Paul Gosselin (1979)
Among the many claims of the "scientific establishment" that of being neutral and objective is surely the most vaunted. The present essay will not seek to make a study of scientific objectivity in general, but rather to analyze the specific neutrality and objectivity manifest in the present day theoretical cornerstone of the scientific establishment: the theory of evolution. The following has been prepared on the basis of the conviction that scientists are, despite their use of logic and experimentation, still human beings like the rest of us and as such need an explanation of where they come from, a "myth of origin", to use the latest anthropological jargon. The following quote from B. Malinowski, a prominent 20th century anthropologist, should serve to illustrate this suspicion:
"The myth is to the savage what, to a fully believing Christian, is the Biblical story of Creation, of the Fall, of the Redemption by Christ's Sacrifice on the Cross." (p. 78)
and according to my thesis, what to the materialistic scientist is the general theory of evolution with its big bang, spontaneous generation of life, subsequent rise of man, and the now present hope of directing future evolutionary advancement.
In the first part of this paper a study will be made of the context in which the theory of evolution has developed and how it is perceived today by various leaders in the evolutionary school of thought. In the second part, the question of what science is will be examined and an attempt will be made to determine whether the theory of evolution can be properly deemed "scientific". This will be followed by an argument that the theory of evolution is not scientific at all, but in fact a "myth of origin" with the same general status and providing the same basic cultural functions as the origins myths of so-called primitive peoples.
I. The origin and definition of the theory of evolution.
The modern theory of evolution was born during the nineteenth century, a period particularly disturbed by various political and intellectual movements. One of the inherent aims of a number of these movements was to break the ideological hold that Christianity had over Europe and America at that time. An explanation of the origins of man, one that avoided reference to the supernatural or to God, was a necessity before an effective ideologial assault could be substantiated. In 1859 Darwin published "The Origin of the Species". This book had been preceded by the studies of many other individuals who lent a similar direction to their works, such as Lyell in the field of geology, Lamark in the field of biology and Malthus in the field of demography and economics. This was also a period in which there was a great belief in "progress". Science had made impressive discoveries, and everything seemed to permit an optimistic view of coming days. When we consider the part played by science in the technological development of this period, it is not surprising that many should have looked towards science for an alternative view of the origins of man. The challenge that Darwin and others of this time faced was that of constructing a materialistic explanation of the origins of man which would thus eliminate the need for man to turn to religion and other "superstitions" as an answer to their problems. In this context man has only to answer to himself.
A quote from Julian Huxley (drawn from his introduction to the Origin) should illustrate this objective:
"Thus in the light of the science of evolution-biology which Darwin founded, man is seen, not just as a part of nature, but as a very peculiar and indeed unique part. In his person, the evolutionary process has become conscious of itself and he alone is capable of leading it on to realizations of possibility." (p. xv, emphasis added)
In general, scientists consider evolution as a universal phenomenon in time and space. Theodosius Dobzhansky describes it in the following fashion:
"Evolution comprises all the stages of the development of the universe: the cosmic, biological and human or cultural developments. Attempts to restrict the concept of evolution to biology are gratuitous. Life is a product of the evolution of inorganic nature, and man is a product of the evolution of life." (p. 409)
René Dubos, another well-known evolutionist, indicates:
"Most enlightened persons now accept as a fact that everything in the cosmos - from heavenly bodies to human beings - has developed and continues to develop through evolutionary processes. " (p. 6)
Today, the theory of evolution enjoys the almost unanimous approval of the
scientific community. This cultural status is somewhat similar to that enjoyed
in past centuries by the Genesis narrative in the Bible. Although from time
to time scientists have criticized certain details of the theory, the general
idea of evolution has, until recently, suffered few serious attacks. Let us
now examine the relationship between the theory of evolution and science.
II. What is science ? Is evolution scientific ?
The question "What is science ?" may seem pointless to people today and many, I am sure, would reply immediately, "Why, it's what scientists do " Thus I believe it is important to clarify the issue, especially in view of the prestige attached to this institution by western civilization.
The first thing that must be said is that not everything a scientist does or says can be immediately qualified as 'scientific'. Science is rather defined as a procedure, that is, the use of the scientific method. The British chemist Anthony Standen explained what the scientific method is and how it operates. Although the following excerpt is fairly long, it exposes in non-technical language certain demands that are made of scientific theories or propositions that are little-known outside the scientific community.
