Thursday, February 5, 2009

Review of Julian Huxley and the Idolatry of Evolution

A friend of mine recently posted a link to an online article entitled Julian Huxley and the Idolatry of Evolution by Gary Wolf. From what little I know of Wolf, I understand that he is a sci-fi author who frames his novels as criticisms of over-sized systems of multiculturalism and political correctness. In this article he attempts to characterize evolution as a religious dogma and in so doing he frequently mischaracterizes the scientific ontology of the theory of evolution itself. In this blog post I will make comments to some of Wolf’s mistaken points. Wolf’s article can be viewed here.

Wolf starts out his article stating:

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution has come under increasing attack in recent decades within the scientific community, primarily as the result of a dramatic expansion of knowledge in the field of biology.

This idea that the theory of evolution is at the brink of extinction within the academic world has been made and repeated by creationists for nearly seventy years, if not longer (see Longest Running Falsehood). It is one of the longest running pseudo-claims made by “biblical biologists” or creationists of various stripes. Counter-creationists have adequately addressed the creationist claim of evolution’s imminent demise. Wolf’s use of this lie is an immediate slap to his credibility as it suggests that he is overly steeped in one side of the creation-evolution discussion.

Wolf asserts that evolution is idolatry and that the scientific theory has been transformed into a quasi-religious cult—leading to the “erosion of intellectual life in the West.” Wolf states the following:

In the thinking of many Darwinists, evolution has a quasi-mystical quality. We have all seen the evolutionary charts showing the development of creepy-crawly things into mammals; knuckle-dragging apes into modern humans. Man stands at the apex of the evolutionary pyramid.

The charts showing a knuckle-walking primate with a staged progression of intermediates that end with a modern, bipedal, white male were ideologically loaded and suggestive. Many evolutionists have jettisoned the use of such charts as they suggest that evolution is teleological (goal) oriented with humanity at the apex. It is also understood that this chart incorrectly suggests that white males are the apex of evolution vis-à-vis females and non-whites. Furthermore, evolution is not progression as daughter species are not to be seen as “more evolved” than surviving mother species. All species—from the paramecium to the pacaderm are equally evolved or have undergone an equal number of years of selective evolutionary pressures.

Yesterday Philo and I went to the Field Museum in Chicago. On the back of the Lucy display, facing toward the Neandertal and Sapiens displays, was the “knuckle-walker to modern man” icon. It had a large, red circle around it with a line slashed through the center. A comment was made next to it reiterating that the implications of this icon are amiss and the icon should be dismissed science education. I do feel that the icon is a very telling window into the cultural perspectives of its creators, and it can be studied as such; however, it is obviously an inappropriate or inadequate tool for teaching and illustration evolution. And, to the credit of evolutionists, it has been noted in mainstream science that the icon is faulty for over thirty years.

Wolf quotes from the prominent evolutionist advocate-author Lewin who is quoted in Wolf’s article as stating the following:

The Copernican and Darwinian revolutions dislodged humans from a position of centrality in the universe of things. Nevertheless, even if humans are accepted as the product of an evolutionary process in common with other species, it is still possible to view Homo sapiens as a special product of that process and indeed as its ultimate goal.[i]

Wolf highlights on the phrase “ultimate goal” and asks, “The goal of whom or what?” In doing this Wolf has crossed over into an ideological application of evolution that differs from the scientific theory. This ideological application of evolution is the idea of teleology or that evolution moves biota toward a predetermined goal. The scientific principles of evolution demonstrate that the process of evolution is dysteleological, that is, it is not goal oriented. The “end result” of selective pressure is not predetermined by the environment. There are limits to what evolutionary pressure can do, and these limits are generally set by prior adaptations and exaptations that an organism has at its disposal.

Why does Lewin make the “ultimate goal” statement? I do no have Lewin’s work available at the moment, but I am sure that Lewin was attempting to provide a scaffolding to the classical theist reader who believes that the deity has predestined with specificity. Additionally, Lewin only notes that it is possible that Homo sapiens is the end result or “special product” of evolution. Lewin is not dogmatically asserting that humanity is the apex or special product.

