Neo-Darwinism or Creative Evolution?

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I recently received a response from someone who has been reading my articles critical of neo-Darwinian biology. (See under Evolution: Doubts About Darwinism on this page of my website.) The conversation has become quite involved and interesting, so I thought I would publish it for those interested in such matters. It is typical of the ongoing debate between ‘science’ and spirituality. I’ll call my correspondent JH.

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JH: I’m interested in your critique of big bang theory but quite shocked by your comment that Darwinian Evolution is “a faith no more scientific than the beliefs of religious People”. For the big bang we’re talking about a possible event billions of years ago with controversial evidence. With evolution we’re talking about something that underpins all modern biology, can be observed to be happening in many species, and is almost inevitably true based on everything we know about genetics and inheritance. If the big bang isn’t true, physics still works. If evolution isn’t true, nothing in biology makes sense. Evolutionary theory is more equivalent to something like general relativity in physics. There may be small things we’re missing, or unknown underlying processes, but they are both very much as true as anything we know as a species. Do you have any similar critiques of evolutionary theory?

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GP: Thanks for your email.

You make good points. However, we have to be very clear about terminology. You use the word ‘evolution’, which means simply change over time. Nobody can seriously argue against that. In modern times, however, this is taken to mean Darwinian evolution, i.e. according to the principle of natural selection. Then we have to look at later developments. I use the phrase ‘Darwinian evolution’ frequently, in order to avoid using the long-winded term the neo-Darwinian Synthesis, which is what Darwinian evolution has evolved into. This is what I’m talking about when I say that it is a “faith no more scientific than the beliefs of religious People”. Its dogma is that evolution occurs through a process of natural selection acting upon random genetic mutations. Its advocates believe this because they are desperate to avoid any explanation which involves anything supernatural, transcendental, divine, spiritual. In other words, it is atheism in disguise, posing as science. That is my criticism, which in no way involves what genetics can teach us.

In order to maintain this dogma, the neo-Darwinian synthesis has to ignore all sorts of inconvenient data/evidence, including what is actually going on in an organism. So I would suggest that it is not just the small things that we are missing, rather some large chunks. I attach for your interest an excellent paper by a biologist Darwinian doubter¹.

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JH: Thank you for getting back to me, it is appreciated. I’ve read the document you sent and I’m afraid that it makes very little sense biologically. In fact, I’d go as far to say it’s been quite carefully written to be deliberately misleading. If you’re able to send me just one biological phenomenon that you don’t think the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis can explain, I will happily explain it for you. I studied evolutionary biology at Cambridge and have a pretty strong understanding.

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GP: Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. Strangely, I was just thinking about you, and thinking of sending a further email when I saw this in my inbox. So, before taking on your challenge, I’ll just add a few things.

I’m very happy to engage in this debate, but I suspect that we may not get anywhere in persuading each other. Cambridge University is a bastion of neo-Darwinism and indeed atheism.

You’re willing to contemplate that the Big Bang may not have happened, because it was a long time ago, wasn’t observed, and that physics would still stand up in any case. There were also no human observers/scientists to observe the process of evolution, so any theory will be a retrospective hypothesis. I, of course, accept that you think that neo-Darwinism does provide a coherent explanation.

The further point I was going to make, before receiving your reply, was as follows. I’ve just published an article on a completely different subject: Do Souls Exist? This was a response to a writer on Medium.com, who claimed that souls, from the point of view of neuroscience, cannot exist. My argument was that neuroscience deals only with what is material and manifest, the brain, and does not take into account the hidden levels. I would make the same argument in relation to the neo-Darwinian Synthesis; it works on the assumption that the material level is all that exists, and comes up with a theoretical hypothesis based on that assumption. The conclusion is that evolution is a blind, unconscious process, without any suspicion of teleology. Your earlier use of the words ‘inevitably true’ suggests to me that you share this viewpoint. What is inevitable about it? This is my primary objection, and an earlier article of mine explored this question in more depth, click here. If you have time to read it, I’d be very interested in your response, in which case the general problems with morphogenesis outlined by Paul Davies there would be something I’d like to hear your explanation for.

And, before taking on any specific examples, here are two biological phenomena I’d also like to hear your neo-Darwinian explanations for:

  • How did consciousness evolve from the brain?
  • How did life evolve from non-life?

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JH: Morphogenesis is pretty well understood these days. You get a ball of undifferentiated cells which, as you say, all contain the same DNA and do the same thing. The first dimension for morphogenesis to work with is simply determined by the distance of each cell from the surface of the embryo. Cells also release signalling molecules which amplify/inhibit each other so that, due to random fluctuations, you eventually get one cell that reaches a critical level. This determines the “pole” of the embryo and the second dimension for morphogenesis to work with (distance from the pole). The same thing then occurs in different ways to create a three-dimensional map of protein gradients allowing every cell to specialise precisely in response to where it is positioned.

Consciousness is the way we perceive the decision-making processes that goes on in our brains. The fact that we’re so intelligent and also have a complex language probably allows us to think about it at a much higher level than other animals.

