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Why is Darwin’s theory so controversial?

So asks this essay and gets the whole thing wrong.

Darwin’s theories (plural) are not controversial because they imply that species are mutable. This was a widely held view by preachers, moralists, Aristotelians, naturalists, breeders, formalists, folk biology, and even biblical translators.

Darwin was not controversial because he implied racist ideas about humans. He never did and the racism that is sometimes associated with his ideas preceded him by centuries (and were good Christian virtues) and were mediated by those who disagreed with him.

Darwin was not controversial because he thought the age of the earth was large. This preceded him also, and was settled in the late eighteenth century, although the present value wasn’t finalised until the 1960s.

Darwin was not controversial because his account of humans being animals contradicted the Bible. Linnaeus knew humans were animals a century earlier, and indeed the only issue was whether humans were animals with souls (or if all animals had souls), which Darwin never implied anything to the contrary.

Moreover, it was Christians who rejected the literal interpretation of the Bible, long before Darwin (beginning with the Alexandrian school in the second century), and those who realised that the global Flood was a myth (or an allegory) were Christian geologists a half century at least in advance of Darwin.

No, the reason why Darwin was controversial is very, very simple. Darwin argued that complex designs could arise without a mind to guide it. In short, his controversial idea was natural selection (and sexual selection, but even that preceded Darwin). Almost from the day it was published, critics attacked the implication that the living world was not all that special, and that it lacked a Plan or Meaning. Theologians, moralists and even scientists objected to this, and while even most of the Catholic Church accepted common descent and modification of species, it was natural selection they hated.

All the supposed “controversies” of Darwinism (or that phantom, “neo-Darwinism”) are post hoc attacks based on the prior objection to the lack of a guiding hand in biology. Don’t like natural selection? Attack Darwin by calling him a racist or blaming him for the Holocaust. Say he is antiessentialist. Say he is anti-religion. No matter how much evidence one puts forward that these are deliberate lies manufactured by those who hate Darwin for natural selection, it won’t stop the prevarication industry.

Sensible philosophical critics of Darwin focus on selection for that reason. It undercuts our prior belief that We Are Special. Human mentation, cognition, language, morality, religion or economics is somehow privileged in the universe. Bullshit. We are an animal and we arose without the universe seeking us (although, as I have argued, a deity might choose this universe because we evolve in it). The human exceptionalism which critics like Fodor, Fuller, Plantinga and the rest presume but do not argue for unfairly places the onus on Darwinians. It is time to stop taking them seriously.


  1. Pierce R. Butler Pierce R. Butler

    It is time to stop taking them seriously.

    This conclusion also has multiple and durable precedents.

    • Alan Webb Alan Webb

      The article referred to said, “a dispute over evidence that humans evolved from apes millions of years ago.

      Christian, Muslim and Jewish holy books all state that God created man in the image of himself.”

      That is still the main thing that sticks in people’s craw.

  2. Cristian Pascu Cristian Pascu

    This is one thing I don’t understand: evolution through variation. Variation is not evolution. But the main argument for evolution is variation by genetic mutations. Where does the evolution arise from? My guess is that it’s simply taken for granted that ‘in millions and millions of years’, species get more complex.

    Coming from physics, this is a punch in the stomach. It’s hard to accept evolution like that.

    But then you’re shown with ‘other evidences’ that things really evolved. But those are not direct evidences, unless the real core mechanism of evolution is shown to function as theorized.

    And I have to disagree with you regarding the allegoric interpretation of the Bible. Yes, it was done before, but in the same time with the literal and symbolic reading. Some passages are interpreted in a way by the parents of the church, some in multiple ways simultaneously. Here’s a book that contais a lot of references to how the ancient church has interpreted Genesis.
    It was a very important subject for them because much of the salvation theology is related to what is in Genesis.

    Your ending paragraph sounds like a dogma.

    • David Duffy David Duffy

      You should perhaps try

      Presumably you are aware of how effective artificial selection is in changing phenotypes, that each human (for example) carries 70 de novo mutations, some of which are occasionally useful, and that new species can arise well within 10000 years. The mathematical models of how a useful mutation can increase in frequency in a population are quite straightforward, and make strong predictions about correlations between variation at neighbouring sites on a strand of DNA (which we can see in sequence data).

      • Cristian Pascu Cristian Pascu

        Surviving variations don’t have to be, and my intuition is that they will not be, more complex forms.

        It doesn’t make any sense for molecules that don’t have anything else but an electric bound to form complex structures and system that function.

