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.
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.
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.