Atheist Doubts on Darwin

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Current secular thought strongly and almost wholly embraces Charles Darwin’s specific theory of evolution set out in his 1859 ‘The Origin of Species’. This is very often associated with an atheist position, since evolution is seen as trouncing religious creationism, or later theories of ‘intelligent design’. This link is both unnecessary and unfortunate. Atheism may well include evolution, but is a sufficiently strong hypothesis which does not crucially or uniquely rely on evolution. Making atheism rely on specific Darwinian evolution is a mistake which forces the current dominant secular paradigm to defend the Darwinian account in all its detail. This leads to partisan rather than intellectual positioning, and precludes the doubt and debate on Darwin which would otherwise be core to the Enlightenment project. Neo-Darwinism becomes a secular fundamentalism.

From 1859 onwards, there have been, and there remain, credible doubts about the Darwinian account of evolution. Admitting these does not imply a creationist view. Precluding them prohibits intellectual progress.

Darwin’s theory rests on 8 crucial assumptions

  • Prolific reproduction of species (2 elephants will produce 15m elephants in 500 years)
  • A resource constraint
  • Random mutations
  • Inheritance of characteristics through ‘blending’
  • Natural selection by predation rather than climate or catastrophe
  • Geographic isolation
  • Cumulative change
  • Time, where Darwin suggested a 300 million year process

Not all these assumptions hold. For example, human reproduction is consciously constrained by contraception and abortion. Darwin insisted that mutations are random, and selection logical. It is entirely possible that the reverse could hold, ie that mutations are adaptive, as more recent neo-Lamarckian research suggests, and selection a random process of predation, chance, catastrophe etc. Saltation may be a better explanator than mutation.

The species barrier remains one of the great questions in biology. It is the crossing of this barrier that Darwin addresses, and his continuous incremental theory does have a problem in explaining a discrete process of speciation. If the definition of a species is reproductive isolation, ie organisms that can reproduce to yield fertile offspring, then crossing such a discrete barrier by a slow incremental process is problematic. How does the first organism in a new species find a mate capable of fertile reproduction?

Gregor Mendel’s work on dominant genes in peas rescued Darwin’s theory from blending of new mutations back into the host population. W D Hamilton’s theory of the ‘selfish gene’ responded to altruism as a challenge to Darwin by claiming that only relatives in a species carrying the same gene display altruism. This claim is made more in complex mathematical models than it is in empirical study. Hamilton was himself a determined eugenicist. Nevertheless, his theory has been widely popularised by Richard Dawkins, thus establishing the current Darwin/Mendel/Hamilton synthesis.

As Darwin’s contemporary, Richard Owen, whom Darwin called ‘our greatest palaeontologist’ pointed out, Darwin’s theory is not capable of unambiguously telling the evolutionary story of one single species. There is room for doubt. There is a huge need for debate, and for further intellectual development, an evolution of Darwinian thought itself.



6 thoughts on “Atheist Doubts on Darwin

  1. Geoff Crocker on

    Thanks for the comment. What I’m basically saying is that Darwin’s theory should be open to widespread challenge and debate, without dismissing the challenge as theist, creationist, or ID-ist. Atheists don’t have to accept Darwin or neo-Darwinism uncritically as an article of faith. Atheism is secure without evolution, so we can and should separate the two.

    I derived the 8 Darwinian assumptions from my personal direct reading of Darwin. You reduce these to 4, but we are both presenting undefended assertions given the space constraints of a post. But this isn’t at all crucial to what I’m saying.

    More interesting is the challenge to any assumption, eg whether mutations have to be random and selection logical, whether saltation is a better explanator, how a discrete barrier is crossed incrementally, whether there is empirical evidence that only relatives carrying the same gene display altruism etc. You don’t respond on these points?

    I’m not really presenting any one argument, so I’m not sure in what sense you find it faulty? I’m merely asking for the debate to be had and for the theory itself to evolve.

    The view that the species barrier remains one of the greatest questions in biology is expressed by Adam Rutherford in his book ‘Creation’ which is about as strongly neo-Darwinist as you can get.

    • DiscoveredJoys on

      I still think you are mixing two arguments here.

      Argument 1: Can atheists be indifferent to the Theory of Evolution?
      My Answer: Yes. I wonder if you have some notion about what an atheist ‘believes’ or should believe when really the only common denominator is a lack of belief in god(s). But *some* atheists who self identify as rationalists, or perhaps anti-theists, do use naturalistic science and specifically the Theory of Evolution to counter theistic and deistic supernatural arguments.

      Argument 2: Are there problems with Darwinism/NeoDawinism/the latest understanding of the Theory of Evolution?
      My Answer: Yes, in some details… but not the ones you mention. They are either dismissed as trivial, a misunderstanding, or are the subject of much deeper and nuanced debate than posed in your questions.

