Could have done without him, maybe. Part of a long form article on the “great man” theory in science, by Philip Ball at Nautilus:
So I asked historian and philosopher of science James Lennox of the University of Pittsburgh, an expert on the history of Darwinian theory, who might have done the job in place of Darwin and Wallace. His answer was striking: The story might not have gone that way at all.
“When you read through Darwin’s Species Notebooks and see the struggle he went through, and then you compare his first and second attempts to present it coherently (in 1842 and 1844) with the Origin, I think it is equally plausible that some very different theory of evolution might have won the day,” says Lennox. After all, alternatives to Darwinian thought were still debated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when, Lennox says, “a variety of non-Darwinian theories were at least as popular as Darwin’s.” Some prominent geneticists, such as the Dutchman Hugo de Vries, supposed that evolutionary changes happens in jumps (saltation) rather than by Darwin’s gradual change—and as far as the “macroevolution” of whole groups of species goes, that idea never went away: It’s comparable to the “punctuated equilibrium” model of modern-day biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge.
But surely Darwinian natural selection is the “right” theory, so we’d have got there eventually? Well yes—but it’s still debated whether the disturbingly tautological “survival of the fittest” is the best way to think about it. Darwin’s view is now augmented and adapted, for example to include the effects of random genetic drift and to unify a view of evolutionary change with accounts of developmental biology (so called “evo-devo”). Might we have got to the current position, then, without an origin-of-species-type account at all? “I think that is entirely possible,” says Lennox. More.
A striking admission: “Might we have got to the current position, then, without an origin-of-species-type account at all? ‘I think that is entirely possible,’ says Lennox.”
Truth is, Darwinian evolution is and always has been a tautology that supports a metaphysic, naturalism (nature is all there is).
As Lynn Margulis noted, not all the organisms that come into existence can survive and pass on their heritage. But—in an ever-changing world, where the advantage constantly shifts—how does one get a grand view of life out of that mundane fact?*
How about, by packaging and marketing a common-sense fact as a great principle of science? It had legs. Darwinism enabled H.L. Mencken to feel superior to Neanderthal man,” “organizing in these forlorn backwaters of the land, led by a fanatic, rid of sense and devoid of conscience. It enabled Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to majestically declare “three generations of imbeciles is enough,” when sentencing a girl who had committed no crime and presented no serious problems to compulsory sterilization. Surely, no criminal code in North America at the time listed that as a punishment. Inimitably, “Buck herself did not learn of her sterilization until decades later — she was told at the time that the operation was an appendectomy. According to the USA Today article, more than 65,000 people were sterilized under such laws, which were enacted in more than 30 states.”
Yes, Darwinism has been that powerful in our society. And no, those ghosts do not lie quiet.
Meanwhile, generations of science profs and teachers assured students (and science writers and politicians, of course) that we know a lot about evolution when we, in fact, knew very little.
We know more now. And now Darwinism is just a tautology, on salary with benefits, complete with a sophisticated literary claque.
“Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin” [Where’s the Sousaphone? – News]
with, as in so many cases today,
A “hilariously complicated” scenario of changes over time, whose rules we are only beginning to intuit. [Relax, PhD., you have a job until at least 2055. – News]
Here’s one interpretation: Darwinism, as a metaphysic, created a funnel. If some find or claim could be squeezed through Darwin’s funnel, then it was evolution. It was Science! Of course a great deal of it was nonsense. But hey, it was sciencey nonsense. That’s what matters. It’s cool and it sells both high-brow articles and elementary textbooks.
A few years ago, due to a number of factors (mostly book-length topics) including genome mapping, Darwin’s tautology started to get replaced by actual knowledge, which obviates it.
And no one can do a thing about that. The Royal Society appeared surprisingly easy to intimidate earlier this year. But they may as well stand their ground hereafter. The first groups to get in on serious discussions of what we all now know, post-Checkpoint Charlie, will gain much.
* Note: On the subject Darwin addressed, better stuff from millennia ago:
The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.
There are doubtless underlying principles involved in evolution, but we must do much more serious work than we have so far to find something beyond “not to the swift.”
See also: Suzan Mazur on Royal Society finally agreeing to release evolution documents
What the fossils told us in their own words
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