Sunday, February 19, 2012

Birthday of J.C. Willis (1868 - 1958)

Earlier this month, in a post entitled "Across the (Electric) Universe," we encountered the work of one of the modern era's foremost botanists, John Christopher Willis, who was born this day (February 20) in 1868.

The Biographical Memoirs of the Fellows of the Royal Society for Dr. Willis tell us that:
John Christopher Willis was born at Birkenhead on 20 February 1868. He studied at University College, Liverpool, and at Cambridge and for a time was an assistant in the Botany Department at Glasgow. In 1896, he was appointed director of the Royal Botanic Garden, Peradeniya, Ceylon, and held the post for 15 years. From 1912 to 1915 he was director of the Botanic Garden at Rio de Janeiro and after his retirement he worked at Cambridge and later went to live at Les Terrages, Avenue des Alpes, Montreux, Switzerland, where he died on 21 March 1958. He married Minnie, daughter of T. Baldwin, in 1897, and she died in 1931. There were three daughters of the marriage. He was an M.A. and Sc. D. (Cantab.), and was given an honorary S.D. by Harvard. He was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1897 and a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1919. The Annals of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Peradiya, was a periodical founded by him, volume 1 part 1 appearing on 27 June 1901.
Based on his extensive study of plant speciation and distribution (beginning with a deep study of the varieties of of the Podostemaceae family), J.C. Willis reached the firm conclusion that the accepted mechanism of Darwinian natural selection could not possibly account for the evidence found throughout the plant world. He allowed that natural selection could and did play a subsidiary role at times, but that it could not explain the origin of species.

Dr. Willis argued that the Darwinian explanation of a series of small and gradual changes was fatally flawed, and proposed in its place a process of major mutations bringing forth entirely different (widely divergent) genera that then branched out into different species.

The addition of evidence from botany highlights the weaknesses in the Darwinian theory. Even today, most defenses of Darwinian evolution tend to focus on arguments supported by the natural selection of animals rather than plants. Plants pose some difficult problems for the natural selection theory, and Dr. Willis argues that one of these was considered the strongest argument against his theory by Darwin himself:
On the face of it, this suggested mechanism for the carrying on of evolution, to which Darwin gave the name of Natural Selection ("or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life") seemed eminently reasonable, and one that could do the work required. But the struggle was necessarily of each individual of a species for itself alone, and if one individual showed a favourable variation while its neighbours did not, the variation would soon tend to be lost by crossing. This was shown by Fleeming Jenkin in a criticism which Darwin considered as the best that was ever made of his work. [. . .] When Darwin gave way, as he was forced to do, to this criticism from Fleeming Jenkin, the freedom of the natural selection theory was really lost. Course of Evolution, page 5 -- all pagination references are to the original pagination in the 1940 text, seen in the online version by the page-numbers at the top of each page.
In that text, Dr. Willis systematically illustrates examples from the world of botany that cast serious doubt upon the proposed Darwinian mechanism for the origin of the species.

For example, he points out that plants and trees typically display leaf patterns which are either alternate or opposite, and that they are always either perfectly opposite or perfectly alternate, with no intermediaries. (Below see detail from a diagram in Wikimedia commons which illustrates the distinction between leaves that are alternate and leaves that are opposite -- opposite leaves are here described as "pinnate," from a Latin word meaning "feathers").

Dr. Willis writes:
Gradual change, picking out advantageous variation, would be very unlikely indeed always to produce the same structural character, such, for example, as is shown by a berry or a drupe, or by opposite leaves. Why should berries be most often found in the near (systematic) neighbourhood of capsules, drupes in that of achenes or nuts? Why should selection pick out leaves that were exactly opposite, ovules with the raphe exactly dorsal or ventral, or why such clearly marked and exactly formed fruits as capsules, berries, etc.? Selection would obviously act with decreasing force as the leaves came nearer and nearer to being opposite (or alternate for then they show a definite phyllotaxy or arrangement), or the raphe to being dorsal or ventral, etc. In actual fact, between many of these characters, intermediary stages are not possible. One could only take the one or the other side of a very divergent variation, such as alternate or opposite leaves, dorsal or ventral raphe, etc. 45.
This is a devastating critique, and one that is uniquely evident in botany (not as easily made using the arguments from the animal kingdom that are popularly put forward to support the Darwinian or neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory based on gradual mutation plus natural selection).

