Peak Oil

Darwinism Revisited

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 08, 2006

Raise the Hammer has poked a hornets' nest. In our last issue, we published an opinion piece by peak oil activist Andrew McKillop that compared peak oil denial to Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest. He claims that Darwinian evolution theory "can never be verified" and that "no proof can be found of ongoing or contemporary evolution."

This has elicited a number of responses from the polite - "Well, Darwinism wasn't quite right, but evolution is real and verifiable and still happening" - to the contemptuous - "That this sad misinformed and ignorant person was allowed to publish here is testament to the quality of this site."

Ouch!

To be completely honest, I struggled over whether to publish this essay, concerned over the same issue. I disagree vehemently with McKillop's contention regarding Darwinism, but at the same time, as editor, it's not my job to agree with everything that is published on this site.

Part of the purpose of a publication is to provoke discussion, and if publishing an opinion piece that makes a controversial claim generates discussion that clarifies the issue, then an argument can be made that the piece served its purpose.

This claim, of course, is also controversial, because many will argue that the editor's job is to filter out arguments that are obviously wrong. I agree with this, but also feel that McKillop was trying to make an important point within the context of his claim about Darwin's theory.

Scientific Proof

One commentator wrote, "in simple terms the theory is more explanatory than the alternatives," and I'd like to run with this for a moment. This understanding about scientific theories owes a debt to Karl Popper, the philosopher of science who introduced the idea that scientific theories are characterized by falsifiability rather than verifiability.

Popper writes:

Those among our theories which turn out to be highly resistant to criticism, and which appear to us at a certain moment of time to be better approximations of truth than other known theories, may be described, together with the reports of their tests, as "the science" of that time. 1

Every scientific theory makes predictions that can be tested experimentally. In this case, "criticism" refers to experimental results that do not match a theory's prediction. If, for example, I theorize that all leaves are green, and you produce a leaf from a Japanese Maple, that would constitute a pretty good criticism of my theory.

According to Popper, the fact that a theory can be falsified - i.e. proved false by experiment - is precisely what makes it scientific. A good scientific theory is not a theory that has been proved, but a theory that has been tested in a variety of ways and has not been disproved.

So, to McKillop's essay: I am not aware of any experiment that has disproved the principle of natural selection famously posited by Charles Darwin in his 1859 essay The Origin of Species.

Darwin argued that populations or species evolve through natural selection: individual organisms whose traits were better suited for survival in their environment would be more likely to survive and produce offspring, and the population as a whole would gradually come to reflect the distribution of traits among its most successful members.

Darwin theorized that this can eventually produce speciation, or division into two separate species, among populations of the same species that are cut off from one another for enough generations. He drew this conclusion after discovering several new species of organisms on the Galapagos Islands, which were cut off from their distant kin on the mainland of South America.

Evidence of natural selection abounds, from the colour of pigeons in sooty cities to the rise of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Breeders, certainly, would scoff at the notion that there is no evidence for the process of transforming a population through selection. 2

Paradigms in Science

Karl Popper is not without his detractors, particularly as regards the role of paradigms in shaping scientific theories. Thomas Kuhn, another philosopher of science, argued that scientific theories do not exist in an intellectual vacuum, but form part of a larger paradigm of thought that models the universe in particular terms. [Aside to Ben: I hope you'll agree that this is an appropriate use of the word "paradigm".]

A paradigm is like an extended metaphor, a way of describing the shape of the universe in particular terms. Isaac Newton, for example, described the universe in terms of a Cartesian plane, a vast pool table, where the position and velocity of moving objects could be described using X, Y, and Z coordinates.

Newton's three laws of motion 3 made predictions about how objects move through space that represented a vast improvement on the theories of motion that preceded him. Ancient scholars believed that an object's natural state was a state of rest; a moving object eventually slowed and stopped.

Newton's paradigm, by contrast, notes that objects only change speed and direction when they are acted upon by external forces like gravity, friction, and magnetism - of which there are so many on Earth that it is difficult to create an experiment to eliminate these forces and test Newton's theory.

