Home                                                               An insensible and sterile fideism.                                                           

Shirley Tilghman’s 2005 George Romanes lecture focuses on the definition of true science. She denigrates the political influences that distract funding from appropriate targets, citing President Bush’s controversial decision to back Nasa’s proposal for manned missions to Mars. Her main concern however is to delegitimise intelligent design as science worthy of the school curriculum.


Evolution holds a pivotal place in modern biology, its explanatory power for empirical research is inescapably evident, and she claims, ‘time and again .. I have encountered a mysterious finding that was explained by viewing it through the lens of evolutionary biology’. Not merely is Darwinism immensely illuminating, it has shown ‘remarkable resilience to experimental challenges over almost 150 years’. This combination of attractive characteristics ‘has led to its overwhelming acceptance’.


In contrast, Christian fundamentalists have ‘launched a well publicised assault’ on evolution, whose latest guise is intelligent design (hereafter ID).


Now at face value, the battle appears clear, empirical science and fundamentalist obscurantism – not much of a choice for the thinker!


Ms Tilghman’s position however deserves a little more detailed analysis. However first we must set down our criteria. What precisely is science, and more to the point what is a presuppositional or fideistic position? Fideism is a term usually used pejoratively, and usually in a religious context. Merriam-Webster helpfully defines it as, ‘reliance on faith rather than reason in pursuit of religious truth’ - a perfect label for our examination then.


Yet fideism does not always take such obviously religious forms. The demise of Freudian psychoanalysis is a case in point. The perception that psychoanalysis was not merely valueless, but a dubious scientific façade for a remarkable plastic construct of concepts, which could seemingly accommodate almost any observation, should widen and sharpen our vigilance for pseudo-science. Popper fiercely critiqued psychoanalysis on the grounds primarily that it lacked grounds for falsifiability[1]. Here was science masquerading as religion, a faith fiercely defended by its priesthood on false pretences.


Claims of the enlightening benefits of psycho-analysis for the individual and for society, neglected at our peril, were widespread. Its opponents were analysed in terms of their resistance complexes contrived to reject its pure light. Furthermore, its practitioners possessed striking confidence that they possessed unique and fundamental insights into human nature. How did they become so self deluded? If the insights were so remarkable, why are they so widely scorned even by the wider psychiatric community today? (see the Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry section on schizophrenia for some particularly pointed examples). It was a classic example of fideism: the assumption of fundamental presuppositions as truth, on insufficient evidence, which continued to be tenaciously held in spite of accumulating evidence of their lack of validity, consistency and reality. The presuppositions had become a filter through which reality must be moulded. It is a practice usually associated with superstitious or (erroneously) with all religious conviction.


Now, let us come to Darwinism. Is it at all possible that Tilghman has fallen prey to another species of the same pathogen, without realising it? Is there any hard evidence that Darwinism and its neo-Orthodox variant have acted not as an enlightener but as a mental blinker, another kind of ‘reality filter’? The lecture provides us with a useful data sample to analyse.

Tilghman claims of the resilience of Darwinism are only as valid as the tests of falsification she requires of it. What are these, if there are any? Darwin cautiously propounded very few in the Origin, but in one in particular he stuck his neck well and truly over the parapet. It is no surprise then that sceptics of his theory choose this peculiar test as a criterion of its validity. Instead of welcoming this test, Tilghman appears to neglect its import for the validity of the theory, which unlike Dawkins’ she fails to reassert with confidence[2]. On reflection this is not surprising.


Even a cursory reading of Michael Behe’s book, ‘Darwin’s Black Box’ shows just how seriously she has underestimated its simple, formal answer to Darwin’s own challenge. It may summed up in his own two words ‘irreducible complexity’ – biological mechanisms of irreducible complexity completely fail to function if one component is removed and become adaptive liabilities not assets.


