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Meet Peter Hitchens, Darwin-Doubter

Peter Hitchens is the younger brother of the late Christopher Hitchens, who died a little over a year ago. Christopher, of course, was the prominent atheist who wrote God Is Not Great. Peter, a member of the Church of England, writes for the Daily Mail, a large circulation newspaper in London. In his blog, he sometimes raises doubts about the theory of evolution.

For example, he did so in a post that asked "Can Bears Turn Into Whales?" A recent follow up is titled "Can Bears Turn Into Whales? (Part Two) -- Charles Darwin Revisited."

Hitchens reminds us that in The Origin of Species, Darwin wrote:

I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more aquatic in their structure and habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale . . .
"Golly. 'No difficulty'?" Hitchens comments. "I can think of a few. So, I'm sure, could he, if reason rather than emotion had been on top when he wrote that."

Peterhitchens.jpgHitchens is amused. He laughs "till tears flow down my face, every time I contemplate the theory of evolution for any length of time. I'm sorry. It just is very funny. I can't help it."

Darwin-doubting scientists, especially in biology departments, are subject to forbidding pressure or outright dismissal from an intolerant academy. So it's refreshing to see this less than worshipful treatment of Darwin. Perhaps it takes an independent journalist to pull it off.

Hitchens is tolerant and prepared to accept that evolution by natural selection is true. He just wants to see the evidence. He won't be deterred by claims that he is a "creationist," who believes "in the literal truth of the Genesis description (I don't)"; nor will he be scared off by the denialist label, a "subtle smear produced by the implied connotations of Holocaust denial."

He knows about bacterial immunity to antibiotics and the changing beak shapes of Galapagos finches. He might also have mentioned the (camouflaged) black and (conspicuous) speckled moths in England, found on darkened tree trunks before the Clean Air Act was passed.

But these are minor fluctuations: changing ratios of pre-existent variants. Believing that such trivial changes explain the evolution of new species is like believing that the use of camouflage on military tanks tells us how the tanks themselves were designed.

Hitchens compares what we know about natural selection to a highway traffic jam "where the cars sometimes move forward a few feet." But the metaphor is weak because we can ascertain as a fact that cars, even when beset by traffic jams, do eventually travel hundreds of miles and reach their destinations. In the case of evolution, observation has never confirmed that variants depart indefinitely from the original type. Instead they are apt to revert to the mean. It's more like a fashion parade, in which models may display different styles, but underneath the model herself remains the same.

The theory of evolution, Hitchens correctly says, "is and has to be by its nature a theory about the distant past." What happened millions of years ago has been "witnessed by nobody," and is "based upon speculation, not upon observation."

There are several strands of belief among supporters of Darwinism, Hitchens adds, with Stephen Jay Gould disagreeing with Richard Dawkins, among others. The theory "stumbles over the fossil record, which provides some unwelcome evidence of large-scale sudden change, especially in the Cambrian Explosion." It also has a "circularity problem." The latter bothered Sir Karl Popper and other philosophers. "Don't tell me he 'recanted,'" Hitchens writes, for "even that is in dispute."

Hitchens allows that he should "personally be sorry" if materialistic evolution turned out to be true. For "its implication is plainly atheistical." If such a theory could be demonstrated, "then the truth of atheism could be proved." He believes that the inducement to atheism is the true purpose of the Darwinian idea, "and that it is silly to pretend otherwise."

The problems with Darwinism "are so obvious to a thinking mind that nothing short of fervent faith protects them from skeptical examination," he concludes. In fact, "the inquisition-style rage which quickly enters arguments on this subject" is "the biggest single argument against the theory." Hitchens asks this excellent question:

Why are its supporters so furiously intolerant of doubt and dissent, if they are so confident?
The answer, I believe, is that the evidence for evolution is so meager that a full airing of the facts might come as an embarrassment.

Image: Wikipedia.