"The first step is observation. Usually what is observed is the result of a deliberately contrived experiment (but not necessarily, for astronomy is a science, and it is impossible to do any experiments with the stars). A number of observations are collected, and then the scientist goes into a huddle with himself and forms a hypothesis, that is a suggested explanation, of some or other of the facts that have been observed. A hypothesis is, if you like, a sort of guess: later in this book some of the hypothesis' of science will be described, to see how they work. In the next step the scientist says "If my hypothesis is true when I do such and such an experiment, so and so ought to happen." The final step is to do the appropriate experiment, and see if the hypothesis is substantiated. If the result of the experiment is different from what he expected, the hypothesis is rejected at once, it's wrong. If the experiment agrees, the hypothesis is accepted tentatively. As further experiments are done, perhaps by other scientists, the hypothesis is continually put to the test of experiment, and if it survives a large number of experiments, and can explain them all, it is promoted to a "theory". A theory is simply a well-tested hypothesis, but there is no sharp dividing line. Even the best of theories may turn out to be wrong, for tomorrow an experiment may be done that flatly contradicts it. Scientists suppose that they always remember this faint shadow of doubt that hangs over all their theories, but in practice, we shall see later, they often forget it." (pp. 27-28)
The late Karl Popper, a prominent philosopher of science, would have agreed with Standen that science is not "The Truth". He would add that it cannot even prove its propositions, only refute them. This what Popper calls the "criterion of demarcation" which enables one to differentiate between science and other (non-scientific) means of acquiring information.
"Theories are, therefore, never empirically verifiable. ( ) But I shall admit a system as empirical or scientific only if it is capable of being tested by experience. These considerations suggest not the verifiability but the falsifiability of a system to be taken as a criterion of demarcation. In other words: I shall not require of a scientific system that it be capable of being singled out once and for all in a positive sense; but I shall require that it's logical form be such that it can be singled out in a negative sense: it must be possible for an empirical scientific system to be refuted by experience." (1935/1973 pp. 40-41, emphasis added)
When we look at the "social sciences" we find the word science used with very little discrimination at all: anything and everything is called scientific. Why not call the "social sciences" social studies instead ? It seems that the prestige of the scientific method in the natural sciences has gone to people's heads to the point that they have become victims of the illusion that only Science (with a capital S) can lead to Truth. Now that we know that science has no monopoly on truth, why not consider it as being one method of acquiring information among many others ? As far as the "social sciences" are concerned, we have never been particularly preoccupied with following the scientific method, so why not drop the pompous label ?
When we take a hard look at this phenomenon of applying the label SCIENTIFIC to any and every field of study we find that there is an emotional attachment to the scientific method that goes far beyond the intentions of those who originally developed it. We find, in fact that it has developed into a belief system that has come to be called scientism. Robert Fischer explains what scientism is:
"It should be made very clear that science is not scientism and scientism is not science. Science ( ) is limited to the realm of nature, that is to the realm of matter and energy, without specifying in any way what other realms may or may not exist. Scientism affirms that there is no other realm, that the ultimate reality waiting to be uncovered is material; and that there is no knowledge other than scientific knowledge." (p. 44, emphasis added)
Lévy-Leblond and Jaubert, in a partially Marxist-oriented critique of the institution of science, add an interesting note to this discussion:
The general public as well as many scientists may view science as black magic and view its authority as both indisputable and incomprehensible. This accounts for certain characteristics of Scientism as a religion. As such, it is as irrational and emotional in its motivations, and intolerant in its daily practice, as any of the religions it has supplanted. Moreover, it does not stop at maintaining that only its own myths are true. It is the only religion that has been arrogant enough to claim not to be based at all on myth, but on reason alone, to the point of calling "tolerance" the mixture of intolerance and immorality that it proclaims. (p. 41-42, translation PG)
Curious though it may seem, there are more believers in scientism outside the natural sciences than among those who have a scientific background. It seems that science has gradually come to play the social role once played by religion. We used to be told, "The Bible (or the Pope) says " and the case was closed; now, when told that "Scientific evidence indicates that ", everyone scurries off to obey the orders of the "scientists".Science has become the ulitimate validation in social discourse or, in other words, the supreme social authority for truth and today, despite the menace of H-bombs and serious ecological problems, social trust in science as a way of salvation does not seem about to disappear. This is possibly because the alternatives are rather few.
