Selling Evolution

All Things Examined

On the floor of the Darwinian exchange, traders bark, “Evolution is fact, Fact, FACT!” But it’s a fact that has proven to be a hard sell.

After 150 years of scientific “evidence,” decades of inculcation in public education, and a raft of books, like The Dragons of Eden, The Selfish Gene, and The Blind Watchmaker, only 16 percent of Americans believe that humans developed from an unsupervised process of variation and natural selection. Belief that God had some part in the process has held steady over the last 30 years, at around 80 percent.

But what is becoming particularly bothersome to evolution brokers is the recognition that resistance to Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is not limited to a scientifically challenged public. In a book review on Darwinism, evolution popularist, Daniel Dennett lamented:

"I was disconcerted to overhear some medical students talking in a bar recently. One exclaimed: ‘How could anybody believe in evolution after learning about the intricacies of the DNA replication machinery?'"

When a scientific theory is rejected by scientifically trained individuals, that’s bad, very bad, and Dennett knows it. I’ll bet he had another drink (or two) before leaving the bar that night.

From denial to admission

Afterward, a sobered Dennett reasoned: "To the extent that well-meaning evolutionists had inadvertently convinced them that Darwinians are eager to gloss over or deny these facts [about complexity and design], this is evidence that the political tactic of denying teleology root and branch is apt to be self-defeating."

Inadvertently? Francis Crick’s warning to biologists to “constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved” strikes this observer as neither inadvertent, hesitant, nor especially well-meaning.

Dennett realizes that to gain market share, the Darwinian community must admit what is plain to specialists and non-specialists alike: there is design in nature. He is not pushing actual design, but apparent design -- that is, design that happens through natural mechanisms and happens to be useful.

But that is what Richard Dawkins, Kenneth Miller, and the gaggle of Darwinists have been doing for decades. Each has spent a career expounding upon the talking points of Julian Huxley: “Organisms are built as if purposely designed. . . . But as the genius of Darwin showed, the purpose is only an apparent one." And for decades, the unconvinced have remained unconvinced.

Death anxiety

The prevalence of ADD (Abiding Darwinian Doubt) has long vexed evolutionists. But these days, researchers at the University of British Columbia and Union College believe they have it figured out. It has to do with “death anxiety.”

After conducting five related studies, the researchers found that evolution doesn't offer a satisfying answer to the existential questions of life when people are faced with mortality. And we would expect that it could?

Yes, says the lead investigator; if, as their research suggests, individuals are “explicitly taught that taking a naturalistic approach to understanding life can be highly meaningful." And that, she is eager to add, “Indicate[s] a possible means of encouraging students to accept evolution and reject intelligent design.”

I get it. Since evolution can’t go toe-to-toe with its competitor on technical merit, promoters should focus on style. Shift the pitch from evolution to evolutionism. Turn the biology lab into a philosophy salon, and science professors into pipe-puffing peripatetics. Explain to students what’s in it for them, and those nagging problems about “the intricacies of the DNA replication machinery” will seem less problematic. Indoctrination with metaphysical hand-waving, that's the formula.

It would appear that the real “death anxiety” is that afflicting Darwinists whose scientifically threadbare theory is succumbing to exposure. Nevertheless, this research team is not alone in thinking that there is no objection to Darwinism that a soothing answer to our existential angst can’t overcome.

What’s in your worldview?

In a fluff piece on Darwinism for PBS, Alan Alda asks Daniel Dennett why he thinks Darwin’s idea is dangerous. Dennett’s response:

“Because a lot of people believe, and not foolishly, that if that's true then somehow life has no meaning. They're afraid that their own lives won't mean anything, that morality will evaporate, that the whole pageant of human existence somehow depends on not giving up this sort of top down idea.”

Refreshingly candid, his “and not foolishly.” Dennett is keenly aware of what’s in his worldview, and where it naturally leads. Alda, also aware, presses the point:

“Do you suppose some people feel that there's a lack of purpose to life if life is only the way Darwin describes it?”

Dennett comes back, acknowledging our inclination to look “on high” for answers. But, he adds, it is an inclination that we need to get over, because there is no “on high.” Answers to life’s meaning are not found by looking up, but by looking around. “If you want to be happy,” Dennett coaxes, “find something more important than you are and work for it.”

As I recall, a man of ancient history spent his life at that and found it to be pretty thin gruel.

In a bracing self-disclosure, King Solomon recounted his quest for meaning in "something more." With unrivalled success he completed grand projects, amassed fortunes, and enjoyed mountaintop experiences, each failing to quell his heart’s deepest pangs. His life lesson: Lasting significance is not found in something, but in Someone.

A bridge or stratum?

