Thursday, March 09, 2006

(127) Questioning neo-Darwinism: our identity crisis

On the morning of September 10th 1996 I was on a train reading Richard Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker.

I regard the establishment of neo-Darwinism as a virtually unchallengeable dogma as the greatest wonder in the history of ideas.

At a 1968 symposium convened to see if science could progress beyond reductionist thinking, Hugo von Bertalanffy commented that the establishment of this theory as an entrenched dogma, when it was so vague, so insufficiently verifiable, and so far from the criteria otherwise applied in hard science, was really only explicable on sociological grounds.
Society and science had been so steeped in the ideas of mechanism and the economic concept of free competition, that, "instead of God selection was enthroned as ultimate reality".

A few points:

(a) The Blind Watchmaker begins:
our own existence once represented the greatest of all mysteries, but… it is a mystery no longer because it is solved. Darwin and Wallace solved it, though we shall continue to add footnotes to their solution for a while yet.
But his sixth chapter is headed Origins and Miracles in which he spells out that the creation of the first self-replicating molecule, without which natural selection cannot get going, would require an act of miraculous improbability.
However that, he says, should not surprise us, for in four and a half thousand million years we should expect something amazingly unlikely to crop up.
Extremely unlikely events will happen if you allow aeons for them to occur.

But this, it seems to me, is an argument to allow a miracle of sorts at the start of any creation myth.
The only essential difference here is that it is a purely physical start. (See the end of Entry 125).

The jump from non-living chemicals to living cells is so gigantic that I cannot even entertain it.

Odds of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1 or greater need to be embraced just to get the amino acids in situ to form one protein
This is simply ludicrously unlikely.

Ans also, for me, neo-Darwinism does not even solve the paradox of the chicken and the egg.
Neither, for that matter, does any other explanation.

(b) At the other end of our story, I have no fundamental objection to the possibility of man and ape sharing a common ancestor, but one hundred and thirty years after Darwin wrote of it there is certainly no conclusive proof.

In 1982, Dr. Lyall Watson (see Entry 142) said
"all the physical evidence we have for human evolution can still be placed, with room to spare, inside a single coffin."
Although remains of over a thousand hominids have now been discovered, most are just small fragments.
To me it seems unwise to draw far-reaching conclusions from such meagre evidence.

(c) The only principles that neo-Darwinists (may) admit to in Nature are natural selection of random mutations and adaptation.
But if this is all that is going on then it is difficult for me to understand some of the developments which organisms have hit upon in their efforts to just reproduce.

Von Bertalanffy also could not understand what the selective advantage was for the eels of Comacchio, in the east of Italy, to travel all the way off to the Sargasso sea as part of their life cycle, or why the parasite Ascaris had to migrate all of the way around its host’s body instead of settling directly in the stomach where it belonged.

Or why, when a horse managed well enough with just one stomach, it had proved of survival value for a cow, of similar size and diet, to evolve four.

In his opinion there was zero evidence to support the basic Darwinian tenet that progression from less to more complex organisms was to do with better adaptation or production of greater offspring.

Adaptation is possible at any level and he, like Gordon Rattray Taylor, found it hard to see why things had ever progressed beyond the rabbit, the herring or even the bacterium, since they were all unsurpassed in their reproductive capacities.
Indeed, were they not as well adapted as just about anything then they would have lost out in the struggle for survival long ago.

Bacteria comprise more than fifty per cent of all living things and thrive in the most extreme environments.
Why then should a blue whale be regarded as the beneficiary of a better evolutionary deal?

And how does adaptation explain the fantastic metamorphoses in the life cycle of the butterfly, from egg to a grub which spins itself into a chrysalis, where it undergoes a complete transformation involving the dissolution of all of its organs and tissues and then their remoulding into a winged adult?

Books on natural history have innumerable examples of such far-fetched ways of making a living as a species, but they are rarely mentioned in works on neo-Darwinism because they reveal too glaringly that the theory begs the vital questions.

Richard Dawkins says that people who cannot envisage a long, slow series of small alterations leading to a complex biological structure are conning themselves away from the manifest truth of neo-Darwinism and are falling into the fallacy of "personal incredulity".

But the specific doubt invoked by these creatures is not how but why natural selection would have bothered to devise such unlikely modes of getting by.

(d) And yet one does wonder precisely how some adaptations came about.
My eyelids perfectly match the width of my eyes. It cannot seriously be argued that it would be maladaptive for them to protrude a little further, but they do not.
This is true for all creatures with eyelids.
Whatever process started the eyelid growing also stopped that growth when it was just the right length.

So what happened?

The same natural selection that Darwin thought he saw in the beaks of the finches of the Galapagos?
I doubt it.

I believe there ought properly to be a new term coined, as there are essentially two applications of the term Natural Selection:
Darwin rationally conjectured that the isolated laboratory of the Galapagos provided excellent conditions for seeing divergence from common ancestry in the beaks of the finches.
Darwin reasoned that just as breeders isolate certain traits in animals and thereby develop them, so could nature, in a quite unplanned manner, through weeding out those forms less suited to the habitat.

