Posts Tagged ‘darwin’

Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero Pt. 2

April 29, 2013

Yesterday saw the last part of Bill Bailey’s programme exploring the work of the Victorian explorer, Alfred Russell Wallace, and his independent discovery of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. The show followed Wallace’s expedition through Indonesia, Malaya and Sarawak collecting specimens, and the creatures that spurred his discovery of the motor of evolution. In Darwin’s case, this was the famous finches he found in the Galapagos islands. In Wallace’s case, it was the different varieties of macaque and a species of tree-climbing kangaroo. Bailey pointed out the dividing line in that part of the eastern Pacific dividing the types of animals in that part of the world. Still called the Wallace Line after him, it separated animals characteristic of Indonesia and Malaya to the east, while to the west were those of Australia. The macaques Wallace found in the rest of the Indonesian and Malayan islands were grey with tales. On the island of Ternate, they were black without tails. They also had a tuft of hair which Bailey described as a mohican. In a piece of self-deprecating humour Bailey posed for the cameras, showing the apparent similarity between his own features and those of the macaques. Like David Attenborough with the gorillas in Life on Earth way back in 1979, Bailey seemed to get on well with primates. He sat very still while the macaques came up to him, investigated and sniffed him, and accepted him as one of their own. In the Australian ecological zone, Wallace discovered the tree-climbing kangaroos. With their smaller front paws and large hind legs, these animals weren’t well adapted to the arboreal existence. The programme showed a few of them gingerly making their way up the trees, with several mis-steps. This conflicted with the Natural Theology of the day, which, according to the programme, declared that each species of animal had been separately created. When the environment changed, and the animals died out, God simply created a new species of that particular animal which was better suited to its environment. Wallace also noted that some of the animals on different islands differed strongly from their cousins elsewhere. Looking at maps of the sea depth in the Indonesian and Malayan achipelagos near Irian Jaya, he theorised that whwere the sea was shallow there were once land bridges allowing species to cross from one island to another. The ease of access between 5these islands meant that these species remained closely related. The much deeper waters around the other islands meant that these islands were colonised by castaways, which drifted there. Cut off from the rest of the world, the creatures there evolved into markedly more different forms. The question remained of the actual motor of evolution, the process that brought these species into being. A bout of acute malarial fever led Wallace to remember Malthus’ Theory of Population, and he realised that quite small differences in an animal’s constitution could give it an advantage in the struggle for existence, such as larger eyes for finding insects in the case of lemurs. He thus discovered Natural Selection.

Attempt to Restore Wallace to Prominence with Darwin

Bailey was keen to take his hero out from under Darwin’s shadow, and the shadow the maneouvering that had taken place to make sure Darwin was not pre-empted by Wallace. Wallace was delighted when Darwin accepted him as one of his collectors. However, when Wallace sent Darwin a letter discussing his activities and his formation of a new theory of evolution, Darwin sent a polite reply telling him that he was working on his own, and implying that he should stay away in the tropics and not hurry back. When Wallace sent Darwin his letter outlining his theory of Natural Selection, Darwin was shaken. He had spent the last eight years working on barnacles to support his own theory, which he still had not published. Quickly consulting his friends, including the geologist Charles Lyell, Darwin decided to rush his own account, The Origin of Species, into print. He also read out a paper he wrote on evolution to a meeting of the Royal Society with Wallace’s paper. He did not ask Wallace’s permission, and Wallace was not even aware this had occurred until he returned to Britain. Bailey stated that, depending on your point of view, it was either a delicate compromise or a highly shameful episode.Nevertheless, after over a century of undeserved relative obscurity, Wallace was being accorded the honour that rightfully was his. At a meeting in the Natural History Museum, Bailey unveiled a portrait of the great man to hang alongside Darwin’s statue.

Bailey and Wallace in Ternate

It was a fascinating programme. As I said in my review of the first episode, Bailey is an affable, knowledgable host. Not only did the programme have some superb footage of the animals in Indonesia and Malaya, it also showed some equally interesting episodes with the human inhabitants of these islands. Bailey attempted to recreate the style of Wallace’s expedition, including what he ate, and his historic meeting with one of the countries’ rulers. When on his expedition, Wallace was forced to eat what he found in the rainforest. Thus, in another moment worhty of Ray Mears, he was shown eating a fruit bat. Bailey picked delicately at it, while his Indonesian hosts downed it with gusto. Wallace had had to get the permission of the Sultan of Ternate before he could travel there on his collecting mission. So Bailey also sought an audience with his highness. He therefore appeared outside the Sultan’s palace dressed in white linen suit, cravat and panama hat, while liveried courtiers and guards ushered him in. Eventually he was allowed into the Sultan’s presence. As you’d probably expect, the Sultan himself spoke excellent English, and was voluble on the subject of Wallace. Wallace himself appears to have been the subject of local pride.
In a street near the waterfront Bailey found a mural of the eminent Victorian on the wall of a building. Beneath it, in Indonesian, was the legend ‘Alfred Russell Wallace, Ternate scientist born England’. Ternate clearly viewed him as one of their own.

