The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

So You Want to be an Anti-Darwinian
Varieties of Opposition to Darwinism
Copyright © 1998 by John Wilkins
[Last Update: December 21, 1998]


M any different people oppose some or all aspects of Darwin's thinking, or the views that have arisen since and go by the term "Darwinism". This essay distinguishes and names the major varieties of anti-Darwinism. It does not attempt to defend or reject any views, just to provide a map to the conceptual territory.

Caution to the Reader
Every one of these viewpoints, although it has a name and often a number of defenders, is only a notional position, and is not held by anyone as bluntly as stated here. People can and do hold a variety of these positions and see no conflict with each other or Darwinism. Just because someone flies a banner doesn't mean there's an army underneath it or a war to fight. The world of science is not a formal logical system, and schools of thought do not resolve most of the time into exclusive camps. Or to put it another way, borders on maps are often arbitrary.


If you wish to disagree with Darwin, it is important to know what aspect of Darwin's thinking, and more importantly of modern evolutionary theory, you are disputing. Many opponents of Darwinism seem to think that because one disagrees with, say, the role of natural selection in evolution, that one automatically disagrees with the idea of evolution itself. Creationists especially seem to slide from "disagrees with some aspect of synthetic Darwinism" to "rejects evolution". One of the more dishonest versions of this tactic lies in the use of comments made in one context (for example, Colin Patterson's talk on the relevance of cladistic methods to reconstruct evolutionary trees in the Symposia on Systematics at the American Museum of Natural History) in an entirely different context (the supposed rejection by Patterson of Darwinism in total, despite his having written a book on evolution accepting Darwinian theory [1], see Patterson Misquoted: A Tale of Two 'Cites' FAQ).

What Darwinism actually is, is of course at issue. It is a term that has many different meanings, depending on the field in which it is being discussed [2]. In, say, artificial life research, Darwinism tends to mean natural selection (in the form of what are called "genetic algorithms"). In systematics it means the reconstruction of ancestral forms and historical sequences of species. In bacteriological research it means the evolution of drug-resistant strains by selection. In organismic biology it means the evolution of new forms of life. In genetics it means the so-called "central dogma" of the inability of information about the state of the body to be reverse transcribed back into the genes, because that view was first proposed by an arch-Darwinian, August Weismann, in the 1880s. And in fact, all of these are just tendencies that vary according to where the researchers are, who you are reading, and the period in which those people lived. "Darwinism" according to Wallace in 1890 [3] is very different to Darwinism according to Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Dawkins.

So, to overcome this confusion of meanings and to ensure that both notional Darwinians and anti-Darwinians alike know what it is they accept and what they object to, this essay covers the varieties of anti-Darwinism, including opposition to transmutationism, common descent, undirected variation, randomness, selection, Weismannism, and monism.

Theses of Darwinism

In the Darwin's Precursors and Influences FAQ, I distinguished between seven theories of Darwin's, and I reproduce them here, amended, to provide a list of possible disputes:

1. Transmutationism - that species change form to become other species; the alternative view is Statism

2. Common descent - that similar species have common ancestors; the alternative is a view I can only call Parallel descent (a view held by Lamarck)

3. Struggle for existence - that more are born than can survive; the alternate view is sometimes called Commensualism

4. Natural selection - that the relatively better adapted have more offspring, sometimes called Malthusianism; the alternate has no name.

5. Sexual selection - that the more "attractive" organisms of sexual species mate more (and have more offspring), causing unfit traits to spread; again there is no alternate, just a denial that it happens

6. Biogeographic distribution - that species occur close by related species, explaining the distributions of various genera; this view, first published by Wallace, is in opposition to the older "single centre of creation" notion.

7. Heredity -

a. Darwin's own theory was called "pangenesis" and is no longer accepted (it was a form of what we now call "neo-Lamarckism", or the inheritance of aquired characters),

b. Weismannism - the more modern view that genes don't record information about the life of organisms.

To this I must add four other more recent theories:

8. Random mutation - the notion that changes in genes aren't directed towards "better" alternatives; in other words, that mutations are blind to the needs imposed by the ecology in which organisms find themselves

9. Genetic drift/neutralism - the view that some changes in genes are due to chance or the so-called "sampling error" of small populations of organisms. Molecular neutralism is the view that the very structure of genes changes in purely random ways.


10. Functionalism - the view that features of organisms are neither due to or are constrained by the shapes (morphology) of their lineage, but are due to their functional, or adaptive, benefits.

Darwinism, in common with several other sciences dealing with historical change, also is sometimes held to assert -

11. Gradualism - the view that changes do not occur all at once, and that there are intermediate steps from an earlier stage to the next.


