Jun 1, 2011

Is it reasonable to doubt evolution?

In a recent debate with a number of atheists we’ve been discussing whether or not William Lane Craig (the man the New Stateman described as having a reputation for ‘eating atheists for breakfast‘) is a worthy opponent for Richard Dawkins who until now has refused to debate him.

One key issue is whether Lane Craig’s concerns over evolution discredit him. Lewis Wolpert said of Lane Craig on this issue,  “Oh Boy! Are you ignorant!

The question I want to address in this post is simply this, is it reasonable for an intelligent mind to doubt the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution or MUST doubt over the theory be regarded as a display of culpable ignorance?

A. Evangelical Christians who are evolutionists

Some, like Dawkins, argue that atheism is a logical consequence and necessary deduction of evolutionary theory.

Stephen Jay Gould profoundly disagrees and writes:

To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth millionth time (from college bull sessions to learned treatises): science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue fo God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.

Gould recognises the category mistake that Dawkins is making. It really shouldn’t surprise us therefore to find that there are eminent evangelical Christians who are full-blown evolutionists. For example;

Francis Collins: A physician and geneticist who was appointed Director of the National Institutes of Health (US) by President Obama. He is a winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian honour given by the President, for revolutionizing genetic research) and has also received the National Medal of Science. He is the author of The Language of God and founder of the Biologos Forum.

Dennis Alexander: The Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, where he is a Fellow. For many years he was Chairman of the Molecular Immunology Programme in Cambridge. Since 1992 he has been Editor of the journal Science & Christian Belief. He is the author of Creation or Evolution: Do we have to choose?

Alexander has written:

The ‘Darwinian theory of evolution, whatever may have been the various ideological uses to which it has been put since 1859, is essentially devoid of either religious or moral significance, and those who try to derive such significance from it are mistaken.’

B. What exactly is William Lane Craig’s own position?

1. WLC has no theological issue with evolutionary theory

He comments on his own website:

I think, for the reasons explained in the podcast, that an evolutionary theory is compatible with the biblical account in Genesis 1.

2. For WLC it is a scientific not a theological question

The question of biological origins is for me a straightforward scientific question: what does the evidence indicate about the means by which God brought about life and biological complexity?

3. It would therefore be inaccurate to describe WLC as ‘a creationist’ in any meaningful sense of the word

As far as the literature is concerned ‘creationism’ is a term reserved for those who reject the theory of evolution preferring either a literal reading of Genesis 1 or adopting ‘Intelligent Design’.

In other words to label WLC a creationist is to redefine the term and effectively to render it meaningless. If ‘creationism’ means only ‘God is involved’ well  ALL theists from 7-day young-earthers through to full-blown evolutionists should be called ‘creationists’ which is a bit of a pointless exercise.

4. WLC has not rejected Darwinian evolution.

WLC regards his own position as ‘agnostic’ on the issue. He remains unpersuaded but argues he is persuadable.

C. Is it intellectual suicide to be unpersuaded by current theories of evolution as Lewis Wolpert suggests?

Given that Lewis Wolpert regards the evidence to be excellent and to doubt it as an admission of the ‘ignorant’ it is surely inconceivable that any in the scientific community would be anything other than neo-Darwinian?

Are there any atheists and/or agnostics who are sceptical or at least remain to be persuaded with regards current theories of evolution?

1. 1 in 11 atheists in the US are sceptical of evolution

Michael Gerson notes in the Washington Post:

The latest findings of the Pew Forum’s massive and indispensable U.S. Religious Landscape Survey reveal some intriguing confusion among Americans on cosmic issues. About 13 percent of evangelicals, it turns out, don’t believe in a personal God, leading to a shameful waste of golf time on Sunday mornings. And 9 percent of atheists report that they are skeptical of evolution. Are there atheist creationists?

One wonders why 1 in 11 atheists are sceptical?

