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Survival of the Adequate? Scientists Meet to Update Darwinism

Times Staff Writer

Sixty years after the Scopes Monkey Trial established Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection in school curricula and the public consciousness, a new group of Doubting Thomases is taking aim at his doctrine of “survival of the fittest.”

The challenge is coming not from biblical Creationists, but from scientists themselves, who gathered in Fullerton last week for a conference to try to reconcile advances in molecular biology, genetics and physics with Darwinism.

“Evolution is not survival of the fittest; it is survival of the adequate,” said zoologist Daniel R. Brooks of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and a leader in the charge on prevailing views of Darwinism.

“It doesn’t mean that what shows up (in nature) is great. It just means it is good enough to survive,” Brooks said at a symposium sponsored by California State University, Fullerton, School of Mathematics, Science and Engineering.

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The two-day conference, attended by more than two dozen prominent biologists, physicists, chemists and biochemists from the United States, Canada and Britain, was the first of its kind to try to plug the gaps in Darwin’s theory of evolution and integrate it with the laws of physics and mathematics, said organizer biologist James Dale Smith.

“This does not mean that Darwinism is dead,” Bruce Weber, a chemistry professor at Cal State, Fullerton, and co-organizer of the symposium. “I think what we are seeing is really the development of a new synthesis that will take place in the next decade.”

Debate has raged around Darwin’s theory for decades, long before the celebrated 1925 trial of high school teacher John T. Scopes in Dayton, Tenn., for teaching evolution to his students. The latest attacks on Darwin have been going on for the last 10 to 15 years.

Its chief problem, according to University of Maryland biologist Eric Schneider, is that evolutionary theory is not a quantifiable, predictable science like mathematics or physics. Darwin, mainly because of the limits of the science and technology of the mid-19th Century, failed to explain “the how and the why” of evolution, he said.

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“What you are seeing is an attempt to put some rigor into Darwinism,” Schneider said.

As refined and popularized in the 1940s by a group that became known as neo-Darwinists, Darwin’s theory of evolution begins with the assumption that evolution has taken place, then proceeds to examine the forces in the external environment that gave direction or order to what would otherwise have been random biological forces.

According to neo-Darwinists, a giraffe, for example, developed its long neck because it was best suited for the type of food to be had in its environment. But detractors of neo-Darwinism argue that although tall trees may have provided a niche for longer-necked hoofed animals in the African plain, the theory does not explain the greater variety of hoofed animals like antelope and deer with short necks that forage in the same area.

Another example, cited by Brooks, is the pepper moth. This predominantly white species of insect became mostly black in color as the effects of industrial pollution were seen in its native area. Once the environment was cleaned up, the pepper moth gradually became predominantly white in color again. Brooks argued that the pepper moth only proves the adaptability of an organism to its environment, not how it becomes a new species.

Brooks and collaborator Edward O. Wiley of the Museum of Natural History at the University of Kansas contend that evolution is fueled more by internal changes of an organism than by forces in the external environment.

It was evident from the spirited and sometimes angry debate that many in the small campus theater disagreed.

“Others of us are saying, if it wasn’t for the sun, the energy from the sun, we wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t be alive,” Schneider said. “Yes, genetics determines the size and shape of those organisms that occur. External forces don’t cause the variations, but they do pick the winner.”

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block is trying to apply laws of physics to biology.

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A universal law of physics, known as the second law of thermodynamics, says that systems by their nature break down into disorder. Yet biological organisms have evolved in the opposite direction, from simple bacteria to the highly complex human brain.

For neo-Darwinists, it was enough to say that the laws of physics didn’t apply.

For the new breed of scientists, natural selection alone was an inadequate explanation for evolution; physical laws somehow had to apply to living organisms.

“This conference is about connecting life with laws of nature,” said biochemist Jeffrey S. Wicken of Behren College at Pennsylvania State University, who, like Brooks and Wiley, has been attempting to apply laws of physics to the process of evolution.

“We are trying to show that the same laws which govern the physical universe also govern the origin and evolution of life,” Wicken said.

According to some, however, the conference was actually “a meaningless argument over semantics.”

“This is really irrelevant to the practice of biology,” said biochemist Daniel E. Atkinson of UCLA.

Lionel G. Harrison, a chemistry professor at the University of British Columbia, laughed and said: “A great many definitions were flying about in there. . . . But, you know, I think they’re getting closer to the truth.”

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