It is not a popular opinion in contemporary science to say so, but Louis Agassiz was right that what we find when looking at the natural history of the world is more a world shaped by massive extinction events than by small genetic changes leading to the development and proliferation of species within the world. Agassiz was right and Darwin was wrong. Not only is this is so, but it is a fact of science that we can verify at present with our own observation of present conditions within the world. There is widespread fear and concern that the present age is one of mass extinction caused by human changes to climate and habitat. These concerns presuppose that animal species are limited in their ability to evolve ways of handling these changed conditions, and so a belief in the catastrophic nature of the present world to the world’s ecology is itself a statement of disbelief in the creative powers of evolution to allow creatures to thrive in changed conditions. If the heating of a few degrees of air or water temperature is enough to imperil a large part of the life on earth, then such life must exist between rather narrow conditions that denies the possibility of macroevolutionary change in a short time period, which puts the whole Darwinian project in peril.
It should go without saying that one need not believe the worst case scenario about the climate change that is threatened in the next few decades. The fact that wealthy people, including wealthy environmental activists, continue to purchase homes in coastal regions of the world like Martha’s Vineyard suggests that they do not believe in the imminent threat that anthropogenic climate change presents to such enclaves. Whether there is a longer-term threat is something that remains to be seen, and it is something that will (eventually) be seen or not. Lest we forget, half a century ago there was a fear of anthropogenic global cooling, and though weather has certainly been getting warmer, it is unclear whether this is a permanent trend or merely something that will pass in time. Regardless of what one believes about contemporary political arguments, it is without dispute that mankind has done a terrible job in taking care of the earth and in being good stewards of creation, and for that we will be held accountable.
One of the matters about the case of Louis Agassiz is that a man who was right is widely looked down upon because he saw something more clearly than a great many others who nonetheless fancy themselves to be insightful observers of creation. And while the name of Agassiz is largely forgotten today, he was able to recognize a tension that continues to baffle many people who look at the contemporary and historical record of animals. Catastrophes like the Permian-Triassic boundary, the K-T boundary, or our contemporary period indicate that changing conditions can threaten and cause mass extinction events. We do not find successful species of animals evolving to deal with these changed conditions. The few cases that we can prove of evolutionary change involve a destruction in form, dysteleology, in order to deal with more severe threats (the human response to malaria that created sickle-cell anemia, or the response of bacteria to develop resistance to drugs at the cost of some of their own health and robustness). Agassiz recognized periods of wiping the slate clean as a vital part of the existence of the earth, and one that is forgotten when people think of linear progression through gradual stepwise improvements.
Why is it that faith in incremental progressive improvements and fear of catastrophe coincide in contemporary society. The two phenomena are in fact at polar opposites. Having a faith in the inevitability and permanence of progress leads to a denigration of behavior that is aimed at conservation and preservation and recovery of what has been lost and what losses are threatened. And yet we do not recognize that some aspects of our mindset are at odds with others. Indeed, one need not adopt all one thing or the other. We can, if we choose, have a cautious openness to the possibility of gradual and slight progress while also seeking to make sure that we are not headed headlong towards catastrophe, keeping our expansionistic tendencies in check with a desire to reduce waste and the harm that is inflicted to others in the pursuit of our longings and desires. That we do not choose to do so lets ourselves and others know our priorities and our true belief system.