Now what can be said about the theory of evolution? Is it scientific? Does it meet the demands of the scientific method? Henry M. Morris, a creationist opposed to the theory of evolution, indicates one of the major weaknesses in relation to the scientific method:
"The essence of scientific method is experimental repetition and one cannot repeat the origin of the solar system or the origin of man in his laboratory. There is no experiment that can be devised which can discriminate between total evolution and creation. These, therefore are not matters of science at all. They cannot even be compared by canons of historical investigation, since they took place before the advent of written records." (p. 80)
Karl Popper, who was an evolutionist, admits that this theory does not meet his own standards enabling it to qualify as a scientific theory. He notes (1963):
"There is a difficulty with Darwinism it is far from clear what we should consider a possible refutation of the theory of natural selection. If, more especially, we accept that statistical definition of fitness which defines fitness by actual survival, then the survival of the fittest becomes tautological and irrefutable." (p. 964)
Thus we see that the whole question of origins is outside the scope of science because the origin of life and matter cannot be submitted to laboratory experiments or to any real observation. Check the scientific literature. Has any scientist observed the appearance of the first self-reproducing cell, observed the flight of the first bird or the march of the first reptile on land? Has any of this been documented? Yes, scientists do have a lot of speculations to offer on these subjects, but real science demands observation, (this is how we get antibiotics, more efficient engines and satelites in space) so even computer simulations about cell "evolution" (where the programmer controls all the parameters) amounts to little more than sophisticated forms of story-telling... Since none of these phenomena have been observed, there is no objective way to determine if evolutionary speculations on the origin of life have any relation at all to the real world. In the end, when you clear away all the rhetoric, it all boils down to ideological preference. The theory of evolution is therefore not scientific, but a matter of faith, and this despite the fact that it is formulated with "scientific" vocabulary and that many scientists believe it.
III. A functional comparison: origin myths and the theory of evolution.
Now let us consider the roles played by origins myths and myths in general in various societies. According to Lucien Sebag, a deceased French anthropologist of the structuralist school:
"A myth, for example, answers certain needs, in a given society it fills certain functions. It links the present potential of the human community to a primaeval History that ordinary life only repeats. It allows each human action, each gesture, each word to be inscribed in a symbolic order which gives it significance. It overlays the profane order with a sacred one that founds it and inscribes society in a continuity that goes beyond each particular moment of its existence." (p. 143, translation by PG)
According to Percy Cohen, a British anthropologist, myths distinguish themselves especially by their multi-functionality:
What is it in myths which appeals to men so strongly that it enables them to treat them as sacred ? I think the answer to all of these questions is that because myths perform several linked functions, and because they contain levels of meaning which achieve an intuitively experienced correspondance, because myths are narrative with a time-anchored structure, because they deal simultaneously with the socially and psychologically significant, because they make use of what is experienced and available and link it to the primordial sense of a deeper reality, they have the power which we rightly attribute to them in some societies." (p. 351, emphasis added)
Since it would not do to discuss myths without a contribution from Claude Lévi-Strauss, the founder of structuralism in anthropology, here is a quote from the inimitable Frenchman:
"( ), a myth always refers to events alleged to have taken place long ago. But what gives the myth an operational value is that the specific pattern described is timeless, it explains the present and the past as well as the future." (p. 209)
Following this excerpt, Lévi-Strauss goes on with his famous example of the French Revolution. He indicates that, for the historian, the French Revolution is a series of past events whose effects are still felt today, but only in a limited and indirect way.
"But to the French politician, as well as to his followers, the French Revolution is both a sequence belonging to the past - as to the historian - and a timeless pattern which can be detected in the contemporary French social structure and which provides a clue for its interpretation, a lead from which to infer future developments." (p. 209)
When we consider the fact that the French Revolution can be put to such use, it would seem highly unlikely that such would not be the case for the theory of evolution. If we re-read the previous quotes defining the theory in the first section we will notice that the theory of evolution means more than just a series of past events. To the scientist, evolution represents a way of interpreting the present and the future. In this context we find, even today, scientists who believe in manipulation of evolutionary processes for the "good" of humanity. But, as a well-known proverb goes, "One man's meat may be another man's poison." Who is qualified to tell us what the ultimate good for mankind is ?
