Lewontin on Darwin

The current issue of The New York Review of Books features this essay, by Richard Lewontin. Officially it’s a review of three recent books about Darwin and evolution. But since this is the NYRB we are discussing, the essay doesn’t really say much about the books themselves.

The essay is disappointing, since for the most part I can’t fathom Lewontin’s point. Let’s take a look:

Why do we call the modern theory of organic evolution “Darwinism”? Charles Darwin certainly did not invent the idea of evolution, that is, of the continuous change in time of the state of some system as a fundamental property of that system, or even the idea that a process of evolution had occurred in the history of life.

Lewontin never gives a clear answer to the question posed in the opening sentence above. He goes on to argue that none of the key components of Darwin’s theory were original to him, which is certainly correct. Surely, though, the answer to the question is obvious. We call it Darwinism in honor of the person who changed evolution from a vague, largely discredited idea (in biology, at any rate) to a major topic of investigation.

It seems amazing that two naturalists could independently arrive at the same articulated theory of evolution from a consideration of the characteristics of some species of organisms in nature, their geographic distribution, and their similarities to other species. This amazement becomes considerably tempered, however, when one considers the social consciousness and economic milieu in which the theory arose, a milieu marked by the rise of competitive industrial capitalism in which individuals rose in the social hierarchy based, presumably, on their greater entrepreneurial fitness.

Amazement at the accomplishments of Darwin and Wallace is not tempered in the slightest by an understanding of the social milieu in which they worked. The connection between notions of fitness in economic competition and the idea that all modern organisms share a common ancestry mediated by natural forces is highly tenuous, to put it kindly. There was no shortage of other scientists operating in the same milieu, but they did not manage to revolutionize biology. Nowadays the staunchest critics of evolutionary science are also among the fiercest defenders of capitalism. Evidently the two do not necessarily go hand in hand.

While the nineteenth-century theory that some rose and some fell in society depending on their personal strengths and weaknesses is often referred to as “social Darwinism,” we would be much more in agreement with historical causation were we to call Darwinism “Biological Competitive Capitalism.” The perceived structure of the competitive economy provided the metaphors on which evolutionary theory was built.

I have the feeling Lewontin thinks he’s saying something deep here, but I can’t fathom what it is. That Darwin used some metaphors drawn from economics hardly reduces his theory to “Biological Competitive Capitalism.” (Is that as opposed to non-Competitive Capitalism?) I don’t see what Darwin’s social milieu has to do with his ideas relating embryology to common descent, or how an understanding of the artificial selection of pigeon breeds leads naturally to the idea of natural selection among species. We are all shaped by the social forces of our times, but it seems downright unkind to Darwin to suggest that his theory was just a straightforward application to nature of ideas prevalent in economics. Surely his near encyclopedic knowledge of the science of his time played a role as well.

One can hardly imagine anything that would have better justified the established social and economic theories of the Industrial Revolution than the claim that our very biological natures are examples of basic laws of political economy. How else are we to explain the immediate and continued commercial success of Darwin’s books? The entire first edition of 1,250 copies of the Origin was immediately snapped up by booksellers. The expectation of public interest is revealed by the fact that a circulating library took five hundred copies.[3] The sixth edition, only thirteen years later, sold 11,000 copies. One cannot understand the origin and the immediate success of the Origin outside of the social and economic setting in which it was conceived, nor have historians of science ignored the question. The pages of the Journal of the History of Biology have certainly not been devoid of papers on the subject. Yet what we have been provided with in 2009 is biography and annotations on the Origin, Perhaps it is time for a socioeconomic analysis of our own preoccupations.

Where is the mystery in the success of Darwin’s book? We’re not exactly talking Stephen King numbers here, after all. Perhaps Darwin sold a lot of books because he was a talented writer who had a compelling story to tell on a topic of relevance to any thinking person. What more explantion is needed? Does Lewontin have any evidence that Darwin had commercial success because people were looking for scientific justification of the industrial revolution?

In the last few years J.K. Rowling has sold an insane number of books. Is this evidence of deep social forces at work? Can I not understand her success outside a deep understanding of modern economics.? Or did she just come up with a good yarn that appeals to a lot of different audiences?

Lewontin himself is well-known for his work in using gel electrophoresis to study the extent of genetic variation in populations and for his pioneering use of game theory in evolution. Can I not understand the genesis of Lewontin’s work in these areas without also understanding his views on Marxism? Or was he just a smart guy who had some good ideas? I think Leowntin is creating mysteries where there aren’t any.

Where he [Jerry Coyne] is less successful, as all other commentators have been, is in his insistence that the evidence for natural selection as the driving force of evolution is of the same inferential strength as the evidence that evolution has occurred. So, for example, he gives the game away by writing that when we examine a sequence of changes in the fossil record, we can

determine whether the sequences of changes at least conform to a step-by-step adaptive process. And in every case, we can find at least a feasible Darwinian explanation.

