An interesting paper was recently published by David Depew and Bruce Weber in the journal Biological Theory. The paper bears the title “The Fate of Darwinism: Evolution After the Modern Synthesis.” Its abstract summarizes the article’s contents:
We trace the history of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis, and of genetic Darwinism generally, with a view to showing why, even in its current versions, it can no longer serve as a general framework for evolutionary theory. The main reason is empirical. Genetical Darwinism cannot accommodate the role of development (and of genes in development) in many evolutionary processes. We go on to discuss two conceptual issues: whether natural selection can be the “creative factor” in a new, more general framework for evolutionary theorizing; and whether in such a framework organisms must be conceived as self-organizing systems embedded in self-organizing ecological systems.
This paper is interesting in at least two respects. First, there is the curious use of the word “Darwinism” to describe the modern evolutionary synthesis. It is frequently asserted by our critics that “Darwinism” is a pejorative term invented by creationists and proponents of ID as a form of derision. The term, however, is used widely in the mainstream scientific literature — albeit not always in a consistent manner. The authors define “Darwinism” thus:
Darwinism refers to its author’s proposed causal explanation of evolution — natural selection — and to theories in which this process plays the dominant role in evolution, including human evolution.
The second point of interest is the paper’s claim that “Darwinism in its current scientific incarnation has pretty much reached the end of its rope.” Furthermore, as the authors argue,
…it is largely because Lamarckism, saltationist (sudden) mutationism, and inner-driven orthogenesis, to name the most enduring alternative traditions in evolutionary biology, failed to become mathematized empirical sciences with at least a foothold on value-neutrality that Darwinism still rules the evolutionary roost.
The authors are careful to distinguish between “genetical Darwinism” and “Darwinism as such.” Curiously, the primary point on which they criticize Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s What Darwin Got Wrong does not relate to an alleged flaw in their arguments, but rather has to do with their failure to distinguish between “genetical Darwinism” and “Darwinism as such.” They remind and re-assure their readers that,
in the past, improved versions of Darwinism have taken the place of inadequate ones and that a new version — a Darwinism of the future — may well displace population genetical Darwinism without ending, but instead enriching, Darwinism as such.
The paper goes on to provide an historical overview of the developments of “genetical Darwinism,” portraying it as a play in five acts. These are:
Act 1: Natural selection contra mutation.
“Validation of adaptive natural selection as an actual natural phenomenon beginning in the 1880s.”
Act 2: Mutation plus natural selection.
“An intermediate position that can be justly called Darwinian became popular in the first three decades of the twentieth century. It assigned the creative role in evolution to sudden mutations. To natural selection, it assigned only the housekeeping work of filtering out unfit mutations.”
Act 3: The Modern Synthesis.
“The population genetical theory of natural selection…became the foundation of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis of the 1940s-1960s.”
Act 4: Molecular Darwinism.
“The effect on population genetical Darwinism of molecular genetics beginning in the 1950s and 1960s.”
Act 5: The End of Population Genetic Darwinism.
“So much for Darwinism as reductionist genetics.”
Notably, the paper’s authors seem to share the view of the genome that ID proponents have been advocating for years: “There is probably very little ‘junk DNA.’ The entire genome, including its frequent repeats, plays a role in regulating gene expression.” In support of this, they cite a 2011 paper by Pink et al. (“Pseudogenes: Pseudo-functional or key regulators in health and disease?”).
Contrary to the Darwin lobby’s oft-repeated assertion that there are absolutely no weaknesses in Darwinian theory, the paper offers the concession that the modern synthesis has never provided an account of “how major forms of life evolved” — an omission that is not unsubstantial, to put it mildly.
In spite of all this, the authors are nonetheless confident that a new general theory and conceptual framework of evolution will be forthcoming, and that this will make up for where current formulations of evolution fail. But this is mere speculation.
The Darwin lobby will doubtless continue to make their routine assertion that no credible scientist sees any substantial problems with modern evolutionary theory. Such a position is, however, becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.