Posts Tagged ‘Neo-Darwinism’

Karl Wilhelm Nageli and Purposeful Mutation

November 11, 2018

I found this very interesting piece on the 19th century biologist, Karl Wilhelm Nageli, and August Weismann in Richard L. Gregory’s Mind In Science (London: Penguin 1981). The modern theory of evolution, NeoDarwinism, is essentially a mixture of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection mixed with Mendelian genetics. Roughly speaking, it views evolution as proceeding through random mutations. These supply the variations in species on which natural selection works, weeding out those varieties that don’t help the species to survive. Those that do, or at least don’t stop it surviving, are preserved and retained. Thus the little alterations in the characteristics of different species are created, which gradually accumulate over millennia and millions of years to produce new species of creature.

Darwin, however, didn’t know about heredity, which was introduced into his evolutionary theory by Weismann. He had developed the germ plasm theory, which was the precursor to the modern theory of DNA, famously discovered by Crick and Watson. Darwin also didn’t know about mutations either. He believed that heredity was a blending of the characteristics of the parents. I’ve got a feeling this was one of the arguments his opponents may have used against his theory, and that Darwin probably recognized the weakness of his theory there. At the time Darwin proposed his theory of evolution, I don’t think he was properly able to account for the emergence of novel characteristics in living creatures, on which natural selection acted.

It was Karl Wilhelm Nageli, who did this by introducing mutations into evolutionary theory, while rejecting Darwin’s idea of Natural Selection. Unlike evolutionary biologists after him, however, Nageli believed that these mutations had a purpose. It was the Dutch biologist Hugo de Vries, who introduced Mendelian genetics and the variation of characteristics into Darwinian evolutionary theory. Gregory explains it thus:

Neo-Darwinism adds to Darwinian Natural Selection a theory of heredity, which is itself derived from the, at the time (and perhaps still), controversial writings of the German biologist August Weismann (1834-1914). His papers (1868-76), translated into English as Studies in the Theory of Descent, (1882) proposed properties of a germ plasm which are similar to the fundamental doctrine of molecular biology, that information can only genetically pass from coded DNA to messenger RNA, and not the other way round. This genetic ‘diode’ rejects Lamarckian inheritance of individually acquired knowledge, or adaptive behavior. But we jump ahead, for Darwin had no knowledge of genes or mutations of genes.

The concept of evolution by mutational jumps is due to a Swiss botanist, Karl Wilhelm Nageli (1817). Nageli however rejected Darwin’s theory, for he supposed that there is a purpose in the direction of the jumps. He is heavily criticized for failing to appreciate the significance of Mendel’s work. He was shown the manuscript of Mendel’s paper describing his experiments on the breeding of giant and dwarf peas; his lack of interest is supposed to have prevented the work becoming known so that genetics was held up by some fifty years. Nageli’s concept of mutational jumps, but without built-in directional purpose, was developed by De Vries early in the present century.

Gregor Johan Mendel (1822-84) was an Augustinian monk. At the Abbey of St Thomas in Brunn, [Brno] he carried out his plant-breeding experiments, which depended on counting the proportions of tall and dwarf peas obtained by self-pollination. He found that the varieties did not converge to a medium-height pea plant, but that the tall and dwarf characteristics were maintained, and potentially present, in each variety. This was immensely important for Darwin’s theory, but unfortunately Darwin never came to hear of it.

The mutation theory was developed by the Dutch botanist Hugo De Vreis (1848-1935) who approached Mendel’s discovery by seeing that something like it was needed to give the variataion necessary for Natural Selection. He proposed that different characteristics might vary independently, and recombine in different ways. So was born the atomic-characteristic theory of inheritance, which later was embodied in gene and chromosome code structures – from which in turn developed modern molecular biology with the discovery by Francis Crick (b. 1916) and James Watson (b. 1928) of the structure of the long helical molecules of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). This, by replication, gives the physical basis of inheritance. Random change of the DNA structure give the variation necessary for Natural Selection. The drama of this discovery is superbly presented by Watson in The Double Helix (1968). (pp. 170-1).

Back in the 1980s, the astronomers Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe attacked Darwinian evolutionary theory in their book, Evolution from Space. In their previous book, Life Cloud, they had argued that life on Earth was seeded on Earth from space. While it’s an unorthodox theory, many scientists do believe that such panspermia, as it’s called, is a possibility. And the amino acids which form the basic building blocks of organic life has been found in meteorites, on Saturn’s moon, Titan, and in the nebulae, the clouds of dust and gas in space. What is far more controversial, and has been rejected by nearly all scientists, is their theory in Evolution from Space that the chance of organic life arising on Earth, and developing through Darwinian evolution, is so minute that evolution has to be directed by alien civilisations seeding space with the necessary genetic material.

In one passage in Evolution from Space, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe take the incidence of mutations in every generation, only a minority of which could be beneficial, and the combined length of time from the split, early in our evolutionary history, between the hominid lineage and the common ancestor of chimpanzees and gorillas 9 million years to argue that even this amount of time is insufficient to produce modern Homo Sapiens Sapiens, modern humanity. I’ve no doubt that this was immensely controversial and has been widely criticized and dismissed. It’s been taken up again more recently by the Intelligent Design people. And it wasn’t the weirdest of Hoyle’s and Wickramasinghe’s ideas. I think they also believed that the civilisations seeding this genetic material were computers in parallel universes. But if they are right after all, and random mutation can’t account for the development of the vast variety of living creatures we see around us, then it may be that it proceeds through purposeful mutations after all.

Going back to Nageli, even if his own theory of evolution has been discarded except for the idea of mutational jumps, I would far, far rather believe that evolution and the mutations necessary for it were shaped and guided by a loving creator, than are simply the result of blind chance as describes by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Blind Watchmaker.

