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Darwinian Mythology in Strickberger’s Evolution

Robert F. Shedinger
Statue of a young Charles Darwin
Photo: Statue of a young Charles Darwin, Shrewsbury School, by Ailurus~frwiki / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0).

Editor’s note: Dr. Shedinger is a Professor of Religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. He is the author of a recent book critiquing Darwinian triumphalism, The Mystery of Evolutionary Mechanisms.

See also the first entry in this series, “The Triumphalism of Strickberger’s Evolution.”

I have begun an extended critical review of the textbook Strickberger’s Evolution (2008), edited and updated by Brian K. Hall and Benedikt Hallgrimsson. As we might expect in any such work, Strickberger’s Evolution highlights the life and work of Charles Darwin. But the Darwin who emerges is a figure quite foreign to the Darwin who is a product of a critical historiography. Here I will share a few of the more egregious misrepresentations of this central figure of evolutionary theory.

An Effusive Evaluation

We begin with the textbook’s effusive evaluation of the Origin of Species:

Sometimes we forget or perhaps are unaware of the scope of the evidence Darwin brought to bear on his theory of evolution by natural selection. The evidence is staggering for two reasons: its sheer weight, and the range of topics and subjects Darwin used.

The only thing staggering here is the level of misrepresentation of the nature of the Origin. Had Darwin really offered such overwhelming evidence for natural selection, he would have convinced many more of his contemporaries, but the list of his critics is long and distinguished (Adam Sedgwick, Richard Owen, George Mivart, Fleeming Jenkin, to name just a few).

Moreover even as staunch a supporter of Darwinism as Ernst Mayr was forced to concede that “Darwin produced embarrassingly little concrete evidence to back up some of his most important claims.” Mayr includes evolution by natural selection as one of those claims. In 1982 Barry Gale titled his book on Darwin, Evolution without Evidence: Charles Darwin and the Origin of Species. And Loren Eiseley famously noted how Darwin’s attempt to address criticisms led later editions of the Origin to become increasingly self-contradictory and less convincing. Any historically accurate discussion of Darwin must fully consider the arguments of his critics and the clear weaknesses of the Origin as a scientific argument. Strickberger’s Evolution fails miserably on this point. 

Artificial and Natural Selection

One aspect of Darwin’s argument emphasized in the textbook is the analogy Darwin draws between artificial and natural selection. According to Hall and Hallgrimsson, Darwin’s emphasis on artificial selection firmly planted his theory in data that was familiar to many of his contemporaries. They thus had no choice but to accept it (but as we saw above, many didn’t!). To reject Darwin’s theory would have required them to reject their own experiences and data. 

But as we know, artificial selection is a poor analogy for natural selection since artificial selection is teleological. Thomas Huxley (Darwin’s supposed bulldog) recognized that no evidence existed of artificial selection producing a new species, let alone natural selection. And Alfred Russel Wallace, in his famous Ternate paper, wrote, “No inferences as to variations in a state of nature can be deduced from the observation of those occurring among domestic animals.” It sounds to me like Darwin’s contemporaries had no problem rejecting the analogy to artificial selection.

In terms of how Darwin came to develop his views about species change, Strickberger’s Evolution repeats the common hagiographical account of how Darwin was inspired by the observations he made in the Galápagos Islands:

Whether his observations on these remote islands provided seeds for his later insights into the mechanisms of evolution or not, he certainly drew heavily on them for examples throughout The Origin of Species. Prominent among these was analysis of the finches he brought back from the Beagle expedition, work that was actually performed by John Gould, a prominent English ornithologist. 

That Darwin failed to label his bird specimens by island is well known, and even after their analysis by John Gould, Darwin chose not to include them as evidence in the Origin. The myth about Darwin hitting on his evolutionary views while observing finches in the Galápagos resulted from the later work of ornithologist David Lack and efforts by the Ecuadorean government to inspire conservation programs in the Galápagos in the 1930s (more on Darwin’s finches as an icon of evolution in the next post). 

One of Darwin’s Key Ideas

While rehearsing familiar aspects of the Darwinian hagiography in some parts of their textbook, Hall and Hallgrimsson ironically deny Darwin one of his key ideas in another. In their view, “Darwin’s concept of variation in relation to evolution focused on individuals rather than populations.” But we know today, according to them, that variation in populations is what is important. They continue:

The shift in approach to variation from individuals to populations was most clearly articulated by Ernst Mayr, who “recognized the fundamental importance of population thinking in evolutionary biology.”

Wrong again! Ernst Mayr is actually the one who repeatedly credits Darwin for introducing population thinking into biology and he viewed it as one of Darwin’s major contributions. In his Toward a New Philosophy of Biology, Mayr writes, “In 1859 Darwin introduced the entirely new concept of variable populations composed of unique individuals.” And in One Long Argument he notes that though Darwin’s earlier statements on species were typological, “it is my impression that they became more populational as Darwin delved deeper into the literature of the animal breeders and also later as a result of his work on the barnacles.” Hall and Hallgrimsson thus give credit for a key aspect of evolutionary theory to Mayr, unaware that Mayr himself had given that credit to Darwin! Once again the history of the development of evolutionary ideas is grossly distorted.

“Scientizing” Biology

There is one point, however, where Strickberger’s Evolution seems to capture the importance of Darwin’s work, but not necessarily in the way it intends. We are told that when Charles Darwin answered the question of what natural mechanism could explain organismal change, “he transformed natural history (biology as we know it today) into a science, the science of evolution or evolutionary biology.” In another place, we are told that the neo-Darwinian synthesis influenced biology because of its fundamentally materialistic approach, thus eliminating Lamarckian, saltational, and orthogenetic concepts. Truer words have never been spoken. 

The importance of Darwinism isn’t so much in its scientific merit, but in its role of “scientizing” the emerging field of biology by divorcing it from its religious roots in 19th-century natural history and natural theology. This “scientizing” of biology has been well chronicled by science historian Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis in Unifying Biology: the Evolutionary Synthesis and Evolutionary Biology. Even a strong Darwinian like Douglas Futuyma has admitted that Darwin’s idea is one of the most important in the history of the world because “As an alternative explanation lacking the slightest supernatural tinge, natural selection made biology a science.” 

But just because something can be counted as science does not automatically mean that it is true. And you do not need to take it from me. The great Darwinian paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, while supporting methodological naturalism as a firm scientific principle, still had this to say in Tempo and Mode in Evolution:

As a matter of personal philosophy, I do not mean to endorse an entirely mechanistic or materialistic view of the life processes. I suspect that there is a great deal in the universe that never will be explained in such terms and much that may be inexplicable on a purely physical plane.

Something may not constitute materialistic science, but it may in fact be true.

Sociology, Not Science

Both Futuyma and Strickberger’s Evolution seem to tacitly admit that Darwin’s main importance is sociological, not scientific. He helped to create a scientific field based on an understanding of science as a search for naturalistic explanation. But his sociological importance is irrelevant to the question of the origin of species.

Charles Darwin was to be sure a fascinating and complex figure worthy of close study. It is truly unfortunate, then, that college students using Strickberger’s Evolution will be denied the sophisticated and critical engagement with Darwin they so richly deserve. Indoctrination into Darwinian triumphalism is what they will receive. But it is education for which they are paying tuition. Perhaps a refund is in order.