Field of Science

Darwin wasn't really a gradualist

John Taylor, dept., og biology, University of Victoria, sent this email today to the EvolDir mailing list:
The title of Richard Bateman's upcoming lecture is "Gradualism: Darwin's big mistake?".

I may be jumping the gun, the question mark hints at a lecture debunking this myth (though the abstract suggests something else), but I can't help but express some frustration over the habit of evolutionary biologists of enhancing their research programs (or presidential lectures) by claiming to address mistakes or solve difficulties in the Origin of Species.

Darwin had no problem with rapid evolution.

Page 148: ".... a new and improved variety might be quickly formed on any one spot, ...."

Page 310: "I may here recall a remark formerly made, namely that it might require a long succession of ages to adapt an organism to some new and peculiar line of life, for instance to fly through the air; but when this had been effected, and a few species had thus acquired a great advantage over other organisms, a comparatively short time would be necessary to produce many divergent forms, which would be able to spread rapidly and widely throughout the world."

Page 318: "There is some reason to believe that organisms, considered high in the scale of nature, change more quickly than those that are low: ...."

And then there's the first chapter, Variation under domestication. It sets up the whole argument and it is a discussion about variation between different sheep herds and about dog breeds. Darwin remarks (page 93) that "King Charles's spaniel has been unconsciously modified to a large extent since the time of that monarch".

Let's give the man a little rope. The common view in 1859, according to Darwin, was the immutability of species. That gradualism was emphasized shouldn't be surprising in this context.
Kevin Padian has pounded this myth before, too.

9 December 2009 - 6.00pm
The President's Talk
Professor Richard Bateman, RBG Kew
Gradualism: Darwin's greatest mistake?
The Linnean Society, Burlington House, London, UK


  1. This "claiming to address mistakes of solve difficulties in the Origin of Species" is doubly-frustrating because, even though the perpetrators may not always realize it, the reason this is so provocative is because of the persistence of Creationist thinking.

    I mean, could you imagine an astrophysicist presenting a new paper entitled, "New Observed Phenomenon in Quasars: Copernicus was wrong!"? No, because nobody gives a shit about debunking Copernicus. Well, maybe astrologists, I guess...

    I suppose you do see the "Einstein was wrong!" meme a bit, too..

  2. ... because of the persistence of Creationist thinking.

    Yes, there is that, however, what I wrote before.

  3. Meh, I happen to have agreed with PZ on that post. Like I say, you don't see "Copernicus was wrong!" in every paper on astrophysics.

    However, I whole-heartedly agree with you about the comments on Pharyngula. I barely comment there anymore because I can't take it. The worst was when he had a post about Mormons doing baptism for the dead. Having been raised Mormon, I commented along the lines of, "Yeah, that's pretty lame, but having done them, I can tell you that if you see it in action it's more silly and inane than it is sinister or creepy. What is far worse is that the Mormons do X and Y and Z. We should really be more pissed about that." Next thing I know, I'm being accused by a couple of regulars of being a Mormon sympathizer, still under their spell, etcetera, because I was "defending" baptism for the dead. Um......

    Yeah, that was it for me. I'm pretty outspoken about my opposition to the Mormon church, and it breaks my heart that my parents spend hundreds of dollars each month in tithing to an organization that I consider a hate group, while they balked at buying some high-end cloth diapers for the baby shower for their first grandchild. Actually, shit, I wish I hadn't brought that up...

    Anyway, yeah, Pharyngulites... I'll pass.

  4. Meh, I happen to have agreed with PZ on that post. Like I say, you don't see "Copernicus was wrong!" in every paper on astrophysics.

    But there is a difference. Darwin posited many things about evolution, some of which are contentious still, and therefore it maeks sense to say when he was wrong about particular things. The same goes for Einstein (and people try), and for Newton (but that's been doen already), but not really for Copernicus (beating a dead horse already - he pretty much said just one thing that anybody remembers anymore). If you find that someone (anyone) was wrong about something, it is your prerogative to say so, all concerns about how creationists, or AGW deniers, HIV/AIDS denisers, etc. will cease it aside.


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