Leading Atheist Scholar Abandons Darwinism: Here’s Why

October 17, 2017

by Graham Phillips | Thomas Nagel, one of the world’s most renowned philosophers has caused a stir amongst the intellectual elite by calling current Darwinian evolutionary theory into question. Nagel, an atheist, claims that a Neo-Darwinian understanding of nature is simply inadequate, that it is incapable of giving us satisfactory answers about the nature of humanity. Nagel is by no means arguing for some form of theism in his book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist, Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, rather he posits the possibility of some kind of secular, median position between material naturalism and theism. However, Nagel does make positive reference to some of the foremost proponents of intelligent design science, Michael Behe and Stephen C. Meyer, highlighting the strength of their arguments against Neo-Darwinism.

“It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection” – Thomas Nagel

Nagel raises several objections against the standard evolutionary theory:

Molecular Biology

Current molecular biology has revealed to us the remarkable complexity apparent within a single cell. The creation of the genetic code through an arbitrary mapping of nucleotide sequences into amino acids and the existence of ‘molecular machines’ such as the flagellum that can read and carry out the codes commands. The flagellum, for example is immensely

The bacterial flagellum

complex in its own right, consisting of around 40 protein parts meshed together and operating just like a motor, the flagellum is driven along by its distinctive rotating tail. If just one protein part were missing the flagellum would not be able to function and therefore neither would the cell. This is what is known as irreducible complexity. It is extremely hard to imagine that random, blind processes could have been responsible for the flagellum. Even if we accept that random mutation and natural selection could have created the constituent protein parts that make up the flagellum they would all need to fit together exactly as they are to confer any survival value at all onto the next generation. The Neo-Darwinian model for the evolution of all species is built upon gradual, step-by-step change over the course of millions of years. In the case of the flagellum this model doesn’t seem like it could apply; 5 parts out of 40: no functionality for nature to select, 25 parts out of 40: no functionality for nature to select, 39 parts out of 40: no functionality for nature to select. Even if by chance, random mutation and natural selection had managed to assemble 39/40 parts of the flagellum in correct order, the work of Douglas Axe and Dr. Michael Behe in molecular biology has shown that the chances of getting just one more positive random mutation to complete the molecular machine are extremely remote, something like 1 in 3 billion. Nagel suggests that 4.3 billion years simply would not be enough time to account for the existence of a narrow set of reproducing biological life forms let alone the vast variety of flora and fauna we observe today.

“The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes” – Thomas Nagel


“But if the mental is not itself merely physical, it cannot be fully explained by physical science. And then, as I shall argue, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that those aspects of our physical constitution that bring with them the mental cannot be fully explained by physical science either. If evolutionary biology is a physical theory—as it is generally taken to be—then it cannot account for the appearance of consciousness and of other phenomena that are not physically reducible.” – Thomas Nagel

Nagel argues that if the building blocks of life are purely physical and without mind, then all we are is a complex arrangement of these physical blocks and the mind is simply illusory. Consciousness on a Neo-Darwinian understanding is nothing more than chemicals fizzing away in our brains. Mental states would be determined purely by environmental stimuli and therefore free will and personal autonomy are illusory.

“The fundamental elements and laws of physics and chemistry have been inferred to explain the behavior of the inanimate world. Something more is needed to explain how there can be conscious, thinking creatures whose bodies and brains are composed of those elements.” – Thomas Nagel

On a Neo-Darwinian worldview we are merely biological machines reacting to environmental change. This is an unsatisfactory and over-simplified explanation of human consciousness, Nagel posits. Though not a Descartian dualist, Nagel says that consciousness, intentionality and mental states can not be explained away easily by a reductionist, physical theory.

“Materialist naturalism leads to reductionist ambitions because it seems unacceptable to deny the reality of all those familiar things that are not at first glance physical. But if no plausible reduction is available, and if denying reality to the mental continues to be unacceptable, that suggests that the original premise, materialist naturalism, is false, and not just around the edges.” – Thomas Nagel


Not only are we as humans conscious observers we also have the ability to arrive at conclusions about our environment that appear to map onto actual reality. It is more than mere consciousness that confers this ability, it is our cognition; tools such as reason and critical thinking. Is there good reason to believe that these tools could have arisen through a Neo-Darwinian process? Nagel suggests not.

