Part 2: Is Darwin’s Theory of Evolution fact?
This short series probes the differences in understanding between the general public and the academic sphere in the following three claims:
- Science leads to certainty
- Darwin’s theory of evolution is indisputable
- Darwin’s theory of evolution leads to atheism.
In the previous article, we discussed the nature of science itself and critically discussed the question: “Should you reinterpret Islam to fit science?”
In this article, we will discuss the second claim in the list above, propounded by some who do not understand the intellectual foundations of science itself, in light of what scientists in the field themselves actually say.
Claim Two: Darwin’s theory of evolution is a fact
The image of a line of ape-like creatures progressively evolving into a human being is one of the most iconic images in the world. This image is universally recognised and does not need any caption. Even if you did not know anything about evolution, you might have seen this image on an advert or some such, and this is probably the way you believe evolution works.
As popular as this image is, it is false! The depiction that the image portrays is not the way that evolution works, and is a gross misrepresentation of the theory of evolution. Biologists have long complained about how this popular view of evolutionary progress is simply wrong. Henry Gee – a palaeontologist, evolutionary biologist, and senior editor of Nature (the most prestigious scientific journal in the world) – said with regards to this iconic image:
“The idea of human evolution as a tale of inevitable progress is, however, a travesty, and has nothing much to do with Darwin. The bastardized view of evolution that’s become so much a part of the general consciousness—so much so that it’s so much low-hanging fruit for admen—owes much to Ernst Haeckel, Darwin’s number one fan in Germany.”
How does it make you feel that something that most people believe about evolution is wrong according to evolutionary biologists? You may be feeling a bit curious about what else you thought you knew about evolution is wrong. That is the aim of this article: to provide you with a paradigm shift in your thinking about the things you have taken for granted on this topic. By the end of this article, you will learn the significant difference between the perception of Darwinian evolution by the public and the way it is actually understood by academics.
On a public level, Darwinian evolution is accepted as true as the fact that the Earth goes around the Sun. Yet no biologist or philosopher of science would academically say this, because there are no absolute truths in science. Instead, the concept is seen as a valid scientific theory that sits within a probabilistic framework. It has multiple assumptions, and there still exist disputes about its core ideas. This is not the view of a few fringe biologists – no biologist or philosopher of science would deny this.
It is important to note at this point that arguments such as “97% of scientists believe in evolution so it must be true” are simply misleading. It may be true that scientists believe it, but we need to make clear the essence of this belief and its basis. This does not mean that scientists believe it to be absolutely true; it means they accept it as a valid scientific theory – that is all. Even the most famous proponent of Darwinian evolution today, Professor Richard Dawkins, does not believe it to be absolutely true:
“Darwin may be triumphant at the end of the twentieth century, but we must acknowledge the possibility that new facts may come to light which will force our successors of the twenty-first century to abandon Darwinism or modify it beyond recognition.”
The academics referenced below are mainstream secular biologists and philosophers of science. None of them believe in creationism, intelligent design, or anything of the sort. It is important to highlight this, as the impression that many people have is that only religious people criticise evolutionary theory.
Evolution and Darwinism
The first thing that needs to be done is to distinguish between evolution and Darwin’s theory of evolution (also known as Darwinism or neo-Darwinism). On a public level, these terms are thought to be the same, but academically they are not.
So what is the difference? Evolution, as a general concept, means biological change over time. On the other hand, Darwinian evolution has two parts: firstly, the history of life being represented by a tree where all the organisms that have ever lived go back to one common origin, and secondly, that natural selection is the primary driving mechanism behind all this biological change.
Evolution is a basic observation in nature, and one we can see before our very eyes. This basic type of evolution is true and happens all around us: butterfly populations change biologically over time, bacteria become resistant to medicine, fish lose traits that are detrimental over time, and so on. No one disagrees with this type of biological evolution being ubiquitous, and this was well known before Darwin. Even the most primitive human being who has had no interaction with the civilised world would agree that this evolution is an undeniable observation.
