On Thursdays at noon Yhouse holds a lunch meeting at the Institute of Advanced Study, in Princeton. The format is a 15 minute informal talk by a speaker followed by a longer open-ended discussion among the participants, triggered by, but not necessarily confined to, the topic of the talk. In order to share I am posting a synopsis of the weekly meetings.
Synopsis YHouse Lunch Thursday March 2, 2017
Speaker: Nicolaas Rupke, Institute for Advanced Study
Title: Non-Darwinian evolution theory
Present: Nicolaas Rupke, Piet Hut, Paul Raymond, Ian Jauslin, Yuko Shihara, Ayako Fuqui, Masataka Fukugita, Monica Manolescu, Ed Turner, David Fergusson, Olaf Witkowski, Will Storrar, Michael Solomon
Abstract by the Speaker: “A Humboldtian, more comprehensive approach to evolutionary biology than Darwin’s took shape during the period 1790s till 1940s. Following WWII, the theory was by and large abandoned and Darwinism, in the form of the New Synthesis, became “the only game in town.” This has led to an increase in the number of cognitive dissonance instances among those who work with evolution theory. I take stock of Humboldt’s structuralist heritage, and bring a range of non-Darwinian research and dissenting views together under the umbrella of the Humboldtian viewpoint. Moreover, in producing a historico-scientific narrative of the non-Darwinian alternative, I trace the theory back to its early, politically liberal roots, recovering the memory of its main representatives, while adding to conceptual clarity and present-day cogency.”
Briefly, Rupke outlined two historic approaches to evolutionary biology: Structuralism, which lasted from about 1750 to 1950, and Functionalism, from 1859 to the present. He compared the tolerance in theoretical physics, where two competing concepts, quantum theory and relativity, have co-existed with adherents respecting the alternative theories, with the abandonment of the structuralism and intolerance in modern biology. He listed the major figures in Structuralism: Immanuel Kant in 1755, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach in 1793, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Alexander von Humboldt, Richard Owen, Ernst Haekel, Carl von Nägeli, Hugo de Vries, D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, Erwin Schrödinger, Otto Schindewolf, and Pierre Teilhard de Chandin, and discussed the contributions they each made. Structuralism was characterized by Methodological Naturalism and was Scientific not Theological. Rupke referred to Humboldt’s work Kosmos and the idea that the evolution of Life was inevitable based on internal properties of the cosmos, without any need for dualism. (Rupke’s definitive biography of von Humboldt elucidates the historic elements in Nineteenth (and Twentieth) century Europe surrounding science and political movements.) He noted Richard Owen’s vertebrate archetype as an example of morphotypes and the importance of form over function. Edward Hitchcock’s 1840 paleontological chart was the first “tree of life” and started with rocks and crystals. Ernst Haeckel emphasized the mathematical aspects of biologic structures and the artistic beauty of biology in his drawings. Rupke argued that Structuralism has room for religion while Darwinism did not. He was critical of present day biologists as exemplified by Richard Dawkins who damn creationism and are intolerant of previous theories. However, historic events, specifically WW I and even more WW II and Nazism, have led to the complete abandonment of Structuralism in modern evolutionary thinking.
The presentation stimulated an active discussion. Piet asked whether the evolution of Eukaryotes from Prokaryotes was structure or function? Rupke answered Structure. He reviewed a slide showing how the phyllotactic arrangement of leaves around a stem is the Fibonacci sequence, which appears again and again in nature pointing to mathematical structuralism. There appeared to be significant debate regarding the characterization of Darwinism as Functionalism. Rupke argued that Natural Selection was based on function and did not consider structure, while others in the room were not convinced of that characterization. Michael offered that Darwin’s insight was Descent with Modification, and Natural Selection is the evolutionary mechanism by which differential reproduction by individuals in a population in a given environment leads to a change in allele frequencies of the gene pool of that population. What we now call the Modern Synthesis, reconciling Darwin and Mendel, had to wait for further knowledge of the mechanisms of genetics. Mutation is a relatively trivial factor in evolution compared to factors such as genetic drift. Scientifically, there is no reason to consider Darwin’s theory as functionalism and excluding structure. Evolution must act on existing structure. Furthermore, Darwin himself left medical school in Edinburgh and got his degree in theology at Cambridge, so to characterize his thinking as having no room for religion seems surprising. Certainly his work (read as man descending from apes) was seen as opposing contemporary religious views.
At this point we moved from our conference room to the IAS Board room to continue the discussion. Piet asked where is the conflict between structure and function? Can they not both influence evolution? Rupke’s response clarified the debate to some extent. He answered that Darwinism is Malthusian, represented Free Market Capitalism, and Empire building. Politically, Structuralism was seen as very different with a tendency to Liberalism, the French Revolution, and the revolutionary movements of the 1840s and the development of Nationalism later. In the 1920s after WW I there was some animosity in the politics of biologic science, greatly influenced by Nationalism. After WW II this became much greater. The structuralists, who were liberals in the 1920’s, were incorporated by the Fascists and the younger generation does not want to be thought of as Neo-Fascist. Therefore, the structuralists were put down in favor of Darwinism making Darwinism the only game in town. With additional discussion it became clearer that when Rupke spoke of Darwinism he was referring to the historic and socio-political aspects of Darwin’s work. In fact, structuralism also described Lamarck’s belief in inheritance of acquired traits (the blacksmith’s muscular arm or the giraffe’s long neck), as opposed to Darwin’s emphasis on traits making one functionally “more fit”. Ed noted that his view of evolution was not “survival of the fittest”, but rather “what persists, persists” and “survival of the fit enough”. Rupke replied that historically Darwinism has meant many things to many people. He plans to write a meta-biography of Darwin and all the ways he has been interpreted. Piet pointed out that using historical terms when you teach quantum physics can be misleading. Old teaching talked about “State Factor”, but later it was found that there is no “State” until an observation is made. Michael noted the terrible results that misinterpretation of Darwin has caused including the racial cleansing of Nazism, and the historic Eugenics movement in this country. So-called Social Darwinism has had no better history than that attributed to structuralism. Rupke emphasized that his goal is Theoretical Clarity, not applied science, and to avoid the present messy use of language and thought surrounding Darwin’s work. He wants to revitalize and clarify this prior theory that has been rejected due to historical factors and reintroduce structuralism into current biologic investigation. “We need to get the theoretical framework right.”
At the conclusion of our discussion Will Storrar announced that the Center for Theological Inquiry, at 50 Stockton St., Princeton will be presenting a one actor play by Anthony Watts entitled “Mr. Darwin’s Tree” on April 2nd at 2:00 PM.
The talk and discussion certainly emphasized how Scientific developments, both theoretical and technological, can lead to social, cultural, and political movements with world shaking consequences. This can apply equally to Darwin’s changing the paradigm of biology or to developments in computer science and A.I. and to understanding consciousness.
Respectfully submitted, Michael Solomon, MD