Research into the holistic nature of organisms has large implications for the way we think about evolution. By appealing to mutation and natural selection, Darwinian evolutionary theory tends to “explain” (construct evolutionary stories about) the evolution of adaptive characteristics in isolation from the rest of the organism. One conceptually abstracts, say, horns or grinding teeth from the whole organism and interprets each as its own kind of “survival strategy.”
This approach, for all its suggestive power, has fundamental drawbacks. First, each characteristic of an organism has multiple functions, and it is largely arbitrary which one we focus on to construct our evolutionary story. Many such stories may well be tall tales. Second, the organism itself, as a distinctive unity in its own right, dissolves into an array of traits and becomes a kind of epiphenomenon. This approach to explanation turns out to explain away the organism itself.
As the anthropologist and historian of science Loren Eiseley points out,
“Darwin's primary interest [was] the modification of living forms under the selective influence of the environment... Magnificent as his grasp of this aspect of biology is, it is counterbalanced by a curious lack of interest in the nature of the organism itself... It is difficult to find in Darwin any really deep recognition of the life of the organism as a functioning whole which must be coordinated interiorly before it can function exteriorly.”
A more adequate understanding of evolution requires that we first investigate the organism as a whole and how its members interrelate and interact within the context of the whole organism and its environment. This holistic understanding can then form the starting point for thinking about the evolution of the animal. The evolutionary biologist Dobzhansky's famous statement that “nothing in biology can be understood except in light of evolution” is a grand claim that we believe is, in the end, true. But we have a lot of work to do before we get there.
By Craig Holdrege:
Do Frogs Come From Tadpoles? Rethinking Origins in Development and Evolution, Nature Institute Perspectives #5 (2017). Illustrated, 85 pages.
Through closely attending to the phenomena of amphibian development, author Craig Holdrege shows that evolution is in reality a creative process, and not simply the inevitable product of lifeless mechanisms. The result is a concrete example of how one can begin to understand, as well as teach, natural science in a truly holistic and living way. The booklet is based on three articles on the frog from In Context #33, 34, and 35. It can be purchased from our online bookstore or by contacting the Institute. Accessibly written for general readers, educators, and older students.
“The Giraffe's Long Neck,” Nature Institute Perspectives #4 (2005). Illustrated, 104 pages.
This book provides a comprehensive picture of the giraffe’s biology and ecology and also discusses the complex and controversial issue of its evolution. It gives a unique portrayal of the giraffe while also exemplifying the Goethean approach to understanding animals and evolution. It can be purchased from our online bookstore or by contacting the Institute. Accessibly written for general readers, educators, and older students.
“Goethe and the Evolution of Science,” In Context #31 (Spring 2014).
“Evolution Evolving,” In Context #21 (2009).
“Science as Process or Dogma? The Case of the Peppered Moth,” Elemente der Naturwissenschaft, vol. 70 (1999).
Craig has remarked that “We cannot expect to understand evolution until we understand the organism.” Given this fundamental truth, the student of evolution (as opposed to the student of the history of genes) will find essential the kind of whole-organism study that has been central to Craig’s scientific career. You will find a collection of his studies in the section of our website dedicated to Seeing Nature Whole: A Goethean Approach.
By Stephen L. Talbott:
Steve’s main work on evolution appears as part of our Biology Worthy of Life project. One way to access this content is to look under the “Evolution” heading in the project’s topical index. Two of the main articles are:
“Evolution and the Purposes of Life” (published in The New Atlantis, Winter, 2017).
“Evolution and the Illusion of Randomness” (published in The New Atlantis, Fall, 2011).
You may also find the following of interest:
“Form and Color in the Animal Kingdom,” In Context #21 (2009).
See in addition “Commentaries on Intelligent Design Theory” below.
By Ronald Brady:
The late philosopher, Ronald Brady, wrote a series of profound papers elucidating from a phenomenological point of view various aspects of evolution, while also clarifying some long-running confusions (such as that surrounding the idea of natural selection as a tautology — see the first article listed below). We are in the process of gathering Ron’s published papers together in the Ronald H. Brady Archive. Here are three of the papers you’ll find there:
“Dogma and Doubt,” reprinted from Biological Journal of the Linnean Society vol. 17 (1982), pp. 79-96.
“Explanation, Description, and the Meaning of ‛Transformation’ in Taxonomic Evidence,” reprinted from Models in Phylogeny Reconstruction, edited by Robert W. Scotland, Darrell J. Siebart, and David M. Williams, pp. 11-29. Oxford: Clarendon Press (1994).
“The Global Patterns of Life: A New Empiricism in Biogeography,” reprinted from Gaia and Evolution, published by the Wadebridge Ecological Centre, Worthyvale Manor, Camelford, Cornwall, UK (1989).
Commentaries on Intelligent Design Theory
We have only fairly recently begun looking at intelligent design theory and trying to formulate a response to it. The following, written by Stephen L. Talbott, are the relevant articles:
“Why Can’t Biologists Quit Believing in Intelligent Design?” (May, 2017).
“Three Questions for Intelligent Design Theorists” (May 15, 2014).
“Biology’s Shameful Refusal to Disown the Machine-Organism” (April 24, 2014). This article does not explicitly discuss intelligent design, but it is directly relevant to the strong emphasis upon machine-like design among ID theorists.
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