May 8, 2009


Why Darwin? (Richard C. Lewontin, 5/28/09, NY Review of Books)

Why do we call the modern theory of organic evolution "Darwinism"? Charles Darwin certainly did not invent the idea of evolution, that is, of the continuous change in time of the state of some system as a fundamental property of that system, or even the idea that a process of evolution had occurred in the history of life. The study of the evolution of the cosmos itself was founded in Kant's Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science in 1786 and Laplace's nebular hypothesis of 1796. Sadi Carnot's second law of thermodynamics, the principle that over time all differences in energy between bits and pieces of the universe decrease, was published in 1824. The idea that the various geological formations observed on earth were not the result of a unique catastrophe or Great Flood, but the consequence of repeated and continual geological processes still going on at present, was postulated before the turn of the nineteenth century by James Hutton and long since accepted by 1859.

By the time of the appearance of the Origin, the physical sciences had become thoroughly evolutionary. Living beings were not seen as an exception. In 1769, Diderot had his dreaming philosopher d'Alembert wonder what races of animals had preceded us and what sorts would follow. He provided the motto of evolutionism as a worldview: "Everything changes, everything passes. Only the totality remains." Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus, in his epic The Temple of Nature of 1803, invokes his Muse to tell "how rose from elemental strife/Organic forms, and kindled into life," and the Muse completes the evolutionary story by telling him that even "imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,/...Arose from rudiments of form and sense." By the younger Darwin's time, the idea of organic evolution had become a common currency of intellectual life. Two years before the publication of the Origin, Herbert Spencer argued for a belief in organic evolution on the basis of the agreed-upon universality of evolutionary processes:

It is now universally admitted by philologists that languages, instead of being artificially or supernaturally formed, have been developed. And the histories of religion, of philosophy, of science, of the fine arts, of the industrial arts, show that these have passed through stages.... If, then, the recognition of evolution as the law of many diverse orders of phenomena has been spreading, may we not say that...evolution will presently be recognized as the law of the phenomena we are considering?

If Darwin (and Wallace) did not invent the idea of evolution or its application to the history of life, then at least it might be claimed that they invented a natural historical theory of the cause of that evolution. But they were not the first to do so. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, in a succession of works between 1801 and 1809, provided a biological theory of adaptive organic evolution based on the supposed inheritance of changes acquired by organisms in the course of their individual lives. The example often cited is the roughly six-foot increase in the length of giraffes' necks from their ancient origin as deer-like animals. If giraffes in any generation stretched their necks, even slightly, to feed on leaves higher up in trees, and if that slight increase in length were passed down to their offspring, then over many generations the cumulative effect would be the extraordinary shape of the modern giraffe.

Lest the sophisticated readers of TheNew York Review of Books regard this as a hopelessly outmoded nineteenth-century view of biology, it should be pointed out that until about fifteen years ago a neo-Lamarckian institution affiliated with the University of Paris, the Laboratoire d'Évolution des Êtres Organisés, carried out scholarly research on evolution that took seriously the possibility of the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

The Darwin-Wallace explanation of evolution, the theory of natural selection, is based on three principles:

1) Individuals in a population differ from each other in the form of particular characteristics (the principle of variation).

2) Offspring resemble their parents more than they resemble unrelated individuals (the principle of heritability).

3) The resources necessary for life and reproduction are limited. Individuals with different characteristics differ in their ability to acquire those resources and thus to survive and leave offspring in the next generations (the principle of natural selection).

It seems amazing that two naturalists could independently arrive at the same articulated theory of evolution from a consideration of the characteristics of some species of organisms in nature, their geographic distribution, and their similarities to other species. This amazement becomes considerably tempered, however, when one considers the social consciousness and economic milieu in which the theory arose, a milieu marked by the rise of competitive industrial capitalism in which individuals rose in the social hierarchy based, presumably, on their greater entrepreneurial fitness.

One of the reasons that Darwinism is so seldom considered in context is because to do so is fatal to the theory. Darwin was, after all, just the product of a culture soaked in, even premised on, evolutionary ideas. Even Genesis is a tale of common descent, morphological change and Adam as the ur-Taxonomist. Nothing could have been more natural than that biologists would try to apply these ideas, especially as they'd been outlined and applied in the economic sphere, to their own discipline. But the fundamental problem is obvious: Darwin was borrowing from theories of intelligent design while trying to avoid the reality of the intelligence and the design. This amounted to an act of faith, as opposed to science. Having, thus, never grounded his theory rationally there was little chance it would pan out or withstand even cursory scientific scrutiny. It suffices for those who share his faith, but is, unfortunately, laughable to everyone else.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 8, 2009 11:03 AM
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