At last! An end to not-understanding-evolution misery!

I’ve commented more than once on how the accusation “You don’t understand evolution” gets slapped on practically everybody, from Fundamentalists to senior evolutionary biologists. If you already know your ignorance you’ll be used to hearing it should you ask the wrong questions at places like BioLogos (I’ve had it thrown at me there twice this week already, though I’ve studied it a bit over the last 50 years or so). Even if you’re highly trained, though, you are not immune (as my piece linked above demonstrates). In both cases, the ultimate reason is probably the same.

And that is that evolution is almost never discussed, on the large scale, in terms simply of a range of scientific ideas to be evaluated in relation to each other, but in terms of a deeply-entrenched mythical structure. A new and, I think, important article by Arlin Stoltzfus is, to my mind, essential reading to gain a clearer view of how that mythology obfuscates everything. If you know enough about evolutionary theory to be confused, the article will clarify much. You may even end up thinking your understanding isn’t as deficient as you assumed!

The last time I simply linked to a paper with little comment it led to good discussion, so I’ll try the same again, putting below just a few provocative quotes to get you to read the whole thing (without which reading, any comments will not be of significant value!).

  • Though evolutionary biology is not governed by any master theory, and incorporates views excluded from the Original Modern Synthesis (hereafter “OMS”), the recognition of these changes has been hindered by woolly conceptions of theories, and by historical accounts, common in the evolutionary literature, that misrepresent the disputes that defined the OMS.
  • The OMS failed rather quickly as a master theory when, in the early 1960s, the results of comparative sequencing prompted biochemists to invoke precisely the kind of mutation-driven view that Fisher and the architects of the OMS had sought to exclude. In the OMS view, visible change is a smooth selection-driven shift in quantitative characters, and the underlying genetic change consists of simultaneous shifts in the frequencies of alleles at many variable loci. Comparisons of protein sequences revealed a long-term process that simply does not look like this.
  • [T]he development and use of mathematical models reveals unambiguously that the OMS does not suffice to depict evolutionary dynamics, because it fails to cover mutation-driven dynamics. This failure is not a mistake or oversight, but an intentional feature of the OMS reflected in the explicit claims of Mayr, Dobzhansky, Simpson, Stebbins and others that selection uses abundant variation in the “gene pool” and does not wait for new mutations.
  • The dynamics that give the “gene pool” its mojo are largely inapplicable in prokaryotes, the organisms that have dominated the biosphere for most of its existence. The OMS is not the theory used by molecular or microbial evolutionists, though it may be a perfectly good theory for special cases, e.g., for short-term changes in quantitative traits in large panmictic diploid sexual populations [my italics – read “microevolution”!].
  • Amnesia and distortion are perhaps inevitable given that scientists are regularly exposed to a Synthesis narrative, common in the evolutionary literature, in which a single Grand Unified Theory sweeps away foolish rivals, unites the field, and establishes a permanent orthodoxy. Without the constraints provided by crucial historical facts, conceptions of this grand theory have drifted, while the Synthesis story remains. What scientists need to understand is that this narrative was introduced, not by independent historical scholarship, but by the architects of the OMS themselves. Some historians call it “Synthesis Historiography”, i.e., telling history in ways that turn out right for the Modern Synthesis.
  • In short, the accounts of history in the evolutionary literature are not good sources for reliable information about developments in evolutionary thinking. In practice, they have fostered a kind of conceptual immune system: scientists guided by these stories have difficulty appreciating genuine alternatives, which are only known through caricatures, so that all reasonable ideas are assumed to align with the Synthesis.
  • Most importantly, to propose that evolution can be, or must be, understood via population genetics is a curiously empty “theory” relative to historic attempts to specify the nature and importance of the high-level causes of evolution, e.g., the origin of novelty, internal vs. external sources of direction, etc. This “theory” does not appear to be a falsifiable conjecture, but is more like a methodological claim about the most productive way to think about evolutionary problems. To invoke this as though it were a master theory is to confess that there is no such thing.
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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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11 Responses to At last! An end to not-understanding-evolution misery!

