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Darwinism isn’t the only game in town

A shift in biological thinking could poke even more holes in this theory in crisis

Discovery Institute

Darwinism isn’t the only game in town

When Michael Denton in 1985 wrote Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, he was a lonely Ph.D. holder in biochemistry crying out in the wilderness. Now, just about everyone who doesn’t have a monetary or professional stake in defending Darwinism is seeing the theory’s ability to explain small changes but its incompetence in explaining macroevolution—and the adaptive transitional forms Charles Darwin predicted we’d find are still absent without leave. In Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis—a runner-up for WORLD’s 2016 Book of the Year in the Science, Math, and Worldviews category—Denton shows how advances in our knowledge of genetics, paleontology, and developmental biology have threatened the faith that macromutations by chance put together complex structures like a diaphragm, a bat’s wing, a branched bipinnate feather, etc. We offer the following excerpt, courtesy of the Discovery Institute, where Denton explains how a shift in biological thinking could poke even more holes in Darwinism. —Marvin Olasky

Chapter 14: The Priority of the Paradigm

It seems clear to me that the species is not a life-crystal in the sense that it must, like a rock-crystal, take the form in a particular way and in no other for purely internal reasons and by virtue of its physical constitution; the species is essentially a complex … of modern adaptations which have been recently acquired, and of inherited adaptations handed down from long ago—a complex which might quite well have been other than it is … if it had originated under the influence of other conditions of life. —August Weismann, The Evolution Theory (1904), Volume Two, 307.

Despite its obvious failure, Darwinism has retained its hypnotic hold on the biological mind primarily because cumulative selection has been “the only game in town.” As Thomas Kuhn pointed out, without an alternative framework, scientific communities are forced to regard evidence that to anyone outside the circle of belief may appear to be profoundly hostile as mere anomalies.

The perception that Darwinism is “the only game in town” has been reinforced since the middle of the twentieth century by makers of the neo-Darwinian “modern synthesis,” who imposed on biology the conviction that the evolutionary argument was over, and that the Darwinian functionalist paradigm had won the day. In their view, adaptation was everything—the primal organizing principle of biology—and the extrapolation from microevolution to macroevolution was embedded in concrete.

Not content with conjuring up a completely illusory Darwinian victory, the makers of the neo-Darwinian synthesis also denigrated nineteenth-century typologists and structuralists, portraying them, as we have seen, as intellectually driven by discredited metaphysical, essentialist beliefs which biased their biology in favour of the notion of the Type. This denigration of typology was a striking case of the “pot calling the kettle black.”

The apparent lack of a rational scientific alternative has meant that the defects and failures of Darwinian metascience are viewed by nearly all evolutionary biologists as trivialities which will somehow eventually be accounted for in terms of the accepted theory. For this reason, virtually all current evolutionary biologists, even those who are insistent that Darwinism is insufficient, are stalled at an intellectual Rubicon, unable to cross—intuiting that Darwinism cannot provide a convincing narrative, yet having no alternative view of nature to embrace.

Most of the novel evolutionary mechanisms currently on offer to account for the origin of evolutionary novelties, including phenotypic plasticity, epigenetic innovation, facilitated variation, multilevel selection, and so forth, are essentially conservative amendments to the current paradigm. Such amendments do not provide anything like an alternative causal directing agency to replace cumulative selection as a means of building “infinite complexity,” of crossing the great divides and accounting for the origin of the homologs. None of them can provide a plausible account of the origin of such homologs as the feather, human language, hair, the angiosperm flower, the insect body plan, and so forth.

And if cumulative selection fails, then what natural explanation, what directive natural force, is available other than natural law? What explanation other than the fitness-structuralist paradigm, which sees the forms of life as no less built into nature than the properties of water? If the homologs are not natural forms—not part of the “furniture” of the universe as Wagner refers to them—given their uniqueness, their complexity, their apparently saltational emergence during phylogeny and subsequent invariant constraining powers for vast periods of time in diverse lineages, then to what other category of being do they belong?

Fortunately, it now seems that after a slumber of more than 150 years, a consilience of evidence is emerging that is supportive of the alternative paradigm of natural law. There is the deep hint—arising from the cosmological discovery of the fitness of nature for life—that the life forms on earth may be, after all, an integral part of the cosmic order. There are tantalizing hints that an explanation of life’s origin may lie within the fitness-structuralist framework, i.e. hints that nature lent a hand over this first great divide! There is increasing evidence—perfectly consonant with the structuralist view—that a great deal of organic order is emergent, the result of the self-organization of different categories of biomatter and not specified in the genes as the alternative Darwinian contingent model predicts. There is the evidence of evo-devo that the paths of evolution have been constrained by deep homologies, shared in some cases by all metazoan organisms, and that the specific taxa-defining novelties themselves have been shaped largely by internal causal factors rather than cumulative selection. Finally, there is the existential challenge to Darwinian functionalism posed by the non-adaptive nature of so many of the homologs and Bauplans.

Fortunately, it now seems that after a slumber of more than 150 years, a consilience of evidence is emerging that is supportive of the alternative paradigm of natural law.

