An intriguing development in recent evolutionary thought has been the growing repudiation of neo-Darwinian orthodoxy (that is, the idea of slow and gradual evolution, accomplished by the mechanism of small random genetic mutations preserved by natural selection) in favor of the idea of rapid evolution caused by rapid environmental changes. Instead of arguing solely against evolutionary uniformitarianism, the creationist is now having to argue also against catastrophic evolutionism!
In recent years, creationists have delivered telling blows against Darwinian paleontology by repeatedly citing the ubiquitous absence of transitional forms in the fossil record.
Since 1859 one of the most vexing properties of the fossil record has been its obvious imperfection.… The inability of the fossil record to produce the 'missing links' has been taken as solid evidence for disbelieving the theory.1
Similarly, creationists have argued effectively against uniformitarianism by pointing out the widespread evidence of catastrophism in the ad" rocks and fossil beds of the geological column.
In fact, the catastrophists were much more empirically minded than Lyell. The geologic record does seem to require catastrophism: rocks are fractured and contorted; whole faunas are wiped out. To circumvent this literal appearance, Lyell imposed his imagination upon the evidence. The geologic record, he argued, is extremely imperfect and we must interpolate into it what we can reasonably infer but cannot see. The catastrophists were the hard-nosed empiricists of their day, not the blinded theological apologists.2
So, all of a sudden, many—perhaps most—evolutionary biologists are no longer claiming that natural selection was a major factor in the development of basic categories of plants and animals. Many leading evolutionary paleontologists are aggressively proclaiming the absence of transitional forms in the fossil record, and many evolutionary geologists are advocating a return to catastrophism in the study of the rocks! What creationists have been vigorously contending against heated denials, evolutionists now cheerfully admit to have been true all along!
Does this mean they are all becoming creationists? No, of course not. Some, such as Pierre Grassé,3 have simply stated that they have no idea how evolution could have occurred, even though they still believe in it. In the hands of others, however, evolutionism is a remarkably plastic philosophy. The model merely has to be changed to accommodate rapid evolution, instead of slow and gradual evolution. The reign of Huxley, Simpson, Mayr, Stebbins, and Dobzhansky has passed and we enter the age of Lewontin, Gould, Ager, and others of the newer school. Long live evolution!
Probably the leading proponent of the new model is the young Harvard paleontologist and philosopher of science, Stephen Jay Gould. A brilliant writer, he has produced a stream of books and articles on many subjects in recent years and has all but demolished both traditional geological uniformitarianism and orthodox neo-Darwinism. The following statements are typical Gouldisms:
Contrary to popular myths, Darwin and Lyell were not the heroes of true science.… Paleontologists have paid an exorbitant price for Darwin's argument. We fancy ourselves as the only true students of life's history, yet to preserve our favored account of evolution by natural selection we view our data as so bad that we never see the very process we profess to study.4 All paleontologists know that the fossil record contains precious little in the way of intermediate forms; transitions between major groups are characteristically abrupt.5
Gould and his former Harvard colleague, Niles Eldredge (now at the American Museum of Natural History), have developed what they call their theory of "punctuated equilibrium," according to which large populations of organisms are normally genetically stable for a long time, except for occasional "punctuations." These are relatively short periods of time during which inbreeding within small "founder" populations, with rapid environmental changes, stimulates rapid evolutionary change.
There can obviously be little experimental evidence for such a theory, but its critics grudgingly acknowledge its popularity.
The Eldredge-Gould concept of punctuated equilibria has gained wide acceptance among paleontologists.… The model is more ad hoc explanation than theory, and it rests on shaky ground. Paleontologists seem to be enthralled by small populations.… I hasten to point out that ecologists and geneticists have not elucidated macroevolutionary patterns: the gap has not been bridged from either side.6
Another prolific young geologist in Gould's camp has shown that the paleontological data, traditionally interpreted in terms of increasing adaptation and natural selection over the ages, can be organized just as well in terms of pure chance assemblages of fossils:
If we allow that natural selection works, as we almost have to do, the fossil record doesn't tell us whether it was responsible for 90 percent of the change we see, or 9 percent, or 0.9 percent.7 The fossil record of evolution is amenable to a wide variety of models ranging from completely deterministic to completely stochastic.8
The term "stochastic" means essentially "random" and Raup and his colleagues have shown by computer simulations that the fossil patterns throughout the so-called geologic ages can be attributed to random variations and extinctions, without the need of natural selection, at least not in terms of a gradual step-by-step improvement. Ricklefs emphasizes this aspect of the record:
Indeed, the success of Monte Carlo simulations of evolutionary patterns and R.H. MacArthur's "broken-stick" model of the relative abundances of species point out the similarities between natural patterns and randomly generated systems. It is not clear that an understanding of deterministic processes and both internally and externally imposed constraints will necessarily elucidate macroevolution.9
The explosive evolutionary "punctuations" which do occur from time to time in the postulated small populations are believed by Ager and others to be associated somehow with geological catastrophism. Derek Ager is past president of the British Geological Association and believes neither in the Bible nor in creationism. However, he has shown that all geologic features must be explained in terms of catastrophism, rather than uniformitarianism, and he maintains that this ties in with the fossil gaps stressed by Gould and Eldredge.
