Tag Archives: Darwin

The Design Argument

The fifth of Kreeft & Tacelli’s 20 arguments for the existence of God is the Design Argument. This is perhaps the most important argument in the whole collection. It’s the one that seems the most obviously valid to most theists and the most obviously invalid to most atheists, who consider it to have been definitively debunked by Darwin.


Summary of the argument

  1. The universe shows a remarkable amount of intelligible order.
  2. Either this order came about by chance, or it was designed by something intelligent.
  3. Chance is not a credible explanation because “we can understand chance only against a background of order.” Darwin’s theory of the nonrandom survival of random variation also assumes the prior existence of intelligible order (“The survival of the fittest presupposes the arrival of the fit”) and can therefore not explain it.
  4. Therefore, the universe was designed by something intelligent.
  5. In order to have designed the entire universe, the designers must exist outside the universe and be non-physical in nature. It is therefore natural to identify them — or, rather, “him” — with God.

The intelligent design (ID) hypothesis is usually presented as a stripped-down version of creationism, an alternative to Darwin’s theory of the origin of species. However, while K & T appear to be evolution skeptics themselves (they cite Michael Denton and Phillip E. Johnson with approval), they maintain that the Design Argument would still be just as valid and convincing if the Darwinian hypothesis were true. In my critical comments below, I will therefore assume biological orthodoxy: that all organisms arose from a common ancestor via descent with modification driven primarily by natural selection.


Chance and design do not exhaust the possibilities.

Why does my reflection look like my face? Should we ascribe the correspondence to chance or design? (Note that I am not asking about the origin of the reflective surface, which could just as well be a naturally occurring puddle as an intelligently designed mirror, but about the reflection itself.) We unhesitatingly ascribe the resemblance between Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 and Anna Whistler to design, and my reflection resembles my face far more exactly than any portrait resembles its subject — so should we infer that there is some unseen intelligent agent busily designing all the reflections we see? After all, the only other option — that the incredibly detailed, point-by-point correspondence between my face and my reflection is just a coincidence — is even more absurd.

Clearly this is a false dichotomy, and the true explanation for the correspondence is what we might call blind regularity. (Another term which suggests itself, necessity, carries too much philosophical baggage to be suitable here.)

A detailed discussion of chance, regularity, and design is beyond the scope of this post (as I realized after typing out a very long tangent on the subject, which I decided not to include). The point I want to make is just that “chance,” as it is used in this argument, doesn’t really mean chance; it covers anything that isn’t intelligent design, including mindless adherence to the laws of physics. The dichotomy K & T are advocating would force us to say either that the sun always rises in the east and never in the west just “by chance” — an absurdly improbable coincidence — or else that it is guided in its path by an intelligent agent — Phoebus in his chariot, essentially. The parody theory of “Intelligent Falling” comes to mind.

So, wherever K & T write “chance,” read “unintelligent forces” — not necessarily chance as that word is ordinarily understood.


What Darwinism presupposes — and what it doesn’t

“The survival of the fittest presupposes the arrival of the fit” sounds right at first but is actually a misrepresentation of Darwin’s theory. K & T write:

If the Darwinian theory has shown anything, it has shown, in a general way, how species may have descended from others through random mutation; and how survival of these species can be accounted for by natural selection—by the fitness of some species to survive in their environment.

This makes it sound as if natural selection plays no role in the actual origin of new species but serves only to explain why some species, after having come into existence by pure chance, continue to survive. This is obviously not what Darwin had in mind when he wrote On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Although it is true that natural selection is a wholly negative process, weeding out some of what comes into being by random mutation, it nevertheless plays a creative role. Without natural selection, new “fit” species would never come into existence in the first place because every random change for the better would be canceled out by thousands of random changes for the worse. Natural selection functions as a ratchet, preserving only the good changes and allowing them to accumulate in a way which would never otherwise be possible. Or, to vary the metaphor, random mutation would never serve up anything other than a structureless hunk of marble were it not for natural selection chipping away everything that doesn’t look like David.

So Darwinism does not presuppose the arrival of the fit; it is a true theory of the origin — not just the survival — of species. It explains a great deal of the apparent design in nature. However, it does presuppose the existence of DNA or something like it — bodies capable of creating copies of themselves with not-quite-perfect fidelity. That alone implies a pretty impressive level of intelligible order, perhaps enough to motivate the ID hypothesis even without the help of eyes and hearts and brains and all the other things for which natural selection is an adequate explanation.


