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The Meaning of “E V O L U T I O N”
by Alexander Mebane

Is it really true that "all life on Earth has developed by evolution"?  Yes, no, and maybe.  It depends on what meaning you assign to the protean word “evolution”; so we had better begin by exhibiting its possible ambiguities.

I)  The original meaning was the unfolding, or working-out, of something potentially present at the outset, like the unrolling of a written scroll, or the development of an embryo into a baby. (In 1866, Ernst Haeckel made the famous pseudoscientific claim that that development illustrates the evolution of life on Earth ("ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny")—a notion that is no longer taken seriously by anyone.) "Evolution" in this sense would apply to the very implausible hypothesis that all subsequent evolutionary changes were somehow compressed or "pre-programmed" into the very first living cell, so that its later development into the vast "Tree of Life" was no more than the natural unfolding of a future already predetermined in that first ancestral organism, without need of any further causative agents.  This looks so much like a reductio ad absurdum that theorists such as Denton (Nature's Destiny) and Ruffié (Traité du Vivant) would undoubtedly deny advocating any such absurdity--though we ought to recall how obviously "impossible" it looks that a barely-visible fertilized egg, or zygote, could contain within itself, without need for any external direction, all of the agencies needed to transform itself, in nine months, into a human baby!

If life's development is thought to have been directed over time not solely by its origin, yet by some supposedly single and self-consistent external agent (called "God"), we have the picture known as "theistic evolution"—which, since it is interpreted as the unfolding over time of a single consistent intention, might still be called an "evolution" in the original sense of the word.

II)  However, the term "evolution" as now usually understood has come (rather improperly) to designate something quite different: Lamarck/Darwin’s hypothesis that all life-forms have "evolved". by unbroken genealogy, from earlier ones by a process of gradual transformation, thus producing a continuous, though branching, "Tree of Life"—envisioned by Darwin, and also by late Lamarck, as having sprouted from a single primordial “root" organism.  Lamarck, closer to the original definition, had invoked as transforming agent a metaphysical élan vital prompted by an organism's life-experience; but Darwin replaced that by the very important scientific postulate that all transfomations have been affected naturally, by merely accidental gene-altering agencies--of which life-experience is not one.

Does the fossil record prove this continuous metamorphosis to be true, as you have undoubtedly seen asserted?  No. As paleontologists have always known, but only for the past generation have dared to say, it proves it to be false: species do not "gradually evolve” out of earlier ones, but are seen to be suddenly-appearing[1], discrete, and permanently-stable entities.  This really-observed non-Darwinian process has been given (by Gould and Eldredge, 1972) the somewhat opaque name of "punctuated equilibria”.

III) You will sometimes see the word "evolution" employed in a quite different (and really improper and tendentious) third way, as designating merely "the real history of the life-forms that have inhabited Earth, as we can decipher it from the fossils they have left in the rocks".  When evolutionists declare that "evolution is a fact", it is this (illegitimate) sense of the word that they tacitly have in mind; but they hope you will take it in Sense II.

IV) We might retain the name "evolution" (as paleontologists still do[2], though now designating the really-observed process of sudden new-species advents in one discontinuous step, rather than by Darwin/Lamarck's supposed continuous meta-morphosis.  Is this only a modification of Darwin' s Sense-II evolution—or something essentially different?  That depends on whether the speciation process is really (as they claim) a wholly-natural one, each new species having been brought into being solely by Darwin's accidental causes, and thus derived by strict genealogy from a single "parent" species.

That Darwinian explanation, however, is in reality a decidedly questionable one, as will be made evident in what follows.  If the origin of species is in truth an event brought about not by natural causes but by artifice (as would seem likely to be the case), we would then have to speak either of "artificial evolution" or of continual creations"--an idea long known to theologians under the name of "successive (or "progressive") creation".

Yet, if (as Christians, Jews, and Muslims are required to believe) all the billions of species have been produced by the intentions of a single divine Designer, that perpetual artificial process might not unreasonably be described as a stepwise sort of "theistic evolution"--and, thus, an "evolution" not in Sense II but in the original sense of the word!

However, the real evidence makes it far easier to believe that a great multitude of DNA-sculptors, generally working at cross-purposes, must really have been responsible for the "creations".  If that is the case, such a non-consistent species-originating process conforms to neither Sense I nor Sense II, and could still be called evolution only in the inappropriate purely-historical sense noted above under III.

[1] See Jeffrey Schwartz's Sudden Origins (1999).

[2] As it is used by EIdredge in his Triumph of Evolution (2000).

 

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