Well, Iíll Be a Monkeyís Nephew
by Bob Murphy
have just finished reading (large chunks of) two books on evolution:
Douglas J. Futuymaís Science
on Trial (1983) and Phillip E. Johnsonís Darwin
on Trial (1991). What I want to argue in the present essay
is that the case for evolution is not nearly as solid as most scientists
would have you believe.
letís deal with Johnson. He is a lawyer, and thus he spends most
of his time analyzing the validity of the arguments for evolution.
Most scientists who read his book would probably come away thinking
Johnson was an intelligent but amateur outsider, and that Johnson
should have spent more time dealing with "the data" rather
than abstract arguments.
this misses the point. Before we can determine whether "the
evidence" will support or refute the theory of evolution, we
need to stop and decide what sorts of things will even count
as evidence. If we jump right into the facts and let them "speak
for themselves," we will almost certainly let our biases do
the talking for them.
makes a particular point that I found quite decisive. Iím going
to paraphrase, but what I took him to argue was basically this:
Suppose 999 out of 1000 biologists believe evolution is a fact.
That is, 999 out of 1000 biologists believe that the overwhelming
evidence suggests that humans, as well as every other organism on
the planet, all share a common ancestor. However, suppose further
that 20 of the biologists believe evolution actually occurred through
mechanism A. A group of 35 biologists believe, on the contrary,
that man evolved through process B. A different group of
55 believe in mechanism C, and so forth. Finally, suppose
that group A rejects explanation B, because of the
insuperable difficulty b. But at the same time, the biologists
in group B cannot endorse their colleaguesí argument in favor
of mechanism A, because of the crushing problem a.
And so forth.
if this were the case, what we would see is this: In the scientific
journals, these biologists would argue with each other over the
specific mechanisms of evolutionary descent, but they would virtually
all agree on the "fact" of evolution. Naïve outsiders
might think the theory of evolution were in crisis, but this would
just be a misunderstanding of the situation, the biologists would
this type of scenario, Johnson claims that we cannot speak of the
"fact" of evolution, since no one has come up with a plausible
mechanism. Just because the biologists all agree that it must have
happened doesnít mean that it is yet a valid theory. After all,
in many cases it is rival biologists themselves who level damning
objections to any particular hypothesis.
drives home the point by reminding the scientific reader that he
would never endorse a theory of evolution that relied on a "miraculous"
macromutation. In other words, if someone said men are descended
from apes, and this happened because sometime in the past, a particular
monkey had an extraordinary set of mutations in her reproductive
system, and ended up giving birth to twin human infants, then everybody
would reject this "explanation" as ridiculous because
of its mathematical improbability.
the opponents of evolution are claiming that the standard theories
suffer from the same flaw. Itís true, the odds against the development
of an eye through gradual, natural selection are incredibly better
than the odds against the development in one fell swoop, but nonetheless
(certain critics charge) the odds against the first story are still
is a tricky point, and unfortunately Iíve yet to hear an expert
give a satisfactory account of the true situation. At a conference
on evolution at Notre Dame, a proponent of Intelligent Design made
some rough calculations and claimed that the chance of certain molecules
organizing themselves to form the first lifeform was ridiculously
proponent of evolution then responded by pointing out the analogy
(used, and perhaps invented, by physicist Richard Feynman) of somebody
who walks into the office and says, "Youíll never believe this!
I was stuck in traffic, and the car in front of me had the license
plate ASD213. What are the chances of that?!"
point of the story, of course, is that when a particular event happens,
we might think that it was incredibly unlikely. But some outcome
must occur, and so we shouldnít doubt our senses on the statistical
account. To use a different example: If I flip a coin 100 times
and report the precise order of heads and tails that I observed,
it would be silly for someone to say, "I think youíre making
that up! The probability of that exact sequence of events is only
1 in 2^100."
back to the Notre Dame conference: The Intelligent Design guy responded
by arguing that life could only arise if very particular (and
unlikely) events occurred. So if someone were stuck in traffic and
saw the license plate "ILUVGOR," then a reasonable conclusion
would be that the driver designed the license plate to fit
his political preferences. If we thought that all license plates
had to be generated randomly, then such a motorist would go
into the office and exclaim, "Youíll never believe the license
plate I saw today!"
of Johnsonís strongest arguments is his claim that evolutionists
simply must believe in the theory, because for them, no other
explanation is possible. In other words, they see life all around
us, and they believe that there was a time when life did not exist.
