Ritchie On Causes Of Evolution

Since we’ve been having fun discussing evolution, and because of YOS’s repeated plea to distinguish observation of evolution (he provided this link), i.e. change, between the causes of these changes, I thought we’d look at what a philosopher of science had to say on the subject.

To repeat YOS, everybody agrees on the observation of evolution. But not everybody agrees on the causes of these changes. Despite these cautions, what seem to be anyway, glaring and obvious differences, the equivocation fallacy looms. A man will say, “I do not believe in neo-Darwinian explanations of evolution”, and the second man, falling prey to equivocation, says, “The first man doesn’t believe in dinosaurs! What a rube!” or some such thing.

Then enters the false dichotomy fallacy, just as prevalent, and worse in consequence. A man will say “I do not believe in neo-Darwinian explanations of evolution”, and the second man, in the grip of the false dichotomy, will say, “The first man says God caused all evolutionary changes! He believes in intelligent design. What a rube!” When, of course, the first man was merely proposing that mechanisms other than those proposed by neo-Darwinian might be at work. YOS even lists one of these theories, due to Shaprio (in the link above). Other criticisms of neo-Darwinian theory, from non-theists like philosopher David Stove and David Berlinski, exist in plenitude.

We can only guess the blindness of the false dichotomy is due to the irrational fear that once we set aside (in whole or in part) neo-Darwinian theory we must open the door to God and abandon Science. YOS has pointed out the fallacies a dozen times, but as I say, his lessons don’t stick, so I don’t suppose yet one more exposure will eradicate them, either. And, anyway, as I also said before “Don’t Panic, But Intelligent Design Is Trivially True“, depending on what you mean by that term, of course.

Below, with all markings original, are comments by Arthur David Ritchie, from Studies in the History and Methods of the Sciences, Edinburgh University Press, 1958 (reprinted 1960), pp 131-134. The reader will recall there is no such thing as “chance”. (I did not use blockquotes to avoid italicizing the whole passage. I learned of Ritchie’s book from David Warren.)


[p 131] The fauna and flora of the most ancient fossil-bearing rocks are not the same species as the fauna and flora now living, although there are some very ancient types still surviving comfortably in the sea, an environment which changes little and very slowly. Even in the sea the predominant forms are relatively modern. This is plain matter of fact, a plain empirical generalization as well authenticated as any. But when it comes down to details, as to the history of any special group of forms there are difficulties because the evidence is fragmentary…

[Footnote on the last sentence.] Notice how cautious botanists (who are not themselves plants) are about the course of plant evolution compared with the cocksure zoologists who know it all leads up to their own noble selves.

[p 132] On the general question, once anybody has grasped the immensity of the time scale involved, there is no difficulty. Had it been explained to Aristotle he would have raised no objections…St. Augustine would almost certainly have raise no objection either. The ancient world had no bias in favour of a short time scale with strictly defined limits, such as grew up later. St. Augustine understood the process of Creation as a long-lasting continuous process. St. Thomas Aquinas might have hesitated a bit more because of that later tendency. But I believe the trouble began later and mainly with bibliolatrous, materially-minded Protestants who took to interpreting the Old Testament in legalistic and mechanistic terms, and cared nothing for the Prophets…

Undoubtedly biologists can point to one factor which must have operated to produce organic change; Darwin’s ‘natural selection’. This means that forms which are less suited to any environment in which they find themselves tend to die out in favour of those better suited. It does not however explain how they come to find themselves in that environment nor how the changes in their forms have come about. It is [p 133] customary to say changes come about by chance; legitimately, if to say so amounts to a confession of ignorance…

Granted that organic forms change in course of time, in the long run, though in the short run populations are generally stable; the question then arises: What makes them change? What are the causes of variation? It is an awkward question and it was wise of Darwin to leave it deliberately unanswered (quite in the Newtonian tradition: Hypotheses non fingo.) It is also a paradoxical question. Causes are discovered by observing regularities and in the physical sciences irregularities are dismissed as ‘errors’ or simply ignored. Our evolutionary question about a long term process of variation on the statistical scale affecting whole populations we should make out second one, because such variation is derived from primary or short term variations among individuals composing the population…

[p 134] Lamarckians have claimed from time to time to show direct influences from the environment producing a change in the genetic makeup of a race of organisms in a few generations. So far all such claims made for the higher plants and animals have been bogus…

The Mendelian geneticists oppose the Lamarckian claims and say, in elaborate technical terminology, that variation is due to chance, and evolution is the result of ‘natural selection’ of favourable chance variations. If, when they say ‘chance’, they mean simply that they do not know what causes variations to occur, then their position is secure, in fact impregnable. If they mean by ‘chance’ that they know that there are no causes of certain sorts at work, then their claims are no better than the Lamarckian. They have no evidence that Lamarckian inheritance may not occur over long periods of time. Nor have they any evidence that there is no kind of directive long term process, a Bergsonian élan vital, at work. Surely, on this whole question of how evolution works, in what direction if any, the truly scientific attitude is strictly agnostic. Speculative convictions on one side or the other range from dogmatic metaphysics, at the best, to superstition at the worst, though most of it is about the middle range of ‘science fiction’.


