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Why doubt Darwinism?

Toby Adams on the renewed assault against a great theory

Scientists threaten to make Darwin extinct', trumpeted one review of a book on evolution published in the summer (Sunday Times, 23 August 1992). The book in question-The Facts of Life: Shattering the Myth of Darwinism by Richard Milton- has been presented as a scientific work, not some creationist tract. And yet the 'facts' are a joke.

Richard Dawkins conducted a useful demolition job in another review, pointing out that 'anyone who believes the Earth to he less than 10 000 years old needs psychiatric help' (New Statesman, 28 August). The interested reader can turn to Dawkins for the remaining gory details. Yet, at the same time as the book was being ridiculed, the Times could write an editorial claiming that ' the search for a better theory [than Darwinism] is now wide open'.

Attacks on Darwin take two forms. Either evolution itself is questioned, or else evolution is accepted but doubts are raised about Darwin's mechanism- chance mutation and natural selection. The first approach is taken by the increasingly vocal creationist lunatics in the USA. and other religious fundamentalists. Milton's approach comes close to this. The second approach is, however, more widespread, not least because the fact of evolution itself is hard to contest given all the fossil evidence.

Darwinism continues to upset religious people today because Darwin's explanation for evolution rules out any plan or purpose within nature. Darwin's theory established that nature is directionless-and therefore, by implication, Godless. From Karl Marx in the nineteenth century to the existentialists in the twentieth, secular thinkers have used Darwinism to support the conclusion that any purpose in the world must be the result of human action. And the only standard against which to measure such actions is humanity's own judgement, not God's. What we do with the natural world is up to us.

It was this kind of vision that the Catholic theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin responded to in his influential book The Phenomenon of Man, published in the 1950s. He argued that evolution was goal-directed, leading inevitably to mankind, and that Darwin's was a bleak vision, condemning humanity to 'cosmic loneliness'. Today, objections to Darwin voiced by both Greens and conservatives echo de Chardin's points (see, for example, vice-president elect Al Gore's book Earth in the Balance, or FA Hayek's last major work The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism). By questioning Darwin, they are united in seeking to impose limits upon what humanity can achieve.

So how does Darwin's theory stand up today'? Darwin's ideas have stood the test of time brilliantly. Modern science has done nothing other than confirm his basic propositions.

Natural selection

Darwin argued that small variations occurred between organisms of a population. He thought that these small variations arose from chance fluctuations. He observed further that more offspring are produced in all animal populations than can hope to survive, due to competition for natural resources. 'Natural selection' would then ensure that, within a population, those organisms better suited to survive in the given conditions would tend to do so over their more unfortunate competitors. He drew an analogy with the 'artificial selection' of animal husbandry. The crucial difference being, of course, that natural selection is the result of a random process rather than a plan (as in animal husbandry).

Darwin assumed that the chance mutations in question were small changes in a blueprint within the organism, and that such changes were passed on to the offspring of the individual in question, ensuring that any advantage vis-á-vis others in the species was also passed on. This ensured that over time those with the advantageous features would come to dominate the population. An extreme example is provided by the greater survival rate of dark-coloured moths over light ones when the industrial revolution changed the habitat to the advantage of the former.

At the time, Darwin had no idea what the unit of inheritance could be. It had to have some very special properties - an ability to (almost) faultlessly reproduce itself, and the ability to determine the development of the individual organism from conception to adulthood. We now know that the unit in question is the DNA contained within the organism, and the sub-units - genes - which make it up. Science has advanced to the point where it can begin to determine the function of individual genes within the genetic material (There are between 50 000 and 100 000 genes in the human genetic material).

As far as humans are concerned, Darwinism tells us that we are an accident, rather than an inevitability. The universe, the Earth, could have happily existed without us. Our existence is contingent.

Nevertheless, we are here, and should make the most of it! 'There is no need to look to religion, nor to genetics, to explain the unique purposive abilities which set us apart from nature. The explanation lies in our recent history-the development of human society What's more, we should celebrate our purposive potential, our capacity to dominate nature and to change the world for our benefit.

From this perspective, Darwinism can help to provide the basis for a liberation from the stifling influence of religious, ecological, and conservative ideas. After all, if it is argued that there is some cosmic purpose at work, then who are we to interfere? Such ideas relegate humans to bystanders, fit only to contemplate the working out of some grand scheme. By contrast Darwinism tells us that there is no natural plan This means that the world is there for us to use- for good or bad.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 50, December 1992



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