Tilghman’s observation that lactate dehydrogenase serves a dual structural and functional purpose, as recently observed not only in reptiles and fish but in the platypus[3] reiterates on a molecular level one of Darwin’s qualifications for his test. However to claim that this even remotely begins to address Behe’s specific and detailed critique of natural selection as a design mechanism is disappointingly weak minded. It is rather similar though less justifiable to Darwin’s expectation that simple life forms would spontaneously generate out of organic soups. He after all didn’t have the benefit of Pasteur’s work which relegated spontaneous generation to the realm of superstition. Nor did Darwin have the benefit of the decades of rather disappointing work, after the initial euphoria of Urey and Miller in 1953, showing just how huge a leap of speculation and materialistic faith it is to anticipate self-replicating life mechanisms to arise by chance from raw materials. Even given billions of years, the mathematicians at Wistar in 1966 were still expressing extreme scepticism. As Shutzenberger put it then, ‘There is a considerable gap in the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, and we believe this gap to be of such a nature that it cannot be bridged within the current concept of biology’. It is that gap, not a prior presupposition that has compelled many observers to conclude that natural selection is wholly inadequate to the increasingly Herculean tasks set before it.


It is quite vacuous for Tilghman to cite nature’s ‘tinkering’ to explain the massive problems which the coagulation cascade raises for natural selection for example. It is intellectual laziness to wave a hand in the air and expect a flagellum - the molecular motor - to come into being, by gene duplication, as though that provides some foothold on the problem. Either Tilghman hasn’t thought about the specifics of Behe’s challenge carefully or she is deliberately avoiding it. Either way it looks unhealthy for a public critique in which she claims to wish ‘to engage, to explicate’ – what she has actually done is simply air her contrary opinion whilst avoiding both.


Her second main point is that ID points to miscellaneous problems in evolution and thereby draws the hasty conclusion that it is fatally flawed. This is as profound misperception as her suggestion that ID is primarily a political rather than a scientific movement. It was Darwin who after all claimed if his test was met that, ‘my theory would absolutely break down’. Behe and others have shown that there are numerous examples where a Darwinistic route to irreducible complexity is in effect a statistical impossibility. Natural selection doesn’t need revision or reconsideration, it needs revoking – it has in words of its own author ‘absolutely’ broken down. The burden of proof now lies with materialists.


The crux of Tilghman’s argument is for her the citadel of her criterion of science – empirical falsifiability, echoing Popper. She asserts that ID does not pose testable hypotheses.


Here is a short list of some highly testable hypotheses, based on the supposition of Design, which have been offered repeatedly in the past and still stand as testable predictions for the future:


  • As research on genomic differences between major species groups progresses, the nature of the gaps will become clearer, stabler and more distinct. The theoretical likelihood of bridging these gaps by microevolution will diminish. That the DNA differences between chimp and man have now grown from 98-99% homology to only 96% homology, given that chimps have 48 not 46 chromosomes anticipates this oft-made prediction by IDers[4]. In sharp contrast to the priests of evolution, we predict that the breadth of difference will appear considerably greater once the stability, sophistication and functional integrity of the genome is better understood.
  • As research on human evolution ‘progresses’, our putative ancestors will become more disputed and more obscure, not less. Findings like the uncanny similarity of mtDNA from Homo erectus specimens in the Kow Swamp in Australia to modern man will continue to be ignored as perplexingly inconvenient, much like the whole 1907 Selenka expedition was confined to obscurity because of the challenge it posed to the age of Java man[5].
  • The gaps in the fossil record which Darwin acknowledged will remain as yawning as ever, despite prolific fossil discoveries, spawning yet new approaches to evolution, like Gould and Eldredge’s punctuated equilibria or Sean Carroll’s fascinating but hopelessly flawed Evo Devo (that is the Evo half).
  • The redundancy of function attributed to ‘useless’ DNA or proteins will diminish considerably, as their function and design is better appreciated.
  • Teleological models will remain a better instrument for understanding and formulating physiological function than natural selection ever was.
  • The striking parallels of biochemical, structural and functional design found between completely ‘unrelated’ species (e.g: retina of squids and mammals, or from a different perspective the highly similar ternary structure but wholly different protein sequence of myoglobin and haemoglobin), euphemistically and tautologously called ‘convergent evolution’ will multiply as elucidation proceeds.
  • The biochemical and genetic nature of interspecies differences will continue to increasingly defy putative ancestral lineages, as more comparative analysis is completed[6]. Royal Truman has recently shown this nicely for ubiquitin[7].
  • One can summarise all these with one clause, our awe for the complexity and interdependence of living creatures will grow not diminish as our understanding deepens. This is precisely the opposite of what a reductionist, materialist approach would lead us to expect.


