Which Evolution?

There is no doubt that the earth is very old, about 4.6 billion years old by most calculations and that life appeared on it a very long time ago although no-one is sure when. It is certain also that all the multifarious forms of life we know evolved from a common ancestry. What is not so certain is how. How did life begin and what was the mechanism by which species divided off, and prospered or not as the case may be?

For 150 years the dominant answer to these questions has been "Darwinism." Darwinism is not a synonym for evolution; rather, it is a particular theory about how evolution occurs. Darwinism posits that random variation and natural selection are the two mechanisms which gave rise to all the various species that have ever lived and by which life itself began. There have been other theories over the last century and a half and a determined rearguard battle on behalf of those who are incapable of thinking metaphorically and thus need to accept the literal truth of the Genesis account, but by and large Darwinism has reigned supreme. Given that so much of Western Science is interconnected, and that such questions as "where do we find oil", "how do we fight this disease?" or "where will the next earthquake occur?" have a large evolutionary component in their answers, the commitment to evolution amongst scientist is almost universal. Unfortunately debate over evolution has become narrowly focused into a square off between Biblical creationism on the one hand and Darwinism on the other. This has led to a diminution of thinking about evolution, as any questioning of the Darwinian orthodoxy is seen as caving into the totally unacceptable creationist alternative.

Unfortunately, there is much that Darwinism can't explain about our evolutionary history. The origin of life, for example, and the development of organisms at a sub cellular level. The questions left by Darwinism are met amongst hard core Darwinists with a faith that would do any Christian credit. "The answer is not apparent, but it will be found, and probably soon" is the stock response. The gaps in Darwinism are what gave rise to the Intelligent Design movement. Intelligent Design thinkers such as Michael Behe noted the difficulty of Darwinism in explaining the existence of simple organisms which, when subject to microscopic examination, turn out to be enormously complex and appear to have no more primitive forms out of which they might have developed. The questions were good ones, but the Intelligent Design movement was quickly hijacked by the Biblical creationists who quite wrongly assumed that an attack on Darwinism was an attack on the whole concept of evolution, and that if Darwin was proven wrong, everyone would shrug and return to Genesis. The Intelligent Design movement has lost most of its credibility in this battle, but the questions have not gone away.

Right now, in Altenburg in Austria there is a meeting of sixteen leading evolutionary theorists who are discussing ways in which the obvious shortcomings of Darwinism may be addressed . They are suggesting innovative ways of explaining the obvious fact of evolution in terms of the new knowledge given us by quantum physics and genetics. This may well be one of the most significant scientific gatherings in the history of Western science. Just as Darwinian thinking has given a paradigm that has influenced politics, business and interpersonal affairs for over a century, so now a new way of thinking about ourselves is emerging. It is exciting news not just for evolutionary biologists and geneticists but for all who are interested in truth.


bobxxxx said…
Biologists never use the word Darwinism. It's called evolution.

Virtually all biologists accept the basic facts of evolution, including the fact people share an ancestor with chimps. Evidence from molecular biology and genetics proves this and other evolutionary relationships beyond any doubt.

Biologists will forever be learning more about the history of life. This means there are research opportunities, or points for future understanding, not gaps to stick God into.

That's all intelligent design is, the god-of-the-gaps. Invoking intelligent design is a lazy excuse to avoid thinking. Lazy people invoke intelligent design whenever they are ignorant of how something occurred naturally. That's why intelligent design is called the philosophy of ignorance, and science is called the philosophy of discovery.
VenDr said…
Thanks for your comment Bob but I think you've missed my point entirely. The fact of evolution is not in dispute here: the mechanism is. At the leading edge of evolutionary thinking is a search for a paradigm other than neo-darwinism. I invite you to refer to Suzan Mazur's articlereferring to the Altberg conference. This conference is attended by leading evolutionists (nb NOT intelligent design theorists)including leading biologists and the topic is very much Darwinism.
Anonymous said…
Have you ever noticed how often the word "design" crops up in the language of scientists when discussing the evolution of species? A typical comment is that such and such a feature evolved, "designed" to allow the creature to cope better with some new circumstance. I've never pursued what exactly this might mean, if anything, but I do find it intriguing.
Peter Ross
Bobxxxx said…
For your information, here's what a biologist said in his pharyngula blog: http://tinyurl.com/5evqsa

"There's going to be a meeting this summer in Altenberg of a small subset of evolutionary biologists to discuss the next step in the evolution of evolutionary biology, which this article describes as a "Woodstock of evolution", populated with scientific "rock stars". All I can say is "bleh." This meeting sounds like it will be wonderfully entertaining, but get real: it will not settle or even define much of anything. These are interesting times in biology, with a lot of argument at a high level about levels of selection and evo-devo and modes of speciation and self-organisation and etc., etc., etc. (and I have to rush to say that these debates have nothing to do with creationism, although the creationists love to pretend that the scientific arguments are related to their flat-earth philosophy). However, the actual state of the theory will be determined by the working scientists who produce useful results, not by theorizing at a mansion in Vienna. Expect emergence from a practical perspective, not rock-stars issuing edicts."

