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Columnists

The ayatollah of atheism and Darwin’s altars

The ayatollah of atheism and Darwin’s altars

27 August 2005

12:00 AM

27 August 2005

12:00 AM

How long will Darwin continue to repose on his high but perilous pedestal? I am beginning to wonder. Few people doubt the principles of evolution. The question at issue is: are all evolutionary advances achieved exclusively by the process of natural selection? That is the position of the Darwinian fundamentalists, and they cling to their absolutist position with all the unyielding certitude with which Southern Baptists assert the literal truth of the Book of Genesis, or Wahabi Muslims proclaim the need for a universal jihad against ‘the Great Satan’. At a revivalist meeting of Darwinians two or three years ago, I heard the chairman, the fiction-writer Ian McEwan, call out, ‘Yes, we do think God is an old man in the sky with a beard, and his name is Charles Darwin.’ I doubt if there is a historical precedent for this investment of so much intellectual and emotional capital, by so many well-educated and apparently rational people, in the work of a single scientist. And to anyone who has studied the history of science and noted the chances of any substantial body of teaching — based upon a particular hypothesis or set of observations — surviving the erosion of time and new research intact, it is inevitable that Darwinism, at least in its fundamentalist form, will come crashing down. The only question is: when?

The likelihood that Darwin’s eventual debacle will be sensational and brutal is increased by the arrogance of his acolytes, by their insistence on the unchallengeable truth of the theory of natural selection —which to them is not a hypothesis but a demonstrated fact, and its critics mere flat-earthers — and by their success in occupying the commanding heights in the university science departments and the scientific journals, denying a hearing to anyone who disagrees with them. I detect a ground-swell of discontent at this intellectual totalitarianism, so unscientific by its very nature. It is wrong that any debate, especially one on so momentous a subject as the origin of species, and the human race above all, should be arbitrarily declared to be closed, and the current orthodoxy set in granite for all time. Such a position is not tenable, and the evidence that it is crumbling is growing.

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Much of the blame lies with Richard Dawkins, head of the Darwinian fundamentalists in this country, who has (it seems) indissolubly linked Darwin to the more extreme forms of atheism, and projected on to our senses a dismal world in which life has no purpose or meaning and a human being has no more significance than a piece of rock, being subject to the same blind processes of pitiless, unfeeling, unthinking nature. The sheer moral, emotional and intellectual emptiness of the universe as seen by the Darwinian bigots is enough to make mere humans (as opposed to scientific high priests), and especially young ones, despair, and wonder what is the point of going on with existence in a world which is hard enough to endure even without the Darwinian nightmare. I was intrigued to note, earlier this summer, in the pages of the Guardian, an indignant protest by one of Dawkins’s fellow atheists that he was bringing atheism into disrepute by his extremism, by the tendentious emotionalism of his language and by his abuse of religious belief. But he has his passionate defenders too, and occupies an overwhelmingly strong position in Oxford, not a university famous for its contribution to science to be sure, but one where personalities notorious for extreme opinions of a quasi-theological kind are much applauded, even canonised, as witness Pusey, Keble, Newman and Jowett. To ferocious undergraduate iconoclasts he is the ayatollah of atheism, and in consequence much wined and dined in smart London society. Recently he was chosen by the readers of Prospect, a monthly journal with some pretensions, as Britain’s leading ‘public intellectual’. It is true that such write-ins carry no authority and often strike a ludicrous note. A similar poll conducted by the BBC produced Karl Marx as ‘the greatest philosopher of all time’. All the same, there is no denying Dawkins’s celebrity: he is up there among the football managers and pop singers, alongside Posh and ‘Bob’ and the Swedish Casanova.

Meanwhile, however, opponents are busy. The Times Literary Supplement, in its issue of 29 July, carried a seven-column article by the equally celebrated philosopher Jerry Fodor of Rutgers University, which relentlessly demolished the concept of Evolutionary Psychology, one of the pillars of the imposing mansion of orthodoxy occupied by the Darwinians. Fodor is particularly scathing about Dawkins and his leading American lieutenant, Professor Steven Pinker, and the theory that, in the process of natural selection, genes selfishly spread themselves. Fodor’s discourse on motivation (or lack of it) in the evolutionary process is well worth reading, being a sensible and sensitive argument as opposed to the dogmatic assertions of the Darwinian cultists. It is, I think, a sign of the times that they are now being attacked from within the establishment.

At the same time, opponents of the dogma that natural selection is the sole force in evolution, who cannot get a hearing within that establishment, are not remaining silent. It is characteristic of the new debate that heterodoxy is finding other outlets. I recommend, for instance, a book by the learned anatomist Dr Antony Latham, The Naked Emperor: Darwinism Exposed, just out from Janus Publishing (105–107 Gloucester Place, London W1U 6BY). Much of the book is devoted to a chapter-by-chapter exposure of the errors and illogicalities of Dawkins’s best-known book, The Blind Watchmaker, and its highly emotional presentation of the case against design (and God). The indictment of Dawkins’s scientific scholarship is powerful, masterly and (I would say) unanswerable.

Another book which has come my way this summer, though it was published by Columbia in New York in 2003, is by Richard Bird of Northumbria University. It is called Chaos and Life: Complexity and Order in Evolution and Thought. This is a formidable piece of work, showing that the way in which living things appear and evolve is altogether more complex and sophisticated than the reliance on natural selection presupposes. One of the points he raises, which to me as a historian is crucial, is the impossibility of fitting natural selection as the normative form of evolution into the time frame of the earth as an environment for life. Bird shows that Dawkins’s attempts to answer this objection are disingenuous and futile. One of the virtues of this book (as, indeed, of Dr Latham’s) is that it has told me a lot about evolution and design that I did not know, and which orthodox dogma conceals. So there is a virtue in the origins debate — the spread of knowledge — and I hope it continues until the altars of Dagon come crashing down.

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