there are no new factors that cannot be accommodated within the existing theoretical structure. Though admitting that the EES is controversial in biology, its supporters continue to deny that there is any controversy surrounding core evolutionary theory. Yet the implication that core theory is somehow inadequate or incomplete cannot be avoided.
The Third Way: evolution in the era of genomics and epigenomics is a website that “provides a resource for those who wish to explore experimental research and theories that do not fit easily or at all into the current mainstream thinking”. It has a somewhat more radical approach than the EES, as can be judged from its rationale statement (accessed 2021):
The vast majority of people believe that there are only two alternative ways to explain the origins of biological diversity. One way is Creationism that depends upon intervention by a divine Creator. That is clearly unscientific because it brings an arbitrary supernatural force into the evolution process. The commonly accepted alternative is Neo-Darwinism, which is clearly naturalistic science but ignores much contemporary molecular evidence and invokes a set of unsupported assumptions about the accidental nature of hereditary variation. Neo-Darwinism ignores important rapid evolutionary processes such as symbiogenesis, horizontal DNA transfer, action of mobile DNA and epigenetic modifications. Moreover, some Neo-Darwinists have elevated Natural Selection into a unique creative force that solves all the difficult evolutionary problems without a real empirical basis. Many scientists today see the need for a deeper and more complete exploration of all aspects of the evolutionary process.
In characterising mainstream theory as invoking ‘a set of unsupported assumptions’ and solving problems ‘without a real empirical basis’, The Third Way appears to favour replacement over extension of orthodoxy.
Proponents of the EES and The Third Way are anxious to disassociate themselves from any inference of divine or supernatural causes, and equally anxious to repel claims by creationists that evolution is a ‘theory in crisis’. Yet in criticising established theory while failing to demonstrate any convincing alternatives, they can only be adding sustenance to the conclusion that no reliable theory of biological origins is currently in existence.
The teleological argument, or argument from design, is probably as old as human thought, but its most recent incarnation as Intelligent Design (ID) was developed in the early 1980s as a response to the growth of knowledge in molecular and cell biology. A key concept in ID is the notion of irreducible complexity, the contention that highly complex biological systems could not function unless they were complete in the beginning. Such systems could not have developed, so the argument goes, by any known natural law process of gradual increment, and, like a machine, could only have been constructed by an intelligent agent. If something appears to be designed, so common sense tells us, then it probably was. ID does not challenge the evidence for change over time in the fossil record, nor necessarily the principle of common ancestry: but it does challenge the idea that all biodiversity arose through undirected, blind processes.
Although there is an atheistic version of ID (life on Earth was seeded by advanced aliens), and vaguer metaphysical beliefs in an impersonal ‘universal consciousness’ might constitute another version, the accusation that most supporters of ID are religiously motivated is not wrong. Most proponents of ID, if the truth be admitted, infer the designer to be God: so to deny that ID is a form of creationism is, I think, disingenuous. The religiously minded, however, are not necessarily afflicted with poor scientific judgement (viz. Newton, Boyle, etc.). Mainstream academia dismisses ID as ‘pseudoscience’, but many of the leading advocates of ID boast a scientific background, and retort that it is the far extrapolations of Darwinism that constitute pseudoscience.
Given that evolution is understood to be an unguided, purposeless process of natural causation, ID challenges the assumption that artificial selection can be regarded as evolution or evidence for evolution. The productions of selective breeding and genetic engineering are directed and designed to purposeful ends by intelligent beings (humans), and could not otherwise arise through any unmanipulated natural law process. Might not the beaver’s dam also be considered a structure of intelligent design, since it is built for a purpose, and can be easily distinguished from any random pile of branches caught up in the bottleneck of a river? Indeed, the instincts of much of the animal kingdom may be perceived as expressions of intelligence, in a world where design and purpose are perhaps limited only by our inabilities to see them.
There is much that ID leaves unanswered. As a metaphysical or abstract concept it blurs the boundary between the natural and what might be the supernatural, and therefore between evolution (the natural) and creation (the supernatural). Which steps in the history of life resulted from purely unguided natural causes, and which from some form of conscious intervention? We cannot tell! The theory of evolution by natural selection has been repeatedly criticised for not being fully testable or falsifiable, yet these criteria are more severely lacking in the ‘theory’ of Intelligent Design.
