Mark Roth: Pitt anthropologist thinks Darwin's theory needs to evolve on some points

Roundup: Talking About History

Darwin was wrong, and his modern-day adherents perpetuate his mistakes.

That sounds like the opening salvo of an advocate for Intelligent Design or some other religiously driven critique of the theory of evolution.

But it actually summarizes the ideas of Jeffrey Schwartz, a noted anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh and one of a growing group of critics of standard Darwinian theory.

Most of the recent publicity Dr. Schwartz has received has focused on his role in creating life-sized replicas of George Washington for display at Mount Vernon.

Much of his career, though, has been devoted to human evolution and the history of Charles Darwin's ideas.

In criticizing Darwin, Dr. Schwartz does not dispute his theory that humans, animals and plants evolved from other species. In fact, one of his books, "The Red Ape," argues that orangutans, not chimpanzees, are the closest evolutionary relatives of human beings.

He does take issue with two key parts of traditional Darwinian thinking, though -- gradualism and adaptation.

Gradualism holds that new species evolve from their ancestors through tiny, incremental changes. Adaptation says those changes come in response to shifting conditions in the environment.

"We have abundant evidence," Darwin wrote in one of his books, "of the constant occurrence under nature of slight individual differences of the most diversified kinds; and we are thus led to conclude that species have generally originated by the natural selection of extremely slight differences."

Dr. Schwartz said he has two problems with that view.

First, if evolution were gradual, there should be a record of continuous changes in prehistoric fossils, but there are many gaps between species in the fossil record.

Darwin said it was simply bad fortune that those intermediate fossils were missing. Scientific creationists have used the fossil gaps to argue that God created species separately, as described in the Book of Genesis.

But there is another possibility, Dr. Schwartz said. There isn't a huge number of missing transitional fossils because they were never there in the first place. Instead, new species emerged suddenly due to genetic alterations that created sharp differences with their predecessors....

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