  1. Avatar photo GD says:

    Good one Jon; I must say I enjoyed this:

    “The reasoning is not scientific, but cultural: it is about an intellectual tradition defined by people and their interests.
    This kind of wishy-washy thinking, in which scientists ostensibly debating a scientific theory are actually aligning themselves with a cultural identity-group, can do no good. The word “theory” can have different meanings in science, but none of them would justify the Darwin-studied-earthworms-therefore-we-win argument.”

    Perhaps by way of entertainment, I will mention that those who are loudest on, “you do not understand evolution, read all of this …” are also the ones who cannot access “easy chemistry”, even though their bombastic calls for OOL chemistry are the loudest.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Quite so, GD. I wanted to put that quote in the OP, but it really needs the context of the effort to trace any new discovery, however tenuously, back to Darwin to show how the old paradigm is still alive. I’ve seen it done with epigenetics – Darwin left a tiny space in OoS for Lamarckian inherited change, but for 150 years this was sidelined as a momentary aberration on his part. But as soon as there’s a hint that something like that happens, it was “We and Darwin were right all along!”

      I think it’s bad for the scientific community (leading to Groupthink amongst biologists, and presumably to misunderstanding of biology by other scientists, who may assume that the other discipline has its house in order).

      But it’s as bad for lay-people, too – and we’re both thinking of theistic evolutionists here – who accept the monolithic picture as “the science” by which to judge the world, the Bible, and mostly other people.

      Apart from our having a greater understanding (especially of the provisionality of our knowledge) if the changes and disagreements within science are understood, society would be safer too.

      For example, today the BBC news has something about a “chemical problem” at our main nuclear storage facility. Maybe it’s minor, or maybe it’s not. It sounds as if “chemical” is used to distract us from thinking about “radioactivity”, rather than to define the issue. Unstable plutonium is a chemical, after all. But nuclear accidents have happened before, simply because human errors always happen, and they have damaged the planet.

      But somehow that human proneness to error is ignored when “science” is involved – there’s an idea that because nuclear power involves scientists and science, it’s in safe hands, as compared to soldiers handling HE.

      Likewise in other issues, like the climate change you’ve recently discussed at BioLogos: matters of politics or religion are just as critical, but we accept that the choices between convictions on such matters involve the risk of being wrong. Yet with science, the thing is framed in terms of one side being right and scientific, and the other wrong and unscientific – as if there were no money, ambition, fashion, ideology or personal antagonisms involved.

      Maybe it’s about needing the security blanket of certainty in some area – many scientists seem to have that “You know where you are with science” motivation (as opposed to the woo of philosophy, theology, etc). If so, it’s actually become a clear instance of idolatry. “Whatever does not proceed from faith [in Christ] is sin.”

      • Avatar photo GD says:

        The outlook displayed by biologists (and evolutionists, whatever that may mean) at biologos is of concern within the context of faith-science harmony/discussion. You may well have identified the problem as idolatry – I am still trying to get my head around the (I suppose what I regard is as silly, but …) view that science is equivalent to ToE, and comments such as evolution=gravity and such nonsense is to me, as a scientist, somewhat disturbing.

        The paper you have used in this post is a detailed account (or summary) of the view(s) I am familiar (in a general sense) regarding the chequered history of Darwin’s thoughts and observations. I note a recent discovery of a tooth in Germany and the headlines in papers – they are about to re-write (again??) the history of human evolution. Even in my old age, I feel annoyed that this is what this field has degenerated to a tooth followed by another story that will, wait for it (drumroll), finally get the real, certain, just as real as electrons, story of ?? And the really real dating? well they think a horse like fossil (or such) was observed in that area, so x million years is a certainty (put x as a number that fits your ideology).

        I will not accept this as legitimate science, as a matter of principle – we as Christians should know better.

  2. drnmud says:


    I read about this Royal Society meeting that was held last year. The Overview includes

    “Developments in evolutionary biology and adjacent fields have produced calls for revision of the standard theory of evolution, although the issues involved remain hotly contested.”

