“Darwinism” Debate: Is a New Paradigm Shift Imminent?

A debate over a NYTimes article.

Is Darwin due for an upgrade? There are growing calls among some evolutionary biologists for just such a revision, although they differ about what form this might take. But those calls could also be exaggerated. There is nothing scientists enjoy more than the prospect of a good paradigm shift.

From Seedlings:

Still, if I’m confident of anything, it’s that Darwinism is in for a fall. Too many scientists are peeling at its frayed edges. A counterbalance to the entrenched politicization of evolution is the fact that scientists make names for themselves not by confirming established beliefs, by rocking the boat — and the easiest way to rock Darwinism is to stop propping it up. What will replace it is hard to say. Certainly it’ll still be materialistic — science will never accept ID, much less creationism. Perhaps it’ll be something along the lines of Noam Chomsky, the linguist who got away with arguing that the human brain is hard-wired for language. Maybe physicists will join up with biochemists to link string theory to DNA (just kidding). Whichever way it goes, Darwinism’s lack of evidence is catching up to it, bringing us to the verge of a huge paradigm shift.

A retort from Laelaps:

Interesting take on the article; I had the feeling that someone would take this interpretation of it. First, the term “Darwinism” is a misnomer; evolutionary biologists are not “Darwinists” because Darwin was in fact wrong about a good number of things. He had no idea about genetics, and he also included a Lamarckian aspect of inherited characteristics to his ideas, and we know a good deal about his mistakes today. Indeed, this science “Darwinism” suggests that we have not moved beyond the late 19th century in this area of research, and while Darwin certainly did lay the groundwork for evolutionary biology in its modern state (primarily through his ideas of evolution by natural and sexual selection), the science itself has “evolved” since Darwin’s day.

And another:

Evolution is a fact. Live with it. All your railing against the wind, rain, and evolution, won’t change those facts. Creationists need to accept reality openly rather than insist on pathological readings of science and history as correct, when they are fantasy. We have broccoli now, we didn’t have it 500 years ago or so. It’s rise is fairly well documented. Your denying that broccoli evolved, when the records show it did, doesn’t make broccoli go away (sorry, George Bush the elder). Your insisting that we ignore the evidence we have of evolution won’t cut it, either. Broccoli is just one of hundreds of recorded cases. We have seen evolution in real time, in the 20th century (and earlier, when we review the records). Evolution is fact.

My own Evolutionary Biology Professor was rather good about presenting as many of the unknowns as possible to us.  I imagine she is NOT in the minority.  She made it very clear that Evolution was a vibrant and alive field, full of possibility. She didn’t do this to undermine the field, but rather to encourage young burgeoning scientists to get into the it in a real way.

No the answers are not all known. Not even close. But, we can’t pretend that that uncertainty about certain particulars undercuts the understanding we have gained from those scientists who blazed the trail ahead of us.

Advertisements

13 responses to ““Darwinism” Debate: Is a New Paradigm Shift Imminent?

  1. Thanks for the link. Science has definitely changed, but there definitely is a progression towards refinement. What I’ve learned from studying the history of debate is that there were once many different ideas of how evolution could take place, but Darwin’s ideas won out in the end. Even though there is still debate as to ancestor/descendant relationships, rates of evolution, etc. (and there will always be), this doesn’t weaken the “big idea” that we’ve come to understand, in fact the smaller controversies help to refine our understanding. The history of Darwin’s “long argument” is usually forgotten, however, and people who say that it’s on death’s doorstep usually don’t realize that there have been evolution critics saying that for near 150 years.

  2. I certainly don’t have time to embark on another thread — I spent many an hour on that first one you quoted from. But I thought highlighting a few paragraphs from the other perspective would be useful:

    I have no doubt in my mind that scientists will refine the theory of evolution further. In fact, I’m expecting that the next version will be even harder for creationists like me to refute than the current one.

    But it is questions, not answers, that drive revision. In this sense, Intelligent Design theorists, creationists and other independent thinkers may well be credited for spurring the scientific community on, much as hackers may be credited for identifying software security holes. At least the software industry has come to understand that hackers can see what software designers do not. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to see what could be accomplished by evolutionists if they began truly listening — or even consulting — divergent, even oppositional voices, in order to rise above their groupthink (admit it, everyone has it) in order to test and refine their own understanding?

    I’m hoping to show that enough prediction-matching evidence is available for creation to prompt an honest person to consider skeptical questions about evolution. Every time I read an article about DNA similarities between close evolutionary relatives, I wonder what scientists would have expected to find different had evolution not occurred. How could two species with similar characteristics not possess similar DNA? This would be like declaring that 92% of the words Hemingway and Steinbeck used were the same — or better yet, that CNN.com and MSNBC.com use 97% of the same HTML tags and javascript objects. Did one evolve from the other? Did both possess a common ancestor? How would two similar writing styles or websites not be comprised of the same elements? Characteristics equal DNA. You may have a response to this challenge as well, but my intent here is not to refute evolution so much as to demonstrate that such an obvious, assumption-probing question like this one is never addressed in evolutionary articles, so an honest person with no baseline assumption that evolution occurred cannot help but ask it.

    It’s not merely the “uncertainty about certain particulars” that drives me toward a skeptical view — it’s the general scientific attitude of entrenchment. Your evolutionary biology professor is, in my experience, unique. Even your own post leans against paradigm shift of even a strictly materialistic nature. “Darwinism is here, and here to stay.” I suspect Darwin himself would be disappointed with such an attitude.

    Anyway, that thread at seedlings is long, interesting, and perhaps even unfinished, and I appreciate laelaps’ input over there.

  3. I entirely agree with your earlier commenter that this really isn’t a debate at all.

    At a certain point contention becomes fact – and to make a meaningful comparison or two, we might as well argue that the Earth is flat, or that the Sun goes round the Earth. Even that Newton’s apple didn’t fall.

    There’s a great deal more detail to evolution (and far more evidence for it) than the so-called debaters would like to accept.

    Although Darwin’s work (and Alfred Russel Wallace’s just before it) forms a fundamental building block in our understanding, there have been many great advances since.

    The work of Stephen Jay Gould is interesting and exciting since it explains many additional aspects of how and where evolutionary change occurs.

    Here, then, is a geologist’s perspective on how evolution works.

  4. “http://roadsofstone.com/2007/08/09/158-how-evolution-works/”

  5. Thanks for the replies, guys. And thank you Roads for the link to your post.

    Forester,I appreciate you’re taking the time to quote that, and elaborate.

    I have two responses. The first is in regards to my Professor and her apparent rarity. I have not done a randomized sampling of Evolutionary Biology Professors across the US, and as such I don’t have any data to back up my gut instinct that my Professor is, indeed, not rare.

    But, I should clarify, to make sure we aren’t talking at cross purposes. When I say she is open, I mean in regards to there being many many unanswered questions in the field, and there being certain theories that are by not SOLID in the true sense of the word.

    That said, I would hardly doubt that she questions whether or not Evolution (the change in inherited traits in a population over time) exists. She is, after all, an Evolutionary Biologist. She may have doubts about specific processes, but she isn’t likely to wake up one morning spouting off pro-Christian-literalism. The nature of her job (and the personality/history that brought her to that job) precludes that.

    So, when I say I don’t think she is rare, I mean it in that light.

    The second: you are correct in asserting that my post leans against the idea of a paradigm shift. Maybe, I am also “entrenched”. I’m open to that possibility. But, I don’t believe that I am.

    There are myriad unanswered questions in Evolution, just as there are myriad unanswered questions in Physics. But, even the birth of Quantum Mechanics didn’t unseat Classical Mechanics as a reasonable theory that explained what happens with the larger bodies in the universe. It wasn’t a ‘true’ paradigm shift.