Darwinian evolution, on the other hand, claims to be more than this basic observable evolution. According to Darwinian evolution, all of life evolved from a single cell, and all biological change has happened primarily due to natural selection.
Although it is absolutely clear that there is a difference between evolution and Darwinism, much of the general public thinks they are one and the same. This confusion is not inconsequential. This is because people conflate this apparent observable evolution with Darwinian evolution. They think that evidence for the former is evidence for the latter. This is simply not true. Darwinian evolution has the twin thesis of the tree of life and natural selection, which both require evidence other than the basic observation of evolution itself. This distinction is important to clarify, so claiming that they are the same and using this to argue for the truth of Darwinian evolution is to commit a fallacy of equivocation.
Darwinian evolution is based on a probabilistic framework that has assumptions, and it is important to note that there are ongoing disputes and doubts about its central claims.
Working out the history of life on earth is a difficult task for two simple reasons: life first began a very long time ago, and there is a worryingly large set of data that is missing. While life has been around on Earth for about four billion years, 99.999% of all things that ever lived are estimated to be extinct and undiscovered. The picture of the history of life and evolutionary developments that biologists try to create involve probabilities, simplifications, and speculations.
To get a feel for this problem, consider an analogy presented in the prestigious scientific journal Science. It compares working out the evolutionary history of human life to working out the plot of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace using thirteen randomly selected pages from the novel! Tolstoy’s book is one of the largest literary pieces ever published. If you were given a copy of the book with all the pages blank and only thirteen with writing on it, do you really think you would be able to come up with an accurate rendition of the major plot points, let alone any semblance of their details?
One can look at the possible evolutionary history of life on Earth and come up with a number of differing interpretations – a single or multiple origins of life; a universal or multiple common ancestors; gradualism or rapid biological changes; the hedge or tree or bush or web of life. Whatever interpretation you make can be challenged by an alternative one. Working out the history and development of life is an arduous task, and it is impossible to give a definitive answer. Whatever answer is given today by biologists is at best still probabilistic, but they cannot say for sure what happened and how it happened.
The tree of life is a well-recognised symbol of Darwinism. Darwin assumed that all of life came from one cell sometime in the remote past. This was followed by a gradual branching out of different species in a tree-like pattern. Open up any book on biology and you will see the famous tree of life mentioned. On a popular level, the tree of life is given to be true, yet within academia, it is known as just a model. The tree of life is based on the idea of homology, which is the assumption that similarities between genes, anatomy, and other traits are due to common descent.
Once again, in the public perception, homology is thought to be an indisputable conclusion, whereas in fact it is only an assumption. No one was around billions of years ago to watch how one species led to another distant one. Since we only have observed 0.0001% of life on Earth, any ‘tree’ that is made to show genealogical relationships is tentative at best. Homology as an assumption is challenged by homoplasy, which is the observation of similarities in genetic data and anatomy that cannot be due to common descent. In other words, even when one builds a tree of life based on the assumption of homology, some similarities can never be due to common descent.
Whether we look at the tree of life as a whole or as two branches of species that have a common ancestor, we are still dealing with probabilities based on assumptions, and not hard facts. In his book Evidence and Evolution: The Logic Behind The Science, Professor Elliott Sober explains:
Both of the following thoughts are therefore naive: humans and chimps must share a common ancestor because they are so similar and humans and mushrooms must have arisen independently because they are so different. There is no must within a probabilistic framework.
We will now outline some of the many assumptions that the probabilistic framework of Darwinism holds.
There are a number of assumptions that Darwinian evolution is based on upon, and many of these are being challenged by new evidence and interpretations. We will cover three assumptions and how they are being challenged.
Darwin assumed evolution takes place in small steps: “steady, slow, and continuous”. This assumption of gradualism is an essential part of Darwin’s theory. In fact, Darwin made this a ‘falsification’ condition to his entire framework:
“If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find no such case.”
