Darwinism Evolutionary biology

How Darwinists cope with being completely, utterly wrong

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When suppression fails, they rewrite history. In “Darwin’s Theory of Descent with Modification, versus the Biblical Tree of Life,” Massey University molecular biologist David Penny admits that Darwin did not coin the expression “Tree of Life,” as in “Darwin’s Tree of Life”:

There is a strong urban myth that Charles Darwin introduced and/or advocated a “Tree of Life” for the classification of living organisms. This has recently been highlighted by Lawton [1], but dates back to at least Doolittle [2].

Yes, and the publicly funded smart set still worship faithfully, so why interfere? Surely not because that’s false? With Darwinism, what isn’t false?* NO, Penny is offering a strategy for co-opting non-Darwinian findings in the history of life as, really, inspired by Darwinism! He goes on,

It is often combined with the idea that we require a “paradigm shift” to take into account extensive lateral gene transfer, especially in prokaryotes. Yes, extensive lateral gene transfer occurs widely in prokaryotes (see [3]–[5]), and this enriches our understanding of evolution by emphasizing a more gene-centered view. In contrast, though acknowledging the prior availability of the tree of life simile, Darwin continually referred to his “theory of descent with modification”, an expression that encompasses a wide variety of fundamental processes including both vertical descent and lateral gene transfer, thus removing any need for paradigm shifts.

Translation: Okay, so we Darwinists don’t want to admit that the many decades of Darwinists who insisted that, as Michael Ruse puts it,

I think that evolution is a fact and that Darwinism rules triumphant. Natural selection is not simply an important mechanism. It is the only significant cause of permanent organic change.

were just plain wrong. And that that fact casts doubt on our most central beliefs, in whose name we have justified and lauded many persecutions.

Instead, we will spin. We will claim that we had never believed that, had always believed what everyone  now knows to be true, despite us.

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In closing, he minimizes the discovery of truly important (non-Darwinian) sources of evolutionary change by playing the word game around “Tree of Life” more energetically,

With respect to the Tree of Life, it is unambiguous that Darwin neither invented this ancient phrase, nor used it to describe the fundamentals of his evolutionary understanding. In contrast, he routinely used the term theory of descent with modification, and focussed more on the mechanisms of evolution and the continuity of life. I would therefore argue that we evolutionists need to have a better understanding of the history of our subject if we wish to claim something as novel.

My own interpretation of why Darwin focused on a mechanistic view of evolution is that he started his professional career as a geologist [6],[7], effectively with Charles Lyell as his mentor [33], and Lyell sought to explain past geological events by mechanisms that could be studied in the present (Figure 1). Whether this interpretation of Lyell’s influence stands future tests remains to be seen, but certainly Darwin was much more interested in mechanisms that could explain evolution than in describing patterns of relationships. As mentioned earlier, given Darwin’s theory of descent and his interest in explaining the past by known mechanisms, we should welcome lateral gene transfer as another mechanism that can help explain past biology.

Did you catch the whopper, “But certainly Darwin was much more interested in mechanisms that could explain evolution than in describing patterns of relationships”?

Reality time: Darwin (and Wallace) theorized a mechanism that would account for (not “describe,” rather “account for”) the patterns of relationships. That’s the only reason they were interested, patterns of relationships. The difference was that Darwin added it to his atheist recasting of the world’s history, and Wallace went on to other things.

Darwinists, why don’t you all just name yourselves Charlie? It’s a way cuter cult sign than persecution of non-Darwinists.

*For the record, Penny explains:

The Tree of Life is a biblical phrase that predates the 19th century by several millennia. In all, the phrase occurs 11 times in Genesis, Proverbs, and the Book of Revelations (http://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/). In Genesis, it is found three times (2:9 and 3:22 and 3:24); in the middle of the Garden of Eden were both the Tree of Life and the “Tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (from which Eve supposedly ate the fruit). Eating of the fruit of the Tree of Life would apparently have given eternal life, and that eternal life theme appears again in Revelations 2:7, and 22:2, 14, and 19. The other references are in Proverbs (3:18, 11:30, 13:12, 15:4), where it appears more metaphorical in intent. Thus, my first point is that Darwin certainly did not coin the phrase….

