The following essay was originally Antony Flew’s “Theology and Falsification” that Flew read before the Socratic Club in 1950 in Oxford. C.S. Lewis was the president of the Socratic Club at that time. I replaced all of the “theological” language with “evolutionary” language. It seems very relevant in modern discussions of evolution. By the way, Flew is now a theist, and what convinced him was the intelligent design argument.
Let us begin with a parable. It is a parable developed from a tale told by Charles Darwin in his haunting and revolutionary treatise The Origin of Species. Once upon a time two biologists came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, “Evolution must be responsible for this plot.” The other disagrees, “There is no such thing as abiogenesis or macro-evolution.” So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No evolution is ever seen. “But perhaps it is an invisible evolution.” So they set up a micro-biology lab. They do the tests. (For they remember how Stephen Jay Gould’s book Punctuated Equilibrium evolution could be both gradual and punctuated.) But no new species ever suggest that some new kinds of plants have arisen. No movements of the sort ever betray an invisible evolution. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. “But there is evolution, invisible, intangible, insensible to technology, an evolution which has no trace and makes no sound, an evolution that comes secretly to bring about the garden which it is indifferent to.” At last the Skeptic despairs, “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive evolution differ from an imaginary evolution or even from no evolution at all?”
In this parable we can see how what starts as an assertion, that something exist or that there is some analogy between certain complexes of phenomena, may be reduced step by step to an altogether different status, to an expression perhaps of a “picture preference.” The Skeptic says there is no evolution. The Believer says there is evolution (but invisible, or needs more time, etc.). One man talks about sexual behavior. Another man prefers to talk of Aphrodite (but knows that there is not really a superhuman person additional to, and somehow responsible for, all sexual phenomena). The process of qualification may be checked at any point before the original assertion is completely withdrawn and something of that first assertion will remain (Tautology). Mr. Gould’s punctuated equilibrium could not, admittedly, be seen. But though the process of qualification may be and of course usually is, checked in time, it is not always judicially so halted. Someone may dissipate his assertion completely without noticing that he has done so. A fine brash hypothesis may thus be killed by inches, the death by a thousand qualifications.
And in this, it seems to me, lies the peculiar danger, the endemic evil, of evolutionary utterance. Take such utterances as “Evolution is responsible for all of life,” “Evolution created the world,” “Evolution taught us to love as a father loves his children.” They look at first sight very much like assertions, vast cosmological assertions. Of course, this is no sure sign that they either are, or are intended to be, assertions. But let us confine ourselves to the cases where those who utter such sentences intended them to express assertions. (Merely remarking parenthetically that those who intend or interpret such utterances as crypto-commands, expressions of wishes, disguised ejaculations, concealed ethics, or as anything else but assertions, are unlikely to succeed in making them either properly orthodox or practically effective).
Now to assert that such and such is the case is necessarily equivalent to denying that such and such is not the case. Suppose then that we are in doubt as to what someone who gives vent to an utterance is asserting, or suppose that, more radically, we are skeptical as to whether he is really asserting anything at all, one way of trying to understand (or perhaps to expose) his utterance is to attempt to find what he would regard as counting against, or as being incompatible with, its truth. For if the utterance is indeed an assertion, it will necessarily be equivalent to a denial of the negation of the assertion. And anything which would count against the assertion, or which would induce the speaker to withdraw it and to admit that it had been mistaken, must be part of (or the whole of) the meaning of the negation of that assertion. And to know the meaning of the negation of an assertion, is as near as makes no matter, to know the meaning of that assertion. And if there is nothing which a putative assertion denies then there is nothing which it asserts either: and so it is not really an assertion. When the Skeptic in the parable asked the Believer, “Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive evolution differ from an imaginary evolution or even from no evolution at all?” he was suggesting that the Believer’s earlier statement had been so eroded by qualification that it was no longer an assertion at all.
Now it often seems to people who are not evolutionists as if there was no conceivable event or series of events the occurrence of which would be admitted by sophisticated evolutionists to be a sufficient reason for conceding “there wasn’t Evolution after all” or “Evolution does not really teach us love then.” Someone tells us that Evolution teaches us to love as a father loves his children. We are reassured. But then we see a father murder his child. His earthly father is driven to kill the child, but Evolution reveals no obvious sign of concern. Some qualification is made — Evolution’s version of love is “not merely human love” or it is “an inscrutable love,” perhaps — and we realize that such sufferings are quite compatible with the truth of the assertion that “Evolution teaches us to loves as a father (but of course…).” We are reassured again. But then perhaps we ask: what is this assurance of Evolution (appropriately qualified) love worth, what is this apparent guarantee really a guarantee against? Just what would have to happen not merely (morally and wrongly) to tempt but also (logically and rightly) to entitle us to say “Evolution does not teach us to love” or even “Evolution does not exist”? I therefore put to the succeeding symposiasts the simple central questions, “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of Evolutionary love, or the existence of, Evolution?”