A temple to Darwinism is what I prefer to call it, even though it is meant to be a science museum, and seemingly once was. Here I am going to describe its transformation, and hopefully explain my reasons for calling it that. This should interest anyone following the debate between Darwinian evolutionary theory and theistic alternatives, including Intelligent Design, although they will not be discussed here.
In my opinion the Darwinian theory of evolution has become equivalent to a religion. Its believers do not think that, obviously, because they have convinced themselves that it is science. It perhaps takes an outsider to see what is going on, hence the philosopher Mary Midgley’s book Evolution as a Religion (1). Words like dogma, creeds, heresy, Inquisition have become relevant, as I hope to show.
In 2009 there was a special Darwin exhibition there, timed to coincide with the bicentenary of his birth. My wife and I decided to visit it, and naïvely assumed that we would be able to just turn up and get in; after all, it wasn’t going to be a sell-out, or so we thought. To our surprise, it was fully pre-booked and we couldn’t get in. We therefore spent the time looking at the exhibits in the rest of the Museum. As a sceptic, I found the experience an oppressive attempt at indoctrination, and would probably have felt the same if I had managed to get into the exhibition, since one review described it as having “an unambiguous militant tone” (2).
The Museum was founded in 1881. Richard Owen was the person primarily responsible and its first director. He was an outstanding naturalist, comparative anatomist, and a lifelong opponent of Darwin’s theory. He was apparently a devout Christian, which may have influenced his views; it is also possible that his religious views were inspired by his observations. Owen agreed with Darwin that evolution occurred, but saw nature as a series of experiments by a Creator. (Divine Imagination! You don’t have to be a conventional Christian to believe that.) For at least part of his career Owen believed that living matter had an “organising energy”, a life-force that directed the growth of tissues, a viewpoint that is called vitalism. In case anyone thinks this is an antiquated idea, smacking of mysticism and the supernatural, let me assure you that the debate continues. As recently as 1989, physicist Paul Davies, not someone likely to indulge in fanciful speculation, while not himself endorsing vitalism or animism, nevertheless outlined in The Cosmic Blueprint (3) the difficulties encountered when trying to explain life, specifically morphogenesis, by ordinary physical laws, and included vitalism and animism as part of the discussion.
I am not saying that this science museum began under the influence of Christianity, but I do think that it was a genuine science museum, i.e. open-minded and objective, showing exhibits, not promoting one particular line of thought. In what follows, I’ll relate some of the moments which were significant in its transformation into a Temple of Darwinism.
1981 was a significant year in my story for two reasons. Firstly, this was the centenary of the Museum, which celebrated by opening an exhibition on Darwinism. Upon entering the hall, the first thing the visitor saw was a notice:
“Have you ever wondered why there are so many different kinds of living things? One idea is that all the living things we see today have EVOLVED from a distant ancestor by a process of gradual change. How could evolution have occurred? How could one species change into another? The exhibition in this hall looks at one possible explanation — the explanation first thought of by Charles Darwin”.
Later in the exhibition a poster said: “Another view is that God created all living things perfect and unchanging”.
It would seem, therefore, that the exhibition was an example of what all science should be, open-minded and objective, on this occasion, with its reference to religion, possibly beyond the call of duty. Was this a hint that it was articulating the split between the co-founders of the theory of evolution by natural selection, Darwin and Alfred Wallace, the latter going on to believe in God and Intelligent Design (although he did also believe in evolution)? (4)
1981 was also important because it was the year when Colin Patterson, a senior paleontologist at the Museum, caused something of a stir when he read a paper at the American Museum of Natural History, New York (5). Here are some significant quotes:
- “Last year I had a sudden realization. For over twenty years I had thought that I was working on evolution in some way. One morning I woke up, and something had happened in the night, and it struck me that I had been working on this stuff for twenty years, and there was not one thing I knew about it. That was quite a shock, to learn that one can be so misled for so long”.
- “I woke up and I realized that all my life I had been duped into taking evolutionism as revealed truth in some way”.
- Following this revelation, for several weeks he “tried putting a simple question to various people and groups of people. The question is this: Can you tell me anything you know about evolution, any one thing, any one thing that you think is true?” “I tried that question on the geology staff at the Field Museum of Natural History, and the only answer I got was silence. I tried it on the members of the Evolutionary Morphology Seminar in the University of Chicago, a very prestigious body of evolutionists, and all I got there was silence for a long time”. “The absence of an answer seems to suggest that it is true, evolution does not convey any knowledge, or if so, I haven’t yet heard it.”
- “Now I think many people in this room would acknowledge that during the last few years, if you had thought about it at all, you’ve experienced a shift from evolution as knowledge to evolution as faith. I know that’s true of me, and I think it’s true of a good many of you in here.”
I’m not aware to what extent, if any, Patterson was involved in the preparations for the 1981 exhibition. As he did not retire until 1993, it is reasonable to assume that he was involved in some way.
Colin Patterson became involved, presumably following his eureka moment, in a new approach to evolution, specifically to classification, called cladistics. Put simply, this is an attempt to classify living things strictly on the basis of evidence, thus observable biological facts. Cladists think that the classification scheme of living things found in textbooks has been established on the assumption that Darwinian theory is correct, whereas facts should take precedence over any theory. We see patterns in the fossil record, but cannot say with certainty how they arose; “we cannot deduce a process from a pattern” (6).
The founding father of cladistics was Willi Hennig. One of his most important observations was that many groups are defined by an absence of characteristics, and are therefore not proper groups. An example would be invertebrates; this covers any creature without a backbone, and that is not a distinct group in its own right, rather an amalgamation of groups.
