As Darwin Year ends, some seek to go “beyond Darwin”

December 14, 2009

Pigeon bones display at Darwin's former home, 12 Feb 2009/Tal Cohen

As this Darwin Year 2009 draws to a close, I have to say a lot of the public debate it prompted came down to the sterile old clash between evolution and creationism.  The issue of religion always hung in the air, with the loudest arguments coming from the creationist side defending it or the neo-atheists like the Darwinian biologist Richard Dawkins denouncing it. In the end, the squabbling seemed to be more about ideology than science and told us little we didn’t already know.


Jean Staune, 25 Nov 2009/Tom Heneghan

So I was intrigued by a conference held at UNESCO here in Paris recently about scientists who believe in evolution but want to go “beyond Darwin.” Organised by French philosopher of science Jean Staune, its speakers argued that Darwin could not explain underlying order and patterns found in nature.  “We have to differentiate between evolution and Darwinism,” said Jean Staune, author of the new book “Au-dela de Darwin” (Beyond Darwin). “Of course there is adaptation. But like physics and chemistry, biology is also subject to its own laws.”

Michael Denton, a geneticist with New Zealand’s University of Otago, said Darwinian “functionalists” believed life forms simply adapted to the outside world while his “structuralist” view also saw an internal logic driving this evolution down certain paths.  His view, which he called “extraordinarily foreign to modern biology,” explained why many animals developed “camera eyes” like human ones and why proteins, one of the building blocks of life, fold into structures unchanged for three billion years.

The speakers here — all academics from fields such as genetics, neurobiology, psychology and paleontology — are of course neither the first nor the only scientists to argue that life must have evolved by more than just natural selection. Several mentioned the British paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, who argues that the evolutionary  convergence of life forms “throws severe doubt on a number of fashionable presuppositions in evolution.” But it was interesting to see how many different arguments the scientists brought to supplement the basic evolution thesis they supported.


Michael Denton, 25 Nov 2009/Tom Heneghan

Denton is an interesting case because he is a scientist with publications in peer-reviewed journals who was originally close to the intelligent design movement.  His 1985 book “Evolution: A Theory in Crisis” helped launch the “ID” movement and he was linked to the Discovery Institute, a leading advocate of the controversial idea. But he later changed his mind and argued in the 1998 book “Nature’s Destiny: How the Law of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe” argued that evolution occurred but was channeled down certain paths by inherent structures in nature.

A few days after the conference, I sat down with Staune and Denton to find out more about their ideas and what they might mean for religion. Excerpts from these interviews are on the following page.

(UPDATE: Due to technical problems, the original “page 2″ option here did not work on this post on all our websites. Following is the second page.)

Jean Staune


Q: Why do you want to go “beyond Darwin”?

If you find camera eyes in five or six different animals, you can begin to question the fact that evolution is unpredictable … Chance can be channeled. Today we have some evidence of channeled evolution through different structures. These structures could be built into the laws of nature. That’s a fascinating idea confirmed by modern genetic discoveries.

I think we are in a situation like in the Copernicus period. You have a growing number of people who are questioning the classical paradigm. There is a lot of fact that you cannot fully explain by Darwinian ways. The problem is the pollution introduced by the creationists….when you criticise Darwinism and look for a new way, people say “Oh, you criticise Darwin, so you are a creationist.”

Q: So do you believe in evolution?

I’m sure evolution is a fact, but it can’t be fully explained by Darwinism. For me, it’s a shame to see people who are misinformed, who cheat with the facts and say wrong things in the name of their faith. I’m a believer and I don’t want to see people in the name of faith ridicule it by making false assumptions… If we are trapped in a choice between Darwinism and creationism, it’s a very bad situation…This view is much more compatible than Darwin with the view that the universe is purposeful and that evolution is not by chance only, but exists to reach a goal.

Michael Denton:

naturesdestinyThe tree of life is essentially a natural form and evolution has followed paths which are largely preordained in the nature of things from the very beginning. Obviously, this is a throwback to pre-Darwinian conceptions of evolution.

The universe exhibits a very strange fitness for organisms like ourselves — not exactly like us, but warm-blooded air-breathing organisms. Microbial carbon-based life can get by in a vast variety of different environments, but big warm-blooded organisms like us need rather special conditions, such as low viscosity of water for a circulatory system. These sorts of things seem to be pointing to a universe fit for organisms like us. If you tried to change the properties of any of these things slightly, it wouldn’t work.

