In most public discussions of evolution, people often lose sight of the foundational principles of its most popular explanation, Darwinism. One who did not was the Australian philosopher David Stove, whose book Darwinian Fairytales is reviewed below by his literary executor, James Franklin. This gem of ruthless logic and rapier wit was originally published in 1995 and, inexplicably, went out of print. For a while it languished on the internet in an electronic version, until it was reprinted earlier this year in the United States.
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Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution
By David Stove
320 pp | Encounter Books | ISBN 1594031401 | 2006
The evolution versus intelligent design controversy is a strange one, in that positions are taken on a scientific question on religious and philosophical grounds. And not just on one side. Most defenders of intelligent design would prefer it to be proved that Darwin’s theory of evolution cannot account for the complexity of living things, in order to give room for divine creation to fill the gap. On the other side of the debate, Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and other leading pro-Darwinian books, writes “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually-fulfilled atheist”. He has a strong philosophical need for the science to deliver a certain answer too.
The question of the evidence for Darwinism is not easy, contrary to popular belief. The evidence that present organisms descended from primitive forms over very long periods of time (“evolution” strictly so called) is indeed very strong. It is not so easy to prove conclusively Darwin’s theory of the causes of evolution. The sole (or almost sole) cause of evolution, Darwin says, is natural selection (the “survival of the fittest”) acting on random small changes in genetic material.
In the nature of the theory, it is rather distant from any observations, as long-term evolution is not directly observable – it requires subtle arguments like extrapolation from varieties to species and genera, excuses for gaps in the fossil record, argument about whether “irreducibly” complex structures could have evolved bit by bit, and calculation as to whether something as complex as humans could have evolved by a random search process in the time available. A complex theory with such a distant relation to evidence needs attention from an expert not so much in biology as in logic, and one without a philosophical axe to grind.
David Stove fits the bill. An (atheist) Australian philosopher (1927-1994), he was known for his defence of the rationality of inductive reasoning and his logic-based criticism of the philosophy of science of Popper and Kuhn. Shortly before his death he completed the manuscript of Darwinian Fairytales, an attack on modern evolutionary theory from a different direction from the proponents of intelligent design. He has two main criticisms. The first is that Darwinian theory is so logically flabby it can “explain” anything by subtly changing the terms of the debate. He writes of the standard account of altruism:
Any discussion of altruism with an inclusive fitness theorist is, in fact, exactly like dealing with a pair of balloons connected by a tube, one balloon being the belief that kin altruism is an illusion, the other being the belief that kin altruism is caused by shared genes. If a critic puts pressure on the illusion balloon — perhaps by ridiculing the selfish theory of human nature — air is forced into the causal balloon. There is then an increased production of earnest causal explanations of why we love our children, why hymenopteran workers look after their sisters, etc., etc. Then, if the critic puts pressure on the causal balloon — perhaps about the weakness of sibling altruism compared with parental, or the absence of sibling altruism in bacteria — then the illusion balloon is forced to expand. There will now be an increased production of cynical scurrilities about parents manipulating their babies for their own advantage, …
His other criticism is that the Darwinian theory requires it make statements about all species that we all know are false of the human species. For example qualities injurious to a species are supposed to be “rigidly destroyed”, whereas we know abortion, celibacy, and many other traits are common in humans.
Science is an excellently rational enterprise, perhaps the best in the business. But it has never been very good at admitting its problems. It would not hurt evolutionary theory to admit that critics like Stove and the intelligent design theorists have identified serious problems. It would be better to work on answers than trying to shoot the messengers.
James Franklin is an associate professor of mathematics and statistics at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney.