Which Theory of Evolution? Toppling the Idol of “Settled Science”

The habit of fixing upon a dogma and calling it “settled science” is a kind of idolatry that places “science” in the seat of God, appoints certain scientists as priests capable of giving answers no fallible human can offer, and feigns certainty where real questions remain. The great irony is that this image of scientist-as-infallible-priest makes them seem like the caricature of medieval monks charging their hero Galileo with heresy for his dissent from the consensus. As challenges to Darwin mount, we should be able to articulate why “settled science” makes such a poor god.

In 1973, evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote that “nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.” Almost 50 years later, an increasing number of scientists are asking whether evolution makes any sense in light of what we now know from biology.  

A recent long-form essay in The Guardian signals just how urgent the problem has become for the most dominant theory in the history of the sciences. In it, author Stephen Buranyi gives voice to a growing number of scientists who think it’s time for a “new theory of evolution.”   

For a long time, descent with slight modifications and natural selection have been “the basic” (and I’d add, unchallengeable) “story of evolution.” Organisms change, and those that survive pass on traits. Though massaged a bit to incorporate the discovery of DNA, the theory of evolution by natural selection has dominated for 150 years, especially in biology. The “drive to survive” is credited as the creative force behind all the artistry and engineering we see in nature.   

“The problem,” writes Buranyi, is that “according to a growing number of scientists,” this basic story is “absurdly crude and misleading.” For one thing, Darwinian evolution assumes much of what it needs to be explained. For instance, consider the origin of light-sensitive cells that rearranged to become the first eye, or the blood vessels that became the first placenta. How did these things originate? According to one University of Indiana biologist, “we still do not have a good answer. The classic idea of gradual change, one happy accident at a time,” he says, “has so far fallen flat.”  

This scientific doubt about Darwin has been simmering for a while.

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