Biologists never use words like neo-darwinism and darwinism. Never. But you keep using those words. Why?
VenDr said…
Well, obviously because I am not a biologist. I don't know on what authority you claim to speak for all the world's biologists and say that none of them use the term "Darwinism" but no doubt you have the badge and certificate and will be perfectly prepared to show me. The Altenberg conference has a number of eminent biologists gathered at this very moment specifically to discuss Darwinism, so you'd better nip over PDQ and tell them they're not allowed to.

You seem to have an aversion to the term Darwinism and I in my turn might ask why? Darwinism and evolution are not synonyms. For my part I am simply uninterested in the creation/evolution debate. For me the fact of evolution was decided 150 years ago, and the continued blathering on with fundamentalist Christians on one side and fundamentalist materialists on the other slagging away at each other with the same tired old arguments is simply a bore. What does fascinate me however is the HOW of evolution, and in this of course I am interested in the dominant paradigm ie Neo-Darwinism.

So, in short, I didn't know that biologists undertook some oath somewhere never to speak the dreaded D word, but it doesn't apply to me as I'm not in the club. I am one of that great assembly of non biologists who are nevertheless interested in the origins and development of our species and who will use the term Darwinian if we jolly well please.
VenDr said…
...and on reflection,it is not "HOW?" which is the question which interests me so much as the question "WHY?" On this question, I think, most biologists have nothing to say. I say most, because a writer who has been extremely helpful to me in evolving my answer to the question is the Australian biologist Charles Birch. Two of his many books in particular, On Purpose and Biology and The Riddle Of Life have been very important to me.
VenDr said…
Peter, you're right. I guess "design" pops up in discussion because the materialist vocabulary needs it, although most of those who use it would be meaning something quite different than an Intelligent Design theorist of creationist would. I suppose it is an acknowledgment of the fitness and cleverness of many adaptations to a particular environment. I think that the answer to the question "why is this species so well adapted" is more complex than many on both sides of the debate might suppose.
VenDr said…
I'm sorry I've felt the necessity to turn on comment moderation. I'm not a creationist, I'm not an Intelligent Design proponent, and I don't feel inclined to defend either creationism or ID or give space to those who wish to attack them. I'm interested in discussing Darwinism, whether the term brings biologists out in a rash or not. For a simple, accessible summary of some of the issues I'm interested please refer to This article in New Scientist
Daniel said…
"The questions left by Darwinism are met amongst hard core Darwinists with a faith that would do any Christian credit."
An element of prescience there I do believe :)

Don't be sorry about comment moderation, take it as a sign that your blog is maturing and gathering more readers. Seems to be inevitable, the blog version of eternal September.
Anonymous said…

I am thinking the creation conflict is caused by different starting points. I believe Christian theology begins with an affirmation of the Trinity. From there the Christian moves backward to the question, "How did all this come to be?" and forward to, "If I believe Jesus is the Son of God how do I live this day?"

The creation debate begins with people (both sides) who wish to start with the beginning of life on earth. The Darwinists and others of similar view say life happened partly by accident and partly by survival of the most fit. This argument is problematic, as you have pointed out. On the other hand "creationists" posit a divine creator and say everything follows from him / her / it. There view seems to be once we have agreed on god as the beginning one is led by inevitable logic to a divine Jesus.

It is anything but inevitable. The argument is also very dangerous. If one wants to begin with an intelligent designer who is (s)he? It is equally likely the intelligent designer was Spider Old Woman who created the world by spinning a line from east, west, north and south and made people from clay of the earth. [A creation story from the Hopi native American people, and I intend no disrespect.] Spider Old Woman is not going to lead us to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Intelligent designer? Who or what is (s)he?

To begin with an intelligent designer and say it follows that god is the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, with much winking and nodding, just won't do. We do better to begin with our faith in God as we know him and reason our position from that belief.
Bill Schroeder
Kathryn said…
I just love the photograph, Kelvin. A reflection of God's creation.