Letters header

 

Over the years since 1993, I have written many letters to newspapers and magazines about evolution. Below is a selection of the ones that I have a record of.

 

 

1993

Comments: Following my failure to get my article, “An Evolution for Evolution Theory”, published in any scientific magazine or newspaper in 1993, I sent the following letter to many newspapers, but it was not published.

Sir,
I  recently devised and wrote a scientifically-based theory of evolution which is more logical, plausible and consistent with observed phenomena than neo-Darwinism. However, my attempts to get this theory published in British newspapers and  magazines have been unsuccessful on the grounds, where stated, that it is too speculative.
Science has always progressed through speculation, which may become accepted theory when it cannot be disproved by practical testing. In the past, theorists may have been able to test out theories for themselves. In these hi-tech days, only a small number of people have access to the sort of equipment needed to carry out intricate scientific procedures. Therefore, if sensible theories are to become disproved or accepted, there needs to be an avenue for theorists to publish their ideas, however speculative. Since the discovery of DNA, the neo-Darwinist mutation theory has become more and more riddled with holes and it is high time the scientific establishment became more open-minded to serious alternatives.
Yours faithfully,
Hugh Dower.

 

2001

Comments: After The Observer made headline news on February 11th of the revelation that the Human Genome Project had ascertained that there were only 35,000 genes in the human genome (which was considerably less than had previously been thought) there was considerable discussion in broadsheet newspapers and on Radio 4 about the implications, bringing the Nature v. Nurture debate back to the fore. I wrote the following letter to The Observer, but it was not published.

Sir,
Your front-page report (of Feb 11) of the scientific ‘discovery’ that there are not enough exclusive genes to cause even the differences between species (let alone within them) has inadvertently highlighted one of the major semantic problems to have beset science in the last century. Since the early 20th century, when Wilhelm Friedrich Johanssen coined the term ‘gene’ to mean the material unit of biological inheritance, the word ‘genetic’ has come to mean both ‘inherited’ and ‘contained in the genes’. This has suited the neo-Darwinian scientific Establishment who have always regarded genes as the only determinants of inheritable characteristics. Consequently, the perennial nature vs. nurture debate has become translated as Genes vs. Environment. At long last, that is all changing.
In the light of the inevitable realization that genes are only determinants of chemical – and hence medical – abilities, and probably not of morphological and behavioural characteristics, rather than swing full pendulum into the environmental bandwagon, which is equally inadequate in explaining the mass of evidence for the inheritable differences between and within species, would it not be more profitable for science to acknowledge that there may be other modes of biological inheritance besides ‘through the genes’? Within the gestation and growth of the individual organism, nurture cannot possibly account for morphological and behavioural characteristics. For nurture to be responsible for the evolution of species, it has to be accumulative, which means the much-derided central tenet of Lamarckism – the inheritance of acquired characteristics – is the only serious solution.
There has never been a shred of philosophically-rigorous evidence against the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and there have always been mountains of empirical evidence in its favour, including in recent years the phenomenon of second-generation Thalidomide symptoms. Even Darwin believed in it. Yet scientifically-trained dissidents such as Rupert Sheldrake and myself have been bashing our heads against a brick wall trying to get the neo-Darwinian Establishment to regard what Lamarck ‘took for granted’ as anything other than ridiculous or even ‘pernicious’, simply because it is inexplicable within an outmoded 19th century Materialist paradigm. It was the focusing on material genes that led evolutionary scientists into a philosophical cul-de-sac, as we are now going to realize. It is non-material communication which is the key to characteristics and hence evolution. In these days when instant global communication has come to dominate our lives, is it really too much to ask that science wakes up to the fact that just because communication is undetectable doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
Hugh Dower

 

2003

Comments: I had my first letter published in The Guardian Review on April 26th. From here on, the articles to which my letters refer, and any responses to my published letters, can be found on the websites of the appropriate papers.

