What if you call for a revolution and no one revolts?

When I was in 8th grade my earth science teacher explained he did not believe in Darwinism. He seemed a reasonable fellow so my first reaction was shock. My best friend at the time, who sat next to me, laughed, “Yeah, some people believe we’re descended from monkeys! Crazy, huh?” I didn’t really know what to say. But what followed was even more confusing to me: my teacher explained that he accepted punctuated equilibrium, not Darwinism. He did not elaborate much beyond this, though I tried to get at what he believed after class in the few minutes I had.

Later on I realized that he had drunk deeply at the well of Stephen Jay Gould, paleontologist and polymath. I will quote Richard Lewontin, Gould’s longtime collaborator and friend:

Now I should warn you about my prejudices. Steve and I taught evolution together for years and in a sense we struggled in class constantly because Steve, in my view, was preoccupied with the desire to be considered a very original and great evolutionary theorist. So he would exaggerate and even caricature certain features, which are true but not the way you want to present them. For example, punctuated equilibrium, one of his favorites. He would go to the blackboard and show a trait rising gradually and then becoming completely flat for a while with no change at all, and then rising quickly and then completely flat, etc. which is a kind of caricature of the fact that there is variability in the evolution of traits, sometimes faster and sometimes slower, but which he made into punctuated equilibrium literally. Then I would have to get up in class and say “Don’t take this caricature too seriously. It really looks like this…” and I would make some more gradual variable rates. Steve and I had that kind of struggle constantly. He would fasten on a particular interesting aspect of the evolutionary process and then make it into a kind of rigid, almost vacuous rule, because—now I have to say that this is my view—I have no demonstration of it—that Steve was really preoccupied by becoming a famous evolutionist.

Gould succeeded, after a fashion. His reputation within evolutionary biology is mixed, at best. Just look at what someone who thinks he made genuine original contributions to science admits above. But in the mind of the public Stephen Jay Gould was an oracle of sorts.

A revolution is sexy. A revolution sells. Having read both of them, I would say that Richard Dawkins is the better stylist when compared to Gould. Additionally, though some might disagree with this Dawkins is closer to the mainline of the modern evolutionary biological tradition than Gould. But in the United States Gould far overshadowed Dawkins…until the latter began to make a name for himself as an anti-religion polemicist in the 2000s. Revolution. Controversy. They’re salient. The press eats it up, and the public trusts the press.

And some things never change. Every few years there is an impending “revolution” in evolutionary biology or genetics. But the revolution is mostly in the minds of a few journalists, and a public that reads a little too much into a puff piece here and there. The sort of well educated public woolly on what the “central dogma” is, but clear that it has been overthrown.

Sometimes this gets out of control. Suzan Mazur’s The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry is probably the weirdest instance of this genre of “the sky is falling in evolutionary theory!” But of late some scholars have been coming out with more sober critiques, arguing that the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis needs to be extended or modified significantly. Kevin Laland’s Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind is the latest instance of this, but this was preceded by Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life. You can also read David Dobbs’ sympathetic treatment from a few years back around this issue.

I can communicate to you what seems to be the majority view among the evolutionary biologist I know: there isn’t a need for a revolution in conceptual thought, just a working out of details and reallocation of resources. Many who are sympathetic to Kevin Laland’s argument still believe that it’s about emphases and semantics. There’s no reason to put out a clarion call that evolution needs to be rethought in its conceptual foundations.

Honestly I don’t know if there’s been much that is revolutionary conceptually since the original period of the synthesis. Perhaps the rise of molecular evolution and neutrality as a null hypothesis? But even I’m not sure about that.

Erik I. Svensson has put up a preprint which speaks for many people, On reciprocal causation in the evolutionary process. Read the whole thing, it’s thorough, and accessible to a lay audience. The main aspect a bit surprising to me is the good word put in for The Dialectical Biologist, which I have heard is an interesting book:

Recent calls for a revision the standard evolutionary theory (ST) are based on arguments about the reciprocal causation of evolutionary phenomena. Reciprocal causation means that cause-effect relationships are obscured, as a cause could later become an effect and vice versa. Such dynamic cause-effect relationships raises questions about the distinction between proximate and ultimate causes, as originally formulated by Ernst Mayr. They have also motivated some biologists and philosophers to argue for an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES). Such an EES will supposedly replace the Modern Synthesis (MS), with its claimed focus on unidirectional causation. I critically examine this conjecture by the proponents of the EES, and conclude, on the contrary, that reciprocal causation has long been recognized as important in ST and in the MS tradition. Numerous empirical examples of reciprocal causation in the form of positive and negative feedbacks now exists from both natural and laboratory systems. Reciprocal causation has been explicitly incorporated in mathematical models of coevolutionary arms races, frequency-dependent selection and sexual selection. Such feedbacks were already recognized by Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, long before the call for an EES and the associated concept of niche construction. Reciprocal causation and feedbacks is therefore one of the few contributions of dialectical thinking and Marxist philosophy in evolutionary theory, and should be recognized as such. While reciprocal causation have helped us to understand many evolutionary processes, I caution against its extension to heredity and directed development if such an extension involves futile attempts to restore Lamarckian or soft inheritance.

2 thoughts on “What if you call for a revolution and no one revolts?

  1. Whoa I just looked up dimly recalled phrase “morphic fields” and I see that that Sheldrake fellow is not only still banging on with his assertion, but his website’s graphics and organization are pretty up to date. And you can help further the science by participating in his “free online staring experiment”.

    If you actually physically go and hike down into the Grand Canyon and put your finger on a shale-mud deposition line that’s only as thick as your fingernail, and you think “okay that line there is one year of deposition”, and you look upward 2500 feet and five steep trail miles to the snow-covered canyon Rim and downward 2500 feet and five steep trail miles to the palm trees shimmering in the 85 deg F heat along the River, and you feel in your bones the all-day maximal effort to climb up and down to those limits, then you might finally be getting a glimpse of something glancing toward real deep time. And then you may allow yourself to believe that one simple tiny ratchet click, repeated over, and over, and over, for 500,000,000 years, might in fact be enough to result in a squishy monkey with his finger touching a sheer 800-feet high rock face pondering his own ludicrously limited monkey attempts to properly perceive himself in context of that time…yeah so no need for impatient calling in of super-mechanisms. One tiny ratchet catch, going in only one direction, may well be enough…easy does it…

  2. Clearly, there have been major changes in the evolution of life on Earth where previously minor organisms evolve a new biological mechanism that drastically alters the physical and biological landscape of even the entire planet. In the fossil record, this is a very punctuated change. Think of cyanobacteria or multicellular eukaryotes as the simplest examples.

    It doesn’t mean that the evolutionary process was any different, just that the SELECTION put on many/most organisms changed all at once.

    On a smaller scale, the similar things occur quite often.

    The general public often confuses the mechanism of evolution with the evolutionary response of certain types of organisms to particular arising selection pressures.

    If I have two chemostats growing the same bacteria, and I start gradually adding a new antibiotic into only one of them every month, then after a few years I will have quite different populations in them.

    Although the process of evolution is occurring at the same rate in both, many people believe that evolution speeds up in one of them.

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