    While I’m FAR from being an expert in Evolution, I haven’t read anything from any scientists who AREN’T on the side of Creationism/ID that honestly foresee a coming paradigm shift. (Again, that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there). I don’t think there is a coming “quantum” shift in Evolutionary thinking.

    I would also mention that in my physics example, unlike Creationism or ID, Quantum Mechanics is a TESTABLE theory. If a theory is not testable, it’s not science. (that’s the trouble with String Theory).

    It’s one thing to take into consideration philosophical/theological (even Mathematical) arguments in the abstract. But, sooner or later, if we are to practice science, we need to actually test something. That is the limitation, and the beauty of science.

    I would ask the question: Are there any TESTABLE theories being put out there in Evolutionary science that could actually lead to a paradigm shift?

    Thanks again for replies.

    There may be new and interesting theories that will develop in Evolution to help us understand more of what we don’t know. In fact that’s likely.

  6. It’s not the unanswered questions that creationists point to as their justification for rejecting the reality of evolution. At the thread Forester had running, he claims there is a dearth of transitional fossils in the fossil record. Eventually he got tired of my pointing out such claims are less true than $3 bills in the U.S., so he banned my comments.

    Who was it — Kin Hubbard? Will Rogers? — who said it’s not the stuff we don’t know that gets us into trouble; it’s the stuff we know, that isn’t so. Creationists are sure there’s a problem with fossils, and they refuse to recognize it’s not there. Creationists refuse to recognize that the physics of radioactive decay is not subject to literary interpretation on the dating of objects.

    You’re right: Science is unlikely to compromise with creationists on evolution theory by getting half-stupid.

  7. Oh, Ed … you still don’t get why Gould concocted the concept of punctuated equilibrium. Creationists didn’t put words in Gould’s mouth in terms of the gaps in the fossil record.

    You only get to pick one, Ed: Gould “discovered” punctuated equilibrium, or the transitional forms are there after all. You can’t have both.

  8. When I say she is open, I mean in regards to there being many many unanswered questions in the field, and there being certain theories that are by not SOLID in the true sense of the word.

    Hey, that’s a good distance beyond most evolutionists I run across. I certainly don’t expect anyone to turn fundy — only to think again about their preconceptions.

    I haven’t read anything from any scientists who AREN’T on the side of Creationism/ID that honestly foresee a coming paradigm shift.

    Perhaps I should reread, but I rather doubt the NY Times reporter was a creationist, or quoting creationists.

    Are there any TESTABLE theories being put out there in Evolutionary science that could actually lead to a paradigm shift?

    How about the concept of gene “kernels”? From the article: “One advantage developmental biologists have over paleontologists is that they can experiment on the development of these animals. Most of the genes in this network can be removed, and the developing embryo finds a way to compensate. But these five core genes, which form what Davidson calls a kernel, cannot be modified: change any one of them and no embryo forms at all. There is no reason to think that there was anything unusual about how this kernel first evolved some 500 million years ago (before sea urchins and starfish split into different groups), but once the kernel formed it locked development onto a certain path. These events, small and large, limit the range of possibilities on which natural selection can act. These questions about mechanism were not even being asked under the modern synthesis.”

    You may not call this a paradigm shift — such a shift is really in the eye of the beholder. Gene “kernals” might, however, be testable — and if true, they would constitute a third prop (after genetic mutation and punctuated equilibrium) necessary to keep Darwinism viable.

    Thanks for the measured discussion, saij. I appreciate your thoughtful and considered approach.

  9. Oh, Ed … you still don’t get why Gould concocted the concept of punctuated equilibrium. Creationists didn’t put words in Gould’s mouth in terms of the gaps in the fossil record.

    You only get to pick one, Ed: Gould “discovered” punctuated equilibrium, or the transitional forms are there after all. You can’t have both.

    Why can’t I have both if that’s what is seen in nature? Do you really claim that God has nothing to do with nature?

