Volume 10, Number 2

News, Views, and Reviews

Quasars, Redshifts, and Controversies

The observational astronomer Halton Arp has, in the words of astrophysicist John Gribbin, "for 20 years or so...been a thorn in the side of establishment astronomy" (New Scientist, 29 October 1987, p. 65). Why? Arp has been gathering data which, if proved valid, would strike at the very heart of current cosmological theory, the standard Big-Bang model for the origin of the Universe. And Arp has just published a highly readable (indeed, fascinating) book detailing his findings--as well as, most strikingly, the shameful, all-too-human behavior of some of his fellow scientists.

The book, Quasars, Redshifts, and Controversies (published by Interstellar Media, 2153 Russell Street, Berkeley, CA, 94705; 198 pp.), was reviewed recently by John Gribbin, who writes:

Arp has been accumulating evidence that very many quasars are physically associated with galaxies. That wouldn't be so bad, but the galaxy-quasar associations Arp has found almost invariably involve objects with different redshifts. That strikes at the foundation stone of received cosmological wisdom. Redshift--the displacement of spectral lines in the light from galaxies and quasars, compared with spectra in the laboratory--is interpreted as a measure of distance in the expanding Universe. If a galaxie and a quasar are physically connected, but have different redshifts, something definitely is wrong.

"Arp," continues Gribbin," ...has enough evidence that he ought to be worrying more people than actually acknowledge the significance of his findings. Indeed, over the years he has roused open hostility to his claims, culminating in the scandalous decision to deny him further acces to the large telescopes in California and South America." (Arp is now at the Max Planck Institute for Physics and Astrophysics in Munich.)

The relative evidence, and Arp's interpretations, are carefully presented in the book. Further, the human aspects of his research, and the opposition it has aroused, are explored in a chapter titled "The Sociology of the Controversy," where Arp writes:

Authority in the field of natural philosophy--that is, the nature and origin of the Universe--has since [the time of Galileo] passed from the church to science. But human beings, the people who make up such institutions, have they changed that much in this relatively short span of time? How much does the social structure today promote or even protect significantly different viewpoints?

This book is worth getting for your personal library. As Gribbin writes in his review, "The result is a book of major importance, whether or not Arp's ideas eventually turn out to be well-founded. Science should be open minded, analytical and self critical. Many case studies now enshrined in history show that it's not."

The Ancestry of Vertebrates

Many scientists use the assignment of a book review as a chance to vent some spleen, or let off some steam about the practices and theories of their colleagues. Often, reviews contain candid opinions and frank statements which one might not otherwise read. For example, consider, a short review in Nature, published earlier this year (Vol. 327: 194-195, 21 May 1987). Entitled "Spinal discord," the review (by Keith Stewart Thomson, Department of Biology, Yale University) surveys The Ancestry of Vertebrates. In this book, Richard Jeffries presents a new explanation for the origin of the vertebrates. Thomson begins his review as follows:

The literature is full of ingenious attempts to pin-point an ancestral group for the vertebrates, including that of Willmer who suggested the nemertine worms solely because no one else had. ...[T]he key stage in the origin of vertebrates has been taken to be the tunicate tadpole larva, in which case direct fossil evidence of vertebrate ancestry is unlikely to be found.

Thomson then presents, in some detail, Jeffries' new (and rather complex) theory for the ancestry of the vertebrates. He emphasises the hypothetical nature of the theory (by quoting key passages, and italicizing certain words which recur, such as "suggests," "most probably," "presumably" and the like), and then concludes:

This simply is not enough to make the case. The not uncommon palaeontological practice of piling on interpretations, each of which is contingent on some previous part of the argument and fails therefore to test the original premise, is particularly weak when the group in question has no living representative. Here [in Jeffries' theory] no indisputibly chordate character is available to serve as a foundation for argument, while critics ...readily interpret the same structure as echinodermal.

Thomson then quotes Jeffries:

A reader can only despair.... When equally eminent workers, starting from the same data, reach mutually contradictory conclusions, it might seem that all phylogenetic reconstruction is vain.

Thomson doesn't think it's all in vain (he is an evolutionist), but argues that many problems remain on the question of vertebrate origins--a point few creationists will find surprising.

Cosmic Joy and Local Pain

Want to read a new defense of the argument from design--from a Yale biophysicist who was one of the ACLU witnesses in the 1981 Arkansas "Balanced Treatment case? Tell me another one, you say...but we're not kidding: take a look at Cosmic Joy and Local Pain (New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1987 321 pp.). In the book, Harold Morowitz writes that the argument from design was abandoned by scientists "without giving it the consideration it deserves." He argues:

The question is whether life with all its subtleties is some accidental property called into existence by events of blind chance or whether it is a more fundamental property of the world of nature. As we study the complex and interrelated aspects of planetary life, are we simply to attribute it all to random events, or are we to seek deep meanings about ourselves and the cosmos? Looking at the evidence, Henderson [a Harvard professor of philosophy] opted for the latter approach. So do I...

