Evolutionism and the Fundamental Problem of Biology.

In 1853, a mere 6 years before the publication of Origin of Species, a minor textbook written for the education of the public was published with the title Library of Natural History, and the subtitle “containing scientific and popular descriptions of man, quadrupeds,  birds, fishes, reptiles, and insects, compiled from the works of…” and there follows a list of the most active and well known naturalists of the day. While most of the text is not very interesting, there are some remarkable aspects of this book, clearly meant to be an up to date summary of the field. First, the word biology is never used.

The subject of Natural History, which is explained as being a branch of Natural Philosophy, is said to comprise the study of the natural world “and the various classes of organized and inorganic bodies which form its component parts”. These components are divided into three general classes of Animals, Vegetables and Minerals. The “editor” of the book, one A.A. Gould MA. writes in the Introduction, that whereas Dynamics (physics) is a science of calculation, and Chemistry is one of experimentation, the basis of Natural History “rest chiefly on observation.”

The use of the term biology certainly predates the publication of this book, but not by very much, and it appears that around the time of Darwin’s great work, the concept that biology was a distinct and separate science of the nature of all living matter had not completely taken hold. We know that Darwin himself was a natural historian rather than a biologist, and that his early contributions to geology and earth science were as intensive as his biological investigations.

While the theory of evolution by natural selection has become the well established basis for all biological science, and while further developments in genetics and molecular biology have confirmed the theory, it continues to suffer from an affliction that has always plagued all of biology – the lack of any mathematical rigor. To date there is no useful mathematical law that fully encompasses the meaning of Darwinian evolution. Fisher’s famous “genetical theory of evolution” published in 1931, describes the general idea of the statistical nature of genetic variation, and posits that fitness must always increase. That is useful, but not comprehensive.

It is often held that biology has been resistant to mathematical treatment due to the enormous complexity of the subject. That is not quite true. Science has never described its subject by mathematics, that would have been impossible for either physics or chemistry, whose subjects are also extremely complex. What science does is describe a model of reality with mathematics. The laws of motion are based on models, as are the laws of chemistry. Because such models, (eg a frictionless inclined plane, or an ideal gas) do closely resemble their real world counterparts, the equations generated to fit the models, do a pretty good job with reality as well.

Biological models are rare. When they are produced, the results are often quite brilliant. The literal model building by Watson and Crick led to the solution of the DNA structure, which some consider to be another revolution in biological science. Models of predator prey interaction, using difference equations, led to the understanding of the role of chaos and non linear dynamics in biology. Even Mendelian genetics, including the Hardy Weinberg equilibrium law is a model (which is why Mendel’s actual experimental data didn’t quite fit his theory).

But no useful, mathematically describable model of Darwinian evolution has yet been constructed. Actually, there are hundreds of such models, but none that has risen to the status of universally accepted law. Does it matter? Does a theory need to have a mathematical expression in order to be true? Not at all. The mass of data supporting evolution, and the absence of any real data opposed to it are sufficient. Still it does matter for other reasons, not for establishing the truth of the basic theory, but for demolishing the pseudo science that seems to accompany scientific ideas that are not easily contained in a set of fairly straightforward (and often simple elegant) equations.

For example, once we know that laws of thermodynamics and electromagnetism are both true, and easily described by mathematical equations, we can test any future ideas to see if they violate these laws by mathematics as well. However, in biology, especially evolutionary biology, such tests don’t exist, and this allows for many misinterpretations, misunderstandings and even fraudulent distortions of the basic theory to gain some measure of credence.

An example of an extension of Darwinian theory to an area that is actually not supported by either the theory itself, nor any other scientific underpinning, is evolutionism, which includes social Darwinism, evolutionary psychology and other ideas. Evolutionism (a branch of scientism) is the fundamental concept that the principles of Darwinian theory can be applied to all aspects of life on Earth, and perhaps to many other phenomena as well. A good example of evolutionism is the concept of the meme, invented by Dawkins, which is the mental equivalent of a gene. According to the idea, memes compete and reproduce, follow the rules of natural selection, go extinct, and so on. Religion is considered a meme, as is prejusdice, fashion statements, popular tastes in food and hair styles, philosophical and political ideas, and so on.

This idea is quite charming, and makes considerable sense. But it isn’t science. Technology also seems to follow similar evolutionary rules. The fittest (meaning most useful, cheapest, etc.) new devices survive and edge out those that do not compete as well. One can even talk about the evolution of everything from pianos to telephones, to calculating devices. Clearly there is something about change that is quite universal, and that applies to living creatures as well a human artifacts, thoughts, nations, and so on. But lets be very clear. These simple observations about the nature of change, and how so many competing entities survive and prosper, or don’t, are NOT what Darwinian theory is about. The theory of natural selection in biology does not at all apply to memes, disc players, or societies. Any more than the attraction felt by two lovers is explained by gravitational theory. Natural selection, as outlined by Darwin, and then as explained by our current understanding of molecular genetics, involves very specific biological parameters that are not found in these analogous systems. Those parameters, which are uniquely part of biological systems, include reproduction of the informational DNA molecule with a close genotype phenotype interaction, variation produced and controlled to a very fine degree, and a method of change that depends on random and non random mutational events followed by strong interaction with the total environment. Electronic devices do not reproduce themselves, so the target of selection is not the device, but the people who decide if the device is worth manufacturing.