ID thinking is not confined to biology, and holds that the entire cosmos reflects the signature of an ordered mind. In this degree there is considerable overlap between ID and the anthropic principle, the idea that the universe is finely tuned to allow the emergence of humankind. The many material creations of art and technology that originate in the immaterial causation of human imagination, may seem to parallel a greater cosmic structure emanating from some far superior intelligence. These ideas are largely philosophical, but the design argument maintains that increasing scientific knowledge tends to point in the direction of that philosophy.
Vitalism, or ‘dark biology’, describes an intuitive awareness that living things possess something other than the mere sum of their chemical reactions, and that some yet to be discovered (or unknowable) force or principle is required to make living things function. In the past, vitalism was treated by some as a scientific theory with a material basis, but others consider the vital ‘spark’ or ‘soul’ to be an immaterial coexistence in the organism, akin to the idea of a separate mind residing in the physical brain, consistent with the philosophy of dualism. In this sense vitalism cannot be ‘disproved’, since no immaterial component would be amenable to investigation by normal scientific methods.
Living entities far exceed the capabilities of any manmade machine, in that they can grow, reproduce and repair themselves, and can maintain their form and function while constantly exchanging their atoms. Unlike a machine, however, which can be animated into action by assembling its necessary components, a biological organism cannot be ‘brought to life’ by simply connecting inanimate parts: it seems to require something else.
The existence of dark matter and dark energy is generally accepted in physics, but in biology there remains a systemic fear of anything that could be remotely interpreted as ‘mystical’. Rather than accept the truth – that life’s origins remain beyond our current comprehension – biologists cling to the security of inadequate evolutionary theories in order to avert any unsettling metaphysical thought.
In accepting that the Darwinian explanation of origins as insufficient, and rejecting the literal account of Genesis as unsustainable by any rational interpretation of the evidence, the above three alternatives offer something for all philosophies and religions. For the strict materialist or atheist, the research programs of the EES or The Third Way give hope for the scientific discovery of more demonstrable mechanisms of organic transmutation. For those further inclined towards the view that science is not the exclusive road to knowledge, ID and vitalism provide more expansive ideas inclusive of both material and immaterial principles. It is not my intention to favour or advocate any one alternative, material or immaterial, over another. I counsel on the side of humility. An honest intellect will concede that a strong allegiance to any one system, including to Darwin or Genesis, is at best a position of belief, and at worst an expression of prejudice. Disturbing as it may feel to some, the origins of our existence remain mysterious.
To complete the spectrum of views on origins, inclusion must be allowed for the attempted compromise of ‘evolutionary creation’, also known as ‘theistic evolution’ or, perhaps more accurately, ‘deistic evolution’. This is the not uncommon conviction, supported by many contemporary religious creeds, that Darwinian evolution is true and happens to be the way God created life. In my estimation this stance represents the most illogical of conclusions in that it disregards at least three fundamental contradictions. Firstly, in the disquieting mix of divine purpose with purposeless Darwinism; secondly, in the projection of a god capable of miraculous intervention in the world (a ‘living’ god), yet apparently incapable of such miracles in the creation of life; and thirdly, in accepting the role of a creator god, while also accepting a materialistic theory that’s very aim is to account for origins without the need for a creator god. A psychological state of tolerating inconsistent beliefs is recognised as cognitive dissonance, and may arise as a response to competing peer pressures.
At what point does an evolutionist become a creationist? Those who posit that God guided evolution, or set the rules of evolution to arrive at the apex of humankind, are still creationists in the sense that they are invoking a designer god as first cause. Creationism to any degree is a rejection of the ultimate scientific premise of evolution, which is to account for all origins through mindless, insentient physical causes alone.
Whether evolution by natural selection should be conceived as a process orchestrated by God, or as an entirely godless process, is a question made redundant by the conclusions supported in this work. The ‘one long argument’ I present here is intended to slowly nurture the realisation that evolution according to Darwin simply did not happen.
Philosophy before Science
When scientific methods are employed to explore and explain the origins of life’s diversity and complexity, it is presumed that material science is capable of resolving these primordial mysteries. In these ‘evidence-based’ times, scientific investigation is increasingly judged to be the exclusive path of enquiry, when in former ages the domains of philosophy and religion would have tackled the ‘Big Questions’. And yet it is often forgotten that science itself is founded upon a set of philosophical premises that cannot in themselves be validated by any scientific method. The following principal assumptions are important for establishing a trust in the reliability of scientific understanding, but they also suggest its possible limitations.
Naturalism: that only natural laws and forces operate in the universe, and that supernatural or spiritual causes should be discounted.