Unbeknownst to the general public, gradualism has always been controversial among palaeontologists, yet only in the last couple of decades did some come out in the open and express their doubts. The palaeontologist Stephen J Gould explains the problem with this assumption:
“The history of life is more adequately represented by a picture of ‘punctuated equilibria’ than by the notion of phyletic gradualism. The history of evolution is not one of stately unfolding, but a story of homeostatic equilibria, disturbed only ‘rarely’ (i.e. rather often in the fullness of time) by rapid and episodic events of speciation.”
Gould states that while we expect to see steady and gradual changes in species, the fossil record shows the opposite, namely, rapid changes in biological features. Gould was probably the most vocal public critic of gradualism, but since his statement, many more biologists have challenged gradualism.
Horizontal Gene Transfer (HGT)
Darwinism assumes that genes are only transmitted vertically (i.e. from parent to offspring). This assumption came under enormous pressure in recent years with the discovery of a process known as HGT, which is when genes are passed horizontally between species. Initially, HGT was assumed to be a minor component of the overall story, transferring only ‘optional extra’ functions such as antibiotic resistance. Core biological functions such as DNA replication and protein synthesis were still thought to be passed vertically.
Surprisingly, this view was shown to be wrong. HGT was happening everywhere and was complicating the neat picture that Darwinism was trying to paint. Commenting on the way that processes such as HGT have strained the traditional simplistic view of Darwinism, the evolutionary biologist Michael Rose comments: “The complexity of biology is comparable to quantum mechanics.” HGT caught the biological community off guard, with some trying to desperately understand it within the Darwinian framework, while others realised that this was not going to work and that they needed a new approach.
Darwinism assumes that the only reason for our existence is to selfishly care about our own ‘survival and reproduction’. This is the standard view of Darwinists today, as well as that of the first contemporaries of Darwin. Thomas Huxley (infamously known as Darwin’s bulldog) argued in his 1893 work Evolution and Ethics that life was a “continual free fight’’ for “survival of the fittest”.
In a similar vein, Dawkins writes about the selfish gene:
“They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.”
The obvious problem with this view of Huxley and those after him is that human beings are hopelessly addicted to altruism. We care about others for their own sake, and we do not always act in a selfish way. To try and fix this problem of ‘altruism’, two theories have been put forward: kin selection and reciprocal altruism.
Kin selection is the evolutionary strategy that favours the reproductive success of an organism’s relatives, even at a cost to the organism’s own survival and reproduction. The reason for this is that our kin carry our genes, and it is our genes that we want to pass on even at the cost of our own lives. The closer the kin, the more genes we share. The biologist J.B.S. Haldane put it this way: “I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins.”
Kin selection does not explain why we care for those who are not our kin. Darwinists have tried to develop an answer for this too through the theory of reciprocal altruism, which is invoked to explain why we care for others. This theory purports that we are beneficial to others because we know they will return the favour; you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. The evolutionary biologist George Williams put it in other words by saying that morality is “an accidental capability produced, in its boundless stupidity, by a biological process that is normally opposed to the expression of such a capability.”
The problem with reciprocal altruism is that it does not explain why many people give charity anonymously, why we have governments that collect taxes for hospitals to help the ‘survival of the most unfit’, why people care about animals and ancient buildings, and why some are willing to die for their values and ideals. In his book Darwinian Fairytales, the philosopher of science David Strove challenges these Darwinian explanations and argues that they are fundamentally at odds with our nature:
“If you have made that uncomfortable bed, you will just have to lie in it. And one of its minor discomforts is this: that you will have to reconcile yourself to performing, all your life, that evasive trick of which Hume rightly complained. That is, of calling certain facts – namely the facts of human altruism – a ‘problem’ or a ‘difficulty’ for your theory, when anyone not utterly blinded by Darwinism can see that these facts are actually a demonstration of the falsity of your theory.”
Although the vast majority of biologists accept the selfish gene view, selfishness is nonetheless an assumption that is being challenged by some biologists and philosophers because it contradicts the vast and varied observations of our moral instincts.
