8. Evolutionary Biology as a Source of Friction and Exemplar for Theory

By Watts, Barry D. | McNair Papers, October 1996 | Go to article overview

8. Evolutionary Biology as a Source of Friction and Exemplar for Theory


Watts, Barry D., McNair Papers


The previous chapter utilized evolutionary biology to open the door to the possibility that the spatial-temporal inaccessibility of certain information argues that human beings and their institutions can neither eliminate all uncertainty about the higher level effects of future combat interactions, nor substantially reduce the magnitude of such uncertainties beyond the limits set by dispersed information and tacit knowledge. This chapter has two aims: first, to consider evolutionary biology as a source of general friction in its own right; and, second, to explore whether evolutionary biology may offer a better model for a "scientific" theory of war than quantitative sciences like physics.

On the current reading of fragmentary evidence from diverse fields, the human family, genus Homo, emerged some 2-3 million years ago in Africa, east of the Rift Valley in response, initially, to geographic isolation and, spurred by subsequent climatic pressures, evolved rapidly toward modern man. Homo sapiens (1) Since the mid-1980s, when consensus finally emerged concerning the evidence of the molecular and fossil records, the last great step in human evolution from "archaic" Homo sapiens to "early modern" man is estimated to have occurred between 45,000 and 90,000 years ago. (2)

These observations presume that Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was onto something important when he published The Origins of the Species in 1859. Darwin's core evolutionary thesis was that the rich diversity of living species making up the Earth's biosphere had come about "chiefly through the natural selection of numerous successive, slight, favorable variations; aided in an important manner by the inherited effects of the use and disuse of parts; and in an unimportant manner, that is in relation to adaptive structures, whether past or present, by the direct action of external conditions, and by variations which seem to us in our ignorance to arise spontaneously." (3)

Darwin's core idea will not be defended here beyond two observations. First, The Origins of the Species contained large gaps "that have only recently begun to be properly filled in," the most fundamental being the absence of the concept of the gene as a discrete unit ofparticulate inheritance. (4) Though the basic idea had appeared in an obscure Austrian journal by the monk Gregor Mendel in 1865, Darwin himself never hit upon the concept of a gene or any adequate theory of inheritance. This most serious gap in Darwin's original theory was not filled in until the early 1930s when the statistician and biologist R. A. Fisher and his colleagues worked out modern population genetics. (5) There were, of course, other weaknesses in Darwin's formulation of descent by natural selection. While most of these remaining weaknesses were overcom during the 1940s through the work of Theodosius Dobzhansky, Julian Huxley, Ernst Mayr, and others, it has "taken another half-century to iron out most of the wrinkles" in the fabric of the modern synthesis, nee-Darwinism. (6)

Second, notwithstanding much sentiment and strong opinion to the contrary, neo-Darwimsm is about as secure as any scientific theory ever has been or could be. True, vigorous controversies remain in evolutionary theory, not the least of which is how self-replicating molecules could have initially emerged. Nonetheless, these controversies are matters of "just science," meaning that no matter how they turn out they "will not undo the basic Darwinian idea." (7) As the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould observed in 1994: "Natural selection is an immensely powerful yet beautifully simple theory that has held up remarkably well, under intense and unrelenting scrutiny and testing, for 135 years." (8) An indication of just how secure core Darwinism (the minimal theory that biological evolution is guided in adoptively nonrandom directions by the nonrandom survival of random hereditary changes) is can be gleaned from Richard Dawkins' 1991 argument that it is the only known empirical theory capable, even in principle, "of solving that most difficult of problems posed by life anywhere in the universe, namely, the problem of the existence of adaptive complexity. …

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