BOOK REVIEW / Would you Adam and Eve it?: 'The Facts of Life: Shattering the Myth of Darwinism' - Richard Milton: 4th Estate, 16.99 pounds

WHEN Darwin's Origin of Species and The Descent of Man were published in the last century, they radically changed our conception of ourselves and our place in the wider scheme of things. The new theory of evolution argued convincingly for the derivation of more complex species from earlier, simpler ones. Ultimately, Darwin reasoned, all life on earth could be traced back to a few (or one) primordial parent forms.

The creation story of Genesis, the age of the earth, and the special election of human beings were all subjected to scientific scepticism. Man became 'the third chimpanzee'. Natural selection through chance mutation and in response to the adaptive requirements of the environment became the central orthodoxy of modern biology.

But some aspects of Darwinism continued to worry even those with no fundamentalist attachment to Genesis. The notion that evolution proceeds randomly according to the whim of a 'blind watchmaker' has proved especially troublesome.

Recent experiments by John Cairns at Harvard and B G Hall at the University of Rochester have raised the first serious scientific challenge to orthodox Darwinian theory. Cairns and Hall have shown that certain bacteria, when placed in an environment that starves them of necessary nutrients, can select just the right mutations required to synthesise the nutrient themselves. This 'adaptive evolution' happens at 100 million times the rate predicted by Darwin and seems to 'know' what it is doing. Everyone now accepts the work of Cairns and Hall; no one understands it.

Richard Milton's book takes up the evidence of 'adaptive evolution', among others, to wage war on Darwinian theory in general. His interpretation of these particular experiments is that they support Lamarck's long-discredited notion that offspring can inherit the acquired characteristics of their parents. This interpretation is highly suspect, suggesting a naive enthusiasm to clutch at any straw that will support his distaste for orthodox Darwinism. Far less outrageous interpretations suggest themselves.

Milton clutches at other straws. He presents chapters of 'proof', for instance, that scientists have got the earth's age wrong. Using what he claims are significant errors in radioactive dating processes, he suggests the earth may be only 30,000 (or even 10,000) years old, not the 4,600 million years claimed by Darwinists. Speckled moths and beetroot, among other things, are discussed to challenge the whole theory of natural selection.

There is a no rhyme or reason to Milton's idiosyncratic collection of scientific anomalies purported to support the fallacies of Darwinism. For good measure, he throws in a bit of Jung and Sheldrake, along with Fred Hoyle's theory that life originated in outer space: anything that might, from any source or direction, support his own highly opinionated attack.

Milton's is yet another of a plethora of books suddenly appearing that lash out at science and the scientific method, and that claim a 'conspiracy' by the scientific establishment to repress unpopular discoveries and ideas. Milton tries to dissociate himself from fundamentalists and creationists, but they would love this book.

It is true that scientific discourse is limited to a particular sort of truth. It is meant to be, and this frustrates some who would like science to speak to more spiritual or philosophical questions. It is also true that some recent experiments raise important questions about orthodox Darwinism. Evolutionary theory as promoted by the likes of Richard Dawkins is reductive and possibly incomplete. But it will take a better book than Milton's to make serious scientists sit up and listen.

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