Pseudo Explanation & The Spirit of Darwin

By | February 5, 2010


I once heard a woman, call her Diane, say that the only time she felt sorry for atheists was when she considered the problem faced by an atheistic parent when trying to answer the questions that curious children ask.  Her example was the question, Why is the sky blue?   The way she put it was that, at least, other parents (i.e., theistic parents) could easily answer the child’s question by saying that God made it that way, i.e. God made sky blue.  But what was the poor atheistic parent to say?   Something along the lines of  “….well, the sky is blue because of the chemical composition of the atmosphere and the effect of the sunlight hitting it … (so on and so forth)”  ?   Probably not many of us could answer the child in an intelligent way, one not relying on religious myth. (But most of us know that the answer is available if we care to look it up, and that we could give the child a good answer.)

Anyhow, Diane’s feeling pity for atheists and her statement as to how people often reply to a curious child got me to thinking about explanations of natural phenomena, the distinction between good and bad explanations and eventually, the Darwinian explanation of life in our world.

Diane may not have realize it, but she gave us a perfect example of a pseudo explanation, one that looks like it does the work of explaining, but in fact does no work at all.  She made the popular assumption, still heard today,  that by invoking God’s creative activity one  can effectively explain how things are in the world. But saying that the sky-is-blue because this is how God created it is simply a religious way of conceding that one does not have any  useful, significant explanation to give. Does the child, on hearing such an “explanation,” have any real understanding of the blue sky?  No, for the very same answer would be given if the sky were orange, or purple or green.  The answer reduces the flat response: this is simply how things are. Diane’s answer also can be seen as refusal to do the hard work of coming up with a rational or factual response.

We can take Diane as representative of the large numbers of people who continue to believe that the only way to explain the origin and presence of life in this world is by invoking God’s creative action. Let’s imagine that the same child who wanted to know about the blue sky grows into the type of young person who curious about things, who poses other tough questions: How did life come about on this planet of ours?  How did earth come to have such an incredible variety of life forms?  Consider the “answer” that  Diane would give to these types of questions:  God created the world and all living creatures.

Well, as children and young people, we might have been satisfied with such an answer, after all, our parents and all respectable adults seemed to know that this was true.  However, if we did not let the adult orthodoxy dampen our natural curiosity about things, and if we persisted in trying to understand things, we might have experienced the uneasy suspicion that people like Diane were not really explaining anything at all. We also might have suspected that they were taking the easy road and avoiding the hard one, the one that requires the work of searching for a scientific explanation.

Charles Darwin, on the contrary, was one person who did not avoid the hard road. Like most of his contemporaries, he could have taken the easy path and accepted the pseudo explanation that life in the forms we know it today was the result of one act of divine creation. But he saw clearly that these were pseudo explanations:

“It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as the “plan of creation,” or “unity of design,” or such, and to think that we give an explanation when we only restate a fact.”

(from Darwin’s work, The Origin of Species)

Charles Darwin

Because of his great contribution to human knowledge, we have a good understanding of how the great variety of animal and plant life evolved on this planet.  His theory of evolution by natural selection also gives us a basis for developing plausible theories of how life may have evolved from non-life, theories which omit any ad hoc reference to the workings of a mysterious deity.

Charles Darwin personifies the scientific spirit. He demonstrates that commitment to the  spirit of science and rational inquiry will not let us rest easy with the primitive, pre-scientific and complacent belief that the various life forms are what they are because God so created them. He gives us the perfect response to Diane, with her misplaced pity for atheists, and to the religious, creationists, complacent in their false assumption that religious myth effectively explains things.


What is this process of ‘natural selection’ which some of us find so admirable?


Darwin’s own statement of the process of natural selection:

If, during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organization, and …if there be, owing to the high geometric powers of increase of each species, at some age, season, or year, a severe struggle for life, … then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite diversity in structure, constitution, and habits, to be advantageous to them, I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being’s own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man. But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterized will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterized. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection. (Origin, p. 127 (facs. ed. of 1st ed.))


My attempt to summarize the process of natural selection:

  1. There’s a struggle for existence – Competition for scarce resources
  2. There’s variety among the organisms competing  -  Some variables give an advantage
  3. Those competitors with advantageous traits survive and reproduce
  4. Those variable traits which proved advantageous are passed to offspring
  5. Offspring compete for scarce resources.
  6. There’s variety among the competitors – some variables give advantage
  7. those competitors with advantageous variables win and reproduce
  8. Their offspring inherit favorable variables.
  9. There’s a continuing struggle for existence

Chance mutations result in variation.

Some of these variations (mutations) will prove advantageous.

Animals possessing these favorable variations will prevail in the struggle and will reproduce

Offspring of these animals will possess the favorable traits.

‘Selection’ results when favorable traits allow animal to prevail in the competition for survival.  Selection, success in the competition, is conditioned by specific animal traits (including favorable variations) and environmental conditions.

Selection means that only some of the random mutations are passed down.

Selection results in incremental changes over long periods of time.

Selection is cumulative in that only the favorable traits are saved and passed down.

Subsequent selection works on a base of accumulated favorable modifications.

Given an ‘X’ that replicates and has variations, natural selection can do its work of evolving better models and even different models.  Eventually, given a sufficient stretch of time, some of those evolved models will possess perceptual faculties, brains, and the capacity to invent culture, with its religions, technologies, sciences and philosophies.

One thought on “Pseudo Explanation & The Spirit of Darwin

  1. Paul Ricci

    Well done, Juan!

    I would agree with your comments though, of course, there is so much more that could be said about biological evolution you must, of necessity, leave much out. Your concentration was on explanation in general and on what I would term, the theory of evolution (at least of the Darwinian sort). Other than natural selection there are a few other ways to explain the evolution of organisms into new and different life forms such as genetic drift and epigenetics. At any rate, you explain quite well what the general theory entails.

    I would only add another thought to Diane's answer to why the sky is blue. I agree that the answer: 'God made it blue' is certainly not a good answer and maybe not an answer at all though theists seem to think it is. As I see the question, it is also faulty because it raises two other questions (at least). WHY God made it blue? and HOW did God make it blue? These questions simply can't be avoided if the child is astute and pushes the questioning. So the simple answer about why the sky is blue blossoms out into a complex set of questions; much more complex than the alleged answer: God made it blue.

    Paul Ricci


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