The next step I take is to say it’s worth examining the possibility that it’s not just for our being, but also for our becoming. That  leads me to the idea the world is ordained through evolution for our becoming. It’s ordered for beings like humans and the evolutionary path from chemistry to mankind is built into nature.

This view was widely held before Darwin. Everybody believed in evolution according to natural law, which is very similar to my view. Of course, my view is very much refined after 150 years of biological discoveries, but there’s a definite similarity there.

I don’t discount contingency in nature. I think a lot of the adaptation of living things has probably come about through natural selection. Once you say the universe is fit for our existence, some basic ground plans must be part of nature. They’re the core nodes on the evolutionary picture. The adaptations might be variable. If the vertebrates did occur on another planet, for example, there might be no whales or no horses. But the predestination for higher forms of life is all built into the natural system.

Q: How does this fit with a religious view of life?

This is consistent with the Christian world view. I’m not very religious myself. I came from a Christan family but I consider myself somewhat agnostic about any specific religious claims. Certainly this is essentially a way of defending the anthropocentric view. It certainly does suggest we have some special place in nature, that our ontology is part of the ontology of the world itself. That would also suggest we must, in our being, reflect something of ultimate reality, whether it’s the Christian version of that or whatever it is.

The universe could have been created by a divine mind or being to bring into existence beings that reflect itself. That’s a very conventional theological view. On the other hand, you could take Plato’s view in Timaeus that the actual world is a self-created living entity in which all parts of being reflect the ultimate being of the living eternal cosmos itself. That’s a pantheistic view. In terms of the scientific evidence and the predeterminism I’m talking about, I don’t think that you can really distinguish  between these two possibilities.

darwinm-portraitThere are two problems with this argument for different parts of Christianity. Creationists don’t like this view because it erases the need for divine intervention. You’ve got the laws of nature forcing evolution along certain channels and you’ve got selection doing the adaption of these forms, so you can get to mankind without any intervention whatever. Liberal theologians don’t like it because it’s far too Aristotelian, far too conventional in its implications. You’d think it would be taken up more to justify the Christian faith and reconcie it with the evolutionary world view. But maybe it is more along the lines of Plato’s Timeaus, because it has no interventions at all.

Q: Why is self-organisation important?

You cannot account for biological systems without assuming there’s a lot of self-organisation in them. For example, cells have a self-organising boundary. If you put a hole in a cell, it seals up. It doesn’t need a complex system telling it that it’s got a hole, it just automatically seals it. All the cell has to do is make the amino acid chain. Then nature takes it into the form of the fold and natural selection adapts it  for a function. I think all life in the cosmos, whether carbon-based or any other form of life, would have to exploit self-organising systems. It would have to get some of its order for free. This puts Darwinism in a very difficult position. Those self-organising properties of different bits of biomatter can’t have been given by Darwinian evolution because that just builds contingent systems.

Q: Why couldn’t self-organisation have evolved?

I cant say it couldn’t, you can never say that. But I feel very strongly the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of the idea that all self-organisation of matter is inherent from the beginning. We haven’t found any way to make contingent systems self-organising.

Q: So how did life come about?

In the Darwinian idea, you’d first have chemistry and then a bit-by-bit accumulation of fortuitous changes. But before you get to a system that can replicate securely and yet accommodate a bit of change, you can’t really have Darwinian evolution. So how do you get to the first cell? My hunch is that there is probably a unique path to the cell that exploits some unknown self-organising properties of matter. If there were many routes and they were easy to take, we would have found some by now. I think we have to postulate that the origin of life involves some as yet unknown self-organising properties of matter. That’s my hunch, and if that’s not true, then I think you’re going to have special creation. You can quote me on that. It’s either some unknown special self-organising process or it’s creation.

Q: What do you think of “intelligent design” now?

