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Evolution: A Doctrine in Search of a Theory


“All reputable evolutionary biologists now agree that the evolution of life is directed by the process of natural selection, and by nothing else.” With these words Sir Julian Huxley summed up the consensus of learned opinion at the Darwin Centennial Celebration in 1959.

Among the eminent biologists and evolutionists attending the celebration, great confidence prevailed that the origin of living species was now almost fully understood. Evolutionists had clearly established that all living organisms had gradually evolved through small variations in form and function, slowly accumulating, generation by generation, over a vast span of geological time. Geneticists had shown that all biological variations arose from random genetic accidents called mutations. Evolutionary theorists, building on this finding, had clearly identified Darwinian natural selection as the sole guiding force that sorted out these variations and thereby molded the diverse forms of living beings. Although many minute details certainly remained to be worked out, scientists believed they had arrived at an essentially complete understanding of life and its historical development.

With this striking unanimity of established scientific opinion reached little more than two decades ago, perhaps we are surprised to hear that the theory of evolution has recently become the focus of a great controversy among evolutionists themselves. The last few years have seen the established theory of mutation and natural selection increasingly challenged by critical studies and dissenting interpretations of the evidence. The theory has clearly shown itself unsound, although scientists have thus far been unable to devise an acceptable new theory to replace it.

This controversy became a near battle as some 150 prominent evolutionists gathered at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History to thrash out various conflicting hypotheses about the nature of evolution. After four days of heated discussions (closed to all but a few outside observers), the evolutionists remained convinced that evolution is a fact. Unfortunately, however, they could not reach a clear understanding of just what this fact is. The New York Times reported that the assembled scientists were unable either to specify the mechanism of evolution or to agree on “how anyone could establish with some certainty that it happened one way and not another.”

Why this shift from unanimity and certainty to controversy and indecision? In this article we shall try to answer this question by examining some basic features of the modern theory of evolution. We shall try to identify the reasons why many scientists have sought an evolutionary explanation of life, and we shall also point out some of the problems that have impeded their efforts. We shall argue that the theory of evolution has been motivated more by philosophical misunderstanding than by the strength of empirical evidence and that the current confusion among evolutionary theorists has come about because factual evidence has persistently refused to conform to the patterns imposed by an inconsistent and inadequate philosophical system. Finally, we shall present for these philosophical problems a solution that can lead to a more satisfactory understanding of the nature and origin of life.