Natural Selection: Domains, Levels, and Challenges

By George C. Williams | Go to book overview

9
Stasis

Critics of the theory of natural selection since its first announcement have attacked it with a time-shortage argument. How could one really believe that accidental variations could combine to produce anything as complex as an amoeba, let alone a human being, in even the most liberal estimate of the duration of the Earth's history? The critics offer such analogies as: how long would you have to wait for a monkey playing with a typewriter to produce a perfect copy of Hamlet's soliloquy? They thus show how totally they have failed to understand the logical structure of the theory. They fail to see the elementary distinction between evolution by the survival of the fittest, and spontaneous generation followed by survival or extinction. This folly misleads not only the untutored, but can be found in the publications of supposedly expert scholars. Waddington ( 1953) provides one example, the book Mathematical Challenges to the neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution ( Moorhead and Kaplan 1985) several others.

I am sure I could get a monkey (or preferably a logistically less demanding but equally illiterate computer) to compose Hamlet's soliloquy in a few minutes. I need only impose a program of artificial selection that would preserve everything the computer-monkey did that made its cumulative effort resemble Hamlet's words more closely, and reject all changes that decreased the resemblance. The idea of producing some specified text by the editing of randomly placed symbols may now be an obvious analogy to the Darwinian process ( Ruse 1982, p. 308; Dawkins 1989). I first heard it suggested by F. E. Warburton about 1965.

But correcting the main misunderstanding does not get rid of the question of the adequacy of geological time. Is a few billion years enough for the evolutionary process to produce the complexity and diversity of life that we now find? I believe that the intuitive answer to this question, for many educated people, is no. Mammals and insects and trees are so endlessly complicated, from the grossest down to the most microscopic

-127-

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Natural Selection: Domains, Levels, and Challenges
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface vii
  • Contents ix
  • 1 - A philosophical position 3
  • 2 - The gene as a unit of selection 10
  • 3 - Clade selection and macroevolution 23
  • 4 - Levels of selection among interactors 38
  • 5 - Optimization and related concepts 56
  • 6 - Historicity and constraint 72
  • 7 - Diversity within and among populations 89
  • 8 - Some recent issues 106
  • 9 - Stasis 127
  • 10 - Other challenges and anomalies 143
  • References 154
  • Appendix: Excerpts from some classic works on adaptation 190
  • Index 203
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