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Darwinism is the theory of evolution through natural selection as discussed by Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species (1859). Darwin himself established beyond doubt the fact of evolution, and although the mechanism, natural selection, was controversial for many years, now with the backing of modern genetics it is appreciated as the fundamental cause of evolutionary change. There are controversial extensions of Darwinism, especially into the realm of human behavior, and also fruitful new paths, especially in the field of medicine.
- Natural Selection
- Huxley’s Program
- The Synthetic Theory
- Critics of Adaptation
- Evolutionary Medicine
- The Meanings of ‘Darwinism’
- Social Darwinism
Darwinism is the term given to the theory of evolution that originates with the work of the Englishman Charles Robert Darwin (1809–82), particularly as expounded in his work On the Origin of Species (1859). It is the theory that claims that the truly significant cause of change is the ‘natural selection’ of some organisms over others: more organisms are born than can survive and reproduce, some have features that help them in the consequent ‘struggle for existence,’ and these are winnowed or selected to be the seed stock for all succeeding generations. There is change and the direction is toward ‘adaptive’ excellence, meaning by this that organisms have features (like the eye and the hand) that enable them to survive and reproduce. These conclusions apply to all organisms, including us humans, consequences that have had major implications for our subsequent thinking about science, philosophy, and also religion. This research paper discusses these and related claims, paying attention to the reception of Darwin’s ideas at the hands of his supporters like Thomas Henry Huxley, and looking especially at those advances arising from the development in the twentieth century of theories of heredity, or genetics. Consideration is given to the students of social behavior, the sociobiologists, and attention is paid to the modern controversies around their claims. Also considered are the claims by the students of paleontology, the punctuated-equilibrium supporters, that the course of evolution is not smooth and gradual but marked by periods of inactivity (stasis), broken by rapid changes. Brief mention is also made of new extensions of Darwinism, particularly into the field of medicine.
‘Darwinism’ can properly be dated from 1859, the year in which English biologist Charles Robert Darwin (1809–82) published his magisterial evolutionary work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. To understand the magnitude of what Darwin achieved in that work, and the nature of the movement to which he gave his name, it is perhaps best to recognize that three different kinds of issues are at stake here (Ayala, 1985). First, there is what one might speak of as the very fact of evolution itself: the claim that all organisms, living and dead, are the result of a developmental process governed by natural law. Then, second, is the question of paths of evolution, or, as these are known technically, of phylogenies. Here, one is concerned about the routes along which evolution proceeded. Third, there is the question of causes or mechanisms. The work of early nineteenth-century French biologist Jean Baptiste de Lamarck (1809), who argued that organisms change due to the inheritance of acquired characteristics, speaks to this particular issue. Here, one is concerned with the driving forces behind the evolutionary process.
Although Charles Darwin was not the first evolutionist – in the eighteenth century, at length in rhyming couplets, his own grandfather Erasmus Darwin had celebrated the joys of organic change – it was in the Origin that Darwin established once and for all the fact of evolution. He did this through making appeal to a unifying argument or what he would have thought of as a ‘consilience’ (Ruse, 1979). Darwin argued simply that if evolution was true, then one could explain facts in a wide range of areas. For instance, one can show why the fossil record is roughly progressive. Likewise, one can show why organisms are distributed as they are around the world. One can explain the facts of embryology, such as why organisms take very different forms when adult (like the human and the dog) but have embryos that are almost identical. Why is it that the facts of anatomy are as they are? Why do we find skeletal isomorphisms (known technically as ‘homologies’) between the forelimbs of organisms, despite these limbs having different functions? The bat uses its forelimb for flying, the mole for digging, the whale for swimming, and the human for grasping, yet the bones are very similar. One can explain this, argued Darwin, through the fact of evolution. All of these phenomena, and many more, can be explained by evolution. Conversely, they point backward up to the truth of the fact of evolution (Ruse, 2008).
