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Evolutionary Orthodoxy May be Boring, But It Is Probably True

Darwin One of the aspects of David Dobbs’ Aeon Magazine piece has been a significant backlash, mostly playing out on Twitter. A biologist who did quite like Dobbs’ article was P. Z. Myers. Ultimately I’m not quite sure that Myers disagrees as much with the people I follow on Twitter as you might think from the cautious and qualified tone of the endorsement, but it is clearly an endorsement (“must read today”). He observes that developmental biologists in particular might welcome Dobbs’ exposition of deviations from standard Mendelism (though this is clearly not the case for Armand Leroi, an evolutionary developmental biologist). Dobbs has clarified the thrust of his article, but the general takeaway by many was that the science has passed Richard Dawkins by, and he’s something of an old-fashioned dinosaur. That might not have been the intent, but that’s basically going to be the implication seen by a lot of non-scientists, and people outside of evolutionary biology. I know this because my whole life I’ve run into people who know the “real deal” about evolutionary biology, and aren’t shy about telling me. When I was 13 years old I remember my science teacher explaining that he didn’t buy into Darwinism. Why? Because he accepted Stephen Jay Gould’s punctuated equilibrium, which was definitely the wave of the future. Twenty years later I don’t think much has changed. Standard evolutionary biology is being modified on the margins and edges, extended and expanded, but in a gradual and incremental fashion. Gould and his acolytes are always a decade away from overturning the established order.

And speaking of Gould, here’s Paul Krugman in 1996:

I am not sure how well this is known. I have tried, in preparation for this talk, to read some evolutionary economics, and was particularly curious about what biologists people reference. What I encountered were quite a few references to Stephen Jay Gould, hardly any to other evolutionary theorists. Now it is not very hard to find out, if you spend a little while reading in evolution, that Gould is the John Kenneth Galbraith of his subject. That is, he is a wonderful writer who is bevolved by literary intellectuals and lionized by the media because he does not use algebra or difficult jargon. Unfortunately, it appears that he avoids these sins not because he has transcended his colleagues but because he does does not seem to understand what they have to say; and his own descriptions of what the field is about – not just the answers, but even the questions – are consistently misleading. His impressive literary and historical erudition makes his work seem profound to most readers, but informed readers eventually conclude that there’s no there there….

This may be harsh, but it gets to the heart of the fact that non-specialists esteem Gould far more than most working within his own purported field (I say purported, because from what I can tell Gould was a fine paleontologist. But he left much to be desired as an evolutionary theorist). An analogy with physics might be the fact that Stephen Hawking has been acclaimed as the “most brilliant mind since Einstein,” mostly due to his elegant and popular series of books for the general public. Hawking is brilliant, but he stands head and shoulders above other prominent physicists (e.g., Ed Witten) in the public mind mostly because of his popular contributions, not his scientific work. This is not necessarily a problem, except when people confuse cultural popularity with intellectual eminence.

Every decade there’s always a new trend which is gaining traction and pushing the edge in terms of what we know about evolutionary biology. In the 1970s there was molecular neutralism, which superseded tired arguments between Fisherian selectionists and Wrightian balancing serlectionists. In the 2000s you had evo-devo. Today it is epigenetics, and what that means for the “Central Dogma.” These are not crankish fads, but, the media often exaggerate the impact they’re having on a given field because that’s news. And at that point the general public gets confused as to the nature of the consensus within a field, because their perception is often filtered through the media (when it comes to cosmology, I’m the general public, so I know whereof I speak). This explains why I regularly get irritated emails and Facebook messages to the effect that my focus on population genetics is totally doing a disservice to my readership, which won’t understand that developmental biology and/or epigenetics has totally changed the game and our understanding of evolutionary genetic process.

Finally, PZ Myers seems to have sarcastically tweeted at me that we should vote on David’s piece after I wondered if any others have supported its thesis (David tells me some others have privately, and also in places like Jerry Coyne’s comment board), alluding to the reality that science isn’t a democracy, but proceeds via a method. Well, that’s the ideal. But as it is practiced science is basically the consensus of specialists. When someone plays up the existence of religious scientists PZ has no problem looking at large samples of data which suggest that conventionally orthodox religious scientists are in a small minority. Similarly, when people skeptical of anthropogenic climate change make their case, others are not shy about noting the consensus among climatologists on that question.

I can accede to the fact that within evolutionary biology the tradition which goes back to the grand triumvirate of theoretical population genetics, R. A. Fisher, Sewall Wright, and J. B. S. Haldane, is not universally accepted as having much important to say. Lynn Margulis comes to mind as someone who was skeptical of this in a vocal manner, and even the ‘orthodox,’ such as Ernst Mayr, have had their qualms with excessively formal model building. But, despite the arguments and attempts of of Margulis, Gould, and yes, Mary Jane West-Eberhard, to sideline this old orthodoxy, I believe it still remains the mainstream view of most practicing evolutionary biologists. That doesn’t mean that the classical Neo-Darwinian tradition is right, but it does mean that the scientific community probably leans toward that position more than any other alternative. And that is an important fact, because many people are confused about this, and unfortunately I’m pretty sure that David’s piece will just magnify that trend.

