What Is Darwin's Disclaimer
(and what did he mean by "opposite conclusions")?
Carl: So what is it, Lucy? I've never heard it mentioned in any of my biology classes let alone seen it on PBS or National Geographic.
Lucy: It's rather simple, Carl. After Darwin had finished writing Origin of Species he clearly retained doubts about his theory and wrote a disclaimer in the Introduction to his magnum opus.
Carl: Seriously?. You're telling me that Darwin was skeptical of his skepticism?
Lucy: Yes, and he was quite honest about it. Read it yourself, Carl. In fact, have a bookmark to remind yourself that even Darwin knew it was possible to come to directly opposite conclusions. (Click on the image for a full sheet of bookmarks that you can print and give away to your teachers and friends.)
Carl: So what opposite conclusions could he have had in mind?
Lucy: The two most obvious conclusions relate to (1) the fossil record and the fact that the disparity of the major body plans appears before the diversity of species and (2) the ability of natural selection to prevent major evolutionary change from occurring on a gradual step-by-step basis.
Keep in mind that Darwin knew that "Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory." Flat-Earthers might get away with extrapolating micro to macro but good scientists never should. Unfortunately, even good scientists like Darwin make these kinds of mistakes hoping beyond hope in the motto, "Theory: Good - Data: Bad".
Like I said, the pervasive patterns of natural history were directly opposite to those predicted by his theory. While his theory predicted that species would gradually transform into new species producing new genera, families and orders and then gradually increase their morphological disparity to produce new classes and phyla, quite the opposite is true. Rather than Darwin's bottom-to-top pattern, the history of life shows a top-to-bottom appearance with the disparity of phyla preceding the diversity of species. In fact, the pervasive patterns of natural history parallel the same patterns found in the history of technology. Major innovations appear suddenly followed by variations on these pre-existing themes.
Read over some of the quotes I've collected for you on the fossil record and the origin of phyla and you'll see just how serious the problem is for his theory. The situation was bad in Darwin's day and has only become worse. By 1980, Stephen Jay Gould even described neo-Darwinian theory as "effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy." To get a better picture, take a look at the diagrams in the article "Conflicts Between Darwin and Geological Succession".
Regarding his mechanism of evolution, I'm sure he was well aware that nature can't select anything that doesn't already exist and that his theory only dealt with the "survival of the fittest" rather than the "arrival of the fittest".
Besides that, it must have occurred to him that natural selection can actually prevent major evolutionary change from occurring by eliminating useless transitional stages that might otherwise lead to new body plans.
Naturally, Darwin was not without his critics. In his book, Darwinism: The Refutation of a Myth, Soren Lovtrup points out that "some critics turned against Darwin's teachings for religious reasons, but they were a minority; most of his opponents ... argued on a completely scientific basis." He went on to explain:
When it came to explaining the "arrival of the fittest", neo-Darwinists would add random mutations to the theory that would act as a god-of-the gaps for Materialists, Naturalists and Physicalists. If you think about it rationally, however, random changes to a fully functional pre-existing design is a formula for disaster. Fortunately, the one thing that natural selection can do well is to eliminate deleterious mutations as well as useless incipient and transitional stages that might otherwise lead to new body plans and the disparity of the higher taxa. In short, natural selection does a much better job producing the macro-stasis that paleontolgists have long observed in the fossil record. See what other scientists are saying about random mutations and natural selection and you'll get a better idea of how nature actually functions.
Carl: If you take away the neo-Darwinian mechanism to account for the diversity and disparity of life what are you left with?
Lucy: You are left with all of natural history including the Cambrian Explosion and a mechanism to explain macro-stasis: why new body plans are preserved through vast periods of time and do not arise on a gradual step-by-step basis. But you are also left with microevolution and an explanation for how species can extend their periods of stasis on earth as a result of pre-existing genetic variation. Keep in mind that the origin of species itself is a pretty trivial matter. Technically, all you need is a single species that subdivides into two separate populations which then lose the ability to interbreed. Whether this is a process of evolution or devolution is open to debate.
Always keep in mind that the neo-Darwinian mechanism boils down to continually evoking Physicalism's god-of-the-gaps, "pure chance" in order to account for everything: pure chance from purely unpredictable and unrepeatable random mutations to the origin of a randomly generated nature that does the selecting. In fact, the entire construct boils down to proclaiming, "It just happened". But clearly, "It Just Happened" isn't a scientific explanation for anything. Atheists may think that they have lost a powerful origins myth in having to abandon belief in Darwin's theory, but their faith in Materialism, Naturalism and/or Physicalism (MN&P) was DOA anyway at the origin of our finely-tuned universe in the finite past.
