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The Collapse of Darwinism, or The Rise of a Realist Theory of Life

Author(s):Snooks, Graeme Donald
Reviewer(s):Hodgson, Geoffrey M.

Published by EH.NET (June 2005)

Graeme Donald Snooks, The Collapse of Darwinism, or The Rise of a Realist Theory of Life. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003. xv + 341 pp. $80 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-7391-0613-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Geoffrey M. Hodgson, Business Studies, University of Hertfordshire.

Graeme Donald Snooks — an economist by training now at the Institute of Advanced Studies at the Australian National University — proclaims that Darwinism has failed in explaining both biological speciation and the development of human society. Alongside this apparently devastating critical blow against much of modern science, he also expounds his own ‘theory of life.’ This he claims can ‘completely … as possible’ explain developments and events such as speciation, the end of the dinosaurs, ‘the dynamics of human civilization as well as the dynamics of nature,’ ‘why we are not smarter than we are,’ and ‘the future of life as well as its past’ (p. 197).

The book divides into three parts. The first two parts discuss Darwinism and its alleged collapse. The third part proposes his ‘dynamic-strategy view of life.’ Snooks claims a scientific ‘breakthrough’ establishing ‘general laws that can explain the origins and dynamics of the real world’ (p. 279). Scientific modesty does not seem to be his strongest suit.

Much of Snooks’ positive attempt to discover an alternative universal explanation of long-term dynamic change has been developed before, in no less than eight books published since 1993, in which he has previously discussed ‘the forces of historical change,’ ‘longrun dynamics,’ ‘the sources of global change,’ ‘the laws of history,’ ‘a general economic and political theory,’ and ‘a general theory of economic development,’ to cite phrases from their titles and subtitles.

By elaborating his own view of appropriate scientific procedure, Snooks attempts both to undermine Darwinism and to develop guidelines to erect his own theory. His course of action is to present the wave-like patterns of development over millions of years as data, and then somehow to derive the ‘laws’ that explain these patterns.

Given that Snooks bases both his negative critique of Darwinism and his positive attempt to build an alternative theory on his views concerning the correct scientific method, his views on the philosophy and methodology of science are discussed here. I shall then move on to discuss his critique of Darwinism and his alternative ‘realist theory of life.’

Snooks on Scientific Method

Snooks is eager to find philosophical flaw in ‘Darwin’s method of theory building’ (p. 33) and to proclaim that his own alternative theory is more scientific and realistic. He advocates ‘realism’ and the ‘inductive, or historical, method’ (p. 41).

Snooks brushes aside the famous ‘problem of induction,’ which is seen as ‘the absence of mechanical rules for generalizing from empirical data.’ For Snooks, this problem is ‘not as debilitating’ as the problems with deductivism. But this is only part of the problem. Ever since David Hume, the problem of induction has not merely been recognized as the absence of rules for generalization, but the impossibility of generalization through induction from any realizable number of observations. Ten million observations might confirm that ‘all living grass is green,’ but we can never be sure that somewhere there exists a blade of grass of a different color.

Snooks ignores another problem with inductivism, widely elaborated in philosophy. This is that any empirical enquiry requires conceptual and theoretical preconceptions. In particular, imputations of cause and effect cannot be built on evidence alone. Consequently, some theory must precede empirical enquiry, and all factual investigation is theory-laden. Snooks seems unaware of all this.

Instead he adopts a crude form of empiricism where ‘science’ must rid itself of all ‘metaphysics’ (pp. 27, 178, 220). Snooks writes: ‘Science is not a matter of “word games” but of experiment and empirical verification/falsification’ (p. 91). He is evidently unaware that one of the major turns in the philosophy of science, associated partly with Karl Popper and Willard van Orman Quine and leading to the decline of logical positivism, was the reestablishment of the proposition that all science relies on ontological or metaphysical presuppositions.

