So called “soft inheritance”. The paradigm changing view of evolution that some parental experiences seem to be inheritable, not a direct change to DNA but a sort of post-it note stuck to the side “Watch out for the snakes!”
A very clear, 5 minute “explain it like I was 13” introduction to Epigenetics. This is the most important new topic in the science of evolution. The implications are much deeper and broader than suggested here.
If you’d like to hear more about these implications, click this link to the Epigenetics category. This will be the first post, with the others just below.
Another example of life experience heredity via an unknown process.
Excerpts from Scientific American
A stressed-out and traumatized father can leave scars in his children. New research suggests this happens because sperm “learn” paternal experiences via a mysterious mode of intercellular communication…
The findings are “novel and of very high impact, especially when we consider the impact of military service or other work environments that can confer high stress,” says Robert Rissman, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, who was not involved with the research. “I think it would be important to better understand the specificity of the effect and how different types of stressors or strength of stressors can modulate this system.”
Scientists taught white mice to fear the smell of cherry blossoms.
(“So Bob, what line of work are you in?” “I frighten mice, like my Father and Grandfather before me..”)
The offspring of these frightened mice were never subjected to this cherry blossom trauma but mysteriously, they also feared the smell. More amazing still, the grandchild generation of the original trauma mice, also never subjected to the treatment, reacted with fear.
This is the classic cited example of Epigenetics or Soft Inheritance. The traumatic experience memory is passed along not by DNA, but by methylation changes on the DNA. It’s the DNA equivalent of working memory between generations.
In the old synthetic theory, without soft inheritance:
Two squirrels are living at the same time, in the way, way back when. Along comes a saber-tooth cat. Both squirrels run but the faster one survives and the slower one doesn’t.
Ergo->Faster squirrel genes move one step forward and thanks for playing, slower squirrel genes!
And now, with epigenetics:
Same time, way, way back when. Two squirrels again, different scenario. One squirrel has a close encounter with the saber-tooth cat and gets away, badly shaken but alive. The other squirrel was obliviously examining his nuts in a tree nearby. He never saw the cat, and he is unaffected. Squirrel number 1 has babies and they are born with a fear of cats or at least an extra sensitivity to “something moved!” Squirrel number 1 has enhanced his reproductive status by communicating a mission-critical message to the next generation and the one after. They are literally BORN with more “street smarts” than squirrel number 2’s offspring.
What does it mean if a creature inherits some of the important EXPERIENCES of at least two generations of its ancestors and possibly more? This breakthrough model is fascinating because it describes a form of parental teaching of life lessons to the young in species that can’t archive data or tell stories. Instead, they attach a little chemical post-it note to their genes saying “Beware of Cat”.
If asked “how could the genes know “Cat”? I’d answer “The same way they knew about cherry blossoms.” It’s staggering to think of the sophisticated mechanisms involved and questions rise like mountains in the near distance. Actually, it’s one question, repeated.
1. Something terrifying happens and a sort of snapshot of the event is taken within the organism. How?
2. Which captures details of the experience. How?
3. Ranking some as meaningful. How?
4. And retaining them. How?
5. Ultimately initiating a process that hands this information off to the sex cells for the next generation. How?
6. This new generation “knows” this life lesson as if they’d lived it themselves. But How?
We have now reached the “Talking out of my ass” section.
The thing that gives me shivers (of excitement) is the list of things that must take place for this to work.
- There’s got to be a threshold of some kind. How intense does the experience need to be to “make the cut”?
- There must be a mechanism that takes these “Must know” memories out from all the other memories and decides to engrave them on gametes.
- There must be some crazy-ass coding that allows methylation changes on DNA to communicate details like the smell of cherry blossoms. That would be a highly specific molecule banging into the olfactory brain possibly for the first time ever, and setting off the fire alarm…through code.
- Also, the code is obviously not a complete memory falsifying the experience of the animal receiving it, but close enough that when the real world and this knowledge construct line up, it causes an autonomic emergency deja vu.
I think the “Camera” that could take that memory snapshot is perception/working-memory and the developing chemicals would be concentrations of fight or flight stress hormones that “develop and burn-in” the image. It could also be triggered by something less obvious, like the moment of relief at reaching safety, with the adrenaline fading and your little squirrel heart going like mad. That could prompt a rewind and transcription of the last minute of memory. Who the hell knows?
