Friday, April 27, 2012

Evolution is a Myth!

That is the incendiary and intriguing claim of physicist Hugh Henry and biblical scholar Daniel J. Dyke in their joint 2010 article "Evolution as Mythology." The purpose of their paper is not to call into question the factual accuracy of evolution (as the colloquial definition of "myth" might imply), and both authors accept evolution as a valid scientific theory (without any of the tentativeness that the colloquial definition of "theory" might imply). Henry and Dyke do not examine evolution primarily with the aim of evaluating whether or not it is true, and when they critique the science of evolution it is never with the purpose of debunking it in favor of a more religiously palatable excuse. Instead, the authors are interested only in examining whether or not evolution functions in Western culture as a myth in a sociological sense.

It is prudent here, and the authors recognized the need, to define more clearly how myth is used so as to avoid any confusion which the everyday use of the term might provoke. Henry and Dyke begin simply with a dictionary definition of myth: "A traditional, typically ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serves as a fundamental type in the worldview of a people,
as by explaining aspects of the natural world or delineating the psychology, customs, or ideals of society." They refine this further by appealing to a definition out of comparative religion: "Myths [are] the symbolic stories that communities use to explain the universe and their place within it. . . . Myths are not falsehoods or the work of primitive imagination; they . . . [form] a sacred belief structure that supports the laws and institutions of the religion and the ways of the community." Finally, they expand further on these ideas to complete their own definition: "Mythology serves an important sociological purpose. It explains the world-view of a culture or peoples. It validates the thinking, practices, and ideals of a culture. A creation myth explains existence; without a creation myth, a culture or people are without roots and without purpose." In short, myths are those sacrosanct narrative through which a society orders itself.

With this definition in mind, Henry and Dyke attempt to offer a number of characteristic features of myth which may offer parallels to the way the theory of evolution functions in society. They begin with the most common unifying feature, that of a inexplicable or transcendent guiding force. With its tendency to foster atheism, naturalistic theories of evolution would seem to preclude any deity which might fulfill this criteria. Yet, the authors see in the process of natural selection--all-determinative and yet never fully grasped--the kind of godlike entity that gives evolution its mythic character. The authors observe that "whenever something cannot be explained, natural selection is cited with reverence, as if an omnipotent miracle worker." Lest this seem like a polemical exaggeration on their part, they offer up this quotation from evolutionary zoologist Pierre-Paul Grasse: "Chance becomes a sort of providence, not named but which is secretly worshiped." And another from the venerable godfather of abiogenesis, Harold Urey:

All of us who study the origin of life find that the more we look into it, the more we feel that it is too complex to have evolved anywhere. We believe as an article of faith that life evolved from dead matter on this planet. It is just that its complexity is so great, it is hard for us to imagine that it did.

Henry and Dyke suggest a number of other parallels with varying degrees of success. They suggest that, like many other governing myths, the theory of evolution has a profit an Charles Darwin. More convincingly, they note that belief in evolution functions in our society as a social and intellectual shibboleth, distinguishing the orthodox from the heterodox in American culture. While the parallels to the Catholic persecution of Galileo are strained (particularly since those stories are themselves more myth than history), they offer more potent allusions to political or academic disaster resulting from criticisms of evolutionary theory, not to mention a broader fear of being ostracized that accompanies even everyday doubts about evolutionary theory. The authors add, from science historian Marjorie Grene, "It is as a religion of science that Darwinism chiefly held, and holds, men's minds. . . . Darwinian theory has itself become an orthodoxy preached by its adherents with religious fervor, and doubted, they feel, only by a few muddlers imperfect in scientific faith."

Somewhere between the credibility of the argument that evolution has a prophet and that it is a social creed is the authors' suggestion that professional evolutionists function as a kind of intellectual clergy for Western culture with a "secret-knowledge-known-only-to-a-select-few."

When inconsistencies and problems with naturalistic evolution are raised, they are frequently countered with ridicule, giving the impression that the scientific aspects of the Theory of Naturalistic Evolution are highly complex and can never be understood by ordinary people: not by a physicist like the author and not even by a Nobel laureate such as astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle. The terminology sometimes seems deliberately incomprehensible as if to emphasize that the fundamentals of neo-Darwinism can be understood only by a few great men and women of science.

Pierre-Paul Grasse states: "We rarely discover these rules [which govern the living world] because they are highly complex." Probability arguments such as those outlined below, which seem compelling, are often countered with flip comments such as "Biologists don't find that a problem"—as if to cite a higher authority. Fundamental questions, such as the evolution of the eye, are answered with speculation but with scant supporting facts. (One example is the PBS documentary on that topic, which is available in the PBS online library.) Such attitudes are more appropriate to clerics than to scientists; inconsistencies and problems in other branches of science are countered with scientific evidence, not mere rhetoric. Scientists are taught to distrust nebulous calls to higher authority and distracting arguments; as Hoyle once said about the Theory of Naturalistic Evolution: "Be suspicious of a theory if more and more hypotheses are needed to support it as new facts become available, or as new considerations are brought to bear."

Having shown the ways the theory of evolution conforms to the sociological notion of myth, the remainder of the article attempts to illustrate how evolutionary theory falls short by science's own self-imposed strictures. Not being a scientist, and not really caring whether or not evolution is good science, I will leave those arguments for anyone who wants to track down the article. What is striking to me is how compelling the overall thesis of the article is, regardless of the strength of the individual arguments. It is hard to look at evolution and not realize just how thoroughly it functions in our culture much in the same way that creation myths have in all cultures previous. It has become "an article of faith and a test of orthodoxy" from which no one in our society can escape. The myth of naturalistic evolution is a necessary construct, whether factually accurate or not, for justifying the naturalism and materialism that prop up Western notions of politics, science, and ethics.

Many of the parallels Henry and Dyke draw are strained, many will find suspect their assertion that evolution is more myth than science (which is really unnecessary to the claim that evolution functions sociologically as a myth), and it is hard not to be critical on a number of levels of the conclusion that "the existence of a Creator-God has much more evidence than the Theory of Naturalistic Evolution." Yet, these deficiencies notwithstanding, Henry and Dyke make an important contribution to Western self-understanding with this article. "Whether it is right or whether it is wrong," naturalistic evolution has proved a powerful myth--arguably the governing myth--in Western culture. This ought to allow us not only to open evolution to more careful scientific critique, which seems to be the authors' aim, but also to cultural critique. Understanding evolution as myth and embracing the iconoclastic postmodern programme, it is paramount that contemporary society begin to reevaluate evolution as a test for orthodoxy in politics, academia, and culture at large. The time has come to consider again the claims of philosopher of science Wolfgang Smith and to actualize their implications:

The doctrine of evolution has swept the world, not on the strength of its scientific merits, but precisely in its capacity as a Gnostic myth. It affirms, in effect, that living beings created themselves, which is, in essence, a metaphysical claim. . . . evolutionism is in truth a metaphysical doctrine decked out in scientific garb.

No comments:

Post a Comment