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Commentary: Forget Darwin---The Sooner The Better

Commentary: Forget Darwin---The Sooner The Better


A.C. Thompson

Dear Ms. Suzan Mazur: (sznmzr@aol.com)

Frederick Engels, in an 1875 letter, stated: “The whole Darwinian teaching of the struggle for existence is simply a transference from society to living nature of Hobbes’s doctrine of bellum omnium contra omnes and of the bourgeois-economic doctrine of competition together with Malthus’s theory of population. When this conjurer’s trick has been performed . . the same theories are transferred back again from organic nature into history and it is now claimed that their validity as eternal laws of human society has been proved.” (Quoted in R. C. Lewontin et al., Not in Our Genes, 1984, p. 309.)

Having read Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (2nd and 5th editions), numerous works about Darwin and evolutionary theory, and having written many (unpublished) papers about Darwin and evolution, I was happy to come across your “Altenberg! The Woodstock of Evolution?" a few days ago while “Googling.” You state in that piece: “A central issue in making a new theory of evolution is how large a role natural selection, which has come to mean the weeding out of traits that don’t favor survival, gets to play.” Let me here make a few comments relative to this statement:

I’m sure that you are aware of the fact that in Origin Darwin defined “natural selection” as (1) that selection for survival that (2) results from intraspecific competition, that intraspecific competition (3) resulting from, and only from, what might be termed “excess births.” However, in the book itself he referred to selection resulting from various other factors (e.g., accidents, disease), thereby implying that he was actually thinking of “natural selection” in broader terms. Which raises the question: “Why, then, did he define ‘natural selection’ so narrowly—especially given that ‘natural selection,’ narrowly defined, plays little role in nature, and especially with ‘higher’ species?”

I would suggest that the answer to this question lies in Engels’s comment regarding Darwinism That is, although Darwin may not have been conscious of the fact, he was motivated by a desire to become famous. He “knew” (and so did Wallace, although I associate more purity with him) that if he could discover a “law” in the biological realm that would appeal to the emerging elite in England, he could gain support for his “theory.” (Shades of Martin Luther and certain German princes.)

Later in the 1800s Prince Peter Kropotkin wrote a series of articles responding to one by Thomas H. Huxley to the effect that abundant evidence existed that cooperation was a virtual law of nature. These articles were published in 1902 as Mutual Aid, yet how popular did that book become?!—with the emerging elite or anyone else, for that matter. It is understandable why the emerging elite would not be interested in giving attention to that book, but how does one explain the fact that biologists (except in Russia) gave it little heed? I suspect that the reason is that they wanted to give their discipline status as a science: Whereas Kropotkin’s book had presented empirical evidence but no theory, Darwin’s book not only presented a theory (ostensibly) but empirical evidence in support (ostensibly) of that theory.

I say “ostensibly” here because (1) Darwin’s “theory” is very incomplete in its statement, and not stated in a rigorous (“scientific”) manner. (It’s unfortunate that he was not familiar with the theoretical work published several decades earlier of Johann Heinrich von Thűnen.) (2) The theory is self-contradictory, and for that reason alone cannot qualify as a general theory. (Besides, although it may have relevance for certain species, it lacks relevance for any of the “higher” species.) (3) It is a theory of monotypic development, not monotypic evolution: although it does “explain” (“predict” might be a better term here) slow, steady, “progressive” change, it assumes (incorrectly) that such change has no limits. (4) The “tree of life” diagram that precedes the Introduction suggests that the book is about polytypic evolution (what most people think of when they think of “evolution”), but that figure is only discussed in a portion of the “Natural Selection” chapter. (5) Insofar as that discussion contains a theory of polytypic evolution, that theory is poorly presented—and not consistent with his theory of monotypic evolution. (6) Etc.

Actually, nowhere in Origin does Darwin identify a mechanism that would explain the change of one species into a new one. His “natural selection” model predicts slow, steady, progressive change in a given species, true, but the sort of change involved is just of a quantitative sort (change in mean or percent). If one asserts that only qualitative change qualifies as (monotypic) evolution, one will reject Darwin’s theory as a theory of (monotypic) evolution. For Darwin introduces into his theory no mechanism that would produce qualitative change.

Perhaps the most disappointing feature of Origin is that it presents no theory of polytypic evolution worthy of that label. Indeed, the book seemingly suggests that natural selection explains the “origin of [new] species”—but that simply isn’t true. This is not to say that Darwin doesn’t provide evidence to the effect that polytypic evolution has not occurred. In fact, Darwin piles fact upon fact that is at least suggestive of the “fact” that such evolution has occurred. Darwin, however, was a lousy theorist, seemingly incapable of rigorous theoretical thought. So that even had he been aware of von Thűnen’s pioneering theoretical work (which provided the basis, later, for econometrics and location theory), it is doubtful that he would have benefited from that exposure. (For example, I find it of interest that he had a copy of Mendel’s work in his library, but never read it—for it remained uncut!)

Some biologists (eg., Brian Goodwin) have suggested that Darwin’s influence on the development of Biology as a discipline was negative—and I would agree. I would also note the negative influence of Darwin’s concept of “natural selection” in that the “survival of the fittest” phrase (borrowed from Herbert Spencer, and used first in the 5th edition of Origin) gave rise to the evils of Social Darwinism. It’s true that the tone of The Descent of Man is very different (e.g., David Loye’s Darwin’s Lost Theory of Love, 1998). But biologists have chosen to give preference to Darwin’s earlier book, even though it has little relevance for understanding the real world—and has a point of view that, if anything, has hindered progress in Biology. (Strange!!)

It’s about time that biologists have begun realizing that Darwin did them no favors, and that it’s time to put the topic of selection mechanisms (selection for survival and selection for mating) in their proper place (a rather minor one) in favor of the real factors that explain both monotypic and polytypic evolution. What I am particularly waiting for is a theory that explains evolution on a global-geological scale, and that takes the “punctuated equilibria” hypothesis (for it is not a theory—i.e., it explains nothing) seriously. That hypothesis notes that there have been a few major periods—associated with periods of significant geological activity—during which there were many extinctions, but also the origination of many new species (from existing ones). It is understandable why the extinctions occurred, but what was the mechanism that brought about all of the new species?

The long periods of biological stasis between these periods of change suggest environmental stasis is not conducive to the emergence of new species. But insofar as that’s the case, why is it?

These are the questions that particularly interest me, and I hope that the new wave of theorists in biology tackle them.

Keep up the good work in reporting on developments in this area. . .

Best regards,

A.C. Thompson

P.S. Darwin is a person we should be forgetting about---the sooner the better---rather than remembering! Therefore, I am by no means a supporter of "Darwin Day" celebrations.

*************

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