In other words, there are some very general laws of change, and biological evolution is a very specific special case of change. If we are ever able to formulate a useful model for biological evolution, Im sure we will find that it will be highly useful in combatting the excesses of evolutionism as well as putting biology on a much sounder scientific footing.

Sy Garte

About Sy Garte

Dr Sy Garte earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the City University of New York, where he also holds a bachelor’s of science degree in chemistry. In addition to publishing more than 200 scientific publications in genetics, epidemiology, the environment and other areas, Dr. Garte is the author of Where We Stand: A Surprising Look at the Real State of Our Planet (Amacom) and Genetic Susceptibility to Environmental Carcinogenesis (Kluwer) and is co-editor of Molecular Epidemiology of Chronic Diseases (Wiley).
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14 Responses to Evolutionism and the Fundamental Problem of Biology.

  1. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks Sy.

    Evolutionism, as you define it, seems to go right back to the very origin of “evolution” as a description of species transformation by natural selection – though not to Darwin. It was coined by Herbert Spencer, who did regard it as a philosophy of everything, biology being just one example.

    It doesn’t look as if Darwin had much time for Spencer and his philosophy, but was obliged to adopt the term in his later editions of the Origin because it had taken root in the public imagination.

    The question arises as to whether Darwinian theory would have been anywhere near as successful if it hadn’t been seen as part of a universal principle of the universe. People were ready for a priciple of universal progress that didn’t involve God, which would seem to go a way to explaining why it’s applied willy nilly to everything from religion to economics… and of course, to ideas when they’re not the ones you happen to agree with.

    • Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

      Interesting point Jon, one that I haven’t thought of or knew about. I always thought that Darwinism came first and was then applied to many theories of change, although I did know that the term evolution was used earlier even by Lamarck and Lyell. I don’t think Darwin at all intended for his general ideas to be applied outside of biology, which of course they were almost immediately.

      • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

        Sy

        According to Gertrude Himmelfarb, who paints a wonderful picture of his intellectual dilletantism, Spencer became an evolutionist by reading Lyell’s refutation of Lamarck, on the basis that since he found special creation “intrinsically incredible”, progressive development must be true. It seems that in 1851 he added to Lamarck’s adaptationism a theory of Von Bauer that all life progressed from homogeneity to heterogeneity, and he published his own theory in 1852, coining the term “survival of the fittest” without clocking its significance.

        I don’t think he influenced Darwin at all – except that he impressed him as a great philosopher (of which Darwin knew zilch) but not as a naturalist – which of course was his own field. It shows, though, that evolution was an idea ripe for the picking, and Spencer picked a whole tree full.

        Himmelfarb goes on to say the term “evolution” first occurred in Lyell’s Principles, but only in passing. She’s an excellent read.

  2. GD GD says:

    Hi Sy,

    “What science does is describe a model of reality with mathematics. The laws of motion are based on models, as are the laws of chemistry.”

    This is only partly true. Science and mathematics have been so closely related that it is easier to say that we would not have theoretical science without mathematics. The intellectual rigour that is found in physics and chemistry is the subject of Philosophy of Science. You are correct in that science is very complicated, and we are often forced to make assumptions or simplifications, to deal with everyday activities in the laboratory – but each and every such simplification is dealt with and discussed in great detail. We can find many examples where mathematical treatments are accompanied with very precise measurements, so that our confidence and understanding is well grounded. I can give many examples (chemical bonds, angels, enthalpy, and electron density). Nonetheless, when scientists decide they have a grand theory that would explain ‘everything’, they rarely convince anyone else.

    Very often a mathematical treatment may commence with a simplified treatment (e.g. frictionless plane) but this is them developed to almost any detail (and complexity) depending on the practical issue faced. This is because such treatments are grounded in sound laws that are dealt with mathematical rigour and all possible precision.

