Concerning Recent Attacks on Charles Darwin
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. —from the conclusion to The Origin of Species
I am turned into a sort of machine for observing facts and grinding out conclusions. —Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin is probably my favorite scientist of all time. He’s by far the most historically important biologist of all time, going with Charles Murray’s statistical analysis as laid out in his great book Human Accomplishment. Darwin delivered a devastating blow to mainstream Christian creationism by providing a very compelling and very elegant empirical hypothesis to account for why we are here on this planet. We are a species of animal, related to other species of animal, and in all likelihood we are descended ultimately from anaerobic bacteria.
Darwin is also possibly my favorite Englishman of all time; he’d definitely be in the top five. In fact, Chuck Darwin is one of my non-Buddhist western culture heroes, along with a few others like Fyodor Dostoevsky, David Hume, and Diogenes “the Cynic” of Sinope.
Nevertheless, recently there seems to be a new trend of people finding fault with Darwin’s theories of evolution, especially his idea of natural selection as the origin of species. I haven’t followed the arguments closely, but I have encountered them from time to time. Criticisms of Darwin used to be launched almost entirely by fundamentalist Christians who choose to believe that the Book of Genesis is a reliable historical document; but now even some atheistic materialists are bashing Darwin.
I suspect that one major factor of this new trend is the fact that damn near EVERYTHING is controversial now, with conspiracy theories making the rounds on anything of any perceived importance, and gaining publicity primarily on the informational chaos generator known as the Internet. Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, Churchill was actually a more evil person than Hitler, the Holocaust didn’t happen, Queen Elizabeth II is a reptilian space alien, we never actually went to the moon, Osama bin Laden didn’t knock down the World Trade Center, Trump is secretly a lackey of Putin, Epstein didn’t kill himself, and on and on, practically ad infinitum. (And yeah, some conspiracy theories are true.) So even those atheistic materialists, who used to be Darwin’s staunchest defenders, now make YouTube videos claiming, for example, that his theories are mathematically implausible, or that the fossil record doesn’t back him up sufficiently, or that natural selection can’t explain speciation, or whatever. They may accept that evolution and natural selection occur within species, and that survival of the fittest is plainly obvious, yet still insist that Darwin didn’t know Shinola from a hole in the ground when it comes to the origin of species.
To me the bare fact of organic evolution, the gradual change and development of life on earth as it mutates, reproduces, and adapts to changing environments, is plainly obvious. I fail to see how any objective person with access to the evidence could possibly doubt it at an empirical level. Consider, for example, the fossil record. If one goes to a place like the Grand Canyon in the USA, where a river has eroded a path through millions of years’ worth of geological strata, one will find human remains and the remains of modern life forms near the top. A little lower down, in older strata, one finds no more human remains, and finds fossil evidence of species now extinct. Lower still and eventually there are no mammal remains, or fossil evidence of flowering plants, but rather reptiles, invertebrates, and more archaic plant types like tree ferns and mosses. Further still and all the bones are gone, with the only animal remains being of invertebrates, like clams, snails, and worms. Ultimately, in the lowest and oldest strata there are no longer any fossil remains of organic life, aside from maybe some kind of bacterial fossils. This in itself—and it’s nowhere near all of the evidence—is some pretty damned persuasive evidence that, by whatever means, life has been evolving gradually on this planet for a very long time.
Other evidence favoring evolution includes embryonic development: At one stage in our own prenatal life as an embryo we had gill slits similar to those of a shark, and the inner openings of our Eustachian tubes are derived from one of those slits; the rest are resorbed into the body and disappear. Also, a little later, we had eight nipples instead of only two, like a rat or a dog; and some people retain vestigial extra nipples into adulthood. Speaking of vestigial organs, there are plenty of those found throughout the animal kingdom, such as vestigial pelvic bones in pythons and whales, and the vestigial asymmetry of a king crab’s abdomen, suggesting that king crabs are descended from hermit crabs. And as I’ve discussed elsewhere, we humans are also laden with animal instincts, some of which are more or less vestiges of pre-humanity. Also there are the obvious effects of isolation of populations allowing so-called genetic drift, several signs of which Darwin himself encountered on the Galapagos Islands, for example the finches and giant tortoises. Then there’s the jerry-rigged nature of some biological phenomena, indicating products of modified random mutations; for example the elongated wrist bone used as a thumb in the giant panda. Lately another massive source of evidence has been found in genetic mapping. So, it seems to me that in order to reject the very notion of organic evolution on planet earth, it would require ignorance of the empirical evidence, willful delusion, some deep-seated religious indoctrination accompanied by an emotional need to believe it, or maybe some kind of radical subjective idealism. Darwin’s theories (including later modifications on them, like punctuated equilibrium) are so elegant, and so explanatory of the available evidence—much more so than any other empirical hypothesis I’ve encountered—that it just seems really, really obvious to me.
This makes some trouble for me internally, as I’m not a materialist; in fact I lean somewhat in the direction of the aforementioned radical subjective idealism. I am skeptical of the notion that physical matter exists in time and space without some mind perceiving it (esse es percipi), and so I can’t adequately explain how supposedly physical processes occurred before any mind was there capable of perceiving them. Also I am reluctant to follow the lead of George Berkeley and say that God Almighty is always watching, and thus keeping all “physical” matter materialized. But the empirical evidence for evolution itself is so overwhelming that I just can’t deny it; and any skepticism I entertain is mostly along metaphysical lines. Thus, as a Buddhist, I can say that organic evolution is virtually, relatively, conventionally true, but not ultimately true. Then again, my own existence as an individual person sitting here typing this is also only conventionally true, which is to say it’s not really true. But even if we are in Plato’s cave, the flickering shadows on the wall show some damned persuasive evidence for evolution.
