The party poopers at Darwin’s 200th birthday

Following mainstream scientists’ celebration of Darwin’s big birthday last year, two new books argue that Darwin’s theory is not all it’s cracked up to be. Are they on to anything?

John Gillott

Topics Books

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Last year was Charles Darwin’s two-hundredth birthday. Scientists across the globe marked this, and the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin’s seminal work, with a wide range of publications and celebrations of the great man’s life, works and enduring legacy. James Le Fanu, unimpressed by the celebratory mood, asked ‘Why us?’, as the title of his book puts it: Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves. Now, after the guests have left the party, Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini have turned up to say that the father of modern evolutionary theory was plain old wrong in their book What Darwin Got Wrong. So, are these critics on to anything?

Darwinism is a thriving research programme for scientists studying evolution, genetics and related fields. It is also so firmly established within the scientific community as a concept with explanatory power that leading evolutionary thinker and writer Jerry Coyne says we should go a step further than saying it is a theory with abundant empirical support to saying, simply, that it is true (see his 2009 book, Why Evolution is True).

Evolutionists today, as in the past, are, typically, concerned with two issues in their popular writings: challenging creationism, especially in its modern guise of Intelligent Design (ID); and dealing with the issue that, implicitly, or explicitly, has always dominated popular if not scholarly thinking in the area – what about us humans?

In challenging ID, one influential strand in contemporary evolutionist writing places particular emphasis on the constructive role of the Darwinian mechanism: natural selection. This is the dominant theme in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, for example. For Dawkins, natural selection ‘shatters the illusion of design within the domain of biology, and teaches us to be suspicious of any kind of design hypothesis in physics and cosmology as well.’ Wound up by the correspondence he receives from religious people (or perhaps working himself up into a fevered state recounting it), he tells us: ‘Darwinism, this person believes, is inherently nihilistic, teaching that we evolved by blind chance (for the umpteenth time, natural selection is the very opposite of a chance process).’ Similarly, for Coyne, ‘if anything is true about nature it is that plants and animals seem intricately and almost perfectly designed for living their lives’, which leads to the idea of ‘a master mechanic’. But this is an illusion; the fit between organism and environment is all the product of evolution guided by the mechanism of natural selection. This mechanism is not the only force in evolution, but it is ‘the only process that can produce adaptation’.

In telling the history of life on Earth, modern evolutionary writers place humans within this process and thus see humans as the product of natural selection. An enduring and influential body of such writing extends this analysis to provide an explanation of our current behaviour and mental architecture. Working within the discipline of evolutionary psychology, researchers have analysed areas such as language, religion, child abuse and many more using Darwinian concepts. As Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini (hereafter F & P-P) detail in the appendix to their book, the proponents of this approach today are influential individuals with an ambitious and varied agenda.

In different ways, F & P-P and Le Fanu respond to what they see as flaws and over-confidence in the Darwinian theory of evolution. F & P-P’s appendix on evolutionary psychology is merely an add-on to their main and far more controversial point: in the body of the book they present and concentrate on a full-blown critique of the Darwinian theory of natural selection. Le Fanu’s book is broader in scope – ranging over cosmology, physics, evolution, archaeology, neuroscience and more – and at the same time more explicitly focused on the place of humanity in the natural world.

Fodor is a leading cognitive scientist of his generation, Piattelli-Palmarini a bio-physicist and molecular biologist turned professor of cognitive science. Le Fanu is a medical doctor, and a gifted writer with an interesting track record of critiquing fashionable ideas in medicine and medical practice. Both F & P-P and Le Fanu draw significantly upon contemporary scientific research in the areas relevant to their analysis and argue that their conclusions are a development of that work. Both books have, however, been damned by mainstream scientific researchers and reviewers informed by mainstream thinking.

The theses, in brief

Within populations there exists variation in physical and behavioural traits. Darwin’s theory of natural selection states that if that variation is in turn linked to genetic variation that can be passed on from one generation to the next, then traits that confer greater reproductive success on organisms in a given environmental context will become more frequent in the population over time. As Coyne puts it in Why Evolution is True:

‘Selection is not a mechanism imposed on a population from outside. Rather, it is a process, a description of how genes that produce better adaptations become more frequent over time. When biologists say that selection is acting “on” a trait, they’re merely using shorthand saying that the trait is undergoing the process. In the same sense, species don’t try to adapt to their environment. There is no will involved, no conscious striving. Adaptation to the environment is inevitable if a species has the right kind of genetic variation.’

