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August 02, 2005

Darwinism, Religion and Pharyngula

Posted by Myles Harris

Writer and London GP Dr Myles Harris's article Bishop Dawkins' Priest Holes - or what are the evolutionists afraid of? has been viciously criticised, not least by American academic Dr P. Z. Myers on his blog Pharyngula. Here Dr Harris responds to his critics.

Despite our sophisticated science we still remain religious creatures at heart, none more so, - judging by a few of the replies to my article Bishop Dawkins' Priest Holes - or what are the evolutionists afraid of? - than supporters of Darwin's theory. The irrational fury of their response is extraordinary, especially when viewed from this side of the Atlantic. Unlike America, Britain is a profoundly secular society. Very few people go to church or believe in God. In consequence intelligent design, which is now openly debated in Britain, does not cause the furore it does in America. Here people do not think if you criticise Darwin you have set your feet on the road to the local gospel hall.

In this light it is easier to understand why the American academic Dr P. Z. Myers at the mere mention of doubts about Darwinism worked himself into such a state. He lards his criticism of my article with insults and appeals to authority, but this only weakens his case. Indeed he was in such a state he was not able to focus on the entirety of my argument. If he had he would have noticed that the last third supports the theory of evolution. He dismisses as "rambling" (in fact his insults were far more juvenile) my discussion of the research done by David Deutsch at the Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford about whose book The Fabric of Reality the physicist and writer Paul Davies wrote:

One of Britain's most original thinkers. In this major work David Deutsch confronts the deepest questions of existence head on. I haven't been so inspired since I read Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach.

Deutsch's work is difficult stuff - although I think most people with a decent first level science degree would be able to follow it - so it may be my fault for not expressing myself clearly. Then again there are those who will always find new ideas difficult.

More often it is simple bigotry. What is interesting about Darwin cultists is that at the first sign of opposition they fly to Darwin support sites to seek confirmation of their views. Religious fundamentalists do the same. They need group support to reinforce their convictions, which is why they are always looking for converts, and cannot abide criticism.

Being primates we like to beat the floor in unison, which is why new ideas upset people so much. There is an awful lot of floor beating in science, none more so than in biology. One thing the internet and the Darwin debate has done is to expose to the general public just how much coercion can go on in science, and how, especially in biology, the principles of free enquiry have been abandoned. Readers can imagine what it must be like to be a student at an American university whose ideas differ from the mainstream, or worse, a member of staff. Little wonder so much US scholarship is timid, conventional and weak. Thank God Darwin (If ever there was a stuffy old English eccentric of the type vilified by Dr Myers, he was it) did not conceive his idea in an American provincial university in the 21st century. The world would never have heard of natural selection.

I am accused of dodging the unalterable facts of evolution. This is not true. I have no quarrel with Darwin's theory of natural selection, as far as it goes. However I, like Michael Behe, am unconvinced of its application at cell level. And, judged by their frantic abuse, there is no doubt modern discoveries in cell chemistry have left those I call Paleo-Darwinists feeling extremely threatened. But it is a controversy that avoids the next big question about evolution which is not whether Darwin was right or wrong but the problem of consciousness. Once a species is conscious, and can make design choices, is it still on the evolutionary ladder? If a century on we can design a human being with an average life expectancy of 150 years, can we still say that human evolution is subject to blind selection, or are we doing the selecting? Thus my article is not primarily about the social, moral or political aspects of Darwinism, but about how consciousness may allow us to step off the evolutionary ladder. To be able to alter a species at will is a situation Victorian scientists could never have conceived of. If that happens – and Dolly the sheep seems an early example - then unimaginable moral, political and cultural consequences will follow.

A separate but related issue, as Deutsch points out, is that evolution appears to be a process, which he calls "rendering", that reveals more and more information about the universe. This is because as the living world becomes more complex it understands more and more. A carbon atom does not understand the nuclear physics of a star but an astrophysicist does. Yet an astrophysicist is only a complex, evolved arrangement of carbon atoms (and other atoms). At what stage will this process stop? When everything is known about the nature of the universe? Who knows, perhaps elsewhere in the universe others have rendered a huge amount of information before us. Perhaps digital software, DNA, is the result?

Myles Harris is a doctor and a journalist. He has worked in England, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Canada and Africa. He has written for The Spectator, Daily Telegraph, The Independent, Evening Standard and Daily Mail. He is the author of Breakfast in Hell (Simon & Schuster New York, Picador London), an account of his work as a doctor in a relief camp during the Ethiopian famine of 1984.

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The difficulty is that in viewing the evolutionists’ reaction, there are two distinct phenomena intertwined. One the one hand, there are scientists who are quite reasonably frustrated with the whole ‘Creation Science’ business. On the other, there is a quasi-religious reaction from those, not necessarily scientists, who believe that Darwin “hath delivered us from [thinking about] the wrath to come”. For some of the latter sort, as Peter Kreeft puts it in the Snakebite Letters, “Evolution is their new dogma because they need to justify acting like dogs”.

There is a similar dichotomy concerning Michael Behe. He may be right about the oppressive situation in American universities, but from what I can make out his main argument seems to be “I can’t make evolution work, therefore I can’t allow that God should either”. That’s anti-faith, not faith. And as for his ‘irreducible complexity’, God is in the business of reducing complexity – see, for example, the latest word on Jellyfish.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at August 4, 2005 10:29 PM
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