2. Why can’t evolutionary biologists agree amongst themselves as to the mechanism of evolution if the evidence is that strong?

Which theory of evolution is so obviously true that we should without doubt accept it? The gradualism of Dawkins & Dennett or the punctuated equilibrium of Stephen Jay Gould?

If micro-evolution over time becomes macroevolution why isn’t it obvious to Gould?

Darwin himself said in The Origin of Species

geology assuredly does not reveal any such graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory’

Does the fossil record offer the strength of support that the neo-Darwinian theory claims?

The Palaeontologist Steven Stanley in his book Macroevolution: Pattern and Process writes:

The known fossil record fails to document a single example of phyletic evolution accomplishing a major morphologic transition and hence offers no evidence that the gradualistic model can be valid.

John Lennox marshals the evidence from palaeontologists sceptical of the gradualist model in his book God’s Undertaker including these two quite extraordinary quotes

Stephen Jay Gould:

The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of palaeontology.

Niles Eldridge:

We palaeontologists have said that the history of life supports [the story of gradual adaptive change] knowing all the while that it does not.

No wonder Dawkins, John Maynard Smith and others were so hostile in their attacks on Gould, et al. In what became known as the ‘Darwin wars’ Maynard Smith said Gould ‘is giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory.’

3. Why are a number of leading writers on science questioning the scientific consensus if the evidence is overwhelming?

a) Evolution: A theory in crisis – Dr. Michael Denton

Denton writes on his own website:

I have  never accepted the mainstream ‘Darwinian view’ that  life on earth and particularly mankind are the products of blind unintelligent processes.  I have  always been convinced and argued throughout my academic career that  our existence is ultimately a matter of design.  My primary intellectual aim has always been to show that the findings of science support the traditional teleological and anthropocentric view of  the world.

b) What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor & Massimo Piattelli Palmorini

Here we find materialist atheists quite at odds with Dawkins. Here’s an extract from p.153,

“OK; so if Darwin got it wrong, what do you guys think is the mechanism of evolution?” Short answer: we don’t know what the mechanism of evolution is. As far as we can make out, nobody knows exactly how phenotypes evolve.

Mary Midgley in her review of the book in the Guardian newspaper writes

There is not – and does not have to be – any single, central mechanism of evolution. There are many such mechanisms, which all need to be investigated on their own terms. If one finds this kind of position reasonable, the interesting next question is, what has made it so hard to accept? What has kept this kind of dogmatic “Darwinism” – largely independent of its founder – afloat for so long, given that much of the material given here is by no means new?

The explanation for this might be the seductive myth that underlies it. That myth had its roots in Victorian social Darwinism but today it flows largely from two books – Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity(1971) and Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene (1976)

c) Why US? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves –  Dr. James Le Fanu

AN Wilson interviewed in the New Stateman reflects;

I think the jury is out about whether the theory of natural selection as defined by neo-Darwinians is true, and whether serious scientific doubts, as expressed in a new book Why Us? by James Le Fanu, deserve to be taken seriously. For example, does the discovery of the complex structure of DNA and the growth in knowledge in genetics require a rethink of Darwinian “gradualism”? But these are scientific rather than religious questions.

d) Shattering the Myths of Darwinism – Richard Milton

One Amazon reviewer comments:

Milton DOES NOT support creationism, he doesn’t even discount evolution as a scientific reality – he merely asks WHY the self-styled Darwinists and neo-Darwinists don’t stop mouthing off at anyone who disagrees with them and start finding some answers to these unanswered questions.
Alternatively, if Darwinism, in all its variations, CANNOT provide the answers, for goodness’ sake let’s move on and find a bigger and better theory.

4. Why have over 500 scientists expressed their concerns over the evidence for neo-Darwinian theories of evolution?

There is a myth circulating that a good knowledge of science and a careful consideration of the facts will compel any reasonable mind to accept Darwinian evolution.

If this is so why have over 500 scientists signed a statement which reads as follows;

We are sceptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.’

