Given the economic problems lately, a lot of you have probably heard the term “Too Big To Fail” – the idea that, roughly, a given entity in the economy is so important, so vital, that they need special consideration from the government. It’s not that such an entity can’t fail – it’s that they won’t be allowed to fail, if it’s at all avoidable.
Think of it in smaller terms. Say your small town is hosting a beauty pageant. And let’s say one of the entries into this pageant is the daughter of a very wealthy out-of-town businessman, who is considering moving a factory to your town – a factory that will supply jobs the locals and the local economy very desperately needs. And let’s say she’s… not the most aesthetically gifted of all the contestants. If you can understand why chances are the businessman’s daughter shall somehow manage to win over the judges in the beauty contest – that the daughter is, in a way, too big to fail – you know enough about the too-big-to-fail concept. At least for the purposes of this post.
Well, there’s another area where a Too Big To Fail attitude shows up. And to see an interesting iteration of it, we only have to look back a few months to a paper on evolution which led to an interesting meltdown by an NCSE member.
Space is the final frontier for evolution, study claims was the headline. “Charles Darwin may have been wrong when he argued that competition was the major driving force of evolution.” Go ahead, give the article a read. It’s short, but what it amounts to is this: Instead of evolution and natural selection primarily manifesting through competition, it may be the availability of new, broad ecological niches that does most of the work. But Darwin, of course, thought competition was the primary driver of evolution. Therefore, if the paper finding the latter view to be more accurate is correct, then Darwin was wrong.
Notice a few things about this article.
* It’s from the BBC. Not the Discovery Institute, not some skeptic of evolution.
* It never once suggests that evolution or natural selection is incorrect, and in fact the entire article is predicated on an altered understanding of evolution.
* It even includes some balance in the form of another relevant authority questioning the interpretation of the paper.
But what’s most noteworthy is how modest the whole tone of the article is. Now, the idea of niche availability rather than competition being the primary driver of natural selection is very interesting, I admit. But that’s not what’s interesting about the article, at least for the purposes of this entry.
What’s interesting is the reaction.
Faced with headlines like “Was Darwin Wrong? An Alternative Theory Emerges”, “Darwin may have been WRONG, New Study Argues”, and the BBC’s subtitle of “Charles Darwin may have been wrong when he argued that competition was the major driving force of evolution.”, Steve Newton of the NCSE came out swinging in defense of Darwin. No, Darwin was NOT wrong. This study does NOT show that small-scale competition within species is incorrect. It does NOT show that new species arriving out of accumulated changes is a flawed concept. It does NOT show Darwin was wrong.
The problem is… None of the articles so much as suggested Darwin was wrong about either of those things. It wasn’t claimed that competition never happens, or even never drives natural selection – just that it isn’t the prime driving force of evolution. None of the articles cast any doubt on the idea of ‘new species arriving out of accumulated changes’ either, and in fact they expressly noted that all this study indicates is a different direction evolution and natural selection proceeds. But – and here is the real problem – they said Darwin was wrong about something. Worse, some of them even said this in the *headline*, of all things.
So if Darwin wasn’t wrong, but Darwin thought that competition was the prime driving force behind natural selection, and a study shows that competition is NOT the prime driving force behind natural selection… then what’s going on? What can we say about this?
Luckily, an answer is provided: This study is… “one facet of natural selection that [Darwin] didn’t immediately foresee”.
You know. Just as it wasn’t that economists were wrong about the direction the economy was heading. They just were unable to foresee how certain developments could impact their otherwise accurate models. A given movie wasn’t a flop – it simply was launched at a time when moviegoers didn’t have the appropriate tastes to appreciate the comedy stylings of Carrot Top. And the losers on Jeopardy didn’t answer questions wrong – they simply gave answers other than the ones Alex Trebek was looking for.
Now, I’m a TE of sorts. I have no real problem with macro-evolution, though no real emotional investment in it either. So let’s get this out of the way: Darwin was wrong. This study indicates he was wrong about competition’s role in evolution, but Darwin was wrong or in the dark on many things – from inheritance to horizontal gene transfer to genetics to cell structure to more. And this holds even if the latest version of evolutionary theory is treated as true for the sake of argument, even if someone swears up and down that Darwin was right about some things, even some important things. If either scientific study or rational thought brings a person into conflict with Darwin, so much the worse for Darwin – calling the man wrong should not be a thing to be feared, or tiptoed around.
But the problem is, of course, that Darwin is too important to be wrong at this point. There’s just too much emotional and intellectual investment in the man – not just in his ideas, but the very man himself. He has become a symbol, a kind of secular saint. And if average people – those unwashed masses, those laity – hear that Darwin was wrong about one thing, they may wonder if he was wrong about more things. They may feel that it’s okay to be open to questioning Darwin. Worse, in the course of their questioning and learning, they may decide that Darwin may have been wrong on other, more important questions.
And we can’t have that, now can we?
I end this with a quote from this article by Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini:
Some months ago an American philosopher explained to a highly sophisticated audience in Britain what, in his opinion, was wrong, indeed fatally wrong, with the standard neo-Darwinian theory of biological evolution. He made it crystal clear that his criticism was not inspired by creationism, intelligent design or any remotely religious motivation. A senior gentleman in the audience erupted, in indignation: ‘You should not say such things, you should not write such things! The creationists will treasure them and use them against science.’ The lecturer politely asked: ‘Even if they are true?’ To which the instant and vibrant retort was: ‘Especially if they are true!’ with emphasis on the ‘especially’.