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Open letter to science editors



How To Defuse A Feud


This country has long been plagued by an acrimonious controversy between two large segments of the population. Evolution, if it is taught at all in high schools and colleges, is apt to be taught on the basis of textbooks that portray evolution and natural selection as demonstrable scientific facts. The creationists (supported by the Moral Majority) object to this situation, contending that equal time or balanced treatment should be given to their view that everything was created by divine powers. The evolutionists (supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Secular Humanists) reply that creationism is religious rather than scientific, hence should not be taught in public schools or in science courses. Unfortunately, at the same time they usually imply that creationism is nonsense and that its advocates are dim of wit. The creationists resent this. Protracted lawsuits along these lines were recently concluded in California and Arkansas. Several more are in the offing, with Louisiana probably coming up first.

These suits are generally framed as disputes over evolution, but the real bone of contention is Darwinism, the purported explanation of evolution as the result of natural selection. If evolution alone were involved, the controversy would lose much of its present scope and virulence. One party would assert that the world was formed somehow (nobody knows just how); that this happened a very long time ago (nobody knows just when); that catastrophes are rare events (though not excluded in principle); and that plants and animals evolved through physical descent with modifications (nobody can trace the descent, but it is assumed). The other party would assert that the world was created by a divinity; that this occurred not so long ago (though not in 4004 B.C. as is sometimes charged); that there has been at least one colossal catastrophe (the Deluge); and that plants and animals have been modified in various minor ways since the creation (a sort of stunted evolution). These questions are interesting, but they would never provoke the antagonisms that now bedevil us. The creationists freely admit that they are relying on revelation and that their view requires an act of faith. The evolutionists ought to admit that they are relying largely on speculations and that speculations should not be taught as hard science. The more reasonable men in both camps are convinced that they could coexist peacefully if evolution alone were involved in the debate.

The trouble comes from the injection of Darwinism into the controversy, and it is fair to predict that the feud would largely disappear if the Synthetic Theory (the modern form of Darwinism) were discarded. If the theory no longer carried weight, the evolutionists would have to moderate their arrogance and bellicosity. They could no longer boast that they were the champions of modern realism and good science. They could no longer jeer at people who see, or think they see, wisdom and design in nature, for they would have to confess that the Synthetic Theory cannot explain such marvels as the peacock's fan, the vertebrate eye, the antlers of the Irish elk, or the homing capacities of birds. They would perforce become humbler and more courteous.

Let me therefore urge that the media, the A.C.L.U., the Secular Humanists, the courts, and the general public be told at once that the Synthetic Theory has collapsed. When this news sinks in, the controversy will shrink to its proper modest size. The courts and schools will be relieved from the pressures now thrust upon them by the quarreling parties. The general public will hear less clamor.

The reader will immediately ask how we can possibly tell anyone that the Synthetic Theory has collapsed. The answer is that this is already the view of many eminent biologists, although the public has not yet been fully informed. Here is the situation.

The central pillar of the Synthetic Theory (and of all forms of Darwinism) has always been natural selection. In 1979, however, a brilliant young philosopher named R. H. Brady demonstrated that this central pillar could carry no weight. His thesis was that, despite varying twists of language, natural selection meant simply that the fittest species had survived, but the theory never specified how fitness was to be determined. The traditional answer to this embarrassing question was that fitness meant leaving the most offspring. But this was only a roundabout way of saying "by surviving". It produced a circle: the surviving species survived because they were the fittest, and they were adjudged to be the fittest because they had survived. There was no independent criterion of fitness, so the term meant only that those who survived had survived. This statement was correct, but uninformative; it explained nothing and was therefore useless. This frailty of the Synthetic Theory had been pointed out before (it would be easy to cite eight respectable names here, some from biology and some from law, history and philosophy),* but never had it been expounded so neatly and thoroughly as by Brady. In April of 1982 he hammered home the message with a second article in a leading British scientific journal as part of an issue celebrating Darwin's centenary.

(*A recent example is "Darwin's Mistake" in Harper's for February of 1976, where a journalist named Tom Bethell argues that this circular frailty was lethal to natural selection. In Natural History for October of 1976, Professor S. J. Gould conceded that Bethell would be correct if there were no criterion of fitness other than mere survival, but then contended that there actually was such a criterion - good engineering design. Very few biologists would agree that all organisms are well designed, unless their mere survival is taken as the test of good design. Much to the detriment of open communication, Bethell's rejoinder to Gould was not accepted by the editor of Natural History. In 1981 Gould declared that the Synthetic Theory was "effectively dead", saying nothing about good design or Mr. Bethell. [But see Bethell elsewhere in this issue. - LMG ] )

Another major element of the Synthetic Theory was the idea of adaptation, a term with many complex meanings and applications. This also has failed. In 1979 two Harvard professors, S. J. Gould and R. C. Lewontin, published a devastating critique of this "deeply engrained habit of thinking among students of evolution". They called it "the adaptationist program or the Panglossian paradigm". They took it to pieces and made fun of it, thus further undermining the Synthetic Theory.