A list of all names is available and prominent signatories  include U.S. National Academy of Sciences member Philip Skell, American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow Lyle Jensen, evolutionary biologist and textbook author Stanley Salthe; Smithsonian Institution evolutionary biologist and researcher at the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Biotechnology Information Richard von Sternberg, editor of Rivista di Biologia/Biology Forum – the oldest still published biology journal in the world – Giuseppe Sermonti and Russian Academy of Natural Sciences embryologist Lev Beloussov.


All I have sort to demonstrate is

1. There are a significant, if relatively small, number of sceptics within the scientific community. There remain some who are yet to be convinced of Darwinian evolution as an all-encompassing theory.

2. The vast majority of sources I’ve considered are atheists. This is a scientific argument on which atheists and theists alike are divide.

3. It is inconceivable that such a number should be regarded as simply ‘wrong’ and dismissed as simply demonstrating a culpable ignorance of the evidence.

4. There exists still room for doubt and for someone such as William Lane Craig to declare himself agnostic ( and NOT opposed) towards evolution is intellectually credible.

Post-script: The limits to our understanding

Dr. James Le Fanu in ‘Why Us? How Science rediscovered the mystery of ourselves’ concludes:

The greatest obstacle to scientific progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge

If the history of science teaches us anything it is that we are wise not to presume to know too much not least as certain scientific ‘facts’ have to in some instances be modified and in others have to give way to new theories based on a better understanding.


  • Instead of dredging up quotations that seem to support your position, why don’t you actually do a bit of work and look into things yourself? Mere intellectual laziness, ignorance (your, and Craig’s rubbish about micro- and macro-evolution!) and the irresponsible trotting out of tired arguments that you have found on anti-evolution websites and that have been addressed again and again do not make a case. I have also re-read Flew’s over the top response to Dawkins’ footnote, and it is just that: over the top in the light of what the footnote actually says.  

    • I’m not sure of the point you are trying to make? It doesn’t seem to answer my post in any way. The question I’m addressing is whether to have doubts about evolution makes you an ignorant person as Wolpert maintains. In other words I’m investigating William Lane Craig’s position not my own. (I will also add that you don’t even know my position because I’ve never offered it. Christians hold a whole range of positions, including evolutionary ones, as my post is careful to point out).

      My concern is to demonstrate from a variety and range of sources, most of whom are atheists or agnostic, that there are plenty of scientists who share William Lane Craig’s scepticism based on scientific investigation. My views are utterly irrelevant to the question I’m addressing. I could be a full-blown evolutionist like Francis Collins and it wouldn’t alter my argument one jot!

      You may think the arguments are tired, far enough, I don’t take issue with you because such a statement doesn’t challenge my thesis at all.
      The thesis is simple and straight-forward; MANY scientists are still sceptical about the theory of evolution and if that makes Lane Craig ‘ignorant’ he is ignorant alongside many non-theist scientists! Neo-Darwinians may dislike that fact but it remains a fact.

    • Tim. It would be helpful if you could you expand on your own thinking on this subject.

      I’m working hard on my own understanding of the position of both sides on this issue and am studying books on the subject to expand my own understanding.

      In defence, I think Neil has made a good start in opening up the debate.

  • Good post, Neil.

    The argument that really alarms me is that atheism is an inescapable consequence of Darwinian evolution, and that atheism is an essential pre-requisite of doing disinterested science. Hence, disagree with the neo-Darwinians and you discredit yourself from the word go and automatically shouldn’t be listened to by the scientific community.

    Talk about a self-serving logic. I have come across people in the humanities avoiding serious level debate with those who challenge them by denying the existence of truth. When what they really mean is “I don’t want anyone to listen to people who disagree with me.” It seems there is a darwinian/scientism version of the same thing – “anyone who disagrees with me can’t be interested in good science and therefore shouldn’t be allowed a voice.”

