Our philosopher and photographer friend Laszlo Bencze proposes a cultural reason why Darwinism sounds believable. He points out that Charles Darwin lived in an era of continuous mechanical improvements. Did that shape his — and others’ — optimism about things that “just sort of happen” in nature? He writes,
I have argued on this site that Darwin would have been heavily influenced by the advances in steam technology that occurred during his lifetime. The engines prevalent during his youth in the 1830s would have been superseded by far more advanced and more efficient engines during his maturity in the 1870s. Being an intelligent and well read gentleman who probably subscribed to several popular and scientific journals, he would have encountered articles touting such improvements as high pressure steam, the compound beam engine, and its successor, the horizontal reciprocating steam engine. Each step in this cascade of improvement gained greater efficiency, power, and safety. And of course there would have been countless minor improvements, each one displaying engineering cleverness and adding a little bit of refinement. By the end of the 19th century steam technology was a world away from the primitive machines of 1830.
We can call the early steam engines primitive based on objective criteria. The early Newcomen engines of the 18th century had an efficiency of 0.5% to 1.0%. These engines operated by condensing steam drawn into the cylinder with an injection of cold water. This created a partial vacuum which allowed the atmospheric pressure to push the piston into the cylinder. We might ask how such poor performance could possibly have been accepted. The answer is that despite the low efficiency, the Newcomen engines were much better than using horses. Also, they were well suited to the poor machining technology of the times. The piston did not have to fit perfectly into the cylinder. A leather piston ring would make it tight enough to function well. The Watt steam engine (based on Newcomen’s design) doubled the efficiency to 2%. Further advances by Oliver Evans and other engineers incrementally improved efficiency until it had attained 17% by 1900, an 850% improvement.
So now I must ask whether there is a biological equivalent to the Newcomen engine. Has there ever been a plant or animal which functioned at such a low level of efficiency that it was barely getting along? The fossil record certainly does not reveal any such living thing. We find vast populations of trilobites that seem to have thrived over wide areas of the oceans. There’s no sign that they were on the knife edge of extinction. The same is true for the immense forests of ferns of the Carboniferous era. Everywhere we look, we find beautifully adapted biology that persists robustly for millions of years. There really are no primitive sharks, dinosaurs, or mammals. They all seem to have been exquisitely well suited to their environments.
When we call anything primitive we are merely revealing our prejudices. The amoeba which Darwin would have characterized as a primitive life form consisting of a simple cell wall and protoplasm turns out to be an astonishingly complicated chemical factory equipped with sophisticated feedback systems that allow it to chase prey and maneuver to safety. Being small and unicellular is not the same as being primitive in terms of technology.
I propose that the concept of “primitive” which applies very well to technology—think of your first computer with its puny 40 MB of memory—does not at all apply to living things. By allowing the analogy with technology to inform his understanding of biology Darwin made a major error. Unfortunately, this error has not been noticed among scientists because they are so committed to the fundamental notion of incremental improvement. They see Newcomen engines everywhere.
Not that the industrial transformations just sort of happened, of course. But perhaps we can count on a gentleman not to have noticed all those nobodies toiling away…
See also: How can life forms show intelligence with no brain? A Wall Street Journal piece points to the flatworm as an example.