In his review of Matt Ridley's Nature via Nurture ("Natural Conclusion", April 19), Steven Rose welcomed the end of the Darwin wars when he should have hailed the reconciliation of Lamarckism and Darwinism. What Rose and other opponents of genetic determinism fail to acknowledge is that, if genes do not determine inheritable characteristics, then whatever other factors may be involved will not be constrained by the limitations of Mendelian inheritance. In order for inheritable nature to derive from the effects of nurture, those effects must be accumulative, rather than limited to the lifetime of the individual organism, and that requires Lamarck's inheritance of acquired characteristics.
Hugh Dower

 

2004

Comments: I had another letter published in The Guardian Review on September 25th, 2004.

Richard Dawkins may be many things, including a great conceptual scientist and a wonderful writer, but I know many philosophers will balk at Matt Ridley's description of him ("Meet the Concestors", September 18) as "the foremost [evolutionary] philosopher", using "ruthless and surprising logic".
I wonder whether, in his new book "The Ancestor's Tale", Dawkins repeats the surprising logical error he made in "River out of Eden" in claiming that the most recent common male ancestor could have lived several millennia after the most recent common female ancestor. Any true [evolutionary] philosopher would have known that the most recent common male ancestor must have been either the father, partner or son of the most recent common female ancestor. His claim could only apply to the mitochondrial and Y-chromosome ancestors.
Far more serious though is the distortion of logic used by all neo-Darwinists in their decision that genes must be the sole determinants of inheritable characteristics merely because they cannot detect anything else.
Hugh Dower

 

2005

Comments: The following three letters to The Guardian Review and The Guardian (in the middle) were not published.

In his article, "The giant tortoise's tale" (February 19), Richard Dawkins does nothing to dispel the myth that the Galapagos Islands 'inspired Darwin's theory of evolution'. He should know better. Darwin was by then well familiar with the concept of evolution, both through reading his grandfather's books and through his acquaintance with Robert Grant at Edinburgh University. The Galapagos Islands were merely instrumental in subsequently convincing him of evolution by natural selection. Would that the public's perception of evolution could break away from this monotheism.
Hugh Dower

 

For a long time now, the essential evidence used by Steven and Hilary Rose (Why we should give up on race, April 9) – that there is more genetic diversity within traditional races than between them – has been trotted out as grounds for abandoning the concept of race. Since it is palpably obvious that there are significant physical differences between the average members of the main races, surely the more rational interpretation of the evidence is that the neo-Darwinian concept that genes are the sole determinants of inheritable characteristics should be abandoned.
Hugh Dower

 

In his favourable review of Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb’s Evolution in Four Dimensions (“What Darwin really thought”, July 22), Steven Rose stops short of admitting that Lamarckian inheritance has played an important part in evolution, which is what Jablonka and Lamb maintain.
What those of us who have always believed in Lamarckian inheritance want (in the first instance) is for moderate biologists like Steven Rose to endorse our cause by name, and for schools and universities to stop teaching that Lamarck got it all wrong. It would also be helpful if the thinking public could be made much more aware that there is more to our origins than a choice between genes or Genesis (or, to put it another way, between Richard Dawkins or God).
Hugh Dower

Comments: See my own review of “Evolution in Four Dimensions” in Book Review.

 

2006

Comments: When Robert Winston wrote an article in The Guardian, defending vivisection, I decided to combine my interest in evolution with my concern for animal welfare with the following letter, of which the first paragraph was published.

For someone who professes to have a special interest in evolution, Robert Winston should know better than to engage in such shameless anthropocentricity (The Shame of Our Silence, May 31). If, as he claims, animal testing is no longer cruel, then there is no reason why it should not be done exclusively on human volunteers, which he admits would be more effective. However, the real issue is not over how cruel these experiments are but over the fact that we impose them on non-consenting animals, for our own benefit, which reeks of superiority.  Some of the chief things that evolution teaches us are that all living organisms are related, so that every animal being experimented on is your cousin, and that the concept of species is arbitrary and woolly, with no connotations of distinction or hierarchy.
Not so very long ago, Europeans (and their American descendants) regarded African slaves as possessions that they could do with as they liked. We now view that as unthinkable. In the future, our descendants will view as unthinkable the fact that we regard animals as possessions that we can do with as we like. The only plausible justification for our treating other animals as chattels, and not vice versa, is because we can, and they can’t, but that is also an argument for human slavery.
Hugh Dower

Comments: That letter found its way onto an animal rights website. My first foray into the murky world of Intelligent Design, motivated more by my reaction to neo-Darwinian dismissal than by any kind of real sympathy for ID, came in the form of an unpublished letter to The Guardian.