Brady and the Harvard men showed that the evolutionists, in relying on natural selection and adaptation, had been working with poor tools. As might be expected, the poor tools have produced a poor performance. In October of 1980 about 150 biologists convened in Chicago for a conference on macroevolution, i.e., the problem of big changes. The evolutionists had long neglected this problem preferring to concentrate on changes in coat-color and bristle number rather than on how a tiny shrew could evolve into a whale or a reptile into a bird. They were convinced that such evolution must have occurred, but they knew of no mechanism by which to explain how it was done. After three days of earnest debate in Chicago, the 150 biologists still had no mechanism. Their Darwinian tools could not cope with the problem. The Synthetic Theory was a public failure.

When we see poor tools and poor performance, inevitably we ask whether the Synthetic Theory itself is defective. The reply from several leading men is that it is worse than defective; it is dead. Dr. Niles Eldredge of the American Museum of Natural History speaks of his "relief that the Synthesis's iron grip has finally been loosened". Professor Gould expressly admits that the Synthetic Theory is "effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy". Dr. Norman Platnick, also of the Museum, draws the cruel conclusion that Mayr and Provine's history of the Synthetic Theory, though published as recently as 1980, can be regarded as the obituary of the theory. These statements appeared in professional journals, hence can hardly be regarded as insane or heretical.*

[*Let no reader fear that I am not aware that the September 1978 number of Scientific American contains nine articles in which leading evolutionists defend and praise various aspects of the Synthetic Theory. I regard this as the theory's swan song. Significantly, the number was addressed to the general public, thus continuing the ancient practice of keeping up a brave front for the benefit of laymen. The professional journals are where one must look for candor.]

Established scientific theories sometimes die, but their death is usually a lingering process. Many years must go by and many funerals must be celebrated before the old view is fully abandoned. Therefore, even if the Synthetic Theory is dead, it would normally take a long time for the news to spread through the biological fraternity and penetrate the public mind. In the present case, however, the process should be accelerated so as to put an end to the feud. The corpse should be laid in the tomb with great ostentation.

I do not contend that this is a permanent solution of the controversy. Professor Gould has sketched out several lines of research that might conceivably lead to a better theory, thus repairing to some extent the position of the evolutionists. We may be sure, however, that the creationists will examine and test any new proposals in a very thorough way. My suggestion is admittedly modest; it will do no more than diminish the present acrimony until conditions change. Mortal men, however, should not expect permanent solutions.


  • Brady, R. H., 1979. "Natural Selection and the Criteria by which a Theory Is Judged," Systematic Zoology 28: 600-621.
  • Brady, R. H., 1982. "Dogma and Doubt," Biol. J. of Linn. Soc. 17 (1), 79-96.
  • Eldredge, N.,1981. "Gentlemen's Agreement," The Sciences (April), 20-23, 30.
  • Gould, S. J., 1980. "Is a New and General Theory of Evolution Emerging?" Paleobiology 6 (1),119-130.
  • Gould, S. J. and R. C. Lewontin, 1979. "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme," Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B205, 581-598.
  • Mayr, E. and W. B. Provine, 1980. The Evolutionary Synthesis (Harvard University Press Cambridge).
  • Platnick, N., 1981. Systematic Zoology 30: 121.

    Editorial Postscript: Because of the pivotal role played by R. H. Brady's paper in Mr. Macbeth's presentation, its abstract is reprinted here:

    Brady, R. H. (Associate Professor of Philosophy, Rarnapo College, Mahwah, New Jersey 07430) 1979. Natural selection and the criteria by which a theory is judged. Syst. Zool. 28:600-621. - When recent literature on the falsifiability of natural selection is examined critics and defenders seem to communicate with each other very poorly. An examination of the structure of tautology and that of causal explanation provides criteria by which to examine the claims of both critics and defenders. Natural selection is free of tautology in any formulation that recognizes the causal interaction between the organism and its environment, but most recent critics have already understood this and are actually arguing that the theory is not falsifiable in its operational form. Under examination, the operational forms of the concepts of adaptation and fitness turn out to be too indeterminate to be seriously tested, for they are protected by ad hoc additions drawn from an indeterminate realm. Future knowledge may reduce the organism to a determinate system, but until such time too little is known to investigate organism-environment relations. Researchers should consider whether natural selection is necessary to empiric investigation in their area, and whether it can serve the purpose for which it is applied.

