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The history of thought on biological evolution
- with reflections on environmental philosophy -


This is the English translation of "Storia del Pensiero Biologico Evolutivo - con riflessioni di filosofia ambientale" written by Piergiacomo Pagano and published by ENEA.
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Author: Piergiacomo Pagano
Translator: John Venerella
Cover: Monica Simonini

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The work and its intended audience «More attention to the History of Science is needed, as much by scientists as by historians, and especially by biologists, and this should mean a deliberate attempt to understand the thoughts of the great masters of the past, to see in what circumstances or intellectual milieu their ideas were formed, where they took the wrong turning or stopped short on the right track.» ( R. A. Fisher, Natural Selection from the genetical standpoint, Aust. J. Sc., 1959, vol. 22, pp. 16-17)

These words from the famous population geneticist R. A. Fisher are still relevant, expecially now that science is under attack. In particular, evolutionary biology have to deal with a very dangerous new creationism that starts from a perspective called Intelligent Design (ID). In the Journal “Nature” (published online 23rd of January 2008, see: http://www.nature.com/news/2008/080123/full/451382b.html see also the “Scientific American Video” broadcasted the 6th of February 2008, news #4: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=monitor-free-will-death-brains) you can find a paper entitled: «Creationists launch “science” journal: research within a biblical framework to be peer reviewed», a paper that gives a perfect example of the power of their lobby. Here a brief passage:

«The organization that last year opened a US$27-million creation museum in Kentucky has started its own 'peer-reviewed' scientific research journal. […] On 9 January, Answers in Genesis, a Christian ministry run by evangelical Ken Ham, launched Answers Research Journal (ARJ), a free, online publication devoted to research on “recent Creation and the global Flood within a biblical framework”. Papers will be peer reviewed by those who “support the positions taken by the journal”, according to editor-in-chief Andrew Snelling […].»

It is clear that biology and biologists have to respond to these hypocrisies. But, scientists in general, and biologists in particular, are reserved and focused on their studies; they are not accustomed to expatiating like politicians, preaching like clergymen, or debating like lawyers. They are accustomed, rather, to making conscientious affirmations, pursuing meticulous investigations, and engaging in exchanges of opinions with other experts. Now, instead, and without having a specific preparation in communications, time to lose, or desire to go into issues that are poor from a cultural point of view, modern-day biologists are called upon to face those deft swindlers who would pass off as equally worthy of attention the neo-Darwinian theory and those (nonscientific) ideas of new creationism.
Because the proponents of ID use very effective tools and techniques in gripping the attention of everyday people (the same people who, in the end, are decisive in political choices), biologists have three choices: 1) act as though nothing out of the ordinary were occurring; 2) respond with precision, and with clear conscience, but at risk of misunderstanding; 3) respond with means that are not scientific at all, thus failing to live up to one’s own ethics. How should they behave? The first possibility (acting unconcerned) would be the preferable, in view of the sterility of the debate, but no one wins anything by giving up. Regarding the other two possibilities, certain scientists (for example Massimo Pigliucci) propose a more flexible approach, aware that debate is, in any case, a wealth. Others (like Richard Dawkins) think it is right to fight back with vigor and determination, contemptuously almost, to the arrogant claims of the ID proponents, making use of the same tones they do. Almost inevitably, when you read certain statements from the most uncompromising new creationists, the desire to respond in kind (and therefore with contempt) doubtless arises.
There is, moreover, another way. It is the storical approach that could explain with semplicity how scholars of antiquity (some of them were clergymen), in searching the truth, arrived at the conclusion that the evolutionary neo-Darwinian theory is solid and coherent. This is the way of this book “The history of thought on biological evolution”.

This book examines the history of biological thought from the ancient philosophers up to the present day. The intended audience is students of a high school/university level; nonetheless the narration, following the line of logic that has accompanied thinkers of the past, will permit even less prepared readers to gradually acquire the elements necessary for complete understanding of the text. In other words, the book is written with the rigor necessary for the academic world (it may be suitable for degree courses in philosophy, natural sciences, and biological sciences, etc.), but its narrative manner makes it suitable also for a very broad public.