Everything, including design, presupposes order.

Obviously the Darwinian theory itself cannot explain the origin of all the intelligible order in the universe, since it presupposes the existence of self-replicating structures.

Even more obviously, intelligent design cannot explain the origin of all the intelligible order in the universe, since it presupposes the existence of intelligent designers.

However, evolution and design do show us broadly what kinds of explanations of intelligible order are possible.

Watches, and the watchmakers who make them, show us that it is possible in principle for intelligible order to be the creation of an intelligent designer. Of course it’s not possible that life and the universe were designed by, say, George-Emile Eberhard — but perhaps by something like Eberhard, by some as-yet unknown intelligent agent.

Likewise, living organisms, and the Darwinian mechanism that makes them, show us that it is possible in principle for intelligible order to arise from a combination of random chance and blind regularity. Of course it’s not possible that life and the universe were created by natural selection as we know it — but perhaps by something like that, by some as-yet unknown unintelligent process.


Unfortunately, neither evolution nor design can offer a real answer to the ultimate question of why there is order rather than no-order. This is probably just as unanswerable as Leibniz’s “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Any conceivable answer to Leibniz’s question would itself be a “something” in need of explanation — and in the same way, any conceivable explanation of the origin or order would imply a mechanism of cause-and-effect, and thus some underlying order.


Design is an empirical question, not a philosophical deduction.

None of this means that there is anything illegitimate about the design hypothesis. Obviously, intelligent design is the correct explanation for the existence of a great many things — watches and computers and motorcycles and so on — and there’s no a priori reason why it couldn’t be the correct explanation for the existence of life or even of the entire known universe. Evolutionists who dismiss ID as unacceptable even in principle because it presupposes a creator and thus explains “exactly nothing” (Dawkins) are going much too far. Evolution may be more elegant and philosophically satisfying than ID because it explains more complex things in terms of simpler ones rather than vice versa, but none of that changes the fact that ID undeniably is the correct explanation for many things, and therefore cannot legitimately be ruled “meaningless” or “unscientific” or otherwise intellectually non-kosher.

However, creationists who assume that ID is the only possible explanation for complexity or intelligible order are also going too far. Design is a legitimate hypothesis — but that’s all it is. Like any other hypothesis, it must stand or fall on empirical grounds. “Order, therefore design” is not good enough because (1) design cannot logically be the source of all order, since it presupposes order; and (2) we have in Darwinian evolution an actual example of order arising without design, showing that this is possible in practice as well as in theory.

Proponents of ID often try to use Sherlock Holmes’ maxim from “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” — that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth — in an invalid manner. The argument goes something like this:

  1. X must have come into being either through intelligent design or through unintelligent processes (“chance”).
  2. No known unintelligent process can adequately explain X.
  3. Therefore, even in the absence of any positive evidence of design, we can conclude that X was designed.

This is invalid because there are actually four possibilities. X could be the work of (1) a known intelligent agent, such as Eberhard or some other human being; (2) an unknown intelligent agent, such as the “designer(s)” postulated by ID proponents; (3) a known unintelligent process, such as Darwinian evolution; or (4) an unknown unintelligent process. Of course no one takes the first possibility seriously where life or the universe is concerned; however, it’s hard to see why the fourth should be excluded from consideration. A more logically valid form of the above argument would be

  1. X must have come into being either through intelligent design or through unintelligent processes.
  2. No known agent or process — intelligent or unintelligent — can adequately explain X.
  3. Therefore, the cause of X is unknown and could be either intelligent or unintelligent in nature.


Filed under Evolution, God, Philosophy

Nietzsche, Darwin, and man’s Sonderstellung

The following passages are from Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche (4th ed.), but they neatly summarize some very common (and, I think, wrong) ideas about the worth of man and the ramifications of evolution. I often encounter similar thinking from people whose thought is otherwise very far from Nietzsche’s.

If the teaching of evolution is correct and man is not essentially different from the apes; if he is, as all appearances seem to indicate, more similar to the monkeys than these are to the “lower” animals; if he is just another of the primates; then it would follow, Nietzsche thinks, that the mass of mankind lack any essential dignity or worth.

