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Evolution Is an Axiom; It Doesn't Need Supporting Evidence

Joseph_LeConte_1823-1901.jpgFrom very early in my education, the idea that natural causes alone could produce, out of inanimate matter, the animals and plants we see today, and conscious, intelligent, human beings, seemed extremely implausible. That appeared to be the exact opposite of what natural causes do, as I have much more recently argued in a video, "Evolution Is a Natural Process Running Backward." Yet I had always been told that all good scientists believe in Darwinian evolution, so more than thirty years ago I decided to research the literature for myself, to find out why so many intelligent people believed something so implausible.

It happened that the very first book I read on the topic was an 1888 work, Evolution, by Joseph LeConte (D. Appleton and Company), professor of geology and natural history at the University of California, and (later) president of the Geological Society of America. In a section "Evidences of the Truth of Evolution" he focused almost entirely on the evidence for common origin provided by the similarities between related species. But you will find the same pattern of similarities in the "evolution" of human technology, so I had expected more. I expected that, at the very least, there must also be overwhelming evidence for gradual change in the fossil record, so I was surprised to read this:

Intermediate links may be wanting now, but they must, of course, have existed once -- i.e., in previous geological times, and therefore ought to be found fossil. In distribution in space or geographically, organic kinds may be marked off by hard-and-fast lines but, if their derivative origin be true, in their distribution in time or geologically, there ought to be many examples of insensible shadings between them. In fact, if we only had all the extinct forms, the organic kingdom, taken as a whole and throughout all time, ought to consist not of species at all, but simply of individual forms, shading insensibly into each other.... But this is not the fact. On the contrary, the law of distribution in time is apparently similar in this respect to the law of distribution in space, already given. As in the case of contiguous geographical faunas, the change is apparently by substitution of one species for another, and not by transmutation of one species into another. So also in successive geological faunas, the change seems rather by substitution than by transmutation. In both cases species seem to come in suddenly, with all their specific characters perfect, remain substantially unchanged as long as they last, and then die out and are replaced by others. Certainly this looks much like immutability of specific forms, and supernaturalism of specific origin.... The reason for this, given by Darwin and other evolutionists, is the extremely fragmentary character of the geological record.... While it is true that there are many and wide gaps in the record... yet there are some cases where the record is not only continuous for hundreds of feet in thickness, but the abundance of life was very great, and the conditions necessary for preservation exceptionally good... and yet, although the species change greatly, and perhaps many times, in passing from the lowest to the highest strata, we do not usually, it must be acknowledged, find the gradual transitions we would naturally expect if the changes were effected by gradual transformations.

A little common sense told me that even if we did see gradual development of the new organs and new systems of organs that gave rise to new orders, classes and phyla, that would be as difficult to explain by the survival of the fittest as their sudden appearance. LeConte also candidly acknowledged this problem, which was called the "problem of novelties" then; today it is the problem of "irreducible complexity":

... neither can it [natural selection] explain the first steps of advance toward usefulness. An organ must be already useful before natural selection can take hold of it to improve on it.

Of course, LeConte's book was nearly a century old even when I read it, but similar statements in more recent scientific writings on evolution convinced me that these problems had not gone away in the meantime. For example, Harvard paleontologist G.G. Simpson's 1960 summary of the fossil record ("It is a feature of the known fossil record that most taxa appear abruptly...Gaps among known orders, classes and phyla are systematic and almost always large") and French biologist Jean Rostand's 1956 comments on the difficulty in explaining the appearance of new classes, families and orders, which are both quoted in my 2000 Mathematical Intelligencer paper. A 1980 New York Times News Service article ("Darwin knew we was on shaky ground in extending natural selection to account for differences between major groups of organisms") that I found also made clear that the problems acknowledged by LeConte had only grown larger since his day.

So I still did not understand how such a counterintuitive idea came to be so widely accepted as established fact in the scientific world. After admitting that the only direct evidence, the fossil record, does not support the idea of gradual change, and after observing that Darwin's theory can explain everything except anything new, why was Joseph LeConte so confident of the "Truth of Evolution"?

I found the answer here:

We are confident that evolution is absolutely certain -- not evolution as a special theory -- Lamarckian, Darwinian, Spencerian... but evolution as a law of derivation of forms from previous forms. In this sense it is not only certain, it is axiomatic .... The origins of new phenomena are often obscure, even inexplicable, but we never think to doubt that they have a natural cause; for so to doubt is to doubt the validity of reason, and the rational constitution of Nature.

Finally I began to understand what will become clear to anyone who follows the modern debate between intelligent design and Darwinism: evolution is an axiom, and axioms do not need supporting evidence. Given the spectacular success of naturalism in other areas, it may seem a quite reasonable axiom. But wouldn't it be nice if modern evolutionists were as honest as LeConte, and recognized that their confidence in Darwinian evolution is also based on an axiom rather than on evidence?

Image: Joseph LeConte/Wikipedia.