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Darwinian Evolution: A Scientific Pip-Squeak in a Suit of Cultural Armor

Michael Flannery

Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975), leading contributor to the evolutionary “New Synthesis” during the 1930s, once declared, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of [neo-Darwinian] evolution.” Richard Dawkins has called Darwin’s theory of evolution “the most powerful idea ever.” Indeed, for Dawkins, On the Origin of Species “gave biology its guiding principle, a governing law that helps the rest make sense.” Of Darwin himself David Quammen has said, “Work was his opiate, and science was his religion.” But how accurate are these claims? Is Darwinian evolution the epitome of science itself? Does Darwinian evolution and/or its modern synthesis explain the whole of biology? A careful examination suggests it may indeed be more accurate to characterize it as a scientific pip-squeak in a suit of cultural armor.

Part of the answer lies in the history of modern evolutionary theory itself. Boston University history professor and Darwin scholar Thomas F. Glick has recently published an interesting book titled What About Darwin?  As Glick explains it, the book is designed to show through selected quotations of individuals from a wide range of backgrounds and interests how they reacted to his On the Origin of Species and how they reacted to the man himself. More importantly, Glick seeks to show how Darwin’s evolutionary theory lodged itself within the broader culture of the era, not only in England, but in the United States, Germany, France, and elsewhere. Despite Glick’s obvious infatuation with the Darwin himself, the effort produces a fascinating result.

First of all, the first edition of Origin was issued on November 22, 1859, and the initial print run of 1,250 immediately sold out. Selling at 14 shillings (more than a week’s wage for the common laborer), this was a book for Darwin’s own, the Victorian elite and intelligentsia. Glick points out that the rapid dissemination of Darwin’s theory is best understood through “affinity groups.” This coterie of upper class was bound together by economic, political, and deep family ties not soon broken. “The educated elite in England was small enough that everyone knew everyone else, resulting in a hyperconductivity of ideas and the extreme rapidity with which they circulated” (xxiii). We are liable to see the victory of Darwinian evolution in the dramatic exchange between his Bulldog Defender, Thomas Henry Huxley, and Samuel Wilberforce in the summer of 1860, but as Glick explains, “the battle had long since finished: most of the elite had been won over in the first months.” (xxv)

The power of Darwin’s theory was that it fostered a certain “habit of mind,” a habit delineated in considerable detail through Glick’s book. Moreover, we find this “habit of mind” infectiously transmitted not only by a relatively small group of scientists but by a range of prominent figures in the arts and humanities (including theology) who were otherwise little acquainted with the field of biology. Alfred Lord Tennyson, Great Britain’s Poet Laureate, and Thomas Carlyle, perhaps England’s most noteworthy essayist and historian, were disseminators of Darwin’s idea. More importantly, as Glick observes, they “had huge circles of acquaintances; they seem to have known everybody, and they appear . . . as conduits for the transmission of ideas.” (xxiv) In America the situation was similar, where (in addition to some scientific support from Asa Gray and others) Bostonian arbiters of taste and culture like historian George Ticknor, art historian Charles Eliot Norton, and even Henry James and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow helped spread the Darwinian gospel on the other side of the Atlantic.

The point is, the establishment of Darwinian evolution lodged itself securely only in part because of key support from certain scientific figures. Far more significant was the general captivation of a wide ranging intelligentsia from the arts and humanities on both sides of the Atlantic. It is through this broader based support that Darwinism has become dressed in a kind of suit of cultural armor. As such under this Darwinian “habit of mind” Darwin himself “ceases to refer to the real person and becomes an icon.” (xxvi) It is this iron-clad cultural armor that surrounds Darwin’s theory that allows Richard Dawkins to make imprudent–even ridiculous–statements like, “If you meet anyone who doesn’t believe in evolution [and he means of the Darwinian variety], that person is ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked . . .”

If we understand that the lodging of Darwinian evolution as a given in modern society was and is a product of cultural acceptance and not just a matter of purported scientific strengths, the issue takes on different meaning and significance. Glick writes, “there is no real distinction between the scientific channel and the literary channel: they are cut from the same cloth of common culture and common experience.” (xix) But there are reasons to doubt Glick here.

While science and the humanities may indeed reside in a common culture, the interplay between the two is far more subtle and nuanced than Glick suggests. For one thing, the primary constituencies are different and the main players within each sphere are different too. While the ascendancy of Darwin’s “one long argument” may have found the “scientific” and the “literary” working in tandem for acceptance far and away larger and deeper than most scientific theories, we may justly ask if the actual power of the two really are “cut from the same cloth.” And it is here we find a stark contrast.

If the scientific strength of Darwinian evolution matches its ubiquitous cultural preeminence–if indeed the two coincide with a harmonious verisimilitude–then perhaps we would be all knaves and fools for denying it. However, a careful examination finds a great disparity between the two. Remember Darwinian evolution itself gained its iconic status chiefly by and through the cultural gatekeepers of the affinity group from which it sprang, the tight-knit, class-conscious blood-ties of the Victorian elite. From the beginning scientists had always pointed out difficulties with the theory–Louis Agassiz, St. George Mivart, Alfred Russel Wallace, even Gregor Mendel to name a few–it was the chorus of approbation from a much larger field that gained Darwin’s theory it hegemonic status. Yet its power as a scientific paradigm simply doesn’t seem to match its public bravado.

When University of Warwick sociologist Steve Fuller updated the 1994 survey conducted by Nicolas Rasmussen, he found that of 1,273,417 articles indexed in the two main online biology databases from 1960 to 2005, only 12 percent contained the term “evolution” and its variants in associated keywords and abstracts. “Natural selection” was even scarcer, appearing in only 0.4 percent of the entries. (See his Science vs Religion?: Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution, pp. 131-132) . In many cases, Fuller notes, the term “evolution” is used in a noncontroversial microevolutionary sense. These findings have caused Fuller to conclude, “The neo-Darwinian synthesis consists largely of an extended promissory note to the effect that these two senses of ‘evolution’ are ultimately the same.” While grandiose claims on behalf of neo-Darwinism continue from biologists (mostly popularizers) and journalists, with each new “discovery” no matter how trival a vindication of its absolute truth leading to the implicit assumption that it is absolutely essential to modern science, Fuller admits, “On the contrary, neo-Darwinism could be abandoned tomorrow, and most research programs in genetics–and other biological disciplines–would continue apace.”

Indeed the scientific literature itself is calling the purported paradigm into question. M. Leisola and O. Turunen at Helsinki University of Technology suggest in a 2007 protein engineering study that there is an “overreliance on the Darwinian blind search to obtain practical results. In the long run, random methods cannot replace insight in constructing life-like proteins.” (see Protein engineering: opportunities and challenges) In a 2009 article in Nature by Bolhuis and Wynne the question is asked, “Can evolution explain how minds work?” The short answer is, not so far. The authors go on to chide their colleagues for making grand claims for human/primate mental and emotional affinities. “A closer look at many of these studies, reveals . . . that appropriate control conditions have often been lacking, and simpler explanations overlooked in a flurry of anthropomorphic overinterpretation.” More careful studies, Bolhuis and Wynne suggest,”have cast doubt on the straightforward application of Darwinism to cognition. Some have even called Darwin’s idea of continuity of mind a mistake.” Even more recently, in 2010, the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences carried an article by C.U.M (Chris) Smith that called consciousness and qualia (that unique experiential consciousness we all share) Darwin’s unsolved problem.

So why all the continued posturing and bombast around this issue? The science itself seems questionable enough to elicit a more humble response by even the most committed Darwinist. Perhaps that’s because it’s not the science talking as much as it is rhetoric bolstered by a cultural armor in which it has been comfortably dressed almost from its appearance more than 150 years ago. It wasn’t science that provided the armor, it was Darwin’s own affinity group comprising an eclectic array of litterateurs, historians, gentlemen naturalists, country squires, assorted dilettantes, and yes a few genuine scientists. Darwin’s idea of a wholly materialistic/naturalistic explanation was an idea whose time had come. Darwin wasn’t so sure at first and so he withheld the application of his ideas to humans until Descent of Man in 1871. By then for most of the Victorian reading public that mattered the idea remained the centerpiece of intellectual chic but in many senses unremarkable.

Darwinian evolution today has far more cultural than scientific power. They are not in the light of the 21st century, cut from the same cloth. While no biology department is likely to cast the paradigm away any time soon, its persistence rests not on its empirical evidence or even its scientific utility but upon its power within the larger culture it serves, and that cultural armor is repeatedly polished up for the general public in PBS documentaries and dramas such as Inherit the Wind. It matters little that the overwhelming majority of Americans continue to reject Darwinism (see recent Gallup poll) so long as power broker elites control the media and education arenas that matter most. 

Therefore, it seems doubtful that any scientific argument is capable of bringing Darwinian evolution to its knees. Surely science can expose its deficiencies and accumulating anomalies, but in the end no empirical demonstration, no scientific proof, no unanswered question is likely to pierce the cultural armor that sustains it. Darwinism and its neo-Darwinian offspring may be scientific pip-squeaks, but the cultural armor that surrounds them is formidable indeed. Perhaps that’s because the most important aspect of Darwinism was never to be found in its purported “science” but rather in its metaphysic, a metaphysic that has always suggested a purposeless world “guided” by chance and necessity. In the final analysis, Darwinism in all its various permutations must be assessed and critiqued in all the areas it is found–scientific and cultural. In fact, between the two the latter may present the most challenging and important task.  

Michael Flannery

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael A. Flannery is professor emeritus of UAB Libraries, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He holds degrees in library science from the University of Kentucky and history from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). He has edited Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2008) and authored Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011). His research and work on Wallace continues.