Kuhn argued that scientific knowledge does not simply build incrementally, but undergoes periodic shifts as whole categories of theories are thrown out and replaced. The process of a paradigm shift involves several factors, including a steadily building set of experimental results that do not fit the existing paradigm and the entrance of a different paradigm that does a better job of accommodating those anomalous results.

Such a shift began when Albert Einstein published his general theory of relativity in 1915. He argued that gravity is not a force, like magnetism, but an artefact of the geometric structure of the universe. Space-time actually curves around massive bodies like planets and stars; matter or energy passing close to a massive body follows its straight trajectory through curved space and is thus deflected.

Early evidence for Einstein's theory came with the solar eclipse of 1919. Astronomers were able to observe light from stars that were supposed to be behind the sun. The light from those stars actually bent around the sun's mass and fell on the earth.

Darwinism Applied Elsewhere

One way that new paradigms are introduced to a field of science is by borrowing conceptual metaphors from other disciplines. Getting back to Darwin and his theory of natural selection, he was inspired by the observation from economics that some businesses thrive while others fail, and that the businesses that thrive are those best able to contain costs, maintain quality, and maximize productivity.

His paradigm, his model for how organisms evolve, borrowed the economic model of competition and applied it to populations of organisms, refuting the dominant theory of his time that organisms were designed by a Creator and placed on earth in their present forms.

Darwin was by no means alone in his work. Various theories of evolution already existed or were in development when he wrote The Origin of Species, but his had an elegance, simplicity, and coherence that others lacked. It also accorded closely with observed evidence and made a number of predictions that subsequent experiments confirmed.

An early confirmation of Darwin's theory came from London, England's shift to an industrial city. As the surfaces of the city were progressively covered in soot, its population of pigeons shifted from predominantly light grey to predominantly dark grey. The darker birds could hide more effectively from predators against a darker backdrop.

Perhaps not surprisingly, economists recognized the kinship of Darwin's theory of natural selection with their own theory of competition, and reclaimed the metaphor with its now-bolstered legitimacy. So-called "social Darwinism" is the idea that natural selection will reward smarter, more hard-working people with survival while relegating slower, lazier people to destitution and death.

This, I believe, is what McKillop is getting at when he writes, "Darwinist notions can be used to rationalize and justify the New Economy and its credo of deliberately increasing economic equality, to 'sharpen competition'."

The evidence of natural selection shows that many populations adapt to their environment through co-operation and symbiosis rather than competition. However, this aspect of Darwin's theory did not serve the interests of classical economists and did not survive the jump into social policy.

To that extent, Darwinism as a political theory, as opposed to Darwinism as a scientific theory, serves mainly as a slogan to serve narrow interests. In this sense, it is similar to the metaphor of peak oil denial: endless growth and salvation through "technology".

If I understand McKillop correctly, then it is too bad he did not draw this distinction more clearly.

Notes

  1. Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, Harper & Row, 1963

    (return to article)

  2. It can be argued that breeding constitutes "artificial selection", but this suggests humans are somehow outside nature, and that what humans do should not be considered natural. I would argue by contrast that anything humans do is "natural" insofar as humans ourselves are products of the natural world and part of nature. Therefore, a population of animals whose environment includes human breeders will evolve, via natural selection, based on what traits are better suited for survival and reproduction; in these cases, those traits that breeders value.

    (return to article)

  3. Newton's Three Laws of Motion:

    1. Intertia: an object at rest or travelling in uniform motion will continue forever unchanged unless acted upon by an external, unbalanced force.
    2. Momentum: the rate of change of motion of an object is equal to the force acting on it and occurs in the same direction.
    3. Reciprocation: Every force is accompanied by an equal force acting in the opposite direction.

    (return to article)

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By The End of Darwinism (anonymous) | Posted March 03, 2009 at 20:30:17

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