The crowded house of evolution

Richard Dawkins At the start this year an intriguing internet initiative called the World Question Center asked 120 leading scientists: “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” One of the respondents was the world’s best-known apologist for evolution, Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and author of several popular neo-Darwinian books. He is probably best known for popularising his notions of “selfish genes” and “memes”, self-replicating units of cultural evolution which explain human culture. He is also an ardent and outspoken atheist who regards religion as a “virus of the mind”.

Dawkins answered what he believed but could not prove was this: “that all intelligence, all creativity and all design anywhere in the universe is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian evolution”.

In the light of an evangelical revival in the United States and the consequent resurgence of fiery debates between creationists and evolutionists, such a remark may be interpreted as a victory for Biblical literalists. They have often claimed that evolution requires as much faith as religion. Isn’t Dawkins, an outspoken critic of religion, effectively admitting this?

Well, not really. In his interview with BBC Radio 4 on the question Dawkins asserted that his “faith” was of “a different kind of unproveability” to a religious one. In any case, Dawkins was not talking about religion, at least on this occasion.

So what is Dawkins saying? Essentially this: that he is prepared to take his belief in the explanatory power of Darwinism further than most other scientists would currently allow. Underlying this response is Dawkins’ position in a number of ongoing debates within scientific circles. We tend to see evolutionary theory as a monolithic body facing assaults from creationists and postmodernists. However, the internal scientific disputes are perhaps just as compelling.

Many of the questions that puzzled Darwin remain points of contention for scientists today. In addition, advances in genetics and molecular biology, while strengthening to some extent the evidence for evolution, have raised further anomalies.

The modern controversy inside evolution dates back to the mid-1970s. While Dawkins and others at this time took for granted that evolution proceeded at a regular rate (phyletic gradualism), American Marxist Stephen Jay Gould was formulating quite a different approach. Gould believed that the infamously incomplete fossil record could not be explained by the slow and constant pressures of natural selection proposed by Dawkins. He suggested a theory of “punctuated equilibria”; that evolution lay dormant for long periods of time in between intense and brief moments of change.

Gould’s co-author at the time, Niles Eldredge, describes the divide as one of “ultra-Darwinians” (such as Dawkins and John Maynard Smith) against “naturalists” (including himself and Gould) [Reinventing Darwin  1995] .The lines of dissent lie well beyond simply the rate of evolutionary change. In 1979 Gould and colleague Richard Lewontin published an article attacking the “synthetic theory” developed earlier in the century by Theodosius Dobzhansky. This theory was the standard amalgamation of Darwinian ideas with modern genetics. It was based on the idea that organisms developed according to the “adaptive advantages” provided by their genes. Gould and Lewontin argued that in many cases it was simply external constraints and contingencies that shaped species development.

Essentially this claim was one of many that go against Dawkins’ assertion that “all intelligence… is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian evolution”. For Gould and others, natural selection is simply not enough to explain many of the complex realities of the living world. In particular, it is not enough to explain the human world. Interestingly, the strongest opposition to the socio-biological writings of the last 30 years has come not from religious circles but rather from the humanist approaches of, for example, the Marxist Gould or the atheist David Stove (Darwinian Fairytales 1996). These argue that it is fanciful, if not dangerous, to base an anthropology purely on biology.

Besides rate and mechanism, there is a lack of consensus among evolutionists on the target of evolutionary change. For Richard Dawkins, the “selection” practiced by nature is an intensely individual process. But biologist David Wilson and philosopher Elliott Sober have put forward one of the more recent arguments for “group selection” -- that an organism’s ability to adhere to a group affects its chance of survival more than individual genes (Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behaviour 1998). The theory raises questions of sociability and altruism. Why in particular do humans seem to care about others outside their relations? From whence comes this concept of self-sacrifice?

Dawkins’ reply to the World Question Centre can be viewed as an affirmation of his position in any of the above debates. But principally it is an affirmation of his belief in the ultimate potential of empirical science to explain all reality. In this regard, he opposes concerns that the “science” of modernism has failed in its project to create a utopia for its believers. He also opposes a movement among some scientists to propose limits to the explanatory power of science. In the field of evolution, for instance, biochemist Michael Behe has suggested that there are chemical pathways in living bodies too complex to be explained by a random process of evolution (Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution 1996). Dawkins is rarely patient with his opponents, but he has been particularly venomous when he attacks Behe.

Behe and others have argued for an Intelligent Design (ID) approach to evolutionary science. For Dawkins this reeks of Christian obscurantism. However the ID’s audience is not necessarily Christian. Recently the prominent British philosopher Antony Flew announced his “conversion” to theism, that is, to a belief that there must be some intelligent force standing in the shadows of much of the complex reality we experience.

Dawkins has popularised many ideas about evolution but inside the field his position is far from commanding. At one level he is one player amongst many contesting  questions of the rate, mechanism, target and relevance of evolution. At another level, he is one of a dying breed of scientists with an almost boundless confidence in the potency of an empirical approach to knowledge.
Philip Elias is studying medicine at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.


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  • Phillip Elias