1/14/2008

EVOLUTIONISTS....AT WAR! (NOT REALLY)

A friend sent me a copy of this article by Steve Connor which appeared in The Independent (UK) entitled 'Evolutionists At War Over Altruism's Origins.' Read it, and you'd think this was somehow an earth-shattering point of disagreement. Not so. As I wrote my friend, I found the article terribly misleading.

Take, for example, the title: ‘Evolutionists At War Over Altruism’s Origins’. That term, and the term Darwinist, is now widely perceived as descriptive of a belief system. It doesn’t help that some of the more prominent evolutionary biologists of the 20th century are also unapologetic atheists, and that the latter is conflated with the former!

Properly speaking, however, those of us who champion evolution don’t ‘believe’ it in the sense of taking a proposition on faith. Scientific models are held provisionally on the basis of their ability to explain phenomena, but they aren’t dogma. In contrast, creationists are the very picture of dogmatic believers, and their insistence in painting real scientists as ‘true believers in Darwin’ is a classic case of projection.

Secondly, the so-called ‘gene selection/group selection’ debate is an ongoing point of contention within evolutionary biology that in its present form can be traced back to Wynne-Edwards’ book Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behavior (1962). In a recent article ("Beyond Selfish Genes", pg. 20, Nov./Dec. 2007) in the Skeptical Inquirer, Massimo Pigliucci makes a good case that it may be time to 'lay the selfish gene metaphor to rest, or at least to seriously appreciate its strict limits.'

Pigliucci points out that despite being a popularization of the work of biologists like Hamilton and Williams, The Selfish Gene (1976) came to be seen as a primary source, contributing to a distorted picture of the actual science in the public's perception that Dawkins surely never intended. Dawkins' attempt at a more nuanced, scholarly presentation of his views (The Extended Phenotype, 1982) probably was too little, too late for the general public, contributing early on to his somewhat-undeserved reputation as a militant ultra-Darwinian. Piglucci goes on to point out that much work done since that time has strengthened the case for group-level selection in particular cases, and argues that many biologists have (rather sensibly) have adopted a 'multilevel' view of evolution as a result, rather than view things as a zero-sum war between 'gene selectionists' and 'group selectionists.'

Speaking personally, I feel that the article not only makes too much of this disagreement between Dawkins and Wilson, but gives the false impression that either might have a particular research program at stake here. There are no living writers on evolutionary biology that I admire more than either Dawkins or Wilson, but neither of them has published anything ground-breaking on evolutionary theory in the last twenty years.

In fact, in the last two decades, each has increasingly devoted themselves to other topics in their popular writings; in Dawkins’ case, this writing has been underwritten by an endowed chair courtesy of Charles Simonyi which has freed him from the responsibility to earn an living actually doing science. Instead, he has turned to a career as a polemicist on behalf of evolution and (especially of late) atheism. As for Wilson, as he approached retirement he turned much of his attention to promoting conservation and the preservation of his intellectual legacy. I doubt very much that either would regard this point of contention as the be-all and end-all of their interests, past or present, and it is a sign of the shallowness of much print journalism that they would attempt to spin this as some feud of great moment.

4 comments:

blake said...

Oh, c'mon. No more posts about rock bands?
--Just kidding. Since that one rock band posting, I enjoy popping
by occassionally and seeing what all your writing about.

Any interest in other 20thC. composters besides Stravinsky?
How 'bout the serialists?(being a scientist and all?)...I like Harry Partch for his sheer oddballness.

Take care!
B.

Blake Stacey said...

The interesting thing about Wynne-Edwards's book is that he wrote it back in the day when "group selection" was the default explanation for how altruism could arise. He went into great detail about how different species all use signaling mechanisms to restrict their reproduction depending upon environmental circumstances; then, basically, he said, "This had to have happened via group selection."

After that, people came along and pointed out reasons why group selection shouldn't work: groups aren't rigidly delimited, but instead have members mixing among them; selfish traitors can out-compete the cooperative individuals; and so forth. Also, alternative explanations for the particular cases documented by Wynne-Edwards were proposed, including the whole kin selection thing. However, this hardly negates the original observations about social signaling and communication!

(I got this capsule history from my friend Justin Werfel, who has done work in the field and stirred up his share of controversy. The other day, I mentioned to him that of all the current hot topics in science, I found the evolution of altruism to be the hardest to understand from reading the literature. Too many people yammering at cross purposes! He agreed.)

I have a whole lot of thoughts on the general topic, some of which might be developed into research projects; however, I need to clear my pending tray of a few items first, and then learn more about what the biologists call "kin recognition".

Anonymous said...

Thats hawt

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