We might return the courtesy, what predictions can Neo-Darwinism make for the future that if they failed to materialise would significant falsify its authority? Silence do we hear? Interestingly Professor Jack Cohen when debating Richard Milton about neo-Darwinism, at the Mensa Society in London in 1997, when asked if he could conceive of evidence which would fundamentally undermine his faith in Darwin replied he could conceive of none.


Is materialism empirically falsifiable? When mathematicians claim that abiogenesis (the spontaneous generation of the first living cell) is statistically negligible, evolutionists still claim that there must an as yet unknown short cut route that makes it feasible. Is this then science or fideism?


What then about the fervent predictions of devout evolutionists? When Ernst Mayr claimed that “the search for homologous genes is futile except in close relatives”, it is now clear this was a considerable error in the light of the massive interspecies homology between Hox genes. Indeed this homology has rather absurdly become a foundation of Sean Carroll’s argument for evolution[8]! When Homer Smith, author of the classic ‘Fish to Philosopher’ resisted the renal countercurrent mechanism for 8 years, by his own admission far from being enlightened he was blinded by his gradualist principles[9]. Yet now the same mechanism is showcased quite illogically as an example of natural selection at work[10]! If Darwin’s work cast such light on nature, why was Mendel’s work first viewed as a difficulty and only synthesised with difficulty into the canon of evolutionary thought? No doubt other examples could be multiplied. Such displays of conceptual plasticity should make us highly suspicious of fideism.


Despite Tilghman’s strong affirmation of the theoretical value of Darwinism, how much has she translated this into practice herself? The evidence for her claim is threadbare at best. In Shirley Tilghman’s own extensive work, particularly on the mouse genome in 129 abstracts published on Medline by, or of her more recent full papers available on line, she makes a sparse four references to evolution in even the broadest sense, all but one prior to 1982[11][12][13][14]. All but one are simple statements of fact about evolutionary paradigm, the exception makes a rudimentary and circumstantial suggestion. There’s no evidence of the hypothesis testing or refining, by virtue of this ‘light’, no indication at all of a vital tension and interaction between evolutionary theory and practical work, nor of any prominence of Darwinism in her own analytical thinking or research. If Darwin really has made a material theoretical contribution to biology, as Einstein or Maxwell have to physics, we would expect to see an intense dialogue and sometimes real disputes between evolutionary biology and empirical science, a little like Einstein’s impatience with quantum mechanics. If on the other hand, like the psychoanalysts, evolution is at core another fundamentalism there would be a wealth of complimentary mutual citations, but the peace of the graveyard when it comes to influencing critical theoretical disputes in other related fields. Either option could be accommodated to the plasticity inherent in the model, so why trouble the waters by invoking Darwin in a real dispute? In the perception of its adherents, the only real clashes with evolution lie well outside biology, in the philosophy of science, in statistics, or in linguistics. Historical geology seems to have fallen prey to the same malaise – but that’s another story.


What are we to make of her parallel assertion that, “natural selection is one of the two pillars, …, on which all of modern biology is built”? No doubt she would happily cite as an example Science’s 2005 award to four groups for research into ‘Evolution in Action’. All are workers at the institution of which she is an alumnus, The Howard Hughes Medical Institute: Sean Carroll at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, David Kingsley at Stanford University, Bruce Lahn at the University of Chicago and Christopher Walsh at Harvard Medical School. All the four cited are however actually examining examples of gene switching or inactivation. This is very telling - where is the evidence of the value of natural selection in developing of the content of genes? Switching off genes may well result in considerable phenotypic change or an adaptive survival for the stickleback (Carroll), but it’s hardly the most persuasive evidence that the gene itself arose by natural selection in the first place to put it mildly. When data like this is used to support Darwin, it looks suspiciously like vitalism and spontaneous generation is making a come back. Alex Williams has argued persuasively how detailed a case for intelligent design Sean Carroll has himself unwittingly made8.