From his vaguely defined methodological stance, Snooks criticizes Darwin’s use of analogy. Snooks focuses on Darwin’s account of how the breeder of domestic animal employs methods of deliberate selection to improve the stock. Darwin used this appeal to the analogy of ‘artificial selection’ to make his broader theory of ‘natural selection’ understandable. Snooks seizes on this as ‘the farmyard analogy’ and repeats his description of Darwinism as ‘the farmyard theory’ ad nauseum.

Snooks rightly observes that nature is not a farmyard, and thereby concludes that the ‘farmyard analogy’ is bound to be unrealistic. Given this general lack of realism with analogies, reasoning by analogy is generally suspect according to Snooks, and instead the scientist must appeal to the facts, using the ‘inductive, or historical, method.’ By assembling the facts and making appropriate generalizations, ‘there is an endogenous regularity and predictability than can be persuasively modeled. But only if we abandon Darwinism in all its forms’ (p. 196).

Again this shows little awareness of the philosophy of science. Modern philosophers have established that metaphor and analogy are indispensable to scientific enquiry. When Snooks makes frequent appeals to ‘realism’ he shows no appreciation that realist philosophers of science that have been in the forefront in promoting this argument. But, for all its talk of ‘realism,’ Snooks makes no explicit use of modern realist philosophy.

The Critique of Darwinism

Mounting a critique of Darwinism is difficult because of the huge amount of material on the topic and because to some degree Darwinism itself has evolved as a doctrine. Faced with these problems, the critic would best proceed by addressing modern accounts that claim to identify the essence of Darwinism. Apart from the populist works of Richard Dawkins, which promote a particular and controversial version of Darwinism, where would we find such accounts of the meaning of Darwinism? By far the most important contributions to our understanding of the essence of Darwinism have come from philosophically inclined writers such as Daniel Dennett, David Hull, Ernst Mayr and Elliott Sober. But Snooks makes no use whatsoever of this relevant material.

Instead, he assembles a picture of ‘Darwinism’ through a collage of selected quotations and personal presumptions. According to Snooks, the central propositions of ‘Darwinism’ include an idea of natural selection ‘built on the totally untenable assumption that all organisms at all times and in all places attempt to maximize the number of their offspring’ (p. 11). In addition: ‘Every organism in the plant and animal kingdoms is somehow programmed to produce as many offspring as possible in all places and time. The resulting struggle for existence over scarce resources is always extremely severe’ (p. 22). Furthermore, Darwin made an ‘unrealistic’ prediction of slow, continuous and gradual change (pp. 12, 251).

Note the critical strategy here. When presenting what he regards as key Darwinian propositions, Snooks generally formulates them in an extreme form. He thus sees natural selection as based on the idea that organisms always and everywhere maximize their offspring.

However, modern formulations of the principle of selection, as in the works of Elliott Sober and George Price, make no use whatsoever of such an idea. Neither Darwin nor any other serious biologist ever entertained such a notion. Indeed, there is a large literature in modern (Darwinian) theoretical and empirical biology (by Timothy Clutton-Brock and others) that considers the trade-off between fecundity and survival. The resolution of this trade-off depends on the characteristics of the species concerned. Where parental care is less necessary or costly, species tend to produce large numbers of offspring. In other cases they devote resources to the care and survival of fewer progeny, rather than maximizing their number. In describing the maximization of offspring as the central Darwinian imperative, Snooks is plain wrong.

Snooks dismisses the role of scarcity in Darwinian theory, with assertions such as: ‘In reality genetic change associated with speciation … only occurs when … competition is minimal and natural resources are abundant’ (p. 12). A problem here is that the concept of scarcity is often unrefined and we need to think more carefully what scarcity means. There is a big difference between global or absolute scarcity and scarcity in a local and immediate sense. A period of relatively abundant resources does not necessarily mean that they are immediately available to all individuals. Even with abundance, organisms must struggle to obtain and process resources. It is in this sense that the Darwinian notions of scarcity and struggle are relevant and general, and survive Snooks’ rebuttal.

