The Sin of Evolutionary Fundamentalism

I feel vindicated. For several years, I have been warning my friends and neighbors of Evolutionary Fundamentalism. I’m defining Evolutionary Fundamentalism as a simplistic argument to explain things in an evolutionary manner that is based on someone’s teachings from a long time ago rather than based on scientific observations – but presenting it as scientifically true. And here I will admit that I’m not sure how much of Evolutionary Fundamentalism is the product of Darwin, or how much is the product of his disciples. Like the fundamentalism of Christianity, Judaism, Muslim, and now even Hindu, much of the problem is the result of the disciples more than the originator of a belief.

Specifically, the Evolutionary Fundamentalism I have been warning people about is the singular explanation for all traits found in all species: “preservation of the species”. Whenever anyone would ask “why do giraffes have long necks?” or “Why do we have oppositional thumbs?” or why to any trait of any species, the answer comes back as “to promote the preservation of the species.” I have always found this argument to be unscientific for a variety of reasons, but because I am not a scientist, I felt I was never effective in my warning. I remember cringing as I read “The Naked Ape” by Desmond Morris realizing that he was passing off stories as science in explaining why and how humans lost their body hair during the evolutionary process.

Now, two scientists have come out with a book which vindicates my feelings. Salon.com had a book review on “What Darwin Got Wrong: Taking down the father of evolution” by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini – both atheist scientists. (http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2010/02/22/what_darwin_got_wrong_jerry_fodor/index.html?source=newsletter) They show that there can be some traits that are not carried just for the sake of preserving the species. There can be other reasons and we need to make these determinations based on scientific observations rather than on a simplex statement made by a mortal a long time ago. Just as “shit happens”, so too can some things happen just randomly apart from a unifying explanation.

I have used the question of the giraffe’s neck myself and asked why other co-existing species didn’t develop the same long neck, or perhaps necks of different lengths up to the length of a giraffe? These authors also use the giraffe as an example and state that “A creature that has a long neck may have that neck because a different trait was selected, and the long neck came along with it.” Since we do not have observations, we are resorting to the intuitive mind which uses the language of story and metaphor to reveal truths – of which there may be several (including some which are opposite to others). So while there may be a truth in the story, it should not be presented as scientific fact or scientifically true. Science and logic are the languages of the rational mind to determine what is true or not true (one or the other, binary, either/or) and that leads to knowledge.

Just as it is wrong for fundamentalist religionists to take the stories of the bible and present them as “true” rather than possessing truths (like the stories of the Grecian gods), it is also wrong to take some of the “why” and “how” of our observations of naturalism and insist that they are science when they are story. Science is great at defining “what”, but not “why” or “how”.

This article is quoted as saying, “Why are certain traits there? Why do people have hair on their head? Why do both eyes have the same color? Why does dark hair go with dark eyes? You can make up a story that explains why it was good to have those properties in the original environment of selection. Do we have any reason to think that story is true? No.”

We need to make sure that when we are saying something is scientific, that it is observable, repeatable, capable of being negated, and the other aspects that make up science. Otherwise we need to admit that it is story and not fall into the trap of other fundamentalists and presenting story as fact. Otherwise we are guilty of the sin of fundamentalism.


2 Responses to “The Sin of Evolutionary Fundamentalism”

  1. February 25, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    The argument seems to be related to the concept of a spandrel


    coined by Stephen Jay Gould to describe characteristics that may have not been directly selected for but came into existence as a byproduct of some other characteristic that was selected for.

    I’d prefer to stay away from the term “fundamentalism” for erroneous scientific theories because I think most of those who hold the position are open to contradictory evidence, unlike religious fundamentalists. But sometimes these evolutionary hypotheses are a lot shakier than they seem on first appearance.

  2. 2 curiousdwk
    February 25, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    Thanks Rick for the link on Spandrels. However it seems that these two authors are appealing to the masses rather than the techies like Gould’s definition does. After reading that about Gould’s spandrel, I couldn’t figure out how it might play in our day to day experiences. But since I usually hear laymen talking about the “why” of so many traits just being the cause of the principle “preservation of the species”, these authors are speaking to them in their language.

    As for the term “fundamentalism”, I used that term for it’s impact. We evolutionists are just as likely to fall into the “sin of fundamentalism” as religious people and we need to be aware of that possibility. To me it is a sin to fall back on a simple explanation that doesn’t apply, but to present it as scientific fact. I think that we evolutionists need to recognize it when it happens and react against it when it does.

Comments are currently closed.

%d bloggers like this: