Did you read Dawkins's "The Selfish Gene" and "The Blind Watchmaker" with some enthusiasm? Have sociobiological plausibilities become a part of your world view? Be prepared to revise some of your ideas. Dupré lines up against a gene-centred shortening of evolutionary theory. He advocates things like multi-level selection and especially developmental systems theory ("...the smallest unit in terms of which evolutionary process can be properly understood is the full developmental cycle from one stage of the life cycle through all the intervening stages needed to reproduce that stage in the next generation ..." "... the genome is merely one developmental resource - no doubt a very important one ...", p. 86). But that's not all: the author is well aware of the importance cultural development has for human behaviour. "Victorian country gentry almost surely engaged in less sexual activity than, say, contemporary british holiday-makers in Ibiza, and not because of any difference in their genes." (p. 116) Whether in biology or in philosophy Dupré is an unerring critic of the "Zeitgeist". No wonder that he doesn't have any sympathy for the contemporary appeasement strategy for reconciling science and religion which is derived from the so-called Argument from Design and has become a whole intelligent-design movement. In his chapter on "Human Origines and the Decline of Theism" Dupré leaves no doubt that he wants "to claim that whatever Darwin's goals, and whatever his contemporaries may have made of his ideas, the growth of evolutionary theory that he launched has provided a fatal injury to the pretensions of religion." (p. 41/42) But even if you are not inclined to naturalism: read the book, at least as a biological layman it will at once complicate and clarify your ideas about evolution and perhaps provoke further reading (appropriate hints at the end of the book).
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John Dupre's book on evolution is Dawkins without the dogma. Dupre shares much in common with Dawkins including atheism and a conviction that the core claims of evolutionary theory are "as much an established fact as anything in science can ever be." He believes there is an inevitable clash between the general acceptance of evolutionary thought and Christian belief. He views evolutionary theory as the "last essential element in a naturalistic and materialistic view of the universe, and as removing the last hiding place for a God or gods."
He argues that evolutionary theory often refers to a set of propositions that life on Earth evolved. "Complex forms derived from simpler forms and.....most life forms share common ancestors". In sum, evolutionary theory is descent with modification, which is another way of rephrasing Darwin's evolution by natural selection. Natural selection is essential to the theory of evolution, although spontaneous self-organisation of chemicals has its supporters. The discovery of Mendel's theory of particulate inheritance led to a re-evaluation of Darwinism into the modern evolutionary synthesis. Dawkins claims evolution is gene-centred, a view which is at odds with the multi-level selection orthodoxy which currently prevails amongst biologists. Dupre acknowledges that while physiological evidence, the evidence of fossils and biogeography, show patterns of evolution, he does not dogmatically assert that they could not be false. He argues "there is so much in that makes sense in the light of evolution that it is inconceivable that... evolution is not a fact." Yet he is aware that evolutionary theory includes a speculative element and concludes "the greatest importance of the theory of evolution is metaphysical."
Dupre accepts evolutionary theory is useful in explaining some things but not necessarily useful in explaining all. He acknowledges the problems in explaining the giraffe's long neck and concludes that while all theories, including presumably Darwin's theory of competing browsers, may suggest tentative conclusions these may contain, "not more than a fragment of the truth." He argues that many parts of individual organisms cannot be explained without, "a full history of the lineage complete with varying ecological and climatic circumstances." Dupre's skepticism about particular applications of evolutionary theory does not, in his view, threaten "the evidental support and scientific respectability of the theory in its proper place." Dupre's position is, at best, dubious. If natural selection does not explain the giraffe's long neck why should it be considered accurate in explaining less complex organisms? This is not a question designed to support an alternative theory but the "God of the Gaps" theistic defence mechanism frequently appears as the "Evolutionary theory of the Gaps" which "explains" everything by reference to generalities when specifics are absent.
Dupre's difficulties multiply in dealing with human origins and the decline of theism. His rejection of theism is based on the absence of empirical evidence. From this he concludes "that evolution provides a vastly better explanation than does a wholly vague appeal to a creator about who nothing whatsover is known." He dismisses attempts by Stephen Jay Gould and Michael Ruse to reconcile Darwinism and Christianity. He claims Gould's separation of two spheres of thought does not prevent the inevitable withering away of theism in face of scientific discovery.
Dupre can only defend this position if Darwinism is true in its entirity and he admits that "the ultimate origins of life, the transition from pimeaval slime to the first living cell," is little understood. In fact, it's speculation based on the applicability of Darwinism without evidence. This leads him to suggest "there is some reason to think that complex mixtures of organic chemicals may establish stable patterns of reaction not dissimilar to the metabolic dynamics found in biological cells. We have good reason to suppose that once minimal conditions of replication of something cell-like had been accomplished, natural selection might be expected to bring about increases in sophisication and stability." The use of ambiguous language serves to hide the lack of empirical evidence. It is evidence of the "evolutionary theory of the Gaps" created by Dupre's failure to apply the skepticism he claims is essential to scientific evaluation.
Dupre rejects the sociobiological idea that reflection on the process of evolution illuminates human behaviour. He argues that the level of specificity required by a project such as evolutionary psychology cannot be supported by knowledge of evolution. In the case of evolutionary psychology the fault lies in the absence of empirical studies. He notes that humans' genomes are 98.4 per cent identical to chimpanzees which infers that neither we nor chimpanzees are identical to our genomes. "That this conclusion is not usually drawn speaks volumes for the contemporary power of gene mythology." Dupre's conclusion is that evolution by natural selection provides a reason for belief in empirically tested facts and disposes of "the religious and superstitious mythologies that continue to dominate and sometimes devastate human lives." The mis-use of science is overlooked.
The underlying weakness of this volume is Dupre's lack of skepticism towards evolution by natural selection. He goes beyond using evolution by natural selection as a working hypothesis, treating it as a metaphysical truth wherever empirical evidence is unavailable. As a working hypothesis evolution by natural selection provides a frame of reference which neither Creationism nor Intelligent Design can match in empirical terms. In seeking to discount the possibility of any reconciliation between evolution by natural selection and religious belief, Dupre abandons scepticism altogether. He would have produced a more balanced book had he examined and discussed the historical context of evolutionary thought rather than used evolution as a stick with which to beat the religiously inclined. However, compared to other books on this subject, Dupre has produced a readable and thought provoking volume which, notwithstanding the reservations referred to above, deserves to be read by all interested in the subject, whatever their standpoint. Five stars, worth buying.
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