Evolutionary Science, not Darwinism

Eddie, can you please change Darwinism to evolution so that we know that you are talking about the state of scientific knowledge in 2018 instead of the state of scientific knowledge in 1859.


Please please do @eddie.

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The problem, of course, is that “the state of scientific knowledge” of evolution is currently in flux. If asked to characterize it in 1950, it would be easy to do: “Evolution is descent with modification, according to the neo-Darwinian synthesis worked out by Mayr, Dobzhansky, J. Huxley and G. Gaylord Simpson.” If asked to characterize it now, it’s much harder to do. Evolution is still descent with modification, but how does it work? Ask ten different evolutionary theorists, and you get eleven different answers. Shapiro doesn’t agree with Coyne who doesn’t agree with Gunter Wagner who doesn’t agree with Dawkins who doesn’t agree with Venter who doesn’t agree with Jablonka who doesn’t agree with Futuyma who doesn’t agree with Turner etc. Most of them say drift has something to do with it, and selection has something to do with it, and mutation has something to do with it, and maybe there’s some HGT going on, and some rare endosymbiotic events, etc., but each one weights these various factors differently. There is no longer one “theory of evolution” but only a multiplicity of partly-overlapping theories of evolution, all united primarily by the assertion of common descent – and not even universal common descent any longer, as Venter’s dispute with some of the others shows.

If you go to study evolution at Yale under Wagner you will get a different version of evolutionary theory than if you go to study at Chicago with Coyne. You will even get a different version if you study at two different buildings in Chicago, one housing Coyne and one housing Shapiro. That’s not the case with, say, electromagnetic theory, where you will be taught pretty much the same stuff no matter where you go, because the practitioners are all pretty much agreed.

In any case, regarding the other discussion we were having, about Turner, Turner uses “Darwinian” to distinguish a certain “family” of evolutionary approaches from other evolutionary approaches, his attack is on the “Darwinian” version rather than on “evolution” itself – which he accepts. The critique is directed at certain explanations of how evolution works, not at evolution itself. And Turner isn’t the first person to criticize “Darwinian” or “neo-Darwinian” theory, as distinct from “evolution”; Margulis did the same, and Shapiro does the same in the opening chapter of his book.

Maybe “Darwinian” is no longer a satisfying adjective; I can sympathize with that objection. But some set of terms is needed to express the idea: “I agree with the mainstream that macroevolution happened, but I differ from it regarding how evolution happened.”

From my point of view, as long as an author explains his terms, I can live with various adjectives. Turner explains what he means by “Darwinian”, and even though I can see how the term might, out of context, be misleading, in the context of his book, it’s clear enough for his purposes. And Shapiro might be wrong to characterize all of current evolutionary theory as “neo-Darwinian”, but again, in context, it’s clear why he calls the self-engineering of the genome a “non-Darwinian” process. Behe uses the term “Darwinian” and “neo-Darwinian” in a certain way, and his objection to evolutionary theory are objections to neo-Darwinian thinking rather than to evolution in itself – but that is clear in context.

Denton’s newest long book suggests that a major conceptual division is between the “structuralist” and the “adaptationist” approaches to understanding evolution; he cites the classical neo-Darwinism of the mid-20th century (still peddled by Miller and Dawkins) as typically “adaptationist” and the ideas of Gunter Wagner and Stuart Newman as more “structuralist” (though a given theorist may allow for elements of both). Perhaps this distinction would be better than using the term “Darwinian” all the time – though again, it’s not clear to me that it leaves a category for either Turner or Shapiro.

The terminological situation is muddy and messy and I wish there were a better set of labels. The experimental physicists and experimental chemists rarely have problems of self-definition like this.

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It is not that complex.

Just say “evolutionary science”. If you want to leave room for scientific dissent, say “mainstream evolutionary science.” If you want to be precise, say “common descent.” If you want to be salient, say “common descent of man.”


It is totally unclear. Most ID people don’t understand he affirms common descent.

He has also defined Darwinism in a way that was falsified a long long time ago. Very kind man. No animosity towards him. It is remakable to see such a likable guy tilting at windmills for decades now.

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No it isn’t in flux. At PS we know what the state of scientific knowledge in 2018 is here and now. We got evolutionary science experts here, so we know what the current state of scientific knowledge is as good as anybody.

We didn’t ask you to characterize it in 1950 because we live in 2018!


I’m not sure that Coyne and Wagner would have any significant disagreement. I don’t know who Stuart Newman or “Turner” are, and would appreciate some information on that. And Shapiro is, I’m very sorry to say, a nut. Jablonka has some interesting ideas, but I’m not sure they are more than slight wrinkles on the mainstream ideas. Margulis advanced biology considerably by establishing the endosymbiotic origin of mitochondria and plastids, but she derailed completely after that, probably starting with the spirochete origin of tubulin structures. So, quite a mixed bag there. And I don’t see Denton’s division at all.