That´s fair enough,. But as so many have observed this does not explain how the finches got there in the first place.
Darwinists argue that it was by essentially the same process.

But, it´s not, is it?

This very process of assimilation is not true Natural Selection as Darwin originally conceived it. We already hear the term ´exaptation´, coined by modern evolutionists to account for a structure or even an organ having its original function become redundant and then going on to serve another and, of course, quite unplanned purpose.

But arguing that the processes used by plant and animal breeders could of themselves account for the very construction of an organism before the kind of natural selection of adaptive traits, such as in the beaks of the finches, comes into play, is so very different an application of the idea of Natural Selection that it seems to me to constitute almost a corruption of it.

Yet Darwin and his followers would have to reason so.

Were they to do otherwise then they concede that they extrapolate far too much from the mere observation of differing beaks in island finches, and that some other mechanism got those birds up and running.

We are being asked here to believe in something more like Natural Assembly, too, are we not?

Then consider how almost every evolutionary change calls for modifications of several structures, and also of physiological processes, more or less simultaneously.

For instance, the supposed conquest of dry land by the vertebrates which started with the evolution of reptiles from amphibians.

The decisive novelty of reptiles was that they lay their eggs, unlike amphibians, on dry land.
But the unborn reptile still demanded an aquatic environment otherwise it would dry up before birth. It also needed a lot of food, because reptiles hatch fully developed.
So the reptile egg had to be provided with a large mass of yolk to provide the food and a lot of white to provide the water.

Neither of those components, by itself, would provide an advantage. It’s both or nothing.

Not only that but the egg white needed a vessel to contain it, otherwise the moisture would have evaporated.
So the evolutionary package deal had to include a shell made of a leathery material.

And then there had to be a mechanism to enable the reptile embryo to get rid of its waste products, which, because of the shell, must remain in the egg.
So the reptilian embryo has a kind of bladder; it is called the allantois.

But this is still not enough.
The embryo needs a tool to hack its way out of the shell. Thus snakes and lizards have a tooth transformed into a kind of tin opener.

All of this refers to just one aspect of the evolution of reptiles; of course many other changes were called for to make the new creatures viable.
The changes here mentioned could have been gradual but at each stage, however small, all the factors involved in the story had to cooperate harmoniously.

Indeed, each change taken in isolation would work against survival.

Neo-Darwinists claim that all genetic mutation is random, and so evolution proceeds rather like a game of blind man’s buff.
But each of the mutations listed in the above transformation would be wiped out unless it occurred along with all the others.

They are all interdependent.

The doctrine that their coming together was due to a series of blind coincidences is an affront not only to common sense but to all the basic principles of scientific explanation.

(e) Not only the problem of interdependent changes, but the whole idea of naturally selecting from whatever genetic mutation serves up has troubled many people.

Professor R. Riedl of the Zoology Department of Vienna University was incredulous at the neo-Darwinian dogma that a creature makes useful alterations to itself via a process which allows it no information feedback from its environment.
He found the doctrine that it achieves the correct response just by the selection of chance mutations "as unlikely as the enhancement of a good poem by a printer’s error".

Professor C. Waddington of Edinburgh University remarked that to suppose that the evolution of the wonderfully adapted biological mechanisms has depended only on a selection out of a haphazard set of blindly generated variations is like suggesting that if we went on throwing bricks together in heaps we should eventually be able to choose ourselves the most desirable house.

One of the best known criticisms is the development of the eye.

Professor Pierre Grassé, who for thirty years held the chair for evolution at the Sorbonne, commented:

Where is the gambler, however obsessed with his passion, who would be crazy enough to bet on the roulette of random evolution?
The creation, by grains of dust carried by the wind, of Dürer’s Melancholia has a probability less infinitesimal than the construction of an eye through the mishaps which might befall the DNA molecule – mishaps which have no connection whatsoever with the future functions of the eye.

Well, neo-Darwinists have shown great ingenuity in retro-engineering, and proposed several ways by which natural selection might have wrought an eye.

But all require a lot of imagination and wishful thinking.

In defence of the orthodoxy Sir Julian Huxley wrote:
The hoary objection of the improbability of an eye or a hand or a brain being evolved by blind chance has lost its force because… natural selection operating over stretches of geological time explains everything.

In early 1988, I was reading from the fourth chapter of The Blind Watchmaker where Dawkins addresses this question of how the eye must have evolved.
I found his explanations, although not impossible, tortuous and unconvincing.

I was in a restaurant in Bedford and over their radio came a song by The Eagles with the chorus:
"You can’t hide your lyin´ eyes."

There are many other major problems with the theory

but public discussion of them is almost impossible in the current climate of thought.

I think this is because many people who regard themselves as rationalists also regard neo-Darwinism as a must as it accompanies their assumption that science may concern itself only with the visible universe.

Our scientific culture educates us to focus our attention on the material world, and insists that everything must have a physical explanation.

If indeed physical reality is all there is then life simply has to be explicable through just chemistry and physics, and organisms must have assembled themselves through random changes, some of which were preserved since they conferred a survival advantage.

So a reductionist science must defend natural selection and adaptation as the only mechanisms involved.

Otherwise something stupendous and quite unexplained would have to be accepted as part of Nature.