In the catalogues of various publishers there are works dealing with the topic of biological evolution. Some of these are highly complete and accurate, but also exceedingly technical and voluminous. Some of the others are, by contrast, too superficial; they explain evolutionary theory in a way that is elementary and/or lacking in critical review. All the others deal with the subject in expressing personal points of view that reflect or criticize the orthodox view. Some of these trace through rational arguments, while others are more fanciful.
What is lacking in the publishing panorama is a historical text that is linear, simple but complete, rigorous but not too heavy, and which features an in-depth development of the intellectual process (scientific and otherwise) that has led to today's knowledge. Owing to its characteristics, this book proposes to fill this gap and presents itself, among other things, has an excellent text for study and/or closer examination for students of university courses in biology, history of biology, and those dedicated to the many environmental themes. Any reader who is willing to suspend the prejudices that our society tends to put upon us can form his own opinion about the debate which, today more than ever, places official biology into contrast with certain traditions and religious beliefs. The appendix on environmental philosophy, furthermore, has the purpose of highlighting and introducing to this new discipline, still little known, the necessity of a close connection between natural sciences, humanities, beliefs, and traditions, in order to contribute positively to the resolution of environmental issues.
Purpose of the work From the scientific point of view:
the extreme specialization of the subdisciplines of biology tends to overlook the big picture; the historical treatment, updated to state-of-the-art levels, will allow overcoming this inadequacy;
correct placement of current research within a historical reference will help new points of reflection to emerge that will help to better direct and modulate future research.

From the philosophical and social points of view:
the historical treatment allows an analysis of the logical and rational development of the debate on evolution through the course of the centuries, demonstrating the differences between scientific theory and pure speculation;
The calm, but critical and decisive, debate within the scientific community, past and present, shows how instrumental the current attack on the methodologies of Western science is; nevertheless it recognizes the need to further a holistic view that integrates the reductionist/mechanistic approach typical of specialist exaggeration. In this, the history of thought on biological evolution is perhaps the best example.

From the point of view of environmental philosophy:
While acknowledging that moral norms cannot be derived from purely scientific observation, the theory of evolution describes objectively the place of mankind in Nature and therefore allows the enunciation of a deontological (duty-oriented) ethics when addressing the urgent issues of sustainable development, whether from an environmental, economic, or social point of view.

The work in detail

The work in detail


William Paley’s watchmaker was the ontological argument that permeated naturalistic culture in the first 60 years of the 1800s. Then everything changed. Darwin and Wallace showed that living beings changed over time, deriving from ancestral forefathers. Today scientists have a solid picture: the process of evolution is non-teleological. After more than 150 years, however, Paley’s watchmaker is coming back to life with Intelligent Design. Tracing back through the history of thought on biological evolution will clarify the topic of how to proceed toward knowledge, and furthermore allow: understanding the differences between pure speculation and scientific theories; bringing out new points of reflection; better directing future research; and lastly, bringing objective information into the debates on environmental ethics and environmental philosophy.

1: On the three unexplainable facts that cast doubt upon the Creation

Before beginning the historical exposition, Chapter 1 mentions a crucial passage in naturalistic thinking: when three unexplainable facts cast doubt upon the Creation. After centuries of indifference in regard to Nature, the ecclesiastics, who were the first to approach Nature by studying it (as a glorification of God), noticed that their observations were difficult to reconcile with the Holy Scriptures. The first chapter, as articulated, is intended to ignite the interest of the reader, who finds himself already immersed in the topic and intrigued by the apparent inconsistencies between reality and belief.

2: Nature, organisms, and their classification

3: The first men to study Nature

The second chapter discusses some issues that the Greek philosophers were faced with: in particular, how to classify things (from Plato) and the study of Nature (not worthy for Plato; indispensable for Aristotle). One thing that derived from this was the idea of the scala naturae (ladder of Nature), which subsequently became "the chain of being." The problem of classification, fundamental for taxonomy, is confronted with adequate investigation, without renouncing a digression into the literary field and a few curiosities. The third chapter is a brief one that, for the sake of completeness, introduces some pertinent scholars such as Pliny, Albertus Magnus, von Gesner, Cesalpino, Rondelet, and others. The brief overview is intended to show the diverse interests expressed by scholars of the past toward Nature, for example, in the study of medicinal plants.