Patterson, developing this insight, went on to claim that “all the well-known ancestral groups of evolutionary biology are of this type — they are all defined by an absence of characteristics. And statements claiming to identify such groups as ancestral to other groups are disguised tautologies” (7). For example, to say that vertebrates evolved from invertebrates is another way of saying that the ancestor of the first vertebrate was not a vertebrate, thus a truism.
The thinking of the cladists at the Museum was not especially controversial; they were not making any exaggerated claims, merely saying that Darwinism was an unproved theory which might be true — there was circumstantial evidence in favour of it — but could be false. This is surely how true science is meant to be conducted, and the Museum responded appropriately. As Alan Hayward explains: “At the Natural History Museum it was thought that this made sense, and the Museum began to reclassify its collection on cladistic lines. Sometimes the Museum’s new scheme supported the accepted wisdom, and sometimes it conflicted with it”. He then quotes Patterson: “Cladistics calls into question much of conventional evolutionary history”. “Is stability worth more than a century of conflict with evidence?” (8).
I suggest that up to this point the Museum was doing science as it should be done — objectively, without preconceptions, open to all possibilities. So what happened next? The Darwinian Establishment reacted furiously. The prestigious scientific journal Nature published an editorial entitled ‘Darwin’s death in South Kensington’ (9). (The editor at the time was John Maddox. He will be the subject of a later article.) An earlier Museum brochure (which was written by Patterson, according to Tom Bethell) had included the phrase “If the theory of evolution is true…”. This “set off weeks of agitation and a flurry of letters to Nature” (10), which then cited this as evidence of “the rot at the museum”, and went on to say: “The new exhibition policy, the museum’s chief interaction with the outside world, is being developed in some degree of isolation from the museum’s staff of distinguished biologists, most of whom would rather lose their right hands than begin a sentence with the phrase, ‘If the theory of evolution is true…’ ”.
Nature was therefore suggesting that the management of the Museum was beginning to operate a strategy independent of the scientists there. This prompted a response signed by twenty-two of these ‘distinguished biologists’, which said that they were astonished to read this editorial. They continued: “How is it that a journal such as yours that is devoted to science and its practice can advocate that theory be presented as fact? This is the stuff of prejudice, not science, and as scientists our basic concern is to keep an open mind on the unknowable. …
“You suggest that most of us would rather lose our right hands than begin a sentence with the phrase ‘If the theory of evolution is true…’ Are we to take it that evolution is a fact, proven to the limits of scientific rigour? If that is the inference then we must disagree most strongly. We have no absolute proof of the theory of evolution. What we do have is overwhelming circumstantial evidence in favour of it and as yet no better alternative. But the theory of evolution would be abandoned tomorrow if a better theory appeared…”
This was not controversial, actually quite mild. The cladists were not saying that Darwinian theory was false, merely that at that time the theory seemed to be true, but had not been proved beyond doubt. However, they were strongly refuting Nature‘s insinuation that the scientists did not support the Museum’s official line. This clearly demonstrates, however, that Nature thought that the Museum should be a temple to Darwinism, and were reacting strongly, in true Inquisition fashion, to this heresy. Darwinian theory had become a dogma which, just like any Christian creed, all true believers had to recite and sign up to.
This conflict between the Museum and the Darwinian Establishment took place in the 1980s. I’m not sure exactly what transpired in the intervening period, but it is clear now that the Museum lost the battle, and that normal service has been resumed, as my visit in 2009 demonstrated.
The current director is Michael Dixon, a devoted Darwinian, who took up his post in June 2004. His attitude was clearly revealed in an article he wrote in the Guardian newspaper (11), in which he criticised the decision to remove the teaching of evolution from the curriculum in Israel and Turkey. The reasons stated by these countries were not on grounds of religion, although it is possible that there may have been a hidden agenda along those lines. Dixon’s objections would then be understandable. However, his scientific claims in defense of Darwinism might be considered somewhat exaggerated:
- The heading of the article claims that Darwinism is the “only evidence-based explanation of life”.
- “The fantastic diversity of life and the molecular composition of life past and present in our collection is clear, concrete, accumulated evidence of evolution”. He then complains that “evolution is still questioned”.
- “Since its inception in the late 19th century, evolutionary theory has been thoroughly challenged and rigorously tested across a range of scientific disciplines by tens of thousands of scientists around the world. It is considered irrefutable scientific law”.
- “Darwin’s theory of evolution not only underpins all biological science, it has an immense predictive power. From understanding the emergence of antibiotic-resistant organisms, to the ways in which different species might respond to global warming — emerging as new pests or sustainable sources of food — human health and prosperity will depend on decisions informed by evolutionary evidence”.
So human health and prosperity, even the survival of the planet, are at stake! Wouldn’t it be terrible, then, if the theory turned out to be false?
Readers will not be surprised to discover Dixon’s education policy: “So how should we respond to overt or insidious attempts to undermine this vital scientific concept? We must — of course — teach it in schools as the core part of any science curriculum. And we must speak up to defend scientific evidence and rational debate”. I’m sure we can all agree with that last sentence. However, two relevant questions are:
- Has Darwinian theory passed these tests?
- Is Dixon a good example of someone putting this into practice, or is he rather dogmatic and blinkered? (His tone is close to that of a Fundamentalist preacher.) Were the cladists not better examples of this?
He eventually concludes: “As the top science attraction in the UK, the Natural History Museum will always be a refuge for those who want to discover more about the natural world. We will continue to defend Darwin’s legacy, the theory of evolution — the only evidence-based explanation for the epic, wonderful diversity of life on Earth”.
A refuge from what? Presumably from open-minded, unbiased debate.
In two previous articles I have listed at length the many reputable scientists, and others, who have rejected Darwinism (12). Is it fair to claim then that it is established science? Even Darwinians themselves sometimes express reservations about the limits of the theory (13).