  1. Gary

    But I believe the trouble began later and mainly with bibliolatrous, materially-minded Protestants who took to interpreting the Old Testament in legalistic and mechanistic terms, and cared nothing for the Prophets…

    It started with Seventh Day Adventist, George McCready Price, who started with a belief that the Earth was young and spent the rest of his life gathering what he considered evidence and argument to support it.

  2. Joy

    False dichotomy is the argument which is only not false when a polemicist uses it!

    Protestants and Catholics aren’t oriented differently on this subject. Say it if you like but it is not rue. If Catholics agree it’s only because they’re compelled to do so. How’s that global warming thing going?

    Funnily enough, I don’t take my views on evolution from this site! My mind was made up years ago on this, hasn’t altered since I studied A-Level at school. I do believe I even stated as much.

    Having listened to Dawkins and Lennox on this, my view hasn’t altered. I am pleased to hear a sensible expose of Genesis and how this gives very real clues to human origin in particular. Which has always been the point of contention for Christians in general. The crazy talk from one quarter about special apes, chosen apes with much scientific sophistry to accompany it for appearance sake was not really convincing although I was polite and humoured it.

    I am a Protestant, like John Lennox.

    Only the politically motivated or a sectarian dichotomist describes opinions on evolution through sectarian lines.

    The New Catholic way is absolutely, as they have done with climate change, QM and now evolution, to throw all their hopes in with modern science and it’s conclusions. They would be wise to learn from history and not take a. Stand at all. It’s none of the Catholic church’s or any other church’s business to take a stance. They have their remit. It is well defined. Individuals can ask whatever questions they like and conclude as they wish. Science by any standard does change in terms of prevailing views and opinions.

    Any church wanting to be taken seriously should deal with the Truth as it has been written. What is revealed which is not revealed to everybody is another matter and the church needs to take better care not to get caught defending the indefensible.

  3. Sheri

    A man will say “I do not believe in neo-Darwinian explanations of evolution”, and the second man, in the grip of the false dichotomy, will say, “The first man says God caused all evolutionary changes! He believes in intelligent design. What a rube!”

    I get that one all the time, or the biologist just mutters they are not getting “drawn into this” and slink off. Evolution, like global warming, is so much a matter of faith and fear of actually questioning the science that anyone who dares question is demonized as much as any religion ever demonized a non-believer or one who even just asked questions. Neither evolution nor global warming are science any more in any way. (Note: I do not believe “intelligent design” is science, nor much of theory. It relies on chance of an intelligent being existing and has no predictive qualities either. BOTH are horribly flawed.)

    No matter how one cleverly words it, evolution says every things happened by chance and chance is not a scientific explanation for anything other than “we hope they don’t notice how weak our position is—let’s rename it ‘natural selection'”. Evolution cannot predict future species which immediately calls into question it being true science. It may predict what layers fossils will be found in (or at least alert the scientist to the need to note “the rocks moved” and that’s why the fossil is not “where it belongs”—do they even listen to themselves?) but it cannot tell us which species will be next to go extinct OR to come into being. It is not even a “useful” theory except to “prove there is no God”. Yet so-called science clings to it like a shipwrecked sailor clings to a life raft, insisting he can make the 200 miles back to shore with his tiny, useless craft. It’s a blindness that is remarkable in what was once a rational discipline. (Maybe science should have not tried to kill religion and prove itself “superior”—it erroneously shot itself in the process.)

  4. Joy, I wonder where you get your notion of “The New Catholic Way”. I’m Catholic (as of 22 years ago), and a scientist and I know nothing of what you imply the Church has done with QM and evolution. Pope Piux XII and Pope St. John Paul II have had quite a bit to say about evolution, but it certainly isn’t dogma or even doctrine. Their point, as I’ve said in many articles, is that while the descent of physical man may be biologically traced, it is God who imbues man with a soul. And I’m not sure whether there are any Encyclicals having to do with quantum mechanics, even though I myself have written stuff about the intersection of QM and Catholic Teaching. With respect to “climate change”, our present Holy Father, God preserve him from further error, has had a lot to say, but his pronouncements, even in the form of Encyclicals, do not have to do with faith and morals, are not ex cathedra and therefore not binding on faithful Catholics.