2, 3 & 4. I imagine the salient details are the Bold and Italic sensations of that experience, the ones that loom and glow in memory as you look back on it, momentarily experienced again. Long term memory is the most economical way to retain this information and would occur naturally. Perhaps mentally reliving the event (including within dreams) a critical number of times prioritizes passing it forward.
5. I got nothing.
It seems certain to me that many classic human knee-jerk fears like spiders, toadstools and snakes are among our deeply reinforced examples of this process. And that brings up some issues closer to home. Presumably, every human baby is born with some of these “presets”. It seems like the nearly global ones must become default elements of our standard inheritance. Is there some process that triggers the elevation of a methylation memory to DNA proper? Is there some tipping point of reinforcement that causes that? Like if PARENT has a trauma experience coded and CHILD does too, (as their own direct experience, not passively) would the two copies being present in CHILD pass on the message to GRANDCHILD with more urgency? For example, could two doubly reinforced people merging their four copies at the moment of conception cause a crossover to DNA inheritance? That question is kind of rhetorical, I’m just shaking my head at the amazing possibilities of this system.
Other random questions:
- Could that kind of double reinforcement play a part in paralyzing phobias?
- How long does it take from trauma to rewritten gametes? If the survivor conceived the next day would the information be ready?
- Men replenish sperm at a rate that shows tremendous optimism, and a woman’s eggs are more or less archived, or at least they travel like a slow and stately parade in comparison to sperm. Does this mean these memories are sex-linked?
- Since our gametes are so different would there have to be separate mechanisms to do the encoding? Do eggs get these “critical updates”?
- Are there equivalent positive messages about life success, not just skin-of-our-teeth escapes? It makes some sense to me that success heuristics belong in the system too, but would be harder for us to demonstrate experimentally. Perhaps that’s more of a learn by observation thing. Animal parents can demonstrate life skills but can’t demonstrate how to avoid a monster attack.
- Can these messages be annotated in the trip from say, a grandparent to a grandchild?
- Could separate, different messages from different parents ever blend and synthesize into something unique?
- Is there a decay time for these messages? Do they fade across generations if not reinforced? Is there a mechanism protecting normal healthy species behavior from being dangerously rewritten or overridden by these alerts?
In summary, we are talking about an evolutionary mechanism which fills a couple of the gaping holes in Darwinian theory.
A Tautology for a Theory: “Survival of the fittest” is a fugue idea, chasing its tail. The fittest can only be described by their survival. The Darwinian mechanism is really about the elimination of gene-pool competitors leaving “the fittest” still standing and reproducing. Kinky!
Time: There is no mechanism for the fittest to develop their adaptive advantage except endless friggin’ time and lucky mutations. Evolution has happened much faster in reality than jives with Darwin’s crawlingly slow “change through random accident and mutation” story. Instantly this makes much more sense than calling upon eternity to explain your mechanism.
Random Changes: Random mutations have been studied constantly since the theory launched. In an experiment replicated many times, random mutations have been generated in thousands of generations of fruit flies in the lab by radiation. Not a single lucky mutation resulted. No change in that population resulted.
Galapagos finches have fitness-enhancing beaks but no practical way to acquire them. Deprived of support from randomness and eternity, Darwin is an empty lab coat. We have reached a happy upgrade to our thinking.
Evolution is sophisticated, multilayered and complex. It stacks the deck in any way it can. It behaves at the very least, as if strategic. We are arriving at theories that mirror the subtlety of reality. We are finally getting better at this.
Ex. 20:5 – “I,(…) am a jealous God, punishing the children for the father’s sin, to the third and fourth generations …”
The first two links are scientific papers and the third is a popular article from Discover magazine. They are all quite readable though and worth a look. If you search epigenetics in this blog you’ll find a number of related articles.
Scientists taught white mice to fear the smell of cherry blossoms. (“So Bob, what do you do for a living?” “I frighten mice.”)