After accepting its empirical, virtual reality, within the sphere of “hard” science, as a given, still I must admit that there are problematic issues that are difficult to explain along orthodox Darwinian lines. The origin of life is a famous one. I’m pretty sure that the most widely accepted scientific theory of the origin of life would be something like this: Shortly after our new earth had cooled down enough to have liquid water on its surface, the atmosphere consisted largely of volcanic gases like carbon dioxide, methane, sulfur dioxide, and water vapor. Also there was a lot of solar radiation and lightning. So what supposedly happened was that lightning and radiation acting on simple organic molecules like methane caused more complex organic molecules to form; and these molecules in a smallish body of water eventually produced some kind of protein molecule which functioned as a catalyst for its own replication. Thus the first life form on earth would have been a kind of protoplasmic soup, a crudely metabolizing pond, not a cell. After the first self-replicating protein arose, then later the protoplasmic broth acquired, again through random trial and error, lipid cell membranes, the replication eventually was taken over by nucleic acids, and so on. Laboratory experiments with water, presumed early atmospheric gases, and electricity mimicking lightning have produced lots of relatively complex organic molecules (like amino acids) fairly quickly, which partly substantiates the hypothesis.
But some scientists have claimed from the beginning that the radiation and lightning would inevitably break down complex molecules as quickly as it formed them, and that the complexity required for real life could not have been generated in this way. This has elicited counter-hypotheses of, say, the complex organic molecules sinking into mud and being protected that way, although no hypothesis has gained anywhere near to universal acceptance. Consequently, some scientists kick the proverbial can down the road with what is called the Panspermia hypothesis, which states that the original simple cells from which all terrestrial life arose came from outer space, possibly in the form of some kind of spores. But still even that life had to begin somehow, somewhere.
A bigger objection for me, one that I can’t explain, is how numbers of chromosomes can change in animal species as they evolve. For example, chimpanzees have 24 pairs of chromosomes, whereas we, their nearest relative, have only 23. Apparently after our lineages branched approximately six million years ago, two of our ape chromosomes fused into one; so that now, or so I have read, a human and a chimp could theoretically breed and produce offspring—but they would be sterile, like mules, due to the difference in chromosome number preventing viable reproduction. So how could natural selection cause changes in chromosome number, which would ensure speciation? If the first mutation occurred in one individual organism, as one would expect, its different number of chromosomes would presumably prevent it from breeding effectively with the non-mutant members of its species. It would seem that a boy organism and a girl organism would have to have the same kind of mutation so they could become the Adam and Eve of a new species. But even then there would be severe problems with inbreeding. There would have to be a lot of similar mutations going on at the same time.
Not only changes in numbers of chromosomes, but the arising of entirely new species in general, are difficult to explain. Scientists have notoriously failed to produce a new species of fruit fly despite long efforts, including blasting the little bastards with ionizing radiation. They’ve created some bizarre mutated monsters, like flies with legs instead of antennae sprouting out of their head (itself good evidence that insect antennae evolved from the front legs of an archaic centipede-like creature), but they can all still interbreed with normal fruit flies, or else they just don’t mate, or survive, at all. That remains a problem for proponents of evolution, but it could simply be used as an appeal to ignorance by anti-Darwinists. Maybe it’s still the result of natural selection, but we just haven’t figured out how it works yet. There still are, and will always be, an infinitude of things we don’t know.
Bearing all this in mind, the most plausible alternative scenario for me is that there is some driving force to evolution in addition to random mutations, survival of the fittest, isolation and genetic drift, and so on. Maybe there’s some kind of more or less conscious life force, like Schopenhauer’s idea of Will, that has some goal, or at least some direction, towards which it strives. Or possibly some higher intelligence like a deity is involved, as many Christians would like to believe. Or possibly some non-divine (whatever that means) advanced space aliens are tampering with the process, in which case perhaps someday we’ll discover an alien monolith on the back side of the moon. None of this, even if true, would necessarily disprove Darwin’s basic theories, but would supplement them; and probably even Darwin himself would have approved, especially with regard to the deity hypothesis, considering that he was a Christian, and his beloved wife was even more faithful of one. Darwin admitted to many long prayers and many tears in his internal struggles over publishing his theories, and not just because he knew he’d be attacked for them. The evidence was just too overwhelming for him to ignore it, and now, one and a half centuries later, the evidence for evolution, natural selection, Darwinian sexual selection, and so on, is even more overwhelming than in Darwin’s day, even if Darwin’s theories are insufficient to explain the empirical evidence all by itself.
And so, as in the case of revisionist history, the big changes in evolutionary theory probably won’t entail a complete overthrow of the preexisting system, but rather would involve some significant additions. It could be, though, that some Copernican revolution in science will wreak havoc and overturn the tables throughout the realm of scientific empiricism, including biology. Who knows, maybe someone will be able to prove that our entire universe is a simulation contained in some extremely powerful computer. My own prediction of an upcoming Copernican revolution, though, is that science will recognize that consciousness and energy are ultimately the same—that what psychologists call mind is just a very complex manifestation of what a physicist would call energy, which is already standard science, and that, contrariwise, what a physicist calls energy is really an extremely simple, elemental form of what a psychologist calls consciousness. So the entire universe would be conscious…although maybe more about that some other time.