  5. Victor Porlier

    Do you find the “Macro-evolution” – “Micro-evolution” distinction trivial or significant?

  6. Joy

    Bob K, it is truly and without irony, refreshing to hear when you aim for sensibility. New Catholics? The pejorative idea is an observation from reading this blog, The Catholic activist. As opposed to a Christian evangelist. Or a Christian, in fact. Not in the world of WMBriggs where he takes delight in referring to Protestants as heathens, living like pigs, not caring about sin, heretics, and any other term which always goes unchecked but is no doubt barked for in the back room.

    The pope may be excused catechismicly! Or more seriously within the church law.
    The pope is allowed to make mistakes as he is not perfect and is not without sin. He is actually a human being.

    No excuses for the pope though in the real world. He carries, and he knows, authority well outside of his own flock. He carries influence with the strongest atheists, hindu, Jew, new age pagan, celebrity, who pushes global warming.

    From the least informed or trivially interested. Just as any figure head or head of state carries weight. The difference for the Pope is that he is supposed to deal with the Truth above all else and as a man of God he is relied upon to have been diligent in his enquiry.

    In short, he has a duty of care to all men, not just those within the church and not dependant upon denomination.

    I understand and not sarcastically that your reply explains your conscientious objection is in no way contradictory. I did not even mean to imply that as a Catholic you or any Catholic could be considered dishonest for taking an opposing position. This would be a bizarre thing to think. However there is the point that this starts to shed light upon the mechanistic nature of how the church functions and yet again shows signs of flaw. This I do believe goes against the ideal or notion of the perfection of the church. (As I read only yesterday on an associated post wherein a Catholic waxes lyrical of the perfection of the church.).
    It is this idealism of the faith which is not even central to the fiath which leads the church into error. It does not mean that the church is dead as some hysterical types have suggested nor that the church must fundamentally change but there are changes which would benefit the church but never if it considered perfect. Idealism leads to error.
    I don’t care to argue about this unless it suits you. I just answer your question regarding my observation and it is given in good faith.

  7. Joy


    Here is some more “ sidelining. “
    He ought to have a moustache

    The entire debate was much more interesting but I can’t find it.
    Whether the mechanism of natural selection explains all that is seen in creatures or just most is not particularly interesting to me as a Christian. If I were an atheist this would matter. Why it matters to a fully signed up Catholic is a mystery. Some other divisive reason?

  8. Jim Fedako

    Evolution takes faith … lots of it. Especially when anything other that a cursory review of the “evidence” proves the theory false.

  9. Ken

    The blog re evolution evokes a similar precedent with Earth’s Plate Tectonics, where “continental drift” was first proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1951-ish. Wegener provided no good explanation for why the ‘drift’ occurred, other than some curious observations (patterns & such that later proved relevant), and eventually the “continental drift” theory was proven false. But the basic idea remains valid. And there is zilch reason to involve philosophy and related thinking to figure that out.

    Evolution is like that, with many observations pointing to it, a number of mechanisms observed or suspected of interplaying to varying degrees, situations, etc. … and the same sort of rebuttals (e.g. this or that mechanism can’t explain a particular observation, ignoring another might and so on; along with comparable rationalizations that, in hindsight, appear naively stupid). Invoking philosophical arguments is possible only by ignoring some relevant processes and/or by filling gaps of ignorance (usually, one observes, that gap-filling is by others ignorant of [or having distorted views of] even meager available objective evidence).

    Pinning down evolution in complex species will be very difficult given the pace and lack of evidence (fossils are very rare, no matter how common they might seem; and, intermediate species ARE commonly found — though those of the ID orientation like to ignore this, consistently).

    We do observe some types of evolution in primitive organisms, plants & bacteria [and viruses if one considers them a life form] are routinely observed (and, again, there are many mechanisms at play, so debating one or another in some situation really doesn’t address the overall theory, as much as some like to pretend):

    The Harvard study of bacteria demonstrates how successive accumulation of genetic mutations lead to antibiotic resistance or immunity: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2016/09/a-cinematic-approach-to-drug-resistance/ That’s micro- (within species) rather than macro-evolution (between or new species).