Materialism: that nothing exists that does not ultimately derive from the physical interactions of matter and energy.
Reductionism: that the existence of any complex structure or system can be sufficiently accounted for by analysis of its smaller or simpler elements.
Causality and Determinism: simply, that nothing happens without a cause; nothing comes from nothing.
Naturalism is a necessary assumption underlying the scientific method, though the distinction between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism is sometimes made. Methodological naturalism simply states that science is confined to investigating natural phenomena, and has nothing to say about the existence or otherwise of the supernatural or a god. Metaphysical naturalism is a broader philosophical view asserting that science can only investigate the natural because the supernatural does not exist. But if methodological naturalism allows the freedom to ‘do science’ and still believe in the supernatural, it is inconsistent with another generally accepted naturalistic premise: that nothing ultimately resists explanation by the methods of the natural sciences. In the teaching of evolution, methodological naturalism may simply be used as a way of avoiding questions about God – the subject lies outside the purview of science. But it may also be used, somewhat disingenuously perhaps, to persuade religious believers that there are no areas of conflict between Darwinism and theism. While one is free to believe that all natural laws are secondary causes to God, naturalism does not permit the miraculous intervention of divine will. Those who accept that the supernatural does form an inclusive part of reality, must therefore also accept that natural science cannot explain all phenomena.
It is also important to distinguish between natural laws and the use of natural law. Cars and computers can be constructed by harnessing human knowledge of the laws of physics and chemistry, but such complex designs could not be assembled by the laws of nature acting on their own. More to the point, genetic engineering can produce organisms that could not arise in nature, regardless of the fact that natural science is employed in the methodology. This raises an interesting philosophical question: Since humans can manipulate and control natural laws according to their purpose and will, does this represent a supernatural cause – i.e. power over and above nature?
Materialistic philosophy stretches back to the ancient Greeks, but discoveries in modern physics concerning quantum mechanics and dark matter have made it hard to define exactly what matter is. For this reason the concept of materialism has been refined into that of physicalism, advocating that existence is limited to that which can be verified by physical science. The paradox within this assertion is that the laws of physics themselves, and the mathematical rules to which they adhere, though obviously real in that they are able to describe and predict real events, nevertheless have no material or physical existence of their own. The laws of physics and maths operate in the universe with dependable constancy, and were discovered through their predictable effects on material and energetic states; but they comprise neither matter nor energy in themselves. Therefore not everything that exists does so in material or physical form.
The challenge in biology to materialism, or physicalism, lies in attempting to understand the workings of the mind and consciousness. The rigidly adopted view in contemporary science is that the conscious mind is a production of the physio-chemical interactions of the brain. Yet this approach amounts to no more than a working assumption. Although much can be learned from mapping electrical activity in the brain, no scientific instrument can detect, isolate, or replicate consciousness itself.
Attitudes among medical practitioners are more varied than among neuroscientists, owing to their direct contact with patients who remember lucid experiences during ‘unconscious’ or ‘brain dead’ states, or gain such lucidity just before dying. The volume of subjective evidence for the independent existence of consciousness, coming from out-of-body projections and from a whole range of other religious or spiritual experiences, constitutes millions of personal testimonies across history. The ability to observe one’s own thoughts and feelings through introspection, suggests of itself that the conscious will is in some manner detached from, and has some measure of control over, the habitual mechanics of the mind.
If consciousness, like the mathematical laws of physics, has no material existence, being made up of neither matter nor energy, then it can be neither investigated by nor accounted for by material science. This is the philosophical claim of dualism, that mind and body coexist as fundamentally different states of being. Furthermore, if the conscious mind does not derive from physics and chemistry, then it does not derive from any process of evolution. Considered as an immaterial first order reality, consciousness need not be bound by the constraints of space and time.
The existence of an immaterial essence or soul would imply a third component to human behaviour, in addition to genes and environment. This in turn would undermine the essential premise of evolutionary psychology, which states that all instinctive behaviour comes from the brain, and that all the functioning elements of the brain were generated by evolution. The conscious mind forms a very important part of what it means to be human, and an important part of what distinguishes humans from other animals. If material evolution cannot account for it, then neither can it account for the human being.