Furthermore, they reject out of hand as unscientific any hypothesis
that involves "supernatural" intervention. Given this,
evolution must indeed be a "fact," and the only thing
left is to come up with better and better descriptions of how it
had to occur.
view was perfectly illustrated by a fellow student when I visited
that Notre Dame conference. In discussing the statistical arguments
that I mentioned above, I lamented that neither of the experts had
really made clear whether life could have arisen from any one of
millions of different ways, or if instead the particular molecules
had to come together in a very specific way.
fellow student, a staunch believer in evolution, grew irritated
with me. "Look, it doesnít matter how improbable the events
may have been. It did happen, so it must have been possible."
be fair, Johnson makes a few invalid objections. For me, the most
unfair one was his claim that natural selection was a tautology
(because "the most fit" organisms are the ones that leave
the most offspring, and so by definition we have survival of the
fittest), and that therefore the concept tells us nothing new about
the world. As Austrian economists (as well as mathematicians) well
know, human beings can certainly learn from the study of tautologies.
such quibbles, Johnsonís book is an excellent and sober analysis
of the arguments used in favor of evolution. Johnson is not at all
trying to make the case for creationism; he is merely arguing that
the case for evolution is weak. Iíll close this section by quoting
one particularly striking example.
discussing the development of the first living thing out of the
prebiotic "soup" billions of years ago, Johnson mentions
the difficulty that scientists are having in replicating the proposed
mechanisms in the laboratory. Johnson then points out that a famous
evolutionist views this difficulty as evidence for his theory,
rather than creation!
Dawkins, who has Darwinís own facility for turning a liability
into an asset, has even argued that the improbability of the
origin of life scenarios is a point in their favor. He reasons
that "An apparently (to ordinary human consciousness) miraculous
theory is exactly the kind of theory we should be looking
for in this particular matter of the origin of life." This
is because "evolution has equipped our brains with a subjective
consciousness of risk and improbability suitable for creatures
with a lifetime of less than one century." (Johnson 105)
case you think that Johnson is quoting Dawkins out of context, Dawkins
goes on to say, "Having said all this I must confess that,
because there is so much uncertainty in the calculations, if a chemist
did succeed in creating spontaneous life I would not be disconcerted!"
now briefly discuss Futuymaís book. The first thing that struck
me was his smug attitude. Look at the very title: Science on
trial. In other words, from the outset Futuyma is not debating just
evolution, he is linking it to "science" and debating
whether we should be scientific or not. He is simply begging the
question (with the title) of whether evolution has been scientifically
validated. It would be akin to Johnson writing the book Darwin
Guilty rather than Darwin on Trial.
I read Futuymaís introduction, I realized that he is not trying
to calmly convince those on the fence. He is rather notifying the
ignorant reader that the smart people have all concluded evolution
is correct. In particular, Futuyma tells us that he is not interested
in appealing to those who believe in creation, because "Fortified
against logic and evidence by unquestioned doctrine, they are not
likely to be swayed" (xii).
is the primary weakness of the book. Futuyma is not debating evolution
on its own; he is rather showing the reader that it is a much more
scientific explanation than the theory of Biblical creation. To
Futuyma, it is apparently inconceivable that there might exist readers
who are not fundamentalist Christians, and yet still doubt
the plausibility of evolution.
spite of my criticism, let me admit something right away: Futuyma
certainly knows the subject better than Johnson. In contrast to
Johnsonís occasional fumbling of a technical concept, it is clear
that Futuyma has a much deeper appreciation of the mechanisms of
natural selection, and that he moreover has a much wider command
of the relevant evidence. Nonetheless, because he is so quick to
jump into the details, Futuymaís case is quite weak. He doesnít
convince the skeptical reader why certain facts should be interpreted
the way Futuyma believes.
most irritating feature of Futuymaís book is his constant rhetorical
questions of the form, "This is what we observe in nature.