Once again, the media has presented intelligent design as an alternative to evolution (US judge bans intelligent design from science lessons, December 21), Though there are undoubtedly a great many creationists who have latched on to intelligent design in the US, most of the scientists involved in this movement, and especially Michael J. Behe, are evolutionists. Many leading 19th century evolutionists believed that there was intelligence at work in evolution. Whilst literal creationism certainly should not be taught as science, the issue of how evolution occurred does deserve debate, both in schools and in society generally; within that debate, intelligent design is a legitimate standpoint which does not warrant the dismissal it has received from the scientific establishment.
Hugh Dower

 

2007

Comments: My first triumphant published letter, which I thought might provoke sufficient reaction to make my name, was in The Guardian, but it provoked no reaction at all.

Once again, we have a piece of scientific evidence in unequivocal favour of Lamarckian inheritance being reported (Motherly love may alter genes for the better, February 14), without the name of Lamarck being mentioned.
I’m not usually a conspiracy theorist, but it does seem as if the scientific establishment have decided that they cannot acknowledge publicly that the man they have vilified for two centuries was right after all.
Hugh Dower

 

Comments: The following letter to The Guardian was not published, but a similar letter from Milton Wainwright was, and my subsequent letter three days later was published.

There are far worse myths concerning Charles Darwin than the delayed publication due to fear (Darwin’s Origin of Species was delayed by work overload, March 28).
First, there is the myth that he originated evolution theory – he most certainly didn’t; there were numerous evolutionists in France, Germany and Britain before him, of whom the best known is Lamarck.
Second, that the Galapagos Islands inspired his theory of evolution – he was well aware of the existence of (Lamarckian) evolution theory before he went there, and he didn’t hit upon Natural Selection till after he got back to England.
Third, that he invented the concept of Natural Selection – he certainly didn’t; many breeders and ornithologists (e.g. Edward Blyth) were aware of it.
Fourth, that he pioneered Evolution by Natural Selection – he didn’t; the little-known Patrick Matthew did.
Compared with those myths, the notion that fear didn’t play a part in his delay is unprovable, unlikely and completely unimportant.
Hugh Dower

 

Dr Milton Wainwright quite rightly points out that Darwin was not the originator of the theory of natural selection (Letters, March 31). A more serious myth about Darwin is that he originated evolution theory. In reality, there were numerous evolutionists in France, Germany and Britain before him. The most significant of these, Lamarck, deserves to be on a pedestal every bit as tall as Darwin's, not unappreciated as he has been.
Hugh Dower

 

Comments: Later in 2007, I read two articles by the scientifically-trained, spiritual guru, Deepak Chopra, in the Environmental magazine, Resurgence, in which Chopra criticised neo-Darwinism (and Richard Dawkins in particular) for being too materialistic and dismissive of spiritual issues. I wrote the following unpublished letter.

The trouble with moderate, religious scientists like Deepak Chopra (Deconstructing Dawkins, May/June, and Evolution of Wisdom, July/August) is that they ultimately seem to be defining God as “that which we don’t yet understand”. On that basis, even Richard Dawkins would have to believe in God, albeit in faith that it would eventually be understood. As far as most people are concerned, any meaningful definition of God must include the idea of its being an intervening entity that is purposeful and prayable to. On that basis, most scientists probably would dismiss both the concept of God, as being inexplicable, and Chopra’s evolutionary views, as being straight from the intelligent design school.
What most surprises and disappoints me is that Chopra can write an article about alternative evolutionary views, complete with the sentence, “A field that can create something and then remember it would explain the persistence of incredibly fragile molecules like DNA....”, without mentioning either Lamarckism or Rupert Sheldrake.
Lamarckism was the predominant pre-Darwinian evolution theory, which is currently enjoying a revival amongst dissident scientists and philosophers, in the light of increasing scientific evidence. Put very crudely in modern terms, Lamarckism holds that there is experience passing down the generations as well as genes. In itself, that does not even imply the existence of a teleological, intervening God, and Lamarck himself was effectively an atheist, but it does permit the accumulation of wisdom and the idea that there is much more to life and evolution than random chance and natural selection.
Hugh Dower