F & P-P are at pains to emphasise that they are not into Intelligent Design or any other kind of creationism. They are out and proud, card-carrying materialists and atheists. Rather, it is their contention that the variety and forms of order that we find in the natural world are not and could not be the product of natural selection as formulated by Darwin and developed by neo-Darwinism. Early in the book they state: ‘There must be strong, often decisive, endogenous constraints and hosts of regulations on the phenotypic options that exogenous selection operates on. We think of natural selection as tuning the piano, not as composing the melodies. That’s our story, and we think it’s the story that modern biology tells when it’s properly construed. We will stick to it throughout what follows.’

In fact, in what follows the argument is, if anything, hardened up. From the above quote the possibility of natural selection operating in a very constrained way seems to be allowed. Later the argument becomes that natural selection in the Darwinian sense does not exist, that Darwin confused himself and that Darwinists continue to confuse themselves and others through ‘just so’ stories and analogous thinking – comparing natural selection to the artificial selection of the animal breeder and the experimental and conceptual work of the human architect, two processes that involve human agency and thinking.

Furthermore, just as natural selection doesn’t operate, so species aren’t adapted to their environments, argue F & P-P. The following quote brings out this aspect of their argument and is at the same time a good example of their way of thinking:

‘Here’s the point: a creature’s ecology must not be confused with its environment. The environment that creatures live in is common to each and every one of them – it’s just “the world”… By contrast, a creature’s ecology consists of whatever-it-is-about-the-world that makes its phenotype viable. That is to say: it is constituted by those features of the world in virtue of which that kind of creature is able to make a living in the world. In effect, the notions of “ecology” and “phenotype” (unlike the notions of “environment” and “phenotype”) are interdefined. Since they are, it’s hardly surprising that a creature’s phenotype reliably turns out to be in good accord with its ecology. Do not, therefore, be amazed that the seagull’s wings meet with such remarkable perfection the demands that its airy ecology imposes. If seagulls didn’t have wings, their ecology wouldn’t be airy.’

That last sentence encapsulates the change in worldview they want to bring about. ‘If seagulls didn’t have wings…’ But why do they have wings? F & P-P spend most of the book in critical mode. Their alternative, however, is implicit, and they make it explicit in the last chapter. Building on the first half of the book that discusses, among other things, a range of sciences that suggest strong endogenous processes and constraints shape the forms of organisms, they argue that natural history, not natural selection, explains why there are the phenotypes that there are. And by history they do not mean history as understood by Marx and other nineteenth-century writers who looked for patterns and causation in history. They mean history in the sense of one damned thing after another. In this spirit they propose that we abandon any single way of looking at evolution:

‘On the present view, Darwin made the same sort of mistake that Marx did: he imagined that history is a theoretical domain; but what there is, in fact, is only a heterogeneity of causes and effects… Darwin pointed the direction to a thoroughly naturalistic – indeed a thoroughly atheistic – theory of phenotype formation; but he didn’t see how to get the whole way there. He killed off God, if you like, but Mother Nature and other pseudo-agents got away scot-free. We think it’s now time to get rid of them, too.’

Le Fanu does not make his religious beliefs or non-beliefs clear in his book. There is, though, a fairly clear hint that belief is in there somewhere, and his opposition to materialism is overt, as he makes clear in his conclusion and alludes to in the subtitle of the book: ‘How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.’