But to say that some example is not falsification of a theory because we can always “find” (invent) a feasible explanation says more about the flexibility of the theory and the ingenuity of its supporters than it says about physical nature.

I don’t understand what it means to say that “natural selection is the driving force of evolution.” Given Lewontin’s past writing (most notably his spandrels paper with Stephen Jay Gould) I would guess that his point is that some biologists are too quick to attribute some anatomical feature of some organism to the prolonged working of natural selection.

That may be true, but when we are talking about adaptations the evidence for natural selection seems to me to be very strong. For one thing, it is the only natural mechanism known that can account for complex structures (like bird wings or vertebrate blood clotting systems). For another, every complex structure studied to date shows clear evidence of being a cobbled together Rube Goldberg machine, which is exactly what we would expect if they were crafted by natural selection.

On top of this, biologists routinely use adaptive reasoning to generate testable hypotheses about the creatures they are studying. Lewontin would know better than I whether biologists engaging in flights of fancy is a genuine problem in the field, but it is undeniable that “the adaptationist program” has yielded great dividends over the years.

Jerry Coyne has responded to this point:

I have to say that Dick has indeed hit on a tricky issue in compiling the evidence for evolution. While natural selection is the only reasonable explanation for the evolution of adaptations, we cannot in most cases do more than adduce its plausibility. Direct demonstrations are rare (note to creationists: this is only because they’re HARD TO DO, so don’t take this out of context), and demonstrations in the past nearly impossible. And I should have talked more about this in WEIT (although we have discussed it on this website). But I can’t help but sense Dick’s own anti-selectionist views here: views that may stem from seeing others support preconceived biases by invoking soft adaptationism , and views that were of course instrumental in Lewontin and Gould’s battle against sociobiology in the 1970s. When I was at Harvard with Dick and Steve, it was almost as though selection was a forbidden topic — just once I would have liked either of them to have admitted openly, “Yes, of course selection is the only plausible explanation for adaptations.” In their fight against unthinking adaptationism, they nearly threw the baby out with the bathwater.

In fairness, I think Stephen Jay Gould was pretty clear on this point in several of his essays. I compiled some of his statements on the matter in this essay. But I share Coyne’s frustration. I’ve never really understood what it is exactly that anti-selectionists are complaining about. If they agree that complex adapations arise as the result of gradual accretion mediated by natural selection, then I fail to see how they are really so different from people like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett (two people often described as being benighted uber-selectionists). If they do not agree then I would like to hear their proposed alternative mechanism.

I wouldn’t care so much but for the fact that the stridency of some anti-selectionist rhetoric (see Lynn Margulies, for example) gives ample fodder to the creationists.

At any rate, there is far more to Lewontin’s essay than what I have responded to here, so go read the whole thing.

Comments

  1. #1 jrshipley
    May 11, 2009

    I guess I’m not as put off by Lewontin’s thesis as you seem to be, so long as the following very important distinction is made: the distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification of a theory. It seems to me that the social relativists in epistemology and history of science run the two together. (I’m not sure Lewontin quite falls prey to this, but he comes awful close). I’m perfectly willing to accept that Darwin’s socio-economic intellectual environment conditioned his thinking to some extent, in terms of motivating metaphors and analogies, and that coincidences of discovery (e.g., Darwin/Wallace) are partly explained by these kinds of factors. What makes Darwin a great scientist is that he goes beyond the context of discovery to justifying the theory through careful empirical study. If the factories suggested the theory, it was the finches that clinched it. Surely, the finches are as important as the factories telling the history right.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    May 12, 2009

    Why do we call the modern theory of organic evolution “Darwinism”?

    Ahem. “We”, kemosabe?

  3. #3 Eric Thomson
    May 12, 2009

    Isn’t it just standard to supplement selectionist stories with genetic drift and neutral mutations? Plus, it isn’t clear that individual phenytopes are selected, as different phenotypes are not independent (that is, the assumption of modularity lurking among many adaptationis stories could be wrong).

    Perhaps Lewontin mentions all this. I haven’t read his essay.

    Luckily, as Jason points out unlike creationistm, in evolutionary biology different hypotheses make different predictions, and depending on the phenotype being studied, and the species, we will get different answers.

  4. #4 eNeMeE
    May 12, 2009
    Why do we call the modern theory of organic evolution “Darwinism”?

    Ahem. “We”, kemosabe?

    I was under the impression that it’s called “evolution” or maybe “the modern synthesis”. IANAB

    …unless you happen to be a creationist, in which case it’s “Darwinism! Darwinist! Bleargh!”.

  5. #5 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    May 12, 2009

    Jerry Coyne has more commentary on the Lewontin review:
    More on Dick Lewontin and WEIT: what’s the deal with natural selection?