There is a far more devastating testimony to the blindness which Darwinism inflicts on its disciples. This species of blindness is not merely intellectual. The verdict is the more telling coming from the mouth of Darwin’s own Bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley. Ironically his words were spoken at the second Romanes Lecture, 112 years earlier, 21 years before the Great War which shattered the rose-coloured visions of human nature spawned by social Darwinism and its sister philosophies. He stated presciently, "The doctrines of predestination, of original sin, of the innate depravity of man and the evil fate of the greater part of the race, of the primacy of the Satan of this world, of the essential vileness of matter, of a malevolent Demiurgus subordinate to a benevolent Almighty, who has only lately revealed himself, faulty as they are, appear to me to be vastly nearer the truth than the 'liberal' popular illusions that babies are all born good, and that the example of a corrupt society is responsible for their failure to remain so; that it is given to everybody to reach the ethical ideal if he will only try; that all partial evil is universal good, and other optimistic figments, such as that which represents 'Providence' under the guise of a paternal philanthropist, and bids us believe that everything will come right (according to our notions) at last."


Huxley near to his own death warns of the naivety and superficiality that evolution has spawned in theology, human psychology and in ethics. How great the blinkers and how great the darkness that has enveloped Western society as a direct consequence of its embrace of Darwinism!


How sad that his grandson took little note of these warnings, hear Julian Huxley’s keynote address at the 1959 Darwinian Centennial declared with enormous confidence: "Darwin pointed out that no supernatural designer was needed; since natural selection could account for any known form of life, there was no room for a supernatural agency in its evolution. . . . we can dismiss entirely all idea of a supernatural overriding mind being responsible for the evolutionary process." Again, in Evolution and Ethics, he wrote: "Our present knowledge indeed forces us to the view that the whole of reality is evolution - a single process of self-transformation."

Where is the check of scientific caution? The falsifiability of a hypothesis? Or is this not rather the self-belief of a pedagogue, the zeal of a high priest, the certainty of a presupposition?

Is this not materialist fideism in purest form?


The blinding ethical effects of neo-Darwinism can also be well illustrated by Darwin’s own observations on Tahiti from the Beagle journal, which are worth quoting in full.

 “On the whole, it appears to me that the morality and religion of the inhabitants are highly creditable. There are many who attack, even more acrimoniously than Kotzebue, both the missionaries, their system, and the effects produced by it. Such reasoners never compare the present state with that of the island only twenty years ago; nor even with that of Europe at this day; but they compare it with the high standard of Gospel perfection. They expect the missionaries to effect that which the Apostles themselves failed to do. Inasmuch as the condition of the people falls short of this high standard, blame is attached to the missionary, instead of credit for that which he has effected. They forget, or will not remember, that human sacrifices, and the power of an idolatrous priesthood -- a system of profligacy unparalleled in any other part of the world -- infanticide a consequence of that system -- bloody wars, where the conquerors spared neither women nor children -- that all these have been abolished; and that dishonesty, intemperance, and licentiousness have been greatly reduced by the introduction of Christianity. In a voyager to forget these things is base ingratitude; for should he chance to be at the point of shipwreck on some unknown coast, he will most devoutly pray that the lesson of the missionary may have extended thus far.”[15]


In the light of these observations, I wonder how Darwin would react to see an ‘acid party’ or a ‘rap disco’ today at first hand: the technology of the 21st century combined with the timeless, bestial depravity of an orgy. Perhaps the Tahitian savages he pitied themselves would also be utterly repelled at our new found savagery, our innumerable foeticides, our adulteries, international complicity in suicide terrorism or our ‘enlightened’ hedonism. Yet to consider ourselves merely as higher animals means a foundational change in ethical and in moral values. Darwin knew all too well, as every Victorian Sunday School scholar would have that ‘evil doctrine corrupt good morals’.  We might proceed to consider the central role of his theory in eugenics, the mass murders of Nazism and Marxism and its prominence in the thinking of contemporary racists like David Duke[16].