The offspring of these frightened mice were never subjected to this cherry blossom trauma but mysteriously, they also feared the smell. More amazing still, the grandchild generation of the original trauma mice, also never subjected to the treatment, reacted with fear. Now further studies are not only confirming these results but showing that deprivation and stress alter inheritance multi-generationally. It affects both physiology and neurology.
The evidence is in. Pain and suffering flow across time. Cruelty keeps jumping forward like a skipped stone. We don’t know authoritatively how many generations forward these effects can travel but 3 and 4 generations are documented using an animal model. And rather than just imagining separate generations of inherited fear, and the many influences on the phenotype of those people, imagine how many poor choices their inheritance initiated. Imagine the effects flowing into the places they live in and their families and friends. Consider the implications for large communities who have suffered trauma almost collectively. In some places and times that could mean whole generations where virtually everyone is bent and twisted by the suffering of their parents and grandparents. How often will behavior born of trauma result in fresh trauma to another?
There is nothing parents love more than their children, and every parent fears passing along something bad to their children. Our new knowledge means that anyone suffering a serious trauma, or having survived desperate stressful times, can be certain that some effects will be passed to their children from the moment of conception.
It makes an act of profound cruelty almost unimaginably important and scales up the guilt accordingly. In the form of random violent crimes for example the effects are stark enough: One innocent victim becomes how many? 3? 6? Don’t forget the 3rd generation…perhaps 18 people? And the 4th generation as well; let’s say 35 people affected by that injury. They don’t even know, they can’t know who they might have been instead, because that crime made them what they are. They might be more fearful, or angry, or just less hopeful than the hypothetical person without the trauma. We don’t know, but it’s safe to say they are bent AWAY from their strength and happiness.
- Soldiers returning with PTSD
- Black America
- Poor America
- Syrian survivors
When a child grows up shaped by a parent with trauma and then lives in poverty and anxiety, we have lost a well-functioning citizen 20 years in the future. And we’ve lost their offspring 40 years in the future. Epigenetics makes a simple, compelling case for the auto-perpetuation of misery and poverty and violence. It makes a case that democracy builds failure into its future by doing too little to alleviate it. A starving, fearful child is a crime against the future and her community and in a sense, the whole world but we are awfully good at feeling peaceful about that crime.
20% of American children grow up in poverty. It’s certain that many of them are second and third generation poverty. Poverty is Hydrochloric acid for optimism and aspiration. How is this not a self-perpetuating sinkhole of damaged and downgraded people?
“Those people are just like that.” is the kind of statement you might hear people say related to race or culture or class. The poor have been viewed forever as inherently flawed, undeserving, and unfit based on the sordidness and chaos of poverty everywhere. It’s probably more accurate to say people can be that way when they and their parents have been ground into emotional hamburger and left to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. There’s a chance that we are living out a dystopian science fiction story where in all cultures, regardless of race, a whole class of people, less happy, strong, and confident is being bred through societal neglect. Any limits to the number of generations this damage is “paid forward” is irrelevant because the suffering of each new generation is likely enough to paint over their hopes of the foreseeable future. Big social programs have been deemed failures when they didn’t produce results in “Political time” but perhaps bringing generational trauma to an end is the work of a couple of generations and therefore almost impossible to convince taxpayers to support. And perhaps our famously cheap and nasty social programs wouldn’t soften the blow enough anyway.
Yet the import of this knowledge places responsibility on our shoulders once we know.
By Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb
This is a very well written and succinct paper on various kind of inheritance that challenge the Darwinian “Modern Synthesis” model. If you are a Biology nerd you might enjoy it, otherwise it’s here for me to cite certain parts of without directing people to other websites whose link addresses may change.
The address directly below is the paper via website and the link below that is to a PDF hosted here.
My map of this territory assumes that social Darwinism and the eugenics movement are an expression of the cultural conservatism that I’ve described in my various “Tension force” articles. These same views while not acceptable in “mixed company” (wow, what a phrase) inform the thinking of most powerful members of the right wing. These are also the beliefs that most classic left-wingers assume are shared by people with a sociobiological perspective . They are wrong though, this view is not scientific, it is very much an expression of conservative beliefs. Further explanation will follow explaining why the right wing is already arguing against the implications of epigenetic influences. However, people on the left also need to expand their thinking. If you stick with me through my next article on epigenetics I think you’ll see that a species behavior perspective can be a STRONGER position for reform. Hang in, OK?
