The Magazine

Teaching Darwin

Why we're still fighting about biology textbook.

Mar 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 26 • By PAUL R. MCHUGH
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Any sympathetic reader of Darwin's history would readily allow him the point--that earlier life forms might have all come and gone elsewhere than where later forms emerged and might have done so without leaving a fossil record to demonstrate the smooth gradation between species. But such a reader should admit, as Darwin did, that the absence of the record is a serious matter--especially when it persists to this day, nearly a century and a half after Darwin's book was published. This imperfection of the historical record was, after all, sufficiently embarrassing to provoke some evolutionary biologists nearly 100 years ago to try to improve on the record by manufacturing the counterfeit fossil Piltdown Man.

Even among committed Darwinists, the imperfection of the fossil record has been a source of huge argument. The Darwinian fundamentalist Richard Dawkins of Oxford believes in smooth and gradual evolutionary processes. He became a vicious antagonist to Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard, who championed "punctuated equilibrium," with abrupt species generation after millennia of stability. Dawkins attacked Gould in large part because Gould's idea greatly shortened the time evolutionary processes had to generate species.

All the more reason, then, for our sympathetic reader to look for other means of supporting Darwin's narrative. Perhaps the demonstrable variations that occur in species living under altered circumstances might answer objections.

With this in mind, Darwin devotes the very first chapter of On the Origin of Species to describing variations in plants and domestic animals produced over time by methodical selective breeding by farmers and fanciers. Plainly their practice of permitting only the most choice individuals to reproduce and so "enhance the breed" demonstrates how hereditary modification of members of a given species is possible--indeed, it displays the process.

Darwin, however, then makes an extrapolation. Beginning with the reasonable presumption that the hereditary mechanisms involved in producing these enhancements in the barnyard must be available and randomly active in nature, he proposes that from such random variation can spring new species. Variation--repeated ad infinitum down the ages, with its products culled by natural selection rather than by artful human breeding--is the process by which Darwin links up all of biologic creation. This is the Darwinian narrative in its clearest form--history by extrapolation--and it is not problem-free.

MANY OF US were taught these Darwinian extrapolatory links to the evolutionary narrative in high school, usually with photographs of the European peppered moth (Biston betularia), which became darker with environmental pollution and thus less conspicuous to bird predators in industrial areas. The same idea springs up in discussions of the development of bacterial resistance to antibiotics, or of the transformation of the beaks of finches under the pressure of drought. We were taught in high school that these observable biologic changes display evolution "in front of your eyes."

But not everyone agreed with this conclusion. Many criticized the Darwinists for extrapolating too far, and now the Darwinists confess that actual, observable variation--whether in the barnyard or in nature--demonstrates only the capacity of a species population to vary within limits. The original species picture reappears when either the farmer's selective enterprise or the natural environmental pressure on the species population stops and crossbreeding recurs. The finches' beaks never turn into pelican pouches but revert to their original shape when the rains arrive.

No farmer or experimental scientist has ever produced a new species by cultivating variations. The peppered moth didn't become a butterfly, and the closely and repeatedly studied fruit fly, despite gazillions of generations producing varieties in the laboratory, always remains a fruit fly. Again, Darwin himself was more honest than his followers have been. He knew the distinction between variations that could be observed and those posited according to the theoretical extrapolation that was key to his narrative. For this reason he repeatedly notes, as in Chapter IV of On the Origin of Species, that "natural selection will always act very slowly, often only at long intervals of time, and generally on only a few of the inhabitants." In this way he puts the process of species generation outside the reach of experimental demonstration.