Victorian Society Increasingly Inclined towards Evolution not Mentioned

It was an excellent programme, but as I mentioned in my previous post, I have a few, major objections to it. Firstly, it didn’t mention how Wallace’s theory differed from Darwin’s. Unlike Darwin, Wallace believed that evolution was teleological, working towards higher and better forms of life. He also believed that human intelligence and our moral sense could not have been shaped by Natural Selection, but were the result of the intervention of spiritual entities. The programme stressed that Wallace’s theory was in conflict with Natural Theology and the scientific and religious establishment. It did not mention how scientific and theological opinion in Britain was actually turning away from Natural Theology and embracing evolution. I mentioned some of the reasons for this in my last blog post on the subject. In addition to these there was the influence of John Henry, later Cardinal Newman. Natural Theology was closely associated with William Paley, whose book was the major work on the subject at the time. Paley, however, was linked with the Benthamite Utilitarians. By the 1840s there was a reaction against Utilitarian philosophy. Newman rejected Natural Theology as it reduced the existence and operation of the Lord to a purely scientific question. At the time Darwin and Wallace were working, there was already a large body of opinion, both inside and outside the church, that was favourably inclined towards evolution.

Links between Darwin-Wallace Theory and Lamarckianism

The programme also claimed that ‘Natural Selection’ was a radical theory. This is also open to question. Some of the Lamarckians, like Geoffroy, were also including it as an evolutionary mechanism before Darwin and Wallace. The Lamarckians had also discovered the theory of ‘adaptive radiation’, in which different species emerge as the parent species spreads out to colonise new territories before Darwin. Darwin even had one of their books on his shelf on the Beagle. The programme did mention that an earlier letter Wallace had written about the subject was dismissed as ‘nothing new’. There is therefore the question of how novel Wallace’s and Darwin’s theories actually were. In the case Darwin’s theory, it was still quite Lamarckian as Darwin believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

Subtext of Programme against Intelligent Design?

The other problem with the programme is that it seems to be subtly written against Intelligent Design. The view that God creates new, improved species after the extinction of their predecessors sounds close to the modern Intelligent Design view that new species are created through an intelligence generating or inserting new information into the genome. For theists, this intelligence is the Almighty, though the official ID position is that the identity of the Designer is unknown.

Medieval Natural Philosophers accepted Some Speciation due to Natural Forces

Now I have to say, I don’t know how prevalent this theory of speciation by divine action was at the time of Darwin. It sounds like the views of Richard Owen, the great Victorian naturalist whose statue used to stand in the Natural History Museum until ousted by Darwin four years ago. But previous generations of Natural Philosophers had also accepted that some speciation was due to natural forces. Ancient Greek anthropologists, including the medical authority Hippocrates, believed that the different races of humanity and their different temperaments were the result of differing climates and geographical influences. In the Middle Ages authorities such as the 15th century bishop of Paris, Pierre d’Ailly, stated that new species had emerged after the Flood when different animals moved into different environments. The types of animals were roughly fixed, but new species could arise from these types through natural, environmental influences. I have to say, I don’t know if this view was still current at the time of Darwin and Wallace, but it certainly had been present in evolutionary thought before them. It would have been good if the programme had mentioned this. In this case the programme looks less like a simple attempt to restore a forgotten Victorian scientific hero and more like another piece in the attack on Creationism and Intelligent Design.

Wallace still Scientifically Disreputable

As for Wallace himself, Bailey stated that there seemed to be still some reluctance to be seen mentioning him. He said that while he was making the series, he had various scientists sidle up to him saying, ‘If you want any information on Wallace, here’s my card’, while looking around to see that they were not overheard. Bailey wondered why it was that the great Victorian should still be seen as somewhat disreputable and a danger to the careers of contemporary scientists. Though the programme didn’t say it, this might have been due to the fact that Wallace’s own theory of evolution still left explicit room for the operation of the supernatural.

Bailey’s exploration of Wallace and his almost forgotten contribution to evolutionary theory was a fascinating programme, and well worth watching. But it omitted the larger debates on the nature of the evolutionary process and the growing willingness of parts of the Church to accept evolutionary theory in favour of a simplistic narrative of lonely outsider battling class prejudice and religious ignorance. I hope that future programmes on the development of evolutionary theory will correct this view, and do more to place Wallace, Darwin and their predecessors into the context of the wider changes in scientific and theological opinion of which they were apart.

New Study Claims Environment Does Not Affect Evolution

July 18, 2009

According to a study by evolutionary biologists discussed at Io9 at, a study by the New England Complex Systems group published in Nature suggests that evolution can occur without any major influence from the environment. Instead, the origin of speciation is viewed simply as creatures having offspring and the effects of sexual selection. The authors don’t claim that environmental factors don’t affect evolutionary process, but they believe from their computer simulations that it is not the major cause. This seems to attack the very basis of Darwinism in that Darwin considered that it was competition for resources in the environment that drove evolution.