Comments: The following three letters to The Guardian were not published.

“I am creating artificial life,” declares your needlessly sensational headline (6 October), whilst the article itself explains how Craig Venter has created an artificial chromosome which he is inserting into a living bacterium. Chromosomes are toolkits. They are not living and they are certainly not life. As long as his chromosome contains all the necessary tools (genes), there is no reason why it shouldn’t work within an existing organism. Even Venter admits in the later article, Gene genie, that “We’re not creating life...”  The understatement of that article comes where it says, “Our understanding of how gene sequences translate into life experiences is still primitive....”
What will be much more interesting, if his experiment succeeds, is whether his chromosome changes over the generations, and, if it does, whether the changes are epigenetic overwriting or genetic mutations. I hope that you will report the results.
Hugh Dower

 

 

2008

In your booklet, On the Origin of Species (February 9), it was good to read Richard Dawkins actually acknowledging Patrick Matthew. However, he was wrong to say that Matthew was only concerned with negative natural selection. I quote from the Appendix of Matthew’s 1831 book, “Naval Timber and Arboriculture”:
“As the field of existence is limited and pre-occupied, it is only the hardier, more robust, better suited to circumstance individuals who are able to struggle forward to maturity....”
Along with many pre-Darwinian evolutionists, Matthew has been seriously under acknowledged. Though your booklet rightly dispels the myth of Darwin’s theory having been formed on the Galapagos Islands, it does not make clear that Darwin was well familiar with evolution theory long before he went there, as a result of his grandfather and his many conversations at Edinburgh University with Robert Grant, who, in turn had been influenced by the truly great Lamarck.
Hugh Dower

 

In her review of “The Genius of Charles Darwin” (Last night’s TV, G2, August 5), Nancy Banks-Smith rightly approves of much of what Richard Dawkins said. What she did not point out is what he didn’t say. The programme only perpetuated the myth that Darwin originated evolution theory. Failing to mention his grandfather (Erasmus Darwin, an evolutionary pioneer), Lamarck (the most prominent evolutionary pioneer), Robert Grant (who discussed Lamarckism with Darwin at great length long before he went on the Voyage of the Beagle) and Edward Blyth (whose 1830’s articles on natural selection Darwin is known to have read) amounts to reprehensible deception. Darwin may have been a meticulous observer and accumulator of facts, but he was also very fortunate to become commonly regarded as the father of evolution theory.
Hugh Dower

 

Comments: Following the Creationism in Schools fiasco in September 2008, leading to the resignation of Professor Michael Reiss as director of education at the Royal Society, I had the following letter published in The Independent, which was where I first read about it.

Your three articles about the teaching of creationism in schools (September 12th) only serve to show how education has become compartmentalized for the purposes of exams rather than a preparation for life. However unlikely or preposterous it may seem, even Richard Dawkins cannot legitimately dismiss the idea that some sort of supernatural entity might have played a part in the creation of the universe and living organisms. Therefore, creationism is a legitimate theory, which means that natural evolution is only a theory too. It is surely the duty of education to allow pupils to make up their own minds, on the basis of the evidence and through discussion. That discussion should take place in one class, rather than one half of the debate taking part in religious studies and the other half taking place in science lessons.
Hugh Dower

 

Comments: During the next few days and weeks, as the fiasco dominated the letters pages of the serious newspapers, I sent numerous unpublished letters, which can best be summed up by the following unpublished letter to The Observer.