This article is by Robert C. Bannister, B.A., M.A., Ph. D. Professor of History, Swarthmore College. I will insert a few pertinent Hugh comments between sections and identify them as mine. Otherwise, these words are his. -HM
Social Darwinism, a term coined in the late 19th century to describe the idea that humans, like animals and plants, compete in a struggle for existence in which natural selection results in “survival of the fittest.” Social Darwinists base their beliefs on theories of evolution developed by British naturalist Charles Darwin. Some social Darwinists argue that governments should not interfere with human competition by attempting to regulate the economy or cure social ills such as poverty. Instead, they advocate a laissez-faire political and economic system that favors competition and self-interest in social and business affairs. Social Darwinists typically deny that they advocate a “law of the jungle.” But most propose arguments that justify imbalances of power between individuals, races, and nations because they consider some people more fit to survive than others.
The term social Darwinist is applied loosely to anyone who interprets human society primarily in terms of biology, struggle, competition, or natural law (a philosophy based on what are considered the permanent characteristics of human nature). Social Darwinism characterizes a variety of past and present social policies and theories, from attempts to reduce the power of government to theories exploring the biological causes of human behavior. Many people believe that the concept of social Darwinism explains the philosophical rationalization behind racism, imperialism, and capitalism. The term has negative implications for most people because they consider it a rejection of compassion and social responsibility.
I. Darwin was very influenced by Thomas Malthus who wrote that the poor would always breed right up to society’s ability to provide for them and then loads of them would die (and live) miserably until the numbers balanced out. Therefore Malthus thought society shouldn’t do even as much as it was already doing to alleviate suffering , which wasn’t much of anything. He saw it as cruel to give the poor any ideas that things would be ok if they kept on as they were. This is where the phrase “Cruel to be kind” arises. Picture some plump, wealthy victorian saying it as he discourages his wife from putting out leftovers for the poor. We have these same forces in politics today. Senator Paul Ryan is described as a budget conservative but he’s really just in favor of zero help for the poor. Ryan’s politics are more informed by his favorite writer, Ayn Rand than by any “Judeo/Christian values”. Ayn Rand’s collected works are basically social Darwinism in the form of dense philosophical potboilers. -HM
Social Darwinism originated in Britain during the second half of the 19th century. Darwin did not address human evolution in his most famous study, On the Origin of Species (1859), which focused on the evolution of plants and animals. He applied his theories of natural selection specifically to people in The Descent of Man (1871), a work that critics interpreted as justifying cruel social policies at home and imperialism abroad. The Englishman most associated with early social Darwinism, however, was sociologist Herbert Spencer. Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe the outcome of competition between social groups. In Social Statics (1850) and other works, Spencer argued that through competition social evolution would automatically produce prosperity and personal liberty unparalleled in human history.
In the United States, Spencer gained considerable support among intellectuals and some businessmen, including steel manufacturer Andrew Carnegie, who served as Spencer’s host during his visit to the United States in 1883. The most prominent American social Darwinist of the 1880s was William Graham Sumner, who on several occasions told audiences that there was no alternative to the “survival of the fittest” theory. Critics of social Darwinism seized on these comments to argue that Sumner advocated a “dog-eat-dog” philosophy of human behavior that justified oppressive social policies. Some later historians have argued that Sumner’s critics took his statements out of context and misrepresented his views.
II. At its origin, social Darwinism had the powerful aura of a scientific proof around it. Science was doing wonders and now science says that WE are the fittest. It’s just not right to mess around with the natural order. Social Darwinists and their current equivalents always like to suggest that they are down to earth realists just facing truths that mushier heads can’t face. Of course Darwinian theory “proved” nothing all, much less that charity is a wasted effort.