4:  John Ray and Francis Willughby: two naturalist friends

5:  Tyson and Homo sylvestris

6: Carl Linnaeus

7: Geology, fossils, and history of the Earth

8: George-Louis Leclerc, count of Buffon

9: Moving Rocks

Chapters 4 through 9 describe the development of naturalistic knowledge until around the late 18th century. Initially Ray, who had become a witness to an unexpected biodiversity with the arrival of specimens from all around the world, elaborated his own natural theology with the spirit of a great innovator, without evading objective evaluation and without concealing the inconsistencies between religious teachings and observation. The advent of Linnaeus brought a strong impetus to the study of Nature, especially botany. Worthy of note was the adoption of the system of classification by means of a simple count of plant organs, such as stamens and pistils, which allowed identification of new species even by those who were traveling and could not consult large herbariums. The adoption of the binary nomenclature, in addition to standardizing the previous methodologies, gave a strong impulse to naturalistic research, as the thought of seeing a new species dedicated to oneself encouraged patrons to provide financing. Geology was beginning to wonder why many rocky layers were inclined, vertical, or even contorted, and the first hypotheses were advanced on the birth of the Earth. In this respect, Buffon made several experiments attempting to determine its age and, in the biogeographic field, he hypothesized a sort of degeneration of the animals that had been moved toward the territories of the New World.

10: George Cuvier, Étienne Geoffroy, and anatomical philosophy

11: The inheritance of acquired characteristics: Erasmus Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck

Chapters 10 and 11 concentrate on the events that took place at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. The museum, actually a place for advanced research, was responsible for starting a new era for biological sciences. At that site, the comparative anatomy of Cuvier clashed with the formalism of zoologist Geoffroy, giving rise to heated dispute (anatomical philosophy), which impassioned a wide audience. Cuvier came forward with several hypotheses, including the hypothesis of the coordination of parts, by whihe denied the existence of chimerical animals, and that of catastrophism, which postulated a succession of destructions and new creations. Moreover, embryological studies led Geoffroy to hypothesize unity of plan for all animals and to announce the principle of the connection of parts.

During those years (early 19th century) a new idea was making way, that species could change. Erasmus Darwin had previously spoken on this in one of his writings. It was Lamarck alone, colleague of Cuvier and Geoffroy at the Muséum in Paris, though not so famous, who specified his own theory of evolution. This theory was not understood for some decades after Lamarck’s death, experienced in misery and loneliness.

12:  Geology: catastrophism and uniformitarianism

13: Special creation or natural law?

14: Charles Robert Darwin

15: Alfred Russel Wallace and the suspense story of the theory’s paternity

16: Darwin and Wallace's theory

Meanwhile in England, Lyell argued that geological changes took place through a slow change (uniformitarianism) (Chapter 12), and important thinkers such as Whewell, Herschel, Babbage discussed methods) for coming to objective truth (chapter 13). In the field of biology, data in support of the transformation of species became irrefutable, leaving space for few alternatives: either God intervened from time to time through special creations, or there was an inherent creative force at work in Nature, or some still unknown natural laws entered into play. In the latter case, it was necessary to identify the underlying mechanisms. The conventional version of the story reports that Darwin (Chapter 14) came to the point of identifying this mechanism in natural selection, but that he did not publish anything for fear of academic and social reactions, until when Wallace (Chapter 15) sent him a paper with the same conclusions. At that point the works of Darwin and Wallace were released simultaneously, but in fact, paternity for the idea was attributed to the first to have the merit of publishing the theory organically and completely in a voluminous book in 1859. A recent new reading of the original documents and comparison of related dates raises suspicions, without leading to a certain result, that the events occurred in a different manner (Chapter 16).

17: For and against the theory of evolution

18: Modalities of evolution

19: Evolution and man

20: Evolution and philosophy

21: Social implications of evolution, eugenics

Chapters 17 to 21 describe the spread of the new vision regarding transformation to all fields of knowledge. The discussion, which began in the context of nonhuman biology (Chapters 17, 18), continued along different lines which reciprocally influenced one another. On the scientific side, the announcement was registered of the extension of the very laws of Nature to man, with heavy theological implications (chapter 19). On the philosophical side, talk began of a process of evolution that contemplated the entire universe, and of which terrestrial biology was only a part. It was the English Spencer who first used the term evolution to mean a process of transformation that saw all things evolving, from organisms simple, homogeneous, and undifferentiated in structure into organisms gradually more complex, differentiated, heterogeneous, and interrelated (Chapter 20). And while biology influenced philosophy and philosophy influenced biology (for example with Haeckel), the idea of evolution occasioned a heavy impact on all disciplines. Both for ideological reasons and for instrumental reasons, the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest, phrases coined to express biological evolution, were used and abused to sustain this or that social and/or political position (Chapter 21). The from time to time they were used to sustain ideas of colonialism, racism, and eugenics, nourished by conditions of social unrest, economic crisis, and the great migratory flows.