The recent press coverage of the creationism in schools controversy has been characterised by the usual polarisations and misrepresentations. Like George Bush saying “You’re either with us or against us”, atheistic scientists like to portray this as a conflict and choice between young-earth creationists and neo-Darwinists. In reality, there is a full spectrum between those two extreme positions, at any point in which people can, and do, take up positions. The chief stances are young-earth creationism, old-earth creationism, intelligent design, intelligent creationism, theistic evolution, vitalist evolution, Lamarckian evolution, neutralist evolution and what Steven Rose has called ultra-Darwinism.
Scientists are always banging on about evidence, and it is true that geological evidence is at odds with young-earth creationism (unless of course it had been deliberately planted in order to send the faithless on the wrong track), but young-earth creationism is an extremely minority stance, especially in Europe. Some of the scientific evidence seems at odds with old-earth creationism, but, thereafter, the evidence doesn’t really shed any clear light on the matter. The scientific evidence undoubtedly points to evolution, but what difference would we necessarily be able to detect between natural evolution and controlled evolution? And if controlled evolution happened in jumps, from one species straight to the next in line in one generation, what difference would there be between that and creationism? The real difference between most modern-day creationists and most evolutionists is not over whether evolution happened but over whether it happened naturally.
Science undoubtedly will (or perhaps I should say ‘would’, given the current state of the planet) explain how the universe evolved after the Big Bang, and how complex organisms evolved from primitive ones, and how the infinitely complex chemical interactions in every living cell happen. But it cannot explain why the Big Bang happened, why life emerged and evolved, or why molecules behave the way they do in living cells. Their belief that it all happened naturally is an act of faith.
The existence of a universe, complete with at least one species capable of perceiving it and wondering about its origins, is so mind-boggling that any attempt to explain it is bound to seem preposterous. To many people, the idea that it was deliberately created by some supernatural entity must legitimately seem no more unlikely than a universe that spontaneously created itself and complex living creatures formed by chance (aided by natural selection, of course). If you can conceive of an entity capable of creating a universe, then presumably creating primitive living organisms, causing them to evolve, and making the evidence look convincingly natural would be pieces of cake by comparison.
We are still profoundly ignorant, and anything is possible. Religious creeds do themselves no favours with their certainties and differences, but scientists also will not win the hearts and minds of the confused public by rubbishing the opposition and staking arrogant, unfounded claims to the truth. What is needed is sensible, rational, respectful debate, both in society at large and in classrooms.
Hugh Dower

Comments: My second most triumphant published letter, which set the tone for how I had determined to approach 2009, was in The Independent.

“I think we should do something better in 2009 than just celebrate Darwin”, says his great-great-grandchild, Ruth Padel (Darwin’s Descendant, December 12). I couldn’t agree more. Let’s also mark the 200th anniversary of the publication of Lamarck’s  “Philosophie Zoologique” – the most truly revolutionary book about evolution ever written. Let’s also acknowledge that, after 200 years of having been generally believed to have got evolution theory wrong, the science of epigenetics is now showing that Lamarck got it right, as a small minority of evolutionists have believed all along. Let’s celebrate Lamarck in 2009.
Hugh Dower

 

Comments: When the Creationism in schools controversy flared again in December, I sent the following letter to The Guardian, but it was not published. Neither were the next two letters.

Richard Dawkins thinks it is a national disgrace that 29% of science teachers are open-minded enough to think that the subject of our origins warrants discussion (Would you Adam and Eve it? 23 December). The real disgrace is that neo-Darwinists persist in portraying this issue as a conflict between creationism and evolution and a choice between Biblical literalism and neo-Darwinism.
Yes, young-earth creationism is clearly preposterous, especially if you imagine the creator to be an old man in a robe, with a large white beard, working like Frankenstein in a heavenly laboratory. But if you expand the time frames in line with geological evidence and consider the creator to be some kind of spirit, like life in fact, getting down among the molecules, then it is not so ridiculous.
The scientific evidence may all point to evolution, but would we be able to detect the difference between natural evolution and controlled evolution? And if controlled evolution happened in jumps, from one species straight to the next in line in one generation, would that be any different from creationism? Modern-day creationists are not the Bible-thumpers of yesteryear, and many of the intelligent ones fully accept the evidence of science with regard to the fact of evolution. They just deny that it was naturalistic evolution.
Personally, I am surprised that creationism is not much more widespread, given the level of religious belief there is, even in Britain. I mean, what purpose does the evocation of a God serve if not to create the universe, set up primitive living organisms and cause them to evolve?
Hugh Dower