I have some sympathy with the intelligent design movement. I can see their point.  But in the end, I think natural self-organising matter plus natural selection can probably explain it. I don’t like the attitude of the Darwinian establishment towards intelligent designers because one thing the Darwinist establishment certainly can’t explain is the origin of life. That’s for sure. Probably special creation is better than what they’ve got. That’s almost like confessing a murder, I know, but I don’t mind being quoted on that. Because I personally see so much fitness in the cosmos for the ends of life, then that it is at least compatible with a design hypothesis like Aristotle or Aquinas. I’m quite irritated by the way the Darwinists claim they have all the answers. I don’t think they can explain the fitness of the universe for life. They can’t explain the origin of life. So I think they should be a little bit more humble.


Darwin exhibition in Lisbon, 12 Feb 2009/Jose Manuel Ribeiro

Both sides are ignoring the whole structural tradition. Neither side can explain the persistent non-adaptive patterns in nature. Richard Owen said if God had made every species, he wouldn’t have made all these patterns. Darwin said it was hopeless trying to explain this. If it’s hopeless explaining it in terms of selection, it’s hopeless explaining it in terms of creation. Organisms have all this baggage in them.

Creationists will often tell you that, before Darwin, nobody believed in evolution. This is nonsense. What was different between pre-Darwin and Darwinian biology was the causal basis of the order of life. Before Darwin, there were two causes, natural law and adaptation, and after Darwin there was only adaptation.

The Darwinists seem to be claiming that because there is evidence for evolution, that means Darwinian causation has been secured. This is nonsense — just because you see a pattern of evolution in the tree of life doesn’t mean to say it was caused by natural selection. Young earth creation is beyond comprehension. Natural selection was a brilliant idea. I have enormous respect for Darwin. But the Darwinian synthesis is not a complete picture. You have to bring in other factors to account for the evolution of life.

Q: So you think there are biological laws that Darwinist evolution ignores?

Structuralists before Darwin believed biology was lawful, like chemistry and physics. My hope would be that eventually biology will be shown to have laws that derive in some way from the laws of chemistry and physics. At the level of proteins, you can see there are laws of form emerging. My academic dream would be to show that one particular microcosm within the biological world was deducible completely from physics. I’d love to show that with protein folds, if you have the 100 folds given by physics law you can reach all by selection. That means that, from knowledge of amino acid chains, you can predict the protein universe from first principles and all its adaptive functions. That would be crossing a huge Rubicon. What is probably true of the proteins will probably be true of the rest of biology in the end.

Here’s a video of Michael Denton explaining why he wants to “go beyond Darwinism.”

What do you think? Does this take the debate further? Does it sound like a credible way to accept evolution but still see some purpose in nature?

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I would like to see the interviews, which are said to be on page two, but I cannot see the link to it.

Posted by davidcochran | Report as abusive

Evolution can’t explain patterns in nature? Absolute bunk.

There is a reason why common forms of animal exist in nature. Because not all forms are equal in utility or success. Natural selection shows how certain aspects will be more successful in lifeforms, hence these aspects are likely to be more common.

So a scientist claiming that evolution doesn’t explain convergent evolution is just as odd as a scientist saying that evolution as a process is random.

This has nothing to do with going ‘beyond’ Darwin.

This is probably just another attempt to insert the concepts of design into evolutionary theory. Design implies designer. Designer implies supernatural. Supernatural implies religion.

If so, its been tried before. And people are wise to it.

Posted by defcon86 | Report as abusive

You lost me at “you can begin to question the fact that evolution is unpredictable.” Who ever said that evolution is unpredictable? Evolution is an optimisation process for non-linear systems that happens to be very robust at finding locally optimal solutions. If such a solution exists, evolution will very likely find it sooner or later. That’s hardly what “unpreditable” means in the mouths of coffee table book authors.

Asking why many species have similar eyes (while many others don’t) is no different to asking why all Formula 1 cars look alike (while Le Mans cars look different).

Posted by IanKemmish | Report as abusive

Same old slop. They try to rephrase it to make it sound new. They call us “neo-atheists” as a way to denigrate the ancient tradition of laughing at the fool who comes down from the mountain babbling about his hallucinations.

Posted by oranpf | Report as abusive

To claim that Darwin could not explain underlying order and patterns found in nature is putting a huge burden on Charles Darwin, who never claimed to have a “theory of everything”. People don’t understand that there is more to this debate than just Darwinian evolution and God.

D J Wray

Posted by djwray | Report as abusive