        How is it possible for a bunch of molecules to send signals to another bunch of molecules? How is it possible to conceive that a gathering of atoms “will learn to do something”. The simplicity of the problem is staggering.

        Not only did these atoms learned to see, hear, walk around, react to stimuli, find and chase food, but all these functions are built on some level of consciousness, a mystery that refuses to be solved and becomes more so year after year.

        And starting from the simplest, conceivable life form, is there a simulation what would show how new systems (nervous, blood, bones, digestive, etc. obviously interdependent) appeared through genetic mutations?

        If not, Darwinism is still very controversial.

        • Intuitions are not a good guide to the question: in fact intuitions are the reason why people objected to natural selection from the beginning. But math and data are sufficient to show that natural selection will work, along with several experimental proofs of concept.

          But see if this makes sense: of course NS does not inevitably lead to complexity (it must, though, lead to increased fitness). But it very occasionally will do (through selection on new functionality). Once it has, then that lineage or species has a new starting point from which to vary and be selected. If every so often the lineage can add complexity or whatever new trait you are explaining, then there can be one lineage that “advances” through NS. If that happens to be the fittest (sometimes simplicity is better), then you get the progress needing the explanation.

          This is very abstract, but the error here is in thinking there is only one pathway and that populations must find that one pathway among a very large number, there are many pathways, many explorers and some will advance to whatever point you are trying to explain being reached.

        • Seems to me that part of the reason that people don’t understand evolution is because they think of it as a process like the Haber process that turns atmospheric nitrogen into useful ammonia. You start out with rocks, water, and sunlight and end up with hedgehogs and daisies. But evolution isn’t a process,, at least if “process” implies purpose. If anything, it’s the denial that there is a process. Evolution, i.e. what happens with living systems over time, mostly yields nothing at all. As I like to say, any process that takes 4.5 billion years to come up with the likes of me isn’t trying hard enough, especially since, by weight or volume, I and you and even bacteria are an infinitesimal output. We and the other complex living things are outliers in a distribution that has a very long tail because it has a very big n.

        • Cristian Pascu Cristian Pascu

          “But it very occasionally will do (through selection on new functionality).”

          I have a big problem with the ‘new functionality’. I can not see functionality separated from an intelligence. A pendulum, a moon around a planet, fire, boiling water, are natural processes but not functionality.

          It seems that you take for granted that functionality can spring out of where there was less or no functionality.

          “If every so often the lineage can add complexity…”

          If. And regarding ‘complexity’, I one saw a presentation on evolution saying that a pile of logs created by a river is more complex than a wall of bricks. He obviously had a very different understanding of what informational complexity is.

        • it must, though, lead to increased fitness
          “must” is a bit too strong – Laurent Lehmann once showed me a wacky counter-example where there’s selection followed by reproduction, and where segregation causes the fitness of offspring to be lower. I doubt it’ll never happen in nature, and if it does it’ll be in Nature too.

        • Ian H Spedding FCD Ian H Spedding FCD

          Cristian Pascu November 24, 2012 at 5:15 pm

          This is one thing I don’t understand: evolution through variation. Variation is not evolution. But the main argument for evolution is variation by genetic mutations. Where does the evolution arise from? My guess is that it’s simply taken for granted that ‘in millions and millions of years’, species get more complex.

          Coming from physics, this is a punch in the stomach. It’s hard to accept evolution like that.

          I don’t see why. Darwin was simply trying to establish that evolution is happening and that natural selection was an explanation.

          It was known long before Darwin that the forms of living things were mutable. Through selective breeding, animals could be made, for example, smaller, larger, stronger, faster, to produce more meat or milk. Darwin simply asked – and tried to answer – the obvious question: if artificial selection could bring about these changes then shouldn’t the same happen as the result of environmental pressures, in other words, natural selection? No, he did not provide a step-by-step account, at the atomic or molecular level, of how complex organic molecules arose from simple elementary precursors but that was not the question he was trying to answer.

          Besides, it seems to me that physics is faced with a much greater mystery, that of explaining how the immense complexity we see around us now, arose out of the extreme simplicity of the ‘quark soup’ that expanded suddenly, and for no apparent reason, from the primordial singularity. My understanding is that conditions at that time were so extreme that none of the physical structures or forces we see around us now could possibly have existed. Yet, we must accept that they somehow ‘condensed’ out over time as things slowly cooled. But where was this information – for want of a better word – stored? Was it stored somehow in the ‘quark soup’, even though that would seem to be impossible, or was it added later from elsewhere, even though there was no “elsewhere” as far as we know?