 

Madeleine Bunting is right to say Darwin shouldn't be hijacked by New Atheists (Comment, 29 December). A much more appropriate candidate would be Edwin Hubble.
There has never been any incompatibility between evolution, as most people understand it, and religion, including modern creationism. The most that can be said about even neo-Darwinism is that it obviates the necessity for God in explaining the number and diversity of species. However, until Hubble's observations led to the Big Bang Theory, there was still a need to evoke God for the explanation of the existence of the Universe. It was Hubble who made atheism defensible.
Hugh Dower

 

2009

In his measured Response (6 January), Thomas Crowley points to the confusion in the use of the term creationism. There is far greater confusion in the use of the word evolution. I'm sure that, for most of the public, evolution means no more than the Theory of Descent - the idea that, over a vast period of time, single-celled organisms have evolved, by descent with modification, into the vast diversity of species that we now perceive. As such, evolution would get no argument from most of the intelligent design school or many educated creationists. It is the source of modification that is the big bone of contention in this issue. To neo-Darwinists, evolution means the Theory of Descent in which the modifications were spontaneous and random, being preserved or eliminated by natural selection. To Lamarckists, the modifications were natural responses to the conditions of life. To exponents of intelligent design, the modifications were caused by some intelligent entity. It is naturalism that exponents of intelligent design are opposed to, not evolution as such, and Crowley is right to suggest that they have been shabbily treated by neo-Darwinists.
Hugh Dower

 

Comments: The following two letters were sent to the magazine, Resurgence, and neither of them was published.

Underlying Will Tuttle’s impassioned plea for veganism (What then should we eat? Resurgence 251) is a dangerous anthropocentricity.  Whilst it is undoubtedly true that animals are inefficient and ecologically-damaging processors of grain products and other foods, the logical consequence of his argument is that all animals which compete with us for those foods should be culled, or at least be prevented from being born in future. Don’t other animals have as much right to existence as we do?
This leads to the best argument against vegetarianism/veganism on moral or sentimental grounds. The vast majority of all the cows, pigs, sheep and chickens that have ever existed have done so because we have eaten them and their products. If everyone in the world became vegetarian or vegan, all those animals could not be permitted to exist.  Far from being guiltily responsible for the deaths of animals, carnivores can actually feel responsible for the very lives of those animals. At the root of this is the question, “Is it better to have lived and died young than never to have lived at all?” If your answer is “No”, then by all means become a vegan on a planet with far fewer animals. If your answer is “Yes”, as I suspect most people’s answer would be, then it is better to campaign for more humane farming practices than to become a vegetarian or vegan.
Hugh Dower

 

Brian Goodwin lists the good parts of Darwin’s theory and the ways in which it needs to be re-evaluated (Resurgence 252), complete with a photo of giraffes, without mentioning Lamarck. As far as I am concerned, the re-incorporation of Lamarckism into the prevailing paradigm is just what is needed to make it both more environmentally-friendly and more liberating. Lamarckism was the predominant pre-Darwinian evolution theory, which is currently enjoying a revival amongst dissident scientists and philosophers, in the light of increasing scientific evidence. Lamarckian inheritance was included in Darwin’s theory until it was censored out after his death. Put very crudely in modern terms, Lamarckism holds that there is experience passing down the generations as well as genes. Evolution is responsive to the environment, so there is flow and consequence, in contrast to the neo-Darwinian obsession with aimless co-incidence. In other words, Lamarckism permits the idea that there is much more to life and evolution than random chance and natural selection.
Hugh Dower