In the Origin, Darwin had relatively little to say about the paths of evolution, although it was he who tied evolution firmly to the metaphor of the tree of life. Unlike some early evolutionists, Darwin always stressed the extent to which all life is related and descends ‘from one or a few forms,’ branching as time unfurls to the vast diversity that exists today. But, paradoxically, in the nineteenth century it was the non-evolutionists – particularly Lamarck’s contemporary and fellow countryman Georges Cuvier, who was both the father of comparative anatomy and an accomplished paleontologist – who first started to work out the actual course of life’s history (Ruse, 1996). In such labors, Cuvier was backed by German-style biologists – particularly the Swiss-American ichthyologist Louis Agassiz – who saw analogies between life’s history and the development of individuals. Darwin himself relied both on the fossil evidence and on embryology and its supposed analogies when, around 1850, he performed a massive taxonomic study of barnacles. It is clear that although he did not draw explicit inferences about evolutionary paths, he had some strong convictions and suspicions (Richmond, 1988). But none of these found their ways into the Origin, and later in the nineteenth century it was Darwin’s young supporters like Thomas Henry Huxley who were most interested in particular paths. In the United States, there was much activity in this direction, thanks particularly to the magnificent fossil findings, especially those of the horse and of dinosaurs (Bowler, 1996).
It was when it came to causes or mechanisms that Darwin himself felt that he really was able to make significant scientific advances. He proposed his well-known mechanism of evolution through natural selection brought on by a struggle for existence, starting from the claims made by the English clergyman Thomas Robert Malthus (1826) that population numbers will always outstrip food supplies and space availability. Generalizing this to the animal and plant world, Darwin suggested that there will always be, at the same time, naturally occurring variation within populations: his studies of barnacles convinced him strongly that this was true. Darwin therefore concluded that in the struggle, success would be at least in part a function of the differences occurring naturally within organisms. There will thus be a natural form of selection, corresponding to the artificial selection practiced so successfully by animal and plant breeders in the first part of the nineteenth century in the United Kingdom.
But, more than just this, Darwin believed that natural selection would lead to change of a particular kind (i.e., toward adaptive advantage). Darwin had read and been much impressed by the teleological arguments expressed by Archdeacon William Paley (1802/1819), a work that Darwin had to read as an undergraduate. Paley argued that the eye is very much like a telescope, and that just as a telescope has a telescope maker, so the eye has an eye maker – that is to say, the Great Optician in the Sky. Darwin rejected Paley’s conclusions, but he completely accepted Paley’s premises about the design-like, teleological nature of the organic world. It was Darwin’s belief that natural selection speaks to this aspect of organic life, providing a naturalistic – that is to say, law-bound – mechanism of explanation (Ruse, 2003).
After the Origin was published, evolution as fact was never again seriously challenged as a matter of science. But the mechanism of which Darwin was so proud got relatively little attention. Darwin’s great supporters, Huxley particularly, had other ends for evolution than a functioning professional science with selection at its core (which had surely been Charles Darwin’s own aim). Huxley and his fellows were busy creating a secular society in Victorian times: one that would have open education for all without religious qualifications, and one that would have a professionally trained civil service, not to mention other things like a military in which one’s rank did not simply depend on one’s social status and personal wealth. With some good reason, the Huxleyites saw the established church as being very much part and parcel of the powers that they wished to overthrow. Hence, they were eager to find some alternative secular substitute (Ruse, 1996, 2005).
Evolution fitted this need entirely. It was not so much that evolution was being pushed as something in direct violation of Genesis or anything like that. Rather, evolution could function as a kind of secular religion or ideology, on which one could hang all sorts of hopes of progress, ethical change, and the like. It is no surprise to find that, as the nineteenth century drew to an end, the evolutionist par excellence was less Charles Darwin and more his fellow countryman Herbert Spencer (Richards, 1987). The latter, in his massively written ‘Synthetic Philosophy,’ was providing a world picture that would be all encompassing, right up to and including our own species. Naturally, as a prospective religion, evolution was used to promote moral and social causes. Notoriously, Spencer and his supporters – prominent in this respect were the American businessmen John D. Rockefeller Sr. and Andrew Carnegie – endorsed a kind of laissez-faire, arguing that as with the struggle for existence, survival, and selection in nature, so also should there be such a struggle and selection in society. It is paradoxical that this movement became known as social Darwinism, for although there are certainly hints of such ideas in Darwin’s own writings (especially in his work on our species, The Descent of Man, 1871), primarily this was a movement to which he contributed little and that altogether took evolutionism in directions he rather regretted.
