RAGHURAM EKAMBARAM

IN INDIA, the land of the myths of Dasavatharam (which seems to have the logic of evolution built into it - marine to amphibian to land based animals to pygmy to human), it is surprising that Darwinism is still struggling to find acceptance. This was the verdict of P.A. Wahid (Open Page, June 4). A clear misunderstanding or deliberate misrepresentation of what science is, especially biology, seems to be the reason behind this non-acceptance. A clear appreciation of Darwinism cannot but elicit a "wow!" There might not ever be a "eureka" moment, but that is no blot on the field. An unintelligent and substrate neutral procedure has produced an intelligence that seeks to make sense of this process. Is there a more ennobling thought in biology? The field does not allow you to ask simple engineering questions: why it is biceps and not triceps? Why five toes and not four? We are trying to understand what survival benefits did five toes confer that four could not. Or, five toes or four toes might perhaps be just a matter of spandrels (Gould's "Spandrels of San Marco"). Darwinism is a focus on this and only this. No engineering answers.The fact that Darwinism is still (after 150 years) controversial - and so are many other fields in science - is good. It is more than 100 years since energy was quantized and to this day people do not understand what this means. Yes, we can make predictions to an accuracy of zillion decimal places, but no one understands quantum theory. There are enough theories floating around (hidden variables, multiverse ... ), each vying for space in the scientific firmament. We can go still further back. No one understands what gravity is, a failure of at least three centuries! But, as Daniel Dennet says, Darwinism is a dangerous idea with the implication that the others are quite innocuous. Copernicus divested only the earth of its privilege as the centre of the universe and Darwin goes into details and shows that mankind itself is only a way station of evolution.Darwin's statements come to haunt his brainchild, alas. Fossil finds in the past 150 years have continuously helped define and refine the subtleties of evolution. While the recent finding of the fossil of Tiktaalik roseae is momentous, spare a thought for the living Trinidadian guppies that support the mechanisms expounded in Darwinism. Dead men speak no lies, of course, but at least some of the living don't either!

A period of stasis

No gradualist contests Punctuated Equilibrium. It is in the details that differences of opinion arise. It is not a smooth curve of evolution at all scales of viewing - one gene mutating today, another tomorrow and so on, inexorably and with clockwork precision. Gradualism applies to what we may call the evolutionary time scale (macro evolution) and PE, when you look through a temporal microscope (micro evolution). A period of stasis is built into neo-Darwinism.There is a tendency to cite lack of progress in laboratory production of evolution. One must remember that nature had more than three billion years to work its magic and the anti-evolutionists want things done by humans in two decades!Development of science has a sociological component. Principles of science and scientific reasoning moderate shouting matches between competing theories. Checks and balances inherent in the system have worked quite effectively. This system itself has evolved and no high priest of science mandated it. It is a pity that anti-Darwinists/anti-evolutionists do not get much assistance from science. Your name, your position and such do not matter in the long run in science. Listen to Prof. T.S. Kuhn on how science progresses: in fits and starts and not necessarily because the data support one theory and reject the other. Copernican theory supplanted Ptolemy's (both could predict planetary motion equally accurately, to the level supported by observations at that time) because it opened up a wider vista with a simpler structure of theories. Occam's Razor guided the decision of science to shift to heliocentric model. Copernicus could not even shout very loud as he feared the Roman Catholic Church. By the way, only recently, experimental biologists are finding out that there could be an additional mechanism, beyond the DNA, that may convey heredity vertically, across generations. No neo-Darwinist is shouting hoarse against this. They will try to accommodate this new development and rest assured if this conclusively contradicts Darwinism, the theory will go the way of Ptolemy's circles and epi-circles. Yes, Darwinism is struggling for survival. But the reason lies not in itself but in the environment of obduracy it encounters in the minds of people unwilling to be open to disconcerting thoughts - Darwin's dangerous idea. raghurame@gmail.com

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