Now one could say, at the risk of some superficiality, that there exist principally two types of scientists. The ones, and they are rare, wish to understand the world, to know nature; the others, much more frequent, wish to explain it. The first are searching for truth, often with the knowledge that they will not attain it; the second strive for plausibility, for the achievement of an intellectually consistent, and hence successful, view of the world. To the ones, nature reveals itself in lyrical intensity, to the others in logical clarity, and they are the masters of the world.
Erwin Chargaff, Preface to a Grammar of Biology (1971)
An important corollary of Natural Design is that modern evolutionary theory is lacking in key regards, contrary to the widespread belief that our understanding of evolution is now complete in all but its finest details. This is not the case; Darwin himself had no idea how complex and multifaceted the matter was and key parts of his theory, long admired and cherished for their elegant simplicity and indisputable truth, have over time evolved and undergone adaptation. For instance, the role of natural selection—the most fundamental aspect of Darwin’s theory—is being revisited and its status as evolution’s primary driver called into question. (It is now accepted belief that several factors are at work, each of which is subject to selective pressures.) As well, by the time Darwin’s ideas had gained widespread acceptance, no one had yet given serious thought to the evolution of physiological processes and systems. Complex biomolecules such as DNA, unknown at the time, also have evolutionary histories. Natural Design offers a new angle on such matters.
Before tackling these convoluted topics, a historical overview of how modern evolutionary theory took shape will provide useful perspective. This will be followed by a look into scientific materialism—a stance based on the assumption that all phenomena are solely the result of physical (“material”) matter being acted on by natural laws, nothing more—and how this approach became the basis for all scientific methodology. Again, this is pertinent to the Natural Design viewpoint.
The two bedrock assumptions that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is founded on are that there can be random variations in genetic material (mutations) which can lead to adaptations that in turn might improve an organism’s chances of survival. The late paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, summarizing its main tenets: “First, that all organisms produce more offspring than can possibly survive; second, that all organisms within a species vary, one from the other; third, that at least some of this variation is inherited by offspring. From these three facts, we infer the principal of natural selection: since only some of the offspring can survive, on average the survivors will be those variants that, by good fortune, are better adapted to changing local environments. Since these offspring will inherit the favorable variations of their parents, organisms of the next generation will, on average, become better adapted to local conditions.”
During the two decades Charles Darwin spent working out his ground-breaking theory, neither he nor any of his peers had any idea how unimaginably complex the manifold workings of life actually were. As an illustration of how little was understood it that era: German biologist Ernst Haeckel, a contemporary and great admirer of Darwin’s, believed that the cell (still a little-known entity) was “not composed of any organs at all, but consist[ed] entirely of shapeless, simple, homogeneous matter…nothing more than a shapeless, mobile, little lump of mucus or slime….”
While Darwin was slowly and meticulously refining his ideas following the voyage of the Beagle, a congenial and self-effacing Austrian friar was growing pea plants in his abbey’s garden. Over the course of eight years, Gregor Mendel patiently reared almost 30,000 plants while piecing together the foundation of modern genetics.[1
Due to a number of adverse historical circumstances, Mendel’s far-reaching insights went unrecognized for nearly half a century. Significantly, after all his painstaking labor and meticulous recording of data, the priest’s findings were made known solely through two public lectures followed by a paper submitted to the Proceedings of the Natural Science Society of Brünn. Aside from that one obscure 1866 publication, Mendel personally distributed 40 reprints of the treatise to suitable people and…his seminal research quickly all but disappeared. It was ignored by fellow botanists, who found themselves confused about the object of it all. They perceived the work as being merely about hybridization (animal breeding and horticulture being a feature of their day-to-day lives), and were put off by Mendel’s perplexing reliance on numbers. While this might seem odd today, scientifically rigorous experimentation involving statistics was a foreign concept to biologists of that era.
