Richard Kronenfeld
Adult Ba'al Teshuvah Ph.D. Physicist

Why are so many scientists atheists? Part III: Darwinism

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One day the zookeeper noticed that the orangutan was reading two books — the Bible and Darwin’s Origin of Species. In surprise he asked the ape, “Why are you reading both those books”? “Well,” said the orangutan, “I just wanted to know if I was my brother’s keeper or my keeper’s brother.” – Juicy

In 1859 biologist and naturalist Charles Darwin published his magnum opus, entitled Origin of the Species, which asserted that the existence and development of life on Earth arose strictly from  chance, that is, random mutations in genes occasionally produced organisms with a greater chance of survival. These superior organisms then reproduced more than those that were not mutated, through the processes of “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest”.

Louis Pollack comments in Fingerprints on the Universe that the dominant influence of evolutionism in the Western world “…becomes understandable when we recognize that Darwin’s theory fit almost perfectly into the anti-religious, humanistic principles of the then-unfolding Emancipation Movement. The philosophers of the movement had declared that God is no longer to be enthroned as the Sovereign of the world. Henceforth, man is to be his own master and in exclusive control of his own destiny. Darwin’s findings neatly buttressed these views. All happenings in nature, he maintained, were without any pattern or plan. They were purely random, devoid of any trace of divine stamp.” [pp. 35-36] In essence, science has adopted the view of Amalek that the universe is a product of random events.

Granted, not everyone was so easily convinced. Mr. Pollack points out that Alfred Russel Wallace, who is now credited with having independently developed the theory of evolution, didn’t believe that the human mind could be the result of random processes.  And even Darwin himself was reluctant to claim that the human eye, with all its complexity, arose randomly either. Nevertheless, he defended his theory against all comers, even if his evidence was no more conclusive than theirs. As an example of the evidence, I recall that a biology textbook cited the peppered moth, Biston betularia. Briefly, before the Industrial Revolution, the moth was colored brown to blend in with the tree trunks it rested on to protect it from predators. Once factories and smokestacks came into existence, the tree trunks became dark from smoke. A mutation presumably occurred to produce a dark colored moth, which as a result of predation became the dominant strain, a phenomenon known as industrial melanism. The weakness of this example is that while the change in color certainly showed natural selection at work, it didn’t constitute a change in body structure or organs that would signify a new species.

Over time, questions naturally arose about evolutionism. For a synopsis of the ongoing debate, we turn to a masterful book entitled Darwin’s Doubt. The author, Dr. Stephen Meyer, is a researcher with the Discovery Institute in Seattle, a think tank that promotes the theory of Intelligent Design – that the universe was created by design, without specifying the identity of the designer. His basic thesis is that Darwin’s theory of natural selection cannot explain the transition from non-living organic molecules to living, self-reproducing organisms because replication depends on information carried by proteins and nucleic acids. Darwinism is unable to explain how that information originated.

Specifically, Dr. Meyer observes that the fossil record has never shown evidence of a transitional organism between one species and another. Furthermore, the record shows a rapid development of many new species in a relatively short time (by geological standards), called the “Cambrian explosion.” Darwinism can’t explain this proliferation for two reasons: first, no mutation sufficient to change the body plan of an animal has ever been found to be beneficial; second, calculations using the rules of genetics show that the probability of favorable mutations is so low that even to produce only two coordinated mutations would require either more time than the entire history of the world, or more organisms than have ever existed on Earth.

How did the neo-Darwinians respond to these challenges? For one, with a plethora of new models aimed at preserving the randomness of evolution, each of which has its flaws. Second, by reassuring the public through science journalists, biology teachers, and science organizations, that there are no credible scientific challenges to the theory of evolution (even though there are concerns within the evolutionary biology community). Thus they are able to maintain the status quo that high school and college biology textbooks present the theory exclusively, with no reference to the theory of intelligent design.

And third, they use a combination of ad hominem arguments and intimidation to silence critics. (A forerunner of today’s cancel culture.) One of the most egregious examples occurred in 2004, when Dr. Meyer published an article showing how intelligent design could explain the origin of biological information in a journal, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, published under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. As Dr. Meyer describes the reaction in the scientific community, “Museum scientists and evolutionary biologists from around the country were furious with the journal and its editor, Richard Sternberg, for allowing the article to be peer-reviewed and then published.  Recriminations followed. Museum officials took away Sternberg’s keys, his office, and his access to scientific samples. He was transferred from a friendly to a hostile supervisor. A congressional subcommittee staff later investigated and found that museum officials initiated an intentional disinformation campaign against Sternberg in an attempt to get him to resign. His detractors circulated false rumors…. Eventually, despite the demonstrable falsehood of the charges, he was demoted.” [Sternberg subsequently found refuge as a research scientist with the Discovery Institute.] In effect, Dr. Sternberg was treated as a heretic denying a basic dogma of the religion of Scientism. [Stephen Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt, p. 210]

