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Out of Control

There is a grave and unmistakable lack of intermediates in the fossil record. The fact that creationists gloat over it should not tempt others to ignore it. The "fossil gaps" were a hole in Darwin's theory that he promised would go away in the future, when more areas of Earth were searched by professional evolutionists. The gaps did not go away in the least. Once a "trade secret" of paleontologists, the gaps are now acknowledged by every leading authority on evolution. Here are two: "The known fossil record fails to document a single example of phyletic [gradual] evolution accomplishing a major morphologic transition and hence offers no evidence that the gradualistic model can be valid," says Stephen Stanley, evolutionary paleontologist. And here's Steven Jay Gould again, speaking as the expert paleontologist he is:

All paleontologists know that the fossil record contains precious little in the way of intermediate forms; transitions between major groups are characteristically abrupt....The history of most fossil species includes two features particularly inconsistent with gradualism:

1. Stasis. Most species exhibit no directional change during their tenure on Earth. They appear in the fossil record looking much the same way as when they disappear....

2. Sudden appearance. In any local area, a species does not arise gradually by the steady transformation of its ancestors; it appears all at once and "fully formed."

In the eyes of science historians, Darwin's most consequential claim was that the discontinuous face of life as a whole was an illusion. The separateness of species, the "immutable essence" intrinsic to each type of animal or plant -- a principle which the ancient philosophers had taught forever -- was, he claimed, false. The Bible spoke of creatures "each made in their kind," and most biologists of the day, including the young Darwin, thought species kept to their breed in an idealized way. It was the type that mattered, while individuals conformed more or less to the type. The enlightened Darwin announced, however, that (1) every individual differed significantly; (2) all life was dynamically plastic, infinitely malleable between individuals, so (3) individuals arranged in populations were all that mattered. The barriers erected by species were porous and illusory. By shifting the discontinuity from species to every individual, Darwin vaporized it. Life was one evenly distributed being.

But intriguing suspicions now accumulating in the study of complex systems, particularly complex systems that adapt, learn, and evolve, suggest Darwin was wrong in his most revolutionary premise. Life is largely clumped into parcels and only mildly plastic. Species either persist or die. They transmute into something else under only the most mysterious and uncertain conditions. By and large, complex things fall into categories and the categories persist. Stasis of the category is the norm: the typical lifespan for a species is between one and ten million years.

Things that resemble organisms -- economic firms, thoughts in the brain, ecological communities, nation-states -- also naturally differentiate into persistent clumps. Human institution clumps -- churches, departments, companies -- find it easier to grow than to evolve. Required to adapt too far from their origins, most institutions will die.

"Organic" entities are not infinitely malleable because complex systems cannot easily be gradually modified in a sequence of functional intermediates. A complex system (such as a zebra or a company) is severely limited in the directions and ways it can evolve, because it is a hierarchy composed entirely of subentities, which are also limited in their room for adaptation because they are composed of sub-subentities, and so on down the tower.

It should be no surprise, then, to find that evolution works in quantum steps. The given constituents of an organism can collectively make this or that, but not everything in between this and that. The hierarchical nature of the whole prevents it from reaching all the possible states it might theoretically hit. At the same time, the hierarchical arrangement of the whole gives it power to make some large-scale shifts. So a record of this organism would show it leaping from this to that. In biology, this is called saltationism (from the Latin saltare, to jump) and it is totally out of favor among professional biologists. Mild saltationism was rejuvenated with interest in Goldschmidt's genetic hopeful monsters, but a complex saltationism that would significantly leap over transitional forms is pure heresy at the moment. Yet the interdependent coadaptations that constitute a complex being must produce quantum evolution. Artificial evolution has not yet produced an "organism" complex enough to contain hierarchical depth, and so we don't know yet in what way saltationism might appear in synthetic worlds.