Socrates Meets Darwin: A Study in Question Begging

Copyright © 1996, 1998 by Creation Research Society. All rights reserved.

Socrates Meets Darwin: A Study in Question Begging


Gary Colwell, Ph.D.

Creation Research Society Quarterly 33(2):127 September, 1996


Cf. The Darwin upheaval. One circle of admirers who said: "Of course", and another circle [of enemies-R] who said: "Of course not". Why ... should a man say 'of course'? (The idea was that of monocellular organisms becoming more and more complicated until they became mammals, men, etc.) Did anyone see this process happening? No. Has anyone seen it happening now? No. The evidence of breeding is just a drop in the bucket. But there were thousands of books in which this was said to be the obvious solution. People were certain on grounds which were extremely thin. Could not there have been an attitude which said: "I do not know. It is an interesting hypothesis which may eventually be well confirmed"? This shows how you can be persuaded of a certain thing. In the end you forget entirely every question of verification, you are just sure it must have been like that.

L. Wittgenstein

    _Lectures & Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief_.


The year is 1995. The place is an imaginary after-world from which all aspects of life on earth can be monitored. A gigantic party is underway with all the famous thinkers of history in attendance. Socrates, who is a little more boisterous than usual, weaves his way among the guests, calling out, "Darwin! ... Darwin! ... Where is that man?!" Eventually Darwin hears his name being called and answers:

D Socrates! Over here!

S Oh, there you are. Look, I've got to have a talk with

you. The matter is serious. I have been following the development of evolutionary thinking for over one hundred and thirty-five years and after listening to the experts I still cannot make head or tail of it.

D What is your problem?

S Well, first of all, I simply do not know what people mean

when they say things like "man evolved" or "because of evolution this or that happened." Now I realize that today even the earthly school children can say the word "evolution" with an air of confidence and understanding. And I also see that the word appears in all manner of magazines and popular books on biology. But do these people really understand what they confidently talk about? I mean, it is possible to fit a supposedly technical word into an informal conversational sentence without making a grammatical mistake, and still not have a fig of a notion as to what one means by it. It seems to me that nothing but the vaguest of ideas is being traded in all this talk about evolution.

D You ought to realize, Socrates, that scientific words have a way of slipping their moorings in the technical disciplines and drifting into the mainstream of everyday conversation. And when they do, not everyone who uses these words has a clear understanding of their meanings. Practically every discipline suffers because untrained people use its jargon vacuously, usually because they want to impress their friends. But for every one hundred people who mindlessly parrot a scientific term like "evolution" there is probably at least one person who can explain its meaning. Also, you must not assume that because a technical term comes tripping off the tongues of individual discussants in a conversation they do not know what the word means. It would be very awkward indeed if a person always had to explain the underlying concepts of such terms in order to speak intelligibly. It is precisely because some words stand for a whole cluster of concepts that they find their usefulness as shorthand notation in scientific discourse.

S Well said, Darwin! You are just the man to explain this whole business to me. Please tell me then what evolution is.

D You suggested that you are familiar with the literature.

Surely you do not want me to start with the basics.

S Yes, I do. Be as simple as you can without sacrificing the truth, because I must have missed something at a very rudimentary level.

D The word "evolution" simply means "change"; and the scientific theory of evolution is the theory which states that organisms have gradually changed from the most simple forms into the most complex forms, beginning with unicellular organisms and ending with man; at least ending for the time being. This gradual change took place during the course of millions of years and its basis in fact has been established by the observations of science. The best way to ...

S But do not scientists today speak of evolution as a fact?

You say it is a theory. Which is it?

D Yes, you can say that it is a fact. The theory is based upon observed facts and ...

S But is the process of change itself observable? I mean that change to which, presumably, the word "evolution" refers.

D Yes! Now will you please stop interrupting and let me continue?

S I'm sorry. Please continue.

D As I started to say, perhaps the best way to see this

change is by examining some of the more important explanatory parts of the theory. First, the structural explanations of the theory of evolution explain the similarities of body structure found among organisms of widely diverse species living today. For example, although the whale, the bat, the horse and man are members of quite diverse species, their appendages exhibit marked similarities. The flipper of the whale, the wing of the bat, the leg of the horse, and the arm of man are all structurally alike, even though they are functionally different. Evolution explains the presence of these structural similarities by pointing out that the organisms of these diverse species have an ancestor or ancestors in common from which they have descended. Over many years of descent from a common ancestry these different organisms have changed; though not enough to erase the structural similarity we still observe today. Descent, with change, from a common ancestry also accounts for the presence of vestiges in many different organisms. You must have read that vestiges are remnants of larger and once useful body parts; organs, appendages, etc. which have atrophied through lack of use as the whole body of the organism descended and changed. For some reason these original parts did not disappear completely, although their functional contribution to the organism disappeared. The vermiform appendix in man and the wings of flightless birds are two familiar examples commonly cited.

