May 31, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Darwinist Chides Recklessness of Evolutionists

The tendency of some evolutionists to engage in just-so storytelling was intolerable to George C. Williams, an influential Darwinian.  Throughout his life he called them to accountability.  Now elderly, he was recently honored by fellow evolutionists at State University of New York, Stony Brook.  Carl Zimmer described the event in the May 28 issue of Science.1  The article describes Williams’ attitude toward those who avoided the necessity for scientific rigor in evolutionary explanations.

Williams was struck by the ad hoc way that even prominent biologists would explain an adaptation.  They’d claim that it had evolved because it provided some benefit; often, an entire population or species supposedly benefited.  Williams recalls a lecture he heard by Alfred Emerson, a zoologist at the University of Chicago, about why people age and die.  “He said growing old and dying is a good thing,” Williams says.  “We’ve evolved to do it so we get out of the way, so the young people can go on maintaining the species.”
    “I thought it was absolute nonsense,” says Williams.  Whenever people like Emerson claimed that an adaptation was for the good of a species, they never offered an explanation of how, from one generation to another, that potential benefit produced real evolutionary change.  Williams suspected that in most cases, no such explanation existed.  For him, the primary engine of evolutionary change was the one Darwin had written about in the Origin of Species: competition among individuals of the same species.  Most biologists in the 1950s simply failed to think seriously enough about how natural selection could produce adaptations, he says.

Williams has been especially harsh on the group selectionists, those who surmise that natural selection can act on groups instead of just individuals.  Zimmer points to his 1966 classic, Adaptation and Natural Selection, as the clarion call to see all adaptations as the result of “strict natural selection working on individuals.”  So how did Williams explain things?

Take a school of fish, for example.  It seems as if every individual cooperates for the good of the group, working with others to avoid predators, even if it means that individual gets devoured in the process.  Williams argued that the schooling behavior could instead be the product of individual fish trying to boost their personal chances of survival–by trying to get in the middle of the school and by watching other fish for signs of approaching predators….
    …. Williams argued that the decline of old age could be caused by pleiotropy–in other words, the harmful side effects of genes selected for advantages they offered during youth.  Just as long as the advantages of these genes outweighed the disadvantages, they would become widespread.

In other words, organisms trade off one advantage against another (see 05/11/2004 headline).  Not all group selectionists have repented, however.  Zimmer points out one ardent skeptic:

Although Williams has convinced many people of the value of his ideas, the notion that human behavior can be broken down into such finely tuned reproduction-boosting adaptations is, to say the least, controversial.  The late Stephen Jay Gould liked to call this approach “Darwinian fundamentalism,” and he credited Williams’s Adaptation and Natural Selection as “the founding document for this ultimate version of Darwinian reductionism.”

Zimmer also touches on the disappointment by some of Williams’ followers that his ideas on evolutionary medicine never really caught on.  Williams believed evolutionary theory might help doctors by helping them identify natural selection at work in their patients.  The competition between a fetus and its mother for the nutrients in the placenta, for instance, might explain the life-threatening condition called preeclampsia.  As Williams’s followers might see the situation, the mother’s blood pressure might be rising dangerously because the fetus is releasing factors into the placenta that “damage the walls of the mother’s blood vessels, thereby raising the resistance of her circulatory system,” so that it could glean more nutrients from the increased blood flow.  Participants at the meeting lamented that such “Darwinian ideas are not making a big impact” on the way doctors think.  A recent-convert doctor noted that “There’s a big barrier between people like me who are physicians and people who are in biology departments.”  Perhaps it’s just that all great ideas take time, Zimmer suggests.  (For more on evolutionary medicine, see 01/13/2003 and 06/25/2003 headlines.)


1Carl Zimmer, “George C. Williams Profile: Stretching the Limits of Evolutionary Biology, Science. Vol 304, Issue 5675, 1235-1236, 28 May 2004, [DOI: 10.1126/science.304.5675.1235].

Stephen Pinker claimed that “George Williams was instrumental in making natural selection an intellectually rigorous theory.”  There’s nothing scientifically rigorous about any of this.  The only thing Williams did was try to leash in today’s storytelling methods back to the original storytelling method.  One must not twist the plot with group selection, but only invoke individual selection, as Charlie proposed in the evolutionary Torah.  Thus, Darwinian fundamentalism must abide by the just-so storytelling method of the Mosstuh prescribed in the founding document of the Darwin Party.  We’ve said before that if you removed the personification fallacy from evolutionary theory, little would be left.  Raise your hand if you think fish plan their schooling for survival, or babies in the womb are plotting to steal from Mom.
    Medicine gets along just fine without Darwinian fundamentalism.  Pregnant mothers facing surgery are not likely to be comforted by the thought that their babies are competing with them for survival of the fittest.  (If anything, such teaching would only seem to promote abortion.)  Doctors and hospital chaplains prosper when they see the value in each individual life as a marvelous creation of a loving God.  If you care for your loved one in the hospital, better help keep the Darwin Party advocates out.  They don’t value compassion.  They value selfishness.

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