Scientific reduction is the process of explaining things by taking them apart, showing how they work, how they happen, or how they come to be the way they are. Insights into how an animal moves, for example, are gained by dissecting its muscles; and insights into the functioning of its muscles by examining the muscle cells. This process of discovery, in which each level of complexity is comprehended through revealing the level below it, expresses ‘hierarchical reductionism’. Thus, the functioning of a muscle cell is further revealed through its biochemistry, its biochemistry through its genes, and so on, through ever-smaller units. Evolution through universal common descent is also a reductionist theory, proposing that each biological level of complexity developed from a preceding simpler level.
Reductionism is also an attempt to unify the sciences, through the proposition that all phenomena can ultimately be explained by the interactions of a few fundamental particles, forces and laws. Thus, biology can be reduced to chemistry, chemistry to physics, and, at the other end of the scale, psychology to biology.
The challenges to reductionist thinking in evolutionary science are many and severe, but little appreciated due to an embedded culture of denial and dismissal. Concerning the origins of levels of biological organisation, the expanse between reductionist theory and observable reality remains enormous. Volumes of work accrue in attempts to explain how a simple living cell could be built up from organic chemicals, how a more complex cell with nucleus and organelles might be constructed from the combining of simpler cells (endosymbiosis), and how differentiated cells in a multicellular organism arose from undifferentiated cells. But no single hypothesis or theory has ever been confirmed by observation in nature, or by inducing any proposed transformative mechanism in the laboratory. It is this complete lack of empirical verification that allows advocates of Intelligent Design to maintain that certain features of biological complexity are ‘irreducible’.
The gene-centric view that ‘all of life is determined by genes’ is a fine example of reality being distorted by reductionist thinking. In the real world cause and effect operate at multi-levels and in both directions, not just from the bottom up. Thus, genes are regulated (and repaired) by control exercised at the cellular level, and the very survival of genes may be decided by events in the external environment. Organisms, in turn, are able to modify their own environments, and thereby modify their own genes indirectly by adapting to their self-created environments. Proponents of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis and the Third Way argue that the dominant reductionist approach hinders broader research into other evolutionary mechanisms, and that an ‘integrated’ or ‘holistic’ approach into multiple intrinsic and extrinsic factors might solve some of the inherent deficiencies in current theory.
Another limitation to explanatory reductionism is the phenomenon of emergent properties, where a substance or system exhibits more than the sum of its parts. Water, for instance, possesses chemical and physical attributes that occur in neither of its two elements, hydrogen and oxygen. ‘Emergents’ are much more problematical in highly complex systems with numerous inputs and causes, such as the human body or brain. It is naïvely simplistic to believe that conscious imagination or awareness of emotional states can be reduced to the mere firing of neurons, or specific neurons, to the exclusion of so many other simultaneous elements and emergent properties. The scale of these interconnections will always undermine the reliability of any practical attempt at reduction analysis. Furthermore, since complex mental and physical functions emerge from the integration of many biochemical elements, their origins cannot typically be reduced to the effects (and novel appearance) of just one or two genes. The popular notion that there is ‘a gene’ for this or that behaviour or personality is appealing, but usually fallacious.
A final criticism of reductionist philosophy is that it can become an object lesson in cynical thinking: everything is reduced to its lowest common denominator, which, in the case of evolution, is its basic survival benefit. While it cannot be denied that human intelligence is a powerful aid to survival, enabling the specie to adapt to almost every climatic region on Earth, the Darwinian advantages of artistic talents or transcendent religious states are much less tangible. Are music and poetry really just elaborate extensions, or accidental by-products of sexual selection in a brainy animal; and is spiritual devotion only a strategy for group survival, and nothing more than that? The limitation of these ‘rational’ accounts is that they appear devoid of any of the higher states of perception they are attempting to explain: they are, in word, shallow. (It need only be noted that not all poetry and song is about love and romance, and not all spiritual devotion is done in groups.) Following the famous tee-shirt smelling tests, some scientists believe research to show that human choice of reproductive partners is significantly influenced by subtle differences in body odour; and they add support to this conclusion by providing an ‘evolutionary explanation’ for the behaviour. If you find this genre of science convincing, you are a reductionist.
Causality, or ‘the law’ of cause and effect, is a condition of the physical world, and it would be impossible to do predictive science without adhering to its principles. But in the metaphysics of philosophy there arises the problem of infinite regress: that when cause and effect are reversed back in time no end point is reached, since every earlier cause must itself be the effect of a yet another cause. There are two possible solutions to this problem: either all existence had a First Cause (perhaps God?), or existence itself (without God) is eternal and only its various manifestations – one being the universe – begin and end. Whichever scenario is preferred, something is being conceived (God, or just existence itself) that has no causation to its own being; and if there be one such thing, there may be others. What, if anything, causes physical constants such as the speed of light to be constant? Rationality and morality emerge in human consciousness, but do these abstract, immaterial elements have a material cause? When evolutionary theory is applied to the origins of conscious experiences, this is an attempt to explain the immaterial in terms of the material – a somewhat dubious premise.