Now this study clearly does not support Creationism or Intelligent Design, as it seems to assume that naturalistic, materialist processes are the only forces involved in the emergence of new species and the process of evolution itself. Nevertheless, it does attack one of the most fundamental tenets of Darwinian evolutionary theory, that of Natural Selection itself. It also supports the observations of other critics of evolutionary theory, who were not Creationists or supporters of ID, such as the British science journalist and former producer of the BBC science series, Horizon, Gordon Rattray Taylor. In his The Great Evolution Mystery, Taylor considered the various cases of different species who shared the same environment, such as the various species of cichlid fish in the Great Lakes in Africa as part of his general argument that Natural Selection was unable to explain the development and emergence of different species. That, however, does not necessarily mean that the new theory is correct, and that all that is required for evolutionary process is sexual selection. It will, however, be interesting to see how this new study is accepted by scientists.

Darwin, Huxley, the Nazis and the Morality of Science

July 26, 2008

One of the most controversial features of Ben Stein’s documentary about the institutional persecution of those scientists who support Intelligent Design, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, is its statement of the origins of the Nazis’ racial ideology, which culminated in the Holocaust, in Darwinism. The film’s many critics have angrily denounced it for using the horrors of the Holocaust to suggest that Darwin or his followers could ever have been responsible for one of the most horrific atrocities of the 20th century. Yet to historians the link between Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection and the genocidal racism of the Nazis is entirely uncontroversial. Regardless of their religious views, historians of the 19th and 20th century, and particularly those of Fascism and Nazi Germany, have accepted that Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection was one factor in the rise of Nazism, along with a number of others such as Hegelian philosophy and Von Treitschke’s ideas of German racial superiority. The fact that Natural Selection, and specifically the doctrine of the ‘survival of the fittest’, was a part of Nazi racial theory doesn’t mean that Darwinism is necessarily wrong. It does, however mean that scientists, and those who base their political doctrines on their ideas, aren’t automatically the best judges of morality.

Immoral Radition Experiments Demonstration that Science Not Guide to Morality

This should be entirely uncontroversial, even a matter of common sense. In the 20th century scientists were often responsible for the perpetration of great horror and suffering in experiments that were grossly immoral, quite apart from the Holocaust. The disclosure in the 1990s that the American authorities had conducted a series of radiation experiments on members of the armed forces and civilians, often on the poorest and most disadvantaged members of society, caused a massive scandal. The fact that this occurred, not in a totalitarian state like Nazi Germany or Communist North Korea, but in America, a country whose people feel is the most democratic nation on Earth, whose constitution is one of the most profound statements of innate and inalienable human rights, was a profound shock. Quite possibly it further contributed to the alienation and distrust many Americans feel towards the state, a feeling of suspicion and paranoia that found its reflection in the X-Files on TV. Horrifically immoral experiments like these have no doubt contributed to the suspicion many people have of science as a potentially amoral, degrading and dehumanising enterprise in which living things and people are dispensable, to be experimented upon as scientists, bureaucrats and politicians wish, and whose suffering can be entirely disregarded in the greater interests of the state and science. Of course the vast majority of scientists are as moral as their fellow citizens, and rightly view such atrocities with condemnation and contempt. Nevertheless, these episodes possess the power to shock and appall because of science’s immense power, a power which can easily appear to some to give them the ability to behave as they wish, above the moral constraints of the rest of society, regardless of the harm, cruelty and suffering they may inflict.

Scientists Expected to be more Moral due to Great Power

Part of the problem here may also be that scientists are somehow expected to behave better, to be more moral, because of their greater insight into the nature of the physical world. The immense benefits created by science are obvious, and clearly the medical professionals engaged in treating and healing disease rightly enjoy immense respect. It’s therefore particularly shocking and disturbing when instead of healing and improving life, science is directed towards inflicting pain and destroying it. Hence the horror and disgust surrounding the Holocaust, and human experimentation in Nazi Germany, wartime Japan, America and elsewhere.

Enlightenment Claim that Philosophy and Science Superior to Religion as Guide to Morals

Part of the horror and intense controversy surrounding such scientific abuse may also derive from the fact that since the Enlightenment science, or its spokesmen, have attempted to claim for it a status as the only reliable guide to morality previously reserved for philosophy and religion. In the 18th century sceptical rationalist philosophers, such as Voltaire, Diderot and Bentham, believed that it was only through the application of human reason that society could be properly reformed, and a just social order created, in contrast to what they saw as the superstition and tyranny created and maintained in traditional European society. In the 19th century, Darwin’s greater defender, T.H. Huxley, strongly believed that science was far more moral, and would be a far better guide to morality, than tradition religious belief. Indeed, ‘Huxley argued at great length to prove that Darwinism would be a greater eithical force than Christinaity had ever been.’ 1 Huxley’s view of the superiority of science as a guide to ethics in contrast to the churches wasn’t unique. In Germany during the 19th century the medical materialism of part of the scientific establishment contributed to a large proportion of the membership of liberal and left-wing movements being composed of doctors and other scientists. These doctors and scientists felt that scientific materialism would create a far more moral society than the repressive society of contemporary Germany, with its feudal social order in which religion was an integral part of the political establishment.