The point emerges that, if we examine the fossil record in detail, whether at the level of orders or of species, we find—over and over again—not gradual evolution, but the sudden explosion of one group at the expense of another.10
In other words, the history of any one part of the earth, like the life of a soldier, consists of long periods of boredom and short periods of terror.11
Ager and other modern geologic catastrophists do not, of course, believe in the worldwide Flood of the Bible, but rather that intermittent regional catastrophes throughout the geological ages account for all the actual formations and structures in the geologic column.
But the idea that the marvelous array of intricately complex and highly adapted organisms in the world could have developed rapidly from simpler organisms in catastrophically changing environments is contrary to all experience and reason. Simple systems never evolve naturally into complex systems. By the Second Law of Thermodynamics, changes go in exactly the opposite direction; complex systems always tend to degenerate into simple systems. Furthermore, catastrophic environments merely accelerate the decay of such systems. By the standard thermodynamics of heat flow, for example, an influx of heat energy into an open system will increase the entropy of that system more rapidly than if it were an isolated system. How, then, is it even conceivable that evolution could proceed by any such mechanism as this?
As a matter of fact, however, Ilya Prigogine, who received a Nobel Prize in 1977 for his work in non-equilibrium thermodynamics, has made just such a proposal, based on his analyses. That is, he has developed a mathematical theory for what he calls "dissipative structures" in fluids, in which a high flow of energy through an open system (with consequent high energy dissipation) somehow generates a higher degree of order in that system, even in the midst of an over-all increase of entropy. This suggestion has been eagerly appropriated by evolutionists, since it seems to give them a slight ray of hope that the Second Law of Thermodynamics may not preclude evolution after all. However, Prigogine himself has acknowledged that his actual data had no direct confirmation from living systems at all, so that his ideas on the origin of life and on evolution in general, are mere speculations at this time.
Prigogine's theory is couched in highly mathematical terminology and is difficult to follow in detail. Qualitatively, however, he speaks of "order through fluctuations" in systems "far from equilibrium," systems in which unusually chaotic conditions somehow may result in structures of higher order in small portions of those systems. (For a brief rebuttal of Prigogine's theories as a basis for evolution, see "Impact" articles 57 and 58, in Acts and Facts for March and April, 1978).
This theme occurs with increasing frequency in many diverse fields today. Richard Lewontin, leading population geneticist at Harvard, has rejected the Darwinist concept of struggle and survival, even at the genetic level,12 and M.I.T.'s Noam Chomsky, recognized as the world's foremost linguist, stresses that there is no evolutionary transition between the noises of animals and the speech of humans.13 The current concept of evolution at all levels (human and nonhuman) is, typically, one of large stable populations in which recombination and adaptation normally operate in an egalitarian milieu punctuated at rare intervals in small select groups by rapid evolution to a higher order, probably through large random mutations stimulated by catastrophically changing environments.
The amazing aspect of this emerging consensus is that it is not based on any direct scientific evidence, but only on lack of evidence! Since there are no intermediate forms, the reasoning goes, evolution must occur rapidly. All systems tend to become disordered, so higher order must somehow arise out of the chaos of a more rapidly disintegrating system! Where, pray tell, have all the scientists gone?
The answer may be that they have gone into politics! Russian-born Ilya Prigogine, for example, now at the University of Texas and the University of Brussels, has made a remarkable leap of faith with his dissipative structure equations and he and his followers are seeking to apply them to problems of social change.
Prigogine's work has long been of interest to systems theorists seeking to apply the logic of their fields to global problems. One such scientist is Ervin Laszlo of the United Nations. "What I see Prigogine doing," says Laszlo, "is giving legitimization to the process of evolution—self-organization under conditions of change.… Its analogy to social systems and evolution could be very fruitful.14
Beyond its direct scientific application, Dr. Prigogine's work seems to him to imply a physical principle never fully perceived before—a fundamental impetus inexorably pushing life and humanity to further evolution and complexity, for better or worse, perhaps even against man's will.15
Even more overtly political is the Harvard-M.I.T. group whose spokesmen seem to be Gould and Lewontin.
If gradualism is more a product of Western thought than a fact of nature, then we should consider alternative philosophies of change to enlarge our realm of constraining prejudices. In the Soviet Union, for example, scientists are trained with a very different philosophy of change—the so-called dialectical laws, reformulated by Engels from Hegel's philosophy. The dialectical laws are explicitly punctuational.… Eldredge and I were fascinated to learn that more Russian paleontologists support a model very similar to our punctuated equilibria. The connection cannot be accidental.16
Well, he said so himself! Gould is a self-proclaimed Marxist, as are Lewontin and Chomsky, so it is not overly surprising that their concepts of what might be called "revolutionary evolution" coincide with the Marxian dialectic and with Soviet "philosophies of change."
