Darwinists Fight Over Niche Construction Theory
According to the Sacramento Bee last week, Roseville teachers who rejected the “Quality Science Education Policy” (see 06/04/2004 headline) did so because “there are no scientifically valid arguments against the theory of evolution.” They must not be reading Nature.
In the current June 10 issue,1 three scientists say there has long been “vigorous debate” about basic evolutionary theory. Laland, Odling-Smee and Feldman do not dispute whether evolution occurred, but their “niche construction” approach has touched off “strong and polarized responses” from evolutionists. Though they consider this “fuss” a comparatively mild “spat” compared to earlier rows over lamarckism, punctuated equilibria and group selection, the theory of niche construction was heretical enough for Darwinist champion Richard Dawkins to term it “pernicious.” (For more on niche construction, see 10/23/2003 headline fourth item, 03/17/2003 headline, or see its promoters’ website, www.nicheconstruction.com). The basic idea behind niche construction is that adaptation is a two-way street:
At the heart of the controversy lies the nature of causality in evolution. Adaptation is conventionally seen as a process by which natural selection shapes organisms to fit pre-established environmental ‘templates’. The causal arrow points in one direction only: it is environments, the source of selection, that determine the features of living creatures.
Yet it is also obvious that organisms bring about changes in environments. Numerous animals manufacture nests, burrows, holes, webs and pupal cases. Plants change the levels of atmospheric gases and modify nutrient cycles. Fungi decompose organic matter, and bacteria engage in decomposition and nutrient fixation. The standard view of evolution does not deny this, but treats niche construction as no more than the product of selection.
Conversely, from the niche-construction perspective, evolution is based on networks of causation and feedback. Organisms drive environmental change and organism-modified environments subsequently select organisms. The argument that niche construction does not play a causal role in evolution because it is partly a product of natural selection, makes no more sense than would the counter-proposal that natural selection can be disregarded because it is partly a product of niche construction.
It is this robbing of natural selection of some of its power that seems to anger the conventional Darwinists. Yet the niche constructionists provide a couple of examples that show how the modified environment must be taken into account when deciding how natural selection operates:
- “When a beaver builds a dam it not only affects the propagation of dam-building genes, but it must also transform the selection acting on a host of other beaver traits.”
- “Contemporary earthworms are adapting to a soil environment largely constructed by their ancestors.”
First proposed in the 1980s by Richard Lewontin, niche construction was at first largely ignored. Now, these authors feel it is “a fact of life.” It is not just man that adapts himself, as Theodosius Dobzhansky used to claim. All organisms modify the environment that selects their traits; this is a ubiquitous process, and can no longer be disputed.
It seems intuitively obvious. Why the controversy, then? Perhaps because niche construction “changes the evolutionary dynamic” and can actually put the brakes on natural selection:
Niche construction can create new equilibria, affect the stability of others, generate unusual phenomena, such as momentum effects (where populations continue to evolve in the same direction after selection has stopped or reversed) and inertia effects (a delayed evolutionary response to selection), as well as opposite and catastrophic responses to selection.
Such realizations might raise a host of new questions. Nevertheless, the authors are optimistic, and suggest some fruitful lines of research. A number of evolutionists are jumping on this bandwagon. This “alternative panorama” may prove to be a “fleeting fad”; but if not, David Hull’s ominous prophecy may be fulfilled: “the result should be a massive reorientation of evolutionary theory.”
1Kevin N. Laland, John Odling-Smee, and Marcus W. Feldman, “Causing a commotion: Niche construction: do the changes that organisms make to their habitats transform evolution and influence natural selection?” Nature 429, 609 (10 June 2004); doi:10.1038/429609a.
To be fair before discussing this “spat” among evolutionists, it must be clarified that the parties on both sides are committed naturalists who affirm that unguided, unplanned, purposeless natural processes created humpback whales and hippo sunscreen out of bacteria. All the combatants would have risen up in holy horror at Roseville to protest the insertion of any doubts about evolution into the biology curriculum. That being understood, think about this controversy. What damage does niche construction do to evolutionary theory? Why would Dawkins call the reasoning “pernicious”? What do the ongoing intramural battles tell us about the “fact” of evolution?
Each of these internal controversies – whether lamarckism, punctuated equilibria, group selection or niche construction – has questioned the core belief of Darwinists, that Charlie’s mechanism, a simple process so intuitively obvious it elevated bacteria-to-man evolution to the status of accepted truth, is perfectly capable of explaining everything. Remember, it was the discovery of a plausible mechanism of evolution that made Charlie famous. Apparently, quite a few evolutionists do not consider it all that plausible. The fundamentalist Darwinists insist Charlie’s original dogma must be kept sacrosanct (see 05/31/2004 headline). Yet ever since Darwin, heretical views have threatened the integrity of the myth. Lamarckism is pretty much dead, falsified by experiment (even though Darwin himself became more Lamarckian in his old age—see February 2004 bio of Kelvin). The radical view called punctuated equilibria arose because the fossil record, with its systematic gaps, did not support Darwinian gradualism. Group selection was a sect that cast doubt on Darwin’s orthodoxy of individual selection. We could add to the list the heresies of sympatric speciation and neo-Gaia. Now, the cult of niche construction tends to complicate Dawkins’ life by telling him that the vectors of natural selection and the environment interact in complex ways, often opposing each other (see 03/17/2003 headline).
Whichever you think is the best storytelling plot, let’s ask some serious questions about this article and its relevance to the heated arguments occurring at school board meetings all around America, both in big cities and small towns, about the teaching of evolution. Do you feel that any of the Darwin Party storytellers has a real, defensible, comprehensive account of how bacteria evolved into humans? If so, why is it controversial to other evolutionists? Why are the controversies heated enough for them to call each other names and question each others’ motives? Has any of them provided a detailed account, with all the transitions that would be required, to explain the emergence of a single complex organ? (See 08/20/2003 headline.) Have the newly-acquired genomes of dozens of different organisms fulfilled what Darwinists predicted? (See 06/09/2004 and 01/02/2003 headlines.) Has the fossil record filled in the gaps that Darwin himself acknowledged were a major problem for his theory? (See 06/02/2004 headline.) Is there any reason why the eyes and ears of high school students should be shielded from these controversies and failings of Darwin’s theory? Do these controversies have anything to do with Christianity or any other religion? If not, why is the mantra “separation of church and state” invoked to subvert proposals for honest discussion about problems with evolutionary theory? Can you think of any other reason, other than a sincere desire to educate students honestly, that the ACLU, the National Center for Science Education, and other Darwinist front groups are so adamant that no scientific criticisms of Darwinism are permissible in the schools? If you engaged in these mental exercises, you just committed the very crime the Darwin-only side is trying to prevent. You utilized critical thinking skills.