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. 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.
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?
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.
observation that lactate dehydrogenase serves a dual
structural and functional purpose, as recently observed not only in reptiles
and fish but in the platypus
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
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:
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
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!
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
Yet now the same mechanism is showcased quite illogically as an example of
natural selection at work!
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.
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
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
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
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
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
In the light of these
observations, I wonder how
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
All of these and many
other opponents of
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.’ 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’. 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!’
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 Ibid p.175.