Blogging Dawkins, Chapter Two

Dawkins begins his case for evolution in the same place as Darwin himself: by discussing the myriad successes of plant and animal breeders. Whereas Darwin was very taken with pigeons, however, Dawkins prefers dogs, cabbages and cattle.

The chapter opens with a brief discussion of essentialism in biology, and how evolution shows it to be false. The following paragraph provides a well-written summary of the main point:

If there’s a `standard rabbit’, the accolade denotes no more than the centre of a bell-shaped distribution of real, scurrying, leaping, variable bunnies. And the distribution shifts with time. As generations go by, there may gradually come a point, not clearly defined, when the norm of what we call rabbits will have departed so far as to deserve a different name. There is no permanent rabbitiness, no essence of rabbit hanging in the sky, just populations of furry, long-eared, coprophagus, whisker-twitching individuals, showing a statistical distribution of variation in size, shape, colour and proclivites. What used to be the longer-eared end of the old distribution may find itself the centre of a new distribution later in geological time. Given a sufficiently large number of generations, there may be no overlap between ancestral and descendant distributions: the longest ears among the ancestors may be shorter than the shortest ears among the descendants. All is fluid, as another Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said; nothing fixed. After a hundred million years it may be hard to believe that the descendant animals ever had rabbits for ancestors. Yet in no generation during the evolutionary process was the predominant type in the population far from the modal type in the previous generation. This way of thinking is what Mayr called population thinking. Population thinking, for him, was the antithesis of essentialism. According to Mayr, the reason Darwin was such an unconscionable time arriving on the scene was that we all — whether because of Greek influence of for some other reason — have essentialism burned into our mental DNA. (pp. 22-23).

He moves on to a similarly lucid explanation of the idea of a gene pool. For example:

Now let’s return to the remark that opened my discussion of gene pools. I said that if human breeders are to be seen as sculptors, what they are carving with their chisels is not dog flesh but gene pools. It appears to be dog flesh because the breeder might announce an intention to, say, shorten the snouts of future generations of boxers. And the end product of such an intention would indeed be a shorter snout, as though a chisel had been taken to the ancestor’s face. But, as we have seen, a typical boxer in any one generation is a sampling of the contemporary gene pool. It is the gene pool that has been carved and whittled over the years. Genes for long snouts have been chiselled out of the gene pool and replaced by genes for short snouts. Every breed of dog, from dachsund to Dalmation, from boxer to borzoi, from Poodle to Pekinese, from Great Dane to chihuahua, has been carved, chiselled, kneaded, moulded, not literally as flesh and bone but in its gene pool. (p. 34)

If this sort of “artificial selection” can cause such massive changes in organisms in periods of time that are short relative to geological history, then the common descent of all organisms does not seem so farfetched. In terms of the broader case for evolution this should be viewed as a plausibility argument. By itself it tells us nothing about natural history, but it does earn evolution a hearing.

Creationists have two standard replies to this sort of thing. The first is to assert that animal breeding is an example of intelligent design, since it is human breeders doing the selecting. This completely misses the point, of course. The success of artificial selection in animal breeding shows that the non-random selection of randomly occurring genetic variations can cause impressive physical changes in organisms, even in relatively short periods of time. That it was intelligent human breeders, as opposed to mindless nature, that was doing the selecting in this case is neither here nor there.

It is important to keep in mind that artificial selection is not merely an analogy for natural selection. It is precisely the same process. Natural selection is what happens when heritable differences among organisms have consequences for their level of reproductive success. The only significance of the term “artificial” is to make clear that the basis for the differing reproductive success is the whims of human breeders as opposed to the demands of survival in nature.

The second reply is that, as impressive as the differences between, say, a Boston Terrier and a Great Dane might be, they are both still dogs. That hardly implies that human beings can be the evolutionary descendants of ancient single-celled organisms.

There is some truth to this. There could, in principle be natural barriers that put strict limits on the amount of change that can occur via natural evolutionary mechanisms. It would indeed be a great leap to say that the accomplishments of animal breeders prove that the evolution of humans from simpler ancestors is a live possibility.

It is fortunate, therefore, that no one is saying that. As I said, animal breeding provides a plausibility argument, nothing more. It shifts the burden of proof back to the creationists. No longer can you make a dogmatic assertion about the extent of change that is possible in principle. If you claim nature imposes some impassable barrier to the amount of change that can occur, you will have to present some serious evidence to show that is the case. Considering what human breeders have achieved, it is decidedly not obvious.

The grand claim of evolution is, of course, that the barriers separating different kinds of living organisms are actually not as fundamental as they at first appear. Whether there really could be a chain of ancestors leading back from humans all the way to the bizarre, worm-like critters of the Cambrian is something that can only be resolved by the meticulous collection of evidence. Does the fossil record suggest such a chain of ancestors? Do comparisons of organisms, both at the level of gross anatomy and at the level of biochemistry, reveal patterns that are well-explained by common descent?

When we study complex adaptations in organisms, do we see pristine creations from nothing, or do we find Rube Goldberg contraptions that seem to be cobbled together from simpler precursors. Neuroscientist David Linden writes, in his book The Accidental Brain, “The difference between the lizard brain and the mouse brain does not involve wholesale redesign. Rather, the mouse brain is basically the lizard brain with some extra stuff on top. Likewise, the human brian is basically the mouse brain with still more stuff piled on top.” Is that a good description of complex adaptations generally? Or do we sometimes find complex structures with no good candidates for precursors?

I suspect most of the people reading this already know the answers. I also suspect Dawkins will answer these questions himself in due course. Stay tuned!

