The Power of Myth

Everybody interested in evolution ought to read evolutionary biologist Arlin Stoltzfus’s remarkable series on the establishment of the Modern Synthesis (Neodarwinism) as an unassailable and infinitely flexible (though factually mistaken) dogma. Telic Thoughts has actually run a thread on it, and they, like me, picked up the link from a quotation by Mike Gene. Thanks Mike. It’s worth another link for those who missed it.

Stoltzfus majors on the ultimately deleterious effect of the MS on science, whilst touching on some interesting aspects of its sociological setting. But his historical survey goes a long way towards explaining how Neodarwinism became not so much a scientific theory as a political or religious worldview, and why therefore it is so much more divisive and contentious than any other scientific theory has ever been.

The parallels with other self-contained ideologies like Marxism are remarkable. The founder’s theory morphs over time, but in particular takes a completely new direction with the Modern Synthesis in the thirties, much as Bolshevism redirected ideological Marxism after the Russian Revolution. History is re-written after this point (Stoltzfus is excellent on this) to make MS appear to be the final revelation bursting like the new dawn upon a benighted Mutationist world.

Darwin himself is re-branded as the founder of the MS, so that most, even after his bicentennial press exposure, still believe he taught random mutation and natural selection, and discovered the gene. Over time he has been increasingly mythologised as, in some vague way, the dispeller of darkness quite apart from his actual contribution to science. So whereas Newton’s work is challenged by new science, Darwin – or more properly the Neodarwinian projection of Darwin – simply soaks new discoveries up, even when they contradict the theory’s predictions (for example, deep homology) as if they were implicit in the synthesis all along.

Indeed, like Communism or psychoanalysis, the MS is so flexible as to be, essentially, unfalsifiable. It achieves this by downplaying the importance of its front end, variation, to the extent that even dramatically unexpected mechanisms like endosymbiosis, epigenetics, or natural genetic engineering can all be subsumed under the established secondary heading of “replenishing the gene pool”. Meanwhile, its throaty rear engine, natural selection, is so self evident that even Young Earth Creationists don’t contest it.

Whether deliberate or not, this transformation of a biological theory into a worldview has had huge implications. Neodarwinism becomes a universal principle purporting to explain not only biological origins but ideas (meme theory), religion (not only a product of evolution but an evolving entity), politics, language – indeed every intelligent activity that in the days of darkness would have been put down to human choice. Only now evolution explains choice as well. As well as abiogenesis and the origin of the Universe, if you don’t ask too many searching questions.

It is no surprise that religion and evolution have become combatants. Darwin’s original theory raised some challenges for traditional religion, but it is only Neodarwinism that insisted there is no alternative to itself in any sphere, and that religion should submit, pay the Jizya, join the Three Self Movement and stay in its ghetto.

It is no accident that the New Atheist movement has such a huge interest in Neodarwinism, rather than Einstein, Piaget or even Bertrand Russell. All these propounded theories, but Neodarwinism is a ready-made ideology. As Dawkins said, it makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. Actually, Marxism had the same benefit in Soviet Russia, but only because it was the dominant ideological paradigm. Maybe that also explains why Gnus tend to be so defensive of the MS against not only “religious” movements like ID, but the challengers of Neodarwinism within the scientific community. Science, as is often claimed, is quick to overturn theories when new evidence arrives. Overturning ideologies, though, is a different matter.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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