Questions of morality have traditionally been the province of philosophy and religion. Philosophers and theologians down the centuries have devoted much effort in defining morality, and attempting to develop practical guides for moral conduct. This has not changed with the rise of science. While science clearly has a major role to play in suggesting practical solutions to major problems, such as in the eradication of pests or the role of disease, nevertheless moral questions themselves still remain the proper subject for philosophers and theologians. Similarly, whatever their skill as scientists, it does not mean that scientists are necessarily more moral than any other member of society. Insight in one area, such as physics or biology, does not give one a greater insight into the nature of evil or what constitutes the truly good life, any more than great skill in any other field of human endeavour.

Claim that Darwinism Superior Guide to Morality than Religion Partly Responsible for Rejection of Judaeo-Christian Humanitarianism

Moreover, by claiming that Darwinism was superior to Christianity and other forms of traditional religion, Huxley, and similar evolutionary biologists like Ernst Haeckel in Germany, made it possible for some scientists and laymen to disregard traditional Judaeo-Christian humanitarian concerns as unscientific and morally backward. And from the criticisms of Stein’s movie, Expelled, for mentioning that there was a link between Darwin’s theory and the Holocaust, it seems that Huxley made it extremely difficult for some to accept that Darwinian evolutionary theory played a role in the rise of Nazism. Now as I said, the fact that Darwinism was one of the influences on the emergence of Nazism does not mean that Natural Selection is wrong, or diminish Darwin’s achievement as a scientist. It simply means that science, including Darwinism, is by no means a reliable guide to morality, and that society, and science, still needs to be morally guided by philosophy and religion.

Similarity between Religious Views of Huxley and Hitler

Hitler probably derived his bizarre racial theories from German and Austrian Volkisch neo-pagan magazines like Ostara when he was a tramp in Vienna before the First World War. HItler’s own religious views were pantheistic, in which God was considered to be the sum total of the laws of the universe, in contrast to the personal God of Judaism and Christianity. In his Table Talk for the night of 11th to 12th of July 1941, Hitler stated

‘Man has discovered in nature the wonderfull notion of that all-mighty being whose law he worships.

Fundamentally in everyone there is the feeling for this all-mighty, which we call God (that is to say, the dominion of natural laws through the whole universe). The priests, who have always succeeded in exploiting this feeling, threaten punishments for theman who refuses to accept the creed they impose.’2

He also stated that progress lay in the discovery of those laws of nature and adherence to them. ‘In any case, we shall learn to become familiar with the laws by which life is governed, and acquaintance with the laws of nature will guide us on the path of progress.’ 3 Now living a life in harmony with nature and its laws had been a moral ideal since ancient Greece. In the 18th century Enlightenment philosophes such as Rousseau had also recommended it as part of their campaign to create a more moral and humane society. In the case of the Nazis, it became immoral and sinister through their conception of racial conflict and genocide as part of the laws of nature.

Huxley also seems to have shared this pantheistic conception of God, declaring that the Almighty as ‘the sum of the customs of matter.’ 4 Huxley and Darwin were certainly not Nazis, no matter how much the Nazis may have based their own racial ideology on the idea of the ‘survival of the fittest’. Nevertheless, it does seem to indicate that Hitler was influenced by the pantheistic religious views that evolutionary biologists such as Haeckel expounded, while he elsewhere rejected Huxley otherwise very traditional Victorian morality.

Conclusion: Holocaust Example of What May Happen When Judaeo-Christian Morality Rejected in the Name of Science and Continued Need for Jewish and Christian Morals in Science

While the influence of Darwinism, along with a number of other 19th century ideologies on the Nazis certainly does not mean that Darwinism is wrong, the suffering and carnage they inflicted, along with those of the Communist states, were an example of the horror that can result when traditional religion is rejected in favour of a totalitarian political ideology claiming a basis in science, considered as being morally far superior to religion and traditional religious morality. The holocaust, and similar atrocities are instead a demonstration that science has not superseded Judaeo-Christian morality, but indeed needs to be governed by it.


1. Harry Hearder, Europe in the Nineteenth Century, Second Edition (London, Longman 1988), p. 400.

2. Norman Cameron and R.H. Stevens, trans., Hitler’s Table-Talk: Hitler’s Conversations Recorded by Martin Bormann (Oxford, OUP 1953), p. 6.