Related to this argument is the lack of "intermediates" found either in existing species today or in the fossil record. In describing his rejection of the theory of "progress by small, gradual and progressive adaptation," Dr. Willis points out: "But fossil evidence gives but little support to this conception. Real intermediates are rare; [. . .]" (43). Later in the same work, he reiterates: "Lastly, there should be mentioned the all but complete absence of transition stages in the fossils, a fact which violently disagrees with the supposition that evolution was gradual and continuous" (73). He goes into even more detail on this point on page 12:
One does not find to any serious extent in the fossil record, species which represent real intermediates between existing or fossil species. One finds rather examples of species that have some of the characters of the one, some of another. But one does not find species (as from the constant occurrence of the few characters side by side in existing species one might expect to do) that show intermediate characters between alternate and opposite leaves, between palmate and pinnate leaves, between erect and climbing stems, between racemose and cymose infloresences, between flowers with and without a cyclic perianth, between isomerous and heteromerous flowers, between imbricate, valvalte, and convolute aestivation, between flowers with the odd sepal posterior and with it anterior, between stamens in one and in more whorls, between anthers opened by splitting or by teeth, valves, or pores, between 3-locular and 4-locular ovary, between ventral and dorsal raphe, between loculicidal and septicidal fruits, and so on through all the important structural characters. 12.
Later, on pages 79 through 80, he gives another long list of variations within different plant families (such as "seed without wings; seed with wings" or "leaves usually 5-nerved; leaves usually 3-nerved") and then concludes:
Both in the monotype and the ditype families it will be seen at once that the characters that distinguish the species in the one and the genera in the other, are of the "family" type rather than of the specific or generic type found in large families. And most often they allow of no intermediaries. 80.
Along this same line of argument, Dr. Willis notes that, while the natural selection theory generally maintains that mutations that provide some kind of survival advantage tend to survive, the numerous attempts to explain how plant differences (such as three petals on a flower versus four petals on a flower) could provide a survival advantage often fall flat or are completely strained. He says, "Morphologists have long maintained that structural characters have nothing to do, directly, with the life or functions of the plant, and it would appear that they are right in this contention, which violently contradicts the supposition of selection as a chief cause in evolution. The evolution that has produced more than 12,000 genera and 180,000 species has not been, primarily, an adaptational evolution, as the writer tried to show twenty-five years ago in the case of the Podostemaceae" (54).

In addition to these major difficulties, Dr. Willis offers other examples from the plant world which are very difficult to explain using the mechanism of natural selection. One of these is the fact that, while climate may change gradually, there will usually be periods of unusual weather within those longer gradual changes, and these would often kill off any gradual changes that had begun to take place within plant species:
For example, the climate (not the weather) must change gradually in the direction of warmer or cooler, wetter or drier. But these changes are well known to be so slow that they can only be detected in averages of a century or more -- a period longer than the life of most plants, except many trees -- whilst weather is continually changeable. Suppose a plant to have begun to vary in the direction of suitability to increased drought, and then there comes, as so commonly happens, a cycle of wetter years; what is going to happen then? 55.
Similarly, he argues that major new "adaptations" such as climbing plant species can hardly be explained by a series of gradual mutations:
A very great difficulty in the path of acceptance of natural selection as a cause for gradual adaptation is the fact that so many of what look like real morphological adaptations require so much correlation. Climbing plants come into this group, though they are obviously well suited to climbing. The habit cannot be difficult to acquire, for there are so many cases of the closest relatives, one climbing, one erect. A climber also needs a support, which is usually an erect plant, so that erect plants must have been the earlier. But one cannot imagine natural selection picking out the beginnings of weak and flexible stems, whether by gradual change or by small mutations. And when at last they were formed, as obviously there would be no value in developing tendrils or other means of climbing until the stems were weak, they would collapse into the darker lower levels of vegetation and would have to undergo physiological adaptation to living in greater darkness. Then they would have to learn to form climbing organs, and finally, learning to climb, they would once more have to adapt themselves to life in greater light. And what use would the beginnings of tendrils or other climbing organs be? And why, after having learnt to live in greater darkness, should the plant want to grow up into the light once more? Yet it would be dragged up by the tendrils, and would probably suffer from the excess of light. 56.
It must be pointed out, as noted in the previous post that mentioned Dr. Willis, that the author of these powerful criticisms of Darwinism was not himself a creationist, and that Dr. Willis did in fact accept the theory of evolution. He simply did not believe that the evolutionary mechanism offered by Darwin was correct. In its place, he offered a much different and more radical mechanism, and one that has never gained widespread acceptance.