No quantitative addition, either of more and more human beings or of more and more intelligence (which man is supposed to share with the chimpanzee, though he has more of it), can give man the unique dignity which the Western tradition has generally conceded him. What is worthless to start with, cannot acquire value by multiplication. [p. 150]

Nietzsche agrees with the Christian tradition and such thinkers as Kant and Hegel that the worth of man must consist in a feature he does not share with any other animal. He believes that the worth of man , and thus the value of his life, his creations, and his acts, depends on his Sonderstellung, his unique position, in the cosmos. Darwinism, however, instead of infusing him with optimism, convinces him that empirical facts do not bear out the prevalent view that all men, as such, occupy a unique position in the cosmos. [pp. 151-152]

He accepted Darwin’s doctrine concerning the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animals as incontrovertible empirical fact and tried to counter this “deadly” gospel with the new, Nietzschean, assertion that man can rise above the beasts. He granted that the factor of intelligence does not distinguish man from all other animals and that most men’s behavior is not essentially different from animal behavior — notions which are basic in much recent psychology. Our skills, crafts, and techniques can only raise us to the level of super-chimpanzees. Nietzsche, however, defied Darwin, as it were, to find even traces of art — which he distinguished from the crafts — or of religion or philosophy among the animals. If a technician is only a super-ape, the same cannot be said of Plato. Some pursuits are supra-animalic, and the man who engages in them is a truly human being and has unique worth. The artist, saint, and philosopher are representatives of true humanity and culture. [p. 175]

This line of reasoning goes wrong from the very beginning, when it assumes that the theory of evolution implies some special similarity between man and the apes — a similarity which we would not have to accept if evolution were not true. Actually, Linnaeus had already classified man as “just another primate” over a century before the Origin of Species. Man’s similarity to the apes is not a conclusion which follows from Darwinism, but rather one of the observable facts for which Darwinism offers an explanation. The striking similarities — and equally striking differences — between man and chimp remain what they have always been: empirical questions of comparative anatomy and psychology, to which the answers are no different after Darwin than they had been before. Disraeli, mistaking an explicandum of a theory for the conclusion of an argument (an error we will revisit below), thought that Darwinism posed the question, “Is man an ape or an angel?” and that creationists were on the side of the angels — but man remains what he is, ape-like in some ways, angelic in others, regardless of what theory we put forth to explain how he got to be that way.

There is a tendency (a fallacious one) to assume that two things which came into being by the same kind of process must therefore have the same basic nature — as Isaiah implies in his mocking description of a carpenter who cuts down a tree, burns some of the wood to cook his dinner, and then makes himself a “god” from the remainder. How absurd to think that the same sort of creative process could yield both firewood and a god! Yet one finds a ready parallel in the opening chapters of Genesis, where a single Creator uses the same raw material (dirt) to create cattle, creeping things, and a man in his own image. In a way Genesis even seems to anticipate Linnaeus, portraying the division between man and beast as less fundamental than that between fish and fowl on the one hand and land animals (including man) on the other. Darwinism doesn’t really change the fundamental picture of man — the highest of animals, but an animal nonetheless — as much as we sometimes like to think it does.

At any rate, it is a fact — irrespective of the truth of Darwin’s theory — that man is one animal species among others and that most of the faculties we think of as distinctly human can also be found, in less developed form, in other species — particularly in our closest relatives, the great apes. For Nietzsche (as interpreted by Kaufmann, anyway; assume this disclaimer throughout), it follows that those faculties — including, most importantly, intelligence — have no value, since “what is worthless to start with, cannot acquire value by multiplication.” But this only makes sense if we start with the assumption that the intelligence of lower animals is literally worthless — not just of little or even negligible value (since small numbers can acquire value by multiplication), but of no value whatsoever. It may be that some people hold this opinion, considering the mind of a dog or horse to be of no more worth than an insensate chunk of stone, but it is, to put it mildly, not exactly self-evident.