Abiogenesis is what happens when you have a mix of various compounds in a water ocean for millions of years. You get autocatalytic reactions occurring where the product is more of the reactant. In things like nucleotide chains the order of bases can change randomly which affects the rate of replication as well as the creation of possible byproducts. Most such mutations will reduce replicative rate but some can increase it. Hence evolution has begun.

Evolution can be observed all the time in organisms with quick life cycles. It can now be observed in humans by genotyping parents and their children, although I don’t think we’ve started doing this on a large scale now. Humans will currently be evolving resistance to the current virus outbreak, for example, as those with reduced genetic resistance are killed by it.

Things like consciousness and abiogenesis really are at the edge of our understanding though, so picking on these is going to give you a warped sense of the strength of evolutionary theory. Bear in mind that all the much better understood aspects of biology being studied all over the world by biologists, pharmacologists and doctors clearly demonstrate that evolution is the underlying process.

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GP: Thanks for your extended reply. I agree with your observation that “evolution can be observed all the time” and your conclusion that “evolution is the underlying process”; it would be hard for any sensible person to disagree. That is not the real question, however. The word evolution simply means change over time. When evolutionary biologists, including I assume you, use the word, they usually mean evolution as understood by Darwin, or what later became known as neo-Darwinism. Underlying these is the motivation to explain nature purely from a reductionist, materialist standpoint, without any directedness or teleology. So the debate should really be about whether such an approach is adequate, or whether evolution is actually directed or creative.

You say that “consciousness and abiogenesis really are at the edge of our understanding”. I wonder if you are being slightly optimistic, and really mean that we don’t understand them at all. I personally think it unlikely that neo-Darwinian theory will ever explain them. You did say that you would “happily explain” any biological phenomenon for me, but when I pick on these two, you concede that evolutionary theory is not strong on these points. Our discussion began with your surprise that I considered Darwinian theory a faith rather than science. So here I think you are showing a mild version of this, saying something like “We don’t understand consciousness and abiogenesis at the moment (from a neo-Darwinian viewpoint), but given enough time we will”. You seem to be adopting an approach in philosophy called promissory materialism, which is a form of faith.

You’ve studied evolutionary biology at Cambridge. I’d be interested to know the dates, and what was being taught at that time, especially whether anything beyond neo-Darwinism was being taught, for example, epigenetics.

Richard Dawkins has been publicly the most vocal advocate of neo-Darwinism. I’d therefore like to draw your attention to Rupert Shortt who has written a book Outgrowing Dawkins, which is a response to Dawkins’ book Outgrowing God. Shortt wrote an article recently in the Times Literary Supplement², in which he says that evolutionary theory is moving beyond neo-Darwinism and Dawkins: “Presumably he [Dawkins] feels on especially secure ground when discussing science, even though it’s precisely in his area of professional expertise that some of his arguments have drawn the heaviest criticism”.

He says that, even though Dawkins regrets ever coining the ‘selfish’ gene idea, he “remains reductionist in outlook”. However, “the scientific consensus has moved on. Neo-Darwinist ideas favouring gene-centric views of biology have given way to much more holistic visions, including an acceptance of purposive behaviour”.

Shortt discusses the work of Denis Noble “who has taught alongside Dawkins at Oxford”³. He was once a reductionist, then changed his mind, realizing that “in the heartbeat there was not only upward causation from the molecular level to the cellular level, but also downward causation from the cell influencing the molecules… This led Noble to reject the take on neo-Darwinism propagated by Dawkins and others for what it is — a contentious philosophical postulate, not an empirical discovery, (thus a form of ‘faith’!). Reductionism seeks to eliminate teleology in nature: Noble now accepts that it is ubiquitous. His book Dance to the Tune of Life (2016) maintains that genes are not agents, whether selfish or unselfish. ‘There is nothing alive in the DNA molecule alone…’ So insofar as genes have agency, they do not have it in themselves but only as part of a complex whole — the biosphere”. Shortt then says: “Nature produces totalities whose existence implies the existence of what we call their parts. Plants or animals are not built out of organs; organs are made in the process of producing animals and plants. So to escape a reductionist or atomistic approach, we need to see creation as dealing in whole, evolving forms, not progressing by one tiny adaptation in isolation at a time. It is now widely accepted that evolution cannot work on chance alone but that there are tendencies towards certain forms which hugely accelerate the process”.

If such ideas are now “widely accepted”, do you agree, and were you taught them at Cambridge? Is neo-Darwinism therefore an adequate explanation for everything we see?

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I’ll give updates if the conversation continues.

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Footnotes:

  1. I sent him an article by biologist Stephen Talbott entitled ‘Can Darwinian Evolutionary Theory Be Taken Seriously?’ This is no longer available online; it has been revised, and the original has been deleted. Talbott and his work can be found, however, at The Third Way of Evolution, click here. There are many other Darwinian doubters listed there.

2. Idle Components: An Argument Against Richard Dawkins, Dec. 13, 2019

3. Nobel is a systems biologist, Emeritus Professor of Carciovascular Physiology at Oxford, and much more besides. As well as the book mentioned, he is also the author of The Music of Life, Oxford University Press, 2006.

I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com

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