What of the different roles played by the theory of evolution ? In the field of psychology, Freud - a thoroughly convinced evolutionist - argued that man is basically an animal determined by his sexual instincts. His views have been quite influential and have introduced changes in attitudes towards sexual behaviour in the 20th century, avoiding repression of sexual and other impulses. Discussing Darwin's influence on Freud, New York TImes journalist Daniel Goleman commented (1987: C1)
In a 1915 paper, Freud demonstrates his preoccupation with evolution. Immersed in the theories of Darwin, and of Lamarck, who believed acquired traits could be inherited, Freud concluded that mental disorders were the vestiges of behavior that had been appropriate in earlier stages of evolution.
In the case of the American educational system, one of its most influential representatives, John Dewey, was the first to promote open education, that is, leaving the child to "evolve" on his own. Ideologies such as racism and totalitarianism have been too often justified by evolutionary slogans such as the "fight for survival" and "the survival of the fittest". A list of areas touched by evolutionary ideas in our western civilization would be too long to enumerate here, but would comprise subjects as diverse as biology and theology. Ian Barbour is a writer with a background both in theology and physics and wrote many books on religion and science and he makes the following comments on the ideological uses that the theory of evolution has been put to in the past (1966: 413):
Spencer saw in it a justification for laissez-faire capitalism, Nietzche for political absolutism, and Kropotkin for cooperative anarchism ; Marx wanted to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin for lending support to dialectical materialism. To Huxley [Julian], evolution and the UNESCO charter convey the same message. These conclusions seem to depend largely on the prior ethical commitments that lead an author to select particular aspects of evolution as definitive.
Returning to the definitions of myth given by Sebag, Cohen and Lévi-Strauss, we must acknowledge that the theory of evolution corresponds remarkably with the various designated functions of myth. Evolution implies, first of all, events in the past; it is anchored in time; and, for the scientist it is both active in the present and determines the future. When we consider its social and cultural impact, it has so affected and penetrated western culture that we can surely say that it is no less multi-functional than myth.
Like myths, which usually take the narrative form, the theory of evolution is occasionally presented in this form, especially in its popularized versions, or in simplified illustrations of the evolutionary chain of life. Misia Landau, in Narratives of Human Evolution explores just this issue and she notes (1991: ix-x)
"There is a group of sciences committed to narrative in a more discursive
style than physics and on a different time
scale. They seek to reconstruct sequences of events in the past
sequences presumed to be unique or so hugely cyclic that they are beyond experiment:
Cosmology and geology are such sciences. Paleontology, or the study of the
origin of living things on earth, and paleoanthropology, the study of human
evolution, are further examples, in descending order of taxonomic scope and
of time scale. Ideally, they should all fit together in a coherent epic account
of our world: how it came to be and how humankind came to have its particular
place in it.
This book is concerned with the most intimate of the narrative sciences, paleoanthropology. It addresses a group of classic texts in paleoanthropology beginning in the generation of Charles Darwin. It asks what happens if we look at these texts as narratives, leaving aside issues of truth or justification. What it finds is that these texts are determined as much by traditional narrative frameworks as by material evidence."
In a discussion on the work of evolutionary biologists, in contrast to hard sciences such as physics, Ernst Mayr, one of the twentieth century's most prestigious biologists noted (1997):
"Biologists have to study all the known facts relating to the particular problem, infer all sorts of consequences from the reconstructed constellations of factors, and then attempt to construct a scenario to explain the observed facts of this particular case. In other words, they construct a historical narrative."
"Because this approach is so fundamentally different from the causal-law explanations, the classical philosophers of science - coming from logic, mathematics, or the physical sciences - considered it inadmissible. However, recent authors have vigorously refuted the narrowness of the classical view and have shown not only that the historical-narrative approach is valid but also that it is perhaps the only scientifically and philosophically valid approach in the explanation of unique occurrences."
"Of course, proving categorically that a historical narrative is 'true' is never possible."
Obviously Mayr would never be brought to concede that evolution is only stories... To maintain his world-view it is essential for Mayr and others like him to use a very wide definition of science, that goes much beyond the observation of repeatable processes. Choosing a such wide definition of science is certainly not neutral in ideological terms. It serves particular interests.