Natural selection can explain it. Now why would a supposedly benevolent
Creator do things that way?"
are three problems with this. First, where does Futuyma get off
saying with such confidence that God wouldnít have done things a
certain way? Second, Futuyma no doubt thinks that his position only
refutes Biblical creation, rather than the notion of God Himself.
But here Futuyma is being duplicitous: His arguments do in fact
imply atheism. If Futuyma is right, and a beneficent Creator would
never have designed species such that 99% of them go extinct, then
why would a beneficent Creator set up the initial conditions of
the universe such that the Earth would form, life would emerge naturally,
and then 99% of the species would become extinct? Third, Futuyma
seems to think that the most damning objections against the fundamentalistsí
worldview are things as trivial as the life cycle of the mayfly
(123). But if we want to talk about the difficulties of Christianity,
for example, we should first off mention the existence of evil,
the requirement of Christís execution, and so forth.
believes himself to be the epitome of a scientist, but he is just
as biased as any of his fundamentalist targets. For example, he
says, "Human populations differ genetically in trivial ways
such as skin color and blood types, but there is no evidence whatever
that they differ genetically in mental abilities" (112). Oh
really? No evidence whatever? Is this belief driven by an
objective analysis of the facts, or rather by Futuymaís political
and social views? After all, there are huge disparities in performance
across races; in his controversial Bell
Curve, Charles Murray shows that these disparities persist
even after adjusting for obvious factors such as income, education,
and (if memory serves me) the marital status of parents. Now itís
true, we can explain away all of this data as the legacy of slavery
and current discrimination, and we can say that Japanese students
outperform white ones because of cultural differences indeed, I
myself think these factors are far more important than genes. But
I wouldnít say there is no evidence whatever for the racialist
claim. And I venture to guess that no matter what, Futuyma
would never in a million years say, "Oh, it turns out I was
wrong. Japanese people are programmed to be smarter than
only does Futuyma harbor biases of which he is apparently unaware;
he also advances some rather silly arguments. For example:
of the many reasons for believing that organisms have a common
evolutionary history is that their characteristics are often
hierarchically arranged. Since evolution is supposed to proceed
by a series of sequential splitting events, a new characteristic
that evolves in one particular branch of the tree of life is
likely to be passed on to all the descendants of that branch.
Within this group, another new characteristic evolves, and is
then passed on to descendants of that particular species. Thus,
for example, the four-legged condition evolved in amphibians,
and is retained by most of their descendants. Among these, the
ancestors of the mammals evolved a single-boned lower jaw. Among
some of their descendants, the rodents developed gnawing incisors,
and so on. There is a nesting of groups within groups, as a
consequence of common ancestry. Objects like minerals that are
not descended from common ancestors cannot be arranged in this
conclusion is simply false: We can certainly arrange things in a
hierarchical nesting, even things that are not descended from a
common ancestor. We can talk about the set of all houses, within
which we have houses that possess a garage, within which we find
houses that have a garage that is painted green, within which we
observe houses with green garages inside of which are bicycles.
We could do the same for minerals too. Now itís true, the criteria
for membership in these nested groups would not be consistent with
a theory of descent and modification for houses or minerals, but
thatís not the issue. Futuyma is not merely claiming that the hierarchical
classification of organisms is consistent with the theory
of evolution; instead he is claiming that the hierarchy itself is
evidence for evolution.
of the most repeated claims in favor of evolution is that with it,
"biology makes sense," while without it biology "is
chaos" (67). But so what? I agree there is an aesthetic appeal,
but this consideration alone is quite trivial. To give an analogy,
theoretical physicists were certainly dismayed at the discovery
of more and more "elementary particles." They felt that
a good physical theory should involve only a few constituents of
matter that obeyed a few (or ideally one) general law. Nonetheless,
since the experimental evidence supported the theories purporting
the existence of leptons, neutrinos, quarks, etc., the physicists
had to face reality.
the same way, just because the theory of evolution provides guidance
and a "research program" for biologists and other scientists,
we shouldnít consider this as a separate point in the theoryís favor.
