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Darwin’s Revolution

Darwin for Beginners

by Jonathan Miller, by Borin Van Loon
Pantheon, 176 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Evolution Now: A Century After Darwin

edited by John Maynard Smith
W.H. Freeman, 239 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Evolution Without Evidence: Charles Darwin and “The Origin of Species”

by Barry G. Gale
University of New Mexico Press, 238 pp., $21.95

The Monkey Puzzle: Reshaping the Evolutionary Tree

by John Gribbin, by Jeremy Cherfas
Pantheon, 280 pp., $13.95

The Myths of Human Evolution

by Niles Eldredge, by Ian Tattersall
Columbia University Press, 197 pp., $16.95

Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution

by Douglas J. Futuyma
Pantheon, 251 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Darwinism Defended: A Guide to the Evolution Controversies

by Michael Ruse, foreword by Ernst Mayr
Addison-Wesley, 356 pp., $12.50 (paper)

Scientists are infatuated with the idea of revolution. Even before the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,1 and with ever increasing frequency after it, would-be Lenins of the laboratory have daydreamed about overthrowing the state of their science and establishing a new intellectual order. After all, who, in a social community that places so high a value on originality, wants to be thought of as a mere epigone, carrying out “normal science” in pursuit of a conventional “paradigm”? Those very terms, introduced by Kuhn, reek of dullness and conventionality. Better, as J.B.S. Haldane used to say, to produce something that is “interesting, even if not true.” As a consequence, new discoveries are characterized as “revolutions” even when they only confirm and extend the power of ideas that already rule.

So, for example, the discovery, by J.D. Watson and Francis Crick, of the structure of DNA, the stuff of the genes, is often regarded as a scientific revolution. Yet, as Watson himself points out, everyone was waiting for the structure; everyone knew that when it was worked out, an immense variety of phenomena could immediately be fitted in.2 The model of the organism as a Ford assembly plant was already in place, and the fenders and bumpers were already stockpiled; all that was needed was the key to turn on the assembly line. The discovery of the structure of DNA has been immensely fruitful, for all of present-day molecular biology and genetics was made possible by it, but it has not made us see the biological world in a different way. It has not been upsetting, but fulfilling.

As in politics, so in science, a genuine revolution is not an event but a process. A manifesto may be published, a reigning head may drop into a basket, but the accumulated contradictions of the past do not disappear in an instant. Nor do the supporters of the ancien régime. The new view of nature does indeed resolve many of the old problems, but it creates new ones of its own, new contradictions that are different from, but not necessarily any less deep than, the old. And waiting, just across the border, are the intellectual somocistas, saying, “I told you so. What did you expect?” trying to convince us that the old way of looking at nature was correct after all. Of course, the old view of nature can never return, but rather new revolutions displace the old ones.

There have been only two real revolutions in biology since the Renaissance. The first was the introduction of mechanical biology by William Harvey and René Descartes. While their manifestoes declaring that animals were machines were published early in the seventeenth century,3 it was not for another 250 years that the mechanistic revolution in biology was fully achieved. The difficulties of the reductionist mechanical view of biology has given prolonged life to vitalism and obscurantist holism, relics of an organic view of nature that comes down to us from the Middle Ages and, at the same time, have driven some biologists to search for yet another conceptual revolution to solve the mysteries of mind and of development.4

The second biological revolution, to which we attach the name of Darwin, is still being consolidated. Although its manifesto, On the Origin of Species, appeared in 1859, it was not until the 1940s that Darwinism really established a hegemonic hold on such branches of biology as classification, physiology, anatomy, and genetics. It is still under external siege by the restorationist armies of creationism, while at the same time it is undergoing a severe internal struggle to define its own orthodoxy and to resolve its own contradictions. The hundredth anniversary, last year, of Darwin’s death was marked by an enormous production of books, a triumph of the power of modern capitalism to turn ideas into commodities, equaled only by what is being done to commemorate the death of Marx. The year between April 1882 and March 1883 was a bad one for revolutionaries, but a great opportunity for publishers.

Some books, like Darwin for Beginners, are meant to introduce the content and history of Darwinism to the lay person; some, for example Evolution Now: A Century After Darwin, to expose for a professional audience the internal state and modern problems of the theory itself; yet others, such as Evolution Without Evidence, are part of the immense industry of Darwin scholarship that gives employment to large numbers of historians and philosophers of biology and provides the material for their professional journals. Then there are books such as The Monkey Puzzle and The Myths of Human Evolution that are concerned with the quest for that mythic pot of paleontological gold, the Missing Link. Most immediately relevant are works such as Science on Trial and Abusing Science that defend Darwinism against the real besiegers without the walls, or, like Darwinism Defended, that see sinister subversives within the very citadel, conspiring to destroy what the barbarian hordes are unable to shake.