We know that Darwin was an aristocrat and in fact saw life through this lens: IE That the rich and powerful have triumphed over the poor through natural superiority. That this is the right and proper way of life. He was a bit reticent about doing away with all kindness to the unfortunate but he mumbled here and there in his writings about having to give up the sentimental approach one day. Of course this philosophy is a perfect display of the “I Deserve This” rationalization that people do when things start to go well for them. See neuromechanical cruelty specifically “Money on the mind” for more. -HM
Studies of heredity contributed another variety of social Darwinism in the late 19th century. In Hereditary Genius (1869), Sir Francis Galton, a British scientist and Darwin’s cousin, argued that biological inheritance is far more important than environment in determining character and intelligence. This theory, known as hereditarianism, met considerable resistance, especially in the United States. Sociologists and biologists who criticized hereditarianism believed that changes in the environment could produce physical changes in the individual that would be passed on to future generations, a theory proposed by French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in the early 19th century. After 1890, hereditarianism gained increasing support, due in part to the work of German biologist August Weismann. Weismann re emphasized the role of natural selection by arguing that a person’s characteristics are determined genetically at conception.
III. Galton was the one who coined the term “eugenics” and believed in it utterly. -HM
IV. The Struggle School
Toward the end of the 19th century, another strain of social Darwinism was developed by supporters of the struggle school of sociology. English journalist Walter Bagehot expressed the fundamental ideas of the struggle school in Physics and Politics (1872), a book that describes the historical evolution of social groups into nations. Bagehot argued that these nations evolved principally by succeeding in conflicts with other groups. For many political scientists, sociologists, and military strategists, this strain of social Darwinism justified overseas expansion by nations (imperialism) during the 1890s. In the United States, historian John Fiske and naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan drew from the principles of social Darwinism to advocate foreign expansion and the creation of a strong military.
IV. It’s horrible and haunting to see the foreshadowing that hinted at the world wars straight ahead. It’s also clear that the theory here is being used to simply rationalize the beliefs of those who wanted military adventures. Nobody was more of a social Darwinist than Hitler. If he had one ultimate belief it was in universal struggle and winner take all. -HM
V. Reform Darwinism
After 1890, social reformers used Darwinism to advocate a stronger role for government and the introduction of various social policies. This movement became known as reform Darwinism. Reform Darwinists argued that human beings need new ideas and institutions as they adapt to changing conditions. For example, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. reasoned that the Constitution of the United States should be reinterpreted in light of changing circumstances in American society.
Some reformers used the principles of evolution to justify sexist and racist ideas that undercut their professed belief in equality. For example, the most extreme type of reform Darwinism was eugenics, a term coined by Sir Francis Galton in 1883 from the Greek word eügenáv, meaning well-born. Eugenicists claimed that particular racial or social groups–usually wealthy Anglo-Saxons–were “naturally” superior to other groups. They proposed to control human heredity by passing laws that forbid marriage between races or that restrict breeding for various social “misfits” such as criminals or the mentally ill.
1. We can see the broad cross pollination of ideas here as some progressive thinkers also saw a way to frame their point in evolutionary terms.
2. We also notice of course, the terrifying confidence of some people concerning what parts of the human garden needed trimming. -HM
VI. Social Darwinism in the 20th Century
Although social Darwinism was highly influential at the beginning of the 20th century, it rapidly lost popularity and support after World War I (1914-1918). During the 1920s and 1930s many political observers blamed it for contributing to German militarism and the rise of Nazism (see National Socialism). During this same period, advances in anthropology also discredited social Darwinism. German American anthropologist Franz Boas and American anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict showed that human culture sets people apart from animals. By shifting the emphasis away from biology and onto culture, these anthropologists undermined social Darwinism’s biological foundations. Eugenics was discredited by a better understanding of genetics and eventually disgraced by Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s use of eugenic arguments to create a “master race.” During World War II (1939-1945), the Nazis killed several million Jews, Roma (Gypsies), and members of other groups, believing them inferior to an idealized Aryan race.
Social theories based on biology gained renewed support after 1953, when American biologist James Watson and British biologist Francis Crick successfully described the structure of the DNA molecule, the building block of all life. During the 1960s anthropologists interested in the influence of DNA on human behavior produced studies of the biological basis of aggression, territoriality, mate selection, and other behavior common to people and animals. Books on this theme, such as Desmond Morris’s Naked Ape (1967) and Lionel Tiger’s Men in Groups (1969), became best-sellers. In the early 1970s American psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein revived the social Darwinist argument that intelligence is mostly determined by biology rather than by environmental influences.