A deeper problem with this line of reasoning is its sloppy reification of intelligence, which is treated as a sort of homogeneous stuff which can be increased by “quantitative addition.” To say that the key difference between Descartes’s mind and that of a Jack Russell terrier is that one has a greater quantity of something than the other, is shallow to the point of meaninglessness. “Intelligence” is a high-order abstraction concealing fundamental qualitative differences in the ways different minds are structured and in the kinds of cognitive tasks they are able to perform. At a sufficiently high level of abstraction — employing terms like “intelligence,” “complexity,” “value” — virtually any difference can be made to seem merely quantitative. And underlying the whole issue is the unspoken assumption that “merely” quantitative differences are unimportant and really hardly qualify as differences at all — that if man differs from a chimp only quantitatively, then man essentially is a chimp. In fact, the distinction between quantitative differences (which include, let us not forget, the difference between day and night) and qualitative ones is itself quantitative, as should be clear to anyone who is familiar with the periodic table or who has observed that oceans tend to behave rather differently from drops of water.

Nietzsche’s list of what is unique to man — art, religion, and philosophy (but not intelligence or technology) — is arbitrary, an artifact of a decision to classify human activities at one particular level of abstraction rather than another. Kaufmann feels the need for a parenthesis explaining that Nietzsche distinguished the arts from the crafts, an implicit admission that such a distinction is not objectively obvious or inevitable, that others may see a “quantitative” continuum where Nietzsche saw a bright line. Similarly, philosophy could easily be seen as a special case or particularly advanced form of the kind of thinking or reasoning of which many other animals are capable. Even religion seems less qualitatively unique when we consider that other animals are certainly capable of superstition, selfless devotion, and so on.

Every action, considered in its totality, is unique. It can be considered non-unique only if some of the details are abstracted away and it is viewed as a member of a category. Since infinitely many levels of abstractions are possible, and since at a high enough level of abstraction nothing is unique, any binary classification of human activities as “unique” or “not unique” will be arbitrary. Considered in its totality, Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin is unique. Considered more abstractly as an example of representational art, it belongs to a category which includes such non-human productions as Stink Gorilla More. Classed broadly as an artifact, it is not even uniquely mammalian.

But the irrelevance of this whole line of thinking is beginning to become all too obvious. Are we really supposed to believe that the existence of a still life painted by a gorilla has any bearing on the value of the art of Titian? As I wrote in my post on Aristotle, absurd conclusions follow from the assumption (the amazingly common assumption!) that whatever is unique to man is more valuable than what is not. Nietzsche denigrates technology as the domain of mere “super-chimpanzees” — but if we exterminated all the chimps and crows and other tool-making species, or if those species had never evolved in the first place, would the technician then take his place with the artist, saint, and philosopher as a model of true humanitas? To spell the reductio out: Is the existence of chimpanzees the only thing that prevents us from considering Edison the equal of Plato?


If the insistence on human uniqueness — Sonderstellung — is so obviously absurd, though, why have so many first-class thinkers (Kaufmann mentions Kant, Hegel, and the Christian tradition, and of course there is also Aristotle) taken it for granted? A full answer to that question would require a deeper familiarity with each of those individual thinkers than I can pretend to — but, in broad terms, I can imagine two different ways such an idea could come about.

First, there is Disraeli’s error, that of taking an explanation for an argument and an explicandum for a conclusion. (The ambiguity of the word “therefore” is evidence of how naturally this particular error comes to us.) Philosophers may have begun by assuming that man’s life has far more value and meaning than a beast’s, and the search for an explanation of that unique value — where it comes from and in what it consists — would naturally have led them to the question of which of man’s traits are unique to man — just as someone seeking to understand, say, why the Industrial Revolution began when and where it did, would naturally begin by considering what was distinctive about 18th-century England. Of course, if nothing specially (or “qualitatively”) distinctive were found, no historian would conclude that therefore the Industrial Revolution didn’t happen in England! — but somewhere along the line, the philosophers may have made a corresponding error. Nietzsche, at any rate, certainly seems to have done so. Having already fallen for Disraeli’s error in the original sense, as it applies to evolution, it is perhaps no surprise that when it comes to the question of man’s Sonderstellung, he goes on to make the same mistake.

