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Darwin, Wallace, Evolution, and Atheism (Part II of Bears, whales, God, Darwin, and Peter Hitchens)

[For Part I, see here]

Peter Hitchens, younger brother of the late Christopher, says in the notorious London Daily Mail that the implication of evolution “is plainly atheistical, and if its truth could be proved, then the truth of atheism could be proved. I believe that is its purpose, and that it is silly to pretend otherwise.” Pat Robertson claims that “the evolutionists worship atheism.” Richard Dawkins tells us that he lost his faith in God when he learned about evolution, the claim that evolution is intrinsically atheistical is used repeatedly by advocates of creationism, including that bizarre oxymoron, “scientific creationism”, and the Discovery Institute’s Wedge Document describes it as part of a malignant materialism that debunks traditional views of both God and man. Discovery Institute fellows also coached Ann Coulter, who went on to tell us that evolution is itself a discredited religion, related to the mental disorders of liberalism and godlessness.

Yet from the very outset there have been believers who actively welcomed evolution. Asa Gray, the botanist to whom Darwin dedicated his own book Forms of Flowers, saw evolution as the natural process through which God worked. Charles Kingsley, the Christian social reformer and historian now best remembered for The Water Babies, wrote appreciatively to Darwin, on previewing The Origin of Species, that a Deity who created “primal forms capable of self development” was “a loftier thought” than one who had created each kind separately. In our own time, we have evolution theology and Evolution Sunday. Ken Miller, a committed Catholic, is prominent as molecular biologist, textbook writer, and legal witness on behalf of evolution, while Dennis Venema’s postings on the website of BioLogos, an organization dedicated to the acceptance of science from a Christian perspective, are model expositions of evolutionary science.

Against this background, it may be helpful to look at the religious views of Charles Darwin himself, and also those of Alfred Russel Wallace, the two independent originators of the concept of evolution as the inevitable outcome of natural selection. Warning: this post will be longer than most. The Victorians do not lend themselves to sound bites.

File:Darwin-Wallace medal.jpg

Darwin’s private Autobiographies include a short but revealing chapter on religious belief. This the family regarded as so contentious that it was not made public in full until 1958. Darwin initially contemplated becoming a clergyman. He tells us that he “did not then in the least doubt that strict and electoral truth of every word in the Bible”, and was much impressed by Paley’s argument from the perfection of individual organisms to the existence of an intelligent creator, He was still quite orthodox while on the Beagle, but in the two years after his return he reconsidered his position, and gradually came to reject orthodox religion on historical, logical, philosophical, and indeed moral grounds. As he later wrote,

“I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine.”

As for the implications of science, Darwin’s conclusions are interesting. “The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley … fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered…. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.” Regarding what he called, despite the deaths of three of his children, “the generally beneficent arrangement of the world”, this he explained as itself the result of evolution. In order to survive, creatures must be so constituted that pleasure outweighs pain and suffering, which “if long continued, causes depression and lessens the power of action.” As for the opposite argument, “The very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligence as cause seems to be a strong one; whereas… the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.” In short, the argument from the goodness of the world and the counter-argument from suffering both fail, since the capacities to experience pleasure and suffering, and the balance between them, are themselves explained as evolved adaptations.

One argument, however, retained conviction at the time when he was writing On the Origin of Specie, namely “the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe… as a result of blind chance or necessity.” Notice that Darwin makes a clear distinction, which today’s “Intelligent Design” advocates systematically blur, between Paley’s argument from the design of particular things (rejected, as we saw earlier), and the more powerful argument from the possible presence of design in the universe as a whole. The latter he finds convincing enough to say, at the very time that he was composing On the Origin of Species, that “I deserve to be called a Theist”.

Later, Darwin wonders, “can the mind of man, which has… been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions? … The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us, and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.” Our minds evolved to enable us to deal with commonplace reality, and we must doubt whether they are adequate instruments for speculating so far beyond that. “Agnostic” was a term then newly coined by his friend and prominent supporter, Thomas Huxley, and refers, not to a wishy-washy uncertainty, but to the principled conviction that there was no adequate way of deciding the question.

Alfred Russel Wallace is a much more complicated case. He seems to us self-contradictory and changeable, an opponent of the supernatural who nonetheless took Spiritualism seriously. He was also much more wordy than Darwin; his autobiography runs to two thick volumes. I have therefore relied mainly on secondary sources,[1]  together with his review of Lyell’s writings on geology, in the April 1869 issue of The Quarterly Review[2], and his 1871 reply to critics.