“The problem has two aspects. The first concerns the likelihood that the process of natural selection should have generated creatures with the capacity to discover by reason the truth about a reality that extends vastly beyond the initial appearances—as we take ourselves to have done and to continue to do collectively in science, logic, and ethics. Is it credible that selection for fitness in the prehistoric past should have fixed capacities that are effective in theoretical pursuits that were unimaginable at the time? The second problem is the difficulty of understanding naturalistically the faculty of reason that is the essence of these activities” – Thomas Nagel

His argument in some ways resembles C. S. Lewis’s argument from reason. Effectively, if nature selects from one generation to another merely what gives some kind of survival benefit, why should we have any trust in our ability to apprehend abstract truths pertaining to the cosmos? How could an unthinking, mindless process account for mindful, rational beings who can map their reasoning upon a perceived objective reality? If reason is unreliable, then our reasoning about the truth of Darwinian evolution is unreliable also.

“It is not possible to think, “Reliance on my reason, including my reliance on this very judgment, is reasonable because it is consistent with its having an evolutionary explanation.” Therefore any evolutionary account of the place of reason presupposes reason’s validity and cannot confirm it without circularity.” – Thomas Nagel


Objective value statements such as ‘good’ or ‘evil’ simply make no sense given Darwinian naturalism. Any appeal to an objective moral code against which actions are to be judged is illusory. Say for example that one was physically assaulted; a consistent Neo-Darwinist couldn’t call this physical abuse bad, or evil but merely ‘unpleasurable’, or ‘not to his liking’, but no objective value statement could be applied since no objective non-physical moral code exists.

“From a Darwinian perspective, the hypothesis of value realism is superfluous—a wheel that spins without being attached to anything. From a Darwinian perspective our impressions of value, if construed realistically, are completely groundless. And if that is true for our most basic responses, it is also true for the entire elaborate structure of value and morality that is built up from them by practical reflection and cultural development—just as scientific realism would be undermined if we abandoned a realistic interpretation of the perceptual experiences on which science is based.” – Thomas Nagel

Moreover, if we are simply highly evolved physical matter then any sense of morality must have originated out of survival instinct or herd behaviour. There is no obligation or duty resting upon the individual to perform a particular ‘good’ if it doesn’t correlate with their own subjective understanding of what would improve their chances of survival. For example, copulating with another’s partner would be seen as a positive action in terms of increasing the chances of their genes surviving into the next generation, any conceptualisation of this action as wrong or evil would be illusory. Nagel argues that our common sense tell us that this understanding is counterintuitive. That some things really are good and others truly are bad independent of what we may think or believe about them.

“I remain convinced that pain is really bad, and not just something we hate, and that pleasure is really good, and not just something we like. That is just how they glaringly seem to me, however hard I try to imagine the contrary” – Thomas Nagel


In conclusion, Nagel calls for a thorough rethink of evolution which expands the disciplines of biology, chemistry and physics beyond the boundaries of considering only that which fits neatly into a naturalistic worldview. Though acknowledging the incredible advances made by naturalistic science over the past 300 years he believes that in order to further our understanding we must now remove our Neo-Darwinian lenses. This reductionist worldview precludes that we view common sense realities such as consciousness, free will, intentionality, cognition and value either as completely illusory or explained entirely by chemicals and matter. A view he concedes that he is unwilling to accept and therefore calls upon the intellectual elite to abandon the naturalistic, Neo-Darwinian theory.

“It would be an advance if the secular theoretical establishment, and the contemporary enlightened culture which it dominates, could wean itself of the materialism and Darwinism of the gaps—to adapt one of its own pejorative tags. I have tried to show that this approach is incapable of providing an adequate account, either constitutive or historical, of our universe.” – Thomas Nagel


Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False – Thomas Nagel
Revolutionary: Michael Behe and the Mystery of Molecular Machines – Discovery Institute

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