International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Back to Darwin: A Richer Account of Evolution

edited by John B. Cobb

Introductory Essay by Niels Gregersen

This volume has at least three gravitational points, and can be used accordingly. First, Back to Darwin represents an attempt to revise a purely gene- and selection-centred understanding of evolution in light of the process philosophy of A.N. Whitehead. Prominent process thinkers such as John B. Cobb, Ian G. Barbour, Charles Birch and David Ray Griffin present arguments for understanding the organism as a creative agent in evolution, and for seeing the interaction between organisms and their environments as based on internal rather than external relations. Alongside The Liberation of Life (also included in the ISSR Library), written by John B. Cobb and Charles Birch, this volume is the prime resource for understanding the process philosophical approach to evolutionary biology. 

Second, this book can be used as a helpful entry point into a variety of current debates in the philosophy of biology. While fully acknowledging the fact of evolution and the central role of natural selection among randomly mutated genes, a main target of the book is neo-Darwinism. As critically analysed by Jeffrey P. Schloss and David Ray Griffin, neo-Darwinism was originally defined in the 1890’s by August Weismann’s idea of the “omnipotence of selection”. Today it is usually associated with the followers of “the modern synthesis” of the 1930s. The aim of Back to Darwin is neither to contradict neo-Darwinism nor to question the fertility of the dominant paradigm, but to question its explanatory self-sufficiency.

Hence the goal is to situate the predominant paradigm of evolutionary biology within a wider set of scientific approaches and better philosophical frameworks. Essays discuss the importance of quantum mechanics, chemistry, and thermodynamics for evolution (A.Y. Gunther, Reg Morrison and Dorion Sagan), the role of symbiogenesis and the Gaia-perspective (Lynn Margulis and Sagan), of punctuated equilibrium (Fransisco Ayala), and of emergence (Philip Clayton) and subjectivity (Robert J. Valenza). Particularly revealing are the different interpretations of the Baldwin effect. While Ayala sees the importance of evolutionary learning as an effect of the environment on the phenotype of the organism, Barbour highlights the active response of the organism on environmental pressures.

In five articles Fransisco Ayala fluently defends the current paradigm of evolutionary biology. He is uneasy with the label “neo-Darwinism”, but argues that even though evolutionary biology has room for both extensions and exceptions, it is neither in need of theoretical supplementation nor of fundamental revision.    

Third, the book discusses the relation between neo-Darwinism and theism. Several authors question the metaphysical presumptions of neo-Darwinism – John Greene and Griffin by criticizing its unnecessary presumption of a stark materialism, and Clayton by pointing to its lack of appropriate metaphysical framework. John F. Haught and Schloss point to the actual directionality of evolution as highly consonant with a divine purpose. Howard J. Van Till offers an account of the “formational economy of the universe” [362] as facilitating noncoersive kinds of divine action in later stages of the evolution, while Griffin and Cobb conclude the volume by presenting a Whiteheadian account of evolutionary and divine agency. In the process view, agency and subjectivity are not late results of evolution but intrinsic to the panexperiential nature of reality.

This volume is certainly biased towards the process perspective of evolution. Back to Darwin, however, is written in a conversational spirit that allows alternatives to speak and counterpoints to be made.