  6. #6 Barry
    May 12, 2009

    You won’t understand the joke unless you’ve heard it in it’s original form. It goes like this:

    Lone Ranger – “Tonto! Draw your guns! We are surrounded by Indians!”

    Tonto – “What do you mean by ‘we’, white man?”

  7. #7 Captain Obvious
    May 13, 2009

    The JK Rowling example reminded me of english literary lessons years ago in school.

    Generally they’d take the following form:

    1) A book is chosen.
    2) The book is read at a painfully slow pace.
    3) Every single scene, dialogue exchange and action is the subject of gross over analysis and essays.
    4) The book is effectively destroyed, with no trace of anything entertaining left behind.

    It is just beyond some people that often things are created because the creator can, or it seemed like a good idea at the time. These people never consider that there isn’t necessarily always a deep and profound hidden meaning, that all books aren’t trying to communicate a commentary on the human condition in contempory society. Some times the author is just trying to tell a fun story and pay the bills. ;)

  8. #8 A. Vargas
    May 14, 2009

    “That may be true, but when we are talking about adaptations the evidence for natural selection seems to me to be very strong”
    “For one thing, it is the only natural mechanism known that can account for complex structures (like bird wings or vertebrate blood clotting systems).”

    You call that argument “evidence”? I call it a clear manifestation of ignorance and narrowness on you part, nothing else.

    “For another, every complex structure studied to date shows clear evidence of being a cobbled together Rube Goldberg machine, which is exactly what we would expect if they were crafted by natural selection”

    You can’t even tell you’re swinging on your wooden horse here. “Natural selection explains complex “goldberg machines”, therefore every complex machine shows clear evidence of being cobbled up by natural selection.

    You’ve got nothing like “evidence”, Rosenhouse. You’ve got only BS All you have are arguments based on “Natural selection explains complexity” as a pre-accepted truth,

    Now, of course, TRUE evidence for selection directing and shaping adaptation is readily definable and woud be observable. Fisher’s foundational population models of quantitative genetics were based on the assumption of copious amounts of genes with small accumulative effects being accumulated by selection. The origin of adaptations by natural selection should be observable in the field. It just so happens, the evidence for selection in the origin of adaptations is not very impressive.

    We now know that Fisher’s assumption are highly unrealistic. Genes with large effects and complex epistatic interactions among genes weakens the influence of selection on the phenotype.

    In this molecular era, rather than making assumptionson paper, we can track down actual, molecular genes (rather than make assumptions on paper). This has revealed that many adpative transtions observable in the field and in our microevolutionary scale are a matter of few genes (or none, as in the origin of adaptations by phenotypic plasticity)

  9. #9 Anthony McCarthy
    May 18, 2009

    Can I not understand the genesis of Lewontin’s work in these areas without also understanding his views on Marxism? Or was he just a smart guy who had some good ideas? I think Leowntin is creating mysteries where there aren’t any.

    You might be able to, I’d like to hear Lewontin on that topic.

    In discussing Darwin’s discovery of natural selection you not only can find the economic origin of it, you have to because Darwin himself identified his reading of Malthus as crucial to his formation of it. And if you read much of him, you will also find that he had a very high regard for Herbert Spenser as well.

    I wrote a short post on the essay-review. In reading the responses it got and other things dealing with Darwin, it never ceases to amaze me the extent to which even people who are informed about evolutionary science can’t distinguish between an informed investigation and critique of Darwin’s work and rabid creationism. Certainly the general public could be expected to see the Darwin war as a simple for “us or again’ us” cultural civil war, but people who are active within the struggle for various points of view WITHIN LEGITIMATE evolutionary science shouldn’t reduce Lewontin’s more subtle and informed writing to a part of that PR struggle.

    I can see what professional goals might be accomplished for those using that dirty tactic, in the wider struggle for science against biblical fundamentalism, it’s counterproductive.

  10. #10 motorlu kepenk
    May 21, 2009

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  11. #11 dış cephe
    May 22, 2009

    Great post.Thanks a lot.

  12. #12 sözlere bak
    May 22, 2009

    In this molecular era, rather than making assumptionson paper, we can track down actual, molecular genes (rather than make assumptions on paper). This has revealed that many adpative transtions observable in the field and in our microevolutionary scale are a matter of few genes (or none, as in the origin of adaptations by phenotypic plasticity)

  13. #13 jen
    May 28, 2009

    There’s another book coming out in June, The Darwin Myth, that I think would be interesting to include in the conversation. Its supposed to closely examine Darwin’s life and what led him to his theories, and really encourages a distinction between evolution itself, and Darwinism, which is a particular approach to the topic. Should be an interesting take from the more religious side of the argument.

  14. #14 Chi
    September 18, 2009

    John Hawks addresses some of the points Lewontin dodges in his essay here:

    http://johnhawks.net/weblog/topics/evolution/selection/acceleration/lewontin-essay-no-recent-selection-2009.html

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