The Long View: After Darwin

One of John's best quotes is this:

In 1914, when the century began to manifest its characteristic features, the guiding spirits of the time were Freud and Marx and Darwin and Einstein. In 1989, when in a political sense the 20th century was already over, the guiding spirits of the time were Freud and Marx and Darwin and Einstein. There was no other century of modern times that produced so little new intellectual history. Indeed, all but the earliest part of the Middle Ages was livelier.

It seems impossible, but there is truth here. In some ways, nothing much of note happened in the twentieth century.

Which is not the same thing as saying that nothing has happened at all. There was a great deal of intellectual activity in the twentieth century. It seems that we have shifted our focus in a subtle way, choosing to perfect what we have rather than create the entirely new. In the end, there is a lot to be said for this, because it has made the life of ordinary people better faster than anything else in history. It simply doesn't make for fascinating history.

AFTER DARWIN The ice is beginning to crack on yet another section of the cold surface of modernity. The part of the frozen lake that is breaking up this time is Darwinism, or at any rate Darwinism as a worldview with implications for culture and social policy. As happened in the case of Marx and Freud, we may not like what bubbles to the surface when all the ice finally melts.

The death of Darwinism, it is now pretty clear, will be chaos theory (or "complexity" theory, as the researchers in the young science of emergent order seem to prefer). The problem with Darwinism, as all honest Darwinists have always admitted, is that it has nothing to say about how new features of living things arise or how new instinctual behaviors originate. It has a great deal to say about how natural selection can preserve and refine these things once they appear, of course. The search in the fossil record it inspired for the lineages of living creatures has given our natural science a historical depth that makes our civilization unique. Darwinism is not wrong, it just is not the final answer to the question of how living things originate. We've been looking in the wrong place for the answer. It is not a matter of genes, but of the order that arises spontaneously from simpler units, particularly the geometries of complex molecules.

Even children often notice that the paw and foreleg of a dog are like a very strangely distorted human hand, with the thumb appearing as a useless claw partway up the foreleg. The skeletons of all vertebrates, in fact, have long been known to be variations on a few basic structural themes. Anatomical analogies show up among all classes of living things. These analogies were the basis in the eighteenth century for the comprehensive species classification system drawn up by Carolus Linnaeus. Variations on common anatomical themes do not occur only between species, either. Within individual organisms, sophisticated features grow from the variation of more primitive ones, as illustrated by Goethe's still persuasive derivation of all the major parts of a plant from the basic form of the leaf. A description of nature like this invites the search for common mechanisms in living things to generate the archetypical forms. If biology had maintained this perspective into the next century, however, the search might not have produced fruitful results, since the physics of the time was far from being able to address the question of the spontaneous generation of order. In any event, this way of looking at biology was reduced to a minor theme of scientific thought for several generations as more accessible avenues of research appeared.