April 10, 2003

IN DARWIN WE TRUST (via Charles Murtaugh)

Is Evolution a Secular Religion? (Michael Ruse, March 7, 2003, Science)
Darwin himself was an invalid from the age of 30, and any profession building had to be done by his supporters, in particular by his "bulldog," Thomas Henry Huxley. In many respects, Huxley played to Darwin the role that Saint Paul played to Jesus, promoting the master's ideas. But just as Saint Paul rather molded Jesus' legacy to his own ends, so also Huxley molded Darwin's legacy. At the time that the Origin of Species was published, Britain was a country desperately in need of reform, as revealed by the horrors of the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. Huxley and others worked hard to bring about change, trying to move public perceptions into the 20th century. They reformed education, the civil service, the military, and much else. Huxley's own work was in higher education, and he succeeded best in the areas of physiology and morphology. He realized that to improve and professionalize these fields as areas of teaching and research, he needed clients (a must in all system building). Huxley sold physiology to the medical profession, just then desperate to change from killing to curing. Huxley's offer of a supply of students, ready for specialized medical training, with a solid background in modern physiology was gratefully received. Morphology, Huxley sold to the teaching profession, on the grounds that hands-on empirical study was much better training for modern life than the outmoded classics. Huxley himself sat on the new London School Board and started teacher training courses. His most famous student was the novelist H. G. Wells.

Evolution had no immediate payoff. Learning phylogenies did not cure belly ache, and it was still all a bit too daring for regular schoolroom instruction. But Huxley could see a place for evolution. The chief ideological support of those who opposed the reformers--the landowners, the squires, the generals, and the others--came from the Anglican Church. Hence, Huxley saw the need to found his own church, and evolution was the ideal cornerstone. It offered a story of origins, one that (thanks to progress) puts humans at the center and top and that could even provide moral messages. The philosopher Herbert Spencer was a great help here. He was ever ready to urge his fellow Victorians that the way to true virtue lies
through progress, which comes from promoting a struggle in society as well as in biology--a laissez-faire socioeconomic philosophy. Thus, evolution had its commandments no less than did Christianity. And so Huxley preached evolution-as-world-view at working men's clubs, from the podia during presidential addresses, and in debates with clerics--notably Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford. He even aided the founding of new cathedrals of evolution, stuffed with displays of dinosaurs newly discovered in the American West. Except, of course, these halls of worship were better known as natural history museums.

As with Christianity, not everyone claimed exactly the same thing in the name of their Lord. Yet, moral norms were the game in town, and things continued this way until the third phase, which began around 1930. This was the era during which a number of mathematically trained thinkers--notably Ronald Fisher and J. B. S. Haldane in England, and Sewall Wright in America--fused Darwinian selection with Mendelian genetics, and thus provided the conceptual foundations of what became known as the synthetic theory of evolution or neo-Darwinism. Rapidly, the experimentalists and naturalists--notably Theodosius Dobzhansky in America and E. B. Ford in England--started to put empirical flesh on the mathematical skeleton, and finally Darwin's dream of a professional evolution with selection at its heart was realized. But there is more to the story than this. These new-style evolutionists--the mathematicians and empiricists--wanted to professionalize evolution because they wanted to study it full time in universities, with students and research grants, and so forth. However, like everyone else, they had been initially attracted to evolution precisely because of its quasi-religious aspects, regardless of whether these formed the basis of an agnostic/atheistic humanism or something to revitalize an old religion that had lost its spirit and vigor. Hence, they wanted to keep a value-impregnated evolutionism that delivered moral messages even as it strived for greater progressive triumphs. [...]