S All of this sounds disturbingly familiar. You see it is this business about descent and change that bothers me. I asked you what evolution is; you said that it is the change of organisms from one form into another. Further, you said that this change can be seen by looking at the structural similarities between members of diverse species, which presumably illustrate the change in question. But since I have only the vaguest notion as to what this process of change is like, it is hardly enlightening to point to the perceived structural similarity between organisms and to their vestigial organs as evidence of this change. In other words, the idea of descent with change is what I am asking you to explain; but you have presupposed it with your reference to similar structures and vestigial organs. Unless I have missed something, this looks like a subtle species of question begging.

D Look, the evidence is as clear as the nose on your face. How else can we account for these similarities between life forms? Why should these organisms exhibit a similar structure unless in fact they had descended from a common ancestry?

S I can't see the nose on my face very well and neither can I see very well this vaguely conceived change you speak of. If you are going to start asking "why" questions at the very general level of structural similarities between organisms can you not exercise your imagination and think of something which has greater conceptual definition than "descent, with change, from a common ancestry?" Of course, I do not know the answer to this biological riddle, but I can think of at least one theory which will account for such similarities. Perhaps the god which sent me on my philosophical mission to the people of Athens devised a good plan by which to make the species of his creation function well. He may have used the same basic structural design in many diverse species, much the same as automobile manufacturers today on earth retain the same basic design for different models. The same design, with modification, can serve many purposes. Just as you asked your "why" question, so I can ask mine. "Why should a creator throw away a perfectly useful basic design?"

D You can't be serious! That is a preposterous notion. The scientific community generally rejects such antiquated thought.

S That may be a true statement about what most scientists believe, but you are not suggesting that truth in science is established by counting the beliefs of scientists, are you?

D Even if I were so backward as to entertain the possibility of such a creation, your theory still would not work. Just because similarities between the structural designs of automobiles can be accounted for in terms of a modification of the ideas of the inventor or manufacturer, it does not necessarily follow that the structural similarities between organisms can be accounted for in the same way by referring to a creator of living organisms. Change in complexity and in apparent design can be accounted for in more than one way.

S True enough, but this establishes my point. Just as it does not follow necessarily that the developmental changes in automobiles and the developmental changes in organisms are the result of essentially the same kind of process, neither does it follow necessarily that those changes are not the result of the same kind of process. They both could be the result of creative planning. And at this level of observation, where you seem to see evidence of evolutionary change I merely point out that there is a good alternative way of explaining the same perceived phenomenon of structural similarity. But more importantly, my idea of creation gives an intelligible account of what the change is and how it is to be conceived: namely, a creative change in the basic plan of the god. Your notion, however, still lacks definition; it presupposes that some kind of change occurred within nature and among different organisms. You have yet to conceptually identify for me what this change is which presumably is at the heart of evolutionary theory.

D You might be able to conceive of possible alternatives to evolution but you cannot dismiss the facts which evidence evolutionary change.

S But that is precisely the point of contention. What is factual is not changing, at least not to the degree needed to transform one species into another. All the organisms which you claim have descended from a common ancestry; the whale, the bat, the horse and man; have not changed into different species throughout the thousands of generations of their observed existence. Furthermore, any of the organisms which you may imagine to have been their ancestors and which are still living today; some of the reptiles, for example; also have not changed throughout successive generations of their offspring. The change which is supposed to distinguish evolution as an important scientific fact is precisely what is lacking when we examine it. And speaking of the facts, as your disciples today are wont to do, the evidence you adduce in support of this vaguely conceived notion of change is highly suspect. In reference to your own example, I have noticed over the years that as the knowledge of animal physiology has increased, the number of vestigial organs so-called has dwindled drastically. Earlier in the history of evolutionary theory some biologists writing on the topic listed more than one hundred and eighty of these rudimentary structures. The human body alone became a veritable museum of evolutionary remnants. But today I see that most textbooks which treat the subject at all list only about six vestigial organs, with of course the vermiform appendix in man still being given the most prominent place. Unfortunately, the category of "chief vestigial organ" has itself become vestigial; because immunologists now do not think that the appendix is a useless remnant. The role of the appendix in human immunology is well established.

