What Do Organisms Mean? > Genes and the Central Fallacy of Evolutionary Theory > Summary
A project by Stephen L. Talbott


Genes and the Central Fallacy of Evolutionary Theory


Evolution is said to occur inevitably, given (1) trait variation among members of a breeding population, (2) at least some inheritance of parental traits by offspring, and (3) differential fitness of organisms possessing different traits. This core logic of evolutionary theory has been strongly grounded in DNA: the heritable substance consists essentially of DNA; variation equates to random DNA mutations; and differential fitness derives from the phenotype (observable features) of the organism, which in turn derive from instructions in DNA. This entire logic is so far abstracted from the life of organisms that, by itself, it tells us little if anything about the actual possibilities or likely character of evolutionary change.

Three lines of thought have supported the conviction that DNA is the essential hereditary substance. One is rooted in the belief that DNA is digital, consisting of stable and discrete (“atomic”) units that are reliably replicated from one generation to the next, subject only to occasional mutations. Advantageous mutations can then spread in the population through natural selection, while disadvantageous ones are eliminated. This measured change against a background of stability is supposed to be what makes possible the cumulative development of complex adaptive features in an evolutionary lineage.

Another key conviction is that DNA, in some fundamental sense that is never made clear, explains the organism. Whatever is critically important for explaining the organism is naturally assumed to be critically important for inheritance. And, in the third place, there is the longstanding disconnect between evolutionary studies and those, such as embryology, related to organismal development. This disconnect is symbolized by by the isolation of DNA from its cellular surroundings and, on a larger scale, by the isolation of the germline from somatic cells. And it is strengthened by the apparent failure of Lamarckianis