In his teens, Wallace came into contact with the reformist ideas of Robert Owen, and abandoned conventional religion, with its emphasis on original sin, for a belief in human improvability based on the natural sense of justice. Throughout his adult life, he described himself as a Socialist, and wrote a book in favour of the nationalization of land. He seems to believe in a Creator, and indeed advances, as an argument in favour of evolution, that separate design for every creature would reduce that Creator to the level of a second-rate craftsman[3] (compare Charles Kingsley’s comments, above). However, only two years before formulating his own version of the theory of natural selection, he had written of how far, in his view, the beauty and diversity of the forms of living things goes beyond what could, for him, be explained in terms of their requirements.[4]

 This last conclusion may help make sense of his 1869 review of Lyell, in which he asserted that there were things about humanity, in particular, that could not be explained by natural selection. Abstract thought, moral sense, and the design of the hand, all as much present in what he called the savage as in civilized man, seemed to him superfluous to the requirements of the savage’s life. This despite having lived among such savages while collecting specimens, and observing the demanding nature of their lifestyles, the skill of their toolmaking, and the subtleties of their social organization. He also makes the linked arguments that evolution cannot explain the development of consciousness (for contrary opinions, see Dennett’s Kinds of Minds and Cairns-Smith’s Evolving the Mind), and that materialism cannot explain how consciousness could exist at all (here, I think, Wallace is referring to a problem that we are no nearer solving now than we were then).

But does this mean that he was willing to embrace the supernatural? Quite the reverse! In his answers to critics, he says very plainly that he does no such thing. What he does do, is reject materialism. There is more in the universe than matter, but nothing that is beyond the scope of natural science.

So what of Peter Hitchens’s (and, for what it’s worth, Pat Robinson’s) claim, given that neither Darwin nor Wallace could be pigeonholed as atheists, and that Wallace was not even a materialist? Totally false. Grossly insulting to the entire scientific community, portrayed as choosing its key concepts according to an ideological agenda quite outside science. As I said before regarding all evolution denialism, dependent on a conspiracy theory. And a warning to all of us; if this is typical of journalistic comment in the areas that we know about, like science, how should we regard such comment in areas that we cannot so readily examine, like Syria?

There remain some serious questions. Is it possible to accept evolution without being an atheist? Quite obviously, yes, as Darwin, Wallace, and many examples listed here clearly show. But human psychology is notoriously quirky and tolerant of self-contradictions). So, as a matter of logic, is religious belief compatible with the acceptance of the fact of evolution?

The answer, surely, must depend on the kind of religion, and here my sympathies lie entirely with their Evolution Sunday crowd. Evolution demolishes one version of the argument from design, but even when I was a believer I did not find that version convincing. And, for the reasons spelt out over the past 150 years by Kingsley, Darwin, and many others, evolution poses no new problems for religion in general, and indeed may blunt some of the traditional arguments used against it.

What is not consistent, either with present-day scientific knowledge, or with any kind of scientific approach to reality, is a religion dependent on an overriding belief in the literal truth of its sacred text. Such a position renders impossible any sensible discussion of evolution, or of nature in general, or, indeed, of God.

[1] See e.g. Helena Cronin’s The Ant and the Peacock, which discusses Darwin’s and Wallace is different views on sexual selection and cooperation; Natural Selection and and Beyond, ed. Charles H Smith and George Beccaloni.

[2] Confusingly indexed in QR under Lyell, not Wallace.

[3] Smith and Beccaloni, p. 327.

[4] Ibid p. 370.

Creationism as conspiracy theory, and the teaching of the Urey-Miller experiment

Some time, you may want to start a conspiracy theory. If you want to learn how to do this, you cannot do better than study the antics of the creationists, and especially their Discovery Institute (DI) think tank.

Creationists absolutely need to have a conspiracy theory. That is because their position contradicts everything that scientists have been telling us for the past 200 years, or even, in its Young Earth version, the past 300 years. If creationism is true, the entire intellectual establishment has been lying to you.

All conspiracy theories work the same way. Like the most unpleasant kinds of religion, they divide humanity into two groups, the illuminated and the benighted, and offer membership of the illuminated, if you will only accept their central doctrine. To qualify as a conspiracy theory, that doctrine has to pour scorn on the most obvious or scientifically validated explanations of the facts, and replace them with the belief that these explanations, or indeed these facts, are fabricated by a close-knit group of wicked people (in this case, the Wicked Evolutionists, or WE), cynically manipulating the evidence for their own disreputable reasons. Once this belief is in place, it is self-sustaining, since all evidence to the contrary is tainted, coming as it does from the Unscrupulous Scientists (US).

