Niamh Middleton on Evolution and Darwinism

What about the explanatory power of Darwinism and neo-Darwinism for the evolution of patriarchy and of human behaviour generally? Amazing. Darwinism has inspired great thinkers in the fields of philosophy and psychology such as Freud and Nietzsche, and continues to do so. In Kuhnian terms, more evidence of its truth. Not to mention the ease of the combo of Darwinian evolution with classical genetics. More evidence in Kuhnian terms. And evolution by natural selection is one of the oldest unfalsified theories in science. Remains the primary explanation for adaptive evolution.


It’s just that Darwinism turns out to be largely wrong, so I dunno.

“Spandrels!!”–Stephen Jay Gould

I have an allergy to ‘evolutionary psychology’, considering it little better than 20th-and-21st century phrenology. :wink:


In terms of what? You have to do more than just say that, you have to explain what it is largely wrong about, with examples.

You could say it not a complete explanation for all attributes of life, but that doesn’t mean it’s “largely wrong”, because there are still a very large fraction of the attributes of life where it is the explanation.


But the scientific scholarly consensus still is that evolution by natural selection is fact. Evo devo doesn’t contradict it, just explains our plasticity. And nor does punctuated equilibrium really, gaps in the fossil record. And there are situations that can cause bottlenecks, and new species can appear suddenly in evolutionary terms. The evidence doesn’t support punctuated equilibrium as the main mechanism of evolution

Exaptations (spandrels) can be integrated into evolution by natural selection. Scientists generally agree that birds’ wings are exaptations

And isn’t the modern evolutionary synthesis a combo of Darwin and Mendel? Darwin of course couldn’t have known about genes. He was able to explain how traits are ‘selected’, but not how they are passed on down through the generations. The blending of the respective theories of Darwin and Mendel meant that “observed evolutionary changes could be accepted universally as having happened through the phenomenon of adaptation sorting through…Mendelian genes” (Gabriel Dover).

The point is that spandrels are not adaptive, and many other changes in phenotype could be non-adaptive. We need to incorporate neutral theory in order to get a fuller picture of evolution.

You might want to look up Motoo Kimura. Neutral theory is already about half a century old.

Like birds’ wings are considered to be exaptations. But then they are subjected to natural selection. Neo-Darwinists call it cooption

Exaptations are still adaptations. That’s not what I am talking about. What I am talking about are changes in phenotype that are not adaptive, such as different shapes of noses or attached ear lobes. Not all phenotypic changes, nor all fixed phenotypic changes, are adaptive. Some are non-adaptive, and if they reach fixation they don’t do so by natural selection.

I think I know where @Swamidass is coming from here so I don’t think your response hits the mark. I don’t think he’s talking about gradualism vs stasis in the fossil record. I think he’s thinking of the neutral theory of molecular evolution, and the drift barrier hypothesis. A significant portion of molecular evolution is thought to be effectively neutral, so there’s a large amount of genome evolution that isn’t explained very well by natural selection favoring or disfavoring mutations.

There are also a spectrum of phenotypic traits that are essentially subject to genetic drift, in that they either have no fitness differences, or they are so small that they are swamped by the effect of drift.

Consider that there are over 10500 species of ferns, with tiny, almost infinitesimal variations in leaf morphology, coloration, and so on. Many of them even overlap and coexist in the same environments and climactic zones. So while natural selection might help explain why Ferns, considered more broadly, have the attributes they do because they exist in some niche where these attributes help them survive and reproduce, there is also a lot of variation within the fern clade for which natural selection does not provide a good explanation why one fern is different from another in that particular tiny way. These differences are better explained as a sort of neutral phenotypic drift around some overall adaptive phenotype.

So this is not to say there are no relevant fitness-differences that might explain aspects of why some ferns are different from others, but it becomes very difficult to explain that there should be 10500 different degrees of selective pressure for some obscure specific number and shape of leaves between different ferns.

I agree with you that natural selection is a powerful and beautiful theory, with enormous explanatory power. But it does not explain everything, particularly at the molecular level.