Second, there is a sense in which purpose and value really do presuppose uniqueness: Anything which does not perform a unique function is dispensable. If anything X can do, Y can also do — if, that is, every purpose which X serves could be served just as well even if X didn’t exist — then doesn’t it follow that X has no value and no reason for existing? Well . . . an affirmative answer is possible, but it requires so many qualifications and asterisks that one should be very careful about treating it as a generally valid law and applying to recklessly to any situation that comes along. Here are a few of the many caveats to keep in mind:

  • Even the tiniest “quantitative” differences can still be relevant. Precious little distinguishes an HB pencil from an F pencil, for example, or an AA battery from a triple-A  (to say nothing of Thomas Edison and a chimpanzee!), but the two are still not always interchangeable.
  • A non-unique thing can be an essential part of a larger system. For example, neither my left eye nor my right eye is unique, but together they perform a function (binocular vision) which neither could do alone.
  • A non-unique thing can add value in a simple quantitative way. The more bricks you have, the more things you can build.
  • Two things with precisely the same range of  potential functions can still distinguish themselves by performing different actual functions. The fact that I could do any number of different jobs doesn’t make the people who actually do those jobs redundant.
  • Even something which is redundant in every possible way can still have potential value and therefore purpose. The world changes, and what is redundant and useless now may become unique and indispensable in the future. Backup CDs, for example, are created with such contingencies in mind.
  • A corresponding function shouldn’t be mistaken for a redundant one. My eyes don’t make your eyes redundant.

But perhaps the biggest thing to keep in mind is that uniqueness is a property of individuals. Unique means unique, not shared with six billion other people. The concept that “all men, as such [emphasis added!], occupy a unique position in the cosmos” — well, it sounds like something out of Life of Brian. Either uniqueness is important or it is not; the emphasis so many philosophers place on what is “unique to man as such” — that is, that which is common to all the billions of human beings in the world but (and this is deemed important!) not shared by a few thousand chimps — seems completely arbitrary.


Filed under Evolution, Philosophy

Shaw and Darwin

Bernard Shaw’s preface to Back to Methuselah, “The Infidel Half Century,” is something you don’t see much of these days: a non-creationist attack on Neo-Darwinism.

Back to Methuselah was published in 1921, a good 15 years before the modern synthesis got underway, so “Neo-Darwinism” as Shaw uses the term means something different: not Darwin-plus-Mendel, but Darwin-minus-Lamarck. Unlike Darwin himself, who was willing to grant that Lamarckian processes (the inheritance of acquired characteristics) might play some role, the Neo-Darwinians broke with Lamarck completely and insisted that evolution was driven almost exclusively by what Shaw — not wishing to profane the name of Nature — insists on calling Circumstantial Selection.

It’s not that Shaw doesn’t believe in natural selection — he grants that it occurs and that it influences evolution — but he considers it to be an incidental process. He thinks of natural selection the way a more orthodox evolutionist thinks of genetic drift: It undeniably happens, but it’s not all that important and evolution could go on just fine without it. The real driving force behind evolution is voluntary change.

If you can turn a pedestrian into a cyclist, and a cyclist into a pianist or violinist, without the intervention of Circumstantial [that is, natural] Selection, you can turn an amoeba into a man, or a man into a superman, without it. All of which is rank heresy to the Neo-Darwinian, who imagines that if you stop Circumstantial Selection, you not only stop development but inaugurate a rapid and disastrous degeneration.

Let us fix the Lamarckian evolutionary process well in our minds. You are alive; and you want to be more alive. You want an extension of consciousness and of power. You want, consequently, additional organs, or additional uses of your existing organs: that is, additional habits. You get them because you want them badly enough to keep trying for them until they come. Nobody knows how: nobody knows why: all we know is that the thing actually takes place.

The details of this process are admittedly a little sketchy, even if we take the heritability of acquired characteristics for granted. It’s easy enough to imagine how a giraffe — the canonical example, which Shaw dutifully trots out (“I do not remember how this animal imposed himself illustratively on the Evolution controversy; but there was no getting away from him then; and I am old-fashioned enough to be unable to get away from him now.”) — might want a longer neck, try to get one by stretching, and succeed in lengthening its neck a bit. But when one tries to picture a cartilaginous fish “trying” to have bones, or a monkey “trying” not to have a tail (not to mention a plant or an amoeba “wanting” or “trying” to do anything at all), the theory seems to break down.