The next step in setting up your conspiracy theory is to find a group of people who already want to believe you. Most of us, after all, spent most of our thinking time in looking for evidence in favour of what we want to believe. So find a group of people who already have reasons to want your claims to be true. They might, for example, wish to believe that the Government is hiding evidence of UFOs, or that NASA is a giant scam, or Barack Obama should not be President of the United States, or that Government should not interfere with the operations of industry.

Then give them an excuse, however flimsy, for believing. Believing that aliens landed at Roswell, or that the Moon Landings were faked, or that Obama was born in Kenya, or that there is no such thing as man-made global warming. Or, at least, for believing that the topic is controversial. If all else fails, your own voice raised in denial of reality can be used as evidence that the controversy is real.

You’ve now got US in a cleft stick. If WE ignore you, you can continue unchallenged. If WE reply to you, that proves that there really is a controversy. And if WE try to explain that there is nothing worthy of a reply, you can claim, as William Lane Craig claimed when Richard Dawkins refused to debate with him, that WE are scared of you.

Finally, you have to convince your target audience that it matters. Here the creationists have it easy. For most people, at least for most people outside some parts of Western Europe, religion matters. If the Bible is literally true, as a lot of people would like to believe, then evolution is wrong and WE are spreading false doctrine. Moreover, since WE are smart people (no self-respecting conspiracy theory would claim that Nobel Prize winners as a group are stupid), WE must be spreading that false doctrine for non-scientific reasons. And what might that reason be? Obviously, naturalism is a form of materialism which is a form of atheism. It is therefore the scientific, as well as the religious and moral, duty of creationists to refute what WE are saying. Hence the DI’s notorious Wedge Strategy. Refute evolution, and the way is open, as the wedge Document says, to refute “scientific materialism” [emphasis in original] and reinstate “theistic understanding.”

Cover of the Wedge Document.

Time to illustrate by example. And a good example it is; the DI members are really very good at what they do. This one comes from the cover letter that the Discovery Institute recently sent out with its pamphlet for parents, A Parent’s Guide to Intelligent Design. My excuses for publicising here are that it is going to reach its target audience without any help from me, and that this particular example is in fact rather instructive. I take a perverse pleasure in showing ways that we can learn, from creationist materials, what the creationists themselves refuse to learn.

So here it is, reproduced solely for purposes of discussion and review. Emphasis in the original:

Dear [first name]:

 Textbooks and teachers stop teaching myths about evolution when the mainstream media admit textbooks are wrong … don’t they?

Not if the data challenges Darwinian evolution.

… Retelling outdated myths about the Miller-Urey experiment and the origin of life and wrongly telling students the experiment correctly simulated gases present on the early earth …

The evidence challenging evolution is beginning to outweigh the evidence that supports it.  But will your kids learn about that in their science classes?  Unfortunately, probably not.

To help parents understand all the aspects of the debate over Darwinian evolution and intelligent design we created a free 28 page e-booklet A Parent’s Guide to Intelligent Design: Resources to help you and your children understand the debate between Darwinian evolution and intelligent design.

 The free booklet comes with a request to donate, but whether that Discovery Institute really needs that money, or whether it is just another device to generate commitment, we can only speculate.

Let’s look first at the overall structure, and then at the specific claim, (which is actually one of four; but life is short).

Starting off with the initial rhetorical question, and its proposed answer. Here the purpose is clear, while the language, quite deliberately, is not. Note the reference to the mainstream media, suggesting that it is the biology teachers and textbook writers who are the fringe group. The nudge nudge, wink wink, dot dot dot layout establishes intimacy; reader and writer bonded together by a common understanding. Finally, the question and answer format introduces an element of deniability that you will find throughout the creationist literature. “We don’t say evolution is wrong, we just draw attention to all the question marks about it.”

Now to the substance of the claim I’m examining, that the textbooks are “Retelling outdated myths about the Miller-Urey experiment and the origin of life and wrongly telling students the experiment correctly simulated gases present on the early earth.” 30 years ago, this claim might have had some validity, but not now. No matter. Once a claim enters the creationist literature, it takes on a life of its own. For example, Darwin’s lament about the incompleteness of the fossil record in 1859 is repeated as if it described the situation today, despite the existence of tons (literally) of evidence unearthed (literally) to the contrary. So let’s look at what actually happens in the Urey-Miller experiment, what it does or does not tell us, and how it is treated in 21st-century textbooks.

