Dogging Darwin

Tom Bethell Had a Journalist’s Nose for an Untold Story

Tom Bethell, journalist, died last Friday, February 19, 2021. Born and raised in London, he lived in the U.S., teaching and writing, since the 1960s. He was 84. During his career, he served as the Washington editor for Harper’s, contributing editor to Washington Monthly, and a senior editor at The American Spectator.

He drew some fire way back in 1976, when he was 39, before many Salvo readers were born, with a feature article in Harper’s that raised eyebrows and ire, simply called “Darwin’s Mistake.”

Darwin’s big and fatal mistake is only hinted at in the line preceding the 5-page article: “All change is not progress.” But to kick Darwin back then was a big no-no. Darwin’s theory of evolution had become canonized as True, and celebrated as Fact in the 1959 centennial of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species at the University of Chicago with great fanfare, including speeches by Darwin’s grandson, Sir Charles Galton Darwin, and Sir Julian Huxley, grandson of Darwin’s “bulldog” Thomas H. Huxley, who coined the word agnostic. An evolutionary film, The Ladder of Life, was shown, and even a grand musical was presented, Time Will Tell.

So Bethell was surprised, he wrote, when he chanced upon “a copy of Darwin Retried, a slim volume by Norman Macbeth,” a Harvard-trained lawyer, with an endorsement on the cover by the eminent philosopher Karl Popper: “I regard the book as . . .  a really important contribution to the debate.” Naturally, with a journalist’s instinct, Bethell wondered, “Debate? What debate?” He read the articles listed in Macbeth's bibliography that were a part of the debate before writing his Harper's article.

“It is surprising that so little word of it has leaked out, because it seems to have been one of the most important academic debates of the 1960s, and as I see it the conclusion is pretty staggering: Darwin’s theory, I believe, is on the verge of collapse.”

Darwin’s mistake was in proposing “natural selection” operating through the “survival of the fittest” as the engine driving evolution of the species. But what philosophers pointed out was that there were no independent criteria for showing what is fittest for survival other than watching to see which organisms survive. It was a tautology, a circular reasoning, with fitness for survival defined by survival. Geneticist T. H. Morgan, Nobel Prize winner, wrote: “For, it may appear little more than a truism to state that the individuals that are the best adapted to survive have a better chance of surviving than those not so well adapted to survival.” And those who survive leave behind offspring and become more numerous.

Bethell goes on to write about a feature of Victorian society that had an unrecognized influence on Darwin. “Darwin seems to have made the mistake of just assuming that there were independent criteria of fitness because he lived in a society in which change was nearly always perceived as being for the good.”

Evolution started out “as a way of explaining how one type of animal gradually changed into another, but then it was redefined to be an explanation [natural selection via survival of the fittest] of how a given type of animal became more numerous. But wasn’t natural selection supposed to have a creative role?”

Scientists, who had defended evolution as blind, automatic, mechanical, impersonal, responded to the criticisms of the blind process by comparing it “to a poet, a composer, a sculptor, Shakespeare—to the very notion of creativity that the idea of natural selection had originally replaced. It is clear, I think, that there was something very, very wrong with such an idea.”

Bethell closes by citing the observation in The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change by Richard Lewontin (1974) that “in some of the latest evolutionary theories, ‘natural selection plays no role at all.’”

Forty-five years later, you can still read textbooks citing natural selection while Darwin still lies “resting comfortably in Westminster Abbey next to Sir Isaac Newton.” Perhaps once a man is canonized, even in secular circles, he cannot be un-canonized without admission of serious failure.

But Bethell stayed on the case, publishing 41 years later Darwin’s House of Cards: A Journalist’s Odyssey through the Darwin Debates with Discovery Institute Press (2017) at age 80. He saw that Progress has fallen on hard times; faith in its inevitability is waning. Darwinism is the “‘wedding’ of materialism and Progress.” Materialism has its own problems and continues to be widely challenged. Yet, “it takes only one partner to break up a marriage, and as we know, Progress has wandered off the straight and narrow. As a result, the break-up of Darwinism seems likely in the years ahead.” Perhaps. But if not, it will because of an entrenched self-defeating desire for atheism, and modern atheism was heavily indebted to Darwinism. The atheist desire for total control of everything by material forces is also a longing for a world in which we can tell ourselves that there is no evidence for creation and that we alone, therefore, are the only gods on offer.


Tom Bethell believed in God, his Creator, and died in the faith of the Catholic church, ready to meet both his Maker and ours.

is the executive editor of Salvo and Touchstone magazines.

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