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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Darwinism: Imagining the unimaginable, and cutting through the terminology fog

First, imagining the unimaginable

American-born Warwick U sociologist Steve Fuller writes to share the news that his book was Book of the Week in Times Higher, where Keith Ward tries to give a reasonable though plodding account of what he is writing about:
... , Fuller argues that there is no reason to call ID non-scientific. It is a good integrating hypothesis - as good as astrology (now disproved) and Darwinian evolution (another grand theory that may soon be disproved). He provides interesting examples of how religiously inspired ID views have driven the work of many eminent biologists, and suggests that ID should be promoted as "an openly religious viewpoint with scientific aspirations".

That's certainly not something that the previous Guardian writer even tried to do.

It's dull, but it's progress. And it's interesting that Ward can bring himself to think that Darwinian evolution "may soon be disproved." I wonder how many Darwinbots will write to protest any such suggestion?

The problem right now is actually a bit deeper and wider though than Ward suggests: Darwinian evolution is in no fit state to be disproved. If it were, that would be progress.

To some, it means "cosmic Darwinism," to others, the "selfish gene" that creates "memes" that rule our minds, to others, group selection (long a no-no). To some, it still means a parsimonious, testable idea: Natural selection acting on random mutation to produce new species.

But there is only weak evidence that new species commonly arise that way. There are a number of ways that they might in fact arise, including gene-swapping, neoteny, and front-loaded design.

Some think that sexual selection, Darwin's other theory, should be included, but the problem is that at least one of its legendary icons (the peacock's tail) is in serious* trouble.

Similarly, even common ancestry, long accorded the status of a religious** belief, is showing cracks. For one thing, gene swapping, where it occurs, makes ancestry irrelevant, unless you mean where a given gene came from - information that may not be available or even important.

Terminology fog

And still others, like Olivia Judson of the New York Times, want to abandon the term altogether. For example, Judson writes,
Iā€™d like to abolish the insidious terms Darwinism, Darwinist and Darwinian. They suggest a false narrowness to the field of modern evolutionary biology, as though it was the brainchild of a single person 150 years ago, rather than a vast, complex and evolving subject to which many other great figures have contributed.

In my view, the main reason Judson wants to abolish the terms is that terms ā€“ of any type ā€“ force us to at least try to define what circumscribes the field we are talking about. What, for example, is it not?

Is "evolutionary psychology", as portrayed in Psychology Today, a science? In what way? Are evolutionary biologists prepared to say that it is not a science? Few seem to be.

Their problem is most likely this: Once we confess that the obvious flim flam is not science, we will inevitably go on to address other questionable items, like the peacock's tale and the Monarch-Viceroy butterfly mimicry puzzle. To the extent that those proposed examples of evolution according to Darwin's theories of sexual and natural selection respectively at least try to be science, the evidence against them must count, as well as the evidence for them.

As friend David Rice III writes to say,
I'm inclined to agree .... I really think that the reason they don't like the term is precisely because it IS a term. If the Darwinists don't like the word Darwinism then the burden is on them to come up with another term that suits them. Instead they want to talk about the 'field' of modern evolutionary biology...a 'field' suggests an entire panoply of possible options making it that much easier for the Darwinist to maneuver around arguments against it - just switch the emphasis and you're all of a sudden off the hook. Real arguments don't work that way.

A war over terminology is much safer for evolutionary biologists right now than a hard look at the true state of the evidence for and against Darwin's account of the history of life. So, here's a prediction: Expect many more efforts to make a smokescreen out of terminology.

Which reminds me: One possible sign of significant change is that unleashing a horde of Darwinbots to swamp a discussion of evidence with protestations of faith in faith may be a much less useful tactic now than it was five years ago.

(* I suspect other examples are in trouble too. For one thing, the theory requires us to believe that the females of many relatively stupid species are somehow able to assess male fitness using burdensome secondary characteristics that supposedly pose a handicap that only the strongest can bear. Such theorizing exists only to protect the theory from falsification, not to explain the behaviour of hen birds.
**as when someone writes to me to ask if I "accept" common ancestry, using the same idiom as the door-to-door evangelist who wants to know if I "accept" Jesus.)

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