In an online exchange, a man told me that he found his “something more” in face of a canyon wall. As he caught sight of a 60 million-year-old fossil embedded in the stratified rock, he was overcome by life’s evolutionary flow. In that life-defining moment, he realized that meaning is found by being “at one” with the flow.

It brings to mind what Friedrich Nietzsche wrote back in 1895: “Man is a rope stretched between beast and Superman -- a rope over an abyss. . . . Man is great in that he is a bridge and not a goal.”

Unremarkably, the notion that the goal of human existence is as an incremental step in the evolutionary march of the planet has failed to capture the popular imagination. The problem for evolutionists is that our thirst for transcendence is as universal as our thirst for water. The psalmist expressed it well: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.”

C.S. Lewis once observed that since all of our desires (like for food, drink, love, and sex) can be fulfilled in things that actually exist, the most reasonable conclusion is that our desire for transcendence can also be fulfilled in something that exists: namely, God.

But rather than consider whether our thirst points to a thirst-quenching Source, evolutionists explain it as an artifact of selfish genes, and then, like a huckster offering a glass of brine to a thirsty man, suggest that it can be slaked by a thirst-inducing substitute.

No satisfaction in self-centeredness

Dennett’s invitation to “find something more important” frequently finds its way into commencement speeches and motivational talks, but it runs completely counter to the spin of the iWorld. For as long as I can remember, I have been told,

You are special.
You deserve a break today.
Have it your way.
Because you’re worth it.
We do it all for you.
It’s everywhere you want to be.

The iWorld message is loud and clear: I am the axis upon which the earth turns. Try as hard as I may, I look around, but find nothing more important than me. How could I in a world under the grip of Darwinian competition and survival?

By contrast, the message of our collective experiences agrees with that found in Scripture: Anything less than God is too small to fill us and too impotent to change us. How could it be otherwise in a world held in the palm of His hand?

Daniel Dennett should brace himself for more disconcerting bar stool conversations, as I suspect that evolution will continue to be a hard sell.

Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at centurion51@aol.com.

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Again, I am reminded that my salvation is not about me. That old statement about "if you were the only person in the world, Jesus would still die for you", sticks in my craw. I think He would probably find a better way to deal with the issue of my sin.
Of course, it is much easier to just pretend away the real constituents of our nature like self-centredness, greed and pride and just mention them in passing as vestiges of by-gone renditions of our evolutionary ancestors.
A typically awesome column, Regis; you spoil us.

‘How could anybody believe in evolution after learning about the intricacies of the DNA replication machinery?'

Indeed, I myself began to wonder if I wasn't being "sold a bill of goods" while in a college class on molecular biology. And the topic was far less intricate than DNA replication; it was oxidative phosphorylation and the citric acid cycle. The instructor had explained that the entire system had to work perfectly or else the organism would quickly build up toxic levels of one chemical or another, and die. A student asked how such a complex system could be bootstrapped, and the instructor had no answer except to say that perhaps an evolutionary pathway would someday be discovered - but that this shouldn't make us doubt the truth of evolution. I.e., we were to take it on faith that random chance could create a very sensitive set of interlocking cycles that provide the power source in every living cell; take it on faith that the apparently impossible had occurred.

Over time I discovered I didn't have enough faith to believe in evolution - or atheism, either. It is far less effort to believe that a man came back to life after being dead most of the weekend.

Fred Hoyle famously said that it was more likely that a tornado could sweep through a junkyard and assemble a working 747 airplane than that life spontaneously arose from nonliving matter. Hoyle should have added that the airplane needs to fly itself, without a pilot - perfect takeoffs, perfect landings, never crashing, etc.

And give birth to a hangar full of Piper Cubs.

Ravi Zacharias likes to say that there are four great questions in life: Origin ("Where did I come from?"), Meaning ("Why am I here?"), Morality ("How can I know right from wrong?") and Destiny ("What happens to me after I die?"). I look at those four and I discover that evolution only answers two, or at best two-and-a-half of them. It tells us in detail (if you have enough faith) about our Origins, and it strongly indicates that we have no Destiny since evolution cannot account for a soul or spirit. Richard Dawkins tells us that Morality is whatever allows our genes to selfishly reproduce, while others argue that Morality is about the survival of our particular tribe, our species, our genus, or something. (It gets confusing when some argue that Earth would be better off - a clear statement of Morality - if Homo sapiens sapiens were to become extinct.) But evolution cannot answer the question of Meaning. Indeed, Dawkins declares that life is altogether meaningless. His colleagues ask how it is that he can get out of bed in the morning.

Hmmm - maybe Dawkins has learned the lesson that Willy Loman of "Death of a Salesman" never did.

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