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But that’s already got a bias built into it, if people like Glipsnort and T. aquaticus here reject Shapiro’s ideas or Turner’s ideas or Denton’s ideas as not belonging to “evolutionary science”, but only to woolly, unscientific, religious or philosophical speculation, while counting mechanistic, reductionist, wholly gene-centered evolutionary theory, decked out in the mathematical models of population genetics, as “real evolutionary science.” That’s why I don’t like using the term “evolutionary science”, because of that bias. But if Glipsnort and T. aquaticus are willing to say, “I don’t agree with Shapiro’s conclusions, but he is a bona fide evolutionary theorist and his suggestions have a legitimate place at the table in the intellectual discourse of evolutionary science,” then I might react less negatively to the term.

More generally, I would react less negatively to the blanket term if it were granted by all in these debates that evolutionary theory is in ferment (as all of biology is in ferment, due to the massive waves of new discoveries coming in from every field of biological research), so that “evolutionary science” became a term meaning “the current exchange of ideas among vigorously differing scientists around how evolution works” rather than a term meaning: “the set of conclusions, as firm as Newtonian gravity, that the biologists with the most political power inside the scientific establishment regard as settled beyond doubt, and with which they will tolerate no disagreement from their maverick peers or from upcoming students who hope to get a Ph.D. or have a biological career.”

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I do not see this as a problem.

Unlike Newtonian mechanics or electromagnetic theory, Evolution is not a mechanical theory. A full mechanical account of how the mouse evolved might be very different from a complete mechanical account of how the Monarch butterfly evolved. There probably cannot be a complete mechanical account.

This is not unlike the situation with consciousness, where David Chalmers has defined the hard problem. That hard problem calls for a mechanical account. But a mechanical account of @Eddie 's consciousness might be very different from a mechanical account of @swamidass 's consciousness, because we are all different.

Evolution has given us a different way of looking at science. Instead of a complete mechanical account, we have some broad mechanical guidelines built into a philosophical account. And it provides the guidance for investigating each species. Biochemists are able to give increasing good mechanical accounts, based on DNA analysis. But those are mostly for one species at a time, because all species are different.

So yes, there is still a theory of evolution, but it is not a fully mechanical theory because it could not be.


If your specialty is birds, you might enjoy reading Denton’s Nature’s Destiny, where he reviews the literature on the origin of winged flight. Anyhow, Denton is largely a popularizer and summarizer of evolutionary theory rather than an original researcher, but he reads voluminously in the literature, and has read Stuart Newman and Gunter Wagner (and make sure you distinguish between Gunter and Andreas!). G. Wagner and S. Newman were both part of the Altenberg 16, whose conference proceedings are in print. Denton classes them as “structuralist” in their overall approach to evolutionary theory.

To the extent that Denton has an evolutionary theory of his own, it would probably be the “front-loaded” theory of Nature’s Destiny, but in his more recent writing he has slightly modified his expression, and I’m not sure he holds exactly to the view expressed in ND any more. You can check out Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis (by which he means “Darwinism: Still a Theory in Crisis”, since he accepts evolution, for his historical review of structuralism vs. adaptationism, an account partly influenced by Gould’s Structure of Evolutionary Theory but augmented by Denton’s own reading of the history of evolutionary thought. As far as I can see, Coyne fits much more closely into the “adaptationist” line of thinking, whereas G. Wagner is closer to the “structuralist” line, so I think there would be some significant disagreement, but I haven’t done enough reading yet to itemize the differences.

Maybe Shapiro is a nut, but he 's a nut who holds a position teaching molecular biology and evolution at one of the world’s greatest universities – which is more than can be said for the majority of people who blog and debate about evolution on the internet! So I wouldn’t dismiss him so quickly, though of course it is amply possible to disagree with him.

I wasn’t holding up Margulis as a figure of admiration in all respects, but only as one example out of many who has criticized aspects of neo-Darwinism. If she stood alone, she could be regarded as an outrider, but the criticism is now common enough that it doesn’t depend on her endorsement.

Scott Turner is a physiologist who has written three books now (in addition to the usual mess of technical articles), working out his ideas of homeostasis (on which he has a new wrinkle) and a revived version of vitalism (not the old metaphysical vitalism, which he rejects). I’m partway through his latest book now. It’s very interesting in itself, for biologists with non-rigid conceptual frameworks about evolutionary mechanism who are casting about for some fresh ideas. He will doubtless be regarded by many as a physiologist interloper into evolutionary theory who should have stayed in his own area. Nonetheless, his understanding of the history of evolutionary thought is not negligible. He has done a fair bit of homework in the area.

My main point is that evolutionary theory is not nearly as homogeneous as, say, electromagnetic theory, or the theory of fluid dynamics. I think that is indisputable, a simple sociological fact about the disagreements of evolutionary theorists over evolutionary mechanisms.

