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April 2009

Darwinism and Modern "Biologism": An Alternative View.

By Robert Miller, freelance researcher associated with Otago University

For much of the 20th century, science was dominated by physics, but biology now dominates. Immense technical progress in biology has thrown up profound ethical dilemmas.

My own work, on the theory of brain function, in relation to schizophrenia, brings me to know well the attitudes of other biologists. Increasingly I question these attitudes. I have serious worries about where biology is taking us. It is not the science itself that I reject, but rather the world view emerging in its wake.

In particular I worry about how human nature is reduced to something entirely mechanical. This debases human values, making the concept of ‘a person’ less real than the physical substance of which we are made. I also read in the history of science, to find how we reached our present views. This year we celebrate Charles Darwin, a real pioneer of biology. I would scarcely want to belittle his enormous achievements; but some of my views on Darwin’s theory are a little subversive.

Modern science started in the 17th century with Francis Bacon, who first wrote of "scientific method". In the process he challenged 2000 years of scholarly tradition but he was not anti-religious. He wrote: "A little philosophy inclineth men’s minds towards atheism, but depth of philosophy bringeth men’s minds about again to religion" Towards the end of that century, Isaac Newton produced his Principia, describing a theory of the whole universe, based on laws of motion, and the principle of gravitation. The same laws applied ‘everywhere and always’. His work was held together by strict monotheistic theology. In Newton’s world view, God was the supreme power, not the laws of nature, which God could overrule at will.

This staggering achievement was seriously distorted in the next century, especially in France, during the ‘Enlightenment’. French Enlightenment thinkers were anti-clerical. Newton’s science was accepted, but not his (or anyone else’s) theological framework. By the end of the century the French mathematician Laplace could thus propose the philosophy of ‘determinism’, namely that if one knew the position, velocity and direction of movement of every particle in the universe, and had sufficient computing power, all events, past and future, would be revealed, and determined with ultimate precision. However, this was only a ‘thought experiment’. It is fundamentally impossible to verify Laplace’s statement empirically. In human biology it would also mean that our sense of free will is no more than an illusion.

In the 19th century, buoyed by Laplace’s confident assertion, scientists tried something never before attempted – they proposed scientific explanations of history. This started with Thomas Malthus’s gloomy (but politically influential) prognostications about human population growth. It led to Karl Marx’s formulations about socio-political history; and in this context Charles Darwin formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection.

In my view, thinking about Darwin’s theory has become seriously confused because it is presented as a package deal, whereas it includes two ideas which should be kept separate. First, there is the fact of evolution, namely that millions of years ago, the form of animals and plants was very different from present day forms, with evidence of gradual change. Given the fossil record, it is hard to doubt this, unless one tries to assert that the world is not millions of years old. The fact of evolution is straight descriptive natural history, and Darwin was supreme as a natural historian.

The second idea is the explanation of that fact by natural selection of randomly emerging variants in each species. That process is quite mechanical and the variants are random. Therefore evolution is purposeless. This second idea is then only partly scientific; it is also partly about theological issues.

In the mid-20th century, central European philosophers such as Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek questioned the notion that science could explain history. Their early lives were scarred by the rise of dictatorships, founded on so-called scientific accounts of socio-political history. Popper also questioned the explanatory content of biological evolutionary theory.

I also raise such questions. Physical science involves the study of one variable at a time, with all others excluded, or well controlled. However, history is an endless succession of unique events, each one complex and uncontrolled, subject to many influences. In this situation, we cannot work out fundamental causal principles.

Of course we know on a small scale that selective breeding can change the form of living things over the generations. However, in physics, we know that laws which apply on the everyday scale may break down when extrapolated to extreme conditions. Is it really acceptable to extrapolate from small changes during animal breeding, to the whole evolutionary history of life on earth, with no chance of empirical checking of past events?

For higher species (excepting perhaps micro-organism), are there any instances where we know in detail the events leading to the origin of a new species? And even if one found a few reasonably convincing examples, is the vast extrapolation to the whole of history really justified? With regard to the explanatory content of Darwin’s theory, would it not be more honest simply to say ‘I do not know’?

Science, like religion. depends on faith, or (if you like) on myths. Myths are to be evaluated not by their truth, but by what they can deliver to human societies pragmatically, as tested over the centuries. The explanatory content of Darwinism cannot be proven either true or false, as applied to the whole of life’s history. In that sense it is a myth, a guiding assumption perhaps but not a testable scientific hypothesis.

Is it a pragmatically useful myth? Different people will give different answers here, but the natural selection principle was closely linked to the eugenics movements in the early 20th century; and today those dangerous ideas are by no means dead. In my view, to resolve those intractable ethical dilemmas raised by modern biology we need to rekindle the spirit of the real pioneers of science in the 17th century.