April 16, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Evolutionary Theory Evolves

Evolutionists squirm when one of their own points out major flaws in Darwin’s theory.

In his book Darwin Day in America, John West relates a strategy by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) in 1997 to tell the media there is no controversy among scientists about evolution. This was in response to the practice of biology teacher Roger DeHart of “teaching the controversy” by quoting the writings of renowned evolutionists who pointed out significant debates about neo-Darwinism, natural selection, the fossil record and other major aspects of macroevolutionary theory. NCSE’s response was as if to quip, “Controversy? What controversy?”—it’s much ado about nothing. “The role of a high school teacher is not to be on the cutting edge of research,” NCSE president Eugenie Scott said; “It’s not doing the students any service to confuse them about some of the esoteric elements of a scientific disipline” (West, p. 235). This has been a common refrain among evolutionists to this day, presenting to the media and the public a confident voice that “all scientists agree evolution is a fact.” But even if they state that to outsiders, many of them, when talking or writing to insiders, will candidly admit to major disagreements about the fossil record, units of selection, whether microevolution can be extrapolated to macroevolution, and other enduring controversies.

One of the most serious debates (largely ignored now but still alive) came in the 1970s, when Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge – both big names in evolutionary circles – pointed out that the “trade secret of paleontology” is the presence of gaps in the fossil record. These gaps are so pervasive, they argued passionately, that they present a serious challenge to Darwin’s notion of gradual evolutionary change. In its place, they offered “punctuated equilibria” (sometimes called “punk eek”) to keep Darwinism alive in spite of the fossil evidence. The idea is that evolution occurs in brief fits and starts that leave no trace, then continues for long periods of stasis.

Stephen Jay Gould, a prolific writer and outspoken evolutionary biology professor at Harvard, died in 2002, but his partner in “punk eek” theory, Niles Eldredge (long time curator at the New York Museum of Natural History), still believes it. He has a new book out, Eternal Ephemera Adaptation and the Origin of Species from the Nineteenth Century Through Punctuated Equilibria and Beyond (Columbia Univ. Press, 2015) that puts the “eek” in his punky title. It was reviewed in Science Magazine this week by philosopher Jim Endersby of the University of Sussex, under the headline, “The Evolution of Evolution.” Endersby is not particularly happy with Eldredge scratching that old itch.

Eldredge’s research into 19th-century history is meticulous; he has clearly spent many hours in the archive, tracing the development (and loss) of the Brocchian strand in Darwin’s thinking. However, historians may feel (to paraphrase an old joke about statistics) that he uses history as a drunk uses a lamppost, for support rather than illumination. At one point, he announces bluntly, “I still think I am right” about punctuated equilibria and is pleased to see that Darwin once shared his opinion. Yet surely Darwin’s opinion adds nothing to Eldredge’s credibility, and the author’s determination to juxtapose current evolutionary debates with historical theories leaves him puzzled by some of what he finds in the past.

So are there current evolutionary debates? Endersby just admitted as much. He didn’t say punk eek “is so 1979” or indicate in any way that it has been solved. It appears Endersby would prefer to put a bandage on that old sore spot by questioning Eldredge’s credibility. What he has done, though, may be more damaging. He has agreed, in some detail, that evolutionary theory itself has evolved since the pre-Darwinian speculations, all through the 19th and 20th centuries, till the present day. But if evolutionary theory evolves, it could evolve into its converse in the future. Who knows? The Darwinism of 2030 could be indistinguishable from intelligent design, or extinct altogether. If so, it will have demonstrated the self-refuting fallacy embedded in the phrase, “The evolution of evolution.”

Don’t you think high school students should be taught the controversy? If you are a high school student, remember that Eugenie Scott insulted your intelligence. She intimated that you are too fragile to be “confused” by such “esoteric” things about Darwinism, like the fact that the fossil record contradicts it. You may belong to the debate club, and learn all about controversies about marriage and war and politics, but you are too delicate, in her opinion, to be exposed to the sausage-making filth behind the Darwin curtain. Stick up for your rights! Demand the teacher not give you a whitewashed version of Darwinism in the textbook. You want to learn more about Darwinism than the curriculum prescribes. Why? Any scientific theory off limits to critical scrutiny is suspect. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, and there’s a lot of ugly infection on the biology arm of science to clean up.

 

 

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