Darwinian Fundamentalism


With copious evidence ranging from Plato’s haughtiness to Beethoven’s tirades, we may conclude that the most brilliant people of history tend to be a prickly lot. But Charles Darwin must have been the most genial of geniuses. He was kind to a fault, even to the undeserving, and he never uttered a harsh word—or hardly ever, as his countryman Captain Corcoran once said. Darwin’s disciple, George Romanes, expressed surprise at the only sharply critical Darwinian statement he had ever encountered: “In the whole range of Darwin’s writings there cannot be found a passage so strongly worded as this: it presents the only note of bitterness in all the thousands of pages which he has published.” Darwin directed this passage that Romanes found so striking against people who would simplify and caricature his theory as claiming that natural selection, and only natural selection, caused all evolutionary changes. He wrote in the last (1872) edition of The Origin of Species:

As my conclusions have lately been much misrepresented, and it has been stated that I attribute the modification of species exclusively to natural selection, I may be permitted to remark that in the first edition of this work, and subsequently, I placed in a most conspicuous position—namely at the close of the Introduction—the following words: “I am convinced that natural selection has been the main but not the exclusive means of modification.” This has been of no avail. Great is the power of steady misrepresentation.

Darwin clearly loved his distinctive theory of natural selection—the powerful idea that he often identified in letters as his dear “child.” But, like any good parent, he understood limits and imposed discipline. He knew that the complex and comprehensive phenomena of evolution could not be fully rendered by any single cause, even one so ubiquitous and powerful as his own brainchild.

In this light, especially given history’s tendency to recycle great issues, I am amused by an irony that has recently ensnared evolutionary theory. A movement of strict constructionism, a self-styled form of Darwinian fundamentalism, has risen to some prominence in a variety of fields, from the English biological heartland of John Maynard Smith to the uncompromising ideology (albeit in graceful prose) of his compatriot Richard Dawkins, to the equally narrow and more ponderous writing of the American philosopher Daniel Dennett (who entitled his latest book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea).1 Moreover, a larger group of strict constructionists are now engaged in an almost mordantly self-conscious effort to “revolutionize” the study of human behavior along a Darwinian straight and narrow under the name of “evolutionary psychology.”

Some of these ideas have filtered into the general press, but the uniting theme of Darwinian fundamentalism has not been adequately stressed or identified. Professionals, on the other hand, are well aware of the connections. My colleague Niles Eldredge, for example, speaks of this coordinated movement as Ultra-Darwinism in his recent book, Reinventing Darwin.2 Amid the variety of their subject matter, the ultra-Darwinists share a conviction that natural…

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