I believe it would be appropriate here to include a quote from Lévi-Strauss which should shed some light on the particular (scientific) form taken by the theory of evolution.
"If our interpretation is correct, we are led to a completely different view - namely, that the kind of logic in mythical thought is as rigorous as that as modern science, and that the difference lies, not in the quality of the intellectual process, but in the nature of the things to which it is applied." (p. 230)
Thus, it seems likely that the theory (myth) of evolution has taken its particular form because of the elements on which it operates and not because it answers a need different from that which was responsible for the birth of myths in "primitive" societies. Science's only contribution in this area seems to be that of building up an ethnocentric mentality among westerners concerning other theories of origins, that is, what are usually considered myths. "Only we are Scientific, poor you !"
In the world of myth, miracles are commonplace and occur regularly. Much the same could be said of evolutionary myths of origins. Just like in the Aboriginal Dreamtime stories and the Wolverine stories from the First Nations of North America, in the evolutionary origins myth one regularly encounters phenomena that are contrary to natural law and which have never been observed by any human. And the first of these miracles is abiogenesis, the transition from inert matter to living organisms, capable of reproducing themselves. But that is just the beginning. From there we go on to the transition from invertebrates to vertebrates, then there’s the transition from marine organisms, such as fish, to terrestrial organisms, the transition from reptiles to mammals, the transition from land mammals to marine mammals and then the transition from crawling reptiles to flying birds. But the greatest miracle of all? This is undoubtedly the appearance of functional genetic code and its chemical basis, DNA, and all this without the intervention of a Chemical Engineer or Programmer. It is clear that miracles abound in the evolutionary origins myth. The faith of evolutionary believers is great, but for my part I have to admit lacking enough faith to believe in such miracles. I prefer effects with a plausible cause.
Judging by the evidence presented above, it becomes possible to view the theory of evolution as the international scientific community's origins myth. Now what does this prove ? Only that scientists, too, are human and, like other human beings, they need a concept that explains where they came from and that gives them some kind of understanding of the present and also of the future.
One characteristic that sets the theory of evolution apart from other myths is that it is not, as myths usually are, tied in to an explicitly delineated plan of social action (a religion). Because of this, the theory of evolution has a hidden danger: it can be manipulated quite easily and the results can be quite disastrous. It is well-known that social Darwinism was the main basis for Hitler's notion of the superiority of the Aryan race which served to justify the massacre of six million Jews. Would we dare again place power in the hands of someone who really believes in the theory of evolution and was ready to apply to a real society? Although in the "social sciences" efforts to implement social Darwinism are usually regarded with much suspicion, in the political arena things are so mixed up (especially in international relations) that it might possibly be brought back in some new form.
V. Afterword (2017)
Oddly enough, many years after writing this article I have bumped into further evidence that some Enlightenment-influenced thinkers HAVE given thought to Evolution as mythology. On this issue, American biologist Edward O. Wilson observed:
Wilson, Edward O. (1978/2004) On Human Nature. (Harvard University Press) p. 192.
Of course a French Enlightenment devotee would NEVER make such a concession in print... The French are too subtle for that.
Paul Gosselin is a Social Anthropologist and the author of Flight From the Absolute: Cynical Observations on the Postmodern West.
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1 - Previously published in Creation Social Science and Humanities Society Quarterly Vol. 3 no. 3 Spring 1981 (pp. 7-13). The concepts proposed here have since been extensively developed by the author in the book: Flight From the Absolute: Cynical Observations on the Postmodern West. Volume II (2012).
2 - Or experiment - PG.
3 - And even those who keep a critical view of scientist's pronounciations have few althernatives. The usual tack is to find another scientist who will say what we want said on the issue which is the topic of the day.
4 - Though in some respects evolutionism may not be very reassuring, but it at least alleviates the irking suspicion that "Someone" may be breathing down one's neck…
- All this is relative of course, as a miracle is still a miracle after all. But no doubt Microsoft executives would like to take advantage of such miracles if they could. But unfortunately they don’t live in the world of myth and in the real world if you want to get your hands on innovative and functional executable code, you have no choice but to hire programmers. No miracles for Microsoft! Moreover, discussing the genetic code in his book The Road Ahead Bill Gates himself said (1996: 288) "DNA is like a computer program, but far, far more advanced than any software we've ever created."