I’ve returned more than once (including in song) to the theme of tetrapod pentadactyly, because it opens up structuralist and other non-Darwinian aspects of evolution to consideration. A close runner up for my interest is the case of the giraffe (no song on that, so far), because it was an icon of Lamarckian evolution that became an icon of Darwinian evolution – before both tales were shown to be mere folk-tales by the actual study of giraffes: the long neck cannot possibly be explained by access to high sources of food, either by Darwinian selection or Lamarckian acquisition.
That story is also told in this excellent downloadable short book by Craig Holdrege, an associate of Stephen Talbott, mainly as a mea culpa for the way when, as a teacher, he obeyed educational directives by spinning kids these two cock-and-bull yarns to confirm the truth of Darwinism over Lamarckism. However he goes well beyond iconoclasm to reflect on the giraffe, and its evolution, seen in holistic terms. In some ways this study is illustrative of the problems with most current approaches to evolution, and especially the ruling Darwinian paradigm.
Holdrege points out how the typical evolutionary story works. A particular trait is chosen (eg the giraffe’s long neck), a specific function for it is selected (reaching food), and the two combined by an imaginary explanation from the narrow perspective of how it contributes to survival:
Both the trait (“long neck”) and the particular survival strategy are products of a process of abstraction from a complex whole. Therefore we can think them clearly and establish a clean and transparent explanation that seems to work — it makes sense that the long neck evolved in relation to survival and feeding habits. Unfortunately — and it is the price we pay when we operate with abstractions — we have lost the giraffe as the whole, integrated creature it is. We’re not explaining the giraffe, we’re explaining a surrogate that we have constructed in our minds. The animal has become a bloodless scheme. For this reason evolutionary stories are usually woefully inadequate.
The abstraction element reminds me of Arthur Eddington’s more general complaint, coming from physics rather than biology, of how materialist science describes the world whilst simultaneously discarding its reality and substituting mathematical abstraction. We should pay attention to these recurrent themes.
Holdrege, considering the giraffe-in-itself from his own (and others’) study in the field, shows how the long neck cannot be isolated from the unified character of the whole animal, its approach to life and even its environment. There is something specifically “giraffish” pervading the whole organism (remember what Arthur Jones learned about cichlids here?) For example, why should feeding be isolated from other reasons for the beast’s long neck? Such as this…
Incidentally, evolutionary convergence might predict the same kind of behaviour in sauropods – that would have been thing to see – and hear! Maybe that’s why they kept their brains so small.
After dealing with the actuality of giraffes, he discusses their evolution, raising (rather than seeking to explain it theoretically) the lack of intermediate forms in the giraffe family, and related intriguing phenomena (quite general in biology, apparently) like the threefold division between the branches of that family – the extinct massive cattle-like types, the tall giraffes and the intermediate okapis and their extinct relatives. Why should such distinctions occur, with neither intermediates nor precursors in the fossil record? He doesn’t attempt exhaustive answers, but does call for a more animal-orientated, rather than genocentric and adaptive, approach. In so doing he points out (as many others have) how narrow we have made our alternatives nowadays:
The idea that organisms evolve began to take hold of human minds in the decades before and after 1800. This spurt in interest was not because a wealth of new evidence for evolution was suddenly laid out. Rather, individual thinkers and scientists began viewing geological, biological, and historical processes in terms of development and transformation…
This revolution in human thought was not bound to any particular theory… Differing views of evolution arose, depending on the perspective of the individuals. Some were spiritual, others materialistic; some were teleological, others emphasized randomness; some placed structure in the foreground, others function.
…when we hear the term “evolution,” think immediately of the Darwinian theory of evolution: random mutation and natural selection drive the evolution of species. We probably don’t even know that there always have been and still are other ways of interpreting evolutionary phenomena. In the United States, it seems, one must be either a Darwinist or a Creationist (i.e., someone who doesn’t believe in evolution). Recently some scientists have propounded what they call “intelligent design” as an attempt to wed spiritual and evolutionary views (see Meyer 2004); they are, by and large, pushed into the creationist camp by Darwinians. The battle between Darwinists and Creationists, fought on both sides with religious fervor, has led to unfortunate oversimplifications and to an unwarranted polarization of perspectives. This dichotomizing is, to my mind, counterproductive and shuts down our thinking about some of the true riddles of evolution. (p73-74)
I would suggest that a symptom of that “oversimplification” is the Evolutionary Creation project. The “science” which is being held up as compatible with “faith” is largely culture-bound to the narrow perspective of Darwinism, when there is so much more in heaven and earth. One aspect that intrigued me in Holdrege’s treatment was the giraffe as part of the “superorganism” of its habitat, as the real subject of evolution. And that in terms far wider than the Malthusian struggle for survival – surely of great relevance in formulating a theory of theistic evolution. After discussing the remarkable physiological changes that affect acacias when browsed by giraffes, and the similar relationships with acacia-dwelling stinging ants, he writes:
When we view thorns and ants exclusively as defensive mechanisms, we assume the acacia and the giraffe are antagonists, each busily shaping the survival of its own species. We view species as separate entities that interact on the basis of competition. But species are not separate entities; every species lives from and provides life to many other kinds of organisms. When we view species interaction in terms of coexistence, where each species, through its own life, supports the life of other species, we transcend the narrow terms of competition and individual species survival that constrain so much of ecological and evolutionary thought today…
In conceiving abstractly of discrete organisms, we think of giraffe and acacia as separate entities, which of course they are physically when the giraffe is not feeding. But the fed-on acacia is not the same after giraffe browsing. It may form more and longer thorns, but it may also produce longer shoots, take more minerals out of the soil, and form nutrient-rich substances in its leaves, while suppressing leaf-aging as indicated in less tannin formation. In this way the giraffe has become part of the acacia. Then, when it feeds again, the giraffe feeds on something that is connected to its own activity. The apparently clear boundary between organisms dissolves, and we are led to picture organisms as participating in each other, rather than standing next to each other. We can only truly understand the giraffe when it is viewed as part of this concrete web of life.
Such a view of course makes it impossible to tell simple stories about tall giraffes reaching higher in droughts. But as St Paul says, in the context of God’s Kingdom of right relationships: “When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”