At Age 180, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution a Materialist House of Cards

By Tom Bethell Published on January 31, 2017

Little known fact: The year 2017 is likely the 180th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. If that number sounds high, it’s because while Darwin had worked out his theory of evolution by 1837, he didn’t go public with it until 1858.

Why the delay? Evolution itself wasn’t the problem. Earlier in the century, it was openly discussed. Darwin’s own grandfather had broached the subject. The problem, according paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, was that Darwin’s theory of evolution was distinguished from others by its materialism.

Previous writings on evolution were softened by a reliance on vital forces, organic striving, teleology and the like. Not Darwin’s theory. It argued that even the mind was nothing but a special configuration of matter operating under blind processes. “No notion,” Gould wrote, “could be more upsetting to the deepest traditions of Western thought than the statement that mind — however complex and powerful — is simply a product of brain.”

Darwin’s theory needed a climate of opinion more favorable to materialism, one that didn’t exist in the 1830s.

So, to be acceptable to his contemporaries, Darwin’s theory needed a climate of opinion more favorable to materialism, one that didn’t exist in the 1830s. Indeed, throughout Darwin’s youth, materialism had been actively repressed. Lectures were proscribed, publication hampered and professorships denied. “Fierce invective and ridicule appeared in the press,” wrote Howard Gruber, author of Darwin on Man. “Scholars and scientists learned the lesson and responded to the pressures on them.” Sometimes they recanted and sometimes they published anonymously or “delayed publication for many years.”

In one notebook Darwin reminded himself to “avoid stating how far, I believe, in Materialism.”

A generation later, the landscape was more favorable for materialists. And for those committed to materialism, Darwin’s theory was a lifeline. After all, if materialism is true, then something like Darwin’s theory must be true. Complex organisms do exist, after all, so molecules must somehow have whirled themselves into the far more complex structures we find around us, whether bacterial or human.

That also necessitates a finely graded series of structures gradually evolving from relatively simple molecules into one or more single-celled organisms, and from there onto multi-celled organisms, the first plants and animals, and so on.

Armed with materialist creed, the true believer is prepared to reject contrary evidence. “We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism,” Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin frankly admitted in the New York Review of Books. “Moreover,” he continued, “that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

Thus do they rule out of the court of science everything that doesn’t fit their materialist ideology.

Notice where this leads. If mind is just a special configuration of brain cells, then mind is nothing but matter. How can neurons “decide” to do one thing rather than another? Nerve cells can’t make decisions. So, materialism repudiates free will.

“Our sense of self is a neuronal illusion,” said Jerry Coyne, a fully paid-up materialist and author of Why Evolution Is True.

The consistent materialist sees this, denies free will and dismisses consciousness as a delusion. “Our sense of self is a neuronal illusion,” said Jerry Coyne, a fully paid-up materialist and author of Why Evolution Is True. Molecular biologist Francis Crick said the same thing. “Your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules,” he wrote. Or as he put it more succinctly, “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”

 How deeply do materialists believe this? Notice that many of them grow outraged at public intellectuals who reject Darwinian materialism. But why the outrage if beliefs, ambitions and will are “nothing but a pack of neurons.” On that view the person skeptical of Darwinism can’t help himself, so why get outraged at the poor fellow?

The materialists might concede that their outrage is irrational, a byproduct of evolution — the fight-or-flight mechanism run amok. But that explanation opens a can of worms. If mind is a byproduct of an evolutionary process that maybe saddled us with various irrationalities, why trust human reason? Why trust it to lead us to the truth about biological origins?

In my decades as a journalist covering evolution and interviewing some of the world’s leading evolutionary thinkers, I have found that materialists have no good answers to this question, or to many of the evidential challenges that have endured and grown since Darwin’s time.

For me the conclusion is inescapable: Modern Darwinism is built on a foundation of sand — a house of cards, threatened even by the outraged huffing and puffing of its defenders.

It’s time for a rethink.


Long-time journalist Tom Bethell is author of the newly released book Darwin’s House of Cards: A Journalist’s Odyssey Through the Darwin Debates. Praised by Tom Wolfe as “one of our most brilliant essayists,” Bethell is the previous author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science.

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