There is professional evolutionary biology: mathematical, experimental, not laden with value statements. But, you are not going to find the answer to the world's mysteries or to societal problems if you open the pages of Evolution or Animal Behaviour. Then, sometimes from the same person, you have evolution as secular religion, generally working from an explicitly materialist background and solving all of the world's major problems, from racism to education to conservation. Consider Edward O. Wilson, rightfully regarded as one of the most outstanding professional evolutionary biologists of our time, and the author of major works of straight science. In his On Human Nature, he calmly assures us that evolution is a myth that is now ready to take over Christianity. And, if this is so, "the final decisive edge enjoyed by scientific naturalism will come from its capacity to explain traditional religion, its chief competition, as a wholly material phenomenon. Theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline". An ardent progressionist, Wilson sees moral norms emerging from our need to keep the evolutionary process moving forward. In his view, this translates as a need to promote biodiversity, for Wilson believes that humans have evolved in a symbiotic relationship with nature. A world of plastic would kill us humans, literally as well as metaphorically. For progress to continue, we must preserve the Brazilian rainforests and other areas of high organic density and diversity.

So, what does our history tell us? Three things. First, if the claim is that all contemporary evolutionism is merely an excuse to promote moral and societal norms, this is simply false. Today's professional evolutionism is no more a secular religion than is industrial chemistry. Second, there is indeed a thriving area of more popular evolutionism, where evolution is used to underpin claims about the nature of the universe, the meaning of it all for us humans, and the way we should behave. I am not saying that this area is all bad or that it should be stamped out. I am all in favor of saving the rainforests. I am saying that this popular evolutionism--often an alternative to religion--exists. Third, we who cherish science should be careful to distinguish when we are doing science and when we are extrapolating from it, particularly when we are teaching our students. If it is science that is to be taught, then teach science and nothing more. Leave the other discussions for a more appropriate time.

This is a helpful admission, though rather disingenuous. For the fact of the matter is that if evolutionists restrained their claims to what they can prove scientifically no one would pay much attention to them. No one has observed evolution, you can't replicate it in the lab or other experimental settings, most of the most widely hailed "proofs" (like the infamous peppered moth) proved nothing more than breeding within a species to begin with and have been shown to be tainted by academic fraud at any rate; and so on and so forth. Furthermore, what all this adds up to is not a case for Creationism, but a case for healthy skepticism towards a theory (evolution via natural selection) whose main support partakes more of religious faith than scientific rigor.
Posted by Orrin Judd at April 10, 2003 12:00 PM

Orrin, you keep saying no one has observed evolution.

This is counterfactual.

I personally know people, eg Rosemary Gillespie, who

have observed it.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 10, 2003 2:28 PM

I need to read thee whole thing, because today's Ruse

does not seem to be the same Ruse who was publishing

books at Chicago 30 years ago.

In this excerot, he conflates darwinism with spencerism, something many people (eg, Orrin Judd)

do, but which Ruse used to avoid.

It is hard to see how a science that explicitly rejects

teleology can be any kind of a religion.

That so many evolutionists, like Wilson and Lewontin, forget and adopt teleological political positions does not change

the scientific structure. Genes either mutate or they

don't. They don't ask permission.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 10, 2003 2:39 PM


Fear not; no one begrudges you your faith.

Posted by: oj at April 10, 2003 3:13 PM

There hasn't been one of these highly entertaining posts for some time.

For a while I was afraid you'd been convinced by the comments everybody else posted :)

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at April 10, 2003 3:18 PM

Fear not, Orrin. No one begrudges you your faith.

Posted by: Ann Northcutt Gray at April 10, 2003 3:49 PM


Which is the point: we all have to believe in some implausible something to give our lives meaning.

Posted by: oj at April 10, 2003 3:51 PM


Evolution is not an obsession of the skeptic but of the atheist faithful, who also tend to be obsessed by the supposed sins of the Church, giving them the necessary "devil" for their Manichean system.

Posted by: oj at April 10, 2003 4:04 PM

The thing is, when you write about how awful Darwinism is, you often start sounding ... fanatical
. That's a word I hate to use, but it adequate sums up the tone of the last sentence of this posting: "In effect, Darwinism is not merely a secular religion but the State religion, a form of orthodoxy used to stifle political dissent." You sound like you believe scientists are out to 'get' you and other religious folk. It's ... weird. Especially when one takes into account that you don't have
to be force-fed evolution as fact. You can send your kids to religious schools, or home-school them, and ensure they won't be exposed to that Great Satan, Darwinism. At least until they get out into the Wide World and start thinking for themselves.