For Shaw, the important thing about Lamarckism is not the inheritance of acquired characteristics, but the importance of will in the evolutionary process. In fact, Shaw seems to think that the former depends on the latter — that acquirements are inherited if and only if they were acquired deliberately rather than by accident. (He expresses this in a rather confusing way, saying that only “habits” can be inherited, but makes it clear that he is using “habit” in a special sense which includes not only customary behavior patterns but anatomical features as well. A Shavian “habit” is any feature that is voluntarily acquired and thereafter becomes involuntary and automatic.)

Because of Shaw’s focus on the inheritance of voluntarily acquired characteristics, he dismisses the experiments of August Weismann — in which he cut off the tails of 20 successive generations of rats and observed that their offspring were nevertheless born with tails — as missing the point. Shaw considers it self-evidently ridiculous to suppose “that injuries or accidents coming from external sources against the will of the victim could possibly establish a [heritable] habit: that, for instance, a family could acquire a habit of being killed in railway accidents.” He proposes the following as an alternative experiment which, if it were practicable, would be more relevant to the Lamarckian hypothesis as he understands it.

The scientific form of his experiment would have been something like this. First, he should have procured a colony of mice highly susceptible to hypnotic suggestion. He should then have hypnotized them into an urgent conviction that the fate of the musque [sic] world depended on the disappearance of its tail, just as some ancient and forgotten experimenter seems to have convinced the cats of the Isle of Man. Having thus made the mice desire to lose their tails with a life-or-death intensity, he would very soon have seen a few mice born with little or no tail. These would be recognized by the other mice as superior beings, and privileged in the division of food and in sexual selection. Ultimately the tailed mice would be put to death as monsters by their fellows, and the miracle of the tailless mouse completely achieved.

The objection to this experiment is not that it seems too funny to be taken seriously, and is not cruel enough to overawe the mob, but simply that it is impossible because the human experimenter cannot get at the mouse’s mind.

The odd thing about this — okay, there are a lot of odd things about it, but one of the odd things about it — is how thoroughly Darwinian it is. A true Lamarckian would perhaps expect that, once the mice had been suitably hypnotized, they would somehow try very hard to reduce the length of their own tails and would succeed in doing so, if perhaps only to a very slight degree. (Exactly how this would be done is, as I have said, not so clear.) Their children would then be born with very slightly shorter tails, which they in their turn would shorten a bit by the same method, and after many repetitions of this process a generation of tailless mice would finally be produced.

Shaw predicts something completely different. Instead of the mice changing their own bodies by willpower and then passing on those changes to their children, he imagines that the mice’s desire for taillessness would somehow cause a few tailless mutants to appear a generation or two later, and that the tailless mutation would become the norm by means of a process which can only be described as eugenics — that is, self-imposed artificial selection, which is nothing more than a special case of Darwinian natural selection. The bit about the mutation arising “very soon” as a result of the mice’s desire (rather than arising eventually by chance) is the only hint of anything non-Darwinian in Shaw’s story.

Unlike the mouse story in the preface, which is not Lamarckian at all, the Back to Methuselah plays themselves do feature the inheritance of acquired characteristics. In the story, a few people read a book arguing that the human lifespan must be extended to at least 300 years, and as a result they themselves — not the next generation, as in the case of the mice — go on to live for 300 years! Somehow their desire directly causes sweeping physiological changes, which are then inherited by their children. The implication is that, had they instead read a book arguing that humans all ought to be nine feet tall, they could simply have taken thought and added the requisite cubits to their stature. (The physiological changes implied in increased longevity are internal and invisible, which helps make the story seem a little less obviously ridiculous. That’s probably why the mouse story, featuring a more obvious physical feature, used a different mechanism. It would be too clearly bogus if the mice’s own tails had simply disappeared after the hypnosis.) After that, eugenics — in the form of sexual selection and genocide — once again takes over. The long-lived people seek each other out as mates “for the good of the race,” and eventually they decide to kill off all the short-lived ones. No matter how hard he tries to be a good Lamarckian, Shaw’s imagination keeps being drawn back to Darwinian mechanisms.


