SOL #1.2: the claim of evolution

Dawkins draws a remarkable conclusion from this approach. His conclusion is that science can replace religion; that religion has been superseded by science; that science can answer the questions which were once answered by religion. Consider these comments:

‘[now that we have the theory of evolution we] no longer have to resort to superstition when faced with the deep problems: Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man?’ (from ‘The Selfish Gene’ )

‘…our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but… it is a mystery no longer because it is solved.’ (from ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ )

‘I want to persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence’ (from ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ , his emphasis).

Dawkins is here asserting that the theory of evolution is able to provide the only answers that are viable in our present age; that, in the words of a fellow zoologist whom he quotes with approval: “The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question [What is Man?] before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely” .

In making this argument, Dawkins’ writings are congruous with much ‘popular science’ writing. Paul Davies, for example, claims that ‘In my opinion science offers a surer path to God than religion’ . Stephen Hawking’s famous conclusion to ‘A Brief History of Time’ ends with the dramatic claim that if we found a complete physical theory of the universe, “…it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God”. According to ‘The Independent’ newspaper: ‘The real priests of the future are scientists, as they have been since the Industrial Revolution’ .


Dawkins refers to ‘deep problems’ or ‘mysteries’. These problems are the ones where, historically, Christianity has offered the answers that our culture has accepted. Other cultures have had more or less different answers, bound up in each case with religions that are more or less different from Christianity. Yet in each case the character of the answers provided are religious – they engage with us at the most profound level possible, and the answers given then shape the wider culture. Let us agree to call these questions of meaning, purpose and self-understanding “serious questions”, for they are concerned with the seriousness of life. Dawkins’ claim, then, is that science gives the best answer yet to our ‘serious questions’.

I believe that this is profoundly mistaken. I believe that no scientific answer could possibly be an answer to our serious questions. In my view, the process by which an answer becomes a ‘scientific’ answer (in the sense that Dawkins requires) necessarily stops that answer applying to our serious questions.

Clearly, I have a significant task of explanation on my hands.


So what is this conception in which Dawkins places such trust? In brief, it is an explanation of biological complexity, which relies upon only a few simple axioms to account for the diversity of life as we presently experience it.

The central idea is that of natural selection. If we consider the history of animal breeding – for example, with horses or dogs – then it is clear that humans have changed the characteristics of various breeds, in line with their own preferences. In these instances there is a human being (or a succession of human beings) acting as a selector of different traits within a breed which causes the breeds to change over time. Darwin employed this as the ground for a metaphor – that, over time, nature acted in the same fashion as these human selectors – and that there is therefore something called natural selection.

Where human selection was driven by human preferences, natural selection is driven by one single ‘preference’ or constraint – the ability to reproduce, to have offspring. The idea is that in any given context there are limited resources available and that different species – and different individuals of the same species – will compete to gain those resources. Those individuals and species which succeed in gaining those scarce resources will be able to have more offspring, and, over time, will dominate and drive their competitors to extinction.

For Darwin, the ‘unit of selection’ was unknown. That means simply that Darwin didn’t know how the ability to compete was passed on from parent to offspring. This is crucial to the theory, for if it could be shown that the ability to compete is not passed on from parent to child, then the theory breaks down – for there is nothing for natural selection to act upon. However, following twentieth century developments in molecular biology, we have a much better understanding of what this unit of selection might be – we call it the gene. Although there is still much that is unknown about the ways in which the gene affects the overt characteristics of individuals and species, it seems fairly clear that the genetic inheritance is responsible for a great deal of the success or failure of individuals and species within a particular environment. This is the ‘neo-Darwinian synthesis’ – a synthesis which combines the Darwinian ideas of natural selection and inherited characteristics, with the science of DNA. It is this synthesis which Dawkins articulated and popularized so successfully in ‘The Selfish Gene’.


There is a great deal of evidence which supports this synthesis, which recommends it to us as a good account of how different species have come to be as they are. To begin with, there is the question of timescale. We know from research in geology and astrophysics that the earth has existed for a very long time – some four and a half billion years or so. This provides evolutionary theory with a sufficiently broad canvas, within which natural selection can operate.

Secondly, there is the evidence from palaeontology – the study of fossils. We can tell from examination of rock strata that certain layers of rock were laid down at certain periods of time (the Pleiocene, the Cambrian and so on), and in those strata there are fossils of all sorts of different life-forms. The most popular of those life-forms are, of course, the dinosaurs, who existed until some 65 million years ago, and whose demise – probably as the result of an asteroid impact with the earth, although that is disputed – allowed mammals to become the dominant species on our planet. So we have both a sufficient timescale within which evolution can take place, and we also have evidence of a wide variety of life existing during those different periods.

In addition to this, through the study of DNA we now have a very clear idea of how characteristics can be inherited from parent to child, and through mathematical studies, we can model the distribution of particular characteristics in a population. There is a wealth of detailed evidence to support this understanding.

For Dawkins, then, all of life can be explained by the story of evolution, the slow step by step climbing of ‘mount improbable’ by the genetic line of inheritance. Natural selection – and only natural selection – is both a necessary and sufficient explanation for the existence and nature of life as we know it.

Does this mean that the neo-Darwinian synthesis is incontestable as an account of human nature? Not so fast.