Tom Bethel, of Harper's magazine, has written a penetrating analysis of these remarkable recent shifts in evolutionary philosophy.
No longer is unrestrained competition, once perceived as beneficial to business production and animal production alike, considered acceptable. We now live in a time when lip service, at least, is paid to notions of collective effort and collective security. One can see why Darwinism would upset the Left.… Evolution was nature's eugenics program. How do you think our Marxist biologists like that idea? They don't like it at all.17
It is interesting that these current criticisms of Darwinism are essentially the same that creationists have been making for years and which evolutionists have, until recently, denied. When the racist, connotations of neo-Darwinism, for example, were pointed out by creationists,18 evolutionists became indignant, but now their own colleagues are making the same charge.
These younger evolutionists are even claiming that Darwin himself, as well as the other nineteenth century evolutionists, were politically motivated and were merely forcing their science to support their racial and economic prejudices. They are now doing the same thing themselves, of course, except that their own prejudices are tied to Karl Marx instead of Adam Smith. The remarkable feature of all this is that, despite all the bitterness with which the two evolutionary camps oppose each other, they are perfectly united in their devotion to evolutionary materialism and their opposition to creationism!
The left-wing critique of Darwinism theory has by no means prevailed, but if it should do so, let us also enjoy the fantastic irony that the fundamentalists, who have been trying for more than a hundred years to knock Darwin off his pedestal, without success, will be indebted not to the right-wingers, with whom they have always been aligned, but to biologists whose god is Marx.19
And speaking of irony, please note the quandary faced by evolutionists. The evidences continually cited by creationists have finally been acknowledged and "uniformitarian evolutionism" is being abandoned. The only remaining alternative to creationism is "revolutionary evolutionism," with its magical apparatus of hopeful monsters, big bangs, black holes, dissipative structures, punctuational catastrophes and Marxian dialectic: "Quos Deus vult perdere prius dementat" ("Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.")
1 A. J. Boucot, Evolution and Extinction Rate Controls (Amsterdam, Elsevier Scientific Publishing Co., 1975), p. 196.
2 Stephen Jay Gould, "Catastrophes and Steady-State Earth," Natural History, February 1975, p, 17.
3 Pierre Grassé, The Evolution of Living Organisms (English translation, New York, Academic Press, 1977, 297 pp.). Grassé was called "the most distinguished of all French Zoologists" by America’s leading evolutionist, Theodosius Dobzhansky.
4 Stephen Jay Gould, "Evolution's Erratic Pace," Natural History, Vol. LXXXVI, May 1977, p. 12, 14.
5 Stephen Jay Gould, "The Return of Hopeful Monsters," Natural History, Vol. LXXXVI, June-July 1977, p. 24.
6 Robert E. Ricklefs, "Paleontologists Confronting Macroevolution,"Science, Vol. 199, January 6, 1978, p. 59.
7 David M. Raup, "Conflicts Between Darwin and Paleontology," Bulletin, Field Museum of Natural History, Vol. 50, January 1979, p. 26.
8 David M. Raup, "Probabalistic Models in Evolutionary Paleobiology," American Scientist, Vol. 166, January-February 1977, p. 57.
9 Robert E. Ricklefs, Ibid, p. 60.
10 D. V. Ager, "The Nature of the Fossil Record," Proceedings of the British Geological Association, (Presidential Address), Vol. 87, No. 2, 1976, p. 133.
11 D. V. Ager, The Nature of the Stratigraphical Record (New York, John Wiley & Sons, 1973), p. 100.
12 Richard Lewontin, "Adaptation," Scientific American, Vol. 239, September 1978, pp. 213-230.
13 Noam Chomsky, Language and Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Govanovich, Inc., 1972), pp. 67, 68.
14 Will Lepkowski, "The Social Thermodynamics of Ilya Prigogine," Chemical and Engineering News, April 16, 1979, p. 30.
15 Malcolm W. Browne, "Scientists See A Loophole in the Fatal Law of Physics," New York Times, May 27, 1979, p. C-1.
16 Stephen Jay Gould, "Evolution's Erratic Pace," Natural History, Vol. LXXXVI, May 1977, p. 16.
17 Tom Bethel, "Burning Darwin to Save Marx," Harper’s, December 1978, p. 38.
18 Henry M. Morris, "Evolution and Modem Racism," Acts & Facts, Vol. 11, "Impact Series" No. 7, 1973.
19 Tom Bethel, Ibid., p. 92.
* Dr. Henry M. Morris is the Founder and President Emeritus of the Institute for Creation Research.
Cite this article: Henry M. Morris, Ph.D. 1979. Revolutionary Evolutionism. Acts & Facts. 8 (11).