Mendel’s efforts were largely forgotten until 1900, when three European plant physiologists, independently performing similar experiments, simultaneously brought to light the friar’s enormous contribution to science. Mendel’s treatise Experiments with Plant Hybrids had been published seven years after the first edition of On the Origin of Species came out but, despite an apocryphal story that Darwin owned a copy but never read it, there is no evidence he was aware of the work. (Many scholars believe that Darwin, whose mathematical skills were poor, in all likelihood would not have recognized its implications.) Mendel, long in poor health, died at only sixty-one. All his papers, all his scrupulous documentation, were carted out to a hill behind the abbey shortly after his death and unceremoniously burned.
Once brought to light, Mendel’s ideas rapidly gained traction. Early geneticists debated a growing number of conflicts with Darwinian precepts. These were based in part on the realization that Mendel’s laws had shown that inheritence was a material affair that could be tested by experiment, not the result of Darwin’s more abstract and somewhat nebulous selective process. Many believed that traits were inherited in the form of discrete units, which could be accounted for by the newly discovered phenomenon of mutation (rather than a measured blending as called for by natural selection).
The discovery of genes as “particulate” units of inheritance had a huge effect on accelerating evolutionary research. In the 1920s and 30s, following the acceptance of chromosome theory, a new discipline emerged: population genetics (the study, heavy on statistical analysis, of how traits arise and move through populations). Thanks largely to work by two Britons—statistician Ronald Fischer and biologist J.B.S. Haldane—and American geneticist Sewall Wright, Mendelian genetics and the concept of evolution by natural selection were finally integrated: a unification that became feasible only after it was finally recognized that the gradual, steady modification central to Darwin’s theory was entirely compatible with Mendel’s axioms. This paved a way to resolve various disputes that had been intensifying for some time.
These conflicts were for the most part put to rest during the course of an international symposium held at Princeton in 1947, shortly after WW II’s travel restrictions had lifted. It became known as the modern Darwinian synthesis. The synthesis was basically a set of ideas that were assertively championed by bird taxonomist-cum-evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr and several of his chief collaborators in America, notably paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, expatriate Soviet geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, and botanist G. Ledyard Stebbins—all prominent experts in their fields. In England, well-known biologist and science popularizer Julian Huxley (grandson of Thomas, “Darwin’s bulldog) used his public visibility to spread the word, in particular in promoting his vision of human progress through evolution.
Up until that time, researchers working in disciplines such as paleontology, systematics, and natural history were neither in close communication nor sharing their findings. To some extent, these areas were all influenced by Darwinian theory (even though many of his ideas had long since fallen out of favor). The specific disciplines’ views on evolutionary agencies and their relative importance had diverged; each was starting to attribute different meanings to established concepts and use different terminology to describe them. Some had even formed their own evolutionary theories. Population-level thinking had not yet taken hold. Of even greater concern, paleontologists were actually at odds with the concept of natural selection—a consequence of not seeing the gradual changes required by its precepts reflected in their established fossil records. Those working with population genetics were convinced they had finally found a way to connect the different disciplines.
The symposium, considered a great success, united many branches of biology under one common evolutionary umbrella that (according to Gould) “validated natural selection as a powerful causative agent and raised it from a former status as one of a contender among many to a central position among mechanisms of change.” This had been the gathering’s intended goal. Mayr made clear that the intention of the synthesis was no less than a means to “designate the general acceptance of two conclusions: gradual evolution can be explained in terms of small genetic changes (‘mutations’) and recombination, and the ordering of this genetic variation by natural selection; and the observed evolutionary phenomena, particularly macroevolutionary processes and speciation, can be explained in a manner that is consistent with known genetic mechanisms.”
The true significance and influence of natural selection was still being debated until Dobzhansky reaffirmed its primacy with the publication of his book Genetics and the Origin of Species in 1937—a critical, solidifying event in the movement’s early development. The alliance thereafter commonly became known as “the synthesis” (although, in time it became known—somewhat erroneously—as neo-Darwinism.) However, like Darwin and his contemporaries, Mayr and his esteemed colleagues had little notion of the real complexities lying beneath the surface of their various disciplines. Microbiology was in its infancy and the helical structure of DNA was yet to be revealed. No botanists ecologists, or embryologists had attended the symposium and new findings in those fields and others would muddy the water for years to come.