So I don't really get your point when you post these diatribes. I don't know what it is you want. Do you want science to just abandon all the progress it has made in deciphering the mechanics of the world, and go back to the worldview of the seventeenth-century Catholic Church? Or, if not that, what?

Posted by: Ann Northcutt Gray at April 10, 2003 5:08 PM


Speaking as a twenty-first century Catholic, I should point out that you're conflating (much exaggerated) issues with Mr. Galilei, with arguments with Darwin and his posse. Properly, there could be no debate over evolution in the seventeenth century Catholic Church, because, first, Darwin had not yet been born, and, second, the theory had not yet been proposed. (Had you mentioned ultramontanist Catholicism in the early twentieth century, you might have had a point.)

Quibbling to the side, I should point out that, as I read him, on this point OJ and I are more or less in agreement: Evolution may in fact be the correct (or at least, close to the correct) explanation for the variation in life over time; it may not. I'm agnostic. What I think OJ is getting at, with his "diatribes" is this: If it is still called a theory, we should not confuse it with a law. Much of the evidence presented to me in my youth for evolution is now discredited, not the least of which includes the alleged resemblance between fetuses of various species; nonetheless, the proponents of the theory frequently treat it as Gospel, and the non-believers as (benighted) heretics.

Even though I lean in favor of evolutionary logic, I think OJ's critique is a valid one: Evolutionary science is, for a host of reasons, only a science in form, not in content. Neither he nor I demand perfect explanation; but it is not unreasonable to ask for some consistency, and, from something purporting to explain physical events, some proof.

Posted by: Chris at April 10, 2003 6:09 PM

Chris, you took my "point" a bit too far - in fact, it was simply an honest question. Does Orrin think we should simply accept that God made the world, and question no further? No inference to Galileo was intended.

I understand the frustration with the refusal of hardcore Darwinists to even consider alternate viewpoints, but I also understand the frustration of Darwinists reacting to what can easily be seen as pig-headed close-mindedness; I see people like yourself say that evolution itself has been discredited; yet the people saying this always seem to be conservative Christians. More objective sources say that Darwin got the big picture right while missing some of the details. That doesn't invalidate evolution itself, logically. Science is constantly revising itself as new things become known. If only religionists were half as reasonable.

Posted by: Ann Northcutt Gray at April 10, 2003 6:24 PM


The State takes you taxes to pay for school and then teaches your children an orthodox religion designed to remove moral authority from the Church, one of the only institutions that can effectively counter the State. It all makes good sense if you favor unfettered government power, which modern liberalism does.

Posted by: oj at April 10, 2003 7:37 PM

Does Orrin think we should simply accept that God made the world, and question no further?

Posted by: Ann Northcutt Gray at April 10, 2003 10:38 PM


Question all you want. But the matter at hand is whether a dubious theory should be indoctrinated into the young for political purposes.

Posted by: oj at April 10, 2003 11:09 PM

But which is the "dubious theory"?

Posted by: Ann Northcutt Gray at April 11, 2003 12:56 AM

What is the "Dubious Theory"?

Posted by: Ann Northcutt Gray at April 11, 2003 1:23 AM


A few points (it's late, sorry):

(1) I admitted I was quibbling. I was in a somewhat saucy mood. I've spent the last week getting ready for an injunction hearing, and I probably loosed more steam than need be. I apologize, therefore, for my first paragraph.

(2) With respect to:

I see people like yourself say that evolution itself has been discredited

I should point out, again, that I'm agnostic on the matter, leaning toward siding with the validity of evolutionary theory. Perhaps I was not clear on this point above. However, my essential point remains: Orrin is correct; it is still a theory. Laws reflect observable, repeatable truths of existence (putting to the side black holes).

I'm amenable to questioning of all sorts, and I'm rather a tech geek. My religious beliefs do not preclude the idea that God chose to render the world over the course of billions of years, through a myriad of complex, known and unknown processes, any more than they preclude the idea that God (to our understanding) simply instantaneously created the whole thing six or seven thousand years ago. My insight into the mind of God is really rather limited.