During the 1960s, British biologist W. D. Hamilton and American biologist Robert L. Trivers produced separate studies showing that the self-sacrificing behavior of some members of a group serves the genetic well-being of the group as a whole. American biologist Edward O. Wilson drew on these theories in Sociobiology: the New Synthesis (1975), where he argued that genetics exerts a greater influence on human behavior than scientists had previously believed. Wilson claimed that human behavior cannot be understood without taking both biology and culture into account. Wilson’s views became the foundations of a new science–sociobiology–and were later popularized in such studies as Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene (1976). Wilson’s critics have alleged that sociobiology is simply another version of social Darwinism. They claim that it downplays the role of culture in human societies and justifies poverty and warfare in the name of natural selection. Such criticism has led to a decline in the influence of sociobiology and other forms of social Darwinism.
VI. There are several weird takeaways from this.
First, Darwin’s theory was a blend of a scientific observation and his own personal beliefs. It was shaped by his position of privilege. Second, that it was popularly accepted by the rich and powerful because it supported what they already believed, that success was self-justifying. Third that everyone who EVER used the theory to explain or justify a political philosophy did so on very little justification, simply borrowing the credibility of science and wrapping it for transparently selfish reasons around whatever they were selling.
As a separate point, notice that the author of this article, Robert Bannister, dismisses sociobiology explicitly as a form of social Darwinism. His writing here reminds me of a dog turning around in circles before lying down. “Wilson’s critics” unnamed and unquestioned, carry the day by alleging it, and we’re done and home by 4.
A couple of problems: E.O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology: the New Synthesis, was a carefully researched work by a renowned Harvard ethologist and it said almost nothing about human beings, let alone excusing war and poverty. The book (and Wilson himself) were found to contain a strain of deadly ideas by expert witch-finders, and suppressed. His opponents called themselves a study group but limited their study to a bit of reflexive kicking. They momentarily observed something 300 yards off, resembling a duck and decided without observation of any walking or talking like a duck, that it must be a duck.
Also, Wilson was and is a scientist, seriously exploring a theory with malice toward none. Not a single other example of social Darwinism can be described that way. The idea that we must have a kind of “faith based” research where nothing offends the political officer is possibly the only MORE demented road for humanity to take.
Noam Chomsky, a linguist and political scientist, surprised many by coming to the defense of sociobiology on the grounds that political radicals need to postulate a relatively fixed idea of human nature in order to be able to struggle for a better society, claiming that leaders should know what human needs were in order to build a better society.
If you are still here, thanks. I will do my best to justify your patience in followup articles.
Arguments against Darwin generally come with theology as the endgame. It reminds me of the artificially intelligent toaster on Red Dwarf; it would engage the crew in deep philosophical chats which all came down to asking if they’d like some toast. My argument against Darwin is his insufficiency. Charles Darwin is the Sigmund Freud of evolutionary theory. His role was groundbreaking and important but his theory is primitive and wrong seen from today. My last article described the cronyism that rewarded him with this iconic status. I don’t know that his name would even be included in our current view of evolutionary theory were it not a battlement that must not be surrendered. Neo Darwinism is essentially Fort Darwin in the middle of extreme Born-again territory. This understandably makes us close ranks despite our differences, but when our wagons are in a circle it’s a sure thing they aren’t going anywhere.
Adding to the situation are the whole constellation of behaviors Thomas Kuhn outlined in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. There is a naturally conservative and reticent approach among scientific professionals. First, there is the paradigm of our moment which is built on all the earlier work in our field. There MUST be a foundation and things that call that foundation into question are not likely to be welcomed with open arms. If something truly and suddenly proved the state of a discipline wrong, at one level it would be a triumph and at another, a tragedy. It would crash and trash much current research and practice. Jobs would be lost and it would be necessary to fall back to the last critical turning point before starting again from more basic principles. Finally, there tends to be a generational transition; the hard heads often have to age out of the system before a new theory is truly accepted.
Fortunately due to the power of the scientific method it’s extremely rare for a large theoretical collapse. However, it IS in the nature of research moving forward that new principles will be uncovered which are so RIGHT that earlier paradigms are wrong in comparison. It can be sudden or through long diligent efforts but all research will look like alchemy from a distant enough point. Still, it seems unfair to earlier scientific explorers who may be wrong by the light of today, but were as right as possible in their own time. A little generosity hurts no one. Lamarck was about the most correct person on earth about his subject at the time of his writing. Darwin and Wallace likewise, let’s grant them all winner status without faulting them for not being perfect and not staying current long after their time.
