Descent of Man Revisited takes ‘punctuated equilibrium’ (two words from the dictionary) in a new direction, based on the clear pattern of punctuations in world history. There are multiple ways to derive ‘puncutated processes reverting to ‘relative dynamic’ equilibrium, and the result is indeed ‘evolutionary’ in the sense of development. The qualification to the term ‘equilibrium’ arises because a ‘punctuation’ may trigger growth in a stable process.
4.4 The Meaning of Punctuated Equilibrium
It is interesting that there is one spontaneous effort to extend the Darwinian framework, the thesis of punctuated equilibrium, which arises in relation to ideas of sudden speciation. And this invokes the controversial theme of evolutionary discontinuity. Ideas of discontinuous evolution tend to fall into confusion, and are often exploited by religious critics of naturalism seeking a ‘miracle in the gaps’. These problems have solutions, and we should be on our way to creating what we will call an ‘evolution formalism’. The nexus of concepts surrounding punctuated equilibrium came close to this, but has suffered its own confusions.
The foundation for all claims about evolution lies in the fossil record. But the question of the fossil record is not so simple. One of the most persistent criticisms of Darwin has always been that of the so-called gaps in this record. There can be no doubt that the record is incomplete, and that something suspicious lurks in the data Darwinists give for the theory of natural selection. Over and over we see the phenomenon of rapid emergence followed by relative stasis, and this was the original perspective leading to the idea of punctuated equilibrium. The record of human evolution itself is ambiguous here, and we see ambiguous evidence of some very sudden transformations in earliest man. The fossil record isn’t really homogenous, in the sense that random evolution should not show sudden changes in direction. Nonetheless considerable progress has been made here by paleontologists. And many of these supposed gaps have been filled, or, if not filled, given some inkling of a transitional something (e.g. dinosaurs with feathers, or the basilosaurus), so at least to a some degree the record is filling out, although this does not add one jot to the claims for natural selection. Looking for gaps was the wrong idea.
Gap Argument In History As we move to study world history, we will discover how tricky the question of ‘gaps’ really is. It is also very simple: gaps don’t exist, fullnesses do. The existence of intervals packed with transformational incidents shows us ‘gaps in reverse’. Considering the sudden compression or close packing of innovations in the Axial Age, in a finite interval, we have something that shows, not a gap, but historical continuity at all points, yet also shows a sudden speed up of development, and on a level that has no connection that we know of to genetics. This could be defined as ‘discontinuity’ but hardly a gap. That should leave us wary of pronouncements about deep time. Only close observation at the level of centuries suffices to discover what is going on. It is better to bypass the confused language of discontinuity and gaps, and think in terms of transitions.
Here critics of Darwin have too often fallen into confusion themselves, because the whole idea of a ‘gap’ in the record suffers from misdefinition, if not incoherence. Although it is certainly true that the fossil record is very sparse, too sparse to maintain Darwinian certainties, it is not likely that one will find ‘gaps’ in the record. What is a gap? It is highly likely that there is a continuous sequence of organisms showing an unbroken lineage of bodily forms. That is not the same as saying that natural selection alone is at work. However, we have no conclusive grounds, for example, to extend this claim to the factor of consciousness, especially in the human case. But these critics have a point, and a refinement of the ‘gaps’ argument is easy to provide, hence the challenge to Darwin’s theory remains in some form. Taken over all, without claiming gaps in the record, we should suspect that something is speeding up the process of evolution beyond the rate entailed by natural selection.
Theories of Evidence The Darwin debate constantly scrambles the issues of the ‘fact’ of evolution and the ‘theory’. There is a complication here, which is that we can distinguish a ‘theory of the evidence’ from a ‘theory to explain that evidence’, should that theory of the evidence graduate to stable data. Darwinism has yet to produce a proper theory of the evidence. This subtle difference constantly confuses all discussion. In economics, for example, a theory of evidence would be, as a theory, that economies show cyclical behavior. A second theory to explain the first, i.e. explaining cyclical behavior, is quite another task. Note that without a detailed record we would be likely to think in the abstract about economic systems. This example shows the dilemma of Darwinian theory. We have no detailed record of the way evolution actually happened, and tend to deal only in abstractions based on Malthusian or other misleading examples. This is clearly the trap into which Darwin and Wallace fell, because they were struck by the teeming behavior of jungle populations with its clear profusion of speciation processes. They thought the full evolution of forms was explained by its surface aspect, the competitive struggle in biogeographical regions.
Indeed, conventional Darwinians such as S. J. Gould upgraded this argument with the various claims for so-called ‘punctuated equilibrium’, which amounts to seeing that emergence is often very sudden, followed by a period of stasis where the rate of change is small, or nonexistent. Granting that such data is hard to interpret, the basic issue simply won’t go away. These theories suffered from the inability to disassociate themselves from the fallacies of natural selection, as they attempted to have their cake and eat it too, by proposing various ‘levels of selection’. But real evolution is altogether likely to be something different. And it might well ‘punctuate’, this being followed by some sort of ‘equilibrium’. The issue is bound up in distinctions of microevolution and so-called macroevolution, or speciation. The existence of microevolutionary processes is not in doubt, but the elusive factor of macroevolution remains unclear.
Those who propose this issue of ‘gaps’ in the record, then, are onto something, but need to consider that the fossil record is always going to be continuous in some sense. This does not preempt the possibility, not of ‘gaps’, but of some other evolutionary process that creates a real discontinuity in some definable sense on top of that continuity. Think in terms of acceleration, as artificial as physics logic might be applied to evolution. Acceleration is not a ‘gaps’ argument, and its discontinuous action is not in contradiction with continuous motion. To propose discontinuity as antithetical to continuity is logical in the abstract, but in this case leads to the hopeless quagmire of miraculous interventions of one kind of another in the creationist vein. We cannot say in advance what that kind of process it would be that generates this sense of discontinuity, but its existence is something that we must suspect based on the evidence that we have.