Dr. Willis was a proponent of a theory called "Differentiation," in which some unknown force caused major mutations that diverged tremendously from previous forms, rather than the endless gradual changes which characterize the Darwinian theory. He explains this theory in pages 65 to 73 of the text linked above (it is almost worthwhile to read this chapter first when tackling that 1940 text, and then going back to the beginning to follow the rest of his arguments). One can also find a summary (with some points of disagreement) of the theory of Differentiation as proposed by Dr. Willis in this review of one of his later books, found in Volume 50, issue 1, pages 135-139 of New Phytologist, May 1951.

In general, this theory proposes that very large mutations found new families, which then branch off into different genera and species and sub-species, without the extinction of the parent family. This progress is very different from the general thrust of Darwinism, which argues that species arise through gradual changes, and that only the fittest are selected over time to propagate, such that existing species (including man) must be the product of other species that are no longer on earth.

In describing this theory, Dr. Willis explains:
There is nothing inherently absurd in the idea that a family might be founded by a single mutation. About 1902 the writer became a convert to theory of mutation, but it seemed to him completely illogical to insist that mutation could only be very small, when before us, in every family, there lay so much evidence that species, genera, tribes, sub-families and families were so continually separated by such well-marked divergent characters as leaves opposite or alternate, anthers opening by slits or by pores, [. . .]. They could only, it would appear, be the result of definite single mutations, and therefore mutations must at times be large. And if large in regard to these characters, which are very often of "family" rank, why not in all cases? 67-68.
Dr. Willis saw this theory as occupying a middle ground between two extremes that he rejected: special creation of the species, and natural selection as proposed by Darwin (which he described as a religion of its own on page 6, saying "the name Darwinism became attached rather to the theory of natural selection, which became a cult, and which now exercises enormous influence in the world at large, even national policies being in some instances largely tinged with it").

Between these two extremes, he says, lies his proposal, saying: "Special creation went too far in one direction, natural selection in the other, and differentiation may be called a kind of compromise" (7).

Even while he rejected a divine origin for the families and species that he describes in his book, he admits that at present we do not know the cause for the large and seemingly purposeful leaps that plant and animal families appear to have taken in their evolutionary path. As mentioned in the previous post on the theories of Dr. Willis, he believes that there may be some force in the universe which propels evolution forward, and that this force might be somehow electrical.

In addition to the quotation cited there, from page 188, he also proposes some electric force on page 46, in the text and in a footnote there, saying:
There might for example be (probably is) some physical or chemical law that at present we do not know, compelling genes or chromosomes to behave in a certain way. [Here there is a footnote, which reads: "My friend Dr C. Balfour Stewart suggests that it is probably electrical, as is probably the splitting of the chromosomes in reproduction."]
As noted previously, recent science has suggested that electricity may play a much greater role in the universe than was ever previously admitted, and so Doctors Willis and Stewart may have been onto something bigger than anyone at the time realized.

The important thing to note about the work of Dr. Willis, and the reason I have dwelt at length on the details of his work, is his willingness to challenge conventional entrenched theories, theories that even in his day could accurately be described as forming a sort of Darwinian "cult."

He was willing to examine huge amounts of evidence that seemed to point to a conclusion other than the accepted explanation, and to go on record as saying that this evidence cast grave doubt upon the conventional academic orthodoxy. He was also willing to propose an alternate theory, no matter how strongly such a theory was opposed, based upon the evidence that he found -- even if he had to admit that all the details of how this theory could work were not yet known.

In doing so, Dr. Willis exhibited what I believe to be tremendous integrity. Even those who believe that the evidence supports a conclusion in the other camps that he identifies (the camp of special creation and the camp of natural selection) should agree that all possible explanations should be identified, and the evidence that supports or does not support each theory should be honestly and thoroughly examined.

Unfortunately, this attitude is rare today.

Previous posts which deal with this important subject include:
and, on a slightly different tack,
For all these reasons, J. C. Willis and his work should be more well-known today. And the theory of Darwin should be more carefully considered, rather than accepted as an article of blind faith.