For some months now, TheBestSchools.org has been hosting a Focused Civil Dialogue (FCD) between the noted evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson (University of Binghamton) and the distinguished physiologist Denis Noble (Oxford University) on the question whether the evolutionary synthesis known as “neo-Darwinism” remains theoretically adequate in light of recent advances in molecular biology (evolutionary-developmental systems theory [“evo-devo”], epigenetics, and the like).
In two previous installments of this FCD, we asked the question “Is neo-Darwinism enough?” Here are the participants’ previous respective contributions (Interviews and Major Statements):
- Dennis Noble Interview
- David Sloan Wilson Interview
- Dennis Noble’s Major Statement
- David Sloan Wilson’s Major Statement
Last week, we were delighted to publish the two dialoguists’ most recent interventions, consisting of Detailed Responses to each other’s Major Statements:
In this pair of essays, we detect a definite increase in volume in the voices of both participants. If up until now the Dialogue has given us the feeling of eavesdropping on a thrillingly erudite but fundamentally decorous conversation at High Table, Old-World-style, now suddenly we feel we are listening in on the early stages of a testy exchange that risks escalating into a dangerous, New-World-Style street brawl!
To the casual reader, it may all seem like a storm in a teacup. Both parties are passionate defenders of evolution in the basic sense of common descent. Both are great admirers of Charles Darwin. Both even admit that neo-Darwinism (the theoretical amalgamation of modern genetics and the theory of natural selection) was a great advance in its time (the 1930s).
Indeed, Wilson seems to be saying the dispute is mainly verbal—a quibble over the proper use of the term “neo-Darwinism.” Noble (rightly in our view) stresses that a very great deal turns on what we mean by “neo-Darwinism.”
If by “neo-Darwinism,” we mean merely the fact of common descent, however it may have occurred, then indeed the dispute here is entirely verbal.
However, if “neo-Darwinism” is to retain any real substance as a concept, it must at a minimum refer to an explanatory structure which is fundamentally materialistic and reductionistic. That is to say, it must purport to reduce all apparent purpose (as well as value, normativity, meaning, and the like) to ordinary physico-chemical processes put in place by blind variation of genotypes and selective retention of corresponding phenotypes.
If it really does not do that—if as Noble argues more is in fact needed to make sense of vital phenomena—then no, neo-Darwinism really is not enough.
This is a matter of no small moment, both for biological science and for man’s own self-image—and man’s self-image is significant, in turn, because we happen to be an animal that lives up (or down) to the image it has of itself.
We await the final round of essays from Professors Wilson and Noble with great expectation.