DARWIN CONCEIVED OF EVOLUTION in terms of small variations among organisms, variations which by a process of accretion allow one species to change continuously into another. This suggests a view in which living creatures are spread out smoothly over the great manifold of biological possibilities, like colors merging imperceptibly in a color chart.
Life, however, is absolutely nothing like this. Wherever one looks there is singularity, quirkiness, oddness, defiant individuality, and just plain weirdness. The male redback spider (Latrodectus hasselti), for example, is often consumed during copulation. Such is sexual cannibalism the result, biologists have long assumed, of “predatory females overcoming the defenses of weaker males.” But it now appears that among Latrodectus hasselti, the male is complicit in his own consumption. Having achieved intromission, this schnook performs a characteristi somersault, placing his abdomen directly over his partner’s mouth. Such is sexual suicide—awfulness taken to a higher power.
It might seem that sexual suicide confers no advantage on the spider, the male passing from ecstasy to extinction in the course of one and the same act. But spiders willing to pay for love are apparently favored by female spiders (no surprise, there); and female spiders with whom they mate, entomologists claim, are less likely to mate again. The male spider perishes; his preposterous line persists.
This explanation resolves one question only at the cost of inviting another: why such bizarre behavior? In no other Latrodectus species does the male perform that obliging somersault, offering his partner the oblation of his life as well as his love. Are there general principles that specify sexual suicide among this species, but that forbid sexual suicide elsewhere? If so, what are they Once asked, such questions tend to multiply like party guests. If evolutionary theory cannot answer them, what, then, is its use? Why is the Pitcher plant carnivorous, but not the thorn bush, and why does the Pacific salmon require fresh water to spawn, but not the Chilean sea bass? Why has the British thrush learned to hammer snails upon rocks, but not the British blackbird, which often starves to death in the midst of plenty? Why did the firefly discover bioluminescence, but not the wasp or the warrior ant; why do the bees do their dance, but not the spider or the flies; and why are women, but not cats, born without the sleek tails that would make them even more alluring than they already are?
Why? Yes, why? The question, simple, clear, intellectually respectable, was put to the Nobel laureate George Wald. “Various organisms try various things,” he finally answered, his words functioning as a verbal shrug, “they keep what works and discard the rest.”
But suppose the manifold of life were to be given a good solid yank, so that the Chilean sea bass but not the Pacific salmon required fresh water to spawn, or that ants but not fireflies flickered enticingly at twilight, or that women but not cats were born with lush tails. What then? An inversion of life’s fundamental facts would, I suspect, present evolutionary biologists with few difficulties. Various organisms try various things. This idea is adapted to any contingency whatsoever, an interesting example of a Darwinian mechanism in the development of Darwinian thought itself.
A comparison with geology is instructive. No geological theory makes it possible to specify precisely a particular mountain’s shape; but the underlying process of upthrust and crumbling is well understood, and geologists can specify something like a mountain’s generic shape. This provides geological theory with a firm connection to reality. A mountain arranging itself in the shape of the letter “A” is not a physically possible object; it is excluded by geological theory.
The theory of evolution, by contrast, is incapable of ruling anything out of court. That job must be done by nature. But a theory that can confront any contingency with unflagging success cannot be falsified. Its control of the facts is an illusion.
David Berlinski, The Deniable Darwin & Other Essays (Seattle, WA: Discovery Institute Press, 2009), 45-47.