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Darwin's Spectre

Darwin's Spectre: Evolutionary Biology in the Modern World

Copyright Date: 1998
Pages: 288
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    Darwin's Spectre
    Book Description:

    Extending the human life-span past 120 years. The "green" revolution. Evolution and human psychology. These subjects make today's newspaper headlines. Yet much of the science underlying these topics stems from a book published nearly 140 years ago--Charles Darwin'sOn the Origin of Species. Far from an antique idea restricted to the nineteenth century, the theory of evolution is one of the most potent concepts in all of modern science.

    InDarwin's Spectre, Michael Rose provides the general reader with an introduction to the theory of evolution: its beginning with Darwin, its key concepts, and how it may affect us in the future. First comes a brief biographical sketch of Darwin. Next, Rose gives a primer on the three most important concepts in evolutionary theory--variation, selection, and adaptation. With a firm grasp of these concepts, the reader is ready to look at modern applications of evolutionary theory. Discussing agriculture, Rose shows how even before Darwin farmers and ranchers unknowingly experimented with evolution. Medical research, however, has ignored Darwin's lessons until recently, with potentially grave consequences. Finally, evolution supplies important new vantage points on human nature. If humans weren't created by deities, then our nature may be determined more by evolution than we have understood. Or it may not be. In this question, as in many others, the Darwinian perspective is one of the most important for understanding human affairs in the modern world.

    Darwin's Spectreexplains how evolutionary biology has been used to support both valuable applied research, particularly in agriculture, and truly frightening objectives, such as Nazi eugenics. Darwin's legacy has been a comfort and a scourge. But it has never been irrelevant.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2263-8
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-6)

    A spectre is haunting the modern world, Darwin’s Spectre, Darwinism. This spectre has frightened religious ministers, curdled school curricula, and left the politically correct ill-at-ease. The rhetoric and posturing have been long sustained, from the nineteenth-century clash of Bishop Wilberforce and T. H. Huxley over Darwin’sOrigin of Speciesto the Scopes monkey trial in Tennessee in 1925 to the Scientific Creationists of the 1980s, who attempted to legislate the teaching of biblical doctrines in juxtaposition to Darwinism. Alone among modern scientific doctrines, Darwinism has upset many beyond the academy. It has had enemies on the right and the left,...


    • Introduction to part one
      (pp. 9-10)

      This first part sketches Darwinian science, starting with the career of Darwinism’s great founder. There are three major issues in evolutionary biology: the nature of heredity, the operation of selection, and the pattern of evolution. Each of these issues has a long intellectual history, predating Darwin. Some of that history will be supplied here, to the extent that it helps clarify the ideas. History for its own sake will not be prominently featured, despite the low regard that historians have for the introduction of historical material couched in terms of present-day significance. Beyond their historical development, I strive to summarize...

    • 1 DARWIN: The Reluctant Revolutionary
      (pp. 11-28)

      Darwinism is an outgrowth of the mind of Charles Robert Darwin. There is still no experience more bracing for a young evolutionary biologist than reading Darwin’s own words, particularly hisOrigin of Species. Thus the starting point for any discussion of Darwinism must be the man himself, as he grew up in Regency England. To some extent, this is a refreshing story, because Darwin was no intimidating prodigy. He was a sound lad growing up in the landed gentry, a better character for a romance novel than science fiction. And yet, there is much in his background that points directly...

    • 2 HEREDITY: The Problem of Variation
      (pp. 29-47)

      The hardest thing to understand about biology is the importance of variation. There are probably several reasons for this. One may be human psychology. It is easier for us to think in terms of homogeneous classes of things, rather than heterogeneous sets of things. If we count out three plastic yellow ducks for our toddler, then we are implicitly conveying the idea that they are the same thing, which is of course illusory. The yellow ducks are bound to be different from each other, at least in subtle ways.

      Another problem is that the foundations of science were defined by...

    • 3 SELECTION: Nature Red in Tooth and Claw
      (pp. 48-74)

      And so, inevitably, we turn to the idea of natural selection, an idea that Darwin finally made intellectually unavoidable. If Darwin’s role in the study of heredity was to set the stage for Mendel and the geneticists, with respect to the concept of selection he did far more. Indeed, much modern scientific reasoning about selection remains very close to the level that Darwin reached within his lifetime.

      The greatness of this achievement can be understood best in terms of the historical leap that Darwin’s work was. In all of human history before the publication of theOrigin of Speciesin...

    • 4 EVOLUTION: The Tree of Life
      (pp. 75-92)

      Evolution is the unfolding of heredity and selection to make the canvas of life. But long-term evolution, which an evolutionary biologist usually expects to produce most of the important events in the history of life, is one of the most difficult areas for the application of Darwinism. This arises not because biology can’t explain much of evolution in principle. After all, Darwinism supplies the only well-attested model for how evolution works. The difficulties arise instead because we are usually in no position to gather enough data about the mechanisms of long-term evolution. We don’t have time machines. How are we...


    • Introduction to part two
      (pp. 95-96)

      Darwinism is more than a great scientific tradition. It is also one of the important influences on the material lives of those who live, and have lived, in the modern world. There is nothing unusual about this. All successful science has material consequences. Only unsuccessful science is without power or application.

