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Darwin's public defenders

Posted By -NO AUTHOR- On 09/28/2001 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

We count on scientists to tell us what they know and do not know – not just what they want us to hear. But when it comes to the origin and evolution of life on earth, some spokesmen for official science are less forthcoming than we might wish.

When writing in scientific journals, leading biologists candidly discuss the many scientific difficulties facing contemporary versions of Darwin’s theory. Yet when those same scientists take up the public defense of Darwinism in educational policy statements or public television documentaries, that candor often disappears behind a rhetorical curtain. “There’s a feeling in biology that scientists should keep their dirty laundry hidden,” says theoretical biologist Danny Hillis, adding that “there’s a strong school of thought in biology that one should never question Darwin in public.”

Nowhere is this uncritical public allegiance to Darwinism more evident than in PBS’ current eight-hour, Paul Allen-funded documentary series titled “Evolution.” PBS states that the series is simply “solid science journalism” about a theory supported by “all known scientific evidence,” which “does not challenge religious beliefs.” To make this case, however, Evolution’s producers have erected the journalistic equivalent of a Potemkin village where awkward puzzles are omitted, scientific dissent is kept out of sight and history has been artfully rearranged.

“Evolution” makes a very selective presentation of the scientific evidence. For example, the series repeatedly offers evidence of minor variations in organisms such as the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria as support for Darwinism. Yet Darwin proposed that natural selection could produce not only minor changes like those now observed in bacteria, but also the major structural innovations in the history of life.

Few biologists dispute that natural selection produces small-scale “micro-evolutionary” changes such as those in the size and shape of Galapagos finch beaks (also featured in the series). But many now doubt that the Darwinian mechanism explains the large-scale “macro-evolutionary” innovations necessary to build new organisms (such as birds) in the first place. Thus, developmental biologist Scott Gilbert of Swarthmore University argues that “natural selection explains the survival, but not the arrival of the fittest.”

Yet, “Evolution” gives no voice to such doubts. Worse, it makes numerous factual errors that exaggerate the evidential support for Darwinism. The series asserts that the universality of the genetic code establishes that all organisms had a common ancestor. But biologists have known for well over a decade that the genetic code is not universal. Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller asserts that the “imperfect” wiring of the vertebrate retina proves that natural selection, not an intelligent designer, produced the eye. God, in Miller’s opinion, wouldn’t have done it that way. To arrange the retina as Miller thinks best, however, would render it inoperative. The series leaves the distinct impression that a computer program has successfully simulated the evolution of the eye. But such a program nowhere exists – a fact recently verified by Professor Dan Nilsson (of Lund University in Sweden), the very expert that PBS interviewed about eye evolution.

It’s hard to believe that PBS’ scientific advisers didn’t know about some of these factual problems or, at least, about other scientists who could have provided informed dissenting opinion. There are many such scientists.

This week, 100 scientists, including professors from institutions such as M.I.T, Yale and Rice, issued a statement questioning the creative power of natural selection.

But airing scientific dissent would have complicated PBS’ message. In the world according to “Evolution,” reasonable, scientifically-literate people accept Darwinism without qualification. Only benighted religious fundamentalists dissent.

“Evolution,” despite its claims to the contrary, is very much concerned with religion – though its message about it at first seems contradictory. In the first episode Stephen Gould says that “Darwin didn’t oppose religion,” but then a docudrama about Darwin shows him doing exactly that. Ken Miller says there is a “wonderful consistency” between evolution and Christianity – a conclusion that Gould clearly doubts, and philosopher Daniel Dennett explicitly denies. As Dennet explains, natural selection replaced the creator as the cause of biological design. Yet, historian Jim Moore asserts – as Darwin’s image floats over the interior of Westminster Abbey – that Darwin had “fundamentally a religious vision.” The famous closing paragraph of the Origin is read in creedal tones.

So what gives? Is Darwinism compatible with religion, as the series claims, or not? It all depends upon which type of religion – even which type of Christianity – is under consideration. PBS’ spokesmen for Darwinism can accept religion that has accommodated itself to Darwinism and its essential claim, namely, that undirected natural processes fully account for the origin of the living world. Such religion may affirm the existence of God, but only as a spectator of the Darwinian process that otherwise performs the real work of creation. On the other hand, “Evolution” rejects – even ridicules – traditional theistic religion because it holds that God played an active (even discernable) role in the origin of life on earth. In short, good religion accommodates Darwinism, bad religion rejects it. But that implies, of course, that the real religion of this series is Darwinism.

 


Stephen Meyer, Ph.D. (history and philosophy of science, Cambridge University), is an associate professor of philosophy at Whitworth College and director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. Formerly a geophysicist with the Atlantic Richfield Company, Prof. Meyer completed a Ph.D. dissertation on origin-of-life biology and the methodology of the historical sciences. He has contributed to many technical journals and scholarly books in the philosophy of science. In addition to technical articles, Prof. Meyer has written many editorial features in newspapers and magazines, including The Wall Street Journal, The L.A. Times, The Chicago Tribune, First Things and National Review. He has recently appeared on several national television programs including HardBall with Chris Matthews (CNBC), Freedom Speaks (PBS), TechnoPolitics (PBS), Fox TV News with David Asman and NPR’s Talk of the Nation with Ray Suarez. He has also recently testified about the biological origins controversy before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He is a co-author of the book “Science and Evidence of Design in the Universe” (Ignatius, 2000).

 


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