Who’d be sufficiently qualified to check out the prevailing theory of evolution? How about this? Education: Radley College and Trinity College, Cambridge. Career: journalist, culminating in becoming Chief Science Advisor to BBC Television. Research: fifteen books, including a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club (“The Biological Time Bomb”). And how about having him devote the final two years of his life to the job? Meet Gordon Rattray Taylor.
"The fact of evolution is not in question. What is in question is how it occurred and whether natural selection explains more than a small part of it. As we shall see, a great many eminent biologists have raised this question but such has been the confidence and aggressiveness of the Old Guard that their views have been swept under the carpet and ignored…. Unfortunately biologists tend to confine themselves to their specialty, so that the facts which convinced them are dispersed in many scientific papers. I try here to bring some of them together for assessment.”
Darwin’s critics complained he first came up with his theory of natural selection, then looked for illustrations to support it. Taylor counters with the same tactic; doubting natural selection he comes up just as many illustrations, drawn from the scientific literature, to challenge it. To feel the force of his argument you have to read the entire text. Just as in Darwin’s writings, individual illustrations may not withstand criticism, it’s the weight of evidence that’s convincing. This makes Taylor’s book a nice complement to that of Gertrude Himmelfarb.
Being so dense with illustrations, quotes and arguments drawn from the scientific literature Taylor’s book is hard to summarize. Halfway through, though, Taylor provided this list of “a dozen areas where the theory of evolution by natural selection seems either inadequate, implausible or definitely wrong”:
(1) The suddenness with which major changes in pattern occurred and the virtual absence of any fossil remains from the period in which they were alleged to be evolving.
(2) The suddenness with which new forms “radiated” into numerous variants.
(3) The suddenness of many extinctions and the lack of obvious reasons for such extinctions.
(4) The repeated occurrences of changes calling for numerous coordinated innovations, both at the level of organs and of complete organisms.
(5) The variations in the speed at which evolution occurred.
(6) The fact that subsequently no new phyla have appeared, and no new classes and orders. This fact, which has been much ignored, is perhaps the most powerful of all arguments against Darwin’s generalization.
(7) The occurrence of parallel and convergent evolution, in which similar structures evolve in quite different circumstances.
(8) The existence of long-term trends (orthogenesis).
(9) The appearance of organs before they are needed (pre-adaptation).
(10) The appearance of “overshoot” or evolutionary “momentum.”
(11) The puzzle of how organs, once evolved, came to be lost (degeneration).
(12) The failure of some organism to evolve at all.
Some chapter subtitles may help communicate the breadth of his challenge: What Lamarck said; Major steps in evolution [animal evolution seems to have occurred top down beginning with phylla]; Why is evolution so jerky?; Did Darwin account for coordinated change? [no]; The directiveness of evolution; Did Darwin explain the origin of species? [no]; Can geneticists rescue evolutionists? [no]. Despite its density his text is easy to read.
As the book goes along, it increasingly refers to “planning.” Uh-Oh! I thought. Am I going to get a nasty surprise in the final chapter, “Chance of Purpose?”
Actually, no. Taylor does not resort to a Teilhard de Chardin-like mysticism to account for evolution’s meaning. Instead he abstracts the detailed objections covered in earlier chapters under five headings:
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1. Neo-Darwinism Assessed. Taylor summarizes the objections he’s detailed elsewhere.
2. Is Evolution Darwinian? Taylor considers the flow of information required for adaptation. “…I want to turn to the vexed question of Lamarckism. It is of central importance, because Lamarck stressed the evolutionary importance of behavior….In the evolution of mammals, it is emphatically the case that adaptation is not so much to new environments as to new modes of life, as evolutionists are slowly coming to realize.” That is, mammals evolve by creating new lifestyles, to which their bodies and genomes then adapt. He sums up this section with “The error biologists have made is to think in terms of simple chains of cause and effect. But, in a system which is equipped with feedbacks, we have systems of decisions which include cause and effect in common. Each part is thus just as much cause as effect.” Emphasis added.
3. Where is Evolution Going? “If there is one solitary fact which emerges distinctly from evolutionary studies it is that evolution is not the execution of a consummate plan, divine or otherwise…. Nevertheless, even if evolution does not express the execution of a plan, it may still have an identifiable trend…. What it does seem to have been (if nothing else) is evolution in complexity… But is growth in complexity the object of the operation or simply an inescapable side-effect?...Darwin put ability to survive as the prime criterion of evolutionary success. But something more than survival seems to be at work. Nothing in Darwin predicts a continuous increase in complexity”
4. Order from Disorder. He introduces the concept of self-assembly. “Nor is self-assembly confined to amino-acid chains….the tubules which the electron microscope reveals in the fine structure of the protoplasm assemble themselves. The raw material of flagella is flagellin. Placed in a dish it rapidly forms itself into isolated flagella. Collagen…assembles itself readily. So do ribosomes, more surprisingly. Many kinds of membranes are self-assembling, and there is some evidence that mitochondria may be.” Taylor briefly refers to Non-equilibrium Thermodynamics and early work of Stewart Kauffman.
5. A Matter of Form. Joseph Needham: “’The central problem of biology is the form problem.’ Alas, it is an unsolved problem and the Australian biologist, W. E. Agar, who has studied it, concludes that how the organism is produced from relatively formless components is ‘the great enigma of biology.’…Until we understand the laws of form we are in no position to say we understand the mechanism of evolution…. Progress has been prevented by the rigid dogmatism of the Neo-Darwinians.”
Taylor ends his text with “…there is a growing recognition that life is more complex, even more mysterious, than we have supposed. The possibility that some things will never be understood no longer seems so frightening as it did. The probability that there are forces at work in the universe of which we have as yet scarcely an inkling is not too bizarre to entertain. This is a step towards the freeing the human mind which is pregnant with promise.”
"The Great Evolution Mystery" is a highly effective response to the question, "Show me any evidence Darwinism isn't the mechanism behind evolution." Reading it can shore up your confidence that there's substantial scientific evidence against the Modern Synthesis. It may even serve, as Newton's "Optics" served physics, as a guide for how to think about evolution