Filed under Evolution

Reading: Charles Darwin

  • The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, edited with an introduction by J. W. Burrow (25 Jun 2009)

My family read this together when I was a kid and we were all creationists, and the only thing that stuck with me was the comical image of a bear swimming around with its mouth open catching insects. At that time I took the truth of Mormonism (as interpreted by my father, for whom creationism is something of a hobby) for granted and didn’t really give it a fair hearing. Actually, I didn’t give it any kind of hearing in the sense of engaging its ideas at any deeper level than, “Well, we all know that’s wrong.” I was unsympathetic without managing to be actually critical.

I’ve since come back to Darwin’s theory and found it compelling, but until now I had approached it only through modern popularizations, especially those of Richard Dawkins (an author who was recommended to me by my father, of all people). This is my first time rereading Darwin himself. Here are a few brief thoughts:

  • Darwin’s not a bad prose stylist. He overuses a few phrases (a lot of “light” is “thrown” on a lot of things by Darwin’s theory, and he always tells us so in those particular words), and the sometimes archaic technical terms call for frequent use of the glossary (apparently amphibians used to be called “batrachians”; who knew?), but overall the writing is clear and even elegant.
  • Given the way histories of evolution tend to focus on the contrast between the two men’s theories, Darwin turns out to have been much more of a Lamarckian than I would have expected. Many times throughout the book he grants the possibility of acquired characteristics being directly inherited, or learned behaviors being passed down as instincts. Of course he had the considerable handicap of not knowing anything at all about genes. Knowing about genes changes everything.
  • I like Darwin’s empirical spirit. Rather than just speculating, for example, that seeds might have been carried across the sea by birds, he carried out experiments to test the ability of various seeds to germinate after being immersed in salt water, ingested by a heron, etc. He didn’t take anything for granted. He also came up with some clever ways to test his theory which I wouldn’t have thought of myself, such as seeing whether species belonging to larger genera are more variable than those from smaller ones. This attention to detail and knack for making things testable — not the general idea of evolution by natural selection — is what set Darwin apart from all the evolutionary conjecturists who preceded him.
  • It’s true about the barnacles! They turn up again and again, though usually in disguise as “sessile cirripedes.” He knew an awful lot about the little beasties.

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Filed under Evolution

Darwin vs. Jared Diamond, part 2

I’m still reading The Origin of Species and found another passage that made me think of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.

It is a remarkable fact, strongly insisted on by Hooker in regard to America, and by Alph. de Candolle in regard to Australia, that many more identical plants and allied forms have apparently migrated from the north to the south, than in a reversed direction. . . . I suspect that this preponderant migration from north to south is due to the greater extent of land in the north, and to northern forms having existed in their own homes in greater numbers, and having consequently been advanced through natural selection and competition to a higher stage of perfection or dominating power, than the southern forms. And thus, when they became commingled . . . the northern forms were enabled to beat the less powerful southern forms. Just in the same manner as we see at the present day, that very many European productions cover the ground in La Plata, and in a lesser degree in Australia, and have to a certain extent beaten the natives; whereas extremely few southern forms have become naturalised in any part of Europe. . . (The Origin of Species, pp. 370-71 in the Penguin Classics edition).

What Darwin observes in the plant kingdom — namely, that it is generally the northern (and specifically Eurasian) forms that have successfully invaded the south, rather than vice versa — has its parallel within the human species. It is disproportionately those races that developed on the great northern continent of Eurasia that have been successful in invading other continents and displacing other peoples, a phenomenon which Diamond attempts to explain in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Diamond, an enlightened anti-racist, casts his explanation mostly in terms of culture and technology rather than biological evolution, invoking genes only to explain racial differences in resistance to particular diseases, and would of course never dream of using Darwin’s language about advancing “to a higher stage of perfection” — but for all that, his ultimate explanation is essentially the same as Darwin’s: that Eurasia is simply bigger. Diamond also notes that, in addition to being larger in absolute terms, Eurasia has the further advantage of being oriented east-to-west, which means that any given climatic zone on the Eurasian continent is likely to be wider than the corresponding zones on north-to-south continents such as Africa and the Americas. For Diamond, Eurasia’s size and orientation facilitates the wide dispersion of domestic animals and technological advances. Based on Darwin, we can add that a larger population and easy migration between regions would mean more mutations, more intense competition, and therefore accelerated evolution.

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Filed under Animals, Evolution, Race