Some basic problems with Darwinism
- It’s a tautology (circular logic): Survival of the fittest means the fittest are the ones who survive. What exactly is fitness? Something that apparently is present in survivors.
- It describes a negative feedback (we could call it “natural elimination”) but not a positive feedback. Or perhaps only a negative-positive feedback which is really just a distinction without a difference. We see why some die, but why do others change and continue to change?
- No helpful mutation in an individual would be reinforced naturally in the next generation, each would be diluted.
- There is no evidence from long term well constructed studies of the kind of random helpful mutations Darwinism requires even in the groups subjected to more mutagens.
- The fallback explanation of an unimaginable time scale as the missing piece that completes the puzzle is insufficient to close the gaps we find.
Both Wallace and Lamarck believed in some principle that guided evolution generally toward more success on average. Almost as if the infinite monkeys at typewriters had automatic spelling and grammar check turned on. And perhaps an app that edited out utter nonsense. This is closer to what life on earth looks and feels like…but to this day we have no means of identifying and studying such a principle. Therefore it is unscientific not in the sense of being wrong, just by being un-measurable and undetectable. In his time, Dmitri Mendeleev (who imagined the periodic table) predicted as yet undiscovered elements because within the framework he was using there were gaps in significant places. Logically, he thought, there should be something in that spot. That’s how I feel about the missing mechanisms in evolutionary theory. I suspect they are there because the current theory is a tiny sheet that does not cover this bed.
The one interesting breakthrough that seems to be in this class of guiding principles is epigenetic or soft inheritance. It’s very new but means of positive feedbacks leading to positive variation are becoming visible in this field and its many developing subdisciplines. We find information across generations, and the experiences of parents affecting the phenome of the children. Wallace and Lamarck are being reconsidered. I think they should be granted full equality with Darwin as founders.
We shouldn’t regularly act from fear of being compromised by theology if we budge from an earlier spot. It’s Theology that never budges with it’s hand full of supposed aces. Science moves, not impulsively but empirically. Our position so long after Darwin, is blessed with a million knowings he didn’t have a available, but relative to the future we are just as wrong and insufficient as he is to us. It can’t be helped. Or perhaps the only help is accepting and remembering it. It won’t help us measure what we can’t detect but it may help us think in less black and white terms and to look for meaningful gaps. The undetectable of today is the foundation of the theory tomorrow.
The basic difference between Darwin’s theory and Wallace’s was this: Darwin focused on competition between individuals and Wallace focused on environmental pressures on local populations.
Alfred Russel Wallace was a nearly lifelong world traveler and naturalist and was taken with the way that distinct subspecies could be found in adjoining territories with no transitional form in between. Why did they change? How did they change? Later Wallace developed BioGeography from these thoughts. He also became a passionate early ecologist and wrote a book speculating on the possible nature of life on other planets. He also suspected that there was some form of intelligence that played a role in the evolution of species but while this was a spiritual belief, he didn’t attribute that intelligence to any theist god.
There were both unconscious and practical reasons why the Linnean society favoring Darwin’s theory over Wallace’s (besides cronyism). As I mentioned in my first article, Darwin’s bloody struggle scenario with the victory defining the winner as “more fit” supported the very strong belief system among the upper classes that the poor were sort of a failed version of human beings and that it was the kindest thing really, to let them die off in large numbers to “thin the heard”. This is where the chilly phrase “Cruel to be kind” comes from. Wallace thought that understanding the principles of evolution could improve people’s lives and alleviate suffering. This is the essence of how these scientific theories shade into politics. And this exact issue is alive today.
Darwin’s theory was also more accessible than Wallace’s, It made a good, simple mental cartoon. “Stronger thing beats weaker thing, Win and go to next round!”. Compare that to Wallace’s vision of environmental stresses on all the members of a local species driving evolution. It’s more sophisticated, but we enjoy protagonist based stories so much more.