Addendum: Alwyn Scally suggests much of this is simply dislike of Richard Dawkins’ affect and non-scientific views on the part of those sympathetic to Dobbs’ take (though I don’t think this is David’s motivation, it may be for some of those who are taking succor from its takeaway). That is true. And how unfortunate that we sacrifice science on the alter of personal dislike.

• Category: Science • Tags: Richard Dawkins, Selfish Gene 
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  2. As I remember, Gould’s anti-Darwinianism was only early in his career when he was a young Turk.

    Krugman’s comment on Galbraith is a bit smug too. Since he made his statement orthodox economics has suffered some disasters, and while I prefer his version of orthodoxy to the Chicago School version, Galbraith is not completely lacking in relevance now and in fact his son Jamie is quite active. The scientism of economics 1950-2007 didn’t pay off as well as it promised to.

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  3. scientism works better in science. yes, gould pulled back a bit near the end though, not not enough (see his magnum opus).

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  4. You can see the Junior Volunteer Thought Police starting to gear up to go after Richard Dawkins, especially as he ages and starts saying more exactly what he thinks:

    This mounting political annoyance at Dawkins opens up an opportunity for an ambitious young scientist to put himself forward as the new, improved Dawkins.

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  5. Yeah, see Gould’s magnum opus of 1,200 largely unedited pages, or “just” read the 90 page abstract. Bleh.

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  6. From the perspective of a lay person, one who is not a biologist of any sort, and thus not able to pass informed judgment on Dobbs’ piece and the responses to it, the popular discussion has the appearance of the tale of the 6 blind men and the elephant.

    I recall reading something years ago by Freeman Dyson (must have been this)* that the 2 things necessary for identifying something as alive, the uniquely defining functions of living things, are replication and … (memory certainly isn’t one … I’m struggling to recall the word at the moment… it begins with an “M”… not metaphor, not metaphysics … Yes!) metabolism (thank you google: metayouth has its definite drawbacks): replication and metabolism. I am likely misusing the latter word (see this review of the book, also, this).[1]

    If you follow Dyson in hypothesizing that metabolism arose first, you can imagine a world with a bunch of “cells” (not necessarily resembling anything that we would now recognize as a cell) that each coalesced independently in the primordial chemical soup. Eventually genes evolved so as to direct metabolism, which requires that they respond to changing cues, both in the cell and outside it, i.e., environment cues (Dobbs’s emphasis, I think). Replication of cells happened presumably by chance and when it did, the genes were replicated along with everything else. At some point, genes evolved so as to direct replication as well as metabolism, now responding to cues within and outside of the cell in both their metabolic role and their replication role. With multi-cellular life, genes developed a new function related to replication: structural design of the individual, inheritance, and, (I don’t know the general term for it but in animals, certainly mammals it is called) embryonic development.

    For pretty much every type of life on Earth (all?) genes are central to both metabolism and replication. However, I think most of us lay people (i.e., those of us who are not biologists) think about genes only (or at least initially and primarily) in this latter role, with special emphasis on inheritance. However, if you take the perspective that the primary, day to day role of genes is in orchestrating metabolism, something that I imagine comes naturally to cell or molecular biologists, then it is both very important and obvious that genes (have to) respond to changing cues in the environment. From this perspective, the type of plasticity that Dobbs, Myers and others emphasize is central to understanding gene function.

    My impression of the 2 sides of the discussion that I have sampled, Dobbs and Myers on the one hand and Coyne and Dawkins on the other, is that the disagreement is largely one of emphasis, of what is the primary or most important role of genes. That is, in talking to us unwashed masses about genes, they disagree about what should be emphasized. Dobbs and Myers seem to be more interested in cell function, so they emphasize that genes respond differently depending on what’s going on around them inside and outside the cell. In general, your (i.e., RK’s) interest, and I think that of Dawkins and Coyne, is more on inheritance and evolution, long term effects of gene function; the concern is then not on the day-to-day functionof genes but rather what leads to the appearance of new genes and the disappearance of existing ones, as well as the history of these changes.[3]

    RK: Have I gone completely off the rails? If so, can you tell me where or direct me to readings (something not too technical I hope, given my (lack of) training and need to continue holding down my day job)? Is my description of the two ways of thinking about genes reasonable? If so, is this a plausible way of thinking about this discussion (strictly the popular version easily available in links that you’ve provided– I’m not referring to what the participants do in their research or discussions with their professional peers)?

    [1]I think that Dyson was trying both to follow in Schrodinger’s footsteps and to re-blaze the trail for Sean Carroll, making a name for himself in both physics and biology.[2]

    [2] It’s a joke. I know that there are 2 different Sean Carroll’s (at least I think there are, though I don’t know of anyone who has admitted to seeing both of them simultaneously).

    [3] Although you are also clearly interested in the relation between genes and disease, which I think is more on the metabolism side than the replication side of this dichotomy.

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  7. […] All this is interpreted by his critics as an attack on the (neo)evolutionary synthesis. Even the usually astute Razib Khan focuses on this aspect of Dobbs article (see Evolutionary orthodoxy may be boring, but it is probably true). […]

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