        • Cristian Pascu Cristian Pascu

          It’s easier to conceive the aggregation of Hydrogen atoms to form a star, or of heavier elements to form a planet. It’s just gravity at work. Within a start, everything that happens are physical reactions, processes. But a star is not alive. A star is dead. It wonders around the Universe dragged by the gravity of other stars.

        • Mike Haubrich Mike Haubrich

          That life is “alive” is precisely the reason that natural selection is plausible, especially compared to stars which have no motivation to consume energy. Animal life experiences hunger, it experiences a drive to have sex and it needs nothing more as a motivator to adapt and reproduce. Even more elemental (if you will) life follows and adheres to natural chemical and physical laws in order to survive. There is nothing magical about natural selection that makes it more unlikely to proceed than the development of stars from the forces experienced in galaxies which respond to gravity in order to fuse.

          Evolution and life are energy transport mechanisms, as I see it, and once life started it adapted to environmental pressures. Malthusian processes drive change as each of the various forms of life found their niche, and slight changes drove differential survival. There is no real measure of “complexity” involved in evolution, just survival.

        • Alan Webb Alan Webb

          “And starting from the simplest, conceivable life form,”
          You did it. I did it. We all do it. We start as a single cell and become an incredibly complex system.

    • Elizabeth A. Root Elizabeth A. Root

      You seem to have missed the entire concept of natural selection. It is not assumed that species just magically become more complex. Natural selection weeds outs unsuccessful and less successful variations. The result is that the most successful organisms leave the most descendants. The variants lead to new ways of making a living, even in the same environment, and themselves constitute changes in the environment creating new niches for new species. We co-evolve with both our beneficial and harmful microfauna, for example.

      • Cristian Pascu Cristian Pascu

        Natural selection does not lead to evolution, but only to selection. Thus on one had there is variation and on the other there’s selection. Variation and selection. That’s it.

        You haven’t done anything more than stating that variation, through selection, leads to evolution. That is just postulating what is asked to be demonstrated.

        If you design a game and put only variation and selection into it, you will not get evolution. Evolutions as in not ‘new stuff’, but more complex, informationally complex.

        I guess you will agree with me that Humans are not merely variations of bacteria.

        • Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

          Change happens – ‘nuf said.

        • The simplest game I know of that has only variation and selection and that leads to rather spectacular evolutionary behavior is “nanopond”. It’s just a few hundred lines of C code (and that includes the graphics).

          Given the above, how should I take your statement: “If you design a game and put only variation and selection into it, you will not get evolution”? I’m assuming you’ve not designed or used any such games (Core Wars, Avidia, Tierra, etc.). I’m also assuming you’ve never written any evolutionary algorithms and you’re not familiar with the mathematics that describes the population genetics for both digital and biological evolution.

          So why would you say such a thing?

        • Cristian Pascu Cristian Pascu

          I am a physicist and software developer. I think I understand pretty well what this sort of ‘evolutionary’ algorithms prove. It’s not what I am asking for.

          If you design a game of squares of variable sizes and colors, and put them in an environment that selects certain sizes or colors, than you have variation and natural selection.

          But the squares will not turn into triangles unless you so design the game.

        • I work with physicists (and have been dating one for eight years now). Somewhere in grad school physicists pick up an appreciation that a description of the micro does not necessarily give intuition regarding macro behavior.

          As a software developer you might appreciate Michalewicz, Zbigniew, and Fogel, David B. _How to Solve It: Modern Heuristics_. Springer, 2nd. ed., 2010. Fogel discusses how co-evolutionary algorithms can result in complexity beyond what was initially specified. Basically, if you want a better chess engine you can either do lots of hard work to understand chess or you can let an evolutionary algorithm that knows nothing about chess do the work for you.

          As to squares and triangle: take a look at the nanopond code and make a few predictions about the environments it will generate. Then run it. You’ll see a few circles, yet there’s no circle-generating code present.

        • Cristian Pascu Cristian Pascu

          You missed my point. Perhaps because of my bad English. 🙂

          My definition of evolution is not “better and better”.

          I am not familiar of heuristic approach to problem solving, but I suspect that they need some sort decisional instance to sort and filter good solutions from bad one. This sounds like progressive intelligent design. Which is not you’re trying to push, I suspect.