    Brady uses the Bethell-Gould exchange from Harper's-Natural History in 1976 as a case study of the miscommunication between critics and defenders of Darwinism. As Brady described the situation, "while Gould clearly demonstrates that Darwin did not formulate natural selection as a tautology,* he never gets around to discussing what Bethell actually claimed, i.e., that the research program inevitably reduced the principle to tautology in practice" (pp. 605-606). The situation is summed-up as follows:

    [*Tautology: Literally, some form of repetition which makes cause-effect statements that have no explanatory power, e.g., He died because he stopped breathing.]

    The miscommunication between Bethell and Gould is typical. Most of the present critics of natural selection have difficulty with the research program that could operationalize it, but have not clearly distinguished the operational formulation of the concepts from the formulation of the theory per se. Most defenders have risen to the charge of tautology, explaining once more with feeling, that the theory itself is not tautological, but have not gotten around to the problem of operationalizing the concept of fitness. (Of course, the fact that some versions of the theory - i.e., differential reproduction - are tautological adds to the confusion.) But if the critics, particularly outsiders like Bethell and Macbeth, fail to make enough distinctions through lack of familiarity with the material, the same may not be said of the defenders, who are usually experts in the subject (p. 607).

    One of the most vociferous defenders of Darwinism, Michael Ruse (professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada) has added a new twist in addressing the issue of natural selection being tautological. After failing to distinguish between the theory and its operational formulation, he demurred with the following:

    No doubt some will complain that this last claim embodied in selection [that selection is systematic - what one gets in one situation will be what one gets in identical situations] is all very well, but how do we know when we have identical or non-identical situations and when we are simply making our claims true by fact? I would not deny that we have here a difficulty, but continuing my tu quoque line of response, I would point out that this is a difficulty common to all science.(1)

    While this difficulty is common to all science, the incredible complexity of biological systems and their environmental interactions makes it almost infinitely greater for biologists than for physicists, for example, who have no trouble designing controlled laboratory experiments in which every variable except the one being studied can be held constant.

    In a stinging review of Ruse's latest book, Darwinism Defended. A Guide to the Evolution Controversies, Niles Eldredge describes Ruse's reductionist vision:

    Nowhere in this single-minded tract is Ruse's dedication to the almighty principle of natural selection better displayed than in his little section on trilobite vision. The mathematically "perfect" shape of phacopid and dalmanitid lenses is, to Ruse, exquisite evidence of the power of natural selection. I confess I cannot fathom the difference between Ruse's argument and the older creationist argument from design: see this organ system; observe its intricacy! Only (God, natural selection) could have fashioned such a marvellous organic machine! There is a difference, of course: God as a supernatural being, does not belong in science, whereas natural selection patently does. But used in this inappropriate fashion, natural selection becomes a mere substitute for the Creator. It tells us nothing, really, about trilobite eyes or anything specific or meaningful about how they came into existence.

    In short, Ruse is a reductionist - all large-scale evolutionary phenomena are readily explicable in terms of population genetics. But there is more than mere reductionism here: he also dismisses molecular biology, simply because population genetics revealed the contents of Darwin's "black box" of heredity, and molecular biology, Ruse avers, has not changed that one whit. All remains secure.(2)

    In closing, Eldredge allows that Ruse's "is a clumsy defence, one that certainly does Darwin no credit. . . . Darwinism, indeed, the entire field of contemporary evolutionary biology, deserves far better."

    Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, provides another example of poor communication when he writes: "Darwin's theory is now supported by all the available relevant evidence, and its truth is not doubted by any serious modern biologist. . . . I suggest that it may be possible to show that, regardless of evidence, Darwinian natural selection is the only force we know that could, in principle, do the job of explaining the existence of organised and adaptive complexity."(3) This dubious assertion confuses the "fact" of evolution with the explanation for its occurrence by natural selection.

    In a review of another book, Eldredge expresses strong reservations about the validity of the Modern Synthesis:*

    [*The Modern Synthesis (the Synthetic Theory), or Neo-Darwinism, is the view of evolutionary mechanisms that emerged between 1920 and 1950 from the integration of Mendelian genetics into evolutionary biology.]

    Biologists may agree that life has evolved, but from the moment the Origin of Species was published in 1859, there has been an exuberant variety of ideas to explain how life evolves. At times the "interplay" has approached cacophony, and we are now once again entering a period of active contention between different biological cadres, each focusing on its own special problems and threatening to promulgate its own evolutionary theory.(4)

    A quote from Richard Lewontin pulls the rug out from under spokesmen such as Ruse and Dawkins: " 'As an evolutionary geneticist, I do not see how the origin of higher taxa are the necessary consequence of neo-darwinism. They are sufficiently explained, but they are not the necessary consequences.' Here, and elsewhere, Lewontin comes close to saying that there really is no Synthesis at all - an opinion which appeals to my own prejudices."(5) In concluding the review, Eldredge gives his explanation for why the Synthesis achieved the status it did.