With that in mind, all I ask from a theory is that, before I accept it as more than a working hypothesis, it demonstrate repeatability. We can observe gene variation and mutation over time; with the exception of the willing human shields, however, our observation of evolution, as opposed to controlled breeding, is rather scant.

Put differently: Evolution and much "environmental science" today is more akin to a weirdly dogmatic faith than to a science. If I were to walk into a room of physicists and show them proof that they've miscalculated Planck's Constant the last several decades, I do not doubt that, after the fistfights, they'd review the data, and, if correct, adjust their worldviews.

If I did the equivalent to a room of evolutionary biologists, they would ignore me, or, more likely, rearrange their theory to incorporate the data and retain the same result
. This is not science. This is bloody single-mindedness passing itself off as rational thought.

Insofar as there are scientists at work willing to alter their beliefs with new data, I except them from this discussion. I'd also like to talk to them, because most of my contact with EEB types is akin to dealing with angry missionaries.

Posted by: Chris at April 11, 2003 1:55 AM

"Supposed" sins of the church? I didn't suppose


Darwinists do not accept that evolution is

a theory. They say, and can show, that it is

a body of observed facts. The theory that

explains the observations is natural selection.

The idea that the law of homologies has been

disproven with regard to embryos is a fantasy.

I don't care if Orrin, after studying evolution,

decides he won't buy it. But he hasn't studied

it; he has no idea what darwinism was and

is, and he embarrasses himself by trotting

out objections from 150 years as if none of

them has ever been investigated since.

At the least, stop conflating spencerism and

darwinism. Spencerism preceded darwinism,

and one difference between the two is that

there is no causative theory for spencerism.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 11, 2003 3:30 AM


That's just silly. We all accept the facts, like that there were australopithicenes (or whatever) and are now men. Darwinism proposes a specific mechanism that led from one fact to another. It is the mechanism, or theory, that is unsupported by evidence, observations, etc.

Posted by: oj at April 11, 2003 9:07 AM

Time for my two cents.

First, OJ, please stop misusing the term "theory" when applied to scientific matters. You treat the word as if it means "hypothesis," which it does not.

A hypothesis becomes a theory when it adequately explains known phenomena. Since theories are abstractions of reality, then they will always be incomplete. Newtonian Mechanics is a theory. It explains the macro/low speed part of the universe very well. But it is incomplete. Quantum Mechanics is also a theory, and is more complet than Newtonian Mechanics--in the macro/low speed realm Quantum Mechanics becomes Newtonian.

To repeat: A scientific theory was once a hypothesis that has, through peer review, observation, and experimentation, become a theory. That is, in the realm of rational inquiry, it explains the phenomena in question better than anything else going.

Posted by: Regards, Jeff Guinn at April 11, 2003 11:34 AM

Correction: please substitute "hypothesis http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=hypothesis
)" anywhere I've used "theory http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=theory

The definition of "theory" actualy provides one of the most marked ways in which Darwinism fails as a theory:

"A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena."

Darwinism has notoriously failed as a predictive.

Posted by: oj at April 11, 2003 12:19 PM

In hopes of draining the rhetorical swap here somewhat, I'd like to ask, what the heck is "Darwinism"?

Is that the idea of evolution and drift in creatures over time, eventually differentating into comletely new species?

Or is it the idea that the mechanism for this is mutation and natural selection?

Posted by: mike earl at April 11, 2003 2:56 PM

I only got the first of my two cents in.

The second cent is this. Evolutionary Theory is predicated on heritability, variability, and consequent variations in resource gathering and reproductive fitness, occurring in competition with other entities in variable environment.

So, if one is going to argue against evolution, one must do one of two things. Either prove one of the predicates wrong, or show how those predicates fail to produce the effects claimed.

I'm curious. Which is it?

You will note that none of Evolution's predicates need be confined to natural history. Any
system with those characteristics should behave evolutionary. I submit that languages, economies, industries within economies, and the internet are all systems that have exhibited evolutionary behavior.

So, back to you. If these systems can behave evolutionarily, then why not natural history?