    One can look up rebuttals to the above re bacterial genetic mutations (or perhaps read on, below), with those generally framed along buzzwords like “natural selection” and so on, but consistently missing the relevant details by resorting to the tried and true tactic of emotional appeals framed as related [but not directly relevant] discussion on the broad concept [not the specific mechanisms].

    The same technique used by anti-evolutionists (from a theological belief foundation) are exactly the same as used by astrologers that will will discuss, sometimes at length, all manner of related astronomical phenomena…but also without getting to the specific mechanisms that are imagined to connect astronomical facts with astrological pseudo-science/myth.

    Eric Hoffer noted this behavioral quirk a long time ago relative to religion:

    ““It is obvious, therefore, that in order to be effective a doctrine must not be understood, but has rather to be believed in. We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand. […] The devout are always urged to seek the absolute truth with their hearts and not their minds. […] If a doctrine is not unintelligible, it has to be vague; and if neither unintelligible nor vague, it has to be unverifiable.”

    Philosophical blather, where objective experiment & observation & testing apply, serves well to create the illusion of a search for truth with one’s mind when in fact it’s the heart [emotion] running things the whole way.

  10. trigger warning

    As a retired acoustician, I find the standard Just-So story regarding the evolution of that exquisite little acoustic transformer, the tiny bones of the middle ear, to be a delightful fantasy.

  11. I believe there’s a quite a bit of semantic baggage (personally, I’m anti-semantic) associate with the term “evolution”. What the phylogenetic tree shows is common descent, from some single organism in the distant past. So instead of “evolution”, let’s use common descent. There’s a connotation with “evolution” that changes are gradual, and that’s not necessarily evident. Gould’s “Punctuated Equilibrium” (or something similar) might be a better explanation. But the definitive evidence isn’t in.

    And why are Christians interested in evolution? For the same reasons they are interested in cosmology (Abbe LeMaitre), genetics (Br. Mendel), and anthropology (Fr. DeChardin)–God gave us a marvelous gift of curiosity to help us understand His Creation.

  12. Sander van der Wal

    Even if there are other causes than Natural Selection, you would still need a demonstration that those causes are actually operating next to Natural Selection, and are of such magnitude that they can compete with Natural Selection in how fast those causes change a species, of make two species from one.

    That said, who cares whether Natural Selection is the only cause? With genes as the way to define species, all reasonable hypotheses of making new species will operate at the gene level.

  13. One thing, to me, is that there is a lot more in-built variability in populations of organisms than is generally known. Then there it the thing that all successful living things alter their environment to enhance their own survival plus it isn’t so much survival of the fittest (what’s that, exactly?) but survival of the good enough to be fruitful and multiply. Oh, yes, epigenetics is a thing that exists, too. Environmental influences can be recorded in the DNA by methylation patterns, among other mechanisms. Plus, viruses perform ‘natural’ genetic engineering.

    Finally, I’ll ask again. Can a thing come from no thing? I can rephrase it thus: Can existence come from no existence? /rhetorical

  14. Joy

    Of course Christians generally can be interested in anything.
    Why it matters so much was my point, to draw a line and pretend the there is a political divide amongst Christians over this one issue is the question. It is an artificial line.

    Ken, it sounds like you are claiming a God of the gaps. i.e. if people don’t know mechanism they claim God did it and have to ‘believe with their heart’. There are, if you are a Christian, those things which people call singularities? Which must have occurred when Christ was on earth.
    If people believe this then there is no in principle reason that there cannot be others.

    Evolution isn’t a problem in the sense which you imagine. Maybe some reject it altogether. Perhaps there are atheists who ask questions too.
    No point making everybody take up one position or the other just because these are the usual objections.

    My own interest is with structures and elements which simply don’t make sense as having developed by one mechanism. There is, it seems, more than one way in which such things have come about. Natural selection explains some of it. Some of the mechanical elements resemble some afterthought. Which I don’t mean to imply that ‘God tinkered’ but rather that the process is not one thing. There is something else. This does not have to be an act of ‘creation’.

    Why is there a special sling which, via it’s tiny tenuous attachment to each layer from the synovial membrane ultimately to Popliteus outside of the capsule, by which attachment pulls the medial ligament clear of the rolling overhead femoral Condyle during the ordinary functioning of the knee joint? (In extension). Not why is the cute mechanism necessary as that is self evident but why the sling? It gives a clue as to internals or stages. There are marvels which can’t be always explained with current ideas. Not ones I’ve heard yet but maybe they exist. It’s like Knee joint version 2. As opposed to a linear shaping or changing, morphing of form.