D So, what are you ultimately saying Socrates: that with a few examples like those you can overturn the scientific theory of evolution? I suppose the next thing you will tell me is that the entire fossil record is also not a fact! What do you propose we do with the countless fossils laid down in the strata of the earth's crust in such a fashion that only the most obtuse observer could fail to get their message?

S I have always been slow to understand popular concepts. Will you please tell me what that unmistakable message is that you get from the earth?

D Come now, my friend! You must know that fossils have been laid down in the earth's strata in a clearly discernible pattern. The pattern I refer to; as I think you already know; is the gradual and progressive change in complexity of the life forms which have been fossilized. Beginning with very simple organisms fossilized in the Cambrian layers, you can see, as you move up through successive layers, a graduated complexity in the forms of life, until you reach the most complex organisms in the most recent layers at the top. The unmistakable message is that simple organisms have progressively changed or evolved into highly complex organisms.

S You asked me what I proposed to do with the fossil record. I do not propose to do anything with it except seriously try to give it the most sensible interpretation, and I must say that your interpretation does not strike me as the most sensible one. Your traditional account of the fossil record manifests the same weaknesses as your so-called structural explanations. First, the alleged facts upon which you construct your theory of evolutionary progression; whatever that is precisely; are not nearly so factual once you look carefully at them. Second, given an account of the facts as they really are, there is a better alternative explanation than evolution: as I said, a creative change in the basic plan of the god.

You claim that the fossils evidence a gradual progressive change in the complexity of life forms, beginning with simple organisms in the bottom layers and ending with complex organisms in the top layers. But unfortunately the evidence cannot be made to conform to such a simple account. In actual fact the change one observes is neither gradual, nor progressive, nor does it begin with simple organisms.

Whatever you wish to say about those life forms at the bottom of the evolutionary ladder, organisms such as sponges and protozoa, you ought not to say that they are simple. Contrary to public opinion the story of evolution does not begin with simple organisms, but with very complex ones. Even single-celled organisms exhibit a degree of complexity which is awe-inspiring. It seems to me that accounting for the composition, structure and sophisticated functions of such allegedly primitive organisms is a major problem for the theory of evolution. As well, among the oldest fossils one can find evidence of prehistoric animals which seem to have been at least as complex as modern animals; perhaps more so. Therefore, because the organisms whose remains are found in the deepest strata are not "simple" in any ordinary sense of the term, and because the remains of highly complex animals are found where they should not be found if evolution is true, it is a misrepresentation of the facts to simply say that the change which fossils exhibit begins with simple organisms or that it always progresses from simple organisms to complex ones.

But worse still, the changes from one organism to another which the fossils are supposed to exhibit cannot consistently be called gradual. Within many important sections of the geological column where you find a succession of fossils, from less complex in the bottom layers to more complex in the top layers, the succession is not gradual! At many junctures within these sections there are tremendously large jumps in the complexity of organisms, with no trace of a series of graduated intermediate forms to account for the alleged evolutionary change. Doesn't evolution here become a kind of "god of the gaps?" Where, for example, are all the intermediate forms between birds and reptiles? I can see no way that such leaps in complexity can be accounted for by a theory which relies so heavily upon the "long - long - ago - over - a - long - long - time" theme in its scenario. Even one hundred million years of sedimentary deposition cannot begin to account for the colossal jumps in the complexity of these life forms. Is evolution consistent with its own canons? Don't you see ...

D Now hold on just a minute! You talk so simplistically, as though evolutionary development were a simple linear progression laid out like beads on a string. You will do much better if you think of it as a progression, using the model of a tree. Granted, several of the branches are missing, which we shall probably be able to draw in some day, but the main outline is there. Evolution has been a very complex process which we do not completely understand, but I am confident that eventually we shall understand it and thereby clear up the major problems that remain.

S I wondered when you were going to use that old ploy. You appeal to scientific ignorance of the workings of this allegedly complex evolutionary process, but at the same time assert the existence of that process by emphasizing its inscrutability; when all the while the very existence of the process itself is precisely what is in question! It is in question because there is neither a clear referent for the phrase "evolutionary change" nor unambiguous evidence to support the evolutionary ideas of change even supposing the referent for "change" were clearly given. How is it that although you do not have the requisite fossil evidence to support evolutionary theory you still know that evolution occurred? And how does its occurrence gain existential status in the deep recess of your ignorance? My response to your claim that there is so much about the workings of evolution that we don't understand, is: how do you know that it is evolution that has been working?