    Certainly by 1947, at the famous conference at Princeton . . . everyone appears to have been agreeing with a few prominent, persuasive leaders who were assuring their colleagues that the Synthesis was complete. The remarkable agreement that is the Synthesis was for the most part consensus, not proof, and consensus is an eminently human phenomenon. Why, as Provine asks, did so many biologists accept the Synthesis though it remained unproven? I suggest that this is all the explanation we need: the persuasiveness of a few highly talented biologists, promulgating a single, simple and rationally very appealing set of ideas.(6)

    For whatever kind of Darwinian heretic S. J. Gould eventually turns out to be, his recently expressed perspective is a distinct contrast to Eldredge's.

    Current critics of Darwinism and the modern synthesis are proposing a good deal more than a comfortable extension of the theory, but much less than a revolution. In my partisan view, neither of Darwinism's two central themes will survive in their strict formulation; in that sense, "the modern synthesis, as an exclusive proposition, has broken down on both of its fundamental claims" [quoting himself from Paleobiology 6, 119 (1980)] . However, I believe that a restructured evolutionary theory will embody the essence of the Darwinian argument in a more abstract, and hierarchically extended form. The modern synthesis is incomplete, not incorrect.(7)

    Gould seems to want it both ways and will redefine Darwinism ad infinitum. In this vein he ended his talk before a AAAS symposium on evolution by singing Lady Jane's lament from Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience, "There will be too much of me in the culminating bye and bye", followed by his sentiment, "That's delightful to hear. Too much with Darwin; never too much with Darwin."(8)

    The widespread influence of Macbeth's Darwin Retried(9) is attested by its favorable mention in two recent articles. Tom Bethell is concerned with the resurgence of catastrophism and the leftist world view. Richard de Mille presents a thoroughly engaging perspective on the creation-evolution controversy.

    When Bethell attended the recent AAAS meeting in Washington, he was impressed by how warmly science was embracing the idea that the dinosaurs became extinct after an asteroid crashed into Earth about 65 million years ago. Noting the parallel between this theory and Velikovsky's, Bethell observes: "If your theory happens to be out of synch with fashion (as Velikovsky's collision theories were 30 years ago), then it really doesn't matter how many facts you amass, you will simply be cast into the outer darkness of non-respectability." (10)

    Right off the bat, De Mille reveals his belief that "we haven't a clue to the origin, destiny, or purpose of existence".(11) Neo-Darwinism is "a moribund explanation of how evolution occurs" shot through with more holes than Bonnie and Clyde's last ride.

    Darwin himself was plenty worried about it. How, he wondered, could something as complicated as the human eye evolve by tiny adaptive steps, when it couldn't serve any adaptive purpose until it was fully evolved? . . . Natural selection may conserve existing species, but as an explanation of new species it's a dodo. Something else is needed in the theory, and we haven't got it; more than that, we can't even imagine it: an uncomfortable state of affairs, even for scientists.(12)

    Fittingly for this postscript, De Mille's ending suggests a compromise be

    tween scientists and creationists similar to the one proposed by Macbeth above.

    C. Leroy Ellenberger


    1. Michael Ruse, "Darwin's theory: an exercise in science", New Scientist (25 June 1981), pp. 828-830 (830).
    2. Niles Eldredge, "An ode to adaptive transformation", Nature 296 (8 April 1982), pp. 508-509 (509)
    3. Richard Dawkins, "The necessity of Darwinism", New Scientist (15 April 1982), pp. 130-132 (130). The first of six articles on Darwinism in the issue.
    4. Niles Eldredge, "Gentlemen's Agreement", The Sciences (April 1981), pp. 20-23, 31 (20). A review of Ernst Mayr and William B. Provine, eds., The Evolutionary Synthesis: Perspectives on the Unification of Biology (1980) .
    5. Ibid., p.23.
    6. Ibid., p. 31.
    7. Stephen Jay Gould, "Darwinism and the Expansion of Evolutionary Theory", Science 216 (23 April 1982), pp. 380-387 (382).
    8. Stephen Jay Gould, "Hardening of the Evolutionary Synthesis", Presented at the 148th National Meeting of the AAAS (January 7,1982), Washington, D.C. Quote transcribed from tape recording made by the writer.
    9. Norman Macbeth, Darwin Retried: An Appeal to Reason (Boston,1971).
    10. Tom Bethell, "Proletarian Evolution", The American Spectator (March 1982), pp. 5-6, 40 (5).
    11. Richard de Mille, "And God Created Evolution", National Review (March 19, 1982), pp. 288, 292 (288); letter exchange, April 16, 1982, pp. 392, 394.
    12. Ibid., pp. 288, 292.

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