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.