        • Lauren Dembeck Lauren Dembeck

          @Cristian–I think clarification on couple concepts may help you see how natural selection links variation and evolution. 1) What is variation? 2) What is evolution?

          1)Variation refers to genetic variation in the DNA of an organism–different alleles of a gene. Some of this genetic variation can lead to changes in, for example, protein function that will alter (or not alter) the phenotype of the organism, which is seen as phenotypic variation in a population. Let’s postulate that “Gene L” contributes to the length of a platypus’s bill (in this case, our phenotype). There are 2 alleles of Gene L; each allele varies at the same base position while the rest of the gene is identical in both versions–so, Allele 1 carries adenine (A) that leads to a shorter bill and Allele 2 carries guanine (G) that leads to a longer bill. (This is a fabricated example; just want to be clear on that =) ).

          2) Evolution is a change in allele frequencies. So, let’s say the original platypus population had the allele frequencies: Allele 1= 0.25 and Allele 2 = 0.75. Meaning that 25% of the individuals in the population carry Allele 1 and 75% carry Allele 2. (Note, I am purposefully ignoring genotypes and dominance in this example.) While genetic variation is the fodder for evolution, phenotypic variation is what is acted upon by natural selection.

          So our population of mostly long-billed platypuses lives in a very wet region and swim around happily catching shrimp and insect larvae. Then it stop raining and the wetland dries out and now the platypuses only have a couple feet of water to swim in. The long-billed platypuses can’t catch food because their bills get jammed in the mud–they begin to die out. Meanwhile, because their short bills allow them to be more agile and more capable of catching prey, the short-billed platypuses are surviving and reproducing–leaving more offspring than the long-billed platypuses. This is natural selection–“selection against” Allele 2 (carried by long billed individuals) and “selection for” Allele 1 (carried by short-billed individuals). In the next generation of platypuses, the new allele frequencies for Gene L are: Allele 1= 0.95 and Allele 2 = 0.05; now our population is composed primarily of individuals with shorter bills. The change in allele frequency is evolution. It’s also important to note that natural selection is only one of the processes that lead to evolution.

          Hope this is informative! Cheers!

        • Cristian Pascu Cristian Pascu

          Lauren, thank you so much for taking the time to write such a detailed explanation.

          However, this is not what I understand by evolution. Note that in your example, you have started with something existing and only created two variations of the same feature. Then one of the variation became predominant as a result of environment changes.

          But this is not how you get organisms to fly. Flight, as an example, implied a lot of anatomical changes to organisms in very specific and narrow direction. Humans, as intelligent beings, needed a lot of time to understand the mechanics of flight. Yet, it is postulated, that a set of random unguided mutations resulted in such achievement in the natural world.

          To better understand what I mean, take this example: Imagine a piece of code that will give you the first position of the letter A in a string of letters. For “BHHALALJDJIJAALLMC”, it will yield 4. But any piece of code can be written in its binary code as a string of 1 and 0. 1011110001101010101… and so on. A genetic mutation to this code will change the positions of those 1 and 0.

          Evolution, would be a piece of code that would give you the length of the string, the number of instances of each letters in the string, and any other kind of function you can think of. Even functions that have nothing to do with strings and letters anymore.

          Theoretically, this is all possible. As a programmer myself, allow me to be highly skeptical about this being actually possible in practice.

        • Why do you think fly requires changes in a “very specific and narrow direction”? An albatross has a very different solution than a hummingbird, which both differ from bats and flying fish (and flying squirrels), which in turn differ from multiple solutions in the insect world.

          Flight really isn’t that hard (which is why it keeps getting reinvented).

          As to your example: it has nothing to do with evolution.

        • Cristian Pascu Cristian Pascu

          You’re kidding, right? 🙂 Flight has been ‘invented’ several times, indeed. Birds, insects, plants (flying seeds), fish, mamals. All independently. This does not make it ‘easier’. It’s a logical fallacy. You assume that all these cases are evolution at work. Since it happend several times, it must be easy. And since it’s so easy, it proves that evolution works.

          But still, flight requires always a certain wing profile that will cause a difference of pressure between the upper side and the lower side, such that an uplifting force is generated. This is not trivial at all.

          Why it has *nothing* to do with evolution?

    • Alan Webb Alan Webb

      “Variation is not evolution.” Of course not. Variation is part of the process of evolution. The other part is natural selection which fosters the variations that are helpful and discourages the variations which are harmful. And, species sometimes get less complex, not more.