D Obviously because we can see clearly the broad outlines of its work.

S You are still begging the question. The vital evidence you need to support the claim that it is evolution's work which is broadly outlined, and not the work of some other force, is missing. Do you not see that by the same kind of reasoning you could say that a few different colored dots on a canvas are, without further evidence, the broad outlines of a Rembrandt? There is no disanalogy here because, contrary to popular belief, it is not in fact the case that just a few branches are missing from the tree of evolution; whole sections of the main trunk are missing! The onus is not upon me to see how much I can exercise my imagination by filling the blanks; the onus is upon you to provide evidence which will support such an imaginative theory. It is your responsibility to produce the important missing pieces: not mine to trail after your flights of imagination.

D Socrates, I now think I see your problem. You fail to make a distinction between the results of evolutionary change and the process of change itself. Obviously we cannot observe the change which modified all those species in the past; but we can infer the existence of such a change from the fossil remains.

S Be careful now. You are wandering in a circle. We have already discussed the gappy fossil record. Let us not wander back to the fossil remains and what we are supposed to be able to infer from them; for we have seen large problems along that path. You seem not to be grasping the main point of my criticism. When you say "results of evolutionary change," notice: you assume that the "change" has taken place; when in fact it is precisely this change that I am asking you to substantiate. What you desire to call the "results" of change I have argued are really the deficient beginnings of your case for evolution. Logically you cannot call these weak beginnings "the results." Furthermore, it is not only that the fossil record is lacking in evidence; it presents contradictory evidence. Not only are many fossils missing which should be present; there are many fossils present where they should be missing.

Let me illustrate the point. Suppose that an earthling walks into his dining room in the morning and sees a beautiful vase on a table. Later that afternoon he returns to the dining room, but this time he sees the vase smashed in pieces on the floor. There has been a change all right, but the "how" of that change may not at all be clear. Was it the cat, an earth tremor, a human hand, gravity, the wind, or something else? Unless he has more evidence than just the memory of the unbroken vase in the morning, together with the spectacle of smashed pieces in the afternoon, it is presumptuous of him to single out any one of those agents as being responsible for the destruction. Notice, however, that he can bridge the gap between his remembrance of the vase intact and his perception of the broken pieces before him, by using his imagination. But if all that he uses to bridge the gap is his imagination, then the change which he proposes; for example, the movement of the cat's tail against the vase; is merely a conceptual change, with no basis in fact. He needs more than a jumping imagination to account for change in the world around him.

The need for evidence of a specific kind of change is much more acute in the case of evolution; because there you want to argue not only that a change took place in nature itself, but that simpler organisms changed into more complex organisms, by chance. Unlike the change in the vase, the notion of evolutionary change is counter-intuitive; it is especially important to fill in the gaps with something more than the imagination.

I am not denying, for example, that reptiles are different from mammals. And there is of course a conceptual change which one must make in moving from his thoughts about fossils of reptiles to his thoughts about fossils of mammals. But unless one has something more to offer than the catch phrase "because of evolutionary change," his ideas remain groundless. The "how" of evolutionary change is not, as many scientists seem to think, a non-essential extra to be filled in at some later date. It is the very heart of this putative process. If the "how" of evolutionary theory cannot be identified and coherently described, and if clear non-contradictory evidence at the crucial points cannot be given in support of the theory, then, to speak of "evolutionary change" as a distinctive occurrence within nature is to speak vacuously.

D You keep harping on this business of change, as though evolution had been discovered yesterday. You said that you have been reading the literature. Have you not read anything about natural selection and genetic variation?

S Yes, I have - and you would have done as well if you had read Mendel instead of leaving him alone on your library shelf - he is, after all, the father of your theory, is he not? But never mind, like the rest of evolutionary theory, I cannot make head or tail of natural selection and genetic variation. Now, I will stop harping if you change your tune.

D Speaking of "old ploys," that one of playing the dummy is wearing rather thin. I remember your tricks. Let me guess: now you want me to give you a basic lesson in the mechanics of evolutionary change?

S Yes indeed I do! And let me assure you that my ignorance is not feigned; I really do not understand all this business. That is why I have come to you, the expert.

