While Christians have long challenged Charles Darwin’s theory of undirected evolution, few appreciate the true extent of the challenge beyond the church. Current estimates are that approximately one-third of professional academic biologists who do not believe in intelligent design find Darwin’s theory is inadequate to describe all of the complexity in biology.
Ben Stein documented a crackdown within the academy on criticism of Darwin in his 2008 documentary “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.” While this might explain why the public rarely hears of challenges to Neo-Darwinism, the documentary centered on intelligent design. But the growing discontent in academia is from secular naturalists.
Defining evolution is key. At the basic level of change over time, even Young Earth biblical creationists agree. At its most specific level of the common descent of all life on earth from a single ancestor via undirected mutation and natural selection, many legitimately question evolutionary theory as it stands. The word is often used interchangeably without distinction, but even when used technically in academic biologist circles, real skepticism exists about the theory.
Demanding a New Theory
A controversial letter to Nature in 2014 signaled the mounting concern, however slow and cautious, among thoughtful professional biologists. Other works by atheist authors like “What Darwin Got Wrong” and “Mind and Cosmos” find “fatal flaws” in the theory and assert it is “almost certainly false.”
Another project, The Third Way, seeks to avoid a false choice between divine intervention (which it outright rejects) and the Neo-Darwinian model (which it finds unsupported in the face of modern molecular theory) while presenting evidence to improve evolution theory beyond Neo-Darwinism. Some even believe billions of years have not been adequate for Darwinian theory to accomplish current complexity, as the theory currently exists.
This dissatisfaction is a matter of public record, even if it lacks public attention, and despite the narrative running contrary. Indeed dedicated Neo-Darwinists often say “no serious scientists disagree” or “only creationists have problems.” These contentions are increasingly disproven.
The important note is that these are not ideologues or religious zealots, nor do they propose a god or biblical solution. Rather, they find problems with the explanatory value of Darwin’s theory in light of modern understanding of mutation, variation, DNA sequencing, and more. These expressions of doubt do not reject naturalism or evolution per se, but the rigor of the Neo-Darwinian model for explaining the development of life.
In fact, they want to help Darwin, not tear him down. That he needs help is news to the academy.
A Voice in the Wilderness
Professor Kevin Laland, author of the Nature letter insisting on “urgent” rethinking of evolutionary theory, has been described by critics as offering an unneeded paradigm shift. He recognizes the pushback from the scientific establishment, but he and his colleagues forge a path forward nonetheless with rigorous work on their model of Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES).
This is an update to the mid-20th-century Modern Synthesis, which patched up Neo-Darwinian theory with then-modern information. Since then, understanding of complexity has grown such that Laland and others believe EES or another supplement is necessary to keep up. It is not a replacement or rejection of Neo-Darwinism, but can be deployed alongside it as a way to understand key processes of nature the theory neglects.
Laland explained, “The EES is a minority position, but not as small a minority as it is often portrayed. It is also gaining ground.” EES is not the only naturalist supplement or revision of Neo-Darwinism, but joins several other embattled factions in the academy, including The Third Way.
“As you may surmise, there is a lot of politics in these debates. Traditionalists have a track record of characterising more progressive researchers as a small group of extremists,” Leland added. Explaining why it is difficult to gain traction, he continued, “support for our position comes from academic fields on the periphery of evolutionary biology, such as evolutionary developmental biology, ecological developmental biology, paleontology, botany, and the human sciences, while traditionalists dominate evolutionary genetics.”
A Growing Minority
After publishing in Nature, Laland received more than 1,000 emails in support from the academic community. This number is huge for a critique of such a longstanding accepted theory. In the five years since the Nature letter, support has also only grown.
The leading critics have been intelligent design supporters, who are looked down on by naturalists. But as each group adds to the scientific literature, certain critiques and findings inevitably bolster or redirect the research of the other.
The effects go at least one way. Following work and theories of Stephen Jay Gould, Michael Denton helped shape a generation of skeptics with his 1985 book “Evolution: A Theory in Crisis.” An evolutionist and agnostic, Denton has continued his criticism.
In the past decade, the works of professor Michael Behe, Steven Meyer, and others have given more life to the debate on the national stage. In “Darwin Devolves,” Behe points to the process of mutations to describe the inadequacy of an unguided materialist process to add information. Meyer explores the Cambrian explosion and the complexity of the cell to show the biodiversity and complexity we observe, and notes that natural processes have never been observed to produce such results.
Importantly, these two men, and many others, believe in the standard multibillion-year timeline for the Earth and make their findings based on deduction of natural evidence rather than starting from authority in scripture or elsewhere. The growth of the intelligent design community is noteworthy, but not as interesting as those who are apart from it, secular, and nonetheless find Darwinian evolution to contain serious flaws.
Behe explained that, “Based on conversations with my own colleagues at Lehigh [University], dozens of other biologists, and news stories in journals I would guesstimate that a third or more of biologists are quite skeptical that Darwin’s theory explains all of biology.” The growing literature speaks for itself.
Paul Nelson told Stein that, “One-on-one at a scientific meeting after the third or fourth beer, my experience has been that many evolutionary biologists will say ‘Yeah, this theory’s got a lot of problems.’” While anecdotal, this is echoed by many in academia, both within intelligent design, and more importantly outside of it.
While maintaining his field is not in crisis, and insisting on nuance, Leland notes, “I think the numbers issue depends strongly on subtle details of how you frame the question. A good proportion would probably agree that the causal bases of evolution are more complex than commonly portrayed in the textbooks.”
Difficulties in Forming Alliances
Nuance and framing are important, and along with traditional pressures, make estimates of the Neo-Darwin critics incredibly difficult to conclude. One approach is to simply seek signatures on a simple scientific statement of skepticism. Several hundred PhDs have signed. However, the association with intelligent design and possible academic consequences keeps many from signing.
While intelligent design gets a bad rap, such titans as Francis Crick and Richard Dawkins have espoused the same tenets. Still, many immediately and falsely link intelligent design with Christian divinity and stay far away.
The Third Way is highly exclusive to maintain purity and preempt criticism. Not only are religious believers excluded, but the platform is invite-only. The isolated clusters of scientists averse to associating with one another, or too set on their preferred nuance, lend credence to the traditionalist Neo-Darwin assertion that only a tiny fringe minority, if that, exists.
The plain truth from the literature, conferences, expert perception, and a bit of anecdote for color, is that current Neo-Darwinism is far from the untouchable theory it is lauded to be. Not only this, but it has serious and increasing skeptics and challengers from within the secular scientific community.
When adding in supporters of intelligent design, which is religion-neutral, the numbers begin to expand rapidly. While there are serious, scientific, and peer-reviewed studies from this group, it does not rock the boat as much as the secular material naturalists. The goal is not to abandon Darwin, but to retire him to make way for more coherent comprehensive theories.
This article has been slightly changed to clarify the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis. The original draft described it as a paradigm shift, which Laland says is inaccurate.