George Walford: With or Without the “R”?

It is becoming increasingly clear, both from the fossil record and laboratory work, that the picture of biological evolution as moving mainly by gradual and continuous change, with mutation as an occasional irregularity, has to be severely modified; sudden discontinuities play a larger part than had been allowed for. This raises a question: If neither of the two main sources of evidence fully supports the “gradualist” view of evolution, how did it come to be so widely held?

That Darwin, or Huxley, or any other specialist, may have held this theory is hardly a problem; specialists, almost by definition, concentrate on one part of the evidence, and there is plenty of evidence that minor variations, for instance the special features of the Galapagos finches, arose as the result of gradual, almost continuous changes. (And in any case specialists tend to be reluctant to commit themselves to general theories). What requires explanation is that the “gradualist” view of evolution, not merely in this or that specialised connection but as a picture of the process as a whole, should have come to be held by the mild left, so much so that “evolutionary” came to be used to distinguish the gradualist political approach from the revolutionary one.

The question offers scope for a thesis, but it seems to be at least plausible that the tendency to adopt such a view does not find its source in contemplation of biological processes but in an inclination to see the world, both natural and social, in this light that arises in the course of ideological development.

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ANYBODY IN contact with the harder left will be familiar with their belief that events in Paris in 1968 would have led to The Revolution had it not been for – exactly what is seldom clear but it was, they maintain, a very near miss. R. W. Johnson gives a different view:

A voluntarist student revolt, even when accompanied by the greatest strike wave the country had ever seen, produced, in the end, a crushing right-wing parliamentary majority. (TLS 31 July 87)

from Ideological Commentary 30, November 1987.