The Vatican—not Richard Dawkins, famously author of The God Delusion—is most dedicated to the science of evolution. Thus argues Msgr. Carlo Maria Polvani in a recent article, "Why are there no penguins at the North Pole?" "The main threat to the scientific integrity of the theory of evolution, in fact," writes Polvani, "does not come from an alleged invasion of the field by theology, but rather from the incapacity of a certain self-referential science to recognize when it is time for a paradigmatic change."
Polvani's piece in L'Osservatore Romano sketches why the Pontifical Academy of Sciences merits praise while proponents of "atheistic vehemence" nevertheless "refuse to submit their thesis to a strictly scientific examination." The short article is worth reading; it deploys some heavy philosophical artillery in a mostly digestible way. A few particularly interesting bits are below.
The problem, as Polvani sees it, lies with an obstinance among certain (atheist) evolutionary theorists toward the value of empirical evidence, specifically as this type of evidence might well rule out "chance and necessity" as the sole decisive factors behind genetic development.
At the start of the 21st century, in spite of considerable internal disputes in the Darwinist camp on the subject of natural selection—the gene, according to Clinton Richard Dawkins; species, according to Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002); and social behaviour, according to Edward Osborne Wilson—Darwinism’s line of demarcation actually rested on the refusal to concede any exception to the principle supporting the exclusive binomial of chance and necessity.
In The Blind Watchmaker (1986), Dawkins—while warning that necessity is a deterministic rule, which could be measured were it possible to identify the factors, whereas chance is a completely unpredictable force, therefore totally unforeseeable—identifies, in the interaction between these two absolutely autonomous forces,—the unique, necessary and convincing explanation of the phenomenon of life on earth. He demonstrates the merits attributed by modern Darwinism to this line of demarcation which, as Monod wrote, must be accepted in its rough dramatic nature, despite “the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its own contingency.”
In universities throughout the world, observations are being analyzed which could indirectly invalidate or confirm Darwinian positions. Could self-replicating chemical molecules, perhaps, be at the origin of life? Why is there a universal genetic code? Is the statistical incidence of chance mutations of a genotype likely to produce adequate phenotype diversity? How can one explain the Cambrian explosion, the event which, 530 million years ago, saw a temporary increase—by an order of magnitude—in the appearance of animal species? But any calling into question of the chance-necessity axiom is unpopular, to the point of being quickly labelled as crypto-creationism of a religious fundamentalist stamp, as happened when the founders of Intelligent Design introduced the concepts of irreducible complexity, defended by biochemist Michael Behe in Darwin’s Black Box (1996), and those of specific complexity advocated by mathematician William Albert Dembski in The Design Inference (1998).
This is not the place to debate the validity of their propositions, but it is impossible not to note that there exists in the academic world a certain reluctance to subject Darwin’s theory to the “logic of falsification” introduced by Karl Popper (1902-1994). This Austrian-British philosopher, inspired by the work of mathematician Alfred Tarski (1901-1983), had noted as early as the 1930s the fundamental asymmetry between the verifiability and falsifiability of scientific theories: no matter how consistently experimental observations may support a hypothesis, actually, one single unfavourable piece of evidence is sufficient to refute it.
The dilemma is illustrated by the apparently strange phenomenon of uniquely antarctic penguins.
The Darwinist position implies that statistically, the genotypic mutation of wings into fins would have also occurred in birds living in other areas on the planet, such as, for example, the rainforests of Sumatra, but since in that environment the phenotypic features offered no competitive advantages, the penguin did not establish itself there. The same Darwinist position, however, implies that in the Arctic zones, similar in many ways to those of the Antarctic, species similar to the penguin might have been expected. Instead, there are none. To explain this absence, many Darwinists frequently use a deductive or ‘top-down’ approach, pleading the existence of causes not yet explained experimentally in order to justify an unforeseen observation.
There would be no lack of Darwinists prepared to support the idea that the presence of predators like polar bears, who live exclusively at the North Pole, could possibly be the reason for the absence of penguins in the boreal zones. Although, this line of argument might even prove valid could such an experiment take place, it is nevertheless tainted by a tautological logic: in fact, one cannot base a theory on an observation and then, when such a process results in an unsatisfactory conclusion, invoke the theory to justify the observation.
Read Polavani's complete article here.