Pseudo-Darwinism: A Theory for All Seasons

Michael Egnor

Recently on Panda’s Thumb, Darwinist and biologist Reed Cartwright takes issue with my observation that Darwin’s theory had nothing to do with Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA and the genetic code:

Egnor is completely and utterly wrong. This is a total distortion of the actual research that went into determining the genetic code. The research program of Crick, Brenner, Benzer, and colleagues relied heavily on applying Darwinian principles (random mutation and selection) to model organisms. Specifically, they isolated mutations in bacterial viruses (phages), and then used selection to find revertants under controlled experimental conditions. With such data, Crick et al. (1961) were able to demonstrate that each residue in a protein was encoded by a non-overlapping triplet of nucleic-acid residues. In another example, with the same system Benner et al. (1967) used selection experiments on mutations to argue that UGA did not code for an amino acid and specifically argued that it must have an important function “because otherwise natural selection would have certainly allocated it to an amino acid.”…So in spite of Egnor’s egnorance, Darwin’s ideas were not only a help but very essential “in decoding the genetic language of DNA.”

He continues:

Now the biotech industry is founded on the application of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Selection is an essential part of the process that creates transgenic organisms, like bacteria that produce human insulin. Humans are unable to create transgenic organisms directly, instead they use recombination DNA technology, which randomly creates transgenic organisms from building blocks provided by the researcher. The result is a population of organisms, in which a small minority contains the desired transgenic trait. The researcher then uses Darwin’s mechanism, selection, to evolve a population that is enriched for the desired trait. And voila [sic], with what to someone like Dr. Egnor must seem like wizardry, a population of bacteria can now produce human insulin, enriching and saving the lives of millions, all thanks to Charles Darwin.

Dr. Cartwright is mistaken. Darwin asserted that all natural biological complexity arose by random undesigned variation and natural selection. The intentional alteration and intentional selection of microorganisms is a nice example of designed variation and artificial selection. Dr. Cartwright’s application of Darwin’s theory to intentional design and breeding of bacteria is pseudo-Darwinism.
Pseudo-Darwinism–in this case, the attribution of Darwin’s theory to design and artificial selection–is the antithesis of Darwin’s theory. Crick and colleagues chose variants to study and artificially selected them. Their work was carefully planned. It wasn’t random and it wasn’t natural. The biotech industry breeds bacteria, combining molecular biology with ancient principles of breeding. Darwin learned from breeding; he didn’t invent it or any of its principles. Darwin’s theory is not a theory of design by artificial selection. It’s a theory about biological change without design and without intentional selection. It has nothing to do with Crick’s experiments or with the biotech industry.
Watson and Crick deduced the structure of the DNA molecule by designing models based on x-ray diffraction, Chargaff’s rules and physical chemistry of nucleotides. They used molecular biology and physical chemistry to establish the design specifications, and they built models to make sure they had the design right. Their technique was biological reverse engineering.
The subsequent discovery of the genetic code was reverse engineering as well, using molecular biology, physical chemistry, and carefully designed experiments. Crick and his colleagues discovered the “technological principles” of DNA, and learned to read the letters, words, sentences, punctuation, syntax, and semantics of heredity. It was a stunning vindication of the power of the inference to design in biology. The inference to design was implicit, not explicit, but even the implicit inference to design is a remarkable tool.
Dr. Cartwright, by inappropriately applying Darwin’s theory of non-teleological change to the purposeful (designed) breeding of bacteria, inadvertently reveals much about modern Darwinism. Darwin published his provocative but evidence-lite theory in 1859. In the early 20th century, biologists developed Neo-Darwinism, which is the synthesis of Darwin’s theory and modern genetics. Neo-Darwinism dominated evolutionary biology until the last quarter of the 20th century. With the rise of biotechnology, Darwinists have claimed credit for the insights gained by molecular biologists and by the design and breeding of organisms.
This is the age of pseudo-Darwinism. Pseudo-Darwinism is the synthesis of Darwin’s theory and ‘anything you can think of.’ We have the synthesis of Darwin’s theory and the discovery of the genetic code. We have the synthesis of Darwin’s theory and the biotech industry (transgenic organisms are designed and bred to produce human insulin–thanks to Darwin!). We have the synthesis of Darwin’s theory and cancer research. We have the synthesis of Darwin’s theory and psychology (evolutionary psychology), Darwin’s theory and sociology (sociobiology), Darwin’s theory and culture (memes), Darwin’s theory and literature (literary Darwinism), Darwin’s theory and cosmology (multiverses), and Darwin’s theory and, well, everything (Dennett’s universal acid). None of these have anything to do with Darwin’s theory–the theory that all natural biological complexity arose by non-teleological variation and natural selection.
Pseudo-Darwinism is a theory for all seasons. It’s the application of Darwinism to everything. It’s panic, not insight. When an otherwise thoughtful and skilled scientist like Dr. Cartwright attributes insight gained by experimental design and artificial selection to Darwin’s theory of random variation and natural selection, you know that a paradigm is dying. It will be replaced, soon.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.