D Well, when I first conceived of the theory of evolution I accepted the Lamarckian assumption that hereditary changes are produced by the environment. In order to adapt to a particular environmental niche for which it was not viably suited, an organism acquired the characteristics necessary for survival. The environment, so to speak, urged upon the organism the acquisition of these characteristics; or, so we thought. In addition, I also thought that, corresponding to this change in the organism;'s characteristics, hereditary changes were somehow produced, such that the newly acquired characteristics could be transmitted to succeeding generations. All of this of course was before the advent of genetics. It is now believed by those who still accept my basic evolutionary model that the mechanisms of change are different. Neo-Darwinians hold that hereditary changes are the result of gene mutations. Simply stated, instead of saying that the environment produces adaptive changes which are hereditary, it is now said that hereditary changes make adaptation possible. Changes in the genetic makeup of an organism alter that organism in such a manner as to prepare it for an environmental niche into which it can emigrate. This genetic preparation is sometimes called preadaptation. Let me give you a simple illustration. It is often discovered that the inhabitants of caves are blind and possess highly developed tactile sense organs. According to my old view, the darkness forced the would-be cave inhabitants to give up using their eyes and acquire an acute sense of touch. The revised Neo-Darwinian view says that this is putting the cart before the horse. Actually, the would-be inhabitants must be equipped to survive before they emigrate to the caves. That is, they are preadapted by a genetic mutation which results in a heightened tactile sensitivity.

S Please forgive another simple-minded question, but why would anyone think in the first place that organisms adapt to their environments, either in the manner you first proposed or in the manner proposed by your followers today?

D Well, obviously, because of the compatibility which exists between organisms and their environments. It must surely be evident even to your critical mind how well organisms and their environments fit together: the environment being suitable to accommodate the organism and the organism being fit to exist in its environment. This harmonious state of affairs can be observed everywhere on earth.

S But have these adaptations of new organisms to new environments ever been observed? I do not mean just those changes in parts of an organism such as tails getting longer or fur changing color, etc., as a result of cross-breeding within the same species. These confined changes were observed and well known to everyone hundreds of years before the word "evolution" gained any currency. I mean, has anyone ever scientifically observed a radical change in an organism at the specific or even sub-specific level, such that the radically new organism could fit into a radically new environment? Or, has anyone even observed an organism like the bat losing its sight, then gaining a heightened sense of touch and hearing, and then emigrating to a radically new environment like a cave where it continued to live and reproduce offspring similarly adapted?

D Of course not. Natural selection at the level you are asking about cannot be directly observed. It is a very complex process which has taken a great deal of time.

S But would you not agree that adaptation at that level has got to be established before evolution may be called an explanatory scientific theory about how organisms have radically changed?

D Certainly the changes must have been radical but the ...

S Well, if small changes such as the variations in the size

of an appendage, or in the color of some body part, cannot provide the evidence needed for the appearance of these radically new organisms, upon what basis do you argue that such large scale changes have occurred which enable an organisms to adapt to a radically new environment?

D I have already told you: upon the basis of the harmonious interaction of organisms with their environment. The organisms must have changed dramatically in order to fit into new environmental niches.

S Let me understand what you are saying. You say that organisms and their environments fit together?

D Yes, that's right.

S And they fit together because the organism adapts to its


D Correct.

S And when I ask you how you know that the organism does

adapt to a radically new environment you say, because the organism and its environment fit together.

D Yes, that's my position.

S Don't you see that you're arguing in a circle? You jump

from the observed harmony in nature to the mysterious conclusion that organisms change dramatically and then adapt to a radically new environment, providing no other factual support for this grand inductive inference than the obvious facts about harmony with which you started. It seems that evolutionists use the notion of "fitness" both as a starting observation and as a concluding explanation. The only facts involved in your case for natural selection are those which are obvious and agreeable to everyone before any inferences are drawn. As a description of the way organisms and their environments are suited to one another, part of your account is unobjectionable; but as a putative explanation of how organisms have come into being, natural selection really does not provide an answer. At best we may learn how some existing organisms survive a radical environmental change; such as black moths in sooty trees; but not how they radically change in surviving. I repeat my former criticism of putative "evolutionary change": the change that you need to demonstrate is precisely what you assume throughout your whole account. And, if you are going to take such liberty with inductive inference you should not object to an alternative inference of no greater breadth which is drawn from the same observations about natural harmony. Why not infer that the delicate balance of nature everywhere observed is the work of a god who ...

D You might have gotten away with that kind of argument in your time, or even one hundred years ago, but not now. I think that I have already made it plain that the idea of genetic variation forms an integral part of evolutionary theory as it is taught today. No one any longer speaks about natural selection without saying or implying that genetic variations form an integral part of the evolutionary process.

