Evolution’s metamorphosis (no caterpillars)

Following on from my post yesterday there is something else significant to be considered if the Neodarwinian paradigm should soon be modified, extended or even swept away altogether.

I quoted Jablonka and Lamb’s list of just some of the processes and issues now being incorporated into a twenty-first century view of evolution. Molecular biological insights, new mutational mechanisms, HGT, ecology (including niche construction), behaviour and culture were listed. They might have added developmental issues, epigenetics and other non-genetic inheritance, physiological condiderations as per Denis Noble, symbiosis, hybridisation, etc etc. Some of these are unarguable, others more speculative. But they all serve to make evolution far more complicated, which is, in effect, to turn it from science into history.

Wind back to the time of Darwin and his near-contemporaries. They had more or less agreed that species had transmutated over time which was, historically, a pretty radical idea (though not unknown to the ancients). It was the historical sciences of palaeontology and geology that had been largely responsible for the evidence of this. So it was the members of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s newly coined science of biology who set out to find a scientific explanation that would say how this occurred. The issue of divine planning and action in this was part of the debate, but needn’t concern us at this point.

What was wanted, in the spirit of the times, was a simple and comprehensive law that would govern what came to be called evolution. Biology wanted a Newton or a Kepler, or at least a Lyell, to put the whole thing in a sentence, or better still a mathematical formula, or failing that, a book.

Darwin, as we know, provided that. It was the apparent self-evident simplicity of variation and natural selection that gave his theory instant appeal to the reading public (though not, at first, to the science community, who could see any number of problems: the contradiction by the fossil record, limits to variation, the overwhelming of natural selection given multiple traits, and so on). By the turn of the century, Mendel’s genetics seemed to falsify Darwin, and his theory (though not the bare fact of evolution) went into eclipse.

The Modern synthesis saved this, by showing how population genetics (which even had mathematical formulae!) and natural selection could fit together, especially via the newly discovered mutations caused by ionising radiation and other forces. Once again evolution was conceptually simple. Given an assumption of perfect adaptation to environment (and indeed of progress towards some general ideal of “perfection”) and omnidirectional variation, evolution could do the job of God. The problems and contradictions remaining could be swept under the carpet using the ever-useful Occam’s broom.

What is clear from even the mainstream of discoveries since then is that classical Neodarwinism is not the whole story, nor even a majority of it. Neutral theory suggests that more change occurs under non-selective conditions than occurs from selection. The tree of life becomes a bush or even a web once horizontal gene transfer is factored in.

In short it is becoming clear that biological evolution can’t be described in short. There would appear to be dozens of different processes going on at once, many but not all influenced by natural selection, some depending on chance, some on the environment, some on the organism’s chemistry, and some on the organism’s own activity and even culture. Though traditionalists would like to subsume all these under “mutation and selection”, it becomes increasingly worthless to do so because any kind of prediction, or definitive retrospective reconstruction of causes, becomes imposssible as variables multiply.

That’s the parallel with human history. Attempts were made in the past to construct simple and universal “scientific” theories of history. The most notable was, of course, Marxism, which borrowed much of its conceptual apparatus from evolution. One might also give a nod to Isaac Asimov’s fictional science of psychohistory, in which the knowledge of mass psychology enabled mathematician Hari Seldon to predict the future of the Galactic Empire accurately, at least until a mutant rebel muddied the water.

But there is no true science of history, not because there may not be principles of politics or psychology or economics that genuinely influence history, but because there are too many of them. History is history, rather than science, because it cannot be conveniently reduced to scientific laws. You can write good or bad history, but you can never write definitive history Рstill less a definitive theory applicable to all history.

It’s beginning to look as if natural history is the same kind of beast. What’s the point of knowing that random mutation and natural selection could plausibly explain whale evolution, if niche construction, HGT, saltational events and who knows what else are equally valid explanations, and probably operating at the same time?

Where does God fit into this? Well, not into the gaps left by an increasingly comprehensive science of evolution. The more we know, the more that knowledge will prove to be applicable in many different ways to the same situations. The problem is not gaps, but superfluity of explanations.

History was always known to be a messy and fortuitous business: if unpopular King Klug hadn’t been killed in a chariot accident, his empire wouldn’t have fallen. And so on. But the Bible writers, for all that common knowledge of interacting causes, were happy to credit the direction of history to God’s providence. As St Paul reminded the Athenians, God determined the times set for the peoples and the exact places where they should live.

Part of evolution’s beguiling ability to explain away God’s part in evolution is its simplicity. A couple of simple processes explains all that needed God’s hand before. But there aren’t a couple of simple process – there are a whole lot of complicated processes, interacting, attenuating, amplifying, conflicting and generally messing up any attempt to reduce the story of life to a scientific reduction. Yet we have, instead of chaos, a beautifully organised and ordered system – far more so, in point of fact, than the messy human history which, without any compelling counter-evidence, has always been seen by thinkers of faith to be in God’s hands.

So maybe natural history will only be trule science when we have learned to predict the weather infallibly.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Evolution’s metamorphosis (no caterpillars)

  1. Avatar photo GD says:

    This an interesting approach Jon – as usual, a couple of points (hopefully helpful) from me: (i) the fact of this area of discussion generally is that events occur over periods of time, and thus the term evolution is given an acceptable (but extremely general and vague) meaning, and (ii) I suggest that the current thinking is more of a narrative that seeks to put events over lengthy periods as a ‘pseudo’- science.

    The notion of natural selection especially falls under (ii), with a defence of ‘put forward something better’ into the narrative.

    The history of scientific endeavour is instructive in this discussion, as we can find examples where the scientists of that day held on (often tenaciously and aggressively) to their inadequate idea(s), and people often think that this was replaced by ‘something better’. In fact science does not proceed because something better comes along; most of the time it proceeds because many scientists accept that they do not know, try to question what they do know, and occasionally the type of research leads to new insights (not new arguments). There is some questioning of Darwinian thought nowadays, many doubts, but it seems to me, few examples of people actually stating what that ‘they do not know’. This is especially evident in the way the term natural selection’ has been used. This type of semantic treatment becomes a way of justifying almost anything – the final point is that the inordinately hederodoxical mixture of Darwinian thought and a made up theology has imo made this difficult area much more difficult. The bio-sciences are, as you and others point out, amongst the most complicated areas for scientific study. This odd mixture of theology and Darwinian thought simply makes it impossibly complicated.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      I pretty much agree with that, GD.

      In the context of the article, I’d accept that natural selection is a genuine phenomenon at a trivial level, at least. It’s obvious that out of a litter of pups, those with three legs or bowel disorders won’t do so well, and so on.

      There are, as you hint, reasons to doubt the broader applicability of that (survival of the luckiest, limitations on selecting multiple traits, etc). But as soon as you admit that it’s only one of a number of overlapping mechanisms, it loses scientific explanatory power anyway.

      In human history, one might be quite right to say that, say, official corruption is a big factor in political change. A historian might even discuss its possible role in particular cases in the past, and document it from records. But he’d be arguing for its significance against a myriad of other factors. So it’s maybe a valid kind of study, but lacks the precision necessary to be called science … woops, that’s what they say about things like Intelligent Design too!

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