While Christians have long challenged Charles Darwin’s theory of undirected evolution, few appreciate the true extent of the challenge beyond the church. Current estimates are that approximately one-third of professional academic biologists who do not believe in intelligent design find Darwin’s theory is inadequate to describe all of the complexity in biology.
Ben Stein documented a crackdown within the academy on criticism of Darwin in his 2008 documentary “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.” While this might explain why the public rarely hears of challenges to Neo-Darwinism, the documentary centered on intelligent design. But the growing discontent in academia is from secular naturalists.
Defining evolution is key. At the basic level of change over time, even Young Earth biblical creationists agree. At its most specific level of the common descent of all life on earth from a single ancestor via undirected mutation and natural selection, many legitimately question evolutionary theory as it stands. The word is often used interchangeably without distinction, but even when used technically in academic biologist circles, real skepticism exists about the theory.
Demanding a New Theory
A controversial letter to Nature in 2014 signaled the mounting concern, however slow and cautious, among thoughtful professional biologists. Other works by atheist authors like “What Darwin Got Wrong” and “Mind and Cosmos” find “fatal flaws” in the theory and assert it is “almost certainly false.”
Another project, The Third Way, seeks to avoid a false choice between divine intervention (which it outright rejects) and the Neo-Darwinian model (which it finds unsupported in the face of modern molecular theory) while presenting evidence to improve evolution theory beyond Neo-Darwinism. Some even believe billions of years have not been adequate for Darwinian theory to accomplish current complexity, as the theory currently exists.
This dissatisfaction is a matter of public record, even if it lacks public attention, and despite the narrative running contrary. Indeed dedicated Neo-Darwinists often say “no serious scientists disagree” or “only creationists have problems.” These contentions are increasingly disproven.
The important note is that these are not ideologues or religious zealots, nor do they propose a god or biblical solution. Rather, they find problems with the explanatory value of Darwin’s theory in light of modern understanding of mutation, variation, DNA sequencing, and more. These expressions of doubt do not reject naturalism or evolution per se, but the rigor of the Neo-Darwinian model for explaining the development of life.
In fact, they want to help Darwin, not tear him down. That he needs help is news to the academy.
A Voice in the Wilderness
Professor Kevin Laland, author of the Nature letter insisting on “urgent” rethinking of evolutionary theory, has been described by critics as offering an unneeded paradigm shift. He recognizes the pushback from the scientific establishment, but he and his colleagues forge a path forward nonetheless with rigorous work on their model of Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES).
This is an update to the mid-20th-century Modern Synthesis, which patched up Neo-Darwinian theory with then-modern information. Since then, understanding of complexity has grown such that Laland and others believe EES or another supplement is necessary to keep up. It is not a replacement or rejection of Neo-Darwinism, but can be deployed alongside it as a way to understand key processes of nature the theory neglects.
Laland explained, “The EES is a minority position, but not as small a minority as it is often portrayed. It is also gaining ground.” EES is not the only naturalist supplement or revision of Neo-Darwinism, but joins several other embattled factions in the academy, including The Third Way.
“As you may surmise, there is a lot of politics in these debates. Traditionalists have a track record of characterising more progressive researchers as a small group of extremists,” Leland added. Explaining why it is difficult to gain traction, he continued, “support for our position comes from academic fields on the periphery of evolutionary biology, such as evolutionary developmental biology, ecological developmental biology, paleontology, botany, and the human sciences, while traditionalists dominate evolutionary genetics.”