05/20/2013 06:04 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2013

Evolution's Refusal to Die

The most interesting strategy employed by anti-evolutionists over the last century and a half has been to report that "Darwinism is Dead" or "Evolution has Collapsed." The exercise is all but meaningless in terms of scientific discussion but it's a marvelous culture war strategy, requiring almost no effort to get a few people claiming, in all seriousness, "They say evolution is dying. Most scientists don't believe it any more." And as long as the claim is made to laypeople who have no idea what the actual scientific community thinks, the strategy is sure to have some influence.

The anti-evolutionary Discovery Institute has just published a report titled "How a Scientific Field Can Collapse: The Case of Psychiatry." Taking aim at everything from its "eccentric pioneers" (Freud and Jung) to its "peer reviewed" -- but often changing -- guidebook, the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," the article reports on recent and credible concerns about psychiatry published by scientists in respectable publications like New Scientist.

The real quarry of the article, however, is not psychiatry, but evolution. The article lists many of the problems of psychiatry -- long history of failure, ignoring critics, reliance on a book, etc., etc. -- and then claims that similar maladies afflict evolution -- failing to explain the Cambrian Explosion, exalting Darwin and the Origin of Species, refusing to hear or publish scientific critiques of Darwinism, etc., etc. Psychiatry is collapsing, and evolution is just like psychiatry, so it should be collapsing also.

But we have heard all of this before. In 1968 Henry Morris, who did more to galvanize anti-evolution than anyone, published "The Twilight of Evolution," inaugurating a non-stop chorus of claims that Darwin's theory was all but dead. At around the same time the Harvard educated lawyer Norman Macbeth published "Darwin Retried," claiming evolution had collapsed. Writing in the American Biology Teacher in 1976, Macbeth announced that evolution had "utterly failed." Another lawyer, Philip Johnson, made identical claims in "Darwin on Trial," published in 1991, described on its website as a "standard in American protest literature." "Darwin on Trial" launched the Intelligent Design movement.

The list of books claiming that evolution has come down with a serious illness is long. On my bookcase alone, we have "Evolution: A Theory in Crisis," "The Collapse of Evolution," and my favorite, "Evolution Shot Full of Holes."

Immediately after the Origin of Species was published in 1859, Darwin's rival Richard Owen said the book and its speculative theory would be forgotten in 10 years. Eberhard Dennet published "At the Deathbed of Darwinism" in 1904. George MacCready Price, who influenced William Jennings Bryan, claimed in 1924 that Darwinism was now a "doctrine ... merely of historical interest." And then, of course, we have the "Lady Hope" myth that Darwin himself announced his theory to be dead, as he lay on his own deathbed.

In the century and a half since Darwin's theory of evolution was first pronounced dead, it has grown steadily stronger. It is not in "crisis." It is not "collapsing." It is not "shot full of holes." Darwin's theory has grown steadily stronger to the point where virtually all evolutionary biologists -- not a one of whom wrote any of the books listed above -- would be mystified by the claim that evolution was dying, or even feeling poorly. Evolution is no more ill than heliocentricity, atomic theory or quantum mechanics is ill.

Ironically, the reason for the robust health of evolution can be found in the very article attacking evolution I quoted above from the Discovery Institute: Science -- and this includes evolution -- is a self-correcting enterprise. I know little of psychiatry, but I am not shocked to discover that critical voices have emerged and are being heard. This is the norm for science. Seemingly secure science is often modified -- think Newtonian physics -- and entire fields even disappear, like phrenology (studying personality via bumps on the skull). Anyone who understands the scientific community knows it to be full of renegade individualists only too eager to overturn the status quo. This aggressive self-examination is the reason why we now understand the world so well -- why we know the behavior of nature in such excruciating detail that we can build a phone capable of extracting a tiny bit of information from a database on the other side of the planet.

The historical lesson is clear, even if the anti-evolutionists can't see it: Science is open to correction. In the event that evolution does become a "theory in crisis," we will read about that in Scientific American, Nature and Science, not the blogs of the anti-Darwinian culture warriors.