Science does not lead to the creation of dogma. Scientific epistemology is reality based, and its methodologies are always in pursuit of falsification. That is, scientific methodology is based on real-world, observable, empirically-obtained information. This information can either confirm or falsify an hypothesis, a postulate, or a theory. To dogmatically assert that humanity is the end, special product of evolution is to step outside of science, it is to make dogma. The dogma of humanity’s apex, or special product stature is not falsified by science, though scientific data does challenge this notion.

Wolf in proceeding in his article, makes two fundamentally false assumptions. First, he assumes that evolution is teleological with a goal in mind. Second, he assumes that humanity is one of the predetermined goals of evolution. By personifying evolution as a goal-selecting and human-oriented force or persona, Wolf is doing with evolution what scientists themselves do not do. Yet, these two personifications of evolution are the foundations of Wolf’s argument that evolution is idolatry. Wolf observes that goal selection and human orientation are attributes of a Judeo-Christian God, and depriving this God of such abilities and giving them to evolution is to make evolution into idolatry. Never mind that this argument is untenable in today’s intellectually-informed environment. I assume that this is why he reaches back to Julian Huxley.

Wolf relies heavily on Julian Huxley for his acceptance of the human-goal teleology of evolution. Though Huxley did often assert that evolution is dysteleological, Huxley often used the “language of progress” to describe evolution from “less evolved” or “primitive” to “more evolved” or “advanced.” Such language, he posted, was the merely the language of appearance, though it does appear likely that Huxley did maintain a belief in the human-centrism of evolution. Huxley’s teleological understanding of evolution was at odds with the scientific understanding of evolution in his day and in ours. Huxley’s understanding is often the way that people uninformed in the mechanics of evolution interpret evolution’s “progress.”

Evolution is a theory, not a law. The theory of evolution explains the mechanics of evolution, and it is open for ongoing discussion, postulation, and falsification. That evolution happened is beyond doubt, yet, the mechanisms are open for review. Furthermore, the mechanics are understood as dysteleological; they are not directed to a goal other than day-to-day survival and reproduction. Evolution is not idolatrous as it is not a replacement God or religion.


  1. I think I'm with you on this one. I don't see how evolution is idoloty. In terms of a goal for evolution, evolution does not have a goal but it is a side product of a goal which is survivial.

  2. Hello Zee,

    You state that evolution "is a side product of a goal which is survival." Feel free to repeat that load and clear for others to read. This is such an important point. It is the extension of survival pressures that leads to reproductive differentials...and this leads to the preservation of favorable genetic mutations...etc. The growth of a lion from cub to lioness as explained by natural mechanics is not idolatry, but it is the same mechanics that on a macro scale lead to evolution. It is odd how the creationist will gladly accept dysteleological growth in the lioness but not on a macro scale. It is overly partial to me.

  3. There are many gaps in the theory of evolution. I'm not saying that in terms of claiming its false but more that there is still a lot to be discovered. There are also many more gaps in my personal understanding of evolution. I just don't care enough to educate myself deeply in it.

    Micro evolution and macro evolution are extremely different subjects. The "survivial of the fittest" can be easily applied to micro evolution. Its harder to logically apply to macro evolution in my mind. Did fish grow legs to survive? Doubtful. Did a genetic mutation allowing fish to walk on land happen give them an advantage to get away from preditors? That seems logical to me.

    Claiming something is idolatry is just an easy way for a Christian to try to put someone down. In most cases its on the same maturity level as, "I know you are but what am I?" and "Better a millstone...".

  4. While evolution is a theory, I object to its dismissal by fundies as "just a theory", and "not a fact". There is no point in the scientific method at which a theory is elevated to fact. Facts are quite useless unless they are understood within the context of a theory. So, arriving at a theory is the goal of science, not arriving at a fact. And we know a theory is a good one if it accounts for more facts than a competing theory. In the case of evolution by natural selection, no competing theory has *ever* been proffered that accounts for more facts. But, if a theory ever came along that did account for more of the facts, we would cheerfully abandon evolution and go with the new theory instead. We certainly wouldn't accuse the makers of the new theory with charges of heresy. So, the whole "evolution=idolatry" thing is garbage.

  5. I don't think arriving at a theory is the goal of science. The goal is to arrive at a law and a theory is a step towards the discovery of law of science.

