Darwin's Incessant Tramping

by Stephen Harrod Buhner

I have, I have to admit (a dangerous admission to make in public), been as troubled by the incessant patter of neo-Darwinians as that of fundamentalist Christians. Both insist that they have found THE way, and both, I am ashamed to say it, have used tremendous force at one time or another to intimidate those who do not share or find fault with their views. Both often try to shame their critics into silence by the way their communications are structured. In short, the arguing between fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Scientists is so strident it is difficult to get a word in edgewise.

Making even a mild case against neo-Darwinism itself is fraught with peril as my doing so now will most probably illustrate. Responses are rarely about the subject at hand but often personal and usually question the person's intellectual capability, sanity, and/or emotional maturity. Still, my own research over the past 15 years has brought a great number of questions into my mind about neo-Darwinism - the end result of which is I believe it as misguided as Christianity in its behavior and description of evolutionary events.

I am primarily an epistemologist, with training as well in mathematics - and so I'm mostly interested in how and what people know. I have long been interested in how cultures act when what they "know" to be true changes. In other words how do specific beliefs shape cultural behavior. Further, I'm not much in favor of the rigid compartmentalization of knowledge where those in one field do not know what is happening in another, and so tend to read and work broadly. My approaches are often unusual and eclectic.

My first concerns with neo-Darwinism were raised not so much by the subject matter itself as the behavior of those who espoused (what they usually call) Darwinism - basically and very simply the belief that life developed from less complex to more complex forms over long eons of time through niche specialization and competition. And though Darwin did not invent it, he did approve of the phrase which everyone believes sums this up: "survival of the fittest." Darwinism became "neo" when the concept of mutation was added to the theory. Basically and over-simply that new life forms come about because of mutations that occur very infrequently.

The behaviors that initially raised concerns for me are:

1. The application of survival of the fittest philosophy between races or nations of people as justification for a desired behavior.

2. The application of survival of the fittest philosophy in business as justification for a desired behavior.

3. The application of survival of the fittest philosophy by the military as justification for a desired behavior.

4. The application of survival of the fittest philosophy by scientists as justification for their actions as scientists.

5. The application of survival of the fittest philosophy to individuals within a culture as a measure of worth.

6. The application of survival of the fittest philosophy by cultures, individuals, businesses, scientists, and governments as justification for unlimited "resource extraction" from the environment.

7. The misuse of power by scientists to prevent discourse about neo-Darwinism.

8. Scientists preventing publication of research that casts doubt on neo-Darwinism as a whole, or on certain of its theoretical constructs then (or still) in vogue.

9. The use of humiliation and personal attack, and sometimes loss of career, as a tactic to silence critics of neo-Darwinism.

I became especially interested in the fact that people who commonly espoused reason and research were becoming so unreasoningly emotional, and were suppressing dissenting voices and research. I have learned since, of course, that the suppression of research and dissent in science is, and always has, been common by those who favor certain views, or whose funding depends on certain perspectives staying in vogue. E.g. See Brian Martin's work on-line at www.uow.edu.au/arts/sts/bmartin/dissent/documents/AIDS. It has also been illustrative for me to examine what happens to researchers who begin examining the unexamined assumptions within neo-Darwinism, see e.g. Richard Milton, Shattering the Myths of Darwinism, Rochester, VT:Park Street Press, 1997.

Rather than being the search for truth without preconception that it is made out to be, science is many times the search for truth with as much preconception as can be jammed into the process. This, as is clearly recognized by many researchers now, shapes what is found, how it is described, and how it is applied.

Though neo-Darwinians try to distance themselves from social Darwinism, the acceptance of Darwinist beliefs by cultures has broad implications for human behavior, for how people describe the world and their place within it, and for the decisions they make. Nazi Germany's incorporation of Darwinism into their philosophy was inevitable and was carried out by the leading scientists and researchers in the Western world.

Both Darwin and his leading proponent, Thomas Huxley, for example, considered Negroes and Indigenous peoples less evolved, illustrative of an intermediary step between apes and men. Huxley observed that "No rational man, cognizant of the facts, believes that the Negro is the equal still less the superior, of the white man."

What the Germans did with those ideas was a logical extension of the theory - an inescapable behavior embedded within it. And of course, this kind of thinking was applied to women for a long time. Although this is now routinely rejected as legitimate behavior, social Darwinism is still rampant - it's just the life forms to whom the descriptions are applied that have changed.

(Deciding that "thinking" capacity is indicative of position on the ladder of evolutionary hierarchy is only a decision - at that a decision by an organism (and specific people) with a vested interest in what is being decided. Queries: is there a hierarchy at all? Is "thinking" capability at all relevant to the evolutionary status of an organism? Is greater cellular complexity really indicative of evolutionary advancement? Is there such a thing as evolutionary advancement at all? Allowing these questions to emerge begins to reveal the assumptions within neo-Darwinist beliefs.)

Still, as problematical and dangerous as social Darwinism is, other behaviors are still more so. Neo-darwinism, applied within medicine to bacteria, has put the human species in a tremendously precarious position. Neo-Darwinians estimated that bacteria would take about a million years to develop resistance to antibiotics. The first bacteria resistant to all known antibiotics emerged only 55 years or so after the initial introduction of commercial antibiotics. Bacteria have been tremendous teachers for the human species in recent years, and brought to light a number of the problems within neo-Darwinism. I am not going to go into a lot of detail here, but will suggest some references to the points being made for any who care to look further. Emerging information has shown that:

1. Bacteria acquire characteristics and pass them on to offspring, who in turn pass them on to offspring. (This is basically a Lamarckian mechanism that neo-Darwinists have long insisted was not possible - the inheritance of acquired characteristics. This occurs within the human species as well with certain forms of immunity, and some diseases such as ankylosing spondylitis - which entered the human species by the insertion of a bacterial DNA sequence into human genetic structures by a virus.)