The Synthetic Theory
Darwin’s ideas as science provided only part of the picture. The whole question of mechanisms was rather delayed until the twentieth century. Then came the development of an adequate theory of heredity explaining how and why it is that organic characteristics are transmitted from one generation to another, and why new variations appear occasionally, spontaneously as it were. When this was first done, many thought that the new theory of heredity, genetics, was in opposition to any kind of selection mechanism. But by the 1930s, a number of mathematically gifted biologists – notably R.A. Fisher (1930) and J.B.S. Haldane (1932) in the United Kingdom and Sewall Wright (1931, 1932) in the United States – showed that one can put together Darwinian selection with Mendelian genetics in a smooth synthesis (Provine, 1971; Ruse, 2013). Finally, an adequate mechanism for the evolutionary process was developed and accepted. However, much more work needed to be done. It fell to the next generation of evolutionists, notably people like Julian Huxley (1942) (the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley) in the United Kingdom and the Russian-born American geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1937), and his associates, to put the empirical flesh on the mathematical skeletons of the ‘population geneticists.’ Thus, around 1950, a full theory, which came to be known as the ‘synthetic theory of evolution’ or ‘Neo-Darwinism,’ had been developed: Darwin’s theory of natural selection spliced in with Mendelian genetics, offering the way forward for a full and satisfying causal picture of evolutionary change.
The years since around 1950 have been among the most exciting in evolution’s history. Although no one now wants to challenge the ultimate picture, there have been both extensions and challenges. Most notably, the former has involved the pushing of a Darwinian selective approach into the realm of social behavior. Darwin himself always thought that such behavior was part and parcel of the evolutionary picture, but he recognized that it was extremely difficult to study. However, by the 1960s evolutionists felt sufficiently confident to extend their work to such organisms as the Hymenoptera (ants, bees, and wasps) as well as to mammals, including our own species. This development of the evolution of social behavior from a Darwinian perspective – so-called sociobiology – has been highly controversial. The leaders in the field, people like William Hamilton (1964) and John Maynard Smith (1982) in the United Kingdom and Edward O. Wilson (1975) in the United States, not to mention the great popularizer Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene (1989), have been subject to a great deal of critical attention (Ruse, 1985). But now I think it is generally realized that one can profitably take a Darwinian selection-based approach into the social realm, dissecting and showing in great detail how the behavior of organisms is just as much a function of their evolutionary past as is their physical nature.
Still highly controversial has been some of the work by human sociobiologists that tries to take a selection-based approach to human nature and behavior (Ruse, 2012). By way of example, one might mention the Canadian researchers Martin Daly and Margo Wilson (1988). They show that, in many respects, family patterns are tightly controlled by evolutionary considerations. Why is it, for instance, that violence in families almost always comes from the hands of men: usually not by biological fathers, but by stepfathers? Remarkably, Daly and Wilson show that stepfathers are 100 times more likely to murder their children than are biological fathers. This they relate to straightforward Darwinian principles, namely, that from a biological point of view, survival and reproduction may be improved if one can clear the way (as it were) for one’s own offspring, but that damaging or harming one’s own biological offspring is to go completely against the whole Darwinian evolutionary process.
Critics of Adaptation
On the other side, there are the critics of adaptationism. The most notable is probably the American paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who, like Richard Dawkins, was a very popular writer. Gould put forward his theory of so-called punctuated equilibria, arguing that if we look at evolution over long time scales, we see that selection as a force for constant, unbroken change falls away dramatically (Eldredge and Gould, 1972; Gould, 1982). Rather, what we get are long periods of inactivity (so-called stasis) broken or punctuated by very rapid changes from one form or blueprint (Gould likes the German term Bauplan) to another. Gould argues that although selection certainly improves organic characteristics, ‘tuning them up’ as it were, by and large the basic patterns of organisms are part of a general, morphologically constrained, nonselective picture. A vertebrate having four limbs, for instance, rather than six like many invertebrates, has nothing whatsoever to do with natural selection (Sepkoski and Ruse, 2009).
