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When Darwinian Evolution Became Obsolete

Michael Flannery
Photo: A clock in the meeting room of the Linnean Society, by Paul the Archivist, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

It is rather ironic that Alfred Russel Wallace, who co-founded the principle of natural selection with Charles Darwin, ushered in the beginning and the end of what became known as modern evolutionary theory. The beginning is fairly well established. In a letter from Wallace to Darwin received on June 18, 1858, the letter’s recipient was stunned, “I never saw a more striking coincidence if Wallace had my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as Heads of my Chapters.” Unveiled to a poorly attended and generally inattentive audience at the Linnean Society meeting on July 1, Origin of Species sprang from the press of John Murray in London on November 24, 1859. 

The End Comes

But the end came shortly thereafter because on March 1, 1864, after just three of the six editions of Darwin’s Origin had been published, Wallace proclaimed to the Anthropological Society of London that humans by their own special intellectual capacities had freed themselves from the tyranny of natural selection. Now it was we who controlled nature, not nature that controlled us. Rejecting the notion that the difference between man and beast is one of degree but not kind, he even went so far as to say, “We may admit that even those who claim for him a position as an order, a class, or a sub-kingdom by himself, have some reason on their side.” Reiterating Richard Owen, Darwin’s chief contemporary rival, he even added, “We can thus understand how it is that, judging from the head and brain, Professor Owen places man in a distinct subclass of mammalia, while, as regards the rest of his body, there is the closest anatomical resemblance to that of the anthropoid apes.” This was a stunning admission and one that signaled the divergent path Wallace would take from the man he would be so closely associated with.

Simplistic Reductionism

That historical glimpse has more recently been reprised in the work of biologist Carl Woese, who increasingly came to disdain Darwinian evolution for its simplistic reductionism, and who revised the basic story of life to include three — not just two — essential types: prokaryotic cells, eukaryotic cells, and now archaeal cells. His discovery shook the scientific establishment, but his brave perseverance eventually prevailed even if it did earn him the label of biology’s scarred revolutionary. Woese’s work captured the attention of another of science’s “bad boys” — the unconventional climate-change “denier” — physicist Freeman Dyson. In a lecture presented at Boston University in 2005 and published ten years later in his collected essays, Dreams of Earth and Sky, Dyson conjured up the ghost of Wallace, saying:

Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over. It was an interlude between two periods of horizontal gene transfer. The epoch of Darwinian evolution based on competition between species ended about ten thousand years ago, when a single species, Homo sapiens, began to dominate and reorganize the biosphere. Since that time cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the main driving force of change. Cultural evolution is not Darwinian. Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution.

An Obsolete Theory

It seems truer and much more accurate than the fanciful “selfish gene” of Darwinian atheist Richard Dawkins or the nihilistic denials of free will by Darwinian determinist Jerry Coyne. Could it be that this shift towards cultural evolution lay at the heart of Wallace’s vehement opposition to the wrong-headed genetic determinism of the eugenicists of the early 20th century and his hopeful vision of a future of cooperative socialism? Perhaps. But we needn’t follow Wallace all the way down this path to see that such views seem more consistent with real-time historical experience and actual observations than the Darwinian metaphysic of scientistic positivism. 

Here Dyson quotes from Woese’s more constructive metaphor for the future of science:

Imagine a child playing in a woodland stream, poking a stick into an eddy in the flowing current, thereby disrupting it. But the eddy quickly reforms. The child disperses it again. Again it reforms, and the fascinating game goes on. There you have it! Organisms are resilient patterns in a turbulent flow — patterns in an energy flow…. It is becoming increasingly clear that to understand living systems in any deep sense, we must come to see them not materialistically, as machines, but as stable, complex, dynamic organization.

This is foreign to the Darwinian mindset. It was glimpsed by Wallace over a century ago, and it is being pursued by others today, including my idea of a radically new evolutionary synthesis. Whether my idea proves fruitful or not, it seems clear that if any real progress is to be made in the understanding of nature, life, and our intimate role in it, it will involve something much closer to the more holistic systems approach than anything envisioned by Darwin or even the antiquated synthesis that bears his name. It’s not so much that it is false (though much of it clearly is), it’s simply that it is obsolete. It no longer applies, and we humans made it so.