2. Lynn Margulis has shown that evolutionary novelty arises from the fusion of two or more unlike organisms - symbiogenesis. The new organism retains the capacities of the original organisms, but also possesses new ones that are not predictable from an examination of the originals.

3. DNA is not fixed. It is a fluid organism of the cell.

4. DNA can rearrange itself in ways that are not predictable.

5. Certain parts of cells have no other function than to mediate DNA rearrangement.

6. Barbara McClintock commented on her Nobel prize-winning work with corn genetics (and the discovery of transposons), that instructions for gene rearrangement come not only from within the organism itself, but from the environment.

7. Genotype and phenotype can change in a single generation, even with "complex" life forms such as plants.

8. Cooperation is at least as important in the natural world as competition - perhaps more so. (Researchers who have routinely found cooperation occurring have had extreme difficulty in getting their research published, from James Lovelock on. For my most recent book, I reviewed research in soil science, allelopathy, ecological biochemistry, pollinator research, chemical ecology, coevolution, and so on. EVERY researcher who found evidence of cooperation remarked, often offhand, that they had had difficulty in publishing their results. As Lovelock notes (paraphrased), "It was not that the research was unsound. It was that the peer reviewers seemed to regard the results as dangerous.")

9. James Lovelock's research and work on Gaia shows that the Earth is more accurately viewed as a living organism than a collection of unrelated parts. Any existent organism emerges in order to fulfill specific ecological functions - basically to help maintain the overall organism functioning and homeostasis. In other words, cooperation is at the root of things, not competition. Evolution is not linear but expressive of system needs. Humans are not at the apex of any evolutionary pyramid. There is no pyramid. Or as Aldo Leopold said, "The first precaution of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts." You never know what they might be for, especially considering the age of the Earth. (Just what does a bristlecone pine do over its 5000 year life span? Just what does a blue whale do with the largest brain on Earth?)

Bacteria are actively cooperating in responding to the threat of antibiotics. The U.S. produces some 50 million pounds of antibiotics yearly - almost none of which biodegrades. All of it ends up in the water and soil, where it continues to kill off bacteria forever. Bacteria actively create solutions to antibiotics, and then teach other bacteria how to rearrange their DNA to remain unaffected. They do this through a wide array of mechanisms. Human action at any one point on the bacterial membrane that encircles the Earth results in that information being transmitted throughout the membrane.

Bacteria are also rearranging their DNA to become more virulent. Many researchers have concluded that though bacteria are obviously not intelligent, they act intelligent - a very nice sophistry indeed. A number of researchers have said that they view this process as a pure example of Darwinian survival of the fittest, a kind of evolution in fast forward. It is a nice sentiment but fails to acknowledge that bacteria are going out of their way to cooperate NOT compete, they are showing intelligence in their response that contemporary theory says they cannot possess - they are demonstrating the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and they are about to kick our opposable thumbs ass.

The world's leading bacterial researchers say there is little or nothing that the human species can do to stop what is happening because the bacterial learning curve is accelerating. Epidemics more virulent than any known before are a distinct possibility in the near future. Approximately 100,000 people per year are dying in the U.S. from antibiotic resistant infections. And, of course, in the third world (quick, what are the other two?) it is much worse, with resistant malaria, TB, and cholera gaining tremendous ground.

The point here is that treating bacteria like a lower life form hasn't turned out any better than treating Negroes (or women) like a lower life form did. Seeing the evolution of the human species as a linear event unrelated to the environment in which it occurred, with ourselves as the peak of evolution, is not only not correct, it's dangerous when it's incorporated into personal and cultural worldviews. (It's also not that different than Christian perspectives. That many Christian beliefs have been incorporated into scientific perspectives is another story.)

We did not crash land here, the only intelligent life form on a ball of resources hurtling around the sun. We emerged, one life form among many, an expression of symbiotic fusion and ecological necessity. We are no more the chosen people than the dinosaurs that lasted many millions of years longer than we have so far. The assumption that we can live without the rest of the life web with whom we coevolved is not accurate, and is something that is unfortunately embedded within standard neo-Darwinist philosophy. It is leading our species no place good.

In the final analysis, I think both neo-Darwinists and fundamentalist Christians are crackpots - equally irritating and equally dangerous - and for the same reasons: they both think they have THE answer, they think they possess a mandate to make the world accept that answer, and they continually act on the answer that they believe they possess.

Any wish list of mine would include:

1. That scientists would practice what they preach.

2. That scientists would have the humility to understand their limitations when making pronouncements about living organisms that have been around 3.5 billion years (or even 140 million years).

3. That scientists would quit assuming that theories are reality.

4. That scientists would recognize that the Universe is not linear, and understand the implications of nonlinear reality.

5. That scientists would quit equating thinking with value as an individual or a life form.

6. That neo-Darwinians would quit whining about Christians and take a look in the mirror.

7. That both neo-Darwinians and scientists would quit "doing things" until they understood what Barbara McClintock meant when she said, "You must have a feeling for the organism", and what Rachel Carson meant when she said, "It is much more important to feel than to know."

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