In the context of this consilience, the various failures of Darwinian externalism can no longer be viewed as anomalies but rather as straws in a potentially revolutionary wind, heralding a coming shift to a more structuralist, internalist, twenty-first-century biology. At last, there is another game in town. No longer can Owen’s perception, and that of many pre-Darwinian biologists, of the Types as natural forms generated by special laws of biological form be dismissed simply as metaphysical nonsense.

But sadly, because of an unshakeable commitment to the contingent view of life—and perhaps because to embrace a biology of law might be seen as the first step towards a reintroduction of teleology into biology—many Darwin skeptics among evolutionary scientists are unable to cross the dangerous waters and leave behind the realm of contingency.

This is obvious on any reading of Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s What Darwin Got Wrong. The authors argue fervently—along with many others—that Darwinism cannot be the answer. But they end their book with a whimper with these massively disappointing words: “‘OK; if Darwin got it wrong, what do you guys think is the mechanism of evolution?’ Short answer: we don’t know what the mechanism of evolution is.”

There is no doubt that, as Fodor and his co-author insist, Darwin got it wrong. But although the Darwinian dragon is fatally wounded, to account for the “third infinity” and the novel homologs without the slightest hint of teleology, the beast must be maintained on life support by evolutionary biologists. This is why Pigliucci and Kaplan end their critical book Making Sense of Evolution with the claim, diametrically opposed to that of Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, that Darwin “was (largely) right after all.” Indeed, Darwinism will have to be right after all, will always be resuscitated, will have to be resuscitated, even in the face of Bateson’s “endless absurdities” and Owen’s non-adaptive Bauplans, even when it is so obvious that “he got it wrong,” until evolutionary biologists put aside their metaphysical commitment to a contingent worldview, and biology finally embraces the realm of law—a realm whose only defect in the eyes of the agnostic mainstream is that it might be construed as supporting a return to a more teleological view of life and its place in the cosmos.

Although the Darwinian dragon is fatally wounded … the beast must be maintained on life support by evolutionary biologists.

Darwin is dead; yet—like the ancient King of the Woods who stood sentinel over the Golden Bough in Diana’s sacred grove at Nemi—Darwin relives! Le roi est mort, vive le roi.

I have shown here that the core thesis of Evolution: A Theory in Crisis has been vindicated by advances over the past three decades. Nature remains as I described her in 1985: stubbornly discontinuous, resistant to all attempts to reduce her to Darwinian functional continuums. From the origin of life to the origin of human language, the great divisions in the natural order are still as profound as ever, and still uncrossed either by known empirical series of adaptive transitional forms or by hypothetical functional continuums. Darwin was not “right after all.” There is an irresistible consilience of evidence for rejecting Darwinian cumulative selection as the major driving force of evolution. And what makes this consilience of evidence against Darwin so significant is that it is precisely what we should expect to see if—as many biologists before Darwin believed—the Types are real existents in the order of nature.

Evolution is still a theory in very deep crisis. And as the arguments and much of the evidence I have presented here suggest, the only resolution to the ongoing crisis is the adoption of a new, twenty-first-century version of “laws of form” biology in which the basic “Types” would no longer be seen as artifactual assemblages, as they have been since 1859, but as lawful natural forms comparable to the forms of the inorganic realm.

Only by rejecting the “contingent narrative” can biology be restored to its rightful place in the lawful and rational realm of natural science. Only by rejecting the “contingent narrative” can the inorganic and organic realms be united in the same causal framework.

As alluded to above, I do concede that such a “lawful biology” might be seen as a first step back to teleology and the notion that the laws of nature are “intelligently” fine-tuned to generate the set of life forms on earth up to and including mankind. Indeed, although the Types and “primal patterns” are embedded in matter, they may be construed as many pre-Darwinian biologists did: as reflecting a reality beyond matter, a la Platonic forms.

However, my claim that life is an integral part of nature is not an argument for design or a defense of Plato’s cosmology, but an ontological verdict on the fabric of reality, on the ground of being. Whether or not the fitness of that fabric for life on earth is ultimately the result of design has no bearing on whether life is an integral part of nature or whether the universe is in some sense biocentric. Whatever the ultimate cause of things, whatever teleological implications or otherwise may be inferred, the validity of structuralist claims and my advocacy of a lawful biology are supported by the scientific evidence.

Although I am convinced that the structuralist view is increasingly supported by many lines of evidence, I am aware that all scientific hypotheses are in the end provisional. It is perfectly possible that the phenomenon of life may ultimately prove to be beyond any explanation in terms of either the structuralist or functionalist frameworks. The causal answer may lie in models of nature as far removed from present-day conceptions as quantum physics is from Newton’s Principia. Given that the sheer complexity of living systems is already beyond ordinary comprehension, in the last analysis nature may be, as J.B.S. Haldane famously proclaimed, “not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose”—and certainly far, far queerer than conventional Darwinism supposes.

From Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis by Michael Denton. Copyright ©2016 by Discovery Institute. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Michael Denton Discovery Institute


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