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The Triumphalism of Strickberger’s Evolution

Editor’s noteDr. 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.

Recently I acquired a copy of the fourth edition of Strickberger’s Evolution (2008) from a retiring biology colleague. Edited and updated by Brian K. Hall and Benedikt Hallgrimsson, Strickberger’s Evolution bills itself as “the most broadly based textbook on evolution” and “a staple in undergraduate education in evolutionary biology.” 

But what will biology students actually learn from this textbook? On my reading, this textbook functions more as staple in indoctrination in Darwinian triumphalism than it does a staple in undergraduate education. In a series of posts, I hope to provide a critical review of many of the ways this textbook misleads students and fails to provide a foundation for real education, which must always present an accurate and nuanced picture of our current state of knowledge. 

Here, I will point out several basic errors of fact to be found in Strickberger’s Evolution. Any textbook must be rigorously fact-checked, lest the existence of clear errors undermine the credibility of all the information presented. Such a process seems not to have happened here. As one small example, Francis Galton is called Darwin’s first cousin in a discussion about eugenics. Of course, Galton was only Darwin’s half-cousin, having been born to a daughter of Erasmus Darwin who was a half-sister to Robert Darwin, Charles’s father. 

More Errors Follow

Unlike many textbooks on evolution, Strickberger’s Evolution includes a section called “Belief, Religion, and Evolution.” In it we read:

Until Copernicus and Galileo in the sixteenth century, no one had seriously challenged the idea of a powerful deity controlling the physical universe. In the new worldview they and others ushered in, however, God appeared as an initial creator rather than as an incessant manipulator of the universe. The advent of Darwinism posed further threats to Western religion by suggesting that biological relationships, including the origin of humans and of all species, could be explained by natural selection without the intervention of a god. 

Here we see the often-repeated error viewing the Darwinian revolution as the fulfillment of the Copernican revolution, in which humans were systematically removed from the center of concern. But left out of the discussion is the inconvenient fact that Copernicus’ primary motivation for placing the sun at the center of the cosmos was religious. Copernicus had no empirical evidence compelling this move. The Ptolemaic system still worked and accounted for observations, though it had become aesthetically messy due to the addition of many ad hoc features. 

Copernicus reasoned that the God he worshiped as the great Artisan would never have created such an aesthetically displeasing monstrosity. Placing the sun at the center created a simpler cosmos more in keeping with Copernicus’ theologically motivated aesthetic sensibilities, and this was his primary argument for why a heliocentric model must be correct. 

“Divine Intervention”

A few pages later, this error is repeated:

The first significant cracks in the theological armor of continued divine intervention in nature were made in the discoveries of natural laws regulating the motion of the solar system, by Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler.

But, of course, the idea of divine intervention did not end with Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler, for Isaac Newton would come along and become the closest thing in the 17th century to an advocate of intelligent design!

Hall and Hallgrimsson are biologists, not historians of science, so perhaps these errors can be excused. But what should we make of their statement, “Natural selection acts because of the differential survival of individual organisms with particular features”? Even a novice would know that natural selection is a term to describe differential reproduction, not survival. Survival means nothing if organisms with particular features fail to out-reproduce organisms lacking these features. But Hall and Hallgrimsson seem to double down on this error when they write, “Biological evolution tracks opportunistic pathways, and is blind to destinations other than survival.” But natural selection cannot track anything, and even if it could, it would track reproduction, not survival. Darwin may have focused on survival, but the focus on differential reproduction has been at the center of evolutionary theory at least since the advent of population genetics in the 1930s. As Thomas Kuhn once pointed out, scientists are often woefully ignorant of the historical development of their own subjects. 

The Randomness of Mutation

This is not the only instance of faulty understanding of basic aspects of evolutionary theory and its history. In a section titled “Randomness of Mutation,” Hall and Hallgrimsson write:

Until the 1950s, the accepted view among bacteriologists was that bacteria had a unique “plastic heredity” in which appropriate mutations arise as an immediate response to the needs of the environment. 

Actually, the randomness of mutation had already become an article of faith by 1943 due to the famous fluctuation test of Salvador Luria and Max Delbrück, whose seminal Genetics paper (“Mutations of Bacteria from Virus Sensitivity to Virus Resistance”) doesn’t make it into the textbook’s bibliography. The randomness of mutation was very much an accepted fact within the biological establishment long before the 1950s. 

Eventually, this idea was challenged in 1988 when John Cairns and his colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health reworked Luria and Delbrück’s fluctuation test and claimed to find evidence for directed mutation. This was followed in the early 1990s by two papers by Barry Hall purporting to demonstrate anticipatory mutagenesis. But these complicating challenges to the randomness of mutation, published in such respected journals as Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nature, and Genetics, are entirely ignored in the textbook. 

A Grand Statement

Finally, in one grand statement of Darwinian triumphalism, Hall and Hallgrimsson write:

Darwin’s theory made it clear that species fixity was not natural. These radical ideas, which revolutionized biology, also affected sociology, anthropology, economics, politics, women’s rights, fiction, poetry, linguistics, philosophy, and psychology. Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, Alfred Tennyson, George Eliot, George Bernard Shaw, Henri Bergson, and Sigmund Freud are just a few of those who incorporated evolution into their studies, writings, politics, and world views.

The oversimplification here is staggering (Darwin and women’s rights?!) and would take an entire book to unpack. At the very least, the late 19th and early 20th century eclipse of Darwinism (to borrow Peter Bowler’s term) is ignored here. Lamarckian and vitalistic theories continued to be popular until the development of the evolutionary synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s. George Bernard Shaw was a harsh critic of Darwin, and in coining the term élan vital, Henri Bergson was certainly no friend of Darwinism. I suppose such historical inaccuracies are a small price to pay in service to Darwinian indoctrination. But this makes a mockery of the educational process. Students deserve better.

In upcoming posts, I intend to discuss Strickberger’s Evolution on issues such as its portrayal of Darwin, its presentation of some of what Jonathan Wells calls the icons of evolution, its discussion of coevolution and the initial stages of variation, the meaning of convergent evolution, and a few additional items like eye evolution and selection in pre-biotic chemistry. If Thomas Kuhn was correct that science textbooks constitute initiations into currently reigning scientific paradigms that bleach the blemishes of complicated histories, then Strickberger’s Evolution could stand as Kuhn’s paradigmatic example.

Image: Charles Darwin, by Francis Darwin (Ed.) / Public domain, 1891.