The Confusion over Evolution

The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today

by Helena Cronin
Cambridge University Press, 490 pp., $39.50

On Methuselah’s Trail: Living Fossils and the Great Extinctions

by Peter Douglas Ward
W. H. Freeman, 212 pp., $18.95

Oliver Cromwell delivered history’s most famous rebuke to the hero-worshiping that irons all subtlety into flawless cardboard:

Mr. Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it.

Helena Cronin, in The Ant and the Peacock, displays a raw talent clearly equal to that of our finest portraitists, but has placed herself into a position even worse than Mr. Lely’s. Cromwell’s painter at least faced the subject himself; Cronin has produced an uncritical gloss upon a false and simplistic view that never was more than a caricature of Darwinian theory.

As its most deliciously radical component, Darwin’s original theory proposed a causal mechanism for evolution by natural selection among organisms struggling for personal reproductive success—and nothing else. Consider the impact of this cleansing upon the older tradition of natural theology—the creationist principle that sought to prove not only God’s existence, but also his attributes of power and goodness, from the excellent design of organisms and the intrinsic harmony of ecosystems. Darwin acknowledged these aspects of nature, but labeled them as sequelae, or side consequences, of the only causal force operating in evolutionary change: organisms struggling for themselves alone. Quite a contrast: up from below in the “selfish” interest of organisms vs. down from above as directly imposed by a wise creator.

Inevitably, I suppose, Darwin’s success in pulling down the level of causality from an overarching God to a struggle among organisms led some evolutionists to explore a kind of ultimate reductionism in viewing genes themselves as the struggling units, and organisms as mere vehicles constructed for their machinations. Under such a view, called “gene selectionism,” nature’s truly causal competition takes place among different forms of a gene, each “struggling” to leave more copies of its own version in future generations of a population. In classical Darwinism, organisms struggle for reproductive success. (If, for example, short plants are favored by natural selection, then the runts in Mendel’s pea patch produce more surviving offspring, per individual and on average, than the tall plants.) In gene selectionism, the plants are passive vehicles and the struggle occurs among genes. (If you can dredge up your high school biology, you will remember that T and t [“big t” and “little t” even in biological jargon] are different forms [called alleles] of a gene at a chromosomal position [called a locus] influencing the height of the resulting pea plants. Under gene selectionism, little t is struggling with big t to leave more copies of itself in the next generation. Selection is then viewed as working for little t alleles, not for short plants.)

Several of my colleagues toyed with this formulation during the 1970s, while Richard Dawkins provided a popular version in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). This hyper-Darwinian reductionism …

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Letters

Confusion Over Evolution’: An Exchange January 14, 1993