In practice causality if a far more elusive project than commonly recognised, and identifying precise, discrete causes can be an unrealistic aspiration in both science and philosophy. This is partly because cause and effect can each involve multiple factors, and partly because of confusion between cause and correlation. In complex subject areas such as psychology, sociology and economics, analysts will often select causes that appear to support their political or world views. Similarly, evolutionary biologists and evolutionary psychologists will attribute causes to fit in with their preferred scientific theories and speculations.
According to the French zoologist Yves Delage, writing in the introduction to The Theories of Evolution published in English in 1912, evolution represented the final triumph of causality:
Taken in its broadest sense, it [evolution] is closely allied with the idea of causality: nothing can happen without a cause, nothing can disappear without leaving traces; all things have their origin in the things which precede them and engender the things which follow them… The theory of causality has a tremendous importance, both in science and philosophy, as it eliminates from human speculations the supernatural or marvellous element, and compels man to seek explanations which admit of none but natural factors.
Unfortunately, having considered all the topical theories of evolution in fervent debate at the time, Delage was unable to fully endorse any one of them in order to fulfil the promise of causality; though he favoured Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics over Darwinian natural selection. Today, natural selection is favoured, but fervent debates over additional or alternative causes of evolution still effervesce beneath the consensus; and some contend that no fully plausible causal mechanism for evolution has yet been expounded.
Perceptive readers will note that Delage was not advocating causality per se, but natural causality i.e. naturalism. Phenomena or events that result from the supernatural, the immaterial or the direction of free will, if your philosophy allows for such realities, are not without cause and nor do they come from nothing.
In recent years the contributions of Alfred Russel Wallace to evolution and biogeography have been reacknowledged, and the theory of evolution by means of natural selection is more frequently recognised as the Darwin-Wallace theory. But the renewed awareness of Wallace’s work does not include his reference to spirit beings, which he believed existed in a continuum between humans and the ‘Great Mind’ of the universe. Wallace argued that the higher mental and moral capacities of humankind were both surplus to survival and latently expressed, and therefore could not have been preserved by the immediate necessities of natural selection. Instead he hypothesised (for he considered it a scientific hypothesis) that intelligent spirit beings had harnessed natural laws to create the higher human mind. In total disagreement with Darwin, he viewed artificial selection as analogous to this directed intervention, and in no way analogous to natural selection. In as much as human and spirit supervision over nature arose through acts of will, Wallace accepted that in a sense these purposeful acts of will represented a ‘first cause’, i.e. a cause that was not the effect of a previous cause. But he denied invoking the First Cause – the miraculous intervention of God – because his hypothesis required neither the creation nor the suspension of natural laws. The proposition that immaterial or spiritual causes might be tested according to a scientific hypothesis is a precursor to the modern Intelligent Design argument, and the idea that any act of will – human or otherwise – is a first cause, challenges the premise of universal physical causality upon which the scientific method depends.
Closely allied to the principle of causality is determinism, the assertion that everything that happens is determined by preceding events or actions. In both science and philosophy determinism is used as an argument against free will, since what happens in the mind must also be the consequence of preceding stimuli. Taken to its logical conclusion determinism implies predetermination (or even predestination), for if all present states are the inevitable result of previous states, then all future states are already determined by present states – and it was ever so. Such a view would suggest that nothing is truly random, chaotic or spontaneous; yet physical science has discovered that events at the quantum level do appear indeterminate.
Though determinism is simple enough to grasp as an abstract concept, its practical application, as with causality, is thwarted with difficulties. In a complicated and dynamic world it is not always possible to identify all preceding factors, to assess all their interactions, or to gauge the relative significance of each. Forecasting is an inexact science, subject to opinion, probability and consensus, and perhaps too much faith is placed in deterministic explanations of the past where the number of unknown factors is likely to be greater still. The speculative nature of explaining the past may be illustrated by the ‘wise after the event’ fallacy. A group of political analysts, for example, in considering all the available factors influencing a democratic election, will not be able to predict the outcome with any certainty; yet after the event they will draw upon those very same factors to apparently explain the result. Evolutionists are also wise after the event: they cannot predict what life forms will appear in the future, but claim to know the forces that sculptured those of the past.
