It was all the way back in 1860, when Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, participated in an open debate with T.H. Huxley, Darwin’s leading supporter, that at least for England the evolutionary debate was effectively decided once and for all. The bishop was judged to have lost the argument by virtue of his memorably snide query as to whether it was on the mother’s or the father’s side that his opponent was descended from an ape. With hindsight it would seem that the bishop could have amply justified his position if only he had claimed that Church doctrine relies not on the strength of argument but rather on faith.
According to a book recently published in England, The Facts of Life: Shattering the Myth of Darwinism by Richard Milton, scientists have not been playing it straight with us laymen. Our schoolchildren arc taught about Mendel’s experiments with garden peas and about industrial melanism in moths, and they perform genetic experiments on unsuspecting fruit flies in class. Yet even here, at the secondary-school level of biology, it seems there are still some serious unanswered questions that perplex even those who do not believe in the biblical Creation. Can acquired characteristics be inherited? Do better-adapted species arise spontaneously when the environment changes, or do existing variants merely take over? Is the scope for mutation unlimited? Is it governed solely by chance?
The natural history museums that we laymen subsidize through taxes “reconstruct” lifelike models of primitive man and display “chronologies” of the earth and its inhabitants without ever letting on that these are based on guesswork. In 1991, Mrs. Joan Ahrens, a resident of Capetown, was astonished to read of an archaeological find in her native South Africa. Rock paintings discovered in the bush had been analyzed by Oxford University’s radio carbon accelerator unit as being 1,200 years old and were pronounced by experts to be the earliest attempts at artistic self-expression by the country’s bushmen. The enraged housewife stepped forward to explain that the paintings had been produced in her art classes and subsequently removed from her garden by unknown vandals. In short, scientific dating methods can be wildly inaccurate; some scientists confess there is no conclusive fossil evidence to show that life could have evolved, or did evolve, from a common ancestor. Though familiar, reassuring, and almost universally accepted, neo-Darwinist theory does not rely on the kinds of facts and proofs that are generally associated with the scientific method.
Yet many of these scientists, confronted with the headline-grabbing revelations of Mr. Milton’s expose, have argued that the skeptic is out to mislead us laymen. Darwinism may not have a simple answer to everything, they maintain, but there is no alternative theory that is more plausible. The philosophical crux of the debate is weighted on the side of the somewhat circular reasoning of the “cock-up theory” of natural selection—the fittest survive, those who survive are the fittest—seasoned with catastrophism to explain the unexplainable; how life first emerged, why thousands of species have suddenly died or are missing from the fossil record, why huge amounts of helium are “missing” from the atmosphere, and other countless anomalies. On the other side of the argument arc those who adhere to a “conspiracy theory,” whether it be one of God the Creator, extraterrestrial colonization, some form of Lamarckism, or a governing intelligence inherent to living structures, such as that which is attributed to nuclear particles.
Mr. Milton’s chief detractor is the eminent zoologist and author Richard Dawkins, who (could it be a coincidence?) is also at Oxford. According to Dr. Dawkins, Mr. Milton’s skeptical thesis is akin to the letters he routineU receives “from flat-carthers and other harmless fruitcakes.” Writing in New Statesman & Society, he accused Mr. Milton of having an undisclosed Creationist motive—without, however, himself disclosing that the book contains a lengthy critique of his book The Blind Watchmaker. But what should most arouse the suspicions of the uncommitted layman is Dawkins’ lengthy rail at the irresponsibility of the London publishers Fourth Est. for publishing Milton’s book at all. At great length, he marvels that it was not blocked by an editor or referee with the kind of credentials that, presumably, would insure his agreement with Dr. Dawkins.
Of course it is not only professionals who might find it unlikely that the very foundations of scientific learning could be challenged by an amateur enthusiast, an outsider without formal training or impressive credentials working on the basis of little more than common sense and observation. Respect for expertise and accreditation, so widespread in our society, is difficult to reconcile in practice with the rather more idealistic belief that true progress and scientific discovery are more often than not the products of individualism and iconoclasm. And the current dispute over Darwinism may well prove impossible for the nonscientist to adjudicate. Perhaps the inconsistencies, vested interests, and circular reasoning are not as all-pervasive as Mr. Milton’s account of recent findings makes them out to be. The main defense employed by the many who are rubbishing the book without reading it is that only the scientists themselves can decide. However, this time it is not I, the layman, who is encroaching on the scientists’ territory, but the scientists who are encroaching on mine. Dr. Dawkins writes in a layman’s magazine, not a specialized journal, that there .should be a foolproof bureaucratic mechanism to prevent a layman’s ideas from being circulated among the general readership. lie argues that although Mr. Milton conceals it behind a seemingly rational argument based on respected scientific research, and may not even realize it himself, he is no more than a Creationist apologist.
Actually, Mr. Milton accuses Darwinists of intellectual authoritarianism in their approach to science. If anything. Dr. Dawkins justifies this accusation with his arguments directed at the general reader. According to Dr. Dawkins, it is an attack on rationalism for this book to be available. Perhaps, having been challenged in the past only by Creationists, whose argument is not based on reason and so cannot be defeated by reason, Darwinists like Dr. Dawkins have lost their rational edge through lack of a credible adversary. Moreover, we are told, it is not just because our most eminent scientists think this book is rubbish that we should also think it is rubbish. We are asked to consult our own common sense. How could Darwin’s theory of evolution not be true? If evolution did not happen, what did?
But if neo-Darwinist theory does indeed rely on such appeals to common sense, maybe it is not so strange for Mr. Milton to be attacking it on that basis. If Dr. Dawkins himself is inviting us to put the theory to the test of common sense. then perhaps the layman is not so out of place as a judge. After all, mathematicians do not appeal to our common sense when they tell us that parallel lines do meet, and I have heard enough of recent research into chaos theory and fractile geometry to know that it is best to stay out of it. Darwinism, however, basks in the glory of being comprehensible and somehow obvious. (Charles Darwin himself, after all, was not a professional scientist but was trained as a priest.) Compared to him, Mr. Milton, who is an amateur geologist, an engineer by training, and for 20 years a science journalist, is brimming with credentials. Darwin’s ideas, which gained acceptance because to rational thinkers they seemed reasonable, were published despite entrenched opposition and the centuries of received wisdom they contradicted. To say that it is the Darwinists of today who have inherited the characteristic bigotry, closemindedness, and quasi-religious zeal of their erstwhile opponents does not begin to do justice to the full scale of the irony. When an Oxford debating society tried to organize a replay of the famous Wilberforce-Huxley confrontation of 130 years ago. Dr. Dawkins withdrew after he heard Mr. Milton was to take part.
What makes Darwinism so contentious a doctrine is that it is not confined to science. It underlies the fundamental political, economic, moral, and religious assumptions of everyone. Would it not seem in post-Thatcherite Britain, after years of science funding cuts and dwindling research resources, that scientists would be among the first to question the reductio ad absurdum of “the survival of the fittest”? Do they believe that if subsidies are cut, the “best” science will survive by natural selection? It is, after all, professional scientists like Dr. Dawkins the Darwinist, not renegade journalists like Mr. Milton the anti-Darwinist, whom the system protects from the ravages of market forces.
As for us ordinary, tax-paying ignoramuses, why should our questions and doubts, even when they are in book form, not be tolerated with courtesy and patience? John Stuart Mill, Darwin’s great contemporary, believed that no orthodoxy is ever right. Only a doctrine which can defend itself against that radical claim is fit to survive.