Dr. Meyer goes on to state that despite numerous reports in the national media about this controversy, no scientific journal published a formal response to his paper. “The members of the Council of the Biological Society of Washington who oversaw publication of the journal insisted that they didn’t want to dignify it by responding.” [loc.cit.]   When the Society did respond, it issued what the Wall Street Journal described [p.385] as “…a vaguely ecclesiastical statement regretting its association with the article. It did not address its arguments but denied its orthodoxy, citing a resolution of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that defined ID [the theory of intelligent design] as, by its very nature, unscientific.”

Finally, two scientists and a science education policy advocate responded on, a “prominent atheistic website.” The title of their article was “Meyer’s Hopeless Monster.

Clearly, the animus here went far beyond questions of personal gain. The allegations against Dr. Sternberg bore a great similarity to those leveled against climate change skeptics; former CBS News anchor Scott Pelley equated them with Holocaust deniers. This similarity strongly suggests an ideological motive. Later in his book, Dr. Meyer provides evidence of just such a motive when he quotes geneticist Richard Lewontin as follows: [p.368]

“… we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” [Italics mine]

In other words, science has redefined itself to exclude non-material theories. Amusingly, Dr. Meyer notes that by this definition, Newton’s theory of gravitation is unscientific because it proposes “action at a distance” without specifying the mechanism, even though it fits the astronomical evidence. Most philosophers of science, on the other hand, think that the most important attribute of a theory is that it is true and agrees with the evidence.

Turning now to the Jewish response to the controversy regarding creation and evolution, Professor Nathan Aviezer has written a detailed account focusing on Days 5 and 6. As previously noted, he follows Maimonides in viewing “days” as figurative rather than specifically 24 hours. His main point is that we must distinguish between evolution as fact and evolution as theory. He then cites Torah authorities such as Yehuda HaLevi (author of the Kuzari), Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser), Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, and Rabbi Kook to the effect that evolution is the means by which G-d created life, as He prefers to use natural means whenever possible, thus by no means contradicts the Torah.

Speaking philosophically, in his weekly column in the Jewish Press, “The Shmuz,” dated August 24, 2017, Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier wrote a parable about a man who finds a working computer in a backwoods junkyard. The lot’s owner said there were strong winds the other day which must have blown the pieces together into a working computer. The finder was incredulous and asked how the wind could possibly blow the pieces together to produce a monitor, a fully functioning mouse, and a QWERTY keyboard.

Rabbi Shafier continued that we can have conversations with intelligent, well-educated people who tell you the world evolved, that this entire infinitely complex world with its uniformity, harmonious systems, and universal laws of physics, all just happened. In his words, “A lucky roll of the cosmic dice and a hundred billion galaxies, each one containing a hundred billion stars, appeared out of nowhere.

“The same people who tout evolution as a religion are also aware that life has exact rules. The simplest amoeba is far more complex than any machine ever devised by man, and a human baby is infinitely more complex than an amoeba. The trillions and trillions of cells of the body are all specific, all organized into organs and systems with each one perfectly in place, each one playing its part. Every cell in the human body is directed by DNA coding. The question is, how can any intelligent person possibly think this just evolved? Who wrote the code?

“The answer is that Hashem created man with free will – free will to believe or not to believe, to accept or not to accept. The capacity for free will included this most amazing ability to accept the most farfetched, ludicrous positions as long as they fit into a person’s agenda.”

Rabbi Shafier’s argument in essence is the classical argument from design, which is one of the strongest indirect proofs of G-d’s existence. As an interesting postscript, as many as one-third of biologists are now beginning to find neo-Darwinism inadequate to explain all of developmental biology. While they have yet to recognize their Creator – in fact, they are firmly secular and embrace a theory called Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES), which seeks to shore up Darwinism, not replace it – at least some cracks are appearing in the united front of denial which asserts that only creationists find fault with Darwinism. We look forward to seeing how EES evolves (pun intended).

In part IV we conclude this series of posts with more general remarks about the relationship between science and religion.

About the Author
I'm a native New Yorker (Brooklyn, to be precise) transplanted to the desert as a teen-ager. I hold a Ph.D in Physics from Stanford and have taught mathematics and physics at the high school, community college, and university level. I'm an adult ba'al teshuvah and label myself as centrist Orthodox and a Religious Zionist along the lines of OU, Yeshiva University, and Mizrachi.
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