Now here’s what the Master taught, in his own words,

The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth. The green and budding twigs may represent existing species; and those produced during each former year may represent the long succession of extinct species. At each period of growth all the growing twigs have tried to branch out on all sides, and to overtop and kill the surrounding twigs and branches, in the same manner as species and groups of species have tried to overmaster other species in the great battle for life. The limbs divided into great branches, and these into lesser and lesser branches, were themselves once, when the tree was small, budding twigs; and this connexion of the former and present buds by ramifying branches may well represent the classification of all extinct and living species in groups subordinate to groups. Of the many twigs which flourished when the tree was a mere bush, only two or three, now grown into great branches, yet survive and bear all the other branches; so with the species which lived during long-past geological periods, very few now have living and modified descendants. From the first growth of the tree, many a limb and branch has decayed and dropped off; and these lost branches of various sizes may represent those whole orders, families, and genera which have now no living representatives, and which are known to us only from having been found in a fossil state. As we here and there see a thin straggling branch springing from a fork low down in a tree, and which by some chance has been favoured and is still alive on its summit, so we occasionally see an animal like the Ornithorhynchus or Lepidosiren, which in some small degree connects by its affinities two large branches of life, and which has apparently been saved from fatal competition by having inhabited a protected station. As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.

Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (1859), pp. 129-130.

4 Replies to “How Darwinists cope with being completely, utterly wrong

  1. 1
    Ilion says:

    In contrast, though acknowledging the prior availability of the tree of life simile, Darwin continually referred to his “theory of descent with modification”, an expression that …

    Darwin customarily used the cumbersome loqution, “theory of descent with modification”, so that he could avoid using the word “evolution.” In his day, his disciples hadn’t yet stripped the word of its inherent teleological implications (not have they completely succeeded to this day).

  2. 2
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    Does it even matter whether he used the exact term? He certainly described a tree in words (read the last paragraph of Origin), and drew a famous tree diagram.

    And, in fact, it turns out he also used the exact words in his marginalia here:


  3. 3
    Mung says:

    Sure looks like a theory of common descent/ancestry to me Elizabeth.

  4. 4
    dan4112 says:

    I know this question should go on a slightly different post, but the post about there not being enought time for evolution currently does not allow comments. I emailed this question to Michael Behe, but never received a reply. So, I’m hoping some biologist out there will have the answer.

    In his book, The Greatest Show on Earth, the prominent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins talks about a case where 5 pairs of the lizard, Podarcis Sicula, were transferred to a neighboring island where no lizards of Podarcis Sicula were living. Some biologists then came back to the island 30 years later and discovered a thriving population of Podarcis Sicula. However, these lizards had dramatic changes from their ancestors on the other island. The new lizards seem to have changed their diet to a vegetarian one. As a result their heads were much larger to provide for a greater bite force to grind cellulose, and they had also started evolving the ‘caecal valve’ to regulate the flow of material through the gut. These are classical herbivore features (See pages 113-116 of Dawkins book)

    I want a biologist’s opinion on the evolution of the caecal valve. Specifically, would the evolution of this structure require any new cell types to be developed and/or molecular machinery?

    The multiple coordinated changes in both the head and gut seem to me to be evidence for intelligently guided evolution. This would be especially true if the creation of new cell types and molecular machinery were involved. Furthermore, the changes happened in a mere 18-19 generations according to Dawkins. Well, if Lenski’ bacteria have trouble simply modifying an enzyme to transport citrate in the presence of oxygen in under 30,000 generations, I find it hard pressed to believe that these lizards could pull off a caecal valve in under 20. However, I want an expert opinion on this.

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