For Le Fanu, it is scientific advances of the recent period that have revealed just how mysterious we are. In this way he distinguishes himself from those of a religious persuasion who are indifferent to science while also making some telling points against those who proclaimed in the 1990s and more recently that genetics and neuroscience in particular would tell us what it is to be human. Indeed, it is the hubris of some associated with the Human Genome Project and the ‘Decade of the Brain’ that provides the starting point and perhaps the motivation for Le Fanu’s book. According to Le Fanu, the reality is that the findings of researchers working in genetics and of those studying the human brain present a setback to the modern scientific enterprise’s aspiration to understand and explain:

‘When cosmologists can reliably infer what happened in the first few minutes of the birth of the universe, and geologists can measure the movements of vast continents to the nearest centimetre, then the inscrutability of those genetic instructions that should distinguish a human from a fly, or the failure to account for something as elementary as how we recall a telephone number, throws into sharp relief the unfathomability of ourselves. It is as if we, and indeed all living things, are in some way different, profounder and more complex than the physical world to which we belong… The ramifications of the seemingly disappointing outcomes of the New Genetics and the Decade of the Brain are clearly prodigious, suggesting that we are on the brink of some tectonic shift in our understanding of ourselves.’

Le Fanu distinguishes between a ‘philosophic’ view, which is ‘the aggregate of human knowledge of the world as known through the senses, interpreted and comprehended by the powers of reason and imagination’, and the ‘second order’ scientific view which ‘is limited to the material world and the laws that underpin it as revealed by science and its methods.’ For Le Fanu, the philosophic view is superior in that it encompasses the scientific view whereas the latter does not encompass the former. Accordingly:

‘It would thus seem a mistake to prioritise scientific knowledge as being the more “real”, or to suppose its findings to be more reliable. But, to put it simply, that is indeed what happened. Before the rise of science, the philosophic view necessarily prevailed, including the religious intimation from contemplating the wonders of the natural world and the richness of the human mind that there was “something more than can be known”.’

From this starting point Le Fanu develops a bold and extensive interpretation and reinterpretation of the history of humankind and our theories of that history. Like F & P-P, Le Fanu is interested in endogenous constraints on the forms that organisms could take and believes that natural selection could not possibly account for the complexity of life. Specifically, the ascent of man is, argues Le Fanu, ‘a riddle in two parts’. The first riddle is anatomical and begins with the observation that our evolutionary forbears stood up and walked on two feet. This, argues Le Fanu, makes no sense in Darwinian terms – it required a sudden wholesale redesign of anatomy, contradicting the Darwinian emphasis on small and steady changes that yield at each stage an adaptive advantage. What is more, the riddle is only deepened by the findings of what he calls the recent science of the New Genetics – that the genetic differences between knuckle-walking chimps and us are small. The second riddle is what Le Fanu calls the ‘cultural explosion and the origins of language’:

‘The most striking feature of the arrival of modern man is its suddenness and completeness, epitomised most obviously by the beauty and originality of those artefacts he left behind: the “pride of lions” portrayed in perspective on the walls of the Chauvet cave; the beads and jewellery for self-adornment in this and the “next” world… All the features in short – artistic, technical, economic and religious – that can be found in contemporary society.’

As with the ‘sudden’ appearance of the upright stance, for Le Fanu the sudden appearance of language is a riddle because, drawing on Chomsky, he believes that language is an all or nothing system of meaning that imposes order on the world: ‘Rules and meanings cannot evolve from the simple to the complex, they just “are”. The structure of sentences is either meaningful or meaningless.’ And for Le Fanu, just as the New Genetics only reinforces the mystery of our anatomical development, so neuroscience reinforces the mystery of our linguistic development.

Le Fanu believes that not only the New Genetics and neuroscience, but also gravitational theory, show that rather than materialism being triumphant, it is the opposite that is the case – non-material processes bring order to the world. From this perspective, ‘the great drawback of Darwin’s simple, all-encompassing evolutionary theory has always been that it robs the living world of its unknowable profundity’. But thanks to the New Genetics we are led to the ‘necessity to set aside Darwin’s evolutionary doctrine’; further, ‘we are left to stare into the abyss of our ignorance of virtually every aspect of the complexities of the living world and its evolutionary history’.

Like F & P-P, Le Fanu concludes by linking Darwinism with Marxism and judges them to be failed universal theories. Unlike F & P-P, Le Fanu sees the failure of both as indicating the failure of materialism. He also links Darwinism to Freudianism. His observation is that in the current intellectual world Marx and Freud are discredited. His hope is that others will soon join him in negative judgment on the third member of what he dubs the materialist science triumvirate.

Are they on to anything?