Turning to the notion that Darwinian evolution is necessarily gradual, as Darwin himself emphasized, Snooks ignores recent discussions of the apparent dilemma between punctuated equilibria and (Darwinian) gradualism, by Dawkins and others. The dilemma turns out to be apparent rather than real, first because in accounts of punctuated change, even the more rapid spurts of evolutionary change take place over hundred of thousands of years, and second, because there is nothing in Darwinian theory that upholds that evolution always has to occur at constant speed. Contrary to Snooks, long periods where natural selection operates with little net effect on the characteristics of a species are entirely compatible with Darwinian theory. Obversely, Darwinism can readily accommodate period of more rapid evolutionary change, whether caused by exogenous environmental shocks or endogenous processes of positive feedback.

Addressing later versions of Darwinism, Snooks deploys the catch-all description of ‘neo-Darwinism’ but concentrates almost entirely on the gene-centered and sociobiological versions, with their concepts of the ‘selfish gene’ and the ‘genetic leash.’ Snooks thus writes of ‘neo-Darwinism’s exclusive concern with genetics’ (p. 11). We are presented with generalized caricatures such as: ‘According to Darwinism, individuals in nature and, by implication, in human society are merely mindless robots when it comes to procreation’ (p. 25). Or again: ‘All Darwinians have difficulty in reconciling competition, which is supposed to drive evolution, and cooperation, which holds societies together’ (p. 60). Or finally: ‘the neo-Darwinists … insist that it is our genes that decide behavior’ (p. 201).

But Darwin never said that evolution was blind. Instead he emphasized deliberation and cunning. Furthermore, although the reconciliation of competition with cooperation has interesting technical problems, it was upheld by Darwin himself and has pride of place in the modern, rigorous theory of group selection, developed by writers such as Joseph Henrich, Elliott Sober, and David Sloan Wilson. Finally, few ‘neo-Darwinians’ allege that genes actually ‘decide’ behavior. Sociobiologists such as Edward Wilson actually propose that genes help to determine the repertoire of behavioral possibilities and other factors do the deciding.

In concentrating on gene-centered accounts of Darwinism, Snooks largely ignores the modern literature on cultural and institutional evolution, where transmission takes place at levels other than that of the gene. He thus neglects the earlier work of Thorstein Veblen, and omits modern Darwinian theories of ‘coevolution,’ or ‘dual inheritance’ by Robert Boyd, William Durham, Peter Richerson and others.

Snooks claims that Darwinism focuses on outcomes, whereas his own theory concentrates on processes. Again this is a monstrous distortion of Darwinism. As Veblen recognized long ago, the very essence of Darwinism is the causal explanation of process. And as Dennett elaborated in his 1994 book on Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, the revolutionary character of Darwinism resides largely in its algorithmic theory involving step-by-step explanations of process.

Snooks rarely retreats from his extreme caricatures of ‘Darwinism’ and ‘neo-Darwinism.’ In one statement where he does so, he describes ‘the core’ of his ‘disagreement with Darwin’ in the following terms: ‘An individual’s role in life is a function of its contribution to the strategic pursuit … Individuals specialize according to comparative advantage and cooperate in their society’s strategic pursuit in order to maximize the probability of their survival and prosperity’ (p. 64). Remarkably there is nothing in this statement that undermines the assertions of Darwin or Darwinism. The idea of organisms adopting strategies for survival and fitness is central to Darwinian biology. Overall, Snooks is chasing a phantom Darwinism that exists in his imagination rather than in reality.

The New Laws of Life

Snooks’ alternative is described as ‘the dynamic-strategy theory of life.’ (Strange, because Darwinism embraces both dynamism and strategy.) This includes the foremost proposal of ‘the competitive driving force of individual organisms to survive and prosper.’ (Strange, but this sounds much like Darwin’s ‘struggle for existence.’)

Snooks goes on to propose that organisms adopt ‘dynamic strategies’ in response to their circumstances. Such ‘strategies’ include genetic change, technological change, family multiplication, commerce and conquest. The ‘constraining force’ is the ‘eventual exhaustion’ of the dominant adopted strategy. To this he adds the possibility of ‘random’ exogenous shocks.