These are some of the assumptions that are being challenged by new evidence and interpretations. The point of mentioning these assumptions and their challenges is to show the ever-changing nature of scientific ideas, and that there is always a live discussion going on. Although most biologists accept many of the assumptions of Darwinism, others are more critical. The important point to take away is that academic criticism of Darwinism exists – this is what one would expect, because in science, nothing is set in stone.
Another major issue against the idea that Darwinism is true is the existence of disputes within the theory at a conceptual and philosophical level.
Darwin’s central idea was that natural selection is the driving mechanism behind evolution. This was the main thesis of the origin of species. Natural selection as a creative force is, again, one of those things that the general public thinks of as an indisputable fact. It might come as quite a shock that it is not accepted as an immutable truth by all biologists. It is, in fact, being disputed and challenged.
The award-winning evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis explains:
“This is the issue I have with neo-Darwinists: They teach that what is generating novelty is the accumulation of random mutations in DNA, in a direction set by natural selection. If you want bigger eggs, you keep selecting the hens that are laying the biggest eggs, and you get bigger and bigger eggs. But you also get hens with defective feathers and wobbly legs. Natural selection eliminates and maybe maintains, but it doesn’t create.”
Margulis is one of many biologists who in recent years have been critical of the power of natural selection. In 2016, the Royal Society of London (the oldest and most prestigious science society) gathered influential evolutionary biologists from across the world to discuss this very problem. The biologists were split into two camps: one camp believed natural selection was, as Darwin said, the driving force of evolution, while the other camp strongly disagreed. The latter group went as far as to proposing alternatives that solved problems that Darwinism could not. The following is three of these alternatives:
Evolution by Natural Genetic Engineering (NGS)
According to standard Darwinian theory, the randomness of mutations is the clay that natural selection shapes into all sorts of novel species. Though this has been taught and retold in numerous publications and documentaries, some evolutionary theorists claim there is a lack of evidence that random mutations can make anything useful. James Shapiro, one of the innovative biologists challenging this central pillar of Darwinism, uses contemporary research in mutations to propose a completely new evolutionary paradigm. In Evolution: A View from the 21st Century, Shapiro explains why NGS can be a better model than Darwinian evolution.
Although the biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was ignored for a long time, some biologists have started to look back at his ideas in the last couple of years and have developed a revised theory known as neo-Lamarckian evolution. Darwinism assumes that acquired characteristics cannot be inherited – the only thing that is inherited from the parents is their DNA, which is fixed, and any change in their children is due to random mutations. Under this assumption, the fact that someone has a poor diet does not affect their DNA or their children. However, this was posited long before the mechanics of inheritance (i.e. genes and DNA) was understood.
Proponents of neo-Lamarckism argue against this based on what we now can observe about the way DNA expression is affected by an organism’s environment and behaviour. An entire field of scientific research called epigenetics is dedicated to this. Neo-Lamarckism posits that one’s lifestyle does indeed affect the expression of DNA, as well as children, directly. Proponents of neo-Lamarckism cite many recent studies to support their view. They propose that acquired characteristics can not only be inherited, but that they can also drive some major evolutionary changes.
Mutation-Driven Evolution (Mutationism, Neo-Mutationism)
Mutationism assumes that evolution is driven not by small and incremental steps, but by large mutations. This mechanism challenges the idea of Darwinian gradualism and natural selection being the main driving force behind evolutionary change. Although mutationism was discarded decades ago, it has gained traction in recent years.
The evolutionary biologist Masatoshi Nei proposes a rehashed version of mutationism. Nei is a respected and award-winning scientist whose work is widely used in population genetics. His book Mutation-Driven Evolution details how developments in molecular biology are challenging Darwinian predictions and how a new alternative can work. Nei vocally opposes Darwinian hegemony and the unquestionable faith that is placed in it:
“Darwin is a god in evolution, so you can’t criticize Darwin. If you do, you’re branded as arrogant. But any time a scientific theory is treated like dogma, you have to question it. The dogma of natural selection has existed a long time. Most people have not questioned it. Most textbooks still state this is so. Most students are educated with these books. You have to question dogma. Use common sense. You have to think for yourself, without preconceptions. That is what’s important in science.”