      The most important of the applications of Darwinism is the most mundane: modern agriculture. There has long been exchange of people, ideas, and findings between agriculture and Darwinism, dating back to Darwin’s own research. Since WWII, much of the great success of agriculture has been due to the application...

    • 5 AGRICULTURE: Malthus Postponed
      (pp. 97-109)

      One of the least known impacts of Darwinism has been its effect on agriculture. Darwin derived much of his biological knowledge from agriculture, and the flow of information back from Darwinism to agriculture has since been considerable. Some of the leading practitioners of Darwinism have worked primarily within an agricultural research context.¹ The present chapter is a brief attempt to redress the neglect of agriculture by most historians of Darwinism.

      Our focus will be the single most important issue in agriculture, the extent to which it can keep up with the burgeoning human population brought about by the successes of...

    • 6 MEDICINE: Dying of Ignorance
      (pp. 110-133)

      Darwinians often encounter M.D.s who have biological opinions that are discordant with basic evolutionary research. Among the most important of these is the idea of “old age” being an inevitable wearing-out of body parts, essentially unchangeable. Another is the notion that all the symptoms associated with disease are necessarily pathological. Still another is the idea that all striking deviations from the norm are disease-states. And these examples could be multiplied.

      The prevalence of these half-baked and ill-formed ideas has recently provoked George C. Williams and Randolph M. Nesse, among others, to reformulate medicine on Darwinian foundations, an effort called “Darwinian...

    • 7 EUGENICS: Promethean Darwinism
      (pp. 134-146)

      According to Greek mythology, Prometheus was the most brilliant of the Titans, so Zeus gave him the task of creating humanity. Because the Titans had been subjugated by the new Olympian Gods, led by Zeus, Prometheus sought to humble these new gods by giving men greater powers than Zeus had intended. So it was that, in the course of equipping the human species for its life, Prometheus went up to heaven to get fire from the sun and bestowed the gift of fire upon mankind. This generous gift of fire incurred the wrath of Zeus, who had Prometheus chained to...


    • Introduction to part three
      (pp. 149-150)

      This part of the book contrasts two major evolutionary theories for human behavior. The first of these theories is based on the idea that human behavior evolves in terms of very specific selective situations, giving actions that can be well understood in terms of evolutionary theory. On this type of model, we are animals with more elaborate behavior patterns than those of other animals. But these are still essentially animal behavior patterns that are shaped by the same Darwinian imperatives, in both human and animal. This type of theory has been called “evolutionary psychology.” This theory is based on an...

    • 8 ORIGINS: From Baboons to Archbishops
      (pp. 151-166)

      What could be more natural than turning to evolutionary biology for a proper scientific story to explain human origins and human nature? Unhappily, it turns out that human origins are more murky on an evolutionary accounting than in myths about mother beaver-gods and father sky-gods. Part of this murk is due to the technical difficulty of literally unearthing the evolutionary history of any single species from geological sediment. Another part is the heavy load of prejudice and hope that humans bring to their origins. Both of these problems were illustrated by a famous hoax, the Piltdown Man found in England...

    • 9 PSYCHE: Darwinism Meets Film Noir
      (pp. 167-183)

      The issue at stake is the relevance of Darwinism to the understanding of human behavior. Given the premise of Darwinian evolution, what can we infer about the nature of the human mind and the behavior that it produces? Given the difficulty of reasoning from basic neurobiology to our complex behavior, Darwinism might be an alternative foundation for understanding human nature. Or it might not.

      Mainstream evolutionary geneticists have been running away from this issue for decades, despite the great interest of nonspecialists. Recently, it has been zoologists and anthropologists who have wanted to explain human behavior using Darwinism, despite the...

    • 10 SOCIETY: Ideology as Biology
      (pp. 184-201)

      Evolutionary theories as presumptive as those of evolutionary psychology and immanent Darwinism define, or at least circumscribe, human nature. The human natures that these different theories entail in turn define, or circumscribe, the possibilities for human societies. To take an extreme case, the nature of sea anemones defines the kind of society that sea anemones can have, an extremely limited one. Biology must provide the ultimate constraints on society, even if these constraints are extremely lax for some species.

      This intellectual issue isn’t as odd or as novel as it might seem. There are long-standing traditions of economic theory and...

    • 11 RELIGION: The Spectre Haunting
      (pp. 202-209)

      Religion and evolution seem to be linked together in the public eye, like few other issues. It is interesting to ask how this came to be, and what is its significance.

      Western civilization up until the time of Isaac Newton had a number of simple, powerful, and widely accepted beliefs which brought together almost all educated members of society. These were as follows. God had created the material world according to a divine plan. Men were creatures of spirit and flesh, only the latter being mortal. The world had been created to last only a short period before Final Judgment....

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 210-212)

    At the end of it all, is it better to have known about Darwinism? Would mankind have been better off thinking that we all came from Adam and Eve, or a bear that mated with itself? Does Darwinism help our moral character, or hurt us? Is it any easier to find peace between religious sects, now that no one can reasonably suppose that religion is the best guide to our biology or our origins?

    The case for Darwinism cannot be based on any edification that is supposed to come from its truths. Through eugenics, Darwinism was a bad influence on...

  9. Bibliographic material and notes
    (pp. 213-228)
  10. Index
    (pp. 229-233)