    So it is rather that there is not a mechanism described. Saying ‘a change can happen suddenly’ is not really saying anything that hasn’t always been said.

  15. Joy

    King Lear asked the same question.

  16. Donald J Grant

    Why are Catholics so afraid to point out all of the problems with evolutionary theory
    as it is presented in public schools

  17. Joy

    Here is the whole debate. John Lennox, a Protestant and all round heretic. Arguing alongside another very sweet heretic, with two atheists with a sense of humour; Information machines and Biology, morals, life, semiotics and one who thinks it will soon be proved how life comes from soup. No knees.


  18. swordfishtrombone

    “Since we’ve been having fun discussing evolution, and because of YOS’s repeated plea to distinguish observation of evolution, i.e. change, between the causes of these changes, I thought we’d look at what a philosopher of science had to say on the subject.”

    Arggggh! Why not look into the science first and see if there really are problems, rather than reading criticisms of it mounted by philosophers, theologians, and non-mainstream scientific opinion?


    “To repeat YOS, everybody agrees on the observation of evolution.”

    No, they don’t. Have you visited the Ark Encounter? Kids kept dinosaurs as pets, apparently.


    “The first man says God caused all evolutionary changes! He believes in intelligent design. What a rube!””

    That is not my argument. I’m not saying that “the first man” is wrong *because* he’s using the same arguments as creationists, but that he’s wrong *and* using the same arguments as creationists. Realistically, you can’t use a worn-out creationist talking point like ‘where are the missing links’, then complain if you’re compared to creationists.



    “They have no evidence that Lamarckian inheritance may not occur over long periods of time. Nor have they any evidence that there is no kind of directive long term process, a Bergsonian élan vital, at work.”

    I would have thought we do have such evidence and it’s rather obvious: Evolution can’t be directed because it doesn’t have a direction(!) It goes “backwards” half the time, with cave-dwelling insects losing their sight, birds (like Emus) losing the ability to fly and aquatic mammals (like Whales) losing their legs.

    If you want to claim that such “backward” changes are examples of direction as well, then you’re saying that the direction is towards adapting to the environment, in which case you might as well just dispense with the ‘life force’ idea and admit you’ve just described natural selection.

  19. Kip Kotzan

    Great essay. Darwinian selection relies on inheritance, variation and selection (differential reproductive success.) Two of those, inheritance and selection, are fairly transparent with a reasonable chain of causation to link the necessary components of the system.

    But the “variation” component of the theory invokes “randomness” ….which means… in effect…we don’t know?? I think your critique of this is righteous.

    As a teacher, I tell my students that regarding the “randomness” of the mutational events which lead to the phenotypic variation on which selection operates:
    It may be that a Darwinian explanation of evolution is adequate to explain the world IF the causes of variation are indeed “random” ( with regard to outcomes)… BUT that does not mean that we can be sure that the causes of variation are in fact “random” with regard to outcome.

    Something like…. just because, perhaps, evolution COULD occur if mutational events were “random” DOES NOT mean that we therefore know that mutational events ARE in reality “random.” A force we do not yet understand could be steering those mutational events. I think the same logic applies to some extent with the rest of the theory.

  20. Oldavid

    To assume that “Evolution” is true requires the assumption that all relevant, easily demonstrable, Natural Laws are not true. It may be easy for someone reared on a diet of Relativism to accept but for someone who has been reared with the notion that reality is real the fantastic prognosis that reality is “becoming” what it was not is, at least, detached from millennia of observation and practice.

  21. Yawrate

    Evolution and Natural Selection seem rife with “there are things we know that we don’t know and things we don’t know that we don’t know.”

    I often thought myself alone in questioning evolution so it’s good to know there exists a healthy skepticism.

  22. Oldavid

    Once again the “Catholic” apologists for “Evolution” imply and require that the First Cause is dithering with “experiments” to “get it right” eventually.

    Look, you clowns, either God knows exactly what He’s doing/done/will do or He’s a dunce waiting for the great universal consciousness to determine what He is and why He’s doing what He does. You are demanding that the very foundations of reason are indeterminate.

  23. Oldavid

    I didn’t mean to imply a criticism of Yawrate. I already had begun an addendum to my previous when I was called away to some domestic bother; then I hurriedly posted the above without checking for other replies.

    Fact remains, though, that “Evolution” is logically, physically, chemically, biologically, mathematically (statistically) impossible and the worldly sycophants that try to insinuate it into philosophy (science) and eschatology are Scribes, Pharisees and Lawyers of the New World Order.

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