S Well then, are you now admitting that the main support for the belief in evolutionary change is found in genetics? I should soon very much like to get to the foundation of this whole matter.

D Yes, you could say that. The evidence for change you so eagerly seek is found in the fact of gene mutations.

S But is there really any scientific evidence; I mean solid data; not fanciful theorizing; which shows that a mutant form of an organism can change it into anything like what is needed to reproduce a new species?

D Come now, you must surely have read about the mutant forms in plants, animals, and insects. Are you not familiar with the fruitfly experiments? Countless mutants of the Drosophila have been observed and written up in the literature.

S It seems that you are not the only one who thinks he is not being heard. I have just asked a question the thrust of which you seem to be completely ignoring. The weakness of the genetic explanation for evolution lies precisely in the alleged evidence you advance in support of it. Even if the highly improbable occurred, that is, even if a thousand of such mutants occurred in one and the same fruitfly, you would still not have an organism whose total change represented anything like a new species actually found in nature. And what is important here of course is that such a large scale change never has been observed.

D I do not know what literature you have been reading, but a mutation which can change an antenna into a leg is quite a powerful piece of evidence for the mechanism of evolutionary change.

S That is a very misleading description my friend. What you are suggesting is the origination of a new complex structure, a leg, is really just the switching of an already genetically encoded structure to a new location, the place of the antenna, where it then develops. What is worse, however, is that this sort of aberrant switching is disadvantageous to the fly, even if, hypothetically speaking, one could say that some new genetic material were being added to the blueprint of the fly, which definitely is not the case. If you are going to gain any distance with the genetic argument you will have to show that an organism can create new genetic material which increases radically the complexity of the structure or function of the organism, thus enabling it to adapt to a radically new environment. If, for instance, we have evolved from protozoa, where did the genes for a nervous system, bones, etc. come from? There is a huge gap here which needs to be filled.

D Even so, the small genetic changes that we do observe provide us with a good working idea of how large scale changes in organisms could have occurred and thus produced radically new organisms.

S Has anyone ever observed these grand genetic changes which you imagine could have been the impetus for evolutionary advancement?

D No, of course not, but just because they have not been observed, it does not mean that they did not occur! You have not shown that such changes could not have happened.

S No it does not; but neither does it mean that they did occur. But, since you are the one advancing the theory, the onus is yours to establish its truth. It is not my responsibility to satisfy your impossible request, to show that some imagined events, such as large scale genetic changes which, as purely imagined events, are not logically impossible, could not occur. That kind of demonstration cannot be provided in any world, let along be provided in evolutionary theory. Nor is it ever a reasonable request that it should be provided. How, for example, would you ever demonstrate that a creator could not possibly exist? You must base your case for evolution on positive available evidence; unless of course you decide to give your ideas, as they now stand, a more suitable title: "a poetic vision" or "a secular faith" or something similar. I am afraid that you have not yet felt how heavy the burden of proof is which rests upon your shoulders.

D And you seem to have something against speculation in science. In fact, you misrepresent the scientific process. Listen, it would be ridiculous for scientists to formulate only theories for which there was already confirming evidence. Surely it is not necessary to present the confirming evidence for possible advantageous macromutations before I theorize that they have occurred?

S I have nothing at all against speculation, in science or anywhere else. I only wish that you; and especially your followers; would call it exactly that, instead of making grandiose claims about the evidence for evolution. You give everybody the impression that evolution is firmly grounded on facts. You claim that genetics has the answer to the questions of change which I have just been pursuing. And yet when the truth is told, either, the changes which can actually be observed are small, not radical, and most often disadvantageous to an organism, thus providing no relevant evidence for the large scale changes required by evolution; or, the changes are large but non-existent, purely products of your imagination, having no basis in fact. So, in either case the foundational support for the claim that evolution has occurred has yet to be established.

D I grant you that the theory may have some weaknesses in each of its various explanatory parts, but when the explanations are taken altogether, I think you will have to admit, they present a very convincing account.

S That's like saying that although one leaky bucket will not hold water, ten leaky buckets will.

D It depends on how far you want to carry the water!

S Yes, and how big the holes are! But to carry the

progressive development of life forms all the way from noncellular organisms to man? That is a very long way, my friend. You began by discussing structural similarities and vestigial organs. When I pointed out that your account not only contained factual mistakes but also presumed without justification the answer to my basic question of evolutionary change, you directed our discussion to the fossil record and the supposedly unmistakable pattern which is exhibited there. When I pointed out further factual errors and emphasized again your persistence in assuming without warrant the very change in question, you then led us into a discussion of what are apparently the dual pillars of evolutionary theory, natural selection and genetic variation. And now after I have once again pointed out that even in the genetic account radical change is being assumed, not evidenced, you still want to go back over this whole business and say that somehow all the missing supports for your theory are able to make it stand. Is not that an odd kind of argument?

