Dawkins on Darwin

From: Dace (edace@earthlink.net)
Date: Sun 27 Nov 2005 - 20:53:36 GMT

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    Richard Dawkins contributes the introductory article to a special section on
    "Darwin & Evolution" in the November issue of Natural History. The full text is located here: http://www.naturalhistorymagazine.com/master.html?http://www.naturalhistorym agazine.com/1105/1105_feature3.html

    Here's a few excerpts from his article, "The Illusion of Design," followed by my responses:

    "The world is divided into things that look as though somebody designed them
    (wings and wagon-wheels, hearts and televisions), and things that just happened through the unintended workings of physics (mountains and rivers, sand dunes, and solar systems). Mount Rushmore belonged firmly in the second category until the sculptor Gutzon Borglum carved it into the first. Charles Darwin moved in the other direction. He discovered a way in which the unaided laws of physics - the laws according to which things 'just happen' - could, in the fullness of geologic time, come to mimic deliberate design."

    With the phrase, "unaided laws of physics," Dawkins seriously misrepresents Darwin's approach. While Darwin obviously never claims that the behavior of organisms defies physics, he doesn't assert that physics is sufficient, unaided, to explain organisms and evolution. "Throw up a handful of feathers," he writes in *The Origin of Species,* "and all fall to the ground according to definite laws; but how simple is the problem where each shall fall compared to the action and reaction of the innumerable plants and animals." In other words, we'll never work out the main issues of life and evolution by relying on the abstract principles of physics. This isn't to say that we must rely on a life-force but simply that we must take into account the will of the whole organism acting in its interests.

    According to Neal C. Gillespie, author of *Charles Dawin and the Problem of Creation* (University of Chicago, 1979) Darwin was a materialist only in the pragmatic sense, not in a metaphysical sense, as Dawkins seems to believe.
    "Darwin frequently rejected scientific theories that touched on philosophical materialism: his ambivalence about spontaneous generation; his Lamarck-like insistence on the role of individual will and volition in originating the now inherited expressions of emotions in man and in the higher animals; his dissent from Huxley's notion of animal automatonism, all come to mind." (p 141) That Darwin was a mechanist who viewed organisms as physically determined assemblages of molecules is a projection of Dawkins.

    "The breathtaking power and reach of Darwin's idea... is matched by its audacious simplicity. You can write it out in a phrase: nonrandom survival of randomly varying hereditary instructions for building embryos."

    This is not Darwin's idea by Dawkins' idea or rather August Weismann's. Darwin explicitly rejected the notion that natural selection depends on random variations in germ-plasm. As he writes in *The Origin of Species,* modification occurs "chiefly through the natural selection of numerous, slight, favorable variations; aided in an important manner by the inherited effects of the use and disuse of parts; and in an unimportant manner... by variations which seem to us in our ignorance to arise spontaneously." For Darwin, what counts is the organism's "use and disuse" in the course of adapting to external conditions. The variations feeding the mill of natural selection come about primarily from willed adaptation rather than spontaneous mutation of "germ-plasm," i.e. genes.

    Furthermore, Darwin rejected the idea that the form of the organism arises strictly from "hereditary instructions." He pointed out that such a scheme would inevitably produce monstrosities, since a change in the instructions for one organ could cause it to grow out of proportion with the rest of the organism. The influence of hereditary instructions would thus have to be complemented by a "coordinating power" that brings "the parts into harmony with each other." (*The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication,* 1875, vol 2, p 354).

    "Yet, given the opportunities afforded by deep time, this simple little algorithm generates prodigies of complexity, elegance, and diversity of apparent design. True design, the kind we see in a knapped flint, a jet plane, or a personal computer, turns out to be a manifestation of an entity - the human brain - that itself was never designed."

    It's odd that Dawkins would contrast a jet or a computer with an organism given that he views the organism as a set of components under the domination of physical law, precisely the definition of a jet or a computer. Equally odd is that Dawkins claims to be dismissing design in organisms despite the fact that his phrase, "hereditary instructions," can only be interpreted as a kind of design. It seems that Dawkins himself has fallen prey to the
    "illusion of design," not the intentional design of a deity but the unintentional design of physics. Either way, the local causation of willful creatures adapting to real-world environments is replaced with universal causation of one type (theological) or another (physical).

    Dawkins claims that "the skepticism that often greets Darwin's idea is a measure of its greatness." Yet the issue isn't Darwin's idea, which has been swept under the rug, but Weismann's idea. Where Darwin saw the adapting organism as the key source of variations to be accepted or rejected by natural selection, Weismann saw randomly varying germ-plasm as the ultimate source of evolution. It's this view that is greeted with widespread skepticism, not Darwin's. A theory of evolution that sees no role for the adaptive organism is inherently implausible. It is, after all, the organism, not the gene, that must survive in the wilds. Correcting Dawkins, "the skepticism that often greets Weismann's idea is a measure of its weakness."

    "Yet the highly improbable does exist in the real world, and it must be explained." Here Dawkins begs the question. He assumes Weismannian evolution is true. Therefore the fact that it's improbable doesn't mean it should be subjected to scrutiny but that this implausibility must somehow be explained away. But we need not reflexively accept an improbable view of evolution. If we recognize what Darwin really said, we find that a plausible view of evolution is already at hand.


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