3. Cameron and Stevens, Table-Talk, pp. 6-7.

4. Hearder, Europe, p. 399.

‘Focus’ Magazine on the ‘Dawn of Life’

March 16, 2008

There’s an interesting item over at Atheism Sucks at on an article the science journalist John Horgan wrote some time ago on the problems of current theories on the origin of life.  Five years ago in 2003 the British popular science magazine, Focus, also did a feature on the origin of life by their writer, Robert Matthews. This covered the famous Miller-Urey experiment, various extremophiles such as Deinococcus radiodurans, a bacterium discovered in 1956 by the American microbiologist Arthur Anderson that can survive levels of radiation that will kill a human instantly, and four of the major figures in the discussion of the origin of life. These were Anaximander, who considered that life had spontaneously emerged from mud to produce fish, and then every other creature when the fish moved onto dry land; Leeuwenhoek for his discovery of microscopic creatures, confirmed by Hooke; Louis Pasteur, for proving that spontanous generation did not occur and that disease was caused by germs passing from organism to organism; and Oswald Avery, Colin MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty. The article credited Avery, MacLeod and McCarty for showing in 1944 at the Rockefeller Institute in New York that ‘a simple molecule called deoxyribonucleic acid – or DNA – found in the nucleus of living cells is the key to life’ for carrying the genetic instructions for organisms to reproduce themselves. 1 This is quite remarkable, given the way that Crick and Watson’s work on DNA is usually mentioned to the exclusion of all the other researchers. It also included a brief interview with Graham Cairns-Smith, one of the foremost researchers on the origin of life. It also briefly discussed Dr. Freeman Dyson’s theory that life evolved twice. It also included a brief overview of ‘seven of the most popular theories currently being debated’ – the RNA world, primordial soup, life from clay, PNA theory, hydrothermal vents, panspermia and Creationism. These overviews were just a paragraph long, though the piece on the Miller-Urey experiment, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, ran over four pages. 2

The Miller-Urey Experiment

The article was certainly not pessimistic about the possibility of discovering the origin of life. While it stated that ‘as a demonstration of how to create life, Miller’s experiment could be dismissed as a heroic failure’ it considered that ‘its real significance lies not in results, but in its approach. For millennia the solution to the mystery of the origin of life seemed beyond reach. It was Miller who brought it into the lab – a nd began one of humanity’s most exciting scientific quests.’ 3 Nevertheless, the feature noted the same problems with the theories as John Horgan. Although Time magazine declared when Miller and Urey’s results were published in Science in 1953 that ‘If the apparatus had been as big as the ocean, and if it had worked for a million years instead of one week, it might have created something like the first living molecule’, the results were not nearly as good as was believed. 4

The article notes that while the experiment did create six types of amino acid, only two – glycine and alanine – had any known relevance. As for amino acides, while they’re life’s building blocks, by the 1950s they were, as merely constituents of proteins, far from ‘living molecules’ and had lost their status as the master molecules of life to DNA. Specifically, they were not self-replicating, a key feature of any ‘living molecule’. Miller did not produce any DNA, nor even the A, C, G and T nucleotides. ‘As Miller himself acknowledged, the chemicals produced were as far from life as a pile of bricks is from being a humming metropolis.’ 5 Instead of the reducing atmosphere of hydrogen, methane and ammonia, astronomers instead theorised that the atmosphere on the early Earth was probably composed of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water. Any methane and ammonia was probably destroyed by the light of the primordial sun. ‘When Miller and others ran the experiment with this chemically neutral mix, they only produced traces of glycine, the simplest amino acid.’ 6

The ‘Double Origin’ Theory

The ‘double origin’ theory for the emergence of life, as formulated by Freeman Dyson, suggests that the first lifeforms were protein-like molecules, which gradually evolved more sophisticated metabolisms, passing on their abilities to other proteins using enzymes as a primitive form of genetics. Later, more sophisticated genetic molecules like DNA emerged that were able to reproduce their traits much more accurately, but still lacked sophisticated metabolisms. However, eventually the proteins and the genetic molecules fused in a symbiotic relationship that produced life forms with a sophisticated metabolism and genetics. However, Dyson admits ‘that his ‘double origin’ theory is a highly speculative one, but scientists concede that today’s cells do show combinations of simpler life-forms’. 7 Thus, the paragraph on the ‘Primordial Soup’ concluded that ‘while teh primordial soup expected on the early Earth can create some of the most basic building blocks for life, it seems incapable of generating the crucial self-replicating molecules like DNA.’ 8

The RNA World

Most of the other theories discussed also had serious flaws. The RNA world, proposed in the 1980s, after it was discovered that RNA could act as catalyst and not just a carrier of genetic information, considers that the earliest life forms were naked genes of RNA. However, the article noted that while RNA can be persuaded to evolve new abilities, such as limited self-replication and the ability to link amino acids together, it so far has not demonstrated itself able to replicate itself completely as required for life on Earth. 9