    The fundamental problem with biology (if I may use your phrase) is that it begins with a grand semantic statement – ie everything is the result of variation and natural selection (analogous to a theory of everything in physics), and is followed by an almost endless number of assumptions and wishful statements (mutations are deleterious, but if we have a sufficient number over a sufficiently long period; populations will evolve, as long as we assume that selective sexual partnering and various environmental situations occur; if we assume a classification that commences with one starting point. And fit data into a tree, we can selectively get a progression from a mythical past species to have common descent, and so on). While some (or perhaps many) of such assumptions may be supported by various observations and measurements, and perhaps a (rather loose, by scientific standards) statistical treatment may follow these observations, I have yet to see anything like a mathematical grounding for such work. I have noted some recent work (I referred to such papers in previous BioLogos comments) which seeks a meta-analysis of vast amounts of data, to obtain correlations between observations and fundamentals of Darwinian thinking, such as natural selection. Even with our modern methods, and computing power, they could only report a weak (to me a very weak) correlation. This does not speak well for a so called established, unshakable law of biology. One would have expected at least a 99% correlation in a treatment which “clarifies” a law of nature.

    I agree with you that the extension of Darwinian thinking into the Sociological areas has been macabre, as shown by the acts of atheists who have been in powerful positions and have done great harm, because of beliefs based on Darwinism, such as the survival of the fittest, and other error. However, imo Darwin’s insights have been inadequate as a science; this to me is easily shown by his argument by analogy (e.g. the farmer selecting stock for breeding). Fundamentally, a law of nature needs to be ‘thought’ from first principles, and not kitcen (or farming) practices. Chemistry had its alchemists and we do not see their thinking pervading chemistry today. In biology, the first principle that biologists insist is that we have life forms on this planet and these are very diverse. I (chuckle) think it is hard to get to any law, or mathematical treatment, from this.

    The complexity in biology, however, is found in the fact that all life is intrinsically linked to this planet – and it is here that biologist may need to seek first principles.

    • Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

      GD

      Thanks for the comment. Although we disagree on the value of Darwin’s theory, I do like your point about first priniciples, and the lack thereof in biology as we know it. Its possible that one problem is the total inability of anyone to come up with any kind of theory for the origin of the modern DNA based life form. That means we must start with a common ancestor which already has the ability to evolve, and thus evolution is a theory only for the easy part of biology. It might be analogous to having a chemistry, without atomic theory, or the understanding of what molecules are.

      • GD GD says:

        Sy,

        I must confess it is refreshing to discuss evolution with a scientist, (especially one who practices in this area) in this way. I am acutely aware that it can be annoying to hear (from someone outside of the field) some of the critical comments that I make. I have qualified these by comments emphasising the theological arguments that are made with evolution, rather than the state of understanding in biology.

        Nonetheless, when comments are made that indicate Neo-Darwinism is similar to, say, quantum mechanics, I feel justified in disagreeing. As an example regarding maths and science theory, I point out that we can derive the Schrodinger equation by using the maths dealing with a vibrating string, and F=ma (Newton). This is covered in detail on easily accessible sites on the internet. Such an example illustrates the seamless link between science and maths (before and after QM), and also shows the considerable differences between science/maths, and theoretica biological treatments.

  3. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Sy

    Having been sent to my bookcase by our conversation about Himmelfarb, I’ve started re-reading Gilson’s “From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again” (referenced on the book page). I see he covers the lack of mathematics in biology in the context of final causation (and formal causation, though he’s a bit light on that). So he seems to bring together some themes that both of us have been covering.

    If you’ve not read it (you too, GD!) then you ought to. He deals with Spencer and the origin of “evolution” as a concept, by the way, too.

    He doesn’t take final causation specifically back to God except in passing, though he’s a Christian writer and the implications are obvious. i don’t think that a truly thesistic biology is possible without some such concept being thoroughly worked in.

    • GD GD says:

      I made a reply but it seems to have been lost (I think the problem may now be solved?!)

      In essence, I acknowledge that it is important to show a difference when discussing first principles as part of a philosophical discussion (and concepts), and in a scientific discussion. I agree that Spencer (from the little I have read on this) provided more of “evolutionism” conceptualised as a worldview – with the resulting harm to many areas of human endeavour. He and others conceived a view in which some progress towards some higher ‘animal’ or creature, and the inferior ones were culled or deselected. I understand this is a brief statement and many evolutionists hate to hear this, as they modify their ideology into what they feel is more suited propaganda for today.

      In any event, when I mention maths and theory, I mean to show that we can commence with non-controversial concepts (e.g. a vibrating string) and well established equations (e.g. F=ma). The concept in this is that (for electrons) is that we understand there are specific energy levels electrons may occupy. I can give other equally clear examples of concepts in science theory (e.g. DFT starts with three dimensional space in which electron density may be distributed).

      Thus ” I don’t think a truly theistic biology is possible without some such concept …” is correct, but I would question the possibility of conceptualising s thing such as “theistic biology”; certainly not on a scientific foundation.

      • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

        GD – apologies.

        I woke ths morning to find this comment and your complaint about being unable to comment in my intray for moderation, and then found a whole bunch of previous ones marked as “spam”. I’ve no idea why but will look around to find out. Nobody else has been caught, but nobody else has made comments in the last few hours! Maybe it’s my failure to close the italics on my last comment.