It is simply false to assume that all biologists agree with Darwinian evolution. The popular notion that only religious scientists challenge Darwinism is unfounded. In fact, there is a project set up by academics called the ‘Third Way of Evolution’ in which biologists make it clear that they neither subscribe to Darwinism nor a religiously motivated alternative:
“The vast majority of people believe that there are only two alternative ways to explain the origins of biological diversity. One way is Creationism that depends upon intervention by a divine Creator. That is clearly unscientific because it brings an arbitrary supernatural force into the evolution process. The commonly accepted alternative is Neo-Darwinism, which is clearly naturalistic science but ignores much contemporary molecular evidence and invokes a set of unsupported assumptions about the accidental nature of hereditary variation. Neo-Darwinism ignores important rapid evolutionary processes such as symbiogenesis, horizontal DNA transfer, action of mobile DNA and epigenetic modifications. Moreover, some Neo-Darwinists have elevated Natural Selection into a unique creative force that solves all the difficult evolutionary problems without a real empirical basis. Many scientists today see the need for a deeper and more complete exploration of all aspects of the evolutionary process.”
Academics who are part of the ‘Third Way of Evolution’ include biologists and philosophers from prestigious universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton, MIT, and Harvard, amongst others.
Clearly, there is valid disagreement in the biological community about the most fundamental parts of Darwin’s theory. This does not mean that Darwinism is invalid or unscientific. It is still the main scientific theory used to explain biological change, and the majority of biologists subscribe to it. Discussing the disagreements mentioned above is done solely to show that Darwinism is not an eternal truth set in stone. Understanding the history and philosophy of science makes these disputes unsurprising. Indeed, difference of opinion is exactly what one would expect from scientists, as they are not supposed to take anything for granted.
Darwinism has two main parts: a history of evolution (tree of life) and a mechanism of evolution (natural selection). Both of these are interdependent. If the mechanism is inadequate, the history is directly challenged. Although the mechanism of natural selection is thought of as an immutable truth on a public level, it is well known academically that it contains major issues, as the biologist Gerd B. Müller explains:
“A rising number of publications argue for a major revision or even a replacement of the standard theory of evolution, indicating that this cannot be dismissed as a minority view but rather is a widespread feeling among scientists and philosophers alike.”
Darwinism may be perceived by the public to be true, but this is indefensible academically. It is based on a probabilistic framework that has assumptions, and there are disputes about its core ideas. Although Darwinian evolution is a valid scientific theory, the claim that it is absolutely true is patently false.
In the third and final article in this series, we will deal with the third claim: Darwin’s theory of evolution leads to atheism.
 Henry Gee, The Accidental Species, 2013, University of Chicago Press; Reprint edition, p14
 Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain, Mariner Books, 2003, p81
 Elliot Sober, Evidence and Evolution, 2003, Cambridge University Press, p296-297
 Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859, p189
 Stephen J Gould, Niles Eldredge, Punctuated Equilibria 1972, p82
 Thomas Huxley, Evolution and Ethics, 1893, p326
 Kevin Connolly and Margaret Martlew, 1999. “Altruism”. Psychologically Speaking: A Book of Quotations. BPS Books. p10
 George C Williams, Reply to comments on Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics in Sociobiological Perspective. 1988, Zygon 23 (4): 437–438
 David Stove, Darwinian Fairytales, Encounter Books, 1996, p114
 Eva Jablonka, Transformations of Lamarckism, 2011, The MIT Press
 Gerd B Müller, Why an extended evolutionary synthesis is necessary, 2017, Interface Focus, http://doi.org/10.1098/rsfs.2017.0015
Subboor is a public speaker, debater and writer. He focuses on engaging with New Atheism and has also traveled extensively across the globe teaching Muslims how to articulate Islam to non-Muslims. He specialises in the philosophy of science with a focus on Darwin’s theory of evolution. He has debated many prominent atheists over the years, including professors, atheist activists and internet personalities, on the topics of science, God’s existence and Darwinism. He is currently a PhD candidate specialising in the philosophy of biology.