Tom Bethell's Rebuke to Fellow Journalists: A Skeptical Look at Evolution Is Not Beyond Your Powers
The popular media's attitude on evolution mixes several elements: loathing for the large part of the public that doubts the Darwinian narrative, preening at its own (presumed) superiority in grasping science, and a fawning reverence for evolutionary biologists. Added to this is an unwillingness to weigh the evidence for themselves, offering the excuse that the experts must know best, so why bother? Veteran journalist Tom Bethell's new book offers a marvelous implicit rebuke on each of these points, but on the last in particular.
In Darwin's House of Cards: A Journalist's Odyssey Through the Darwin Debates, he records his own investigation of the evidence, including interviews with lions of science and philosophy such as Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, Colin Patterson, and Karl Popper. Lo and behold, it's not beyond the intellectual reach of a reporter to get to the bottom of the controversy and to estimate the plausibility of Darwin's theory.
Not a religious apologist or a cheerleader for any competing view, but rather an old-fashioned skeptic, Bethell has been doubting Darwin since he was an undergraduate at Oxford University. I admit he's a longtime friendly acquaintance and a contributor to Evolution News, so I'm not unbiased. But others who, like me, have followed him for years agree in savoring his work.
That includes some eminent names. Novelist Tom Wolfe has called him "one of our most brilliant essayists," and Andrew Ferguson at The Weekly Standard, a great writer himself, says, "As a journalist, Tom Bethell is fearless. As a storyteller and stylist he is peerless. All his gifts are on generous display in this fascinating and admirable book."
He has been writing about Darwin (among many other subjects, of course) for forty-plus years, beginning with an article in Harper's in 1976. Wry, unfailingly clear, never technical, yet astonishingly well informed, he has produced what might be the Platonic ideal of an introduction to an often challenging and certainly controversial subject. He covers the waterfront, probing the strength of Darwinian thinking with reference to common descent, natural selection, extinction, homology, convergence, the fossil record, biogeography, cladistics, Lenski's long-term experiment with bacteria, and much more.
He concludes that while confidence in the pillars of Darwinism -- common descent and innovation through natural selection -- hit their high-water mark at the centenary celebration of the Origin of Species in 1959, the evidence has steadily and increasingly gone against the theory. The whole edifice rested on a 19th century faith in Progress, propped up by a dogmatic commitment to materialism. As the former falters, the structure is in danger of collapse.
With an apt metaphor, he sums up:
At the moment, I believe, the science of Darwinism amounts to little more than the "wedding" of materialism and Progress. We have seen that if materialism is true, then Darwinism -- or something very much like it -- must also be true. But materialism is highly improbable and has been widely challenged. At the same time it only takes one partner to break up a marriage, and as we know, Progress has wandered off the straight and narrow.
His humor is dry, subtle, his focus expansive, and his attitude utterly unapologetic. A unique feature of the book is its interviews. Philosopher of science Karl Popper, for example, spent time at the Hoover Institution at Stanford when Bethell was there and explained that despite reports, he never really recanted his rap on Darwinism ("...not a testable scientific theory," "There is hardly any possibility of testing a theory as feeble as this").
Bethell's own view of evolution is as a thoroughly unjustified extrapolation from meager evidence. He recalls touring the Natural History Museum in London with senior paleontologist Colin Patterson, who
told me that he was looking for cases where the actual common ancestor of two given species was identified in the diagram on display. These would be at the "nodes" in the tree of life. But all the nodes shown in the museum were vacant...
Patterson told me that as far as he could see, nodes are always empty in diagrams of the tree of life.
The vaunted fossil record is a mystery in evolutionary terms, with almost all known phyla having sprung into existence in a "twinkling" of perhaps five or six million years. "How sudden is that? Compared with the reported three-billion year history of life on earth, the Cambrian explosion is the equivalent of one minute in a twenty-four-hour day."
As time goes by, evolution explains less and less. Conundrums abound, and seem increasingly invulnerable to being solved -- with any formula, that is, that excludes design. Experimentation shows that organisms "evolve" -- only to revert to a mean, a predictable "Reversion to the Average," as famed breeder Luther Burbank put it. Species "inhabit 'plateaus' of limited space upon which variants are free to roam," says Bethell. Artificial selection, beloved by Darwin, can "push" varieties around the plateau, nothing more.
Stasis and extinction, not transmutation, is observed. In a chapter on systematics, Bethell visits paleontologist Gareth Nelson at New York's American Museum of Natural History, a leading expert on anchovies. Nelson had a selection of the tiny fish preserved in alcohol and arrayed on his desk.
When I asked about anchovy fossils, he said that a graduate student at the museum studied the question, and it turned out that "all the fossils previously described as anchovies are not anchovies at all." So the fossil record of anchovies was reduced to zero. But then they found one in the British Museum, maybe 10 million years old, from the Miocene in Cyprus. It turns out to be the only known anchovy fossil. "There is information suggesting it is the same kind of animal we find inhabiting the Mediterranean today," Nelson said.
You can almost hear the sigh in the scientist's voice. I love this kind of quietly mordant writing.
Evolutionary science is in a depressed condition, despite all that the media do to put a bright face on the situation. They never tell you what biologists say behind closed doors, in their technical literature, or to a journalist with the temerity to ask difficult questions. A random individual on Twitter tweeted to me the other day, "Natural selection is the only theory that fits the facts. That's why it's a theory and not a long-discredited hypothesis like 'intelligent design.' Get out of your bubble."
The naivety is heartbreaking, foisted on us by the credulous, pampered media. In fact, Darwin's theory, of boundless novelty generated via stuff blindly swishing around together, fits few or none of the facts. Get out of your own bubble, friend. Picking up a copy of Tom Bethell's wonderful book (published by Discovery Institute Press, thank you very much) would be a fine start, an act of self-liberation and great read, as well.