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Well genetic drift is accepted as another mechanism of evolution by neo-Darwinists a process in which natural selection plays an incidental part, but is still explained by Mendelian genetics. The real question is what’s the main mechanism of evolution? My main research area as a theologian/philosopher is behaviour, esp human behaviour. For me natural selection’s explanatory power in relation to it convinces me it’s the main mechanism of evolution. As does neo-Darwinist game theory, which is based on the impact of natural selection on population behavioural genetics. Which does raise important theological questions!

I have yet to meet a living scientist who is a “neo-Darwinist”. They went the way of the Dodo, see @Rumraket’s post. Gould’s paper on spandrels is also equally important in its departure from (I.e hares rejection of) the pan-adaptationalism of the Darwinists.

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Couldn’t get to the topic, page wouldn’t come up. But what about Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, and the new discipline of evolutionary psychology? Think of Stephen Pinker, bestselling author. And I have lots of literature by and with contributions from neo-Darwinists who define themselves by the modern synthesis. And Gould also defined himself as a neo-Darwinist, that’s an internal scientific dispute as to which is the main mechanism of evolution, natural selection or punctuated equilibrium. Also contemporary leading paleoanthropologists like Chris Stringer are Darwinian gradualists. Tattersall a punctuationist. The consensus is that natural selection is the main mechanism, lots of evidence supporting it. I thought you believed we shared a common ancestor with apes?

As a matter of interest, I can reconcile your de novo genealogical Adam and Eve hypothesis with evolution by natural selection, although I have a different hypothesis on Adam and Eve and divine intervention. There are at least 4 possibilities including yours. I include the others in my book but yours wasn’t out then. Your hypothesis is the most biblical. Do you know that there is increasing evidence of a macro-evolutionary or macro-cultural event in Israel, which then diffused back into Africa?

A discipline without any discipline. The greatest force of pseudoscience since they stopped balancing humors.

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The thread title and OP is about making a distinction between ‘Darwinism’ and the ‘modern evolutionary synthesis’.

If I’m not mistaken, @Niamh_Middleton, you seem to be lumping those things in together under the label ‘neo-Dawinism’.

It means you’re getting flak from multiple directions: from those who reject evolution entirely as an explanation for the diversity of life and from those who accept it but reject your terminology.

Your broader point seems to be that ‘evolutionary psychology’ explanations for behaviour constitute evidence that supports the modern evolutionary synthesis. Is that a fair statement of your position?

I personally think every ‘evolutionary psychology’ interpretation of human behaviour we have seen has been (a) refuted by examples from other human societies across space and time and (b) an instance of confirmation bias.

I think there is a vast body of biological and paleontological evidence that supports the modern evolutionary synthesis, and that evolutionary psych is unhelpful evidence at best, and drags it into disrepute at worst.


“Neo-Darwinism is generally used to describe any integration of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection with Gregor Mendel’s theory of genetics. The term neo-Darwinism marks the combination of natural selection and genetics , as has been variously modified since it was first proposed”. (Wikipedia). Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould represent two scientific groups each of which perceives itself as the true followers of Darwin. They have different perspectives on the main mechanism of evolution and on how it has affected human behaviour. I’ve done a lot of research on that issue, and agree with Dawkins’ perspective. Gould’s view is more Lamarckian than Darwinian.
As for evolutionary psychology, I think David Buss’s research and writing on the evolution of mating strategies and how they relate to power, status and prestige are brilliant. They fit in with and explain everything I see going on around me! And Freud, a genius, based not only his psychoanalysis but his moral philosophy on Darwinism. And anticipated much of what has emerged in contemporary evolutionary psychology. Neo-Darwinism of the Dawkins school expands brilliantly on Darwinism imo.

Then you don’t understand Gould. One wonders what your definition of “Lamarckian” is, if you think this.


That’s not the modern evolutionary synthesis which includes neutral theory.

Whenever people use terms like “true followers of Darwin” they are usually trying to score rhetorical points and aren’t really interested in the actual science.

We can add Dawkins and Gould to the list of scientists and science you don’t seem to understand.

We can now add Lamarckian to the list of scientific concepts you don’t understand.

Evolutionary psychology is not looked on kindly by the vast majority of biologists because it often assumes pan-adaptionism and assumes a genetic cause for all behaviors.