Armand Leroi (as Chair)
Before I open the floor to questions from the audience, we have some questions from overseas correspondents which I would like to address to each of the panellists. The first comes from Giselle Pissaro from Santiago, Chile, who asks what would have happened had the Origin of Species never have been published? And that I have to say, is a question for Peter.
I have to say this is not a planted question, I just happen to be planning to write a book on this topic. My book is about what would have happened if he’d fell overboard and drowned on the voyage of the Beagle, so there would be no…
Armand Leroi (as Chair)
Would you really start the book that way? An irreverent courtesy, but never mind.
My, the tack I am going to take with this is to presume that without
Armand Leroi (as Chair)
Do any of my other panellists have thoughts on that? Do we really have such, well let’s call it a qualified deterministic view of history, qualified in so far that the outcomes are the same but the order in which it’s happening is different.
I think we’d think about the issues very differently, although the components and the technical level were the same, I think our perception of the issues related to creationism, social Darwinism, or all of those issues, I think we’d have a very different perception. So I'm not saying it would be the same universe represented.
Well I think that that, because you would arrive at basically the same point through a different trajectory, is to me evidence that evolution by natural selection is a fact, like a fact like the earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way around, is we would have arrived at that position, the earth revolving around the sun, had there not been a Galileo. That would have been found out in some kind of way somehow. And the same is true of evolution, and I think that because you could arrive at similar situations through different trajectories, that’s one of the things that you can use to say well this is something that is a fact. And a fact in science is different to a fact in history or anything else, a fact in science is something that has overwhelming support and no one has any evidence against yet, that stands up to other evidence.
I'd just suggest that the banners we march under are often important, and surely the whole progress of thinking about evolution has been influenced by the fact that we were marching under the banner of struggle for existence, survival of the fittest. I'm trying to think of possible alternative paths to the same point. I would like to think that ecology might have developed more clearly and more quickly as a science of interrelations and whole systems if it had had a clearer run. I really don’t know enough about the history of biology to be able to see exactly how it would have worked, but it seems to me that one could have come to our present understanding along that different path, different banner.
Yes, it’s a tricky one. My own thinking probably is that yes, we would believe in natural selection absolutely. It would be regarded as the major force, as a major force for the construction of complex forms, of order. However, shall we say there are, if we can cut the tradition in evolutionary biology in terms of explanation, in terms of what is sometimes called the structuralist tradition, which is mostly associated with the laws of form versus natural selection, those two traditions have been contesting for the central ground of evolutionary biology for a very, very long time. You could even antedate it to the origin and take it back to Plato versus Aristotle if you want, and for us, most of us, especially in this country, natural selection and the domineer traditions, the two large tradition is central, and the structuralist one is a minority. I wonder whether it might have been the other way around.
I think there would have been a lot more structuralism in the late 19th century.
Well if you think about Ernst Haeckel.
And Ernst Haeckel, who was the big populariser of Darwin’s ideas, Haeckel’s books were translated into more languages than were Darwin’s and he was the populariser of what Alfred Russel Wallace called Darwinism, because Wallace is the one who coined the term Darwinism. And Haeckel was very much in the structuralist tradition, he was into what today we would call evo-devo, but he also had this - you know so much of science hinges on personality, so much of human interaction hinges on what people are actually like, and Ernst Haeckel was a very complicated and difficult individual who took on the church in the late 19th century, and that was part of his problem.
Also was very charismatic.
Very, very charismatic, but also complex, difficult, and I would argue that Haeckel was the Dawkins of his day. And so it could have been quite different.
I can remember some of the other non-Darwinian theories were explicitly non-adaptationalist, they tried to rule adaptation out as a major factor. It’s amazing to read some of the biologists of the late 19th century who basically say adaptation is not really that important, though they write into that other formal traditions.
And I think it’s too bad that in a way Ernst Haeckel was, has sort of been sidelined in the history of the acceptance of Darwinian thought, because he was one of the people who really tried to pull those strands together, but possibly due to the way he was didn’t really succeed in a kind of way of pulling the scientific community behind him.
I'm a big Haeckel fan, and I'd love to talk about, but we have to move on.
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Professor EO Wilson's lecture to mark Origin Day
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