Posted by: Regards, Jeff Guinn at April 11, 2003 5:41 PM

Now my third of two cents.

The theory of evolution is no more a secular religion than Quantum Theory, General Relativity, or Thermodynamics. They are all the product of rational inquiry.

To qualify as a religion, Evolution would have to rely on argument from authority, and be held by its believers to be immune to disproof. I'm sorry, but I just don't see that happening.

And I will have to go with Ann on this one, I think you are being a bit sensitive about evolution and the Church.

Posted by: Regards, Jeff Guinn at April 11, 2003 5:54 PM


One can't in the same breath say that for evolution to be a religion it would have to be immune to disproof and that you can't see it being disproven and still be taken for a disinterested scientific observer. I'm agnostic as regards evolution; you're atheist as regards religion. There seems not much difference except that I maintain an open mind regarding your faith while yours is closed to mine.

Posted by: oj at April 11, 2003 9:11 PM

Well, I'm open to proof. In the presence of naive believers, I used to occasionally wet my finger and call God to strike me dead. Good fun, but I decided to quit when one guy nearly broke his leg falling over a chair trying to get away from me.

It would be interesting to present people like Orrin with a science test, other things that are widely accepted as science though open to the same objections that Orrin makes to biological evolution. In other words, nonbiological evolutionary theories.

Hartsprung-Russell diagrams, for instance. Do you disbelieve stellar evolution, Orrin? Nobody has ever

observed that.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 11, 2003 10:48 PM


That's a really bizarre coincidence, because I used to hold our cat's paw in the air and wait for an opposable thumb to evolve...

Posted by: oj at April 11, 2003 11:33 PM

Yes, but do you believe that red giants become

white dwarfs?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 12, 2003 2:44 AM

I'm agnostic on stars too, though string theory seems obvious nonsense.

Posted by: oj at April 12, 2003 4:10 PM


Quantum theory is obvious nonsense, too, but it's pretty well been proven.

Posted by: mike earl at April 12, 2003 6:38 PM


Earlier, you mentioned Evolution's predictive inadequacies as reason it doesn't qualify as a theory. First, one has to be clear what one means by "predictive." Newtonian physics clearly fits the definition of a theory--it is so accurately predictive it suffices to orbit satellites around distant planets. But it can't predict which additional sand grain will cause a pile of sand to slump.

I don't think anyone would junk Newtonian physics as a theory for that predictive failure. Rather, certain classes of problems defy predictive solutions.

Evolution is like this. For systems characterized by the four evolutionary predicates, Evolution predicts extremely complex entities will evolve over time without any
directed guidance. Languages, economies, industried, the internet all act precisely
as evolutionary theory would expect.

That said, Evolution is useless if you want to know what entities will exist to what degree in the internet-sphere two years from now.

Evolution, unlike religion, is
open to disproof, in exactly the same way theories of the universe are. Hubble's constant destroyed all extant theories of the universe when he discovered it.

Should some similar discordant information hit the paleontological world, I'm sure Evolution would crash just as hard, just as fast. So far as I know, that simply hasn't happened yet.

For you to be truly agnostic towards evolution, you would have to conclude the question is undecidable--that is, from the evidence available, it is impossible to draw any conclusion whatsoever

When I said I just don't see that happening,
I was referring to Evolution's adherents adopting a religious attitude towards Evolution, not that I think disproof impossible.

Regarding atheism: based on the evidence available to me, I regard the material truth value of Christianity (or any religion, for that matter) to be extremely low--that is, as an hypothesis, it fails any test rational inquiry might put to it. Ethical
worth is a different matter--and a discussion best left for a different time.

Now if a bolt of electricity were to erupt from my keyboard as I type this, well, that would be new evidence to include in my assessment.

I don't begrudge you your faith OJ; in fact, sometimes I envy it.

Posted by: Regards, Jeff Guinn at April 12, 2003 9:40 PM


As I've said numerous times now, if your argument is that evolution is guided by intelligent human choices just as are the development of language, economies, and the like, then we are agreed about the most likely manner in which evolution functions.

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2003 12:13 AM