By Robert Deyes
As far as discussions and debates on evolutionary thought go, 1981 was to be a memorable year. Not only was it the centennial celebration of the British Natural History museum in London but it was also the beginning of a new exhibition on Charles Darwin that opened at the museum to commemorate the anniversary (Ref 1). Colin Patterson, who died in 1998 and who was the scientific officer in the museum's paleontology department at the time, was critical of the way that evolutionists had used cladistics (Ref 1). Patterson thought it 'strange' that phylogenetic groups could be generated on the assumption that as-of-yet unidentified organisms that had already gone extinct had at one time existed (Ref 1). Indeed Patterson called such phylogenetic groups, "the inventions of evolutionists"- a charge that only fueled the fury of many a Darwinian protagonist at the time (Ref 1).
In 1997, sixteen years after the inauguration of the Darwin exhibition, a scientific meeting was held in Paris to discuss the most up to date findings of evolutionary biology (Ref 2). The meeting drew some of the heavyweights in the evolutionary debate such as Gaylord Simpson and Patterson himself. Under the illustrious title of 'Molecules and Morphology in Systematics', the meeting promised much to those aware of the discordance of the 1980s (Ref 2). Yet ironically the meeting only served to illustrate the severity of conflict that still prevailed amongst taxonomists and systematists over the precise forms of their hypothetical evolutionary trees. In his Science review of the meeting, Michael Balter did not underestimate the magnitude of the discordance when he pointed out that, "few groups of plants or animals have had their evolutionary or phylogenetic trees worked out with complete confidence" (Ref 2). This time the focus was not on how morphological data compared to the fossil evidence so much as on how it compared to the most recent molecular studies. Rather than resolving many of the incongruencies, the meeting served to underpin the ongoing struggle to get any sort of agreement between these two sets of measurements (Ref 2).
Those who visit the Natural History Museum in London today will not find any remnants of the controversy that centered around the Charles Darwin exhibition in the early 1980s. Nor will they see any mention of the conflicts in data that were so evident a decade ago. Yet controversy there was and a perusal through the letters to Nature during that time period reveals just how heated opinions and views became. The 'Museum of Errors', as the late neo-Darwinist Beverly Halstead called the Natural History Museum, led him to "raise the alarm" as he sought to "ensure the survival of the museum's reputation for scholarship in its public galleries" (Ref 3). What really seemed to anger Halstead was the museum's assumption that, as far as human evolution was concerned, no species in the fossil record could be considered to be in any way ancestral to any other. As he saw it, this particular aspect of the exhibition directly contravened the mounting fossil evidence. After all Homo erectus appeared to be the clear ancestral predecessor of Homo Sapiens (Ref 3). However, the museum clearly had a very different opinion on the matter:
"The Homo erectus people were not quite like us.....the Homo erectus skull has several characteristics that the modern skull does not share. Because of these special characteristics, we think that the Homo erectus people were not our direct ancestors" (Ref 3)
Halstead seemingly irritated by this grave insult to neo-Darwinists, turned towards the political arena as he equated the museum's position to the "tenets of the Marxist-Leninist party" in which change occurs not gradually but rather quickly and abruptly in a revolutionary style (Ref 3). In Halstead's view, the Marxists were quietly approving of any evidence for a saltationary progression of evolution as this would finally provide a scientific basis for their socio-political position (Ref 3). Halstead's letter read like a cigarette packet- that 'Marxism can seriously damage your Health' was the underlying message of his letter as he warned of the grave consequences to the British educational system if this alternative cladistic approach became the accepted view (Ref 3).
So what relevance did the socio-political argument have in discussions concerning the objectivity of science? This was precisely the point raised by the geologist Michael Benton in response to Halstead's letter when he wrote that, "the political argument is....really, a diversion from the main issue" (Ref 4). As Benton went on to add, politics should not affect the progress of scientific research. The Nature journal's own editorial in February of 1981 pointed out that Halstead's belief of a capture by Marxist Ideologies could not be sustained (Ref 5). Curiously the social impact of Darwinism, also known as the doctrine of Socio-Darwinism, has become increasingly popular as a way of justifying a "dog-eat-dog world" in which "we should celebrate the 'survival of the fittest', as it provides a means of constantly improving the human stock" (Ref 6, p.79).
That crucial evidence had been omitted in support of the Homo erectus/Homo sapiens transition was the sticking point in Halstead's argument as he accused the museum of leaving out "ugly facts" lest they should "slay beautiful hypotheses" (Ref 3). Despite Halstead's intense criticism, the museum was initially silent to accusations that the its managers had perhaps lost their nerve. Nature's editorial on the controversy invoked a feeling of disbelief at the museum's assertions that evolution was still a matter in doubt (Ref 5). Amidst such a climate, one in which a major pillar of evolutionary theory was being so severely challenged, it is no wonder that neo-Darwinists such as Halstead were eager to thwart any impression that the public might gain that the gradual progression of Darwinism was in doubt. After all, if the public got wind of the idea that a saltationist-type alternative had been proposed by evolutionary biologists to overcome the insufficiencies of gradual progression, Darwinism would be irreparably marred. Indeed today other aspects of evolutionary theory seem to be built on suppositions that are unproven. On the subject of macroevolutionary extrapolation, for example, Cornelius Hunter had this to say
"No one has yet proven that small-scale change does not extrapolate to large-scale evolution, but this does not mean that small change does add up to large change. But because no hard limit to modification can be found, evolutionists feel free to use small-scale change as evidence for evolution. The use of small-scale change as evidence for large-scale change is based on speculation....Obviously it is questionable to use such minor variation....to justify mammals arising from reptiles." (Ref 7, pp. 58-59).
As William Dembski has noted "the Darwinian just-so stories that attempt to account for complex, information-rich biological structures [have become] incantations that give the illusion of solving a problem" (Ref 8, p. 368). David Quammen would do well not to dismiss the challenges to natural selection as an "honest confusion and ignorance" from people who have only a haphazard understanding of Darwinism (Ref 9, p.6). After all, the inconsistencies in the data revealed in the 1980's and 1990's still continue to plague contemporary evolutionary biology(Ref 10). Indeed today there are a growing number of professional scientists who have trouble accepting the dogmatic precepts of Darwinian theory (Ref 11).
1. Gareth Nelson (1998), Colin Patterson (1933-98): Paleontologist-reformer of the fossil record Volume 394 p.626
2. Michael Balter (1997), Morphologist Learn To Live With Molecular Upstarts, Science Volume 276 p.1032
3. L.B. Halstead (1980), 'Museum of Errors', Letter to Nature, Nature Volume 288 p.208
4. Michael J. Benton (1981), Letter to Nature, Nature Volume 289 p.106
5. The Nature Editorial dealing specifically with the discussion on the saltationist interpretation of the Natural History Museum's Public Services Department can be found in Nature, Volume 289 (1981). Title of the Editorial is "Darwin's Death in South Kensington"
6. Niles Eldredge (1987), Life Pulse: Episodes From The Story of The Fossil Record, Facts On File Publications, New York
7. Cornelius Hunter (2001) Darwin's God, Evolution and the Problem of Evil, Brazos Press, A division of Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan
8. William Dembski (2002), No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, MD
9. David Quammen (2004), Was Darwin Wrong? National Geographic Magazine, November 2004 pp.4-31
10. David Bottjer (2005), The Early Evolution of Animals, Scientific American, August 10th, 2005
Please note that a discussion in Spanish on the controversy surrounding the Darwin Exhibition at the British Natural History Museum can be found at http://www.sedin.org/propesp/X0086_07.htm
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