      Evolution by natural selection is a process that is inferred from three facts about populations: 1) more offspring are produced than can possibly survive, 2) traits vary among individuals, leading to differential rates of survival and reproduction, and 3) trait differences are heritable.

  3. I’m so glad you used the past tense. I’m fed up of reading that Natural Selection (I always capitalise the phrase) *still is* controversial.

  4. I think it is remains controversial, because so many still assume there is something like “design” in the “balances” of nature. They see the interdependence of species in an ecosystem as akin to the meshing of parts in an intricate and finely-tuned machine, or like organs in an individual organism. In effect, they think there is a “way things were meant to be” that must be maintained for the whole system to work “properly”.

    That is in effect to believe in design. This design is no longer seen as a product of the mind of God, but rather as emerging from “progress” in evolution. This is a very widespread assumption. For example, most wildlife documentaries nowadays are made with a quasi-religious premise that progress in evolution has led to ecosystems in an exquisitely delicate – but unstable – equilibrium. They assume that Man is the enemy of Nature, and human intervention always threatens to disrupt the order of things. And of course that spells catastrophe – predicted with the same sense of impending doom as suffused religious thinking in the Middle Ages.

    I think that badly misconceives the “balances” that exist in nature. There is no “progress” in evolution. Any “balances” that exist between species result from blind, mindless variations, such as swings in the relative populations of predators and prey. If they are disrupted, new “balances” inevitably emerge. To call them “balances” at all is misleading, because they are nothing more than the way things happen to be at present.

  5. Speaking for myself, I believed the standard academic version of Charles Darwin until I read The Descent of Man seven years ago and followed up on the books and authors he endorsed and cited as reliable science in that book. His highest praise for Ernst Haeckel’s completely developed racism and his depraved monism, the “triumph” of which Haeckel explicitly credits to Darwin in a book Darwin praised to the highest degree in TDoM. Of course Darwin couldn’t have anticipated Hitler, who was born seven years and a day after Darwin died, as I recall, and I would imagine he’d have been horrified by him. But he certainly knew Haeckel and he promoted some of his worst books and used some of his most racist passages. You’d only have to read Descent of man and the books he endorsed and cited to see that.

    I do not see how anyone who read The Descent of Man could conclude that Charles Darwin was not a racist.

    “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked (18. ‘Anthropological Review,’ April 1867, p. 236.), will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.”

    The book has example after example of statements in line with the belief that “Caucasians” are superior to other groups of people and his letters and SCIENTIFIC citations support the contention that he was a racist. He wasn’t shy about explicitly ranking groups with white skin, particularly denigrating the Irish.

    You could look at the early opposition to Darwin and see that a lot of it had nothing to do with the idea that people evolved from animals, a lot of it was due to the incompleteness of his theory, the speculations without evidence that were flowing from his followers such as Galton, Haeckel and even Huxley, not to mention his son, George Darwin. In his undelivered closing argument in the Scopes Trial, Bryan hardly mentions evolution but points out that the developments that come from Darwin, in line with Haeckel, were frequently depraved and could be expected to produce catastrophic results. Well, Bryan was a racist and was wrong about evolution but he got that part of it far more right than Darwin’s supporters did as the next twenty years proved.

    I read The Descent of Man expecting that it would support the noble and enlightened Charles Darwin I’d believed in for about five decades but found that it was a fabrication built on ignoring what he’d said, in his own words. I’d been more skeptical of natural selection as the primary mover of evolution for longer, since first reading about Kimura’s work when I was in college and more since then. Natural selection is not a theory like those of physics and chemistry, it is far more like a habit of thought and it has changed, drastically over its history. Something like that is bound to be controversial even among those of us who fully accept evolution. Its excesses are bound to generate ammunition for those who actively oppose the science of evolution.

    • It depends what is meant by “racism”. If a racist is someone who simply believes there are factual differences between races, then Darwin, David Hume, and many other great thinkers as well as most of the rest of humanity would have been racists. But that is a shallow understanding of racism.

      Racism is better understood as a moral failing than as a mere belief. That is, racists are not people who have an opinion about putative matters of fact, but who behave in immoral ways. For example, they enslave people of another race, or choose not to employ them, or withhold medical treatment from them, or implement genocidal policies.

