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More Articles on Evolution

Dogmatic Materialism

Phillip E. Johnson

If materialism is true, then something like Darwinism also has to be true, regardless of the evidence. Materialism requires that chemicals must have the capacity to form living organisms, and that a primal Replicator must be able to evolve all the complex features of plants and animals without the aid of a Designer. So evolution must be a mindless process that starts with chance (mutation), and employs something capable of designing complicated structures (natural selection). That's Darwinism, and if it isn't true, then the materialist project lacks a creation story. Thus Richard Dawkins rightly said that "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."

Protecting materialism is what Darwinism is mainly about, and protecting Darwinism is what evolutionary biology is mainly about. Knowing this is the key to understanding such specific issues as: (1) why a gifted popularizer like Richard Dawkins is far more influential than the scientists who criticize his simplistic genetic reductionism; (2) why Dawkins-style neo-Darwinism continues to rule the field despite its empirical weaknesses; (3) why the reviews of Behe's book by intelligent scientists like Allen Orr and Jerry Coyne are so irrational; and (4) why the Darwinists are engaged in a culture war over their religious claims.

(1) The importance of the great popularizer. Climbing Mount Improbable is not a book for scientists. It is adapted from the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures that Dawkins gave on BBC television, the point of which was to persuade young people that Darwinism makes it unnecessary and irrational to believe in God. Because Dawkins is in the business of selling atheism to the public, he has to provide a plausible, easily understood, and gapless process by which animals can get to the top of Mount Improbable--i.e., develop really complicated adaptive systems like wings and eyes and brains.

Robert Berwick therefore misses the point, correct though he may be in his refutation of Dawkins's DNA-is-everything reductionism. Any high schooler smart enough to grasp what Berwick is saying would also see that the path up Mount Improbable is paved with speculation. Berwick is like a scholastic theologian who explores all sorts of difficulties; Dawkins is the ideologue who writes the catechism.

(2) The resilience of neo-Darwinism. Allen Orr, with Jerry Coyne, has written an article (described in Berwick's review) that is as hostile to neo-Darwinism in its way as Behe's book. It concludes that "there is little evidence for the neo-Darwinian view: its theoretical foundations and the experimental evidence supporting it are weak, and there is no doubt that mutations of large effect are sometimes important in adaptation."

The meat of the paper is not the tepid endorsement of macromutations, but the negative finding that the evidence just doesn't support the standard Darwin/Dawkins theory that evolution proceeds by the cumulative selection of micromutations. If small mutations can't do the job, that leaves big mutations--and so Orr and Coyne lean very cautiously towards the perennial heresy associated with T. H. Huxley, Richard Goldschmidt, and Stephen Jay Gould (in his "Return of the Hopeful Monster" period).

The macro/micro dilemma that has divided Darwinists from the start has been well stated by the paleontologist Niles Eldredge: "Either you stick to conventional theory [micromutationism] despite the rather poor fit of the fossils, or you focus on the empirics and say that saltation looks like a reasonable model of the evolutionary process--in which case you must embrace a set of rather dubious biological propositions." Macromutations happen, but they can't climb Mount Improbable again and again, as the materialist project requires. Orr and Coyne know that, and so their macromutationism comes surrounded with cautious disclaimers. After what happened to Goldschmidt, every Darwinian macromutationist needs to prepare a line of retreat.

Berwick unwittingly illustrates my point: "But if I'm astride K90 with Mt. Everest just off to the left, then a large step might do better to carry me towards the higher peak than a small one." Don't try it, Berwick--unless you can walk on air! To get to the top of the mountain you have to start at the bottom, and move up step by step. You also need a big supply of information-bearing micromutations. Good luck.

(3) The irrational reactions to Behe. Jerry Coyne began and ended his review in Nature1 of Behe's book with blatant appeals to prejudice, attacking Genesis and Biblical creationists as if that were the issue. Orr starts out the same way, and then invokes a naked hypothesis (Muller's Ratchet) against irreducible complexity as if he were waving garlic at a vampire. The strategy is to find some excuse for disqualifying the Designer from consideration at the outset, because the materialists know they can't come up with detailed scenarios for the evolution of irreducibly complex structures like the cell and the immune system. Orr is right that irreducible complexity also exists at the visible level, but it's easier to get around it with Dawkins-style storytelling. Bring in Behe's examples and the old tricks don't work.

Behe's molecular examples illustrate dramatically what is true also in fields like paleontology, genetics, and embryology: the empirical evidence and the materialist project are going in opposite directions. Give that possibility serious consideration and the Darwinists will have to choose: do we follow the evidence wherever it goes, or do we stick to materialism regardless of the evidence? They can't face that crisis, and so they try to bluff their way out of it. The reason Kimura and Wright eventually got through is that they didn't challenge materialism; Behe is meeting more frantic resistance because he does.

(4) The religious culture war. Orr is dead wrong to say that "Darwinism never threatened any but the most literal-minded of religious creeds." For example, Pope John Paul II did not endorse evolution in the materialist sense. On the contrary, he wrote that "theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man."

The claim that only Genesis literalism is at stake is a smoke screen Darwinists employ to cloak the dogmatic materialism that is at the heart of their theory. In the words of George Gaylord Simpson, the meaning of Darwinian evolution is that "Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind." That claim is not a legitimate inference from scientific evidence, as it purports to be, but a presupposition of materialist metaphysics.

In short, the Darwinists have plunged heavily into the religion business, making claims that go far beyond their evidence. Douglas Futuyma's textbook proudly aligns Darwinism with the other atheistic pseudosciences that bemused the twentieth century. He writes,

Together with Marx's materialistic theory of history and society and Freud's attribution of human behavior to influences over which we have little control, Darwin's theory of evolution was a crucial plank in the platform of mechanism and materialism--of much of science, in short--that has since been the stage of most Western thought.2

That's accurate, but Marxism and Freudianism have already gone into the trash can of intellectual history. Darwinism survives for now, but its bluff is being called.

1 J.A. Coyne, "God in the Details, "Nature 383 (1996):227-28

2 Douglas J. Futuyma, Evolutionary Biology, 2nd ed. (Sunderland, MA: Sinauer, 1986), p. 3.

Originally published in the February/ March 1997 issue of Boston Review

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