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UKIP, Islamophobia and the Loud Atheism Website

April 18, 2015

On Thursday, Hope Not Hate published a piece UKIP’s Stretford & Urmston Candidate Thinks Islam is “Despicable” reporting that Kalvin Chapman, the UKIP parliamentary candidate for Stretford and Urmston, Kalvin Chapman, had posted a comment on the ‘Loud Atheism’ Facebook page attacking Islam. He described it as a ‘despicable’ and ‘f***ed up’.

The article’s at http://www.hopenothate.org.uk/ukip/ukip-s-stretford-urmston-candidate-thinks-islam-is-despicable-4397, if you want to see it.

Now I have the impression that this is pretty much par for the course for much of the ‘New Atheist’ movement. This is the form of organised atheism that emerged in late decade, led by Richard Dawkins, Sue Blackmore, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel C. Dennett. The movements critics have pointed out that by and large the New Atheism didn’t have any new arguments, except perhaps an extension of Darwinian theory to try and explain religious belief. In the case of Sue Blackmore and Daniel C. Dennett, it had an extremely reductive view of human consciousness that saw it as being nothing more than a series of biological computer programmes. Sue Blackmore in particular took this to its most logically absurd extent and denied consciousness actually existed.

If the arguments were largely the same, traditional arguments used against religious belief and organised religion, the presentation was quite different. It was much more vicious, vitriolic and intolerant. Atheist movements in the past have persecuted organised religion. Religious belief in the former Communist bloc was severely limited and fiercely persecuted, with religious believers killed or sent to forced labour camps. In the former Soviet Union the penalty for holding a religious service in your own home would see you arrested and your house demolished.

The older, atheist tradition in the West could be much more genteel. Angry revolutionaries like the Surrealist film-maker Bunuel and his counterparts could and did make blasphemous films and art attacking organised religion in general and Roman Catholicism in particular. In the 1950s they held a mock trial of the Roman Catholic church in a disused church just outside Paris, while the Surrealists’ leader, Andre Breton, wrote an article denouncing recent attempts to combine surrealism with Christianity, entitled ‘To Your Kennels, Curs of God’.

Against this, there were atheist intellectuals like A.J. Ayer and Ludovik Kennedy, who were much less personally abusive. Kennedy when he appeared on Mark Lamarr’s chat show, Lamarr’s Attacks, in the 1990s, was courteous and polite. A.J. Ayer became friends with a Jesuit priest after having a Near Death Experience choking on a piece of fish in hospital. It didn’t make him become a religious believer, but the incident does show that people of differing and opposed religious views needn’t be personal enemies.

The New Atheism, by contrast, was much more aggressive, with a far greater use of invective. Rather than merely being attacked intellectually, religious and religious belief should be actively discouraged and given much less tolerance. Richard Dawkins has been quoted by his critics as saying that religious believers should be humiliated and shamed into abandoning their beliefs.

The result of this is that some atheist websites have a reputation for abuse and invective, like P.Z. Myers’ The Panda’s Thumb, set up to defend evolution from creationism, and Raving Atheism. I was warned off the latter by a friend, who said it was just atheists being extremely blasphemous and abusive for the sake of it.

To be fair, this approach has its critics from within the atheist movement, many of whom are genuinely shocked at how extreme and bitterly intolerant the New Atheist rhetoric is. A few years ago one atheist writer published an article in one of the papers actually saying that Richard Dawkins’ made him ashamed to be an atheist. And within the last couple of years in particular a strain of Islamophobia has emerged within the New Atheist movement. Again, this has been exemplified by Richard Dawkins, who become the subject of further controversy because of his posts and tweets attacking Islam, particularly the low status of women in Islamic countries and Female Genital Mutilation. Chapman’s comments about Islam are part of this strand of New Atheism.

And the fear of Islam, or at least radical Islamism, may have been one of the catalysts of the New Atheism from the start. I was talking to a friend of mine a while ago about the origins of the New Atheism. I thought it was a reaction to the growth of Creationism and Intelligent Design, which recognises the emergence of new species over time, but claims this is due to the intervention of intelligent agencies, rather than the mechanism of random mutation and natural selection, suggested by Neo-Darwinian theory. I also wondered if it was also due to the accession to the Presidency of George ‘Dubya’, an Evangelical Christian, and the increasing power and influence of the Christian religious right in American politics.

My friend took a different view. He believed it was a reaction to 9/11 and the rise of aggressive Islamic terrorist movements, like al-Qaeda, and radical and aggressive Islamic political movements within the largely secular West, such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir. He stated that some of Atheists’, Agnostics’ and Secularists’ Societies set up on university campus in practice were little more than anti-Islam societies.

Now I don’t know how true this is. The AAS at Bristol University did not seem to be particularly interested in Islam, only in attacking religion in general. The events and lectures it organised seemed generally disrespectful, such as a social evening in which members were encouraged to dress up as their favourite religious figure. One of their lectures was a general account of traditional, religious beliefs about the creation of the world from antiquity onwards.

Now I do believe that if you are going to criticise religion, then this should extend to all religions, rather than just Christianity as the former majority, mainstream religion of the West. However, in the case of Islam at the moment, such criticism has become extremely dangerous. It can easily lead to the persecution of innocents, including racist attacks and the demonization of Islam generally because of the atrocities committed by the Islamist militants. This in turn may fuel the alienation and resentment in Muslim communities, and further the Islamists’ goal of their further radicalisation.

In the case of Chapman, I’m not surprised that his post against Islam was particularly splenetic, given the title of the website on which it was posted. What is worrying is that it comes from a prospective parliamentary candidate for a party that has developed a reputation for racism and a bitter hostility to Islam.