    I haven’t read of anything that the meeting settled, but if you do, please advise.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      As I understsnd it, that conference resolved nothing, but did pretty clearly demonstrate the dynamics of the Stoltzfus paper. A good number of evolutionary scientists did presentations on some of the new approaches to evolution, which in themselves demonstrate the inadequacy of the Modern Synthesis. Some of them said as much.

      At the same time a number of senior defenders of the Synthesis (who seem, from what I heard, to be , as it were “pillars of the [scientific] church”) used many of the tactics Stoltzfus describes to say why the old paradigm holds good (“There’s nothing new in this…” “It’s only a minor component compared to RM & NS…” “We don’t want to give the Creationists [ie all who aren’t sheer materialists] encouragement…” etc).

      The meeting seems to have ended, with no clear direction, on a “Well, that was all quite interesting” note. There was a minor furore from the young bloods when the Royal Society said they weren’t publishing the presentations, but I gather they changed their minds. I’m not sure if they’re publicly available yet.

      However, it was well publicised symposium, and where light is cast, shadows inevitably recede. And no doubt it encouraged people like the Third Way to keep pushing their case, with more chance that journalists and so on will listen. And it did, in the end, give support to ID by having non-ID scientists making the same criticisms they’ve been making all along.

      I should, of course, add that this has little to do with “evolution is true/false”, except in the sense that “evolution”, in the mythology, tends to be shorthand for “the received wisdom as a package”. Once it is perceived that the changes to living things over time involve many causes, and that randomness and the quasi-design of natural selection are not the sole players, then from the scientific point of view there is more scope for progress because true disagreements can be examined, and from the cultural or religious point of view much of the sting has been drawn from the “undirected evolution is a fact that disproves God” claim.

      That’s because, apart from natural selection, evolutionary theory can’t really do without teleology of some sort – and teleology is, in the end, a huge problem from materialist naturalism.

      • drnmud says:

        Thanks, Jon.

        If the Royal Society presentations were not published and are not publicly available, I could see why that might cause a furor among some scientists and others.

        In the end, I guess they continue to disagree on many things about evolution, and agree on only one thing – that evolution is true.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          If the monopoly of the Modern Synthesis were broken, it seems to me the very question “Is evolution true?” becomes a bit meaningless.

          For if “evolution” no longer means “a single master theory of undirected change”, then it has to go back to the more correct scientific definition of “change over time” (the one Joshua Swamidass insists on, as far as I can see correctly).

          And even most YECs nowadays agree with biological change over time – the question is around the mechanism, the degree and the timescales, which leaves quite a lot of variables open!

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Incidentally – this seems a good place to raise an interesting minor point I saw this week. Talking of ID, you’ll be familar with how often opponents, and expecially theistic evolutionists, dismiss it for poking holes in the current theory without presenting a good alternative.

    That’s always seemed specious to me – finding a true explanation is a different task from seeing the weaknesses of a nonsenical one: I may not have the faintest idea how the conjuror made an elephant disappear, but I can say it wasn’t magic.

    But I read a piece on cosmology theory, in which major opponents of inflation theory did a big article on why they believe it doesn’t work, and added their own theory. They were criticized in the discussion for not simply sticking to dismantling the old.

  4. Robert Byers says:

    Biology is the most complicated thing in the visible universe. Not physics.
    So figuring out biology mechanisms/origins must indeed be complicated.
    Evolutionism invented a simple equation in Darwins day and after reflection, in small circles, they realized it was a upper class victorian flop.
    So they came up with improvements.
    People understanding the improvements is successful and not by those on all; sides of origin interests and contentions.
    I do think evolutionism(ToE) is on its last legs .
    I think, Stephen Gould, in a clumbsy, unintentional, way, brought it a serious blow(PE) and ID thinkers, and YEC thinkers are in a understood thorough way putting it to the sword.
    We do understand it, and some don’t, and everyone screws things up.
    Yet its evolutionists who should be the most articulate, mopst persuasive, and most sucessful.
    In reality they are the failing or coming up short relative to the intellectual revolution against all things EVOLUTION.
    Its becoming a target for everyone.

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