How Many Reputable Scientists Actually Doubt Darwinian Evolution?

"It pains me to suggest that my religious brothers are telling falsehoods" when they say evolutionary theory is "in crisis" and claim that there is widespread skepticism about it among scientists.  "Such statements are blatantly untrue,"..."evolution has stood the test of time and considerable scrutiny."  (Quoted from a book by Prof. Richard Colling in the article, "Tough Assignment: Teaching Evolution To Fundamentalists", Wall Street Journal, December 3, 2004)

Clicking on the link following the heading "No Reputable Scientists Doubt Darwinian Evolution? Think Again!" on Mr. Knapp's home page takes the reader to a page with a list of Darwin doubters. (See here.)  Apparently, creationists like Mr. Knapp derive some sense of validation from the fact that there are people with science degrees who share their fundamentalist delusions.  But, as they should know, religious zeal can induce people to believe and do all sorts of irrational things - like flying airplanes into buildings to guarantee them a ticket to paradise or committing suicide to enable them to hitch a ride to a new world on a spaceship that is parked behind a comet.  It is a safe assumption that, when it comes to issues related to origins, the vast majority of those on Mr. Knapp's list are motivated by the desire to defend their cherished religious beliefs at all cost, not by a commitment to practice science objectively. Psychologists have shown that otherwise rational people can mentally compartmentalize certain fervently-held, emotionally-charged beliefs to isolate them from the same kind of logical scrutiny that they normally apply to other cognitions.  This response to cognitive dissonance allows them to shield their beliefs from outside criticism regardless how much contradictory evidence is mounted against them.  The greater the commitment to a belief and the more significance the believer attaches to it, the more likely it is for the believer to shun any evidence that contradicts it. The fact that there are some scientists who ignore and/or misconstrue the facts that support evolution in an attempt to validate their own religious presuppositions is not unexpected.

Cognitive Dissonance - The mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information. The unease or tension that the conflict arouses in a person is relieved by one of several defensive maneuvers: the person rejects, explains away, or avoids the new information, persuades himself that no conflict really exists, reconciles the differences, or resorts to any other defensive means of preserving stability or order in his conception of the world and of himself.

Considering the first list of 135 names (if I counted correctly), somewhat less than half of them have the life or earth science degrees which are essential to an in-depth understanding of the processes of evolution.  Even if it were true that a majority of all scientists do not accept evolution, it does not mean that the theory of evolution is not a valid theory.  The correctness of a scientific theory is determined by the consensus opinion of those scientists who are trained in areas of study that are most relevant to the theory in question - not by the courts, public opinion polls, or opinions of scientists in general.  The critique of evolution by a physicist should not be given any more credence than the critique of quantum mechanics by a paleontologist.  Because the scientific knowledge base is so immense and diverse, it is not possible for an individual scientist to become an expert in all fields of endeavor. Only those scientists whose specialized areas of research apply directly to the theory in question, can be considered to have the proper know how to comment authoritatively on that theory – and then normally only on that part of the theory that is directly related to their particular area of expertise.  The vast majority of all scientists do attest to the correctness of the theory of evolution, but that is not what necessarily makes it correct. 

Nonetheless, even if all of the listed scientists were qualified to speak authoritatively on the intricacies of evolutionary theory, what does a list like this really mean in terms of scientific support for creationism?  The truth is, it only serves to call attention to what meager backing there is for the creationist worldview in the scientific community.  As discussed here, fewer than 5% of all scientists and only 0.15% of all earth and life scientists (the most knowledgeable when it comes to evolutionary theory) in this country consider creationism to be a viable scientific theory.  (See also Project Steve for a tongue-in cheek, but revealing, treatment of the subject.)  One wonders why creationists like Mr. Knapp play this numbers game when the numbers are so heavily stacked against them.  Perhaps they assume most people will be so impressed by a list of 135 Darwin-doubting scientists that they will not bother to consider them in terms of what proportion of all scientists they actually represent.  Unfortunately, the creationists are probably correct in that assumption.

The second list (now said to contain some 400 signatories as of 12/10/05) is made up of individuals rounded up by the Discovery Institute (DI). In releasing this list, the DI gave the impression that the signatories were opposed to evolutionary theory in general. However, the statement to which they attested read as follows:

"We are skeptical of the claim for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged."

