Saturday, October 31, 2009

Berklinski on Darwinism (thanks to Sarah Geis)

"'Swimming in the soundless sea, the shark has survived for millions of years, sleek as a knife blade and twice as dull. The shark is an organism wonderfully adapted to its environment.' Pause. And then the bright brittle voice of logical folly intrudes: 'after all, it has survived for millions of years.' This exchange should be deeply embarrassing to evolutionary biologists. And yet, time and time again, biologists do explain the survival of an organism by reference to its fitness and the fitness of an organism by reference it its survival, the friction between concepts kindling nothing more illuminating than the observation that some creatures have been around for a very long time." - excerpt from pp 43-44 of The Deniable Darwin by David Berlinski


Craig said...

I've questioned this phenomenon for years. Why in the case of the Shark (and the cockroach) has evolution been suspended? Thanks for the heads up.

Craig Norton

Thomas Dent said...

The criticism is negligible, as it misrepresents the actual state of Darwinian evolutionary theory in favour of a rather empty catchphrase popularized by Herbert Spencer.

For example (simple Wikipedia search):
'The phrase "survival of the fittest" is not generally used by modern biologists as it does not convey the complex nature of natural selection(..) Survival is only one component of selection.'

"... natural selection does not simply state that "survivors survive" or "reproducers reproduce"; rather, it states that "survivors survive, reproduce and therefore propagate any heritable characters which have affected their survival and reproductive success". This statement is not tautological: it hinges on the testable hypothesis that such fitness-impacting heritable variations actually exist (..)'

'What Darwin meant [by fitness] was "better adapted for immediate, local environment" by differential preservation of organisms that are better adapted to live in changing environments. The concept is not tautological as it contains an independent criterion of fitness.'

The author of that last quote, Steven Jay Gould, also came up with the idea of punctuated equilibrium which corresponds to the apparent lack of change (not just 'survival') in some species over many millions of years.

Incidentally, to apply 'survival' or 'fitness' to a species - eg shark - rather than an individual is a radical misunderstanding of evolution. If a species doesn't evolve much, it may be perfectly consistent with its environment not changing much.

Lenny said...

Luther Sunderland, in his book Darwin's Enigma quotes philosopher Gregory Pesley from the Laval théologique et philosophique who wrote:

One of the most frequent objections against natural selection is that it is a sophisticated tautology. Most evolutionary biologists seem unconcerned about the charge and only make a token effort to explain the tautology away. The remainder, such as Professor Waddington, and Simpson, will simply concede the fact. For them, natural selection is a tautology which states a heretofore unrecognized relation: The fittest - defined as those who leave the most offspring - will leave the most offspring".

Doug Groothuis said...

Wikis are not reliable sources.

The shark shows that the biological pattern for organisms is statis, not radical change. Gould admitted this and so proposed a theory for which there is no evidence--only the absence of transitional forms. He came up with no plausible mechanism for such rapid changes (punctuations).

Gabriel Hanna said...

"Darwinism" is not a tautology; this criticism has been answered at length by John Maynard Smith in 1969, as well as many other times.

"Darwinism" is not "survival of the fittest". Reproduction is more important. A cat that eats her kittens and lives to be 100 is an evolutionary dead end; she will have no descendants with the genes that carry her characteristics.

"Survival of the fittest" is a catchphrase; it was first used by Wallace in 1866, because critics were saying that "natural selection" must mean that Nature exhibits some kind of will or purpose in choosing which organisms are better at propagating themselves.

In order to deflect that caricature,
Wallace invented the catchphrase, which in turn has now been caricatured.

Abschaum said...


These are the next few sentences from the essay quoted above, which I believe answer some of your objections:

"Those individuals that have the most offspring," writes Ernst Mayr, the distinguished zoologist, "are by definition . . . the fittest ones." And in Evolution and the Myth of Creationism, Tim Berra states that "[f]itness in the Darwinian sense means reproductive fitness-leaving at least enough offspring to spread or sustain the species in nature.

This is not a parody of evolutionary thinking; it is evolutionary thinking."

(The Deniable Darwin, David Berlinski)


Your incidental comment about the misapplication of the term 'fitness' to a species is completely bogus. Google the terms "fitness of species" and "species fitness" -- there are over a million hits, with links to universities around the world, including Harvard and NIH. The term is commonly used in this manner.

Your further comment about the environment 'not changing much' likewise seems to be bogus, even given your own evolutionary assumptions. Modern sharks supposedly arose when Icthyosaurs ruled the seas.


Berlinski did not say in his essay that Darwinism was a tautology -- that would be a gross oversimplification. He briefly gestured at one tautologous argument -- repeated in essence by Mayr and Berra above, before moving on to other illogicalities. You are refuting a straw man.

Furthermore, your objection to Darwinism being distilled down to "survival of the fittest" is extremely ill-founded.

For one thing, you equivocate the term "fit" to mean some kind of physical fitness other than reproductive fitness -- which is the obvious meaning, as Berlinski elaborates in the quote above.

For another, you are completely wrong about the history of the phrase, "survival of the fittest" -- it was originated by Herbert Spencer, as Thomas correctly pointed out above. The phrase was then commended to the attention of Charles Darwin by Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin loved the phrase and adopted it!

Here is a quote from the man himself:

"My dear Wallace

I have been much interested by your letter which is as clear as daylight. I fully agree with all that you say on the advantages of H. Spencer's excellent expression of ``the survival of the fittest. This however had not occurred to me till reading your letter... I wish I had received your letter two months ago for I would have worked in ``the survival etc'' often in the new edition of the Origin which is now almost printed off & of which I will of course send you a copy. I will use the term in my next book"

(Darwin to Wallace, July 5, 1866)

Doug Groothuis said...


You swing--a jazz compliment.

Abschaum said...

Thank you for the nice compliment, Professor, but you are the true swinger. I am still working on my chops.