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
As the anthropologist and historian of science Loren Eisely
"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.
Here are some articles about evolution:
and Color in the Animal Kingdom." Steve Talbott,
In Context #21.
Evolving," Craig Holdrege, In Context #21.
as Process or Dogma? The Case of the Peppered Moth."
Craig Holdrege, Elemente der Naturwissenschaft, Vol.
Giraffe's Short Neck." Craig Holdrege,
Nature Institute Perspectives #4.
and Doubt." Ronald H. Brady (reprinted from Biological
Journal of the Linnean Society, 1982, vol. 17, pp.
Global Patterns of Life: A New Empiricism in Biogeography."
Ronald H. Brady (reprinted from Gaia and Evolution,
published by the Wadebridge Ecological Centre, Worthyvale
Manor, Camelford, Cornwall, UK, 1989).
Organisms Merely Survive?" Steve Talbott,
In Context #8.
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