The other reason was Wallace’s teleological (meaningful) engine of evolution. If you leave a gap in your theory big enough to drive a god through, the church might rush that spot in an effort to hijack any scientific theory of evolution and claim it for theology instead. There is some justification for this, Wallace’s work HAS been used as source material for some creationists. The very simple (and incorrect) answer that every bit of evolution was driven by nothing but random mutations and extremely slow change was a defense against the church, but it became a prison for all the evolutionary biologists forced since then to salute it like a flag.
And while Lamarck was never in direct competition with Darwin he was a groundbreaking thinker who had shaped the discussion. Although he was not the first thinker to advocate organic evolution, he was the first to develop a truly coherent evolutionary theory. Lamarck suggested that characteristics which were “needed” were acquired (or diminished) during the lifetime of an organism then passed on to the offspring. He incorporated this mechanism into his thoughts on evolution, seeing it as resulting in the adaptation of life to local environments. Lamarck also referred to a tendency for organisms to become more complex, moving “up” a ladder of progress. He referred to this phenomenon as (translated) “The force that perpetually tends to make order”. Continue reading
- Genotype: The genes present in an organism, potential or expressed.
- Phenotype: The genes the organism is expressing.
- Epigenetics: the turning on or off of gene expression via environmental events…”nurture”.
- Behavioral Epigenetics: The study of how these events in the environment trigger molecular biological changes in our brains. These include: social experience; nutrition; hormones; and toxicological exposures that occur prenatally, postnatally, and in adulthood.
A common example is the way that twins, born with basically identical phenotypes, vary as individuals in behavior, appearance and health. Nurture, experience and behavior drive the expression of different genes, leading to generally larger changes over the course of their lives.
The study of epigenetics is a tiny new branch off the tree of molecular biology and behavioral epigenetics is a bud on that branch. Yet it is already a vast and exciting field. Excitement and ferment in science can be measured partly by how many new questions are bubbling up in that area. Most experiments in this area are yielding more questions than answers but that in a sense describes how deep and rich a mine this is for scientists to explore. The field is seen as holding the potential to explain and perhaps even solve medical troubles, such as mental retardation, autism, schizophrenia, and neurodegenerative disorders, and even social issues, such as aging, addiction, suicide, child abuse, and child neglect.
Food for thought:
- This totally relates to my earlier post “Epigenetics changes everything” The idea that a fear could be passed epigenetically three generations forward with no reinforcement still absolutely boggles my mind. It hints at some of the complexity within this system.
- In relation to Darwinism – It doesn’t exactly invalidate Darwinism because at its root, Darwinism is a small group of simple truisms that explain very little. But it further reveals how much more elegant and sophisticated life is than explained in classical Darwinism. Not that Darwin himself can be faulted for not have more advanced knowledge. Interestingly, two of Darwin’s losing rivals for a theory of inheritance, Alfred Russell Wallace and Jean Baptiste Lamarck continue to be redeemed by our advancing knowledge. Wallace saw a potential for improving the lot of the poor through this knowledge and Lamarck believed the experiences of an organism could cause changes inherited by later generations. Darwin himself favored the idea of harsh competition as the driving force. The importance of Darwinism has always been drawing a hard line between nature and theology. The continued social disputes over Darwinism VS creationism just show how hard it is to make any intellectual advances culturally on hot button issues.
- If the experience of gruelling poverty causes measurable impact on children (and thus, their entire lives and descendents) couldn’t this be considered cultural child abuse or at least neglect?
- A related but separate issue. Darwin was personally a mild and retiring character but he was wealthy and privileged. In his own mind his theory was also a justification for rich vs poor, upper class vs lower class. EG: We are rich and well because because we are fitter. You are poor and sick because you are less fit. H.G. Wells sketched a nightmare projection of this into the future in his book: The Time Machine with the two branches of the human race, the Eloi (rich) and the Morlock (poor). Although Wells was a socialist, Darwin must have had a somewhat similar picture of the future except for him it would have been acceptable.
- I’d like to reference my earlier post “The Neuromechanics of Cruelty” for a number of examples of how Darwin was simply acting out the familiar human traits of rationalizing his privilege and seeing it as based on personal merit. As were all the harsher “social darwinists” who followed.