Neo-Darwinism

Is it Time to Reconsider

It was the dazzling gains made by science and technology in the nineteenth century through the application of ra­tional analysis that led people to think of applying reason to other fields.

Following the brilliant success of reason and method in physics and chemistry—especially in medicine—it was natural for science to seek to apply the same analytical tool to the most intractable and complex problems: human so­ciety and economic affairs; human psychology; and even the origin and development of life itself. The result was the great mechanistic philosophies of the nineteenth century: Marxism, Freudianism and Darwinism.

The simplicities and certainties of these systems mirrored the intellectually well-ordered life of Victorian society with its authoritarian values and institutionalized prejudices. Now, over a century later, all three systems have run their course, have been measured by history, and have been ultimately found to be inadequate tools of explanation.

Unlike Marx and Freud, Darwin himself remains esteemed both as a highly original thinker and as a careful re­searcher (his study of fossil barnacles remains a text book example for paleontologists). But the theory that bears his name was transformed in the early years of the twentieth century into the mechanistic, reductionist theory of neo-Darwinism: the theory that living creatures are machines whose only goal is genetic replication—a matter of chemis­try and statistics; or, in the words of professor Jacques Monod, director of the Pasteur Institute, a matter only of “chance and necessity.”

And while the evidence for evolution itself remains persuasive—especially the homologies that are found in com­parative anatomy and molecular biology of many different species—much of the empirical evidence that was formerly believed to support the neo-Darwinian mechanism of chance mutation coupled with natural selection has melted away like snow on a spring morning, through better observation and more careful analysis.

Marxist, Freudian and neo-Darwinist systems of thought ultimately failed for the same reason; that they sought to use mechanistic reductionism to explain and predict systems that we now know are complexity-related, and cannot be explained as the sum of their parts.

In the case of neo-Darwinism, it was not the mysteries of the mind or of the economy that were explained. It was the origin of the first single-celled organism in the primeval oceans and its development into the plant and animal kingdoms of today by a strictly blind process of chance genetic mutation working with natural selection.

In the first five decades of the twentieth century—the heyday of the theory—zoologists, paleontologists and com­parative anatomists assembled the impressive exhibits that generations of school children have seen in Natural Histo­ry Museums the world over: the evolution of the horse family; the fossils that illustrate the transition from fish to am­phibian to reptile to mammal; and the discovery of astonishing extinct species such as “Archaeopteryx,” apparently half-reptile, half-bird.

Over successive decades, these exhibits have been first disputed, then downgraded, and finally shunted off to ob­scure museum basements, as further research has shown them to be flawed or misconceived.

Anyone educated in the West in the last fifty years will recall being shown a chart of the evolution of the horse from “Eohippus,” a small dog-like creature in the Eocene period 50 million years ago, to “Mesohippus,” a sheep-sized animal of 30 million years ago, eventually to “Dinohippus,” the size of a Shetland pony.

This chart was drawn in 1950 by Harvard’s professor of paleontology, George Simpson, to accompany his standard text book, “Horses,” which encapsulated all the research done by the American Museum of Natural History in the pre­vious half century.

Simpson plainly believed that his evidence was incontrovertible because he wrote, “The history of the horse family is still one of the clearest and most convincing for showing that organisms really have evolved. . . There really is no point nowadays in continuing to collect and to study fossils simply to determine whether or not evolution is a fact. The question has been decisively answered in the affirmative.”

Yet shortly after this affirmation, Simpson admits in passing that the chart he has drawn contains major gaps that he has not included: a gap before “Eohippus” and its unknown ancestors, for example, and another gap after “Eohip­pus” and before its supposed descendant “Mesohippus.” What is it, scientifically, that connects these isolated species on the famous chart if it is not fossil remains? And how could such unconnected examples demonstrate either genetic mutation or natural selection?

Even though, today, the bones themselves have been relegated to the basement, the famous chart with its unprov­en continuity still appears in museum displays and handbooks, text books, encyclopedias, and lectures.