Each of these "Darwinian" theories can be, and have been at some time in the past 150 years, challenged, and the end result called "anti-Darwinian". Anti-Darwinisms include [4]:

Special creationism (sometimes just "Creationism" [5], the view that species are created "specially" in each case): challenges 1, 2, 6 and usually 8. Examples: the last biologist to be a special creationist was Louis Agassis (d. 1873) [6].

Orthogenesis (linear evolution, aka Great Chain of Being thinking, the view that evolution proceeds in direct lines to goals, also sometimes called teleological evolution or progressionism): challenges 8 and 9. Examples: Lamarck, Nägeli, Eimer, Osborn, Severtsov, Teilhard. Often found as vague statements in more orthodox biology (in terms like "primitive" and "advanced" forms instead of the usual meanings in biology of older and derived) [7].

Neo-Lamarckism (aka Instructionism, the view that the environment instructs the genome, and/or the view that changes occur to anticipate the needs of the organism): challenges 7b, 8 and 9. Examples: Darwin, Haeckel, ED Cope, S Butler, Kropotkin, GBS Shaw, Kammerer, Koestler, E Steele [8], Goldschmidt [9]

Process Structuralism (aka Formalism, aka Laws of growth tradition, also called Naturphilosophie, deriving from Goethe and Oken - the view that there are deep laws of change that determine some or all of the features of organisms): challenges 3 to 5 and 10. Examples: Goethe, Geoffroy, D'Arcy Thompson [10] , Goodwin, Salthe, Gould, Løvtrup [11]

Saltationism (in texts before about 1940 also called "Mutationism" or "Mutation Theory", the view that changes between forms occur all-at-once or not at all): challenges 11, and sometimes 2. Examples: Galton, TH Huxley, De Vries, TH Morgan, Johannsen, Goldschmidt [12]

For historical purposes, it is worth noting that all of these except Special Creationism have been held by people who thought themselves good Darwinians. Of course, many eugenicists also thoght they were good Darwinians (including Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, his son Leonard, RA Fisher and Karl Pearson [13]). However, TH Huxley and Galton were saltationists, Gould is a (partial) process structuralist along with Richard Lewontin. Darwin himself, and his disciple George Romanes, were also Instructionists, and the number of orthogenetic Darwinians is hard to list (cf Ruse 1997). However, to disagree with "Darwinism" today, you must challenge some, preferably more than one, of these theses.

Variation of Opinion within Biology

Moreover, within biology itself there are a wide range of opinions, some of which are sometimes called anti-Darwinian either by the biologists themselves or by others wishing to use this difference to "prove" that Darwinism is on the nose.

Pluralism is the view that more than natural selection is not the sole, nor perhaps the main active process in evolution (may deny all or part of 4, 5, 7b and 8). Sometimes this view is allied to the views called collectively Hierarchicalism and also to Process Structuralism (eg, Gould and Eldredge and their collaborators), which rejects the view known as Genic Reductionism (as presented by Dawkins, GC Williams and Maynard Smith) - which claims that the "units of selection" are genes. Hierachical views of evolution tend to deny that selection acts on genes (or just on genes, depending). Gould [14] has also argued for a high degree of contingency in evolution, but this is not, nor has it even been, un-Darwinian - even the strictest selectionists have allowed for contingency. Opposing Pluralism is Monism, the view that all evolutionary (and indeed biological) phenomena can be brought under a single set of consistent theories or mechanisms.

It is sometimes held that Genic Reductionism is identical to another position known as Neo-Darwinism, or to another called Synthetic Darwinism. This is wrong. Neo-Darwinism was a school of thought from the 1880s to the 1930s which made natural selection the main and perhaps sole cause of all evolution. It was started by AR Wallace and Weismann, and it tended to deny the efficacy of drift (9, although this was not directly stated until the 1930s by Sewall Wright) and sexual selection (5). It was not accepted by all, or even most, Darwinians and never caught on outside Britain and to a lesser extent Germany.

Synthetic Darwinism was christened by Julian Huxley [15] in 1942 as the marriage (sometimes uneasy) between Mendelian genetics and Fisher's reworking in mathematical terms of the theory of natural selection (1 through 6, 7b, 8 and 9). At the same time the views of Sewall Wright that much change is due to non-selective change (9) were incorporated into the synthesis.

Genic Reductionism is actually the result of taking the Synthesis and using the recently developed techniques of Game Theory [16] to model changes in populations. To do this, one needs a carrier of fitness to make the math work, and the gene seemed to be the obvious entity. The debate spilled over into the 1970s and 1980s as the Units of Selection debate[17]. The issue focused around whether selection could act only on genes in individuals or whether it could also select groups right up to and including species themselves [18].

Genic Reductionism is also called, variously, Ultra-Darwinism [19], "hard Darwinism", "selectionism", and "panadaptationism" or even just "adaptationism", although selectionism and adaptationism are common to all varieties of Darwinism (and some nonevolutionary views as well), and Darwin and his immediate followers had no knowledge to speak of about genes.