      All of these immoral acts involve not giving equal consideration to the interests of others because of the race they belong to. This needn’t involve any opinion that one race is “superior” or “inferior” to another. As Peter Singer has argued, an assumption of “superiority” is no sort of justification for not giving equal consideration to the interests of those who are assumed to be “inferior”. This is easy to see if we imagine an invasion of the Earth by Martians who, let us suppose, really are superior to us humans. Would they be justified in enslaving us because we are inferior to them? – Of course not. So having an opinion of that sort is irrelevant to genuine racism.

    • I warned you about this. So I blocked you. Those who wish to read your reiterated views can visit your site, but not here.

  6. Nihaya Khateb Nihaya Khateb

    I think that evolution is a full based science. However I am still skeptical of natural selection as the main mechanism of evolution. For natural selection to ha[ppen there should be 3 conditions:
    1. Variability in traits
    2. Heritability
    3. Competition
    Though, evolution of organisms happend and continue to happen without fulfilling all these 3 conditions. I think that traits of organisms are developed as an outcome of climate overturning or compulsion on organisms. For example; slanted eyes of east Asians have nothing to do with selection; or benifits to humans living there, but a mere blind variation as a result of geographicak conditions.
    I assume that the weak point of evolution is natural selection.

    • Metzler Metzler

      “For example; slanted eyes of east Asians have nothing to do with selection; or benifits to humans living there, but a mere blind variation as a result of geographicak conditions.”

      While there is no ‘simple’, basic biological or physical benefit to this co-evolution resulted in this – at some point quasi randomly some individuals chose to bred with slanted eyes more often then round eyes. It is spontaneous breaking of ‘symmetry’ if you like. Just like dextrorotation and levorotation sometimes is determined randomly yet nearly all molecules in the vicinity adopt the same form. Or even switch form do adopt the (dominant?) form.

      • The Other Jim The Other Jim

        Oops… comment above was for Nihaya Khateb, but it fell in behind that of Metzler. Apologies…

    • Alan Webb Alan Webb

      “slanted eyes of east Asians”
      Many people share your false assumption that evolution scientists say all changes are adaptations. Some changes are just random. Some are just genetic drift. Those changes continue not because they are selected for but because they are not damaging enough to be selected against. They are, indeed, “blind variations.”

      Competition only matters when there is something to compete for — space, food, sexual advantage, warmth, air — whatever. When those situations exist the most helpful traits will be selected. It does not have to be competition between species, either. Adaptive changes more often come from adaptation within species

      When you say, “traits of organisms are developed as an outcome of climate overturning or compulsion on organisms” you are talking about competition for success in a changing environment, one of the main drives of natural selection.

  7. kelskye kelskye

    “Say he is antiessentialist.”
    Is that meant to be a bad thing (at least for some people)?

    • It is if you are an essentialist (what some call Aristotelians).

  8. bio bio

    if a self replicat watch need a designer, the human also

    and how can a watch can came from selfreplicate material?

  9. John The Plumber John The Plumber

    John – you point to natural selection with no need for a guiding hand – pitted against the idea of a designer with purpose – saying:

    “The reason why Darwin was controversial is very, very simple. Darwin argued that complex designs could arise without a mind to guide it. In short, his controversial idea was natural selection (and sexual selection, but even that preceded Darwin). Almost from the day it was published, critics attacked the implication that the living world was not all that special, and that it lacked a Plan or Meaning”

    Hidden in what seems a contradiction is one common thread. – Both of the words, selection and guide, carry the idea of ‘direction’.

    A guide clearly leads, in a direction – and selection carries the thought, ‘selection directed to what end’ – selected for what.

    Darwin’s thinking clearly involved an upward direction towards improvement, with Victorian Gentlemen having travelled far in that direction.

    150 years later, whilst the direction now may be up, down or even sideways, the direction of advantage still remains. Though evolution might now be seen to be like a bus travelling uphill and downhill, advantage is still a familiar passenger on the bus.

    Attitudes have certainly changed though and a direction factor is less evident – nevertheless, there is no doubting that evolution theory supports a consideration of a general direction simple to complex.

    The idea of direction to somewhere, nirvana, sainthood, world domination, whatever, is evident in most if not all religious and political philosophies and explanations.

    On that basis, Darwinian concepts offer yet another, albeit scientific, explanation involving direction. – It joins the age old controversy over what, or who’s, is the right direction.

    All the various explanations might be summed as, where do we think we are going.

    Evolution though has a large concern with where we’ve been – evidenced in the fossil record.

    This evidence to evolution is interpreted as illustrating a meandering procession flowing in the direction simple to complex.