Some kind of orchestration either creating ex nihilo, or influencing the evolutionary process, would have to be admitted.
This unknown could be God, the dualists’ soul, the vitalists’ life force, or the Lamarckian claim that organisms may (somehow) pass on to their progeny acquired characteristics.

Hence Professor Stephen Pinker says that natural selection is the only non-miraculous process that could explain life, and George Botterill, Professor of Philosophy at Sheffield University, told me

"It is a necessary truth! It must be true!"

(By the way, in August 1988 I asked Botterill if he had ever had any outstanding coincidence.
He said that indeed he had, and it had happened earlier that very year.

He was marking a philosophy exam paper where a candidate had misattributed the nineteenth century argument of a man called Gosse.
Gosse said that the presence of dinosaur fossils was evidence that God had planted them in the ground as a test of Man’s religious faith.

But the candidate said that the person who had first put forward this extraordinary idea was, of all people, Bertrand Russell!
The funny thing was, though, that the candidate’s name was Gosse!)

In his medical column from The Daily Telegraph of September 1999, Dr James le Fanu dissented with the opinion of his alternating columnist, Professor Steve Jones, that "Everyone not determined to stay ignorant believes in evolution."

Dr le Fanu would argue the reverse and added that the more he understood even: the most elementary aspects of human biology, the less compelling I find Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
He found it very difficult for natural selection to account for human body hair ceasing to grow beyond a certain length when head hair will grow up to a metre long.
Likewise it did not seem to him to: explain virtually any unique aspect of the human organism – the size of the brain, the positioning of the sexual organs, the prominence of the female breasts, the delicacy of the nails and so on.

He concluded:

It is often said – and Prof. Jones makes the point – that, despite such problems, we have to embrace Darwinism as, besides Creationism, there is simply no alternative mechanism to explain the infinite diversity and variety of life on this planet.
I would suggest, rather, that we really do not know the answers and, perhaps, never will.

Professor Grassé also noted,

It seems possible that confronted by these problems, biology is reduced to helplessness and must hand over to metaphysics.

If I thought that all phenomena in the natural world were explicable by neo-Darwinistic interpretations then I too might well be a passionate advocate of the theory.

But for me no adequate answers exist for the sorts of points I have raised, and, therefore, I have to agree with the diagnosis of Dr le Fanu and not that of Dr Dawkins.

Neo-Darwinists are not defenders of rationality.
Rather, like all others who embrace a creation myth, they are just whistling in the dark.

The mystery persists.

On the morning of September 10th 1996 I was reading from the seventh chapter of Dawkins’s work, and feeling quite unimpressed with it.
A man boarded the train and sat opposite me, placing his copy of The Daily Telegraph on the seat.

On the back page I noted an advertisement trying to attract visitors to Shropshire. There was a series of such ads in The Daily Telegraph that week.
It featured a cartoon of Charles Darwin with the headline


Below it Darwin is saying "It’s a lie!"

The joke was that The Origin of Species was written not, as is popularly supposed, at his house in Kent, but actually in Shropshire.
This was the only such Shropshire ad to feature a Darwin motif.

And that day’s leader in the same paper (of course the editor would not have been mindful of that ad) was headed: God FRS

It addressed the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s hosting, in 1860, of the famous debate about evolution between Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, and Thomas Huxley.
At the same association’s annual conference that day four speakers were to debate the same matter.

It is now widely accepted that the outcome had been unclear, but Huxley’s own account was that he was victorious and thereby the encounter served to herald one of the twentieth century’s abiding attitudes: the apparent triumph of science (the world of facts) over religion (a world of fantasies).

The previous week William Gosling had written an article for The Daily Telegraph arguing that science and religion should no longer be opposed. When that original nineteenth century debate had taken place the two were still scarcely distinguishable. Wilberforce himself was sympathetic to science and, when reviewing Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, wrote:
We have no sympathy with those who object to any facts or alleged facts in Nature… because they believe them to contradict what appears to them is taught by revelation.

But Huxley was an agnostic.
Essentially science seeks to explain how things happen while religion seeks to explain why things happen.
There may, of course, be no meaning to life at all, but the question ultimately remains a religious and not a scientific one.
As Wilberforce’s review implied, science cannot rule out the claims of religion, or vice versa, and the leader ended with a plea for a reconciliation of science and religion, since they ought not to be viewed as irreconcilable opposites but rather as complementary aspects of the search for truth that should live in peaceful coexistence.

That evening there was a further incident apropos the scientists’ gathering, when they announced that computer modelling indicated that man had been walking upright before he left the trees.

Dr Robin Crompton said:
"Our research has upset the commonly accepted ideas about the evolution of human walking and suggests that by the time of Australopithecus afarensis, who lived some three and a half million years ago, our ancestors were already erect bipedal walkers."
Later that day my wife told me that about the time that I had spotted the Shropshire ad she had been visited by some Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Seeing that she was pregnant and in her dressing gown, they quickly left.
By our front door one spotted a passionflower, which, Fiona informed me, is one traditional symbol for Christ.

The Witness remarked that she did not understand how people, when confronted with such beauty in Nature, could still believe in evolution.

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