Darwin surely was a revolutionary, but there is a certain confusion about what constituted his epistemological break with the past. Clearly it was not the idea of evolution itself. Darwin was rather the inheritor than the creator of the view that life evolved. Indeed, the nineteenth century was a period in which rampant evolutionism became a general world view, one not restricted to the history of life. Evolutionary cosmology began in 1796 with Laplace’s nebular hypothesis for the origin of the solar system. Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, had postulated the evolution of all organisms from “rudiments of form and sense” in his epic poem The Temple of Nature. Chartism and the discoveries of geology conspired to popularize the view that change and instability were universal. Not even nature could be counted on to hold the line:

So careful of type?” but no.
   From scarpéd cliff and quarried stone
She cries, “A thousand types are gone;
I care for nothing, all shall go.”

(Tennyson, In Memoriam, 1844)

Change, ceaseless change, “a beneficent necessity,” as Herbert Spencer called it, preoccupied the scientific, literary, philosophical, and political consciousness of European culture from the suppression of the Encyclopédie in 1759 to the instantaneous bookshop success of The Origin of Species in 1859. For a revolutionizing bourgeoisie, the only constant was the process of change itself. Their battle cry was already formulated 100 years before Darwin by Diderot in Le Rêve de d’Alembert: “Tout change, tout passe. Il n’y a que le tout qui reste.”

Although Darwin did not invent the idea of evolution, he certainly was responsible for its widespread acceptance. The Origin of Species not only precipitated the intense popular debate on evolution, but was in itself a convincing argument. Its persuasiveness arose only partly from the assemblage of evidence from natural history and paleontology that evolution had occurred, but largely from the construction of a plausible theory of how it occurred. When we speak of the “theory of evolution,” a constant confusion arises between the fact of the historical transformation of organisms over the last three billion years and a detailed and coherent theory of the dynamics of that historical process. There is no disagreement in science about whether evolution has occurred. There is bloody warfare on the question of how it has occurred.

It is this confusion between fact and theory that is exploited by creationists, who use the struggle among scientists about the process to claim that the phenomenon itself is in question. Science on Trial and Abusing Science both deal with the structure of evolutionary fact and theory as it is confronted by creationist attacks. In Science on Trial, Futuyma, a biologist, makes “The Case for Evolution” by a lucid exposition of what is known about the history of organisms and about the processes of inheritance and natural selection, devoting only a single chapter to refuting creationist arguments directly. Kitcher, a philosopher, argues “The Case Against Creationism” by exposing point by point the epistemological errors and willful intellectual dishonesty that characterize creationist claims. Anyone seriously interested in understanding the scientific and philosophical content of the struggle over evolution and creation must read both of these books, Futuyma first and Kitcher second. Anyone who is still confused after doing so has just not been paying attention.

For all their lucidity in dealing with the content of evolutionary theory and the creationist attack upon it, Futuyma and Kitcher give us only academic logic and natural history. They leave us mystified about the origins of the struggle and why people care all that much about it. Why only in America? Why now? Why the passion, commitment, expenditure of time and money by fundamentalists?

Creationism can only be understood as part of the history of southern and southwestern American populism. Earlier in this century, tenants, small holders, and miners shared the perception that their lives were controlled by rich bankers, merchants, and distant absentee corporations who were their creditors and their employers. The same regions of America that were strongest in fundamentalist Christianity were strongest in socialism. Eugene Debs received more votes in 1912 from the poorest counties in Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas than in northern urban centers. The best-selling weekly magazine in the United States in 1913, surpassing even the Saturday Evening Post, was the socialist Appeal to Reason published in Gerard, Kansas. Farmers rode to summer socialist camp meetings in buckboards with red flags flying.5 If the poor could have no control over their economic and political lives, at least they could control their cultural and religious life and what went into the heads of their children. And so they did. As late as 1956, my children in North Carolina learned that “God made the flowers out of sunshine.” Evolution was taught barely at all in the classroom; it was not in the school texts.

Then came the challenge of Soviet science and the world was turned upside down. The National Science Foundation supported scores of professors from eastern establishment universities to rewrite the biology textbooks to bring them up to date, and then saw to it that the school curricula were everywhere revised. Suddenly the intellectual culture of the well-to-do had invaded the homes of ordinary folk in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, and of the descendants of Okies and Arkies in California. In response, the forces of Christian fundamentalism began to assemble, to prepare the campaign that has only reached full force in the last few years. Though Futuyma and Kitcher speak with the tongues of biologists and philosophers, if they have no historical understanding, their arguments are as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. As an implacable but compassionate enemy of religion pointed out:

The abolition of religion as people’s illusory happiness is the demand for their real happiness. The demand to abandon their illusions about their condition is a demand to abandon a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, then, in embryo, a criticism of the vale of tears whose halo is religion.6

  1. 1

    University of Chicago Press, 1962.

  2. 2

    James D. Watson, The Double Helix (Atheneum, 1968).

  3. 3

    Harvey’s Exercitatio anatomica de motu cordis et sanguinis in animalibus was published in 1628, and Descartes’s Discours in 1637.

  4. 4

    I have discussed these problems at length in “The Corpse in the Elevator,” The New York Review, January 20.

  5. 5

    James R. Green, Grass-Roots Socialism (Louisiana State University Press, 1978).

  6. 6

    Karl Marx, Toward a Critique of Hegel’s Theory of the Right (1844).

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