31 DECEMBER 1994, Page 7


Now that the environmental theories of Marxism have collapsed so spectacularly, perhaps

the same fate will befall Darwinism, argues Warwick Collins university atmosphere, and left world, my studies for a wider The great legal battles in the early half of the century for the right to teach anti children the i-r reli- gious' doctrine of evolution are now long gone, and it is modern-day Darwinists who appear increasingly to func- tion like an embattled reli- gious order. Perhaps as a consequence, a distinctly reli- gious cast of expression often seems to spread into their language. Over the last decade or so, the British reading public has been entertained by the spectacle of the terrier-like Dr Richard Dawkins, that self-appointed guardian of the Darwinian flame, pursuing elderly, bemused theologians through the columns of newspapers because they dared to express their belief in God, not Darwin. But Dawkins's own behaviour to a consid- erable extent mirrors the less attractive aspects of religious zealotry. In this sense, his introduction to the 1989 edition of his Work, The Selfish Gene, is perhaps instruc- tive:

Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own exis- tence. If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilisation, is: `Have they discovered evolution yet?' Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one man. His name was Charles Darwin.

Dawkins claims that Darwin has answered, finally and comprehensively, the question 'What is man?' He proceeds to quote approvingly another Darwinist, Pro- fessor G.G. Simpson, who, faced with the same question, wrote: 'All attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless, and we will be better off if we ignore them completely.' The messianic parallels are obvious. Before Darwin all was darkness. Darwin arrived, and lo, there was light — not only in the explanation of evolution, but in answer to infinitely complex questions such as `What is man?' No further explanation is necessary, except in so far as it elucidates Darwin's great insight. Despite Dawkins's fervent protestations, the notion that Darwin invented the theory of evolution is nothing short of laughable. History shows instead that Darwin's contribution is mere- ly one amongst a rich stream of explana- tions in favour of natural evolutionary processes. But Darwin's idea that evolution is powered by natural selection is itself far from being a satisfactory theory. When viewed logically, its premise, that the organism becomes adapted to its environ- ment and is thus 'designed' by the environ- ment, appears absurd. Precisely how may a `passive' environment design a highly active stream of organisms? If we may draw a more precise parallel, does the physical environment appear any more responsible for the 'design' of organic creatures than flat terrain has 'designed' the wheel, or the particular properties of air have 'designed' the wings of aircraft?

The logical faux pas in believing that an active organism is designed by a passive environment creates a whole phalanx of other problems. For example, an organism cannot live in a new environment until it is adapted to it. Yet if it is not adapted to that environment, it cannot live in it. Thus, before it enters such an environment, it requires some form of 'pre-adaptation'. This logical problem has bedevilled Dar- winists to the present day, and their expla- nations have continued to be less than satisfactory.

Such logical quibbles pale when com- pared with what is perhaps the central weakness of Darwinism — its inability to demonstrate the processes of evolutionary variation. Any genuinely coherent theory of evolution must be able to explain how evo- lutionary organisms have evolved from early, simple, generalised life-forms into their current astonishing variety of species. Darwin's Origin of Species makes this spe- cific claim in the title itself. But does It stand up to close study?

If we examine the process of Darwinian natural selection within a species, we find that far from increasing variation, the pro- cess acts strongly in the opposite direction. Consider its effect upon a range of varia- tion represented by types A, B, C, D, with- in a species. Darwinian selection will oper- ate on this range of variation in favour of an optimum type (say, A) suited to that particular environment, to the exclusion of other variants. In other words, the process of Darwinian selection acts to reduce varia- tion. As a consequence of this Darwinian selection, when the environment changes there will be diminished resources of varia- tion within the species upon which the pro- cess can act. With reduced resources of variation for adaptation, if the environment changes even marginally, the species may decline or even die out. In other words, Darwinian individual selection, as the cen- tral mechanism of evolution, would tend to eliminate one species after another. Far from being the origin of species, as Darwin suggested, Darwinian theory seems more capable of providing an elegant explana- tion of species' extinction.

Perhaps, given these crucial weaknesses in Darwinism as an evolutionary theory, it is time to set aside the notions of an ama- teur 19th-century naturalist and look more closely at the process of evolutionary devel- opment itself.

To our modern eyes, it seems increasing- ly the case that the vital processes of evolu- tion are powered not by the dynamics of the 'environment', but by indigenous pro- cesses within evolving organisms them- selves. The central feature of evolution is the act of replidation. At the heart of the evolutionary system are genes, which oper-

ate as blueprints for organisms. When genes are subject to accidental changes, the new genes represent the blueprint for an organism which has never before existed (and may not even be functional).