There is something shocking about both books. The authors view many things radically differently from many other people, this reviewer included, and at the same time seem ignorant or clearly misguided on some questions. For example, both F & P-P and Le Fanu begin their critique of natural selection with what they see as the theory’s failure to deal with the large-scale change involved in speciation, when in fact if there is one area of evolutionary change that the theory of natural selection is least needed as an explanation for it is speciation, which most writers on the topic believe originates in physical separation (perhaps the title of Darwin’s major work confused them?).

At the same time both F & P-P and Le Fanu have taken the approach of presenting their own views in robust style, with the thought perhaps that when confronting what many regard as one of the most solidly established empirical sciences of our age, caveats and self-doubt aren’t the way to go. F & P-P, to give one example, make no attempt overtly to respond to arguments made by some leading scientists, philosophers and writers on the issues at hand following an article by Fodor in the London Review of Books in 2007. What Darwin Got Wrong is more of a restatement than a consideration of the issues in the light of about as informed a critique as one could hope for.

Similarly, at nearly every step of Le Fanu’s potted history of the evolution of Homo sapiens, his emphasis on the sudden appearance of new phenomena is challenged by an extensive literature covering the conditions that favoured the emergence of novelty and the antecedents of the new traits. The reader is given absolutely no sense of this in the text. Further, Le Fanu discusses evolutionary theory’s failure to explain the eye as if it were a fresh problem that had not been addressed by a large volume of writing over the past 150 years (starting with Darwin). In general, he is far too impressed with the ‘puzzle’ of small genetic differences correlating with large phenotypic ones. But perhaps the most basic and striking of his amazing claims for me is the idea that Newton established that gravity is inconsistent with materialism, because gravity is based on action at a distance. Besides the obvious point that Le Fanu ought to have acknowledged that materialism, like religion, is not susceptible to logical or scientific refutation, this is amazing at two levels: firstly, Newton certainly didn’t think so (‘I feign no hypotheses’), and secondly, if Le Fanu was going to raise a query about the fit between science and philosophy, it would have made more sense to consider the modern theory of gravity rather than a theory that is more than 300 years old.

The combination of a radically different perspective, seemingly clear mistakes and a robust style of presentation makes it tempting and easy to dismiss the books. But are they on to anything? Let’s look at F & P-P first. ‘Whatever the outcome of intellectual engagement with this stimulating work, it is sure to be a most rewarding experience’, says Noam Chomsky of What Darwin Got Wrong in a dust-jacket blurb. Rewarding might not be quite the word I’d use, but there’s something in this.

The book comes in two halves, which appear only tenuously connected at first but which ultimately mesh together in the final chapter or two. As already discussed above, the first half discusses recent work in evolutionary theory, developmental biology and genetics. Constraints on the form that organisms could take is the primary theme, coupled with a consideration of the positive role of processes other than natural selection in shaping the form of organisms. The authors freely admit that:

‘[I]t is only fair to acknowledge that the majority of biologists whom we have cited here, including several of the discoverers of these quite intricate levels of endogenous regulation, still today endorse natural selection as the determinant par excellence of the course of evolution. Indeed, the most determined defenders of neo-Darwinism consider the sorts of results we’ve been surveying as further supporting natural selection.’

So far, so of-a-piece with their tendency to irritate by restating the obvious as if they were telling us something new. What becomes clear, though, as we progress through the second half of the book is that if we rework their argument on the impossibility of natural selection we might learn something useful, or at least remind ourselves of something important, after all.

F & P-P’s argument against natural selection is of a logical kind, myopically so at times, and not, altogether I would suggest, consistent: in the LRB debate, Fodor insisted that his argument was ontological rather than epistemological – it is not that we humans struggle to work out what is being ‘selected for’, he argued, it is rather that natural selection cannot distinguish in the way Darwinists claim it does. Humans can select because they have a goal in mind. Nature has no goal and no mind. However, as F & P-P grapple with the argument and formulate it in different ways in the book, they sometimes slip between ontological and epistemological arguments.

