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Why Darwin doesn’t matter….

Michael Shermer valiantly argued the thesis of his book, Why Darwin Matters in a debate with Bill Dembski, February 21, 2007.

Shermer said:

No one, and I mean no one, working in the field is debating whether natural selection is the driving force behind evolution.

Shermer defended his thesis honorably without resorting to any smear or ridicule of ID proponents. Nevertheless, despite his valor and commitment, Shermer fought and continues to fight a losing battle. A new book from MIT press controverts Shermer’s claims:

Natural selection is commonly interpreted as the fundamental mechanism of evolution. Questions about how selection theory can claim to be the all-sufficient explanation of evolution often go unanswered by today’s neo-Darwinists, perhaps for fear that any criticism of the evolutionary paradigm will encourage creationists and proponents of intelligent design.

In Biological Emergences, Robert Reid argues that natural selection is not the cause of evolution. He writes that the causes of variations, which he refers to as natural experiments, are independent of natural selection; indeed, he suggests, natural selection may get in the way of evolution. Reid proposes an alternative theory to explain how emergent novelties are generated and under what conditions they can overcome the resistance of natural selection. He suggests that what causes innovative variation causes evolution, and that these phenomena are environmental as well as organismal.

After an extended critique of selectionism, Reid constructs an emergence theory of evolution, first examining the evidence in three causal arenas of emergent evolution: symbiosis/association, evolutionary physiology/behavior, and developmental evolution. Based on this evidence of causation, he proposes some working hypotheses, examining mechanisms and processes common to all three arenas, and arrives at a theoretical framework that accounts for generative mechanisms and emergent qualities. Without selectionism, Reid argues, evolutionary innovation can more easily be integrated into a general thesis. Finally, Reid proposes a biological synthesis of rapid emergent evolutionary phases and the prolonged, dynamically stable, non-evolutionary phases imposed by natural selection.

Robert G. B. Reid is Emeritus Professor of Biology at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. He is the author of Evolutionary Theory: The Unfinished Synthesis.

The above is from Biological Emergences (HT : Krauze at Telic Thoughts)

This book appears unwittingly friendly to the idea of intelligently designed, front-loaded evolution even though the book argues explicitly against ID. I think evo-devo is a promising theory, and several ID sympathizers (particularly the folks at Telic Thoughts) are very favorable to ideas within evo-devo.

It is nice to see the idea of intelligent design and special creation being pondered by authors who publish through MIT press! The real news is that Darwin really doesn’t matter. Darwin’s most central idea (natural selection as the driving force of biological innovation) is inessential to modern science, and last but not least, it’s dead wrong.

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12 Responses to Why Darwin doesn’t matter….

  1. “No one, and I mean no one, working in the field is debating whether natural selection is the driving force behind evolution”

    I don’t really understand why this is considered such a significant claim. Consider the following claims.

    “No one, and I mean no one, working in the field is debating whether phlogiston is the driving force behind the phenomena of burning”

    “No one, and I mean no one, working in the field is debating whether geocentrism is the correct understanding of planatary motion”

    Both of these statements could have been uttered a a few centuries ago and greeted with rousing support.

    Of course you’d look stupid to appeal to them as evidence today with the benifit of hind sight.

    Why should anybody conclude that such a claim means much if anything. Leaving aside entirely the fact that it appears to be false on the face of it.

  2. We are told that Darwin’s hypothesis is “so cogent, so powerful” that it will never sink, yet many in academia have been quitely looking for a lifeboat in the form of an alternative materialistic hypothesis of origins, many have already jumped ship. They see that the good ship Darwin has been taking on water and is beginning to list, the furniture is sliding across the deck. Meanwhile, back at the NCSE, the band plays on.

  3. Darwinian Evolution:

    1. Disproven for the majority of molecular evolution. See: What are the speed limits of naturalistic evolution?

    2. Becoming doubted for morpohological evolution

    3. Becoming doubted for biological functional innovation (see Spandrels)

    4. Becoming doubted for cellular evolution (ala Carl Woese)

    Darwin doesn’t matter.

