Cracks in the Darwinist wall

Maverick computer scientist David Gelernter set off a grenade in the faculty dining room last spring. His essay, “Giving Up Darwin,” published in the Claremont Review of Books, testifies (and the religious connotation of “testify” is appropriate here) to his de-conversion from Darwinism. He has yet to convert to a replacement belief, but he is convinced that all intelligent people should join him in his apostasy.

Gelernter, a storied professor at Yale and a controversial pundit, has been convinced by recent books emanating from the Discovery Institute in Seattle, best known for its championing of Intelligent Design. Gelernter is not yet convinced that the whole ID program is correct. He’s not even willing to use the word “God” in this context. But, he avers, Darwin’s whole project was to explain the strong appearance of design in nature without invoking a designer, and that project has evidently failed.

What is the evidence? Gelernter draws most heavily from three books: especially Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt (2013), but also David Berlinski’s The Deniable Darwin and Other Essays (2009) and Debating Darwin’s Doubt (2015), an anthology edited by David Klinghoffer. Meyer (to put the argument in the briefest possible terms) shows that there simply hasn’t been enough time and enough organisms available in the history of life on Earth to generate anything close to the range of species we see today.

Your typical friendly neighbourhood atheist will say that given enough time, anything can and will occur. But the evidence shows that there hasn’t been early enough time for what has actually occurred. As Gelernter puts it, “Neo-Darwinianism says that nature simply rolls the dice, and if something useful emerges, great. Otherwise, try again. But useful sequences [of proteins, the building blocks of life] are so gigantically rare that this answer simply won’t work.”

Molecular biology, unknown in Darwin’s time, has come to destroy, not confirm, his theory.

In addition, the so-called Cambrian explosion of species about half a billion years ago, which occurred over about 70 million years (Meyer more recently says that that window has shrunk to closer to 10 million) gave rise to most forms of modern life. Unhappily for Darwinism, this relatively short time period is preceded by precisely zero “intermediate forms” of life in the fossil record. Precambrian life is mostly bacteria, not some spreading tree of increasingly diverse and sophisticated species, as Darwin’s theory sets out.

Darwin knew that these thousands and thousands of “missing links” were absent from the fossil record in his day: he expected later discoveries to bear out his theory. But a century and a half of digging hasn’t confirmed his theory at all.

These evidences, Gelernter affirms, render Darwin’s “beautiful” idea simply untenable. “Untenable” is a mild-sounding word, but it has a strong meaning: no rational person can hold it. This isn’t a matter of intelligent people of goodwill seeing a complex phenomenon from different perspectives and coming to plausible alternative interpretations. It is a matter of recognizing that the emperor has nothing on.

Gelernter indicates that he knows he is stirring up trouble—trouble of an ideological sort, not just scientific. He sees that Darwinism plays a religious role for many people. As Richard Dawkins famously put it in The Blind Watchmaker, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

The response from the scientific world will not be instant and total agreement. One has only to look up the Wikipedia page for Stephen Meyer, holder of a Ph.D. from Cambridge, to see Darwinist orthodoxy nastily at work. Intelligent Design is called “pseudoscientific” and Meyer’s science degrees are carefully noted as coming from “Christian Whitworth College,” with his teaching role at Palm Beach Atlantic College also being prefaced with the adjective “Christian.” It strikes me, as it might you, that one would not expect a Wikipedia article to feature locutions such as “Jewish Brandeis University” or “Methodist Duke University,” but clearly someone is campaigning clumsily here on behalf of “science” versus “religion,” not realizing that that “battle” is a mirage.

With arguments such as those listed by Gelernter coming from the worlds of molecular biology, paleontology, and mathematics, conjoined with philosophical arguments of naturalism’s hopelessness to validate even itself, let alone the beauty and morality we all see evident in the cosmos, the cracks in Darwinism widen.

Gelernter refers to the mystifying way the world does appear, in terms reminiscent of David Hume’s (and, indeed, of the late Stephen Jay Gould’s), a world evidencing design, yes, but often sloppydesign, or weak design, or unhelpfully fragile design—along the traditional lines of “If I were a Supreme Being, I’d design a much better world than this one.” And because the world as it is doesn’t match up well against that ideal world, people feel entitled to withhold any belief in God.

Well, those are good questions other people have answered elsewhere. For today, then, we’ll let Professor Gelernter have the last one:

“How cleanly and quickly can the field get over Darwin, and move on?”

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).