Life from Clay

Graham Cairns-Smith’s own theory was that life was originally based on chemicals more robust than DNA, such as the clay mineral, kaolite. In this view, the first genes were defects in the crystal structure of these clays that were passed on to successive generations of crystals as they formed. However, there is no experimental evidence, according to the article, that clays really can replicate in this way. 10

Interestingly, the brief interview with Cairns-Smith suggests that the distinction drawn by some opponents of Intelligent Design between the origin of life and Darwinism is not accepted by all scientists. While Darwin himself did not discuss the origin of life, but merely speculated in a letter to a friend in 1871 that it may have occurred ‘in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity present’, Cairns-Smith himself stated that the process involved Natural Selection. 11 In answer to the question ‘What is your advice to anyone thinking of entering this area of research?’, Cairns-Smith answered ‘Oh, to forget about the chemistry of life as it is now and look creatively for the simplest real chemical systems that can evolve through natural selection, whatever they are made of.’ 12 It thus appears from Cairns-Smiths comments that however different the process of the origin of life may be from the evolution of living organisms, it is still held to be the product of Natural Selection.

The PNA World

The PNA theory arose from the work of Peter Nielsen of the University of Copenhagen in 1991. Nielsen used computers to design a molecule – Peptide Nucleic Acid, or PNA – that had the both the structure of DNA and the chemical abilities of proteins. He was intending to use it for cancer therapy, but its combination of the genetic quality of DNA and the resilience of proteins appealed to scientists struggling to discover the compounds that would have been suitable for the origin of life on Earth. PNA does share with DNA some limited capability for self-replication, but nothing on the scale of DNA. 13

Hydrothermal Vents

Regarding the origin of life around hydrothermal vents, while these do have iron sulphide, which performs a key process in living organisms by linking up amino acids, the extreme heat inside the vents, which exceeds 300 degrees Celsius, rapidly tears apart amino acids and DNA. Nevertheless, William Martin and his colleagues at the University of Dusseldorf in 2003 suggested that key reactions may still occur in cavities inside iron sulphide cells in the vents. 14


The paragraph on panspermia – the theory that life was seeded on Earth by comets and meteors from elsewhere in the cosmos –  noted that it was first proposed by Victorian scientists, and that its supporters included Francis Crick and Fred Hoyle. Its propnents argued that the discovery of amino acides in meteorites and bacteria high up in the Earth’s atmosphere support the theory. However, although this solved the problem of the origin of life on Earth, it was considered to be a ‘cop-out’ by many scientists because it pushed the problem away into deep space. 15


As for Creationism, the article merely stated that it was ‘the oldest theory for the origin of life – and the simplest to explain: God did it.’ 16

Conclusion: Materialist Solutions of the Origin of Life Problematic

Thus, while the article certainly wasn’t as pessimistic about the possibility of discovering a materialist solution to the origin of life, it was clear that all the scientific theories presented had major flaws. The mention of Creationism alongside the materialist scientific theories is interesting. It’s clear that the article wasn’t written from a Creationist standpoint, and broadly supported the search for a materialist solution to the problem of the origin of life. Nevertheless, it seems extremely unlikely to me that many science magazines would ever have even mentioned Creationism as a solution at the time, even if merely for the sake of completeness, because of the threat that it is held to present to materialist science, which is construed and presented as genuine science in opposition to non-materialist approaches. It might have been because Creationism has, until very recently, been very much a minority point of view in Britain, though one that has been vigorously attacked over the past decades by Richard Dawkins, amongst others. With the growth of interest in Intelligent Design since the 1980s, I do wonder if Creationism would now be mentioned without an explicit condemnation, even in passing, in a British popular science magazine.


1. Robert Matthews, ‘History of Pondering Life’s Origins’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 39.

2. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, pp. 38-41.

3. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

4. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 40.

5. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, pp. 40-41.

6. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

7. Matthews, ‘Has Life Originated More than Once on Earth?’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

8. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 42.

9. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 42.

10. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 42.

11. Matthews, ‘Meet the Origin of Life Expert’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

12. Matthews, ‘Meet the Origin of Life Expert’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

13. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 42.

14. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 43.

15. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 43.

16. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 43.

Moral Darwinism

January 17, 2008

There was a storm of protest last summer when a documentary appeared on American TV linking Darwinism to the Holocaust. Some Jewish groups were understandably upset at what they felt to be a cynical attempt to use the shoah for an ideological attack on Darwinism. Supporters of Darwinian evolution, on the other hand, were naturally outraged at the theory being posited as the direct cause of the Holocaust. Indeed, when Richard Wikert published his book arguing that Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection directly led to the Holocaust, the book was bitterly attacked and vilified by the theory’s ardent supporters. For most, if not all evolutionary scientists, the connection between Darwin’s theory and the racial policies of Nazi Germany and the Tremendum are accidental, the product of a deliberate perversion of Darwin’s ideas by the Nazis, rather than a result of those ideas themselves. Stephen Jay Gould, one of the most ardent opponents of the racist appropriation of Darwinism, certainly felt this way, and expressed considerable outrage at the way it had been so used by Fascist ideologues.