Most evolutionists I know would not be averse to signing such a statement. The evidence now shows that evolution involves much more than just the original Darwinian processes of random mutation and natural selection. Other mechanisms are now know to come into play, including such things as: crossing over, random mating, reproductive isolation, genetic drift, founder effect, developmental constraints, neutral evolution (neutralism), gene duplication, macromutations, mass extinctions, sexual selection, mutualistic symbiosis, historical contingency, heterochrony, neoteny, parallelism, convergence, coevolution, homoplasy, emergence, possibly group selection, species selection, species sorting, etc.  It is not clear whether Mr. Knapp's rhetorical question refers to the original theory of evolution which included only the mechanisms of mutation and natural selection (i.e., strict Darwinian evolution), or whether it refers to the modern theory of evolution which encompasses all the other known mechanisms.  In either case, while modern biologists do not think Darwinian mechanisms alone can account for the diversity of life on earth, they do consider them to be an integral part of a more complex evolutionary process.  Modern evolutionists don't doubt that Darwinian mechanisms are important, they just don't consider them to be the only factors involved..

And as far as encouraging careful examination of the evidence is concerned, no scientist in his/her right mind would argue against such a thing. After all, that is what scientists do for a living. They carefully examine all the evidence they can to see how well it supports existing theory.  The DI is attempting here to make a mountain out of a molehill.  Whereas, ID promoters are lucky to get signatures numbering in the few hundreds for their ambiguously worded petitions, those who oppose the teaching of ID as genuine science can easily muster many thousands of signatures from their supporters.  It took the DI four years to collect fewer than 500 signatures in their behalf.  Mainstream scientists were able to amass nearly 8,000 signatures in opposition to ID in just four days, and they continued to accumulate by the thousands after that period.  (See here and here.)  Furthermore, for Mr. Knapp to insinuate that all the signatories of this statement are supportive of  his brand of young-earth creationism is completely unwarranted. One of the scientists who signed this statement later wrote, "I am not a creationist and have no reasons to doubt common descent."  Another signer has since concluded the DI is an "elaborate, clever marketing program" that is an affront to both science and religion.  (See here.)  And another prominent signer, Michael Behe, accepts the reality of common descent (that all organisms are derived from a common ancestor).  For further discussion of this matter, see here, here, and here.

Some creationists argue that science is always disproving old theories and that there is every reason to expect the theory of evolution will also someday be cast into the trash heap of discredited ideas. Indeed, science does discard or seriously modify hypotheses if additional evidence casts serious doubt on their validity. Some of the newer and more speculative hypotheses where the supporting evidence is rather limited are particularly vulnerable in this regard.   However, science does not casually abandon well-established theories like the theory of evolution that do such a superb job of explaining the facts. Evidential support for theory of evolution has been growing for the last 150 years. It is the only scientific theory that can explain the increasing body of data related to the development of life on earth. Science does not haphazardly discard such theories. Instead, if new knowledge is gained that calls some aspect of a well-established theory into question, science reinterprets the theory in light of that knowledge. Newton’s theories of motion and gravitation were not abandoned when Einstein’s theories were accepted by science. Although Einstein demonstrated that Newton’s theories could not properly describe the behavior of matter at extremely high speeds and gravitational field strengths, Newton was not demoted to a dunce. The principles Newton discovered are entirely adequate for describing the behavior of matter under most earthly circumstances – in fact, they were all that were necessary for doing the calculations to send a man to the moon. New findings do not invalidate theories that are strongly backed by over 100 years of accumulated evidence. They may augment them or even limit their sphere of application somewhat, but they do not eliminate their original explanatory power. If creationists are waiting for the theory of evolution to be renounced by science, it will take more than the patience of Job to see them through.

Creationists have been predicting the demise of scientific support for the theory of evolution for over 40 years.  The success of their prediction is even worse than that of a long-range weather forecaster, if that is possible.  (See here.)  In answer to the title question above, a very small proportion of reputable scientists doubts that evolution has occurred and there is no indication that the proportion is increasing. If one considers only scientists with relevant training in the life and earth sciences, the proportion of doubters dwindles to next to nothing.  The fact that creationists eagerly raise this issue and attempt to claim it as an advantage provides a graphic example of how desperate they are to assuage their own cognitive dissonance.

Updated: 12/10/05