Carl: So if MN&P were dead on arrival, what's the importance of Darwin's Disclaimer?
Lucy: It's two-fold, Carl. First of all, all students, as well as their instructors, ought to be aware that it is completely rational and reasonable to come to "directly opposite conclusions" to those found in the Origin of Species. This is not to undermine natural history or geological succession in any way, but rather to keep Darwin's theory and all of its false predictions from undermining the true history of life on Earth. While instructors should not be forced or mandated to teach the disclaimer, students should always be free to raise the question in class with gentleness and respect. Besides, imagine how much more exciting it would be to students to be exposed to problems in science and even the idea that we may have been asking the wrong questions and building on a foundation of false philosophies for far too long. Teaching students to regurgitate old theories and then telling them that the educational and scientific establishments don't want them to evolve any new theories isn't exactly progressive thinking. In fact, it's teaching students not to think. Think about it.
Carl: Hmm. If we have to dump Darwin to save evolution, I might eventually go there with you. But a Theory of Conservation or Macro-Stasis and the Natural Limits to Biological Change as a new research program? Convince me.
Lucy: OK. Darwin's theory was supposed to explain the pervasive patterns of natural history, so let's begin with Stephen Jay Gould's description of the fossil record in Natural History.
"The history of most fossil species include two features particularly inconsistent with gradualism:
1) Stasis - most species exhibit no directional change during their tenure on earth. They appear in the fossil record looking much the same as when they disappear; morphological change is usually limited and directionless;
2) Sudden appearance - in any local area, a species does not arise gradually by the steady transformation of its ancestors; it appears all at once and 'fully formed'."
Carl: I can see that stasis might be completely natural if not easily predictable and repeatable. But I can also see that a lot of scientists might think that "sudden appearance" isn't purely natural.
Lucy: You are a step ahead of me, Carl. Stasis and the preservation of basic biological designs is completely natural. That's what a Theory of Conservation would describe. In fact, stasis, stability and conservation appears all the way up the taxonomic ladder although it may be most pronounced at the higher taxonomic levels where natural discontinuities are the most profound.
Carl: Is that why you coined the term macro-stasis? I don't think I've ever heard that one before.
Lucy: Whether the term is original or not, it is certainly prevalent throughout natural history. Stasis is obviously natural and is something that scientists can research and explore in much greater detail. Even Stephen Jay Gould admits this:
"...we must understand that nothing happens most of the time -- and we don't because our stories don't admit this theme -- if we hope to grasp the dynamics of evolutionary change. (This sentence may sound contradictory, but it isn't. To know the reasons for infrequent change, one must understand the ordinary rules of stability.) The Burgess Shale teaches us that, for the history of basic anatomical designs, almost everything happened in the geological moment just before, and almost nothing in more than 500 million years since."
Notice that Gould describes stasis as "the ordinary rules of stability". If science isn't about decribing the ordinary rules of nature, I'm not sure what it is.
Hopefully, there is a brave scientist out there who can withstand a lot of peer pressure and pursue this line of thinking. Darwin didn't have the time, space or inclination to pursue this "opposite conclusion" in his Origin of Species, but remember that science cannot progress unless it evolves.
Carl: Cancel Darwin to save evolution? I'll have to seriously think about that. But you'll still have to explain to me why so many scientists still believe that everything had a purely natural cause.
Lucy: That's a complicated one, Carl. Pride and Prejudice? Philosophical Physicalism? Peer Presuure and a Periodic Paycheck? or is it the limitations imposed by Methodological Naturalism where, when it comes to origins, no data need apply?
Next time, the coffee is on me.
Note from the author:
Rather than mandating instructors to teach something they might not believe themselves or even want to teach, my personal advice is to encourage students to ask their teachers with all "gentleness and respect" if they have ever heard of Darwin's Disclaimer and what Darwin himself could possibly have had in mind when he admitted that "directly opposite conclusions" were indeed possible if given a fair and impartial balancing of facts.
Not only should the student be rewarded for his or her intelligent and thoughtful class participation, the student should be instantly hailed as a courageous hero by admiring classmates.
For further information, I recommend the following articles on Education and Academic Freedom from the Discovery Institute on the matter: