A friend writes to offer this excerpt from British biologist William Bateson (1861–1926):
In what follows it will be assumed that the Doctrine of Descent is true. It should be admitted from the first that the truth of the doctrine has never been proved. There is nevertheless a great balance of evidence in his favor, but it finds its support not so much in direct observation as in the difficulty of forming any alternative hypothesis. The Theory of Descent involves and
asserts that all living things are genetically connected, and this principle is at least not contrary to observation; while any alternative hypothesis involves the idea of Separate Creation which by common consent is now recognized as absurd. In favor of the Doctrine of Common Descent there is a balance of evidence; it is besides accepted by most naturalists; lastly if it is not true we can get no further with the problem; but inasmuch as it is unproven it is right that we should explicitly recognize that it is in part an assumption and that we have adopted it as a postulate. – From Bateson, W. 1894. Materials for the Study of Variation, Treated with
Especial Regard to Discontinuity in the Origin of Species. [online] Macmillan,
That was the late 19th century view, for sure. But it assumes certain things, including that evolution is almost all Darwinian. But what if …
Take that away, and we look at a very different picture. For example, genome mapper Craig Venter (no slouch he) made Richard Dawkins incredulous a couple years back by denying common descent. As William Dembski puts it there:
What’s significant is not so much whether Venter is right (I think he is), but what his dissent from Darwinian orthodoxy suggests about the disarray in the study of biological origins. If common descent is up for grabs, what isn’t? Imagine physics in the century after Newton questioning whether there even is such a force as gravity or suggesting that really it decomposes into several different types of gravitational forces.
Venter’s flight from orthodoxy is even more drastic. Common descent is the sanctum sanctorum of evolutionary biology. If scientists of Venter’s stature are now desecrating it, what’s next?
Well, come to think of it, Carl Woese (1928-2012), who discovered the domain of life called Archaea, and regretted that he had never fetched the vacuum cleaner for the spook of Darwin, was no fan either. Again, no slouch.
That’s a risk for a historical thesis that depends on the assumption that no alternative explanation makes any sense. Later, smart people can come up with alternative explanations in some cases. Then it’s all up for grabs.
And Bateson has only the likes of Panda’s Thumb or BioLogos to defend him.
Rotten luck, but his achievements remain.
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