February 15, 2008


The Last Days of Darwin?: A Brief History of the Revolution (James M. Kushiner, February 2008, Salvo)

As early as 1951, biophysicist Harold Morowitz was trying to find the cell’s “information content.” He eventually concluded that it was impossible for life to have arisen without some large infusion of information. Not a theist, he nonetheless created space for an Intelligent Designer.

At the Darwin centennial, naturalist Ernst Mayr and geneticist Sewall Wright could not agree on the mechanism of Darwinism (genetic change or natural selection), yet everyone swore fealty to “gradualism,” even though no one really knew what the gradual steps were. Gradualism was the crucial feature of Darwin’s theory, as it claimed that minute random steps, accumulated over time, eventually produced a wide variety of species.

Mathematicians using the newly invented computer soon threw a monkey wrench into gradualism. Witham recounts the 1966 debate at the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology in Philadelphia. Both Murray Eden of MIT and Marcel P. Schützenberger (later a member of the French Academy of Sciences) argued that it was “mathematically impossible for Darwin’s tiny variations to add up to a new organism.” Their opponents “could not explain the major gap in their theory: How does the random shuffling of a one-dimensional string of genetic codes create a highly coordinated multidimensional organism?” Eden and Schützenberger declared “this gap to be of such a nature that it cannot be bridged within the current conception of biology.”

Wider gaps appeared: The fossil record was not what Darwin predicted. Paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould created a theory of “punctuated equilibrium” to explain the sudden appearance of species in the fossil record and their relative stability over time. It was another direct assault on Darwinian gradualism. Paleontologists, but not the public, knew what the fossil record really showed.

Paleoanthropologists could not (and still cannot) agree on the supposed lines of human descent based on fossil finds. Louis Leakey’s son Richard “acknowledged his father’s tendency to alter criteria to make his fossils Homo, and said the Homo habilis category was ‘a grab bag mix of fossils; almost anything around two million years that doesn’t fit the robust [ape] definition has been tossed into it.’”

Witham also reviews the discoveries and emerging debates in physics and cosmology, especially as they inched closer to the “God questions” of purpose and design in the universe.

The understanding of science itself was also evolving. In 1958, chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi published Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, an effective assault on the myth of a purely materialistic and objective science. In 1962, Harvard physics instructor and historian Thomas Kuhn started a great debate among scientists by arguing in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions that, “far from being magisterial in its objectivity, science was conditioned by history, society, and the prejudices of scientists.”

...is the mature confidence of the skeptics and the juvenile hysteria of the ideologues. If Richard Dawkins still believed in Darwinism he wouldn't be reduced to raving like a lunatic. But given how the ground has moved out from under him, you can hardly blame him.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 15, 2008 6:42 AM

Even some of Darwin's devotees admit he was innumerate. Perhaps that's why he couldn't comprehend the impossibility of gradual change over only a few billion years producing the diversity of life.

Once science figures out just what does happen, Darwin will just be a special case for evolution, like Newtonian mechanics is a special case for the theory of relativity, although not as powerful.

Posted by: Ed Bush at February 15, 2008 11:52 AM