  • Can I suggest that those who who want to criticise the theory of evolution, or to pretend that people like Craig are in any position at all to criticise it, should have the simple integrity and sense of responsibility to actually learn something about it. They might start with Jerry Coyne’s excellent and illuminating ‘Why Evolution is True’, Jonathan Weiner’s ‘The Beak of the Finch’ (about the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant with the finches of the Galapagos Islands) and Neil Shubin’s ‘Your Inner Fish’, a book which lays to rest the kind of nonsense spouted by Craig, and seemingly seconded by Neil Powell, about ‘micro-‘ and ‘macro-‘ evolution. Quite honestly, until you yourselves make the effort to understand something, you are simply not in a position to criticise it, and until you yourselves make the effort to genuinely understand what is at issue, there can be no fruitful discussion. I should add here that over on Eric MacDonald’s blog, ‘Choice in Dying’, Ant Allan has eviscerated such arguments as Neil Powell thinks he is presenting.

  • Also, you will find Gould’s ‘punctuated equilibrium’ justly dealt with in books by Dawkins, as well as in Jerry Coyne’s (as I recall – I have lent the book to somebody). I do not see what relevance Ryle’s concept of a category mistake has to Dawkins’ refusal to accept Gould’s idea of two magisteria. And finally, having taken apart, years ago, A N Wilson’s bad and dishonest biography of Milton, a poet whom I revere, in the pages of the British poetry magazine PN Review, I do not have much respect for Wilson’s opinions on anything.

  • Just for the record Neil – Stephen Gould died in 2002. Some of your quotes seem to describe Gould’s position as if it is current.

    Otherwise a great and thought provoking post.

    I think this issue demonstrates how the internet spreads ignorance as quickly as knowledge. I am frequently surprised how often people on both sides of this debate rehash what they think to be knockdown arguments but are obviously just cut and paste from the ether.

    • Thanks John.

  • Tim, I find it interesting that you do not recognise the concept of micro-evolution since your example of the finches is much more micro- (changes within a species, not one species changing to another) than macro-evolution. As I am sure readers know, the beaks of the finches increased slightly (perhaps less than a millimeter?) when the only seeds available during the dry period were more difficult to obtain and then, after the drought subsided the beaks went back to normal. Perhaps we cannot even call this any type of evolution at all since it is really more an example of cyclical fluctuation. Regardless, the finches stayed finches. Their DNA did not alter and they did not evolve into a different species.

  • The phrase ‘inteligent design’ popped up just once in the post and was tagged to a ‘literal reading of Genesis 1′ and in the category of creationist. I think the primary promoters of the ID movement, Micheal Behe (Darwin’s Black Box), Philip Johnson (Darwin on Trial) and William Dembsky (The Design Inference), to name three, do not hold to a literal reading of Genesis, believe evolution happened (but not purely by natural selection) and would not consider themselves ‘creationists’.
    If we are trying to avoid rendering terms meaningless could I suggest that the term ‘creationist’ be seperated from the term ‘inteligent design’?
    The ID advocate’s focus is examining particular phenomena that they believe could not have come about by natural selection like the blood clotting cascade or the bacterial flagellum, they may call this ‘specified complexity’ or irreducible complexity’.
    Those who would call themselves creationists or who are correctly labelled creationist like those with Answers in Genesis tend to reject any form of common ancestry above a certain level and normally hold to a young earth (less than 10.000 years) position which includes flood geology. They may also be called more specifically ‘young-earth creationists’ but ‘young-earth’ is normally implied.
    There are of course old-earth creationist like the physicist Hugh Ross and his colleagues at Reasons to Believe who hold to the Big Bang and a billions-of-years old earth and mainstream (uniformitarian) geology, but believe in a recent and specific creation of humankind, this group of people are normally labelled ‘old-earth creationist’ and as far as I am aware, they do not have a problem with that.
    I believe a clarification of these terms is important.

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