    In terms of a universe of randomly acting particles though, it might be that the formation of ordered entities – like stars, planets, dogs and cats – indicates that at present the universal direction is complex to simple – depending on ones interpretation of entropy and chaos theory.

    What seems clear is that the universe is expanding. All is on what seems undulating road -things have a habit of coming and going – but all travels in the direction of wherever that expansion might lead. – It’s an expanding bus.

    Darwin’s evolution – his concepts of natural selection when he put them to paper– were ignorant of this fact – and today seem little altered to accommodate it.

    The same can be said for ideas of a divine outside agency.

    The basics of both outlooks were laid down when all happened against a relatively stable backcloth – all cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, using Darwin’s phraseology.

    The arguments of both camps are clouded by having an origin in an outmoded idea of the nature of the universe.

    Perhaps that is why the subject continues to maintain controversy.

    Of course few of the protagonists seem able to see themselves as ‘not all that special’ insignificant specks – and that doesn’t help.

    • John, you can’t do science by analysing words (apart from lexicography). The use of a term like “selection” doesn’t mean the theory or scientists that use it must appeal to senses of that term from ordinary discourse. It has become a term of art. It now means the Price equation and ancillary math. The math does not imply a direction or purpose or preset goal.

      NS can easily generate a drunkard’s walk because the selection is only ever local or momentary. There is no long term selection for, say, intelligence, but there happened to be a sequence of events in the histories of several species where increases in intelligence were favoured. So one or a few species end up as tool users and symbolic communicators even though that is not an inevitable outcome of evolution.

      To Cristian, I would assert once more what R. A. Fisher began his Genetical Theory with: “Evolution is not Natural Selection.” NS can cause an absence of evolution as well as a presence of it, depending on the population structure and local conditions. A population well adapted to its ecology which is large enough will not change much apart from accidental variations. Likewise evolutionary change can involve non-selective events, yes. But NS can also cause increases in complexity (or decreases f they are fitter). In fact it is the only explanation for persistent increases in complexity. We can get occasional increases by gene duplication, but if they spread and act as the springboard for the next evolutionary change, then NS is the reason.

      We are systematically misled by our language, as Wittgenstein noted. Here, though, the misleading language is ordinary language, the ways words are used by nonscientists (and one must include theologians and philosophers here), who seem to think that words determine the world. They do not.

  10. Jeb Jeb

    John P. you should start a blog. Its a helpful way to order things and deal with a few of the major issues of being dyslexic I find.

    John’s view I find attractive here as it is based on a clear reading of the historical record and works as such, rather well. Christian and Anthony use history in somewhat different way but I suspect their inclinations, interests and expertise lie in different areas.

    I think to argue against a large part of what John has set out would require doing history rather badly.

    “Of course few of the protagonists seem able to see themselves as ‘not all that special’ insignificant specks – and that doesn’t help.”

    The nature of the beast, but I like history here, as more often than not it put’s such creatures in perspective.

  11. Jeb Jeb

    p.s. Great post John.

  12. Jeb Jeb

    “Moreover, it was Christians who rejected the literal interpretation of the Bible, long before Darwin”

    I think I would be tempted to look at the way other things were interpreted in regard to this issue. Natural history for example, a lot of the more fantastical beliefs of the classical period were clearly deployed as allegory in later Western Europe and greatly enjoyed as such.

    I see no reason to think that this did not have a bearing on how other genres of literature were interpreted.

    May be carved up ordered and presented as different genres with a different order of knowledge, but it does not seem to me fanciful to suppose that interpretation may be based on a common body of knowledge that applied widely across the board.

    Anyway possible to determine whether that’s right or wrong empirically with some leg work on the subject.

  13. Short note to Cristian Pascu.

    We’ve exceeded the comment nesting limit. I’ll answer a couple of questions you raised and let you have the last word.

    1) I cited Fogel’s work specifically because it showed evolution making improvements in the absence of design. (That’s why it was notable enough to publish.) You don’t believe that’s possible, and that’s fine. Somewhere in the transition from postdoc to scientist I’ve lost interest in trying to change the minds of people who can’t or won’t read the primary literature, so it’s probably best that we agree to disagree.

    2) As to your example: Joanna Masel begins her grad evolution class by asking her students “What is evolution”. Even among biology graduate students, most of them get it wrong. For nonspecialists, Mayr’s set of definitions works well enough. In your case, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be reading the population genetics literature for the mathematical definitions. As I’m sure you’re aware, reducing a conversation to math makes it much harder to bluff your way through. (Durrett’s “Probability Models for DNA Sequence Evolution” (2010) is online and surprisingly approachable.)