Such views are not universal, however. Roger Liddell, the British agnostic journalist and broadcaster, in his polemic against atheism, The Trouble with Atheism, broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4 a year or so ago, spoke to an historian at Reading University in the UK who was very much of the view that Darwinism was a cause of the Holocaust. He taught a course, ‘From Darwin to the Holocaust’, and showed Liddell Galton’s own writings on race and eugenics, including his photographs of Jewish boys from the East End of London, taken as part of Galton’s massive research into measuring and evaluating the biological characteristics of the human race. And however much the ideologues of the Far Right may have twisted Darwin’s ideas, they were extremely well-read in them and mainstream racial anthropology, and were able to use this to support their own vile doctrines.

The writings of the British Fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, show this familiarity with Darwinism and contemporary racial anthropology. Mosley had started his political career as a Conservative, before joining the Labour Party. Impatient with that party, he split off in the early 1930s to form the New Party. Impressed with Mussolini, and convinced that the Italian Fascist leader had solved the labour problem, he then turned to Fascism, reorganising the New Party as the British Union of Fascists. He was interned in the Tower of London during the Second World War. After the War, he attempted to revive Fascism and forge alliances with the post-War European neo-Fascist parties. However, he found himself increasingly isolated and overtaken by a new generation of right-wing extremists, and so eventually retired to Nice in France.

It’s questionable how racist Mosley was. He always denied being an anti-Semite, and the BUF’s stewards were trained by the Jewish boxer, Ted Lewis. Nevertheless, he loudly denounced Jewish opposition to Fascism, and the BUF certainly drew on anti-semitism as part of its programme. A Jewish journalist for the British middle market tabloid, the Daily Mail, interviewing Mosley in the 1970s before his death found him unrepentant about the Holocaust. He was also a staunch opponent of racial intermarriage and advocated the introduction of race laws similar to those of Apartheid South Africa. Despite the rejection of the spurious pre-War racial anthropology by biologists and anthropologists after the War, Mosley nevertheless cited respected and respectable scientists, including Darwin himself, to support his odious opinions on race.

In Moseley’s 1961 book, Right or Wrong?, written to promote his post-War political programme, the would-be Fuhrer quotes Darwin’s the Descent of Man, T.H. Huxley’s Man’s Place in Nature and E.B. Tylor’s Anthropology on the immense physical, intellectual and moral differences between the various human races. 1 He quotes the contemporary geneticist, C.D. Darlington, on how ‘Galton had uncovered the process of racial differentiation in its simplest instance much as Mendel had uncovered the process of recombination in its simplest instance.’ 2 He Further quotes Darlington from the latter’s book The Facts of Life and an article in The New Scientist for 14th April 1960 to argue against racial mixing: ‘ The future of mankind rests with those genetically diverse groups … which can practise mutual help and show mutual respect. neither of these habits can be assisted in the long run by make-believe of any kind, certainly not by a make-believe of equality in the physical intellectual and cultural capacities of such groups.’ 3 Other authorities cited by Mosley to support his arguments for profound differences, including mental and moral, between the different varieties of humanity, include the 1946, 1947 and 1959 editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica;  Juan Comas of the Mexican School of Anthropology and G.M. Morant in the 1956 UNESCO symposium, The Race Question in Modern Science; Ashley Montagu, the rapporteur to the UNESCO committee that drafted the Statement on Race, in his book Man: His First Million Years; Amram Scheinfeld’s You and Heredity; Dr. R. Gayre, editor of The Mankind Quarterly, in the January 1961 edition and the eugenicist G.C. Bertram’s West Indian Immigration. 4 Now I am not accusing any of the above scientists cited by Mosley of being Fascists. However, it is clear that despite the campaigns against eugenics and the discrediting of scientific racism after the rise of the Nazis, many eminently respectable scientists nevertheless held views on race that stressed difference and argued for segregation or separate development, based very much on Darwin and Galton.