    For many species — not all, but many — what we see in fossils is a long period with relatively few morphological changes that will fossilize. Often this corresponds to a long period of stasis in the environment. Then there is rapid change. So, what it often looks like, is one form for along time, then another form abruptly appears. Gould and Eldredge looked at that record and said that instead of assuming that somewhere else, out of the fossil-making range, a subset of the species was slowly evolving, why not assume that what the fossils showed was what was happening — long periods of relative stasis, punctuated by short periods of rapid change.

    Now, it is your claim — false — that there are no known transitional fossils. That’s not at all what the issue was. Eldredge, for example, has a collection of several thousands of trilobytes spanning 300 million years. They show gradual transition from one form to the next, gradual formation of eyes to pick one example, or limbs for another example — the slow, plodding evolution some people think should have occurred everywhere. The important thing to note is that, at the same time, other usually-land-based animals were experiencing stasis and punctuations of rapid change.

    Moreover, among species that form the basis for punctuated equilibria, there are a few examples where the transitionals are known as well. They are bunched together in a short period of time.

    Gould and Eldredge did not claim there were no transitionals, and Gould complained often about the lies creationists tell about what he said (I’ll wager you’ve never bothered to check out what creationists claim; I have found that in almost every case they doctor Gould’s quotes to say the opposite of what he did say; I think this is highly dishonorable, and should not be tolerated among Christians.)

    But I think this is a key problem. You say we can’t claim what nature shows, we can’t claim what is from the hand of God. Only by denying what creation actually shows can creationism make a case. That, my friend, is a denial of God.

  10. These events, small and large, limit the range of possibilities on which natural selection can act. These questions about mechanism were not even being asked under the modern synthesis.”

    They are being asked and answered. It’s a field of biology called evolutionary development, often “evo-devo” for short. P. Z. Myers, at the University of Minnesota at Morris, is a specialist in this stuff. He has several dozen posts explaining the finds at his blog, Pharyngula. Try this one, for example:
    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2007/08/axis_formation_in_spider_embry.php

    There may be limitations on how far evolution can act on the next generation. Once those limits are met, however, the subsequent limits are different. There is no known limitation to the changes a life form can go through. There is no limit hypothesized by any creationist, including the IDists. No limitations have ever been observed.

    So it’s one thing to claim they are there, but quite another to go beyond that claim, when there simply is no evidence.

  11. Ed, Forester. You guys are both clearly more informed than I am (I’ll get there!).

    Great stuff.

    Forester, you said: “You may not call this a paradigm shift — such a shift is really in the eye of the beholder. Gene “kernals” might, however, be testable — and if true, they would constitute a third prop (after genetic mutation and punctuated equilibrium) necessary to keep Darwinism viable.”

    You’re right, I don’t think I would call that a paradigm shift. And maybe that is just a matter of semantics or of my own particular understanding of what the current paradigm is at it’s core.

    The reason I feel that the concept of a kernel wouldn’t cause a shift is because I see it fitting in rather comfortably within the broader structure of what evolution is all about. Again, maybe this is just me, but I never thought of evolution being a code word for “unlimited change” or “unrestricted change due to natural selection”. I’ve never thought that natural selection could come with some restrictions.

    For many animals, once they’re species became dependent on male+female breeding, then asexual (cell-like mitosis) breeding was out of the question. It was never again an option. The kernel idea seems like that.

    Certainly it limits the bounds of evolutionary theory to a point. But it doesn’t undermine the over-arching idea: That over time, species have changed, gotten more complex, moved from a small pool of species to a larger one through a process of selection, genetic drift, etc.

    I generally see most developments in any scientific theory being in the form of a restriction. At first we all get exited and over-reach to see how far it can go, then we hit a few walls, then a few more,until we get a clearer view of exactly what the boundaries are … It’s like being a teenager!

  12. Didn’t you mean IMMINENT?

  13. Yep! I did mean imminent 🙂 Edit in progress. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s