        Very briefly, on the substantial question, one thing Gilson does well is to show that biology is intrinsically unlikely to be reducible to “true” mathematical science, because living things are, in very essence, irreducible. At the same time, he critiques aspects of Darwinian science itself for, in effect, pretending to be science when they are just narrative.

        The other thing is that Aristotlelian final causation is a necessary observation, not a recourse to God. It is usually considered intrinsic, ie a property of the organism itself. It is, however, by its very existence an invitation to suggest God as its original source.

        • GD GD says:

          Jon,

          Glad the ‘hic-up’ has been resolved. I have always thought Aristotle to be an extremely intelligent fellow, and the argument that I have understood from him sound solid to me.

          The irreducibility of bio-aspects of nature has been discussed for many years and I do not think I can add anything substantial to this. My focus is not so much on biology, as I regard that as a branch of science, and being a scientist, I am confident that practicing biologist will eventually progress to the point that their narrative will be more convincing. As I have stated before, it is not evolution as currently understood that is the problem (imo), but the attempts to synthesise Darwinian thinking with all sorts of socio-, and theological aspects dealing with human existence. IF these chaps make such claims, I feel it appropriate to respond by pointing out the many inadequacies inherent in the Darwinian thesis.

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Good to have you legitimised again, GD!

    I think the problem is that the metaphysical and theological complications have been with the theory from the beginning, and also in the terminology.

    The word “Evolution”, though little used pre-Spencer, etymologically implies an unfolding of what is already there (pre-loading, in modern ID parlance), the very opposite of what Darwin proposed, which was innovation appearing literally from nowhere (he offered no explanation for variation) yet progressing towards perfection. As Gilson says, the former is more intelligible than the latter, and maybe the word “evolution” itself adds more plausibility to the theory than more correct words like “transformation” or “transmutation” would, with their alchemical connotations..

    Yet Darwin’s main “target” was primarily any idea of special creation, so his theory was inherently anti-theological but, surprisingly, not ateleological – or at least he welcomed Gray’s observation that it united teleology and biology for the first time. So Darwin was ideologically at one with the anti-theistic spirit of the age, and that metaphysical slant keeps creeping into the Origin and is almost impossible to disentangle from the science.

    Then Spencer misused the word “evolution” to propound a philosophy of everything, which Darwin disagreed with, but that idea – and the word – is what captured the public imagination. Darwin felt constrained to adopt the term (but only in his 6th edition) and even, in later years, seemed to buy into the role of being the founder of Evolution the Universal Acid, natural selection being just one aspect of that – quite the opposite of his early focus purely on biology and the specific mechanism of transformation.

    So Spencer had his philosophical theory and his pet term hijacked forever by biology, and Darwin hailed as its inventor (which understandably irked him), and Darwin saw his careful scientific theory cut and pasted into all kinds of other things, with himself as its poster-child. As a naturally modest man that wasn’t exactly what he’d planned , either.

    Now most people have forgotten all that, and can pick and choose which bits of “evolution” they want to embrace: evolution can disprove God, or allow for him; disprove or confirm teleology; deny or affirm progress; apply only to biology or to everything; presuppose natural selection or dispense with it altogether; include the origin of life (as part of the evolutionary theory of everything) or exclude it (as part of the scientific theory of natural selection)…

    But like “freedom”, it’s a word that continues to appeal irresistably to the spirit of the age, even though nobody is quite sure what it is.

    • GD GD says:

      Jon,

      Your quick review is reasonable; I would add that at the time of Darwin and Spencer, the geological times became in vogue and these were at odds with (mostly) Protestant (Sunday school) teachings that the Bible spoke of a 6 day creation. I am familiar with Orthodox teachings (although there are many in that tradition who are convinced of the 6 days) which have dealt with lengthy periods and that the Bible is there to teach us that God is the Creator (and Salvation is the purpose of the Bible) and not get hung up about details of the creation per se, and I am confident that major figures such as Calvin clearly understood and taught this also. The apparent conflict between faith and science is thus along the lines we have discussed before, as atheists became more prominent and they sought a belief system they could use for their atheism. I sense however, that more intelligent atheists are around, who accept they do not believe in God and leave it at that.

      I may add, the Faith expects us to seek to understand what is true (to the best of our ability) and this includes understanding the bio-world with all its mysteries and wonders. So with some irony, both Spencer and Darwin (and others) have contributed (with all of the limitations their science brings with it) to this understanding. I think, for example, we would not have advanced in our understanding of ecology and the environment without the effort of many in the bio-sciences (although some of them forget that much has been done by other areas of science). In any event, it takes effort to separate truth from error, so we keep at it.

      On “freedom” you have touched on one of my favourite subjects – “freedom and law” but that is for another discussion.

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