There are many other developments going on, particularly those involving molecular biology. For instance, it is suggested that perhaps at the molecular level, beneath the level at which selection operates, one gets a whole different dimension to evolution: perhaps a dimension where random factors are very significant (this is the theory of ‘molecular drift,’ Kimura, 1983). In other spheres, it has been documented that viruses can carry units of heredity (‘genes’) from one organism to another of a very different kind, in what is known as ‘horizontal gene transfer’ (Doolittle, 1999). Also, there is much work going on at the moment of related questions such as the origin of life. Certainly, no one has a firm solution in this direction, although once again major advances have been made and we know a great deal more than we did in the past (Ruse and Travis, 2009).
As Thomas Kuhn (1962) taught us all, one of the marks of a really good area of science (‘paradigm’) is the extent to which it shows new fields and opens new topics for discussion. This is very true of Darwinism. Thomas Henry Huxley, who was trained as a medical doctor, could see little real applicability to Darwinism; for him, it was always more of a metaphysical approach. Although he was much interested in the reformation of medical education, Darwinism had no role in it. Today, thanks to pioneering work by the evolutionist George C. Williams and the psychiatrist Randolph Nesse, it is realized how much Darwinism might be important in medicine (Nesse and Williams, 1994). This is obvious when dealing with genetic diseases like sickle-cell anemia, where one needs an evolutionary understanding of how these gene-caused illnesses persist (in this case, because the genes confer protection against malaria). It is true also when dealing with the evolution of diseases themselves, for instance the evolution of bacteria in the face of new antibiotics. It is well known that within a year or two of a new medicine’s use, the diseases being attacked will respond with new forms. An understanding of the mechanism of evolution can go far to aid in this problem, as does teaching practitioners about the most effective doses and so forth. And, as a third area where Darwinism is important, one might mention the effects of diseases themselves. Many infections bring on elevated temperatures, to which the usual advice is ‘Take two aspirin, drink lots of fluids, and go to bed.’ But is it the most sensible thing to take aspirin and thus reduce the body temperature? Could it be that the high temperatures are themselves part of (evolved) nature trying to fight the infections itself? Perhaps high temperatures have a purpose! These and other questions have been raised by Darwinian medicine, today one of the most exciting and challenging areas of application of the theory of the Origin (Gluckman et al., 2009).
The Meanings of ‘Darwinism’
So, in conclusion, trying to tie together strands from history and the present, how then are we to define and characterize ‘Darwinism’ or a ‘Darwinian,’ the latter meaning someone who accepts the doctrine? Darwinism certainly commits one unambiguously to the fact of evolution. The only people today who challenge this seriously are those driven by religious commitments, namely, the extreme Christian evangelicals known as ‘fundamentalists’ who find that evolution clashes with their prior commitments to the Bible (especially Genesis) taken literally (Johnson, 1991). There are some Darwinians who think that their position also requires belief in some kind of philosophical materialism, claiming that any kind of supernatural belief is false or impossible (Dennett, 1995). Today, the so-called New Atheists are at the head of this particular queue, as it is argued that religion is the source of all evil, and Darwinism is the all-effective cure (Dawkins, 2007; Hitchens, 2007). However, this is surely not a universal view, and there are many (and not all believers) who think that although evolution holds exclusively in the scientific realm, there may be more to life – certainly there may be more to the afterlife – than strict science allows (Ruse, 2001, 2010). Science answers many questions, but even Darwinism does not speak to everything! (This is a good thing. As philosophers like Karl Popper (1976) emphasized, a theory that explains everything is probably a theory that explains nothing.)
