Guess what day it is.
If you answered Lincoln’s birthday, you’re way behind the cultural cutting edge. To many in academia, today is Darwin Day. It turns out that the fellow who proposed the theory of evolution was born on the same day in the same year as the man who freed the slaves.
But why shove a genuine moral hero out of the limelight and replace him with an egghead? To hear supporters of Darwin Day tell it, it’s because science. Darwin greatly advanced our understanding of the way the world worked, you see, so much so that everyone just has to celebrate. Oddly, no clamor is heard for, say, a Newton Day or an Einstein Day — not even a day for Edward Jenner, whose invention of vaccination saved countless millions of lives.
Today is also the day that the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank (I’m a senior member), is announcing that the number of signatories to its “Scientific Dissent from Darwinism” list — who “are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life” — has now surpassed a thousand. A thousand may not seem like many in these days of instant internet polls, but not just anyone can sign it. To be eligible, a person has to have a doctorate in the natural sciences or in a technical field such as medicine or computer science. That ensures signatories have the background to evaluate technical arguments.
Pretty peculiar, though, isn’t it? Why collect signatures to register skepticism about a scientific theory? It’s not as if the truth of a theory can be decided by popular vote. And it wouldn’t be hard to get many more than a thousand signatures of PhDs swearing they are positive down to their toes that Darwin got it right.
It turns out the peculiar action is needed because Darwin’s is a peculiar theory. Ever since it was first proposed, it has been used as a bludgeon in culture wars. In his day, the biologist Thomas Huxley, nicknamed “Darwin’s bulldog,” had issues with the Church of England; he and like-minded 19th-century scientists formed the “X Club” to promote evolution and attack the clergy-dominated English old guard. And in our time, primary sponsors of Darwin Day include groups with strong religious or anti-religious views. I don’t think it’s too cynical to suspect the groups care less about the science than about promoting their views about the philosophical implications of the theory.
Use of the theory as a weapon in culture wars leads to it being greatly overrated. To quickly see that Darwin’s theory is a lot less certain than it’s often portrayed, think about nutrition studies. Government science panels notoriously flip-flop on whether certain dietary substances — cholesterol, salt, fat, milk — are good or bad for you in greater or lesser amounts. Yet if it’s so hard to know what is even healthful for modern humans, who can be studied easily in real time, how can science know what would drive the evolution of extinct animals in the distant past – ones that can’t be studied nearly as easily as people? The simple answer is, it can’t. After all, if an easier task is too difficult, a harder one certainly is too. Claims to the contrary are bluster.
Overselling Darwinism means downplaying its difficulties. Despite frequent media stories that it is certain knowledge, Darwin’s theory hasn’t been faring too well lately. New research on DNA shows that random mutation and natural selection do sometimes help a species, but most often by degrading genes. In other words, they help by throwing away pre-existing genetic information that isn’t needed in a new environment, or that is positively interfering with an organism’s ability to adapt. Such a strongly de-volutionary process is, to say the least, unlikely to build elegant biology in the first place. As the website of a group of skeptical scientists puts it, Darwin’s theory “ignores much contemporary molecular evidence and invokes a set of unsupported assumptions about the accidental nature of hereditary variation.” I’ll bet you haven’t read many stories about that.
A few years ago, two groups of biologists faced off over Darwin’s theory in dueling letters to the journal Nature. One group supported it. The other group said random mutation and natural selection can’t account for new results uncovered by the rapid advance of biology. Disturbingly, the upstarts also complained that the other side was driven to defend Darwin against all comers, including them, in order to present “a united front to those hostile to science.” In other words, the anti-Darwin side implied, friendly fire from the culture wars was hitting the wrong target, slowing progress in understanding life.
But science can’t advance if it’s worried about taking sides. To make real progress, scientists have to be free from peer pressure to conform, free to consider any possible explanation for the data. That’s made a lot easier when a group calls attention to hidebound orthodoxy, and publicly dissents from it.
And the more who stand up, the better. That’s why it’s so heartening on this Lincoln’s Birthday that increasing numbers of academics publicly acknowledge their Scientific Dissent from Darwinism.
Michael J. Behe’s book "Darwin Devolves: The New Science About DNA that Challenges Evolution" will be released by HarperOne on February 26th.