Directed Evolution

What would the world be like if Darwin had never existed? This is the question Peter Bowler asks in Darwin Deleted: Imagining a World Without Darwin (2013). While counterfactual histories are often entertaining (and thus make for good beach reading), they’ve always left me feeling empty. No matter how informed, counterfactuals are the intellectual equivalents of empty calories: speculation is sugar. But I can see how a counterfactual that deals with the history of ideas rather than events might be different. Indeed, I can imagine ways in which such a counterfactual might lead to keen insights. This is especially so with Darwin, whose ideas have been the subject of endless debate and overlay since 1859.

In this review of Darwin Deleted, Rachel Mason Dentinger discusses the conflict between science and religion which erupted after publication of the Origin:

[P]rogressive and purposeful non-Darwinian models of evolution were also more acceptable to religious thinkers. The notion that evolution led to an ultimate improvement in organic life allowed humans to continue to imagine themselves at a pinnacle, even if it was no longer the pinnacle of creation, but the pinnacle of an evolutionary progression.

Darwin’s model of evolutionary change by natural selection, in contrast, was not only open-ended and non-progressive, but also harsh and mechanistic. According to Bowler, in challenging the benevolent view of nature cultivated by Christianity, Darwinism was responsible for the virulent opposition that seems to exist between religion and evolution in western society. Darwin provided a focal point for tensions and anxieties that might have remained more diffuse in his absence.

In a world without Darwin, evolution would have continued to embody an upward motion, moving toward a higher organic and moral goal. This sustained belief in a progressive model of evolution, Bowler writes, would have provided an accommodation between evolution and religion.

This is not quite correct. There are numerous passages in Darwin’s work which suggest that he saw evolution, at least parts of it, as progressive. Progressivism is an issue he wrestled with throughout his life, just as he did with whether evolution was random or law-like. Both issues are of course relevant to the teleology debates that are raging among contemporary scholars and scientists.

The dominant view of evolution today is (unfortunately) progressive. Thus, it is not true that “in a world without Darwin, evolution would have continued to embody an upward motion, moving toward a higher organic and moral goal [that] would have provided an accommodation between evolution and religion.” Such an accommodation already exists, as evolutionary theists are happy to attest. 


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7 thoughts on “Directed Evolution

  1. jayarava

    The idea that Darwin was the only evolutionist and without him things would be very different is an unfortunate fallacy. Alfred Russel Wallace independently discovered the same principle at the same time. Thus without Darwin we’d do Wallacian evolution and it would be much the same. And Wallace would have been the focus of Christian anxieties about the death of God and our connection to the animal kingdom rather than God’s kingdom. Not sure about Wallace’s character, but he was another Victorian and as I understand Darwin he was very much a man of his time. The harshness of Darwin/Spencer evolution reflects the Victorian worldview and the concerns of Imperialist Britain.

    “The dominant view of evolution today is (unfortunately) progressive.”

    Is it though? I thought cladistics had made some inroads into progressivism. I keep reading how all life presently on earth is equally evolved and similar thoughts. But then I’m attracted the version of evolution championed by Lynn Margulis, so come at it from quite a different angle than the Dawkins crowd. “Evolution is community ecology over time.”

  2. Sabio Lantz

    Like you, Cris, I am averse to counterfactual histories. Heck, even what poses as history is loaded with counterfactual and ideology packed. It is hard for humans not to do that it seems.

    You said, “the dominant view of evolution today is progressive”, by that I’d imagine you meant the common person’s perception— which my intuitions seem to confirm. I’d be curious if this has been tested: surveys on pedestrians’ views of evolution. But as far as biologists go, is it true? Just curious. It is not my intuition. Perhaps they are divided on the issue? As your post shows Woese’ aid in helping correct that view: indeed, infomatics can sometimes change views (like cinema) much faster than thousands of black and white paragraphs.

    For as your diagram shows, theistic evolution, is laughable.

  3. Cris Post author

    Though I am not aware of any surveys on the issue, my experience is that most evolutionists implicitly or explicitly see evolution as progressive. I would say that close to 100% of the students I’ve ever taught have this conception of evolution, and when I teach evolutionary theory and challenge progressivism, they have a hard time with it and lodge many objections.

    I have also found that evolutionists who have never seriously grappled with this issue also have a default tendency to view it as progressive. Our friend Tom Rees (of Epiphenom blog fame) commented on one of my posts and argued that evolution does in fact appear to be directional or progressive. He pointed to humans as supposed evidence of this fact. Anthropocentrism runs strong in us, and even someone like Tom can fall prey to progressivism.

    Among professional evolutionists, a good number view evolution as progressive. This explains why Stephen Jay Gould spent so much time and writing effort to challenge the idea. He was not speaking just to a popular audience: he was challenging professional or academic evolutionists.

    Some of these are, of course, theists who are metaphysically committed to evolutionary progression. As you observed, it’s hard to take these people seriously. I especially despise their ostensibly disinterested “scientific” arguments in favor of progressive evolution, when in fact those arguments are driven by their theology and a priori commitments.

    It should go without saying that all cultural evolutionists (and there are many, both popular and professional) see evolution as progressive. In fact, cultural evolutionary models are founded on this idea.

  4. jayarava

    I was in the Cambridge University Bookshop sale the other day and browsed a book on evolution. It suggested that views of evolution as progressive have all but been abandoned by evolutionary theorists.

    As someone that writes about cultural evolution I try not to see it as progressive, though I may not have fully internalised cladistics yet.

  5. Cris Post author

    I don’t know what book it was but statistics on this issue are certainly lacking.

    I will say that even the most modern evolutionary texts (for instance, John Fleagle’s “Primate Evolution,” which is the classic/standard work in the field) has not yet abandoned gradistic terminology. We were hoping for a change in the latest edition (published just this year) but it did not happen.

    I’ve seen other classics or texts published within the last year or two which also retain gradistic terms and/or classification.

    This is a sure sign that progressive evolutionary ideas are alive and well, despite the suggestion (or hope) of the book you saw.

  6. Pococurante

    Great article but for: “speculation is sugar”. I disagree.

    Speculation is what opens new avenues of inquiries. Flights of fancy often lead to a shake up of an institutional view. Even speculation framed in popular culture can have a corrective action on science.

    Jurassic Park’s contrafactual account of genetic manipulation was ahistorical and speculative “misrepresentation” of the energy / size / color of dinosaurs when it turned out by opening up the topic culturally those within the institution were able to reassert and correct.

    Such speculative fictions in the 18th and 19th century directly defined the unfolding of technology in the 20th century. Speculation is the imagination at work. Outlets for the imagination inspire future researchers.

    If that’s sugar we need more of it.

    But again, enjoyed the article.

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