In a disturbing recent development, a leading Australian philosopher of biology, John Wilkins, has published a detailed post on his Evolving Thoughts blog, in which he offers uncritical commentary on the neo-Empedoclean theory of evolution. One might well fear that this gullible attitude to what is still little more than fringe science will be repeated in Wilkins' forthcoming book, Species, to be published later this year by the University of California Press.
Wilkins reports research published by Professor Augustus P. Rillful and his colleagues, purporting to show that evidence of unexpected lateral transmissions of genes between interacting species renders obsolete the more conventional evolutionary mechanisms of natural selection and genetic drift favoured by mainstream biologists. For example, A.P. Rillful argues that Homo sapiens was the first species to develop intelligence, which happened entirely by accident - the theory allows for the sudden development of what were once known as "hopeful monsters", as opposed to the glacially slow processes of change that occur even in Gould's "punctuated equilibrium" when it is correctly understood. Given the unexpected significance of lateral genetic transfer from the interaction of species, A.P. Rillful expects the gene for intelligence to infect other species over the next few thousand years.
But serious questions must be raised about A.P. Rillful's research, since the mechanisms for lateral genetic transfer at the level of highly-complex organisms, such as Homo sapiens, have not been specified in any plausible way. Moreover, there is not even a clear definition of the key term "interaction", and its cognates; importantly, some of the lateral transfers that the theory postulates seem to involve a decidedly spooky action at a distance between widely-separated organisms. Unless more specification is given, this has the potential to render the whole idea of species-species interaction almost meaningless.
In any event, great care should be taken before we accept the overthrow of well-corroborated science - supported, in fact, by mountains of convergent evidence - on the basis of a small number of methodologically-suspect and semantically-unclear studies in relatively obscure journals (for whatever reason, best known to himself, Wilkins chooses to call the lightly-refereed Journal of Evolutionary Diversions (or JED) "the major journal in the field").
Here, alas, we are confonted by the spectre of Wilkins - a philosopher of some international repute - choosing to lend his authority to give resonance to a theory that almost certainly involves a false narrative. To say the least, neo-Empedoclean evolution awaits adequate testing (against the fossil record and through stringent real-time testing by molecular biologists of a more closely-specified lateral transfer mechanism). However, there's more - and worse. Wilkins reports that an account of A.P. Rillful's work will be the leading article in the 1 April issue of British popular science magazine New Scientist. Apparently this will be another story by Graham Lawton, a controversial science journalist who takes more pleasure than most in the lateral transfer of genetic material from one organism to another. Apparently New Scientist has decided that This Sort Of Thing sells, so I suppose we'll have to endure more of it over the coming months and years, while hoping that it doesn't become too much a feature of the intellectual culture.
While there may not be much we can do about such developments - short of boycotting Wilkins' blog and asking reputable scientists to boycott writing for New Scientist - we can at least express our concerns about these developments and ask that they be noted.
All that said, I take some consolation from the fact that A.P. Rillful's work offers no comfort to religious apologists who rely on the diversity of life - with its appearance of functional design - to argue for the existence of a supernatural creative intelligence. According to Wilkins' account:
"Darwin's theory of evolution as a purposive process, in which chance is balanced by the pseudodesign of natural selection, is no longer a necessary hypothesis to explain all of life. And the intelligent design argument is entirely shown to be false. Darwin was wrong, and so was Paley. The consensus is moving even further away from the Design hypothesis than even the modern Darwinians expected. Adaptation is an accident."
That's a relief; at least we can rest in our godless beds at night if (despite my arguments) the neo-Empedoclean theory becomes the dominant biological paradigm. Darwin or no Darwin, it will remain possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.