Re: [asa] The term Darwinism

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Thu Jun 25 2009 - 12:21:24 EDT

Yes, Randy, and this has been one of my points, that the *process* of evolution and the *explanation* for evolution are two different things. The Darwinian explanation is focused on natural selection, working on natural variations which are (in Darwin's original notion, and in the notion of Mayr, Sagan, Dawkins, etc.) undirected to any end, and therefore natural selection is a passive partner, waiting on variations, so to speak, and unable to build even the simplest new machinery without them. Natural selection was criticized not just by religious people but by many of the leading biologists between 1859 and the time of the neo-Darwinian synthesis, when natural selection finally triumphed and became part of evolutionary orthodoxy (an orthodoxy which is stated lucidly by people like Dawkins and Ken Miller).

This is why I always use "Darwinian evolution" (or "Darwinism") as a term of distinction, and not just as a mere synonym for "evolution". People on both sides of the debate, pro- and anti-Darwin, frequently do not make such distinctions, which confuses things. ID supporter George Hunter, for example, uses "evolution" to mean "Darwinian evolution" (most of the time), and thus, in his opposition to "evolution", it is not clear whether he is opposing the *process* (i.e., is denying that macroevolution has occurred) or only the *mechanism* (i.e., is acknowledging that macroevolution has occurred, or at least that it may have occurred, but questioning the adequacy of variation plus natural selection to account for it). I've tried to make it clear that I have no objection in principle to macroevolution as a process, and that I find much circumstantial evidence -- fossil record, etc. -- in favour of it. I've focused my criticism on the capabilities of the Darwinian mechanism, which even in Darwinism's updated forms (neo-Darwinism, etc.) seem to me to be very dubious. (Not that I deny the existence of variation and natural selection, but only the further assumption that they are as creative as Darwinism supposes.)

One of the major alternatives to Darwinian evolution for a time was Bergsonian evolution (1907 and a few years afterward). Bergson's view, being part science and part philosophy, would of course be ruled out by TEs as "unscientific" (though it might be allowed as a metaphysical opinion), but it was not at all evident to the best thinkers of Bergson's time than any mechanical explanation for the evolution of life (such as Darwin's) would ever do, and the hard-line position against teleology in biology had not yet become sacrosanct. (Indeed, Darwin's co-discoverer Wallace eventually abandoned the mechanistic ship.) Only with the neo-Darwinian synthesis (around, what, about 1930?) did biologists universally adopt the present, cocksure attitude about the essential correctness of Darwinism, including Darwin's banishment of design from organic nature. Yet, when we read Dawkins and Miller we get the impression that Darwin seemed eminently sensible and scientific from the beginning, and that everyone but a few religious obscurantists opposed him. In fact, it was 60-75 years before his view (adjusted for Mendel, etc.) became the unchallenged orthodoxy among men of science. Of course, "evolution" was accepted much earlier than that. Bergson, for example, took it for granted that macroevolution had occurred, while taking Darwin's explanation vigorously to task for relying too much on chance variation to do the creative heavy lifting.

A major alternative to Darwinian evolution today is front-loaded evolution, e.g., Denton. In Denton, natural selection plays an important role, and chance even has an ancillary role, but intelligent design and natural laws are by far the most important ingredients in the evolutionary process. From a TE point of view, an advantage of Denton's hypothesis is that it does not require any metaphysical entity (such as Bergson's "life force") to explain the process of evolution; it is wholly naturalistic. Of course, it has other problems, and I am not arguing that Denton is correct, but only pointing out that there are other kinds of evolution, non-Darwinian kinds, on offer today.

I haven't had a chance yet to study Mike Gene's book, so I don't know where he fits in, but I would think, based on his comments here, that he is less than a pure Darwinian, as Dawkins or Ken Miller would understand the term.

More generally, "theistic evolution" is not an objectionable term for me. Nor would it be an objectionable term for ID advocates such as Michael Behe or Denyse O'Leary, were it not for the fact that many TEs insist on full-blown *Darwinian* evolution as an irrefutable fact of science, and the fact that many TEs rule out design detection in principle (which is different from being unconvinced by, say, Behe's argument about the blood-clotting cascade). I wish more TEs would read the history of evolutionary theory, from some of Darwin's predecessors through to Wallace's later work, and some of the reservations of Asa Gray, and Bergson, and the criticism of purely stochastic mechanisms by the French biologist Lecomte du Nouy, etc. It was much less clear to earlier generations of biologists and philosophers of biology what the notion of "evolution" entailed, and what counted as a "scientific" explanation in biology was a much more open question than it is today for Darwinists, either atheist or TE. I wish that biological speculation could return to that earlier, more fluid state, because what we need today -- given the astounding new advances in embryology, genetics, etc., none of which are yet completed or fully theoretically digested -- is intellectual openness, not a hardening of 1930s battle-lines. We need to have the mental flexibility that generated the speculations of Lamarck, Darwin, Chambers, Wallace, Bergson, etc., in order to assimilate the massive amount of new data and the various new theoretical perspectives coming from information theory and so on. But just at the point where we need to be more intellectually adventurous, writers like Dawkins and Coyne and Ken Miller (and I think even Collins) seem to insist that all the new information will eventually fit into the Darwinian framework. I find this attitude intellectually Procrustean, and I think that orthodox Darwinism, originally a science stimulator, may soon become a science stopper.

  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Randy Isaac
  Sent: Wednesday, June 24, 2009 9:50 AM
  Subject: [asa] The term Darwinism

  For an excellent insight into how the term "Darwinism" was differentiated from "evolution" in the late 19th century, the article by John Hedley Brooke in the current issue of PSCF is well worth reading. He says that while evolution was widely accepted, Darwinism was used to refer to evolution by natural selection, which was not widely accepted at that time.
  Members can access this issue online.


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Received on Thu Jun 25 12:22:32 2009

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