Biological determinism, also known as genetic determinism, is the premise or belief that many behaviours and abilities are set at the point of conception by a person’s genetic endowment, and cannot be altered by social or environmental factors or easily overcome by free will. This form of determinism takes the ‘nature’ side of the argument in the irresolvable nature/nurture debate. Genetic variants might be correlated with almost any behavioural trait, including level of intelligence, personality, compassion and love, religious belief, sexual orientation, musical ability, aggression, and even criminal or addictive tendencies. Any trait that appears to have a direct genetic foundation then attracts speculation as to its ‘evolutionary purpose’. Indeed, any trait at all, whether identified with a particular gene or not, will garner such speculation. Therapists are able to comfort their clients with ‘evolutionary explanations’ about the ‘adaptive purpose’ of their suffering of depression or bereavement, the comfort being received through the story telling rather than through any scientific accuracy.
But determinism between gene and expressed trait is always a question of probability, and the relative importance of genes versus culture is a constant area of controversy, often fuelled by opinions that might be politically or morally motivated. The idea that ‘success in life is determined more by biology than by opportunity’ does not meet approval among left thinking social scientists, just as the idea that ‘inherited aggressive proclivity excuses personal responsibility’ does not impress right thinking conservatives. The pliability of deterministic interpretations suggests that much of evolutionary psychology is at best hypothetical, and at worst pseudoscientific.
Accepting that some degree of correlation exists between certain genes and certain behavioural expressions, this finding highlights the distinction between determinism and causality. It may be known that an expression of behaviour is determined, to some extent, by one gene, but the precise way in which this is brought about is completely unknown. A gene is simply a template for a protein, or sometimes a regulator of other genes that code for other proteins. But how does a protein give rise to instinctive behaviour such as the intricate building of a spider’s web or the global navigation of a bird’s migration route? No mechanistic understanding, in terms of a complete step by step physiochemical chain of cause and effect, is available.
These opening insights into the philosophy of science are intended to show that not all phenomena are freely amenable to reductionist methodology, or comprehensible in terms of simple cause and effect. Within that category reside the recalcitrant mysteries of the origins of biological complexity, biodiversity, consciousness, and life itself. Yet these are the topics that make up the substance of evolutionary theory.
The conditions of naturalism and materialism, however, present a very different and frequently unrecognised problem for many: they are philosophical positions wholly incompatible with all forms of religious or spiritual thought. For those who know of a god or spirit beings who communicate through consciousness and influence our actions in the physical world; or know of the independent existence of a soul, perhaps in animals too, that survives physical death and possibly reincarnates; or know that the spiritual qualities of love, beauty and morality are absolute and do not derive from utilitarian function; then purely biological accounts of our origins, existence and purpose must either be incomplete or incorrect.
Yet a great proportion of religious adherents – or simply those who hold spiritual values as sacrosanct – remain oblivious to the obvious fracture between evolutionary and spiritual thinking, and choose not to challenge the gradual erosion of spiritual knowledge brought about by the pronouncements of progressive science. Repeated surveys show that roughly half of the scientific community see science as the only true method of discovery and of understanding all existence, while the other half believe science and religion each examine legitimate but separate realms of knowledge. The latter view is the one commonly presented in science education and for the benefit of public understanding; but this is, I would suggest, a merely diplomatic position that seeks to avoid areas of conflict rather than solve them.
Those who assert that there is no controversy about evolution in science, and that there is no controversy about evolution in religion, are complicit in a double deception. Kenneth R. Miller (born 1948) of Brown University has enjoyed a long career in cell biology research, teaching, and authoring books including the co-authoring of a major school biology text. A lifelong Roman Catholic, he has also been a ‘pro-science’ campaigner and active opponent of creationism. His widely read 1999 publication – Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution – is a frequently cited text for those wishing to seek harmony between the Christian faith and the apparent findings of biology. In the concluding chapter Miller writes:
The good old days of utter mystery may not be gone, but they are fading fast. And a scientific detective list of solved cases, like it or not, includes evolution.
The current of thought followed in Life Without Evolution, embracing a holistic rather than a reductionist approach, and combining research gathered from scientific, philosophical, religious and educational literature and media, flows to the inexorable conclusion that Miller, like it or not, is wrong on both counts. Evolution is not a solved case, and the neo-Darwinian interpretation of life is not compatible with the teachings of Christian theology or indeed any other religion.