D How else can we account for the existence of complex life forms?

S Goodness gracious! You are surely not suggesting that a bad theory is better than none at all? Has it never occurred to you to say, "I do not know"? You ought to read Wittgenstein.

D But no intellectually respectable scientist today could doubt it!

S That is the problem with you people. You hold your theories with such religious fervour that you cannot detach yourself from them long enough to ask a few basic questions.

D And the problem with philosophers is that they are always preoccupied with semantics. Clever word play, that's all!

S I have never pretended that philosophy is anything but the art of asking uncomfortable questions about fundamental assumptions. Say what you like against philosophers, but that will not remove the serious criticisms which hound your theory.

D Do you realize what you're suggesting? Are you asking me to believe that all of these venerable men of science are misguided because they do not have any clear idea of evolutionary change? One should not dignify the suggestion with a response.

S I do not know this, but let me tell you what I think is the main reason for the perpetuation of this conceptual confusion. The pseudo-explanatory force of evolutionary theory derives its psychological power from the fact that anthropomorphic terms within its narrative are readily understood in non-scientific speech contexts.

D What in thunder does that mean!?

S Consider the fanciful character of the stories that are

spun around the fossil remains. We read about vertebrates who left their aquatic environment and developed limbs by a happy accident. And with their newly developed limbs these amphibians learned to linger about the drying pools. In the story of the descent from the trees we read of men-like, tree-borne primates who became earth-borne creatures. They assumed an erect posture, lengthened and strengthened their lower limbs; and the latter became organs of the mind. A more anthropomorphic story would be difficult to write. It is hardly a step at all to imagine a group of turtles getting together for a conference to make plans for an exploring expedition. Of course if these action verbs and nouns are read anthropomorphically then the conclusion towards which the evolutionary argument moves is assumed at the outset. Presumably the lower forms of life somehow developed into the complex form called man. Therefore, in the beginning they did not possess, even at the amphibian stage, the motivation and ability to direct their destinies, as man is able to do. To smuggle into the language of explanation the suggestion that they did is to gain a psychological support for the central thesis of evolution which needs to be established legitimately by non-semantical means.

This dramatic-scientific story of evolution is conceived so generally that it can accommodate almost any idea, which in fact it does. Not only does it deposit in its store the scientific jargon of "fossils," "strata," etc., but it also incorporates with ease the anthropomorphic language of epic poetry. The scientist learns to speak in one breath of "carbon dating," "developing limbs" and "happy accidents." His narrative explanation admixes science and saga, with a strong emphasis upon the latter. And the anthropomorphic action terms find ready acceptance in the minds of readers because their minds are accustomed to using such terms daily in ordinary sensible contexts. For example, "the development of limbs" is thought to convey something intelligible because "the development of muscles" or "the development of talent" are perfectly sensible.

It is this practice of semantical borrowing which makes popular books on evolution so saleable. People see beautifully colored charts and read in the captions below all about the saga of evolution. Even the children can repeat with confidence the story of "amphibians developing limbs" and "reptiles taking to flight." And all of this is done with an air of clear understanding, as if evolution were really being explained.

D Socrates, I am afraid that you have now stepped out onto a very long limb from which, sadly, there is no return. Don't you realize that no scientist in his senses would claim that these narrative accounts explain how evolution occurred? They serve merely as an heuristic device, that’s all.

S Are you saying that these accounts are used only for teaching purposes and are not intended as explanations of the evolutionary process?

D Yes, that's right.

S That leads me to ask two questions. If the narratives

are meant to be taken only as a kind of grand mnemonic, then ought not the writers of these accounts say so unequivocally, to make clear the metaphorical nature of their language? For it certainly seems that they intend for the narratives to be taken as explanations. My second question, however, leads me to doubt your easy interpretation of these narratives. In order for the story of evolution to represent the truth it must surely be based upon a knowledge of the mechanisms for evolutionary development; otherwise there is no guarantee that the story corresponds to the actual developmental process which it merely wants to picture. But if that is the case, what are these known mechanisms of progressive radical change in the development of organisms?

D Natural selection and genetic variation, of course!