    You said, "Facts are quite useless unless they are understood within the context of a theory." My understanding of a theory is that it is a contemplation or speculation. It may be accurate it might not be accurate. Facts are things that actually exist and are reality. I can't seem to put the pieces together to understand your statement that facts are useless without the conext of theory.

  6. conext is the new context... all the kids are saying it these days.

  7. I hope I'm phrasing this correctly; where's a scientist when you need one? Scientific law connotes an almost mathematical truth about the subject, like Newton's law of gravity, F=mg.

    I would equate speculation with hypothesis, not theory. One gathers facts or data or observations and then invents a hypothesis to account for them. Different hypotheses will account for those facts/data/observations differently. Although a hypothesis can never be verified, it must be constructed in a way that it could conceivably be falsified. So, a theory is a hypothesis that, over time, has consistently withstood attempts to falsify it. We can't call the theory a law, but we can speak with some confidence regarding it accuracy.

    "Conext"... I like it.


  8. According to Wikipedia "A scientific law is a concise verbal or mathematical statement of a relation that is always under the same conditions."

    The geek in me can't help but find humor in describing Newton's law of gravity as F=mg but your point is still valid. It was originally known as Newton's theory of gravity and since it was changed to Newton's law of gravity it has been superseded by Einstein's theory of general relativity. Its now known as an approximation of gravity.

    I think we are on pretty much the same page as far as laws vs. hypothesis vs. theory. I still don't understand your statement that facts are useless without the conext or context of theory. Am I focusing on the wording too much and you mean that facts are useless without application or understanding?

  9. Zee: Yes, I think we are on the same page. Perhaps I have a tendency to oversimplify. The application/understanding makes the data useful.

    So, we can have an observable fact, as when Edwin Hubble discovered a proportionality between the distance of a celestial object and its redshift. But this doesn't mean much to us if not for the theoretical framework of an expanding universe. (I hope I picked a valid example here).


  10. Would you consider creation in a Biblical sense as a hypothesis or theory or something else?

  11. I consider the Biblical account of creation a story which may or may not have some metaphorical meaning (depending on whether or not you believe in God). But it fails as a scientific hypothesis because a)it adds a supernatural cause, and science can only speak of natural causes, and b) it cannot be falsified. If you find evidence that falsifies creationism, the proponents of creationism would add an ad hoc explanation for the observed evidence.

    An example of this unfalsifiability happens when you talk about light reaching earth from a distant galaxy, megaparsecs away from earth. If God created the universe 4000 years ago, where (and when) did this million-year-old light come from? Instead of accepting the falsification, the creationist would add another unfalsifiable qualifier like "the speed of light has slowed down over the years".

    Conversely, evolution could be falsified. For instance, the discovery of a human fossil in pre-cambrian rock would be extremely problematic for theory of evolution.

  12. Hello Zee,

    Some of the difficulties with "creation in a Biblical sense" is how difficult it is to pin down a biblical creation model. There are dozens of "creation models" just in the Evangelical church. Honestly, the majority of them fail in the realm of exegesis in that they attempt to address questions of science with the biblical text. As I am sure you agree, it is an over extension of the biblical texts to attempt to burden them with issues of modern science. And should the Young-Earth Creationists be right that their creation model is correct (as literalistic as it is), there is no doubt, then, that the Bible is a failed science. Fortunately, there are approaches to scripture and science that are intellectually light-years ahead of Young-Earth antics.

    What would you consider "creation in a Biblical sense?" I put this in quotes because this term has such a large and open-ended potential for definition. I have a few ideas on how to answer this question, and I must admit that I find it an extremely intelligent question considering what you know about science. First, though, if you would, explain a bit more about "creation in a Biblical sense."

  13. Philosobot, I would agree 100% in giving creation the description of a story. I can understand the argument of calling it the Theory of Creation as well because "theory" can be used in many different ways. Either way its just a label and I really couldn't care much less what its refered to as.

    Scriptulicious, "creation in the Biblical sense" to me means God created all. I don't agree that issues of modern day science would require an over extension of the Bible.

    There are multiple accounts (stories) of creation in the Bible. I never understood why the majority of Christians are so hung up on the first account. I believe they are both accurate but I don't believe that God had to have created the world in six days as we define days.