The genes controlling an organism appear to function, in other words, in a manner very similar to a scientific hypothe- sis. Such a 'hypothesis' is tested by virtue of the processes of growing, surviving and reproducing. In pointing up certain key similarities between scientific method and evolutionary development, I am not attempting to anthropomorphise evolution- ary processes. On the contrary, since the products of the 'blind' design process of evolution are vastly more complex and sub- tle than any human feat of engineering, it might be more appropriate to suggest that our modern scientific methods, acquired through hard experience, seem to be vali- dated by their apparent resemblance to evolutionary processes. In another area, too, the processes of evolution seem to reflect uncannily modern scientific method. One of the great innova- tions in 20th-century scientific research Is the use of models and controls in refining scientific data. When complex system!, such as living organisms, are studied, their interaction with the environment is so sob" tle that the effects of a given factor (for example, a drug) cannot easily be per- ceived. If the effect of a factor on a living organism (the 'model') is to be studied, the `consequences' we observe may result from some other aspect of the organism's com- plex relation with the environment. In order to clarify our observation, it is scien- tific habit to compare the model with a `control'. A control is an organism similar to the model, but lacking the element whose effects we wish to study. In medicine, for example, researchers study- ing the use of drugs in curing illness use a control group' issued with placebos as a means of comparison in order to eliminate the psychological effects associated with possible cures.

When organisms (`models') make copies of themselves which differ only in very small marginal respects, natural processes of replication and imperfect copying will in turn generate further organisms which function like 'controls'. Evolution thus con- sists of a spontaneous pattern of small dif- ferences which arise by chance and which are 'tested' in the natural processes of sur- vival and reproduction against other, simi- lar organisms. This is not the passive Consequence of being 'designed' by the environment. It is an active process in which the organisms themselves perform the key procedures which lead to evolu- tionary advance. Let us consider more closely how these procedures appear to affect evolutionary advance. When, through continuous repli- cation, organisms saturate a physical envi- ronment, a limit is set upon further Population increase. Organisms are then likely to 'spill over' into the fringes of other environments. Conditions caused by over- crowding in the original environment will !newn that the survival rates of those organ- isms in hostile environments may become greater than organisms in the original envi- ronment. Once simple population pres- sures have pushed organisms into the margins of new environments, then a pro- cess of Physical adaptation to the new envi- ronment can begin. This spreading, driven by an active, indigenous process of replica- tion, is a far better explanation of the pro- cess of evolutionary expansion and colonisation of new environments than Darwinian adaptation caused by the 'pres- sures' of the environment. It places the horse (active replication and expansion) before the cart (the physical environment). Equally importantly, it avoids the absurd Darwinian impasse of an accident of 'pre- adaptation'.

Let us now consider in further detail what adaptation to an environment means. If we ask ourselves, 'Is an organism well adapted?' the question is surely meaning- less unless we ask, 'In comparison with what?' This is more than a mere logical point. An organism survives not if it is well adapted (whatever that may mean) but if it is marginally better adapted than rival organisms. The key reference point, in other words, in any rigorous concept of adaptation is not the environment itself, but the other organisms within it.

If the key components of the environ- ment are, in principle, other organisms, we may begin to understand another great advantage of the theory of indigenous development over Darwin's theory. If the environment consists of other organisms, then that environment becomes more com- plex and heterogeneous in proportion to the variety and complexity of the organisms within it. The process of responding to new niches created by other organisms thus feeds on itself and becomes self-exaggerat- ing. We have, at last, a genuine explanation for the increase in variation which is char- acteristic of evolutionary development.

An example of the active nature of evo- lutionary development can be observed in the biological history of mammals. At an early stage, certain small insectivorous mammals were characterised by a metabolism able to maintain a constant body temperature independent of external shifts in temperature. This in turn freed mammalian physiognomies from certain physical and environmental constraints. These innocuous small animals began to extrude into a huge variety of environments — onto savannah (antelope, buffalo, hors- es), up trees (lemurs, monkeys, hyraxes, squirrels), into water (seals, whales, dol- phins) and into the air (flying squirrels, bats). Virtually every available geographi- cal and physical environment is penetrated by extrusions from the original mammalian gene pool.

It should be emphasised that there is no `will' or overriding guidance in the system. The process is entirely blind. Its heart is continuous replication. Such replication causes existing occupied environments to be saturated, and this in turn extrudes pop- ulations into the margins of new environ- ments, where they begin to adapt. Replication makes copies, but some copies will be imperfect, which in turn generates new sources of variation for adaptation to those new environments. These variations are accidental and random, and in the nat- ural course of events they are 'tested' by the processes of survival and reproduction. Genes which enable individuals to survive and reproduce more effectively will gradu- ally increase as a proportion of the popula- tion.- Those which are detrimental will decrease. The mean of the population will shift as a result.

But at a certain stage a qualitative change occurs, which perhaps provides the final building block in our understanding of an indigenous theory of evolution. Once most available physical environments are colonised, new niches are generated which are the products of other organisms rather than physical environments. New streams of life in turn evolve to exploit them. Para- sites live inside organic hosts, and smaller parasites inside them. New life-forms evolve to process the waste left by others, or to dispose of their dead bodies. Virtually every piece of earth, every molecule in the environment become absorbed, digested, processed, thousands of times over. New environments are generated in proportion to the number and complexity of species present. As new species develop, yet fur- ther environments are created.