As far as evolution as a path is concerned, although it is true that one does not have to be a Darwinian to believe in a tree of life, it is still surely true that Darwinism itself commits one to some kind of tree of life (Ruse, 2013). But Darwinism does not specify the details as such. The much-debated question, for instance, as to whether birds are descended from dinosaurs or from reptiles that were not dinosaurs has no bearing on Darwinism as such. What about the above-mentioned speculations that life’s history may have involved such things as the moving of genes from one group to another very different one through the agency of viruses and the like? Hence the tree of life might be a bit more netlike than one would have suspected (Doolittle, 1999). Certainly, this is something that was not envisioned by Darwin himself or indeed by many successors who would have called themselves Darwinians. But I doubt that there would be much concern or felt need to repudiate Darwinism. After all, things like this are more extensions than major denials of the traditional picture.
Evolution as cause is as always the crucial issue. Darwinism has and continues to make natural selection absolutely central. If one does not accept that natural selection is the major cause of evolutionary change and that adaptation is the defining characteristic of organisms, then one is no Darwinian. This applies to humans as well (Ruse, 2012). Interestingly, the very first speculations we have of Darwin about natural selection was a discussion about human evolution and how selection leads to bigger brains and greater intelligence. As far as other points are concerned, then perhaps as with paths there is more flexibility. Darwin himself always stressed that selection works for the benefit of the individual over the group. This is very much the stance of sociobiologists in the twenty-first century, and is indeed the basis of Dawkins’s metaphor of the ‘selfish gene.’ But there have always been those who have yearnings toward a group-based form of selection – one of the first indeed was the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace. Perhaps, therefore, with something like this there is room for difference within the fold (Sober and Wilson, 1997).
It was never the claim of Darwin or any subsequent Darwinian that natural selection is the only mechanism of evolutionary change (Ruse, 2006). Darwin himself accepted Lamarckism. This mechanism is today totally discredited, but there are other putative causes of change, and one can certainly allow them some force and still be a Darwinian. There are many debates about how much of an allowance one can give and still subscribe to Darwinism. To a certain extent, it all depends on how far one is modifying traditional views and how far one is standing outside of, or beyond, them. Controversial is the question of ‘genetic drift,’ the claim by Sewall Wright that evolution can go by chance, even when selection is operating (Coyne et al., 1997). Really strict ultra-Darwinians like Fisher would have very little tolerance for something like drift, thinking it unimportant at best. Others (including most of the American founders of the synthetic theory) found some drift to be quite compatible with their Darwinism. Kimura himself felt (perhaps with good reason) that he was a good Darwinian because he did not propose drift at the physical level but at the molecular level. Darwin himself had said nothing about molecules, and so in proposing molecular drift there was no reason to think that one was being non-Darwinian.
Finally, what about social Darwinism? Few want to use that label given its unfortunate connotations with such things as the ruthless business practices of the twentieth century. But still there is a thriving industry among those who want to derive more from evolutionism than mere science (Ruse, 1999, 2009). Julian Huxley (1927) was one person in the twentieth century who wanted his evolution to be the basis of a ‘religion without revelation,’ and more recently Edward O. Wilson (1998) is another. In one of his prize-winning books, On Human Nature (1978), Wilson is explicit in seeing evolution as more than mere science, as a ‘myth,’ which will absorb or push aside conventional religion:
Make no mistake about the power of scientific materialism. It presents the human mind with an alternative mythology that until now has always, point for point in zones of conflict, defeated traditional religion. Its narrative form is the epic: the evolution of the universe from the big bang of 15 billion years ago through the origin of the elements and celestial bodies to the beginnings of life on earth.
And so on and so forth up to humans. Little wonder that ‘Theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline.’
Wilson even finds a place for an evolution-based morality – not the laissez-faire of yesterday but a call to biodiversity and species preservation, lest we humans decline and fall in a world impoverished of living nature.
It is certainly not necessary for a scientific Darwinian to be a social or philosophical Darwinian, but a remarkably large number are. The important conclusion is that, however defined, Darwinism has a rich tradition, and although it has never been without its critics, it continues in the twenty-first century as an important and ever developing testament to human reason and creativity.
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