Miller-Urey experiment (1953).

Miller-Urey experiment (1953). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The original report of the Urey-Miller experiment relates it to Harold Urey’s cold accretion theory, which maintained that the planets formed so slowly that the gravitational energy of their formation was dissipated as heat. On this theory, the metal from iron-nickel meteorites would have been lying around on the Earth’s surface giving rise to a strongly reducing (i.e. hydrogen-rich) atmosphere. This theory did not survive the moon landings, and the discovery that most of the moon’s surface consisted of molten basalt. Nor does the experiment address the origin of biological polymers, or of organisation. Nonetheless, the experiment was, and remains, liberating. It destroyed the assumption that the building blocks of life are difficult to come by.

Changes in thinking since then have all been in the direction of making the production of these molecules seem easier. As Stanley Miller himself showed in one of his late (2002) papers, we don’t need a strongly reducing atmosphere. We certainly don’t need ammonia, the least plausible of his original ingredients because it is so readily destroyed by UV light, as long as we have nitrogen, N2, (which we certainly would have) and some source of energy powerful enough to split it into separate atoms (and we would certainly have had that, in the form of the Sun’s unfiltered UV light, back before the formation of atmospheric oxygen and ozone, as well as lightning). We don’t need large amounts of methane. Very small amounts, which could readily arise from geochemical processes (as seems to be happening on Mars), would do the trick, as would carbon monoxide, a component of volcanic gas; it was carbon monoxide that was used in Miller’s 2002 work. Organics could also have arisen by completely different pathways, including reactions at hydrothermal vents, or on sulphide mineral surfaces, and large amounts of organics would in any case have been brought to earth by comets. Comets, after all, are dirty snowballs. The snow is thought to have made a major contribution to the Earth’s oceans, and the dirt is a mixture of organic compounds. Simple organic molecules are a precondition for life as we know it. We do not know the relative contribution of the various possibilities to the inventory of such molecules on the early Earth, but we can feel confident that they were there – one way and/or another.

What about the textbooks? What do they say, what should they be saying, and how much justice, if any, is there in the Discovery Institute’s accusations?

To quote Ken Miller[1], who is, among other things, one of our most influential educators and textbook writers in biological science:

It’s absolutely true, of course, that the strongly reducing atmosphere Miller and Urey used for their first experiments is now not thought to be indicative of the primitive earth.  Therefore, it would be a mistake to claim that these experiments “proved” anything about the actual biochemical pathways to life on earth.

However, these experiments were still absolutely essential in shaping our current views of prebiotic evolution.

Exactly. Urey-Miller demystified the production of the building blocks of life. For some decades, there was rancorous disagreement between those who paid high regard the original experiment, and the geochemists to whom such an atmosphere seemed increasingly implausible. However, once it became clear that the highly reducing atmosphere was no longer even necessary, the dispute faded into the background.

I have looked at half a dozen textbooks. One of them did in fact present the Urey-Miller atmosphere as realistic, which I regard as gross professional incompetence, rather than the deliberate concealment suggested by the creationists. However, even this text did mention reactions at mineral surfaces as an alternative. Every biology textbook that I have examined, with one exception, makes it clear that finding a possible source for the building blocks is not the same as explaining the origins of life. The exception is the 2012 text Evolution – Making Sense of Life, by Carl Zimmer and Douglas Emlen, which presents the isotopic and fossil evidence for Archaean life, but says nothing about its origin. And indeed, why should it? We don’t demand that a chemistry textbook gives an account of the origin of the atoms, nor could it possibly have done so during the 150 or so years between when Dalton put forward the first version of the modern atomic theory, and when Fred Hoyle and co-workers gave the first good account of the origin of elements heavier than helium.

So rest assured that your children’s textbooks will not retell “outdated myths about the Miller-Urey experiment and the origin of life”, but will, on the contrary, carefully distinguish between the formation of prebiotic organic molecules, and the origin of life itself. And even the few texts that are still guilty of “wrongly telling students the experiment correctly simulated gases present on the early earth” are careful to make this distinction.

And the Discovery Institute is doing what they always do superbly. Distorting reality.

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[1] Personal communication

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