(If anything, we should be more skeptical of the scientistsí
claims of the certainty of evolution.) Iím reminded of a conversation
I had with a professor of econometrics. After I asked about some
of the methodological difficulties of his field, he said something
like, "Look, you can hose the model if you want. But we have
to make some assumptions, unless we want to just throw up our hands
and read von Hayek again."
all of the above analysis is superfluous. I can literally prove
that evolution is false, and on Futuymaís own grounds to boot.
After wondering why a beneficent Creator would condemn millions
of species to extinction, Futuyma addresses the obvious creationist
response that this was all part of Godís plan. To this Futuyma answers:
this were true, we would expect to see harmony in nature, not
struggle; indeed, we would expect to see animals sacrificing
themselves for the good of their species, and even making sacrifices
for the good of the natural community in which they live. If
the theory of natural selection is true, though, organisms should
have adaptations that serve purely for the survival and reproduction
of the individuals who bear them, not for the good of any other
individual or species. Darwin laid down the challenge in The
Origin of the Species: "If it could be proved that
any part of the structure of any one species had been formed
for the exclusive good of another species, it would annihilate
has Darwinís challenge fared? No one has ever found a case
of a species altruistically serving another, without any gain
for itself. (123, bold added)
I ask, oh really? What about homo sapiens? There are plenty
of environmentalists who strap themselves to redwoods in order to
save the trees from the exploitation of man. If you think this isnít
a good example, because the people in question might be acting to
preserve the long-run survival of the human race, what about the
alleged scientists who are working to develop a virus that will
only kill human beings, in order to rid the Earth of our destructive
presence? Isnít this a case of a species using one of its body parts its
brain to altruistically further the interests of other species?
course, Futuyma would laugh at my examples.*
He would point out that human brains are certainly beneficial to
their possessors, and so can be explained by natural selection.
But what of his claim, put in bold above? Would Futuyma back off
that statement? I donít think so, because my examples wouldnít be
the type of thing Futuyma had in mind. What he really meant was
that if we look at Nature from the perspective of evolutionary biology,
we donít see anything to contradict our assumptions. Any apparent
counterexamples can be dismissed as irrelevant, even if those counterexamples
such as the capacity for human altruism stare us in
let me address the argument that evolution is a scientific theory,
whereas Biblical creation is not. Yes, in the sense that Futuyma
and others define science, they are right.
this proves nothing. The question is not whether evolution is "scientific,"
the question is whether it is true. It is logically possible
that the Biblical account is true (just as itís logically possible
that aliens seeded the Earth with life), and so we shouldnít dismiss
the theory simply because we cannot possibly "test" it
the way Futuyma wants.
a few other hypotheses: (1) Humans suffered through the Dark Ages
as punishment for their murder of Christ. (2) Everything happens
for a reason; it is all part of Godís plan. (3) You should be honest
so that God will entrust you with a greater knowledge of His intentions.
And so forth.
how could we possibly test the above propositions? The answer is,
we canít. They are not falsifiable. A theist could examine the historical
record and believe those theories were verified, whereas an atheist
would look at the same evidence and believe the theories to be silly.
does this mean it is a waste of time to consider the possible truth
of these statements? Of course not. If true, these statements are
much more important than understanding the plumage on a peacock.
Simply because a particular theory is "unscientific" does
not render it a bad theory.
conclusion, I want to urge the reader to look into these matters
for himself. Futuyma (and other evolutionists) certainly make some
strong arguments; I am not denying that. But do not trust
the interpretation of the evidence offered by the proponents
of evolution (or the proponents of creationism, for that matter).
Before you examine the evidence, first consider what sorts of things
you will be looking for. You should decide beforehand, "If
I see this, then I will tentatively believe in evolution. But if
I discover such-and-such, then I will have to reject it as unsatisfactory
in its current form." If you follow my advice, you may be surprised
at the outcome.
*To clarify, I am not saying that my examples refute
Darwin's argument. I am claiming that my examples refute the much
bolder claims of Futuyma in the block quotation.
Murphy [send him mail]
has a PhD in economics from New York University, and see his personal
website at BobMurphy.net.
© 2003 LewRockwell.com