“Darwinism of the gaps”

Lydia writes

I suppose one might add, to try to wring as much as possible out of the remaining data, that we do not know why humans go through a transient phase in utero in which their spinal chords are extra-long and then regress. But talk about “Darwinism of the gaps”! “We don’t know why this happens, so maybe it has something or other to do with evolutionary history!”

This is a marvelous phrase, although I would have rather called it “evolutionism of the gaps”, because when one says “Darwinism”, people often think “natural selection”, which in this case is not the offending idea.  We should always be wary of explanations that amount to telling one not to look for explanations.  They’re not always wrong–there really is no deep reason that, for instance, the Earth spins at exactly the rate it does.  Still, an excuse not to understand is a dangerous thing.

I once read an anthropology textbook, written in the 70s, that basically claimed that Evolutionism of the Gaps once ruled anthropology.  Among any primitive people, there would be customs and beliefs that anthropologists couldn’t see the reason or function in, and so these were interpreted as holdovers from some earlier stage of that tribe’s evolution.  Then Bronislaw Malinowski revolutionized the field when, stranded by World War I, he took a much closer look at the day-to-day function of tribal practices and found that many of these supposedly useless customs actually served individuals and the community well in subtle ways.  Malinowski became skeptical of many efforts to rationalize primitive peoples’ ways of life, given the unavoidable unintended consequences.  (From that 70’s textbook I was reading, I caught a hint of annoyance among the rising generation with their great man’s conservatism.  They were so eager to help the new post-colonial communist despots of Africa build socialism.)  Everybody says that the main result of Malinowski’s work was to overthrow the horrible racism of the evolutionary school, but to me it all sounds very much like the insights of a certain 18th century Whig whose writings are often discussed on this blog.  That’s not how it’s advertised, so I probably just don’t know what I’m talking about.

As Lydia tells it, something similar is happening in biology.  Not, of course, that scientists are doubting the fact of evolution, but that they’re finding that what once seemed to have no current function often just has subtle functions.

The cautionary tale here is not hard to find: When an evolutionary theorist, even a theistic evolutionist, tells you as an assured fact that some human structure is caused as an atavism by a leftover and normally switched-off gene from our evolutionary past, don’t be in too much of a hurry to believe him. In this case, it turns out that Giberson’s characterization is wrong even by comparison with what his fellow evolutionists are saying. As for his rush to infer “bad design,” what is one to say? When the gene in question is, in fact, working just fine, thanks very much, in human neural tube development, the characterization of its existence as “bad design” cannot stand up for a moment. But of course that characterization is of a piece with the inaccurate claim that the gene is normally “switched off” and “ignored.”

I am not claiming that there are no segments of the human genome that do not have presently known functions. These are the segments that scientists have recklessly been calling “junk DNA” for quite a while, though a variety of recent developments may be teaching them a little more humility and caution. I’m not even claiming to know for sure that there is no actual, non-functioning junk in the human genome, were all known. In this case, however, the gene in question is not even alleged by mainstream science to be non-functional.


One Response

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