Recently, the issue of self-organisation of biological systems has been held to be anti-selection (Kauffman[20], denying 4), although the first proponents of self-organisation (Eigen & Schuster) thought it was then subjected to selective bias. Kauffman has since been convinced that his views are consistent with modern Darwinism by Maynard Smith.

Modern proponents of these, shall we say, heterodox if not heretical, views include:

Which of these will find their way permanently into the orthodox camp remains to be seen. Some who think of themselves as anti-Darwinians complain that Darwinism is a shifting target. It certainly has incorporated such challenges as Mendelism, mutation, random drift and neutral evolution. This is, however, a feature of scientific traditions, if not of axiomatic formal philosophies.

Rates of Change and Phylogenetic Histories

Let us now consider the Punctuated Equilibrium debate. This is supposed to be anti-Darwinian because it challenges Darwin's "gradualism", which he is supposed to have inherited from Charles Lyell, the geologist (11). However, Darwin himself stated that evolution would proceed at different rates, and two founders of the Synthesis - Mayr and Simpson - both developed theories of relatively rapid change and speciation events. When Gould and Eldredge first proposed their Punctuated Equilibrium Theory they held it to be well within orthodox Darwinism, and after some varying emphases over the next 20 years, it is so held to be orthodox again. The sort of Uniformitarianism that Darwin did inherit from Lyell worked on the assumption that the causes in operation in the modern period are not qualitatively different from those of earlier times. However, they may differ quantitatively in rate and strength, and if the evidence is that they have, this is not a disproof of Darwinism as expressed from 1859 to the current day.

A different but related problem is that which I mentioned above when I named Colin Patterson's talk at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, to a group of systematists (professionals who classify species and relate them to each other). The assumption in J Huxley's work in 1942 was that evolution is the basis for a natural classification scheme - species most recently separated are more closely related. A group known as the "Pattern Cladists" held that it is logically impossible to identify ancestors, and so this natural classification cannot be achieved (they were and are in favour of a different logical basis). Patterson entitled his talk "Evolution and Creationism" at the suggestion of fellow pattern cladist Gareth Nelson (meaning that natural classification neither said anything about nor depended upon evolutionary history), which has been taken from the sphere of classification and extended to the domain of biology in general [27]. Now, pattern cladists are evolutionists, and deny none of the 11 Darwinian theses, except in the context of generating phylogenetic histories. There, they call the evolutionary systematists "Darwinians" and deny they are in that camp.


To be an anti-Darwinian is at once easy and very hard. It is easy if you deny the core tenet of evolution (1) or if you assert that some of the other 10 theses are core Darwinian views and then deny them (but that doesn't make them so - as Lincoln said, calling a tail a leg doesn't mean dogs have five legs). But it is very hard to find any other feature than (1) that is truly inflexible in Darwinism, and so long as the general outline of Darwinism is retained, the emphases can be shifted. The denial of any one of the other 10 theses is not denial of all of them, and rejection of the exclusivity of one of them is not rejection of its validity altogether. To be anti-Darwinian requires hard empirical work to disestablish several of these theses, and to show Darwinian modes of thought to be unnecessary or misleading.



[1] Patterson 1979 Evolution

[2] Hull 1988, Bowler 1989

[3] Wallace 1890

[4] Mayr 1982, Bowler 1989

[5] Creation is, of course, a core doctrine of many religions, most of whose theologians and theoreticians have no quarrel with Darwinism. Consequently, it is a mistake to think of the doctrine of creation in itself being opposed to the idea of evolution. To distinguish this sense of creationism, and also ordinary uses of the terms formalism and mutationism, from the anti-Darwinian senses, I shall capitalise them.

[6] Lurie 1959

[7] Nitecki 1988

[8] cf Dawkins 1982

[9] Goldschmidt 1940, cf Jablonka and Lamb 1995 for an historical review

[10] Thompson 1917 (1942), Gould 1997

[11] Løvtrup 1987

[12] Goldschmidt 1940

[13] cf Kevles 1985

[14] Gould 1989

[15] Huxley 1942

[16] Developed from 1928 by von Neumann, cf Luce and Raffia 1957.

[17] Lloyd 1988, 1992, Brandon and Burian 1984

[18] Lloyd 1988, DS Wilson 1992

[19] Eldredge 1995

[20] Kauffman 1985, 1993, 1995, Depew and Weber 1995

[21] Salthe 1985

[22] Eldredge 1989

[23] cf Depew and Weber 1995 for a review

[24] cf Depew and Weber 1995 for references and discussion, also Sterelny and Griffiths (forthcoming)

[25] DS Wilson 1992

[26] Dawkins 1976, 1982

[27] Nelson, pers. comm.

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