Are the Problems with Evolutionary Theory Philosophical or Scientific—or Both?

Science writer Peter Forbes recently reviewed Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s new book What Darwin Got Wrong, and Forbes agrees with the authors that there are real problems with evolutionary theory—yet they are not philosophical, but scientific: 

[T]he problems for evolutionary theory are not philosophical. The problem is that the source of novelty is so dammed elusive. Most genes don’t change very much at all, even the body-plan genes seem to be very similar in the mouse and blue whale. Or, to compare even less similar creatures: a mouse gene essential for building the eye can be inserted into the fruit fly to produce a fly eye! This refutes a key prediction of Neo-Darwinism, Ernst’s Mayr’s statement that it would be futile to look for similar genes in different creatures. Neo-Darwinism predicted that random mutations would pile up until the genes of mice and men were as different as, say, the Finno-Ugric and the English languages.

The best bet at the moment seems to lie in the altered timing of processes involving cascades of many genes. And what alters the timing? Well, now we’re at the frontline of research, and there are candidates but no certainties. One of the most dramatic possibilities is that elements of DNA have entered the germline from viruses. Putting this together with Margulis’s ideas on the evolution of the ancestral single cell, we can see that viruses and bacteria are starting to loom very large in the picture of evolution.

This primacy-of-microbes idea has already entered fiction in one of David Eagleman’s short stories from his cult collection Sum (2009). In “Microbe”, God made the world in his own image and He is a microbe.

God is a microbe? That’s amusing. Hume thought God might be an ostrich. But I would ask a simple question: Is it possible that Fodor, Piattelli-Palmarini, and Forbes are all correct? Might, in other words, contemporary evolutionary theory have real philosophical and scientific problems?

See here for my attempt to untangle Jerry Fodor’s philosophical argument against natural selection.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Are the Problems with Evolutionary Theory Philosophical or Scientific—or Both?

  1. Interesting post. Thank you for sharing. I’m the admin of a book club studying all things related to Darwin, right now. I would appreciate it if you found time to check it out and post some comments on the discussion board. Your insight would be beneficial to the group.
    http://www.shelfari.com/groups/32350/discussions/170529/Darwin-Study. If not, I understand and thanks anyway.

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