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What did Darwin get wrong?

  1. Jan 4, 2014 #1


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    I've had some discussions recently about evolution, and more specifically about how Darwinian thought really has little to do with modern evolutionary theory. This led me to wonder what exactly, if anything has been proven wrong about Darwin's take on evolution?

    Was he wrong about aspects of natural selection? I know he later adopted Herbert Spencer's phrase "survival of the fittest," which is decidedly ill fitting in explaining how natural selection really works. Obviously though, the phrase must have been fairly consistent with how he interpreted natural selection, or he wouldn't have used it.

    So, have any aspects of Darwin's theory of evolution been proven wrong in the name of better representing how evolution works? Or have modern evolutionary theories just continued to build on it? I've tried googling this for an answer, but nearly all of the search results are in the form of religious groups trying to discredit evolution...and this is definitely not what I'm looking for.
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  3. Jan 4, 2014 #2


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    Darwin was "wrong" in the same way that Newton was "wrong". The model he developed was incomplete and we've had 150 years of research to build up on it.
  4. Jan 4, 2014 #3


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    That's the way I've always understood it, and that is precisely the same analogy that I used to explain it last night during the conversation in question. Someone was insisting that many of Darwin's ideas have been thoroughly discredited though. Obviously, evolutionary theory has come a long way in the last 150 years, but I've never really taken any of Darwin's ideas to have been considered 'wrong' necessarily. Some were perhaps 'less right' than they could have been, but not really wrong.
  5. Jan 4, 2014 #4


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    That is way too vague to use it as an argument. You can ask him for specific claims, and evidence that they are wrong.

    Unrelated to the question if such ideas exist, it is purely of historic interest.
  6. Jan 4, 2014 #5


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    The main crux of his argument was basically that Darwin's take on natural selection was flawed in a lot of ways. Obviously, that's a pretty broad statement, but he basically put it like this-- Darwin argued that natural selection was a process the selected traits on the basis of favorability or an overall improvement in the efficiency of an organism. That's not strictly true.

    I'm aware of several recent studies that have demonstrated this not to be the case. I've read a couple studies about how various traits are seldom, if ever passed along individually, but rather come as part of a 'package' that could include multiple traits that are either relatively pointless, or even downright detrimental to the survivability of the given species.

    My knowledge of biology is relatively basic, but in my understanding, Darwin was never really arguing for the "survival of the fittest" as such. He did adopt the term for the 5th edition of On the Origin, but he was really using it as more of a metaphor for a very basic "summing up" of how natural selection worked, right?
  7. Jan 4, 2014 #6


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    I doubt that was Darwin's take. Darwin was aware that natural selection was not the only mechanism in evolution. For example, he considered sexual selection to explain traits that natural selection could not explain.

    "Charles Darwin proposed that all living species were derived from common ancestors. The primary mechanism he proposed to explain this fact was natural selection: that is, that organisms better adapted to their environment would benefit from higher rates of survival than those less well equipped to do so. However he noted that there were many examples of elaborate, and apparently non-adaptive, sexual traits that would clearly not aid in the survival of their bearers. He suggested that such traits might evolve if they are sexually selected, that is if they increase the individual's reproductive success, even at the expense of their survival (Darwin 1871). "
  8. Jan 5, 2014 #7


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    First of all, if you really want this to be an intellectual, scientific discussion, and not just the same type of discussion that one would see on any given public forum, you must provide valid citation. Otherwise, saying that you've read a couple of studies is rather an empty claim.

    Secondly, there is a difference between an idea or a principle that has been shown to be wrong versus the DETAILS that has been show to be inaccurate. That is an extremely important point to be clarified here. Darwin's theory of evolution involves two parts: the concept or principle of evolution, and then the possible mechanism that causes that evolution. The latter can be shown to not be right without jeopardizing or falsifying the former. In science, the latter is often the case as we know more and more about something, but in most cases, finding out more about the latter actually strengthen the former.

  9. Jan 5, 2014 #8


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    Whatever the case, the most fundamental paradigm in biology that Darwin is known for is what survived as the framework for modern day evolution: the idea that all organisms share a lineage... and that through many generations, organisms can change

  10. Jan 5, 2014 #9
    I don't think much has been proven wrong, but we have gained insight on how evolutionary mechanisms happen, through things like genetics and the likes. Concepts like mutations, and meiosis, combining of alleles are things he never knew about, and he could as a result not exactly explain the intricacies of evolution, but the framework of selection was still there. We have just been filling the remaining holes one by one.
  11. Jan 5, 2014 #10


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    It would help if one would write down the specific claims and cite the basis of the claims. Otherwise, one is asking others to dig into Darwin's work and extract the essence of the theory.

    A nice summary of Darwin's theory is found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Origin_of_Species#Summary_of_Darwin.27s_theory
    Mayr, Ernst (1982), The Growth of Biological Thought, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-36446-5

    We receive many similar posts asking much the same, or some in which claims are made regarding Darwin's theory. Some contain misconceptions/misunderstandings, while others have misrepresentations of the theory. Some folks are genuinely interested in learning, while others have an agenda with no intention of learning.

    As others have indicated, please cite the studies.

    For example, one can find Darwin's On the Origin of Species online, and one can find 'survival of the fittest' in Chapter 4.

    Darwin appears to be mostly correct, but short on the details. Those details were not fully understood until the advent of molecular biology.

    Also, Darwin did not work in isolation, but rather exchanged ideas with others.
  12. Jan 5, 2014 #11


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    Another reason I'm skeptical that this represents Darwin's thought correctly is that he was aware of "useless" organs.
    I'm referencing this post by PZ Myers only because it quotes from Darwin. The author also argues that Darwin was wrong on certain points, but I'm not going to agree or disagree with that here. (Actually, Myers's post could be an answer to your question about Darwin's errors - the only problem is I don't know enough to tell if his particular points are right or wrong - but PZ Myers is quite a distinguished evolutionary biologist, so his points are probably worth considering.)
    Last edited: Jan 5, 2014
  13. Jan 9, 2014 #12
    Darwin got a lot wrong. But as a previous poster said, he was wrong mostly in the same way that Newton was wrong. Hindsight truly is a blessing. This is a discussion that could go on for pages and get quite lively, but I'll chime in on one aspect.

    Darwin did not have the benefit of an understanding of modern genetics and much of his speculation regarding inheritance was off-base (fittingly), such as his belief in a blending hypothesis for traits. A good thought experiment here involves a bucket of paint with half the substance coming from the mother, and the other half from the father, and the resulting mixture being blended or stirred not unlike a big pot of soup.

    Remember that Mendel's work on inheritance at the time was largely ignored.

    Last edited: Jan 9, 2014
  14. Jan 12, 2014 #13
    This ^

    There seems to be this large assumption made by others, that particular people make discoveries on their own, without regard to their current environment and what came before.
  15. Jan 14, 2014 #14


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    Some months ago I read "Darwin. Das Abenteuer des Lebens" by Jurgen Neffe. I can only recommend it although I don't know whether it has been translated. He repeated Darwin's voyage and knows Darwin's oevre very well. Furthermore he puts it into a modern perspective. He gave and example of where Darwin was wrong. If I remember well, Darwin assumed that changes can accumulate in an organism and be passed on to his offspring. Well, you may argue that this is epigenetics.
    If I only could locate that book...
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