Tilghman claims that belief in natural selection invites difficulties, and it is hard for us to swallow that we are a cosmic accident, purposeless sons of a mindless dying machine. This is not my testimony, I came to a theistic perspective after a great deal of painful searching and exclusion of the much more attractive alternatives. A philosophy with no restraint and no law is intrinsically seductive to human nature – but truth must be bought with sacrifices.


She expresses her fears that ID is an ‘intellectual dead end’, a doctrine that progressively excludes experimentation and exploration. Quite apart from the threadbare testimony of her own work to the real value of evolution, this is an extraordinary claim. It has long been said that teleology – the search for purposeful function – has been the physiologist’s mistress. To a consistent evolutionist it is a philosophically illicit but highly convenient travelling partner. This is just as true in physics, biochemistry and in every other natural science. Look at a few of the strict Genesis literalists who fiercely opposed Darwin’s exaltation of Mother Nature into the position of Designer and Architect as a new idolatry, were they obscurantist fanatics? Michael Faraday who fathered electromagnetism both theoretically and practically, the giant on who’s intellectual shoulders so much progress has since stood, Lord Kelvin the theorist behind the Second Law of Thermodynamics, entropy and absolute zero (which still stand in vehement protest against the unguided accumulation of complexity), or James Clerk Maxwell the brilliant inspiration to Einstein who simply united the theories behind electrical and magnetic fields, predicted Hertz’s discovery of e-m waves, in which he included light, described Saturn’s rings, and independently described the kinetic theory of gases. Would they have subscribed to what Tilghman unwisely calls ‘the shrinking God’ problem? How unworthy and base a conception of the joy of discovery of ever vaster and more sophisticated depths of detail – precision and intricacy of which our forebears could scarcely dream. How awed and surprised Kelvin and Maxwell would be at the discoveries of Hubble, how thrilled Faraday at the multitudinous applications of his mindchild. They would have seen each as strongest possible confirmation of the awesome power and might of Ultimate Reason, and throw their hearts and minds into the chase of fresh challenge.


All of these and many other opponents of Darwin would claim that he had foolishly separated what God has joined, namely ‘Divine purpose and human investigation’. Teleology is the light that illuminates and inspires science, delegitimise it and the corpse of science may progress like a caterpillar, but its insides will progressively be devoured by the nihilism and necessary ultimate irrationality of pure materialism like the larva of the Ichneumon wasp, which so much disgusted Darwin. The brightest and best of scientists have seen their pursuit as a game of Divine hide and seek, as Solomon puts it, ‘It is the glory of God to conceal a thing, but the glory of Kings is to search out a matter’[17]. Though no theist, Einstein described the experience as ‘tapping into God's thoughts’[18] and ‘the deeper one penetrates into nature's secrets, the greater becomes one's respect for God.’[19].


This touches on another related subject, that Popper’s definition of true science as that which may be falsified empirically, whilst valid is profoundly inadequate. Falsification is no means of generating or selecting suitable hypotheses. A prominent witness to this is Steven Weinberg, the Nobel Laureate who theoretically unified weak nuclear and electromagnetic forces, but to his loss no respecter of Creation. He shows just how important aesthetic considerations are in selecting successful hypotheses, to be more precise the symmetrical nature of the structure of the theory. He illustrates this from Einstein’s search for a mathematical undergirding for his analogy between gravitation and curvature which lead him to a beautifully ready made answer in Riemann’s work. This gave Einstein the confidence to assert the accuracy of his theory even prior to experimental confirmation, and in fact in spite of initial experimental contradictions. As he comments, ‘it is very strange that mathematicians are led by their sense of mathematical beauty to develop formal structures that physicists later find useful, even [with]…no such goal in mind.[20]’ He goes on to tentatively invoke what he terms the ‘anthropic principle’, but he might as well have called it the anthropocentric principle, that the laws of nature ‘should allow the existence of intelligent beings that can ask about the laws of nature’[21]. Here we have a little light on how essential teleological thinking remains to the most fundamental enquiries. It is the denial of teleology, of design and purpose that will ultimately impoverish and enervate true science.


