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evolution, Religion

Ultra-Darwinism: Same Old Argument

For the third time in a week, I’ve heard the term “ultra-darwinist.”  I did some searching for what might be causing the uproar.  Here’s the best article I’ve found.

Let me be very clear:  I have not read the book mentioned in this article, so anything I say today is subject to future revision should I find a suitably priced used copy.  However, I think I have a pretty good clue what’s going on here.

An “ultra-darwinist” is a person who supposedly forces all evolutionary thought into a preconceived notion of an immortal “selfish gene,” discounting mind, purpose, and so forth as essentially illusionary.  I’ve heard this argument before, and I doubt that it has gained much traction, based on passages like this one:

The debating point here is that Richard Dawkins’ notion of the immortal gene – the selfish replicator for which the organism is but a vehicle and the environment but a medium for its perpetuation – is not only mistaken but, further, anti-evolutionary. The immortal gene must be somehow above evolution in order to be immortal. It’s at such moments that Cunningham concludes that the ultra-Darwinists are rather like the creationists they so loathe: both smuggle “supernatural” elements, like immortality, into their accounts of the natural world.

I’m continually shocked at the number of people who have apparently read Dawkins, but conveniently skipped over his numerous (often to the point of tedius) disclaimers that where he uses poetic language, it is for the purpose of good prose and vivid imagery.  Neither Dawkins nor Dennett nor any other “new atheist” specializing in evolution has ever said that DNA is literally immortal.  In fact, both have repeatedly pointed out that something evolved into DNA.  It almost certainly didn’t spontaneously form.  DNA itself evolved from something else, and there’s every reason to believe that given the right environmental pressure, it could evolve into something else as well.  It could also be extinguished from the universe in an instant by a well placed asteroid strike.

If you accept such convergence and predictability – and both are still controversial – the possibility of teleology returns to evolution. That, in turn, raises the possibility of a universe right not just for life like ours, but for self-aware, even God-seeking, life. You get the point: post-ultra-Darwinist evolutionary theory can – and should – be welcomed by theologians.

Let me quickly explain what’s being talked about.  There is a hypothesis that evolution settles on the “optimum” strategy, and because of this principle, we can (with enough information) predict evolution.  What flimsy evidence there is for this idea comes from the observations of things like camera lens eyes that have evolved multiple times — at least eight by our current count.

Now… here’s the crux of the thing.  IF evolution settles on the optimum adaptation, AND it is predictable, THEN the whole system smacks of purpose.  Design, even.  Perhaps the whole thing really was set in motion with the “scientific” knowledge that little mole rat looking things would eventually turn into sentient and morally complex humans who would rise above their animal instincts, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…

This would be a nice theory if there was any indication that evolution opts for the “optimum” strategy, or if there was even a reasonable definition of the word “optimum.”  If evolution can be said to follow an optimum strategy, it is this: Among the physically possible adaptations for a given organism, evolution will tend to favor the most successful of those possibilities which become actualized. That is, if there are a billion possible adaptations for any organism with respect to an environmental pressure, perhaps a hundred thousand of them will randomly turn up in the next generation.  Out of this random pool, the “optimum” genes will tend to be the most successful.

That’s what Dawkins and Dennett have been saying for decades, and that’s what the evidence supports.  There is absolutely no evidence that each new generation represents the optimum of all possible genomes.  And that’s what we would need to see to be able to say that evolution followed an “optimum adaptation model” compatible with teleology.

Some theologians could even be said to have anticipated this new Darwinism. “It is clear,” wrote Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, “that nature is a certain kind of divine art impressed upon things, by which these things are moved to a determinate end. It is as if a shipbuilder were able to give to timbers that by which they would move themselves to take the form of a ship.” Hence, Cunningham concludes, Darwin’s idea – properly formulated – is not dangerous; it’s pious.


No.  No.  No.  Aquinas had no idea what evolution was.  He wasn’t predicting this “breakthrough discovery” by some hack who doesn’t even understand the popular books by the authors he’s denigrating.   More importantly, The Selfish Gene is over 30 years old, and since its writing, there has been a considerable amount of knowledge added to our understanding of the interconnectedness of group adaptation, individual adaptation, and environmental pressure.

Perhaps most important, this entire discussion has to be put into the proper context — which is often difficult when irresponsible journalists are so fond of headlines with provocative titles like “Darwin’s Idea Dismantled.”  There was a similar debate a couple of decades ago between so-called “gradualism” and “punctuated equilibrium.”  And while the debate was important in the philosophy of evolution, there was never any threat to the core concept of evolution.

So it is with the debate over gene-caused evolution and gene-recorded evolution.  Both ideas are useful frameworks for conceptualizing the process, but neither represents an inroad for teleology.  As many scientists and popular science writers have made abundantly clear, it’s a mistake to think of the environment and genes as separate.  They are two sides of the same coin.  It’s not unlike a physicist who can refer to a single object as both moving and stationary and be correct in both instances because of a change of perspective.  But this duality of philosophical perspective doesn’t threaten our conceptions of motion.  It just gives us new ways to examine the data.



One thought on “Ultra-Darwinism: Same Old Argument

  1. Ah, Mark Vernon. If he’s writing about it positively, it’s guaranteed to be the stupidest idea to come down the pike in months. Vernon may be the most reliably wrong-headed person with an above-average IQ writing in the UK media. (Madeleine Bunting, of course, being the most reliably wrong-headed simpliciter — but she’s a bit thick, so no real surprise there.)

    Incidentally, my drive-by ad hominem on Vernon has a history; to wit, the history of his overt, repeated, unsupported-by-any-evidence-or-arguments-whatsoever bleating of that oh-so-tiresome vuvuzela trope about obnoxious militant dogmatic oh-so-very-rude atheists. Oddly enough, spurious accusations of rudeness are more likely to inspire me to rudeness than almost anything. See here for just one example, with me analyzing his idiocy dispassionately in the comments.

    Posted by thephilosophicalprimate | March 5, 2011, 1:59 am

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