S But you're arguing in a circle again. We have already

seen that there is nothing in genetics which can account for the radical changes required by your theory. And now you want to base the epic, "protozoa to man," on this foundationless support.

You know, Darwin, the longer I talk with you the more questions I have. Could it be that the theory of evolution is not only a question-begging argument, but something even more problematic? Is it even empirically significant? I mean to ask, does the key phrase "evolutionary change" have an empirical referent?

If one tries to discover how evolution works he is told that the causal factors involved are not observable, not repeatable, not simple, and not agreeable to all scientists. And if one wants to see this negative qualification on a grand scale he need only look at the history of the subject. When Lamarckism and Darwinism failed, evolution succeeded. When Vitalism and Finalism failed, evolution still succeeded.[1] Even though Neo-Lamarckians and Neo-Darwinians have been at loggerheads about crucial matters, evolution supposedly stands above the confusion and contradictions.[2] What is this change called "evolution" which survives all the vicissitudes of its vague and contradictory explanations? How does this alleged process, which cannot be repeated or observed or even specified, and whose supporting explanations of natural selection and genetic variation crumble beneath the weight of logical-empirical analysis, differ from no process at all?

D Enough! I do not want to hear any more of this nonsense.

What you are saying is silly! Be gone!


Socrates calmly turned and walked away, and as he cleared a path among the guests he was heard muttering to himself, "I wonder if Freud is here. Perhaps he can help me understand what Darwin said."



[1] "A theory may be described as 'vitalistic' if it purports to give a systematic explanation of evolution in terms of some unique non-natural agency" such as "the 'life force', 'elan vital', entelechy, etc." (Goudge, p. 80)

"Just as vitalism is not necessarily finalistic, so finalism is not necessarily vitalistic. For the core of finalism is the contention that a necessary condition of evolution consists of its orientation towards an ultimate goal." The goal may be reached by "mechanically determined processes." (Goudge, p. 81)

[2] Neo-Lamarkism holds "...that the effects of use and disuse [of parts of an organism], together with other environmentally induced changes, can become fixed in the hereditary equipment of species..." (Goudge, pp. 85,86)

Neo-Darwinism, simply stated, is Darwinism without the Lamarkian assumption that hereditary changes are produced by the environment, and with the assumption that heredity changes stem from genetic variation in the organism. A complete account would be much more complicated than this and would reveal that Neo-Darwinians differ significantly in their evolutionary views according to the theory of mechanism for genetic variation and natural selection which they hold.



This dialogue descended from an unpublished paper of 57 pages written long ago, titled "The Language, Truth and Logic of Evolutionary Theory." That paper in turn derived some of its nourishment from the following works.

Bonner, J.T. 1961. Perspectives. American Scientist 49:240-244.

Davidheiser, B. 1969. Evolution and Christian Faith. The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., Nutley, New Jersey.

Dewey, J. 1951. The influence of Darwinism on philosophy. In Classic American Philosophers, edited by Max H. Fisch. Appleton-Century-Crofts Inc., New York, pp. 336-344.

Dobzhansky, T. 1958. Evolution at work. Science 127:1091-1098.

Flew, A. 1955. Theology and falsification. In _New Essays in Philosophical Theology_, edited by A. Flew and A. Macintyre. SCM Press, London, pp. 96-99.

Goldschmidt, R.B. 1952. Evolution, as viewed by one geneticist.

American Scientist 40:84-98.

Goudge, T.A. 1961. The Ascent of Life. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Maatman, R.W. 1970. The Bible, Natural Science and Evolution.

Reformed Fellowship, Inc., Grand Rapids.

Moore, J.N. and R.J. Cuffey. Paleontologic evidence and organic evolution. Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 24:160-176.

Simpson, G.G. 1949. The Meaning of Evolution. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Wittgenstein, L. 1972. Lectures and conversations on aesthetics, psychology and religious belief, edited by C. Barrett, University of California Press, Berkeley.


Disclaimer and Acknowledgement

Over the past dozen years or so we have seen published a spate of books which challenge Neo-Darwinism. Authors who come to mind are P.E. Johnson, D. Davis and D.H. Kenyon. Spirited defenses of Neo-Darwinism have been mounted by many authors, two of the most prominent of them being S.J. Gould and M. Ruse. Neither in writing this dialogue nor in revising it have I borrowed from these more recent authors, its main thesis having been written well before the relevant works of these authors appeared.

I must, however, thank Jon Buell for reading the unrevised dialogue and making several helpful suggestions for its improvement.