David's theory of evolution: Stephen Talbott's view (Evolution)

by David Turell @, Saturday, November 09, 2019, 20:20 (245 days ago) @ David Turell

It is a long chapter in his new book:


"The idea of natural selection seems so straightforward and conclusive that it forces its way into the receptive mind without much need for evidence. August Weismann, whose importance for nineteenth-century evolutionary theory has been considered second only to Darwin’s, rather famously wrote in 1893 that we must accept natural selection as the explanation for the wondrous adaptation of organisms to their environments “because it is the only possible explanation we can conceive”.


"And, indeed, over-estimation of the explanatory power of natural selection may be why Darwin’s contemporary, the geologist Charles Lyell, accused him of “deifying” the theory.1 A century later, in 1971, Lila Gatlin, a biochemist and mathematical biologist who figured centrally in developing the conception of life as an “information processing system”, could summarize contemporary usage by saying, “the words ‘natural selection’ play a role in the vocabulary of the evolutionary biologist similar to the word ‘God’ in ordinary language”. Such is the power of logical constructions over the human mind.


" We heard Elliot Sober marvel at the “explanatory power” of a simple proposition: “if the organisms in a population differ in their ability to survive and reproduce, and if the characteristics that affect these abilities are transmitted from parents to offspring, then the population will evolve.”

"This is a strange claim, given that it is flatly false — false in the sense that nothing in the logic of the theory tells us that populations must evolve in a manner that yields new species or fundamental changes of “type”. We know that healthy populations do exhibit plasticity, variation, and adaptability — a spruce tree growing in the lowlands will differ greatly from one growing near the alpine treeline, and one tree will differ from its neighbor — but this variability does not by itself imply the evolutionary origin of the diverse forms of life on earth.


"I can think of no fundamental question about evolution whose answer is suggested by the advertised formula for natural selection. Everything depends on what the amazingly diverse sorts of organism actually do as they respond to and shape their environments. Contrary to Susan Blackmore’s exultant insight, nothing in the “algorithmic logic” of natural selection tells us that evolution must have happened — and, given that it has happened, the logic by itself tells us little about what we should expect to find in the fossil record. We may ask then, “What, in truth, is being celebrated as the revolutionary principle of natural selection?”


"Every organism’s life and death encompasses and, so to speak, “sums up” a vast range of purposive activities, not only on its own part, but also on the part of many other organisms. One might feel, therefore, that the “theory” of the survival of the fittest can explain just about everything. Certainly the overall pattern of births and deaths must yield the observed evolutionary outcome! Actually, it just is that outcome — it is the pattern we need to explain — which doesn’t yet give us much of a theory.

“'Natural selection eliminates and maybe maintains, but it doesn’t create.” (Lynn Margulis [2011],


"the philosopher of biology, Denis Walsh — after noting the indisputable yet ignored truth that “organisms are fundamentally purposive entities” — expressed his perplexity by asking, “Why should the phenomenon [of agency] that demarcates the domain of biology be off-limits to biology?” (my bold)

"And yet, even Walsh, wonderfully insightful as he is, proceeds to characterize the organism’s agency in a strictly materialistic manner, as if it could be understood without accepting at face value the inner dimensions of life — cognition, thinking, intention, volition. We are given agency without agency, life without life. Such is our way today. It is my intention in the following discussion of evolution to articulate a different point of view, taking life in its own terms. And I see no reason to exclude what we know most directly — and in a higher key, so to speak — through our own existence as organisms.

"This higher key offers us many possibilities for an immediate, inner understanding of our experience, which is hardly grounds for excluding ourselves, or our understanding of the meanings of life, from a science of organisms. "

Comment: Talbott is brilliant and beloved by ID folks, where I found this reference. Environment does not make new species, though it might demand them as he notes. And why shouldn't we accept agency outside biology? The entire chapter is worth a read.

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