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Book reviews >

Evolution, yes — but not as we know it

It could all be more complicated than we were led to believe, Andrew Davison finds

What Darwin Got Wrong
Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini
Profile Books £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

WRITING on the back cover of this book, the evolutionary theorist and arch-atheist Daniel Dennett attacks the ideas it presents as a “hallucina­tion”. This suggests that we are in for some fun.

Sure enough, the book is the most significant sustained challenge to orthodoxy in evolutionary theory for some time. As such, it should appeal to readers who wish to keep up to date with scientific thinking, and all the more so for the Christian apologist. So much of the current polemic against belief in God is fought on evolutionary territory, however regrettable that might be. It pays to know the state of play.

Professors Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini do not deny evolution. They are sure that the world arrived where it is today by strictly natural processes. They do deny that this happened by means of natural selection, at least to any significant degree. As they put it, Darwin’s theory had two parts: descent and selection. The first has never been more secure; contemporary genetics allows us to trace the natural des­cent of species from common an­cestors in pristine detail. At the same time, so they argue, this sci­ence has also shown our standard account of how that happens — random mutation and the selection of the fittest — to be hopelessly naïve.

The authors lay out their argu­ments in 250 pages of racy and pug­nacious writing, quite unlike most scientific literature. They are not cranks, but neither are they likely to overturn evolutionary theory at one go. Some of their arguments are devastating, but others look like obsessive squabbles over technical­ities. The reader is likely to accept some of their points, and to have his or her picture of evolution ex­panded in the process. Whether the sum of the parts really amounts to the complete dismissal of natural selection that the authors claim is another matter.

The chapter on the “rules of form” is a delight. Some, at least, of nature’s marvels came about be­cause of deep structures in math­ematics and physics, and not brute trial and error (although trial and error and deep structures are not as sharply opposed as the authors claim for the sake of their polemic).

In another chapter, their em-phasis on gestation (or “develop-mental biology”) in letting genes do what they do is surely spot-on. All too often evolution is described in terms of the genetic code and the adult physical organism, without considering that so much of how the genes condition the adult crea­ture is worked out during gestation.

There two immediate con­sequences. First, evolution need not be anything like as gradual as we have been led to believe. The slight­est change in genetics can have enormous consequences during de­velopment — an extra pair of legs, for instance, or a significantly altered organ. That is a moment of clarity. The second consequence is a humbling obscurity. If evolution works through developmental bio­logy, then it is immeasurably more complicated than we glibly had been led to think at the close of the 20th century.

That might be the most that the book can achieve: the authors are convincing in their claim that the evolutionary picture is more com­plex than we might have thought. There may well not be one mechan­ism of evolution but many (or even one for each species, which makes sense only read backwards as a natural history). Whether they really show that selection is mistaken, or even inherently confused, is less sure. They throw a lot of mud. Not all of it sticks.

Some things grate. For one thing, their lack of wonder is all but incredible. They dismiss claims of awe-inspiring adaptation of crea­tures to environment as philos­ophically mistaken: a bird is not re­markably well suited to the air; if it couldn’t fly, it would not be a bad bird, it would be a good fish or a good land animal. Try as they will, this looks like philosophical sleight of hand. They might be right to criticise Richard Dawkins on some technical points, but his wide-eyed wonder at how creatures do things is surely nearer the mark than their urbane dismissal of the category of wonder.

Just as disappointing is their atti­tude towards the question of God — although this might be the other side of the same coin. In a book that sets out to attack the philosophical sloppiness of others, it is a little pathetic to see God (about whom more has been written, and with greater sophistication, than perhaps any other subject) bracketed with the selfish gene, Mother Nature, and the Tooth Fairy as a foolishness not to be entertained.

But that brings us back to the beginning, and the need for passionate but technically informed Christian apologetics.

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is Tutor in Christian Doctrine at St Stephen’s House and Junior Chaplain of Merton College, Oxford.

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Mon 23 Jan 17 @ 11:08
@AlElGreen Sorry to hear that, Alexandra. If you email subs(at) they will be able to help & post back copies

Mon 23 Jan 17 @ 9:59
RT @AP_DavisonA piece I wrote for @ChurchTimes, published last Friday on the day of President Trump's inauguration.