There is the “standard Model of Particle Physics” and the “Standard model of Cosmoslogy”. Everyday these models get tugged at, modified, enhanced, questioned, clarified, reinforced, questioned again. In this process the Standard Models actually incorporate more things, more results, more explanations than it previously had. But it is still referred to the Standard Model. The same with evolution. More and more is added. The Standard Model of Evolution gets bigger, and bigger and more advanced each days. The cutting edge looks fuzzy but the core gets more solid each day. Here we are discussing the cutting edge of evolutionary science along with the recently established solid core.

So you’re getting all your ideas about these scientists at second hand?

Does he teach evolution? I have doubts. He should probably talk to some of the other faculty, say Nipam Patel, about his ideas. I got my degree from UC, by the way.

Her criticisms, particular her late notion that all speciation is due to symbiosis, are just crazy.

Ah. I vaguely remember something of this sort. It too sounds wacko.

I’m thinking you like all these fringe figures only because they attack “Darwinism”, because you think it helps you discount evolutionary biology in general. True? There are in fact also fringe physicists, and I don’t see a lot of difference between fields in that respect.


Oh, and I doubt that I would enjoy it.

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Thank you! I agree that the philosophical component is important, despite the fact that many of the loudest defenders of evolution say that they have nothing at all to do with philosophy, but are doing only pure science – whatever that is.

Yet many, like Venema, seem to hope that it will be one day fully mechanical – at least, that is the direction in which their mechanical, reductionist approach seems to point.

But even supposing you are right, that goes along well with my account. Where a theory is fully mechanical, there tends to be a large measure of agreement among practitioners. And where there is disagreement, it focuses on the interpretation of data. The agreement rarely takes the form of “Aww, don’t listen to him; he doesn’t understand fluid mechanics” or “Ignore that guy; he’s an outrider who doesn’t accept the consensus science of electromagnetic theory” – which is the form of disagreement we often see in debates over evolution. Margulis once said that John Maynard Smith “didn’t understand evolution.” Others today say that Shapiro has no understanding of evolution. When debates come down to, “Look, I know more about this than you,” or “I know more about this than that other guy – don’t trust him, trust me,” you know you aren’t dealing with a mature, rigorous science, but with people trying to push their views upon a field.

I try to avoid saying that about people working in the area, though I do sometimes say it about creationists.

For biologists, I might say that they don’t understand it the same way that I understand it. It is quite clear that the way I understand evolution is different from the way that Coyne or Dawkins understand evolution. But evolution is a complex idea, and maybe we need different people looking at it in different ways.

I’ve mentioned that I did read Denton’s book. I am not at all persuaded by his arguments for structuralism. But I won’t say he is wrong. Diversity can be good.


No. You don’t know me at all, and your reaction shows the stereotypical thinking of the defender of “consensus science.” I’ve said ten thousand times on this site and elsewhere that I accept evolution understood as common descent, have no religious objections against the notion that God might use an evolutionary process, and don’t read Genesis as a literal history of the steps of production of the world.

No, not entirely. I’ve read large amounts by the evolutionary leaders themselves, including Gould, Gaylord Simpson, Shapiro, and others. And when I was reading Denton’s account of Wagner, read some articles by Wagner and read chunks of his book as well. I’ve also read considerably more of the earlier literature (Darwin, Wallace, etc.) than most biologists of today typically read, and have quite a bit of familiarity with the history of evolutionary thought.

See? You have already made up your mind. Yesterday you apparently didn’t know who Denton was, and now you have decided that you wouldn’t enjoy his discussion of the origin of avian flight. (Even though it is informed by his reading of the then-current scientific literature on the topic.) That is so typical of the reaction I get on these website, the sniffy attitude of the orthodox toward anyone who isn’t known to them as holding the “right” views on evolution. More and more I think that biologists, especially those who champion evolution in popular debates, are a particularly close-minded lot.

@eddie on this one cut him some slack. He has published a ton in this area. Denton has done nothing in his field. Suggesting he’d appreciate Denton’s thoughts in his area of expertise would usually be understood as condescending.


I understand ID to be pushing intelligence in creation as opposed to no intelligence but random events/mutations that created everything. How can you have intelligence without a living being? a creator! Some God like being.
ID reaches a public hostile to the rejection of god clearly in the fingerprints of nature. Some yEC who like points brought up well and scientifically professional.
I have bumped into ID folks who sayt they are not pushing for a God/creator. Others do mean this.
Its intelligent design. Very pregnant implication of a designer with complicated ideas behind the deswign.
what can you say!


I wasn’t trying to be condescending, Joshua. I didn’t know anything about his publications. His comment indicated he hadn’t heard of Denton at all or didn’t know much about what Denton has written. I thought he might want to know that Denton had written about avian evolution, since his handle indicated an interest in birds. Of course he might already have read all the sources that Denton read, but even then Denton’s interpretation of those sources might be fresh. But you are right; he might have taken my remark the wrong way, so I will say that I didn’t mean it in any condescending way, but merely as a news item for his possible interest.

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