  4. I have a hard time understanding either Shermer’s or Reid’s positions because each is talking about completely different things. Shermer’s statement is absurd because even no one in ID denies natural selection which is an element of population genetics. No one who supports NDE does either. So why make this meaningless statement. Natural selection is just a weak force that is rarely presented with anything novel to work with. When it is, it works if the novel alleles affects reproduction rates.

    Natural selection is not about the generation of anything novel, only about when something novel comes along whether it may eventually become fixed in a population or not. Most NDE adherents believe genetic drift is a more powerful force than natural selection to do this but neither is relevant to how new alleles appear in the first place.

    That is what Reid is talking about so why should he even care about natural selection. Reid is interested in how new alleles arrive on the scene which as I just said has nothing to do with natural selection which is part of population genetics.

    So why contrasts the two ideas. People who talk about how the different ways new alleles arrive such as Woese, Schwartz, Sean Carroll, Alan MacNeil and here Reid are not ID friendly. They are all hypothesizing natural means for the generation of new alleles. All they are doing is saying that RM is really RV (for random variation) as tribune7 said on another recent thread.

  5. “All they are doing is saying that RM is really RV (for random variation) as tribune7 said on another recent thread.”

    I think the distinction may be a bit nuanced, actually. Going by the evo-devo wiki entry,

    “Among the more surprising and, perhaps, counterintuitive (from a neo-Darwinian viewpoint) results of recent research in evolutionary developmental biology is that the diversity of body plans and morphology in organisms across many phyla are not necessarily reflected in diversity at the level of the sequences of genes, including those of the developmental genetic toolkit and other genes involved in development. Indeed, as Gerhart and Kirschner have noted, there is an apparent paradox: “where we most expect to find variation, we find conservation, a lack of change”.”

    I remember a Dawkins quote of nature not having any foresight. I think that claim is easy to smack down on its own, but evo-devo has a particular quirk going for it if the ‘toolkit’ means that what separates various organisms is less a matter of unique parts even at the gene level, rather than a question of order/’programming’.

    If life started out with largely (or even all? I don’t know) the right tools to eventually result in complex, self-aware, intelligent creatures like human beings, is that a down and dirty example of nature’s foresight? I can see the argument going that a theory can be both naturalistic and, yet, ID friendly.

  6. Thanks Mr Darwin for the laughs I : A strange friend
    ____________________________________

    My friend Mark told me his Chinese friend Peter invited him to lunch at his house last week.

    Inside Peter’s house, he saw pictures of frogs and dogs hanged on the wall. Peter told him he had to do ancestor worship (which is a common Chinese practice) before lunch.
    He felt curious and asked, “Where are the pictures of your ancestors ? I can’t see any except pictures of ugly frogs and dogs ?” Suddenly, Peter got furious and said how dare he insult his ancestors.

    Later, Mark found out that Peter believed that the ancestor of his father’s father was a frog, the ancestor of his father’s mother a dog, the ancestor of his mother’s father an ant and the ancestor of his mother’s mother a mosquito.

    Peter explained, “How else could you explain my looking like frogs and eating like dogs ?
    Last year, scientists found a skull near my house which looked like halfway between a human, … a frog and a dog.
    I know it’s hard to imagine it … but the important thing is it proved my belief.
    Although one farmer said it was merely a chichen skull he once used as a hammer …
    I won’t accept that kind of explanation because it is unscientific.”

    Mark was told that, as a result of Peter’s evolutionary beliefs, Peter has to suffer itchiness throughout summers and, also, it has become a pain for him to walk in the streets.
    He has to suffer from itchiness throughout summers because he can no longer kill mosquitoes whenever they go to bite him.
    It has become a pain for him to walk in the streets because ,for every step he takes, he has to take care not to tread on ants and , sometimes, frogs.

  7. From a review of robustness and evolvability in living systems (Princeton University Press):

    Wagner contributes significantly to the emerging view that natural selection is just one, and maybe not even the most fundamental, source of biological order.

    No one in the field, eh?

  8. jerry

    So why contrasts the two ideas. People who talk about how the different ways new alleles arrive such as Woese, Schwartz, Sean Carroll, Alan MacNeil and here Reid are not ID friendly.

    The standard argument for evolution made by Dawkins, et al. in the NDE camp is that natural selection filters the random noise of mutations and gradually creates novelty. Dawkins is not stupid. He knows that if naturalistic evolution is true then gradualism is how it happened. Those who know that NDE is not consistent with the evidence, but have an a priori metaphysicial commitment to naturalistic origins, propose other solutions even less probable than gradualism. If you can’t figure out why this is interesting to IDers then you don’t understand the issues.

  9. “No one, and I mean no one, working in the field is debating whether natural selection is the driving force behind evolution”

    I wonder if Mike understands that NS “drives” evolution in circles.

    blockquote>Sexuality has brought joy to the world, to the world of the wild beasts, and to the world of flowers, but it has brought an end to evolution. In the lineages of living beings, whenever absent-minded Venus has taken the upper hand, forms have forgotten to make progress. It is only the husbandman that has improved strains, and he has done so by bullying, enslaving, and segregating. All these methods, of course, have made for sad, alienated animals, but they have not resulted in new species. Left to themselves, domesticated breeds would either die out or revert to the wild state—scarcely a commendable model for nature’s progress.

    (snip a few paragraphs on peppered moths)

    Natural Selection, which indeed occurs in nature (as Bishop Wilberforce, too, was perfectly aware), mainly has the effect of maintaining equilibrium and stability. It eliminates all those that dare depart from the type—the eccentrics and the adventurers and the marginal sort. It is ever adjusting populations, but it does so in each case by bringing them back to the norm. We read in the textbooks that, when environmental conditions change, the selection process may produce a shift in a population’s mean values, by a process known as adaptation. If the climate turns very cold, the cold-adapted beings are favored relative to others.; if it becomes windy, the wind blows away those that are most exposed; if an illness breaks out, those in questionable health will be lost. But all these artful guiles serve their purpose only until the clouds blow away. The species, in fact, is an organic entity, a typical form, which may deviate only to return to the furrow of its destiny; it may wander from the band only to find its proper place by returning to the gang.

    Everything that disassembles, upsets proportions or becomes distorted in any way is sooner or later brought back to the type. There has been a tendency to confuse fleeting adjustments with grand destinies, minor shrewdness with signs of the times.

    It is true that species may lose something on the way—the mole its eyes, say, and the succulent plant its leaves, never to recover them again. But here we are dealing with unhappy, mutilated species, at the margins of their area of distribution—the extreme and the specialized. These are species with no future; they are not pioneers, but prisoners in nature’s penitentiary.—geneticist Giuseppe Sermonti in “Why is a Fly Not a Horse?”

  10. ” natural selection filters the random noise of mutations and gradually creates novelty.”

    Natural selection does not gradually create anything. It is presented with things that have been supposedly already created by some mechanism and it theoretically will express some of these things in a population. NS is a part of population genetics and nobody really disputes it. What they dispute is that it is rarely or ever really presented with something novel to act on.

    “If you can’t figure out why this is interesting to IDers then you don’t understand the issues.”

    I think I understand the issues and suggest we are fighting people like Dawkins the wrong way. We take glee when someone suggests that Darwin’s gradual approach does not work all the time because we assume it is a put down or refutation of the obnoxious people like Dawkins and Dennett. But all they are saying is that some of tne novelty which things like natural selection and genetic drift operate on are not gradual changes but more dramatic appearances of new information which like the gradual changes happened by naturalistic means.

    They are just expanding the NDE paradigm to include a richer variety of events for developing new alleles.

    As I have said several times the way to beat these people is to welcome all their research into the ID tent which adds just one more mechanism to the generation of new alleles and that is intelligence. In other words ID recognizes/subsumes NDE and these other mechanisms.

    Can anyone tell me how this is not true. I can repeat the Behe quote that Joseph provided that expresses this same idea.

  11. I just listened to Alister McGrath critiquing and debunking Richard Dawkins in an excellent talk. I think it is linked from here:

    http://www.theopedia.com/Alister_McGrath

    But are we going to see/hear the Dembski/Shermer debate?

    In a day when recording is so easy, why is it so hard to get MP3s of these debates?

    Scholar William Lane Craig is also doing a series of debates in the UK at present here:

    http://www.bethinking.org/events.php

    Several are titled “Is God a Delusion?”.

  12. [...] Shermer: Michael Shermer valiantly argued the thesis of his book, Why Darwin Matters in a debate with Bill Dembski, February 21, 2007. [...]

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