Snooks thus claims ‘an observable pattern and an existential meaning’ to all life: ‘The rise and fall of species and of dynasties, the great genetic and technological revolutions, the great dispersions, civil wars, world wars, and extinctions are all part of a whole. They are the outcome of individual organisms attempting, through the pursuit of a range of dynamic strategies, to gain access to resources so as to survive and prosper’ (p. 217). Again there is some resemblance to Darwinism here. However, what is lacking in Snooks’ statement, but is found in Darwinism, is a method of explaining why organisms choose one strategy rather than another. In Darwinism this involves the principle of selection, not only of genes, but also — much more importantly in the human context — of culturally transmitted dispositions. Indeed, in general, Snooks’ ‘breakthrough’ theory bears some resemblance to the Darwinism he dismisses but is inferior to Darwinism in lacking a framework for reaching a full causal explanation of all the steps in the process. Snooks writes of ‘the strategic desire of mankind for survival and prosperity’ (p. 102), but provides an inadequate causal explanation of this desire, and of the strategic choices that result. Darwinism attempts to fill this gap.

The causal gap is exemplified in statements such as the following: ‘Intelligence was a response to strategic demand generated by those individuals who were pioneering the exploitation of strategic opportunities opened up by the demise of the dinosaurs’ (p. 184). This statement lacks an account what caused the ‘response.’ Pointing to a strategic need does not answer this question, unless we admit an untenable functionalism where things happen somehow in response to a systemic need for them to occur.

On the partial resemblance of Snooks’ theory to Darwinism, consider his account of ‘the law of motivation in life,’ which ‘states that the constant preoccupation of organisms throughout the history of life is the struggle to survive and prosper under varying degrees of scarcity‘ (p. 283, my emphasis). Scarcity is again rehabilitated in Snooks’ remark that ‘decisionmaking is based on the need to economize on nature’s scarcest resources — intelligence’ (p. 202). Snooks here seems to have forgotten his earlier invectives against Darwin’s presumption of omnipresent scarcity.

Snooks gets so carried away with his new ‘laws of life’ that he rehearses them in circumstances where the empirical evidence is inadequate, against his own invocation of the principle of induction. He dismisses theories of dinosaur extinction involving the impact of asteroids or comets. Instead, he argues that ‘unsustainable pressure was placed on available natural resources, and there was an increasing degradation of the global environment, a loss of ecological balance, and a widespread adoption of the conquest strategy. This led to a “world war” between the various species of the dinosaur dynasty. It was a struggle to the death’ (p. 180). This is clearly an example of highly speculative and incomplete theoretical explanations getting way ahead of all the available evidence.

Conclusion

What is scarce in this volume is a good dose of intellectual humility. Apart from its grand ambition to demolish one great theory and replace it with another of equivalent standing, it is often rambling and repetitive. Even on his own ground of economics, it makes significant errors. For example, we are told that T. R. Malthus ‘advocated a policy of unfettered competition at home and abroad’ (p. 9). In fact, Malthus opposed laissez faire and supported the protectionist Corn Laws. We are told that J. R. Commons in 1934 made a distinction between organizations and institutions (p. 271), which is also untrue.

In proclaiming its theoretical collapse, Snooks predicts that the current ‘popularity of Darwinism will be short-lived’ (p. 8). I am often reluctant to make predictions, but I hazard three here, for the next twenty years. I predict that Snooks will continue, at most, to have a minimal impact with his ideas in reputable, refereed, academic journals. I predict that Snooks’ ‘theory of life’ or ‘laws of life’ will be largely unvisited and eventually forgotten. I predict that Darwin’s reputation as one of the greatest thinkers in the last two hundred years will be preserved, if not enhanced.

Geoffrey M. Hodgson is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Institutional Economics, and author of The Evolution of Institutional Economics: Agency, Structure and Darwinism in American Institutionalism (Routledge, London, 2004).

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative