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Non-Adaptive Order: An Existential Challenge to Darwinian Evolution

Michael Denton

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Editor’s note: In his new book Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis, Michael Denton not only updates the argument from his groundbreaking Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (1985) but also presents a powerful new critique of Darwinian evolution. This article is one in a series in which Dr. Denton summarizes some of the most important points of the new book. For the full story, get your copy of Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis. For a limited time, you’ll enjoy a 30 percent discount at CreateSpace by using the discount code QBDHMYJH.

At London’s famous Natural History Museum in South Kensington, a statue of Richard Owen had been prominently placed for many decades at the head of the main staircase. But in a curiously symbolic event on May 23, 2008, the statue was moved to one of the adjacent balconies to make room for a statue of Charles Darwin, which now sits in pride of place.

The reason for this gesture? The Natural History Museum is a grand temple to Darwinian evolution, and Owen was a staunch defender of the alternative structuralist conception of nature — a conception that, if true, would relegate Darwinian selectionism to a very trivial role in the evolution of life.

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Owen founded the museum and served as its first curator and director. He made huge contributions to comparative anatomy and paleontology in the 19th century, including coining the term “dinosaur” and defining the term “homology.” Owen believed that there was a substantial degree of order inherent in living systems, manifest in what he termed “primal patterns,” the grand taxa-defining homologs or ground plans that underlie the adaptive diversity of life.

Because of his vigorous opposition to the functional conception of nature, Owen was vilified by Huxley and other supporters of Darwin. After the publication of the Origin, Owen’s contribution to biology was increasingly downplayed by the Darwin camp, and his rejection of the conception that all biological order was to “serve some utilitarian end” was dismissed as archaic and treated as based on failed metaphysical assumptions. Little wonder they moved his statue!

While many of the taxa-defining homologs — including, among others, the feather, the poison claw of the centipede, the retractable claw of cats, the mammalian diaphragm, and mammary glands — are clearly adaptive, a great many others, such as the odd number of segments in centipedes, the concentric whorls of the flower, the insect body plan, and the pentadactyl limb, convey the powerful impression of being basically non-adaptive Bauplans. The fact that many exhibit curious geometric and numeric features reinforces the impression that they are indeed abstract non-adaptive patterns, quite beyond the explanatory reach of any adaptationist or selectionist narrative.

In all those cases Darwinian explanations are simply ruled out of court. The difficulty of accounting for arbitrary geometric and numerical patterns in terms of bit-by-bit selection was one of the basic thrusts of William Bateson’s vigorous attack on Darwinian orthodoxy, where he argued that such stories descend into “endless absurdity.”1

If indeed a significant proportion of the taxa-defining primal patterns serve no specific adaptive function and never did, as common sense dictates and as Owen thought to be true of the Bauplan of the tetrapod limb, then I think a fair assessment has to be that Darwinism (more specifically, cumulative selection) cannot supply an explanation for the origin of a significant fraction of the defining homologs of the Types and hence for the natural system itself.


(1) Bateson, Materials for the Study of Variation, 410.

Image: Richard Owen with giant moa skeleton, by John van Voorst [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Michael Denton

Senior Fellow, the Center for Science & Culture and the Center on Human Exceptionalism
Michael Denton holds an M.D. from Bristol University, as well as a Ph.D. in biochemistry from King’s College in London. A Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, Denton has had a critical impact on the debate over Darwinian evolution.