Darwinian Mythology

Perhaps the title is misleading – perhaps it suggests that Darwin was completely wrong, or non-existent, or a flat out liar. But let me clear things up. I am no creationist, and I do not deny the scientific plausibility of evolution. This post will not call Darwin completely wrong, non-existent, or a flat out liar. It will suggest, though, that Darwin was partly wrong, that modern evolutionary theory cannot be called his, and that his own biases helped to develop his ideas and define the discourse on evolutionary biology.

I will give inspiration for this post to an article in the  American Scientist that I found on 3 Quarks Daily.

As learned in American high schools today, evolution is presented as a straight forward uni-faceted agreed upon fact of nature. It is demonstrated to be wholly Darwinian and completely understood. That was my experience, at least, and in what I’ve learned, that’s wrong. Evolutionary biology is complicated. Evolutionary thought in general – the belief that species change over time – has been around since the Ancient Greeks. I don’t know who decided to teach it otherwise. The philosophical, historical, and scientific roots of modern evolution are not independent. I would propose a slightly far-reaching analogy to explain evolutionary theory with theoretical physics – complicated, debatable, and often philosophical (although evolutionary theory is more rationally oriented). That students learn Lamarckism came from Jean-Baptiste Lamarck is despicable (it didn’t). Claiming that evolution is a synonym for Darwinism, or that competition driven natural selection is the sole basis of evolution is flat wrong.

“The time that natural selection and evolution were synonymous concepts is long gone” (Gontier, 2007). Natural selection, as proposed by Darwin, is only one of a number of evolutionary theories. You have symbiogenesis, neutral theory, punctuated equilibrium, hybridization, and systems theory.  These different schools of evolutionary thought offer different frameworks for understanding the history of speciation. Natural selection is the most competition driven: it is the idea that genes (and more generally species) competed with each over time for resources, resulting in a sort of capitalism in the natural world. As genetic mutations occurred in species over time, some became better adapted than others, and species naturally became better over time. As appealing and mainstream the theory is, it is not the whole story. Scientists such as Lynn Margulis hold to symbiogenesis – the belief that “new cell organelles, new bodies, new organs and new species arise from symbiosis, in which independent organisms merge to form composites” (“Acquiring Genomes“, 2004) . This school of thought traces evolution to cooperation between species, not competition. Another separate framework of evolutionary has to do with gene-centered or organism-centered evolution. Richard Dawkins is of the former, as highlighted in his book The Selfish Gene.  The evolutionary framework the mainstream believes is organism-centered natural selection. I am not qualified to make an opinion, or to say which of the dozens of frameworks is correct, but the wide variety in viewpoints among biologists needs to be recognized. It needs to be taught that competition driven natural selection is not the only perspective, only the one that is most “traditional”.

The “traditional” view is directly traceable to Charles Darwin. But it is only one view and hardly inclusive of all evolutionary theory. Plus, many of Darwin’s views on evolution, though revolutionary for his time, are out dated and incorrect. The study of genetics began with Gregor Mendel, well after Darwin’s death. Darwin was before the time of developmental biology, and neither did he take genetic drift into consideration. This is not to discredit Charles Darwin, but the theory is hardly his anymore. It is the same with physics – we refer to classical physics as Newtonian (from Newton), and modern physics is entirely different and often in direct contradiction. With evolution, the holding onto Darwin as a sort of awkward justification is outright misleading. Creationists refer to evolution as “Darwinism”, using it as an “ism” label for a complex scientific field of study. “Ism” refers to ideology, not an idea. The New York Times argues that “Darwinism Must Die So that Evolution May Live” (Safine, 2010), and rightly so. Darwinian thought and evolution are entirely different in this day and age. This holding grasp to Charles Darwin is some sort of obscure ethical appeal by creationists and scientists alike (note the juxtaposition!). We need to let go and move on.

But what does this mean for the larger academic picture? Social Darwinism, for example, arguably draws directly from Charles Darwin himself (although more so from sociologist Herbert Spencer). Indeed, the first publication of The Origin of Species was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Beyond race relations, a sort of naturalist capitalism emerged from Darwin’s views. The idea of natural selection and competition as a means of improving a species “morally liberated people to be selfish, and it intellectually liberated them to interpret a range of complicated questions in terms of simpler individual parts” (Harris, 2013). Darwinian thought (in its proper usage!) was revolutionary in the Enlightenment period for these very means. E. O. Wilson, frequently mentioned on 3 Quarks Daily, is a retired biologist from Harvard who arguably calls for a revival of eugenics. Perhaps, however, a different evolutionary framework could reorient philosophical discussions based on Darwin. After all, a symbiogenesis outlook would give a strong appeal to cooperation. Neutral theory is entirely depressing and makes life even more meaningless than Camus (if that’s possible). How we deal with the history of the sciences, teach them, discuss them, and draw from them has an incredible effect on everything else. Especially evolution.  

Traditional understandings of evolution – the Darwinian ones – aren’t bad, but they also aren’t perfect. Evolutionary biologists have known for decades that there are other opinions that radically differ from public perception. Darwinism is a misnomer, and natural selection isn’t synonymous to evolution. Science requires us to separate preconception from discovery, and we must do just that.

Darwin’s struggle for truth was an incredible story of free thought and utter creativity. His discovery was ultimate liberation for some, and a hell’s damnation for others. It brought an entire new discourse to science, philosophy, and even economics. However, when we misguide its history, label things incorrectly, or teach what really isn’t true, we are dishonoring what needs to be a time-honored tradition. Whatever you think of Darwin, or of his  discovery, it cannot be questioned: evolution, for better or for worse, is the most thought-provoking discovery of the last few centuries.

See Texas’s new policy on evolution in textbooks

See more soon on Darwinian philosophies and evolution in American discourse.

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