Gerald Weissmann, in his review of the book (The Scientist, 21 September 1987, p. 20), writes that "Morowitz emerges as a champion of the argument from design. He refuses to believe that blind chance can account for the "richness and beauty of existence." Morowitz'z heroes, Weissmann observes, are "fellow scientist-philosophers who have deduced the workings of a universal intelligence from the structure of matter."

Sounds like the ACLU won't be calling Morowitz to testify on creation/evolution in the future.

The Structuralists

For several years, some of the most outspoken critics of neo-Darwinism have been a loosely associated group of biologists and other scientists who term themselves "structuralists." One leading structuralist, Gerry Webster (School of Biological Sciences, The University of Sussex, Brighton, UK) describes that sharp opposition of structuralism and Darwinism ("By Darwinism," he writes, "I mean the theory of descent plus the theory of natural selection"):

This opposition of 'Darwinism' and 'Structuralism' is not simply a debating device, but reflects, I believe, differences in the idea of what can, or should, constitute biological knowledge; it is no accident that a number of writers who have developed 'proto-structuralist' concepts in biology have done so in the course of formulating criticisms of 'Darwinism'. ("The nature and scope of structuralist analysis in biology" Rivista di Biology-Biology Forum 80 (2): 173-177, 1987)

The writings and ideas of structuralists are, unfortunately, too little studied, or even known, by American non-evolutionists and creationists. (One explanation for this neglect may be that there are few prominent American structuralists; most of the leading structuralists are in Britain, Italy, Japan, or New Zealand.) Those of us who are interested in articulating a non-evolutionary or "discontinuist" theory of origins can ill afford to neglect the original--albeit often difficult--writings of the structuralist position. Consider for instance the following:

The confusion we have experienced as to the nature and adequacy of the current view of organisms [i.e., standard evolutionary theory], arising both from reading the literature and from discussions with our colleagues, finally led us to the conclusion that the only way of achieving clarification was to abandon the systems of concepts which we call the "evolutionary paradigm" and attempt to construct what seems to us a more satisfactory conceptual structure. ... [W]e question the adequacy of the evolutionary paradigm in relation to its failure to provide any satisfactory theory of the production and re-production of biological form. ...[A]n account of the 'origin' (in the sense employed by Darwin) of any one particular adaptation would demand a knowledge of the specific, historically contingent, conditions under which the composition of a known, historical, population underwent the changes leading to the present state of affairs which is to be explained. Such knowledge is usually unobtainable, so that accounts are bound to be specualtive and largely untestable. (G. Webster and B.C. Goodwin, "The origin of species: a structuralist approach" Journal of Social and Biological Structures 5 (1): 15-47, January 1982, pp. 15, 16, 24) [emphasis added]

Nearly all structuralists are sharply critical of current evolutionary theory. Tony Hughes and David Lambert (Evolutionary Genetics Laboratory, Department of Zoology, University of Auckland, New Zealand) write, for instance, that "much of neo-Darwinism represents a functionalist 'way of seeing' that is devoid of rigorous definition." To view biology from such a perspective involves, firstly, an analysis of traits rather than whole systems, and, secondly, a belief in the extraordinary creative powers of natural selection. "We should remember," they argue, "that natural selection is not necessarily real...just because biologists and mathematicians have been talking about it for over 100 years. ...In essence, we contend that neo-Darwinism is a theory of differential survival and not one of origin. ("Functionalism, Structuralism, and 'Ways of Seeing'" Journal of Theoretical Biology 111: 787-800, 1984, pp. 787, 796) [First emphasis added; others in original]

But the strucutralist program is not merely critical of existing evolutionary specualtions. Much of structuralist thought is aimed at recovering from undeserved oblivion the ideas and concepts of pre- and non-Darwinian scientists--for instance, the idea of a "plan of Creation":

Classification, for the rational morphologists, was not an end in itself; it was a means to discovering the systematic arrangement or form of the biological domain as a whole--the Plan of Creation--and hence the general and systematic constraints in terms of which the individual forms could be understood. From an empiricist-positivist perspective in which only that which is observable is real, such an abstract conception must appear as sheer fantasy, and it is clear from Darwin's references to the Plan of Creation that he finds it an alien and unintelligible notion. The notion of a Plan of Creation, however, can be seen as a hypothesis that behind the diversity of appearances there might be a rational unity--a "logic"--which could be revealed by attempting to order and relate the empirical regularities in organismic forms, the invariant relations, the typical forms. (Gerry Webster and Brian Goodwin, "History and Structure in Biology" Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 25: 39-62, Autumn 1981, p. 52) [Reference numbers omitted]

A sizable and idea-rich structuralist literature now exists. While no non-evolutionist can expect to agree with all he or she will read in that literature, there is much of considerable value. Rivista di Biologia-Biology Form has now become something of a structuralist "house organ," and the journal is a good place to start.

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File Date: 3.5.97