Due in part to the strong personalities and fervor of neo-Darwinism’s promoters, from its outset the movement was infused with a zealousness that made it notably resistant to change—an ironic misfortune, since all the scientific branches concerned were in flux. By the 1950s the movement started to move away from the pluralism of the 1930s and 40s in favor of an almost complete emphasis on adaptationism (the view that many traits are the result of evolution through natural selection). The synthesis entered a phase of intellectual rigidity—what Gould later christened “the hardening.” What had set out as a collaborative integration began to exclude and marginalize.
The following decades witnessed a flood of new information and ideas, some of which received a great deal of resistance. Only fifty years later, leading experts became increasingly aware that the modern synthesis was in serious need of modernization. While it has taken time, it is now becoming widely recognized that evolutionary theory is a considerably less straightforward matter than was previously assumed, with problematic questions still surfacing. For one thing, we now know that natural selection is but one of a number of influences driving the whole process. Also, during this same period there has been a parallel broadening of perspective with regard to the evolutionary aspects of all branches of biology. Thanks to the arcane strangeness of quantum theory, a growing understanding of the microscopic realm, and the newly revealed universe of the cell, we have arrived at a more sophisticated appreciation of nature’s subtleties and complexities. The entire framework of the way we view life has shifted. But it remains a work in progress.
©2017 Tim Forsell 19 Nov 2017
 Properly speaking, Mendel was from Moravia, a historic region in what is now the Czech Republic. Many misconceptions surround Mendel and his work: for one, he was a friar—not a monk—and lived not at a monastery but at an abbey, among a community of very talented and learned men. (Moravia, in the early 1800s, was ahead of its time in promoting the power of science in order to improve social and economic conditions and was a region known for its advanced animal breeding and horticulture.) Another thing: it was a happy coincidence that Mendel chose to work with pea plants. He had no way of knowing that the traits he chose to follow were controlled by genes found on different chromosomes and those traits also happened to denote distinct, unambiguous features not typically displayed in such regular fashion.
 Mendel and his peers were well-acquainted with Darwin’s work. (Mendel had a well-worn copy of Origin.)
 The complicated story of the simultaneous “rediscovery” of Mendel’s research is somewhat out of the scope of this work but quite intriguing. Mendel’s obscure publication had been passed around by a few plant breeders. Among those who had read the paper were Dutchman Hugo de Vries, German Carl Correns, and Austrian Erich von Tschermak. Working independently, each achieved in their own experiments results similar to Mendel’s. Correns barely missed out on beating de Vries to publication and there is evidence that both intended to claim discovery of what became known as Mendel’s Law (the 3:1 ratio of dominant versus recessive characteristics generated by the hybridization of two purebred strains). Coincidently, de Vries sent Correns a copy of his newly published article, written for a French journal, that made no mention of Mendel. Correns was just then putting the last touches on his own manuscript and, bitter at having been upstaged, hurriedly finished his own paper and sent it to the German Botanical Society for publication. Correns made a point of crediting Mendel with the 3:1 law’s discovery to undercut de Vries’ claim to priority; whether or not he intended to do the same is still debated. But, unbeknownst to Correns, de Vries had already sent his paper to the German Botanical Society and, in this version, had credited Mendel. Thus was Mendel’s work rediscovered and handed over to science.
 Dobzhansky was the first geneticist to work in the field with natural populations. He “helped to establish population genetics as the empirical field that provided the long-missing piece to the original Darwinian puzzle.”
 George Romanes, a protégé of Darwin’s, “coined the term neo-Darwinism to refer to the version of evolution advocated by Alfred Russell Wallace and August Weismann with its heavy dependence on natural selection…[rejecting] the Lamarckian idea of inheritance of acquired characteristics” (a commonly held notion of the era that Darwin himself had embraced).