In reading modern discussions of evolution, and in various discussions, it has become clear to me that there is a difference between what I view as evolution theory, and what that label has come to mean in popular usage. Reducing evolution to its fundamental and necessary principles, it requires the following conditions:
(1) Organisms that are capable of reproduction, and of passing traits to their offspring
(2) Organisms that may cease to exist (“die”) prior to their reproduction
(3) Competition among organisms for resources or conditions required for survival (at least until reproduction)
(4) Variability in traits between individual organisms, due both to inheritance and random occurence (“mutation”)
Evolution is loosely defined as “survival of the fittest”. More carefully defined, it is the progression of the probability distribution of traits among a reproducing population of organisms which meet the four conditions described above. The key to the qualitative progression of the distribution is the adversity to survival implied in condition (3), though each of the other conditions is necessary. Using this definition, there can be no debate about whether evolution occurs – it is a mathematical consequence of this combination of conditions.
Note that in this definition of evolution, the concept of “genes” does not occur directly, only the transmission of traits from generation to generation. This is not to say that the modern theory of DNA genetics is invalid – it is a scientifically established fact that this is the mechanism for trait transmission in known life forms – but it is not an essential characteristic of evolution. Also, note the absence of the concept of species. The identification of species as a class of organisms that can mutually reproduce remains a useful definition, but it is not a dominant factor in evolution.
Any discussion of evolution as defined above is going to center on the progression of the probability distribution of traits in the population of individual organisms. However, it is very easy to lose sight of the fact that this probability distribution is not a primary entity – it is derived only from a group of individual organisms, and has no existance or behavior apart from that of the individuals. Nonetheless, efficiency in discussion is going to lead to the use of words such as species and genes to represent the aspects of the distribution of traits, and attributes will come to be assigned to these collective concepts. This can, and almost always will, lead to a confusion of language in which the genes and species will be understood as primary actors in the evolutionary progression.
Current discussions of evolution often start at this point of confusion. Species are said to evolve, genes are said to be acting in their best interest, to ensure the survival of the “gene pool”. No attempt is (usually) made to tie these abstractions back to the actions of individual organisms. The collective concepts become the entities to which the theory is applied, not only as a efficiency in discussion, but in the meaning to be projected in the discussion. It is my assertion that this results – intentionally results – in a very different set of logical consequences than is implied by the original theory of evolution.
The modern discussion of evolution is a discussion of the behavior of collectives, in which the value to be preserved is the perpetuation of the existance of the collective (gene pool or species). Anthropomorphic terms are applied to both the genes and species – the genes have a “goal” they are “moving toward”. When discussing symbiotic relationships between animals (for example, aphids and ants), the participants are said to be co-operating, or (even) acting altruistically(!). It even seems to be recognized that the individual organisms cannot cooperate, because they lack intelligence, but somehow the species can.
The advantage that this kind of misuse of evolution brings to environmentalism is only a minor example of the damage that is done philosophically by casting evolution in this form. Species survival becomes over-valued. Loss of “diversity” in the gene pool is a fundamental concern if the genes are the value that is to be preserved in evolution. And certainly, any human action is at odds with the “natural” progression of evolution.
The larger issue with the collectivist form of evolution theory is that it creates an opportunity for critical attack. Looking at the progression of traits in a historical population, any apparent sudden change can be questioned – “what caused the genes to ‘do’ this?”, or “what happened to this species – where did it come from; where did it go?”. In the proper consideration of the theory, these are seen to be questions focussed on invalid concepts; however, in the modern discussion, these are weak points to defend.