The remarkable “Archaeopteryx” also seems at first glance to bear out the neo-Darwinian concept of birds having evolved from small reptiles (the candidate most favored by neo-Darwinists is a small agile dinosaur called a Coelo­saur, and this is the explanation offered by most text books and museums.) Actually, such a descent is impossible be­cause coelosaurs, in common with most other dinosaurs, did not possess collar bones while “Archaeopteryx,” like all birds, has a modified collar bone to support its pectoral muscles. Again, how can an isolated fossil, however remarka­ble, provide evidence of beneficial mutation or natural selection?

Neo-Darwinists were quick to claim that modern discoveries of molecular biology supported their theory. They said, for example, that if you analyze the DNA, the genetic blueprint, of plants and animals, you find how closely or distantly they are related. That studying of DNA sequences enables you to draw up the precise family tree of all living things and show how they are related by common ancestry.

This is a very important claim and central to the theory. If true, it would mean that animals neo-Darwinists say are closely related, such as two reptiles, would have greater similarity in their DNA than animals that are not so close­ly related, such as a reptile and a bird.

In 1981, molecular biologists working under Dr Morris Goodman at Ann Arbor University decided to test this hy­pothesis. They took the alpha hemoglobin DNA of two reptiles—a snake and a crocodile—which are said by Darwin­ists to be closely related, and the hemoglobin DNA of a bird, in this case a farmyard chicken.

They found that the two animals who had least DNA sequences in common were the two reptiles, the snake and the crocodile. They had only around 5% of DNA sequences in common—only one twentieth of their hemoglobin DNA. The two creatures whose DNA was closest were the crocodile and the chicken, where there were 17.5% of se­quences in common—nearly one fifth. The actual DNA similarities were the reverse of that predicted by neo-Darwinism.

Even more baffling is the fact that radically different genetic coding can give rise to animals that look outwardly very similar and exhibit similar behaviour, while creatures that look and behave completely differently can have much in common genetically. There are, for instance, more than 3,000 species of frogs, all of which look superficially the same. But there is a greater variation of DNA between them than there is between the bat and the blue whale.

Further, if neo-Darwinist evolutionary ideas of gradual genetic change were true, then one would expect to find that simple organisms have simple DNA and complex organisms have complex DNA. In some cases, this is true. The simple nematode worm is a favorite subject of laboratory study because its DNA contains a mere 1,000 nucleotide bases. At the other end of the complexity scale, humans have 23 chromosomes which in total contain 3,000 million nucleotide bases.

Unfortunately, this promisingly Darwinian progression is contradicted by many counter examples. While human DNA is contained in 23 pairs of chromosomes, the humble goldfish has more than twice as many, at 47. The even humbler garden snail—not much more than a glob of slime in a shell—has 27 chromosomes. Some species of rose bush have 56 chromosomes.

So the simple fact is that DNA analysis does not confirm neo-Darwinist theory. In the laboratory, DNA analysis fal­sifies neo-Darwinist theory.

An even more damaging blow to the theory was the discovery that the very centerpiece of neo-Darwinism, Dar­win’s original conception of natural selection, or the survival of the fittest, is fatally flawed.

The problem is: how can biologists (or anyone else) tell what characteristics constitute the animal or plant’s ‘fit­ness’ to survive? How can you tell which are the fit animals and plants?

The answer is that the only way to define the fit is by means of a post-hoc rationalization—the fit must be “those who survived.” While the only way to characterize uniquely those who survive is as “the fit.” The central proposition of the Darwinian argument turns out to be an empty tautology.

C.H. Waddington, professor of biology at Edinburgh University wrote: “Natural selection, which was at first con­sidered as though it were a hypothesis that was in need of experimental or observational confirmation, turns out on closer inspection to be a tautology, a statement of an inevitable although previously unrecognized relation. It states that the fittest individuals in a population (defined as those who leave the most offspring) will leave most offspring. Once the statement is made, its truth is apparent.”