They argue that if two traits go together, Darwinism as a process does not distinguish between the potentially different roles played by each. I think they are wrong on this, and it is in elaborating on the point that their critique wavers between epistemology and ontology. I / a Darwinian would respond to the point about coupled traits by saying that in reality (ontology), one trait has more likely been selected for and the other is the free rider or ‘spandrel’ to use the terminology of the famous paper by Gould and Lewontin that they draw upon. This is when they slip into epistemological mode and argue that if you cannot perform an experiment to run through the counterfactuals, how do you really know which one is which? Or, they say, focusing on the environment rather than the trait, how do you really know what the relevant bit of the environment is? Maybe it’s not the one you think it is and therefore the relevant trait is also not the one you think it is? Along similar lines, they make this distinction: we do run through the counterfactuals / we know what we are selecting for (ie know what the relevant environment is) in artificial selection. Nature does not ‘know’.

In a purely logical sense they have a point. However, the fact that they slip back and forth between ontological and epistemological argument is a weakness for their argument, and opens up the door to a response. Sometimes, of course, it is right and proper to have the two components, ontology and epistemology, in an analysis. In their case it is not because they want to argue that theirs is a watertight ontological critique, when in fact it isn’t: it’s more of a logical critique, a critique that says we can’t prove Darwinism is true. Well, I don’t think we should want to do this in quite the way they imagine. Natural selection has strong plausibility, which is reinforced by a huge amount of empirical evidence, including, yes, a large number of very plausible just-so stories (such as one of F & P-P’s favourites, that polar bears’ whiteness is an adaptation to a white landscape).

In addition we can provide a tight explanation of why, from the point of view of the organism that experiences the environment, artificial selection is very much a material rather than a mental process, and thus not so different from natural selection. Or rather, artificial selection is not quite like natural selection if we choose which animals will breed, but it is very much like it if we’re discussing experiments in which humans created an artificial environment with particular properties for a population to breed freely in. Such experiments have been performed (not referenced by F & P-P, but see Coyne for examples) and they highlight selection in action.

So, what can we learn through a critical engagement with F & P-P? For me, it is that we should not try to suggest that natural selection is a watertight logical theory that allows us to evaluate all the structures we find in nature. Nor should we forget that, as they argue, there is an element of storytelling in the way we use natural selection to explain the features of organisms. Finally it is useful to keep in mind that evolution is natural history rather than the construction of order through selection.

F & P-P aren’t into Intelligent Design, but some are. In attacking ID some evolutionists have become too preoccupied with presenting an alternative explanation of complexity as the consequence of natural selection in action. Natural selection is undoubtedly central to evolution as a process, but it is not the only force at work.

What of us? Or ‘why us?’, to return to Le Fanu’s question. There are two key aspects to his critique: one, the claim that there are profound weaknesses in our natural scientific knowledge of certain issues combined with the inability of many scientists to realise this; and two, the claim that certain issues will remain forever mysterious, which includes a pretty transparent nod towards religion.

Connected to the ‘how can evolution explain this?’ theme discussed above, a key failure of Le Fanu’s approach is that he takes as his starting point the view that particular interpretations based on the Human Genome Project / Decade of the Brain / neo-Darwinian explanations of human nature are the scientific or even worse the materialistic explanation of what makes us human, rather than, as they ought to be seen, caricatures of scientific and materialist approaches. Further, the ironic thing is that when it suits his argument, Le Fanu will claim that science knows certain things with something approaching certainty (cosmology is the most glaring example of this), all the better to point up its failure to explain other things. And throughout, science is taken to be natural science – the approaches of the social sciences are not discussed.

But Le Fanu is right to challenge those who think we have come anywhere near to explaining the story of humanity’s development and current abilities, and he is right to be intrigued by our history and abilities. Humanity’s place in nature is an enduring theme, and an enduring puzzle. There are sufficient gaps in our knowledge and understanding, covering everything from the origin of the universe to the nature of physical laws to the origin and development of the different stages of life on Earth, and that’s before we get to Homo sapiens, such that any attempt to develop a complete framework of understanding is bound to remain incomplete for, one imagines, a long time to come. If nothing else, Le Fanu has reminded us of this.

John Gillott is co-author of Science and the Retreat from Reason published by Monthly Review Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

What Darwin Got Wrong, by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, is published by Profile. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves , by James Le Fanu, is published by Harper Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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