22: Variability and heredity

23: The birth of genetics

24: Genetics and evolution

Chapters 22 through 24 return to biological questions, albeit through a narration adapted to the changing historical conditions. While Darwin's theory was almost accepted by the majority of scientists, certain important questions remained open. The principal one regarded the origin of the intraspecific variability upon which natural selection operated. Lamarck's hypotheses were refuted by a series of considerations, observations, and experiments. Soft heredity gave way to hard heredity, which denied any teleological hypothesis, with further heavy implications for the consolidated beliefs in a world directed toward an end. The discovery of Mendel's experiments led to the birth of a new discipline, genetics, which had set itself the goal of revealing the secrets of heredity. And while cytological studies brought to light the physical supports and the modalities of transmission of hereditary characters, scientists were divided about the real importance of natural selection in the birth of new species. Some held that natural selection was sufficient for the proceeding of all of evolution; others saw the need for sudden changes. Field studies and laboratory experiments confirmed the existence of mutations.

25: The state of the situation in the early 1900s (towards synthesis)

26: Population genetics

27: Evolutionary synthesis

In the early 20th century the majority of scientists were convinced that evolution was a certain fact. By contrast, there was by no means complete agreement about the modalities of evolution. While naturalists continued to see living beings as a continuum of gradual forms, in support of the Darwinian hypothesis, geneticists, paleontologists, and many young biologists highlighted the discontinuities between the different forms and believed in the necessity of hypothesizing sudden mutational leaps of a certain consistency. The newly born population genetics pointed out that the two views were not in contrast with one another and anticipated that process of unification which, with a series of lectures at Columbia University, saw the various biological disciplines (above all, systematics, genetics, biogeography, ecology, paleontology, botany) coming to agreement about the validity of one single theory. The process of integration was called the evolutionary synthesis or the modern synthesis, whereas the central nucleus of the theory of evolution took the name neo-Darwinism.

28: After the synthesis

29: Non-scientific alternatives to neo-Darwinism

30: Conclusions

Chapter 28 deals with the latest research in biology and with future developments that are expected regarding our knowledge of evolution. From the 1950s onward, first with the discovery of the conformation of the DNA molecule, and then with molecular biology, new methodologies opened themselves to biological inquiries. The evolutionary synthesis showed itself strong, but it began to understand that the reality was much more complex than it seemed. And while Kimura advanced his neutral theory of molecular evolution, and Eldredge and Gould advanced hypotheses about punctuated equilibria, other authors proposed new scenarios, at times provocative, such as the selfish gene. More recently, the idea of organic codes, Evo-Devo biology, genetic sequencing, the new lines of inquiry on epigenetics, showed that genes are rather plastic and the environment has a crucial importance in genetic expression.

Chapter 29 deals with certain alternative themes, such as constructive evolution, Intelligent Design, and the religious view. It also discusses the differences between scientific theory and speculation, without entering in-depth into specific topics (for which the reader is referred to other authoritative texts).

The book's conclusions stress the importance of the historical study of biological thought, as described in the purpose of the work at the beginning of these notes, emphasizing the main points of discussion. In particular, the itinerary that biological thought has completed over the course of centuries is highlighted, along with how the current view came to be the result of the complex debate based on observations, experiments, and logical reasoning.

31: Appendix: Evolution and environmental philosophy

Even with the awareness that ethical norms cannot derive from scientific observations, the author believes that the historical development of biological thought can provide useful information for a correct statement of environmental philosophy. After a brief discussion on environmental philosophy, designed in sua manner that a broad public can follow the line of discourse, the author proposes his own personal opinion, defining the concept of proactive environmentalism, based on the virtuous circle of knowledge-awareness-responsibility.


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