Monday, 23 July 2012

Evolution IS progress

The Letters page of the July 2012 issue of Prospect magazine revealed a mass revolt by scientists against  a book review by Richard Dawkins in the June issue. In this review Dawkins makes a scathing and patronising attack on the book The social conquest of earth by the leading evolutionary biologist Edward Wilson, famous for his work on ant colonies.

Wilson proposes group selection rather than kin selection as the primary mechanism of evolution and this was enough to incur the wrath of Dawkins but obviously not that of the many who wrote these letters. It drew the biggest response of letters and e-mail in the history of the magazine and they were printed under the rubric of ‘Dawkins Delusion’.

As stated in a previous post, Evolutionary science: the coming quantum jump there are encouraging signs that at least a significant proportion of evolutionary biologists are breaking free of the neo-Darwinian strait jacket and the above is further evidence.

In the same issue of Prospect  there is an article by Mark Henderson lamenting that ‘politicians’ ignorance of science is disgraceful and dangerous’.  Agreed. But ironically another article by Henderson, again in the same issue, gives a clue as to why so many people in the UK, not just politicians, should have a less than favourable perception of science, and why in some western countries like the UK so few young people are attracted to it. In an article entitled The science you need to know, introduced as Mark Henderson offers ten examples of the ideas that people in public life should understand’ he makes a dogmatic, non sequitur assertion totally outside the realms of science:

‘Evolution is often portrayed as progress, a process that ends in a goal. It is nothing of the sort...the process is entirely blind and anything but teleological.’

No rational human being, whether or not a scientist, could make such an assertion. Not only is it unprovable it is against reason even as a metaphysical proposition.

Is sitting at your computer reading and thinking about this an improvement?
According to our best scientific evidence, and presumably Henderson would accept this, 4 billion years ago the surface of our planet was a desolate place, totally hostile to life. The atmosphere was not conducive to the formation of living organisms. (See the recent NASA finding for a surprising discovery: Earth’s early atmosphere: an update. It appears oxygen was present only 500 million years from the start, which was 4.3 billion years, overturning decades of assumptions. Ironically, as the article states, it is even harder to imagine life beginning in this situation than if it consisted of methane, ammonia etc., as was previously supposed.) The surface was probably just molten rock, volcanoes, steam and hot water, all subject to the late heavy bombardment of meteorites. 

Today there is an ordered world, a biosphere of mind boggling sophistication which includes human beings of inexplicable creativity with concepts of justice, love, truth and morality. They originate great literature, music , art and religion, conceive mind stretching worldviews, make startling insights into the workings of nature, exchange ideas, travel to other planets, perceive the universe and delve into its centre.

If that is not progress, what is?

see also


The doctrine of chance

Stanley Miller and the quest to undesrtand life's beginnings (Sci. Am. blog)


Author of the novel 2077 AD, now being revised and updated.
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