George Simpson, professor of paleontology at Harvard, sought to restore content to the idea of natural selection by saying: “If genetically red-haired parents have, on average, a larger proportion of children than blondes or brun­ettes, then evolution will be in the direction of red hair. If genetically left-handed people have more children, evolu­tion will be towards left-handedness. The characteristics themselves do not directly matter at all. All that matters is who leaves more descendants over the generations. Natural selection favors fitness only if you define fitness as leav­ing more descendants. In fact geneticists do define it that way, which may be confusing to others. To a geneticist, fit­ness has nothing to do with health, strength, good looks, or anything but effectiveness in breeding.”

Notice the words: “The characteristics themselves do not directly matter at all.” This innocent phrase fatally un­dermines Darwin’s original key conception: that each animal’s special physical characteristics are what makes it fit to survive—the giraffe’s long neck, the eagle’s keen eye, or the cheetah’s 60 mile-an-hour sprint.

Simpson’s reformulation means all this must be dropped; it is not the characteristics that directly matter—it is the animals’ capacity to reproduce themselves. The race is not to the swift, after all, but merely to the prolific. So how can neo-Darwinism explain the enormous diversity of characteristics?

Not only are neo-Darwinist ideas falsified by empirical research, but other puzzling and extraordinary findings have come to light in recent decades, suggesting that evolution is not blind but rather is in some unknown way di­rected. The experiments of Cairns at Harvard and Hall at Rochester University suggest that microorganisms can mu­tate in a way that is beneficial.

Experiments with tobacco plants and flax demonstrate genetic change through the effects of fertilizers alone. Ex­periments with sea squirts and salamanders as long ago as the 1920s appeared to demonstrate the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Moreover, as Sir Fred Hoyle has pointed out, fossil micro-organisms have been found in mete­orites, indicating that life is universal—not a lucky break in the primeval soup. This view is shared by Sir Francis Crick, co- discoverer of the function of DNA.

In the light of discoveries of this kind, the received wisdom of neo-Darwinism is no longer received so uncritically. A new generation of biologists is subjecting the theory to the cold light of empirical investigation and finding it inad­equate; scientists like Dr Rupert Sheldrake, Dr Brian Goodwin, professor of biology at the Open University, and Dr Pe­ter Saunders, professor of mathematics at King’s College London.

Not surprisingly, the work of this new generation is heresy to the old. When Rupert Sheldrake’s book A New Sci­ence of Life with its revolutionary theory of morphic resonance was published in 1981, the editor of Nature maga­zine, John Maddox, ran an editorial calling for the book to be burned—a sure sign that Sheldrake is onto something important, many will think.

The current mood in biology was summed up recently by Sheldrake as, “Rather like working in Russia under Brehznev. Many biologists have one set of beliefs at work, their official beliefs, and another set, their real beliefs, which they can speak openly about only among friends. They may treat living things as mechanical in the laboratory but when they go home they don’t treat their families as inanimate machines.”

It is a strange aspect of science in our current time that while physics has had to submit to the indignity of a prin­ciple of uncertainty and physicists have become accustomed to such strange entities as matter-waves and virtual par­ticles, many of their colleagues down the corridor in biology seem not to have noticed the revolution of quantum electrodynamics. As far as many biologists are concerned, matter is made of billiard balls which collide with Newtoni­an certainty, and they carry on building molecular models out of colored table-tennis balls.

One of the twentieth century’s most distinguished scientists and Nobel laureates, physicist Max Planck, observed that; “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

It may be another decade or more before such a new generation grows up and restores intellectual rigor to the study of evolutionary biology.

Richard Milton is a science writer and journalist. He is the author of The Facts of Life (Transworld/Corgi, Lon­don, 1993) a critical review of neo-Darwinism and Forbidden Science (Fourth Estate, London, 1994) a critical analy­sis of censorship and intolerance in science. The above article has been released by the author into the public do­main.

By Richard Milton

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