In fact if we were to reflect very briefly on fields of knowledge which enjoy a deeply mathematical foundation, yet branch across into the arts, music, architecture in particular – hasn’t the well of innovation and inspiration already all but dried up? Where are the contemporary giants and pioneers in composition and perspective? For all our numbers and leisure, why have our Beethovens, Bachs, Wrens and della Portas been strangled in infancy? Is it not the universal cry that the glory has departed? So much of what is left with us avant garde junk. Is it possible that our philosophy of denial of ultimate Design has impoverished our own? Could this too be a faint foretaste of what is already happening in the basic sciences and in medicine – a weakening of basic fundamental strategic vision and insight, a mere repetition of the same investigative patterns, the application in less and less mindful ways of more and more powerful tools. The caterpillar advances on, but its teleological core has been largely devoured by materialism within.


For the glory of biology is far more than just perfect genomic description, but an engineer’s delight in its precision and its mechanistic elegance, an artist’s awe at its majestic diversity of means and expressions. The aesthetic qualities of true science have been sterilised by this deification of natural selection, by denying them of their true end, the display of the majesty of their Author’s mind.


To conclude, the fundamental problem of this Romanes lecture is not of Tilghman’s perspective, flawed and perverse though it is, the real problem lies in the terms of reference set by the Romanes Foundation, at which she properly complains. To require an anatomist to describe the function of elbow without reference to the forearm or the shoulder, would be folly. To invite a physiologist to analyse or explicate brain function without reference to the circulation would be ridiculous! Yet how much more inherent in ethics and in science are the fountainhead of both – the Divine mind. To divorce true science from true theology, which is after all the most empirical of sciences (how many Unitarian churches have survived their barrenness for 100 years?) is to cut off the wrong end of the tree branch. The divorce of ethics from theology has been just as ruinous. It may please proud men to pursue their intellectual flight from the calling voice, but it will end in folly and sterility.


The Romanes ignobly ignored what as Presbyterians they knew well,

‘The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever!’


[1] Popper, K. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 9, 254-255. 1986.

[2] Dawkins, R., The Blind Watchmaker, Penguin, London, p. 91, 1986.

[3] van Rheede et al. 20 (6): 994, 2003.

[4] DeWitt, D. TJ 19(3):3, 2005.

[5]Lubenow, M 2004, 3rd edn. Bones of Contention: A Creationist Assessment of Human Fossils, Baker.

[6] Denton M. Evolution : A Theory In Crisis, Adler & Adler, 1986.

[7] Truman, R TJ 19(3) 116-127, 2005.

[8] Williams A. TJ 19(3), 40-4, 2005.

[9] Smith, H.W., Bull. NY Acad. Med. 35:293–316, 1959.

[10] Natochin, Y. Kidney Int. 49:1539–1542, 1996.

[11] Tilghman S. Mamm Genome. Feb;7(2):103-6, 1996.

[12] Tilghman S. J Biol Chem. Feb 25;256(4):1954-67, 1981. “These homologies lend strong circumstantial evidence to the proposal that these two proteins arose in evolution as the consequence of a duplication in a common tripartite ancestral gene.”

[13] Tilghman S. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. Aug;78(8):4694-8, 1981.

[14] Tilghman S. Nature. Dec 24;294(5843):713-8, 1981.

[15] Darwin C. Voyage of the Beagle entry for Nov 20th, Ch. 18

[16] Bergman J. TJ 19(3) 103-7,005.

[17] Proverbs 25.2

[18] Brian D, Einstein, A Life, New York, 129, 1996.

[19] Ibid p. 67.

[20] Weinberg S. Dreams of a final theory. Radius, London, 125, 1993.

[21] Ibid p.175.