      For example do “mutations have to be random and selection logical”? There has been a great deal of debate about the meanings of ‘random’ and ‘selection’ – key matters which need definition before any further debate. Personally I expect that genetic change and selection are contextual – that is they are fully determined by prior events but in a context that is so complex we cannot (usually) predict the outcome.

      Is saltation a better explanator? No. Just no. We don’t see it in nature or in previous history, and there are biological, genetic and thermodynamic reasons to think it almost impossibly unlikely.

      How can a discrete barrier can be crossed incrementally? I think you are wrong to assert that there is a discrete barrier as a ‘property’. Again there has been huge debate about what defines a species and how porous the interface is. Again I refer you to Steve Jones’ book (trivia: Adam Rutherford worked on a project under Steve Jones). If you look up ring species and chronospecies, hybrid vigour and hybrid sterility you will find that the ‘barrier’ is more a matter of how we categorise organisms than some inherent property of ‘a species’.

      Do only relatives carrying the same genes display altruism? Obviously not since people may die trying to rescue their dogs from the sea. However this does not mean to say that kin altruism has not got a genetic basis and that wider altruism may not arise from social culture which also has some basis in genetics. Or even that some costly altruism is a ‘mistake’ that natural selection will prune back.

      • Geoff Crocker on

        I’m certainly expressing these two points, but that doesn’t amount to mixing them. We seem to agree on the first point but not entirely on the second since you don’t say what you consider the problems with the neo-Darwinist account to be?

        There is renewed interest in a Lamarckian account of adaptive mutation (for example see Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb ‘Evolution in Four Dimensions’) and in the possibility of random rather than logical selection (see Mitoo Kimura ‘The Neutral Theory of Molecular Evolution’).

        You are very certain about saltation, but there are frequent human saltations we can currently observe, without knowing whether they will inherit and select.

        The species barrier problem comes down to our definition of species. If it is as a group which can reproduce fertile progeny then I think there is a problem.

        I’m surprised you dismiss the selfish gene argument against altruism since this was key to the W D Hamilton/Dawkins thesis defending the Darwinian account against the challenge of indiscriminate altruism ?

        Our main difference is that you are very certain, while I am less so. As Nick Lane wrote in his review of Adam Rutherford’s book ‘ (Observer 6 April 2013) ‘we know less than we think’.

        • DiscoveredJoys on

          Two questions that I am aware of are the Group Selection debate and the validity of Evolutionary Psychology. There is also still the long running species definition debate. Not an exhaustive list by any means.

          I don’t see ‘Evolution in Four Dimensions’ breaking the current Theory of Evolution. It presents genetic/epigenetics/society/symbolism as a new paradigm, but this is overblown in my opinion. As a corrective to the strawman ‘just genes’ brigade it has some value but the process(es) of selection has always worked on genes in the environment they find themselves in. Similarly neutral drift is now considered part of population genetics, the only debate is how much effect it has compared with other forms of genetic change. I have read (but can’t find my copy) that there are more than 20 types of genetic change that could count as ‘mutation’, which is important for my next point…

          My response on saltation was about the type of saltation I thought you meant(!). My bad, too used to reading theistic challenges I guess. The NeoDarwinian view is that speciation *typically* occurs through an accumulation of many small changes and that the ‘hopeful monsters’ idea (what I thought you were referring to) has no value. Wikipedia will give you some details of observed ‘saltation’ but these are not common, nor necessarily speciation. Definitions again.

          I don’t see the species barrier problem the same way as you because I have a different view of what a species is. For a long and interesting essay on the ‘meaning’ of species see

          I was disappointed that you think I don’t accept the kin theory of altruism, I do. I can’t have expressed myself well. I was making the point that altruistic behaviour to non-kin exists too.

          Finally I am *not* certain because my opinions will change (and have changed) if I am presented with convincing evidence. I have firm opinions because of the amount of reading and thinking about evolution that I have done, but I don’t hold myself to be an expert. I have watched several big questions rumble along and become incorporated into the Theory of Evolution and so far nothing has broken it, only perhaps changing an emphasis.

          • Geoff Crocker on

            All very interesting. Thanks for responding. Hope you might like other sections of the site too.

  2. DiscoveredJoys on

    I’m not sure what you are saying here. Did Darwin get everything right about the Theory of Evolution? No, and I know of no modern biologists that believes he did.

    Does Darwins theory rest on the 8 crucial assumptions you set out?. No, it needs only heritability, variation, differential survival, and sufficient time.

    Does the ‘species barrier’ remain one of the greatest questions in biology? No. I suggest you read ‘Darwin’s Ghost’ by Steve Jones who sets out a very approachable update of how the modern Theory of Evolution fits with Darwin’s views, and even follows a similar chapter layout to The Origin.

    I believe your argument is faulty. You can certainly be an atheist without accepting the Theory of Evolution, but if you must argue about the validity of the Theory of Evolution then it only harms your case if you use an incorrect gloss of an out of date version.

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