The continuous, indeed endless, incre- mental accumulation of adaptive character- istics in response to changing environments caused by organisms themselves gradually gives rise to the remarkable array of life. But perhaps more significantly, the theory predicts the classic shape of general evolu- tionary variation against time. In the early stages, characterised by a relatively small number of species, the environment of organisms will be relatively simple and homogeneous, and development of varia- tion will be relatively slow. As new niches are gradually synthesised, to use a phrase of KR. Popper in his description of sci- ence, evolution 'picks itself up by its own bootstraps'. Since the process is self-exag- gerating, in the later stages of evolutionary development we may expect to observe an explosive growth in complexity as new species generate new niches, and the exploitation of new niches in turn gener- ates newer niches.

Once a foothold has been established in the new environment, the natural processes of comparative development will adapt the population remarkably quickly to the physi- cal aspects of that environment. Physical adaptation follows naturally from initial niche penetration. As the population physi- cally adapts, its external physical appear- ance may move rapidly away from the original model, particularly if the latter was based on a significantly different environ- ment. Physical structures may change suffi- ciently so that in due course breeding with the original population becomes difficult, if not impossible, and a new species may be formed. As physical adaptation proceeds towards improved efficiency in the new environment, so it will be subject to the law of diminishing returns, at least in salient characteristics. The external physical char- acteristics are likely both to 'harden' into their longer-term recognisable forms, and to become 'standardised' — partially as a result of a background Darwinian selection against variation. This gives us our classic picture of separate, physically well-adapted species with no easily identified intermedi- ary forms.

If the replicating gene is the motor of evolution, our notion of the genes as a complex knowledge-processing system has been given further impetus by recent dis- coveries. Professor Leonard Adleman, doyen of computer scientists and inventor of the term 'computer virus', has recently demonstrated the extraordinary capability of the genes as a processing system by using molecules of DNA to calculate highly complex mathematical problems which cur- rent computers are unable to solve. To his fellow researchers, the attraction of DNA molecules as computational mechanisms is that they offer vastly more efficient pro- cessing than standard computers. Accord- ing to Adleman, `Today's modern computers can execute about a trillion operations a second. Molecular computers could conceivably execute more than a thousand trillion operations a second. They could also be more than a billion times as energy-efficient. And storing information in the DNA requires about a trillionth of the space needed by existing storage media, such as video tape.'

Where does this leave Darwinism?

A theory of indigenous evolution appears able both to retain the essential advantages of Darwinian theory and to provide a more coherent explanation of most of those evo- lutionary problems and anomalies which are, in large part, caused by the Darwinian emphasis on adaptation to a physical envi- ronment as the real driving force of evolu- tion.

The above is of necessity a brief outline. Its aim is to exhibit both the scope of an alternative theory and its broad differences relative to Darwinian theory. In the longer term, as with the evolutionary development of living organisms, such a theory will demonstrate its true worth in direct compe- tition with rival theories. Its strengths or weaknesses will only be revealed through comparison and testing.

The movement of a science from one

umbrella theory to another is always a trau- matic process, and not to be undertaken lightly. At the time of writing, the evolu- tionary theory of a 19th-century amateur naturalist has held sway for an astonishing period. Perhaps significantly, Darwin's con- temporary Karl Marx offered to dedicate his magnum opus Das Kapital to Darwin. Darwin, equally famously, refused. This is curious, because both philosophies form part of that belief in environmentalism which insists that behaviour is the product of external forces. Darwin believed that organisms are shaped by their environ- ment, Marx that human behaviour is the product of external economic forces. It is a broad 19th-century tradition which attempted to bring rational coherence in the difficult problems of studying complex life-forms. Perhaps now that the environ- mental theories of Marxism have collapsed so spectacularly, the same fate will befall Darwinism.

Certainly both Darwinism and Marxism

are imbued with curious parallels. Marx's view that the individual is the product of economic and class forces has been largelY superseded by the belief that the individu- al's complex needs determine his economic circumstances by market economics' Similarly, Darwin's view that evolving organisms are the product of the envircl" ment is likely to be superseded by the belief that it is the active, indigenous pro- cesses of those organisms which shape and determine that environment. Whatever its current status, Darwins great but flawed theory is both laudable and understandable in terms of the age In which he lived. He died before the concept of the gene was truly established, and did not have access to modern scientific tech- niques. He was not part of a modern research environment in which theories are, perceived increasingly not as revealed truths, but as working tools for the under' standing of natural processes — to of cheerfully abandoned when they do nci.. work or are overtaken by other, better the ories.

What is perhaps less excusable, however! is that thinly disguised religious zealots

- such as Richard Dawkins continue to Pr?s elytise in Darwin's name, as if the tentative guesses of this very human 19th-ceniu?:1 naturalist form an absolute truth comPar,e


with which all other beliefs must pw, attacked and vilified. In his last years of life, Marx was reported to have said, in irri- tation at some of his followers, am not a Marxist.' Perhaps if Darwin were alive to de 1.1f, would protest against the excesses of self napopto ainDtaerwd Darwinist.' like Dawkins: I am Warwick Collins is the author of Compute„, r One (published by No Exit Press at £5.99) and The Rationalist (published by min at £5.99).