The Darwinian Mythology | Evolution News

Photo credit: Richard Dawkins, by Magnus Norden (151212035) [CC BY 2.0]via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s Note: We are delighted to present a series by Neil Thomas, Distinguished Reader at Durham University, “Why Words Matter: Meaning and Nonsense in Science.” This is the third article in the series. Find the complete series to date here. Professor Thomas’ recent book is Saying goodbye to Darwin: A lifelong agnostic uncovers the case for design (Discovery Institute Press).

It seems indisputable to say that no one could now mention the lunar lakes of Bernard de Fontenelle or the Martian canals of Percival Lowell, which I spoke about yesterday, without laughing. These postulations have been unmasked retrospectively as “just words”: with no real-world referents or implications. Such examples are not, however, mere isolated historical curiosities, and we certainly have no right to take that condescending tone toward the past which later ages are often inclined to adopt.

A stupid assumption

In reference to the biological world, the day after the publication in 1976 of the book by Richard Dawkins The selfish gene philosopher Mary Midgely has pointed out the vanity of the “meme” hypothesis in painfully direct terms that are no doubt well known to readers of her articles.1 His criticism has since been reinforced by others. The philosopher David Stoe2 submitted the dawkinsian conjecture to the most complete criticism. Lately, John Gray, with a usual incision, has written about “the cod-science of memes” — those supposed forces of “replication” postulated by Dawkins that have no more referent in the real world, Gray fumes, than the non-existent substance of memes. phlogiston.3

During opposition to Dawkins’ attempt to further extend Darwinian theory empire in the realm of “universal Darwinism”, the philosopher Anthony Flew even disputed whether the term “natural selection” had any real meaning, questioning the selective power that Darwin claimed for him.4 His British colleague Richard Spilsbury agreed, writing of the term ‘complexification’ (postulated as a process leading – through entirely unknown intermediate steps – from single-celled species to the eventual evolution of Homo sapiens) that “ to say that these developments could have arisen by selection of random variation is not proof that they did.”5

Establishing a conceptual possibility was a long way from advancing concrete proof, Spilsbury objected. Accepting this proposition was as futile as supporting Charles Darwin’s long disproved theory of pangenesis and the associated idea of ​​”gemmules” in heredity.6

Following“Considering ‘abiogenesis’.”


  1. To see her Evolution as a religion (London: Routledge, 2002) and the various essays edited by Hilary and Steven Rose in Alas Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology (London, Vintage, 2001).
  2. Darwinian fairy tales (New York: Encounter Books, 2009).
  3. Seven Types of Atheism (London: Penguin, 2019), p. 14.
  4. Antoine Volé, Darwinian evolutionsecond edition (London: Transaction, 1997).
  5. Providence Lost: A Critique of Darwinism (London, New York, Toronto; OUP, 1974), p. 8 and passive.
  6. Since he knew nothing about Mendelian genetics, pangenesis was Darwin’s best estimate of how heredity works. He hypothesized (without proof) that every part of the body released small particles that clustered in the genitals and carried hereditary information to the gametes.

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