Darwin’s Revolution

Darwin for Beginners

by Jonathan Miller and 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 and Jeremy Cherfas
Pantheon, 280 pp., $13.95

The Myths of Human Evolution

by Niles Eldredge and 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)

Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism

by Philip Kitcher, with Patricia Kitcher
MIT Press, 213 pp., $15.00

Darwinism Defended: A Guide to the Evolution Controversies

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

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin; drawing by David Levine

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…


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