    3) As to the evolution of flight: You’ve helped make my point that there is no “narrow, specific” path to flight, nor is flight a particular goal of evolution. It’s easy to evolve in the same sense that it’s easy to roll a seven on two dice.

    I think I should leave it at that.

    • Cristian Pascu Cristian Pascu


      I will try not to abuse of having the “last word” here. I will take a closer look at that book. However, it seems that it says what you say:

      “I cited Fogel’s work specifically because it showed evolution making improvements in the absence of design.”

      I am not talking about improvements of existing features. I am talking about occurrence of new features. An evolutionary algorithm will find you better and better solutions to the problem as long as you defined the problem. I may be wrong, though. I’ll return when I will be certain about this.

      2) I am puzzled about your insistence on the definition of ‘evolution’.

      3) I have nothing to comment on this anymore. I agree to disagree. 🙂

      • If you’d like to continue the discussion off-blog drop me a line at barry.rountree at gmail

  14. Jeb Jeb

    Perhaps the problem is simply that so many skeptics wither they be religious or scientific share the same common assumptions about culture and are using the same weapons and ammunition to fire at each other.

    Simply an utter failure to understand they are a thing at war with itself. What people profess to most despise may be far closer to home than most care to admit.

  15. “No, the reason why Darwin was controversial is very, very simple. Darwin argued that complex designs could arise without a mind to guide it.” That may sum up all of Professor Plantinga’s objections to Darwin, but I think there’s another element to the anti-Darwinism of the average believer. From what I can tell, most religions promise their followers a special knowledge that explains phenomena that no outsider can understand. If our best and indeed only source for reliable information on the origin, structure, and distribution of life on earth is the Bible, then religious groups that claim the Bible as their founding document can reasonably say that they have delivered on that promise. If, on the contrary, there is evidence freely available in nature that will give a prepared observer infinitely more information about those questions than will a reading of the Bible, then those groups have to find something else about which they can claim to be uniquely qualified to speak.

  16. That explains more than why Darwin in particular is controversial. It also explains why vaccination, global warming, antismoking, healthy diet, etc. are controversial among those believers. I am only concerned here why Darwin was even an issue, especially considering how well he was received at the time.

  17. Sure, but Natural Selection slashes away a much bigger field than does any one of those. As for Darwin being well-received in 1859, the explanatory power of his theories has become far clearer in the last 153 years than it was at the time. So it would have required far more insight then than it requires now to see what a threat Natural Selection is to any religion that claims to give its followers special access to knowledge about the sensible world.

  18. jeb jeb

    “No, the reason why Darwin was controversial is very, very simple.”

    Was a more general point about culture rather than Darwin or scientific theory. Off topic, taking things out of 19th century context with a sloppy first sentence.

    I think John covered the ground rather well in the post.

    Natural selection is not a threat to the odd notions and beliefs some scientists hold with regard to culture so I don’t think it is necessarily a threat to the odd notions or beliefs some religious folk may hold. I don’t think religion has survived without considerable adaption and change. Although it may not be thought of, discussed or presented as such by users of this aspect of culture.

    I don’t have any personal faith in religion, I don’t see it as a problem, I think the issue is with the way people think and I don’t think the issues are exclusive to religious thought.

  19. alphazulu99 alphazulu99

    Gentlemen, we now have official evidence of unicorns.

    It is surely only a matter of time before we have evidence that the invisible fairy in the sky decided to turn itself into a man in the ancient Middle East desert two thousand years ago for the ultimate purpose of allowing himself to be hung to a tree and savagely tortured to death by a superstitious bunch of ignorant peasants in the most disgusting manner possible as a blood atonement for the apparent sins of his own creation.

    Let’s all take a moment and pray that this preposterous, idiotic, asinine, Neanderthal bunch of superstitious bullshit is actually true.

    Praise Jebus. Praise his holy fucking name. And fuck this blood sacrifice, Cro-Magnon bullshit. Amen.

  20. Hi John,

    Well, in the US and perhaps everywhere as far as I know, most people who accept the theory of evolution based on Darwinism also believe in God. For example, the materialistic plausibility for every step of evolution from the first cellular progenitor to anatomically modern humans in no way implies that the initial conditions of universe would eventually generate human intelligence, but subtle guidance could have occasionally influenced the direction of evolution as proposed by the members of BioLogos.

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