Now Darwin himself held liberal views for his time. He was an opponent of slavery and imperialism. He was not, however, an observant anthropologist. Listening to the three Yahgan Tierra del Fuegian amerindians taken aboard the Beagle, Darwin concluded that their whole language had only about 100 or so words. By contrast, Thomas Bridges, who was in charge of the Christian mission to the Fuegian amerindians from about 1863 onwards, made it his business to learn their language. His son, Lucas Bridges, considered the Yahgan language to be ‘within its own limitations … infinitely richer and more expressive than either English or Spanish’ with a vocabulary of about 32,000 words and inflections. 5

Darwin also believed in a literal struggle for survival, and saw the deliberate extermination of native peoples like the Amerindians of Tierra del Fuego by White farmers almost as the result of natural forces. This struggle was vital for human advancement. He declared that ”It may well be doubted whether the most favourable [circumstances for advancement] would have sufficed, had not the rate of increase [of population] been rapid, and the consequent struggle for existence severe to an extreme degree.’ 6 The result of this was that ‘Darwin and the theorists of social evolution reinforced belief in European superiority just at the time when European countries and the United States scrambled for territory in the rest of the world. Political imperialism; popular culture, Darwin’s name and belief in social evolution were closely connected.’ 7 Moreover, such evolutionary theories viewed the acquisition of rational knowledge – interpreted as science – as a crucial development in human culture. ‘In effect civilisation was equated with the acquisition of a scientific outlook and scientists were the personification of progress. The comparative, evolutioanry method was one means by which Western society constructed a social theory of its own nature. At the same time, this theory represented the value of progress actually held in the West as the natural law of social development. Thus, Victorian values were not added to the human sciences but were intrinsic to the framework of these sciences.’ 8 Evolutionary theory also rationally justified the classification of society and institutions on a scale from primitive to advanced. Through its equation of rationality with science and portrayal of the way science had supposedly emerged from primitive superstition ‘it deeply challenged religious faith by treating religious customs and beliefs as evidence of the stage that a people has reached. The anthropologists implied that monotheistic Christianity, though advanced as a religion, is only one stage on man’s progress towards reason, as Comte had earlier argued. Anthropology made religion a subject of scientific study and in the process altered the authority that religious beliefs themselves could command.’ 9

The result of this was that scientists, rather than religious clergy, were increasingly seen to have the definitive truth about the human condition, and their statements undercut religion’s moral authority. The result was that the Nazis and other radical groups could attack Christian humanitarianism as unscientific while justification the sterilisation and extermination of racial and social undesirables.

Darwin believed in the unity of humanity through descent from a common ancestor, yet his insistence on their divergent evolution undercut this unity by stressing their difference. Earlier anthropologists who adopted a more Biblical view of humanity laid greater stress on their unity. The British anthropologist, James Cowles Prichard, explained the emergence of the different types of humanity through the passage of time, and influences of climate, custom and the diffusion of the individual peoples. He believed that all nations were originally Black, from which the White peoples had emerged. Although he equated the White peoples with civilisation, ‘he referred to race merely as a cluster of characteristics caused by climate, not a rigid quality; and his use of the word ‘primitive’ connoted man’s closeness to Adam rather than the apes.’ 10 His family were Quakers, though Prichard himself became an Anglican and was a staunch supporter of the abolition of slavery. Against attacks on the Biblical depiction of the origin of humanity, he nevertheless argued against racial differences from the psychic unity of humanity. 11

The 19th century assumption within Darwinism and evolutionary theory that science was the pinnacle of human rationality no doubt explains the furore and extreme hostility with which any criticism of evolution from a religious direction is greeted. Religion, supposedly demonstrated by evolutionary theory to be a relic of previous evolutionary epochs, is construed as attacking the very essence of human rationality itself. Thus there are the statements by atheist groups that belief in God is somehow holding back human evolution. The other point is that, despite evolutionary science being, in Tylor’s view, a reformist’s science, the naturalistic grounding it offered to ethics attacked traditional Christian morality and paved the way for those totalitarian regimes that saw this as an obstacle to be cleared away by force and violence.

If Darwinism had merely been a mechanical theory that explained how God created the wonderful creatures that occupy this beautiful world, as envisaged by Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, and Bishop Baden-Powell, an Oxford professor of Mathematics without making any statements about the existence of God or the nature of morality, then it would arguably have been much less controversial and the 19th and 20th centuries far less brutal. But it didn’t. Instead, it allowed scientists to make pronouncements on ethics that were far outside their field or competence. Instead of leading to greater morality, it lent support to regimes based on a ruthlessly mechanistic view of humanity and a naturalistic ethic that justified mass murder and violence. Now this does not mean that evolutionary theory is wrong. It does mean, however, that evolutionary science does not have an automatic moral authority and that moral claims made by its practitioners should not be accepted without scrutiny. Science rightly, can and should inform the moral debates and positions of philosophers and theologians. It cannot, however, replace them.


1. Oswald Mosley, Right or Wrong? (Lion Books, London 1961), p. 118.

2. Mosley, Right or Wrong?, pp. 118.

3. C.D. Darlington, The Facts of Life, cited in Mosley, Right or Wrong?, p. 119.

4. Mosley, Right or Wrong?, pp. 122-123.

5. Lucas Bridges, The Uttermost Part of the Earth (London, Century 1948), p. 34.

6. Roger Smith, The Fontana History of the Human Sciences (London, Fontana Press 1997), p. 474.

7. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 481.

8. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 482.

9. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 479.

10. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 397.

11. Smith, Human Sciences, pp. 396-7.