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Alpbach Symposium: Another 1960s revolt by serious thinkers against Darwinism


Science historian Michael Flannery writes to tell us of another early revolt by serious thinkers against Darwinism:

While this may be old news, I thought I’d share my belated discovery of the Alpbach Symposium held in March of 1968 edited by Arthur Koestler and J. R. Smythies. The title, Beyond Reductionism: New Perspectives in the Life Sciences, is a fascinating collection from a wide range of scholars, even including the economist Frederich Hayek. Among the more interesting offerings is Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s “Chance or Law.” Apparently Bertalanffy, generally regarded as the father of General Systems Theory (GST), was skeptical of neo-Darwinism (esp. natural selection) as an explanation for all of biology. He said, “I think the fact that a theory, so insufficiently verifiable and so far from the criteria otherwise applied in ‘hard’ science, has become a dogma, can only be explained on sociological grounds.” That neo-Darwinism remains dogma nearly 50 years later only serves to underscore Bertalanffy’s point. As Jonathan Wells has recently pointed out in Zombie Science, the scientific case for Darwinism hasn’t gotten stronger but, in fact, is now much weaker. I think the persistence of the Darwinian paradigm (dead but living on, zombie like) must be explained largely in sociological/cultural terms. In any case, if you’ve not read the Alpbach Symposium proceedings I recommend them. One is reminded of the Wistar Symposium from just two years before.

Ah yes, the Wistar Symposium chaired by Peter Medawar, sunk in the mists of indefensible but tenured orthodoxy, profitable textbook publishing, and easy pop science writing. It is easy to see why:

French mathematician and Doctor of Medicine Marcel Schutzenberger said,”We do not know any general principle which would explain how to match blueprints viewed as typographic objects and the things they are supposed to control. The only example we have of such a situation (apart from the evolution of life itself) is the attempt to build self-adapting programs by workers in the field of artificial intelligence. Their experience is quite conclusive to most of the observers: without some built-in matching, nothing interesting can occur. Thus, to conclude, we believe that there is a considerable gap in the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, and we believe this gap to be of such a nature that it cannot be bridged within the current conception of biology.” – Marcel Schutzenberger, “Algorithms and Neo-Darwinian Theory,” Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution, Wistar Institute Press, 1966, No. 5, pg. 75. More.

All those intellectuals had something very basic wrong, precisely because they were smart and cared about truth: They didn’t understand the role that politics plays. Darwin’s defenders did not really need to argue; they only needed to invoke popular ideas about science vs. religion and Darwinism could be as wrong as astrology but still the official dogma. Any mediocre newspaper column can write itself in Darwin’s praise. Any out-of-date icon can still be paraded to students in textbooks as well.

It usually takes a tectonic shift in the cultural landscape to dislodge a system like that, so it is interesting to reflect on whether we are undergoing such a shift now.

See also: From Biology Direct: Darwinism, now thoroughly detached from its historical roots as a falsifiable theory, “must be abandoned.” It sounds as though evolution is becoming a history of life, as opposed to a metaphysic for life, which is more or less what a lot of us have thought should happen for quite some time. The less we hear of Thus spake Darwin and Thus saith Ernst Mayr the better.Incidentally, Ford Doolittle, who speaks well of this paper, has justified mental gymnastics in the past (2009) because “much is at stake socio-politically,” namely the need to defeat “anti-evolutionists” in “the culture wars.” It’s too late for that now.


Setting the record straight on Wistar II


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