Comments

  1. #1 CP
    September 30, 2009

    Darwin was pretty into dogs as well…it’s one of the main ways that he advanced his argument. If human breeders can modify a species unintentionally, the argument goes, then it’s very reasonable to imagine that Nature could do it too.

    But, for our purpose, a kind of Selection, which may be called Unconscious, and which results from every one trying to possess and breed from the best individual animals, is more important. Thus, a man who intends keeping pointers naturally tries to get as good dogs as he can, and afterwards breeds from his own best dogs, but he has no wish or expectation of permanently altering the breed. …

  2. #2 Badger3k
    September 30, 2009

    “Darwin was pretty into dogs as well” – now why do I get the feeling that this will be a Denyse O’Leary post at UD?

    CP – is that out of Origin? It’s been a (long) while, and I just finished Voyage a short time back. Taking a break bofore reading that.

  3. #3 H.H.
    September 30, 2009

    The second reply is that, as impressive as the differences between, say, a Boston Terrier and a Great Dane might be, they are both still dogs.

    I’ve heard a third reply, or perhaps it can be considered a variation of this one. But I’ve heard some creationists say that the changes breeders can induce in species through selection–as impressive as they may first appear–are inherently unstable and that species tend to “revert” back to their original form once the artificial selection pressures are removed. They claim this proves any changes are superficial, temporary variations from the original “kind.” I think the examples I heard used were dogs and pigeons.

    Is this true? If so, is it just a matter of there not being enough time for the selected traits to have become “fixed” within the population? Can anyone speak to this?

  4. #4 Ken
    September 30, 2009

    H.H.

    It’s a matter of the selection pressure continuing to favour the new features and the animals not breeding with ‘normal’ animals.

    The creationists refer to dogs that reverted back to an ancestral appearance on an island where they were abandoned. … the selection pressure that had favoured the bred for appearance had been removed, now favouring the older features, and the population still had enough members with the old genes to pass on.

    Or, the dogs had new and favoured mutations that converged on the older appearance.

  5. #5 Anthony Popple
    September 30, 2009

    As someone who has only a limited background in evolutionary biology, I personally appreciated his description of the “hairpin” relationship between rabbits and leopards. (He uses the daughter-to-mother lineage to walk back to the common ancestor and then walks forward with to the mother-to-daughter line leading to leopards.)

    I suddenly understand why the existence of ring species is significant. It is the same relationship without everything being buried in the past.

  6. #6 Kevin (NYC)
    October 1, 2009

    “coprophagus”

    YUK!

  7. #7 rmp
    October 1, 2009

    YEA, I just got a call from my local independent bookstore that my order just came in. Both Dawkins book and one from this rather unknown guy named Rosenhouse. Hmmm, I wonder which one I’ll read first?

  8. #8 Tulse
    October 1, 2009

    There could, in principle be natural barriers that put strict limits on the amount of change that can occur via natural evolutionary mechanisms.

    Such may be in the realm of possibility if one were only looking at phenotypes, and hypothesized that minor variation involved some different underlying mechanism from that controlling the basic “type” or “kind” or “Bauplan”. But once it became clear that there is no such separation in the underlying mechanisms, and that genetics largely determines not only things like the length of ears or colour of eyes, but also is responsible for basic development and growth, it is not at all clear how one would ground such a “principle”. In other words, if one accepts that genes are all there is in the organism that makes it what it is, then small changes and large changes are essentially similar. At the very least, it would seem that one would then have to look external to the organism for such “natural barriers” to speciation.

  9. #9 acne information
    October 2, 2009

    As someone who has only a limited background in evolutionary biology, I personally appreciated his description of the “hairpin” relationship between rabbits and leopards.

  10. #10 heleen
    October 2, 2009

    The ‘hairpin’ is quite clear if one accepts evolution.
    Do you realize that to a creationist the hairpin argument means that one is assuming what one should prove? In other words, that it is not argument at all?
    This is my main objection to this book: Dawkins does not realize what he has to argue. In fact, the book reads as if Dawkins has never realized himself how the argument for evolution works.

  11. #11 Johan
    October 2, 2009

    “Rather, the mouse brain is basically the lizard brain with some extra stuff on top. ”

    Really? I am no biologist but to me this statement smacks of the discredited theory of the scale of nature.

    I would imagine that the lizard brain has adapted to the circumstances it lives in and isn’t just a poorer version of the mammal brain. This insn’t to deny that the lizards are stupider than mammals of course.

  12. #12 RBH
    October 2, 2009

    The “stuff on top” in rabbits and mice (and all mammals) is neocortex, which lizards don’t have (though lizard dorsal cortex may be homologous to mammalian neocortext). The difference is that there’s a new brain structure. However, the layering of more stuff in humans as distinguished from mice is not new structures per se, but more neocortex.

  13. #13 RBH
    October 2, 2009

    Sorry — the extra stuff on top in mammals (as distinguished from lizards) is neocortex, a new brain structure. No appeal to the scalae natura, jut comparative anatomy.

  14. #14 Alex, FCD
    October 5, 2009

    Do you realize that to a creationist the hairpin argument means that one is assuming what one should prove? In other words, that it is not argument at all?

    It is an argument, it’s just not the one that you think it is. Dawkins’ point was that our conventions for naming animals break down if we extend them to include dead ones. He makes a further point that arguments over whether a certain fossil hominid belongs in the genus Homo or Australopithecus (for example) are exactly what we would expect if evolution is true. This is important because creationists sometimes use such disagreements to claim that “evolutionists can’t agree about anything” and that the theory is therefore false.

    Nothing circular there, as long as the reader doesn’t take the liberty of tacking “therefore evolution is true” on at the end.

  15. #15 Jud
    October 5, 2009

    YEA, I just got a call from my local independent bookstore that my order just came in. Both Dawkins book and one from this rather unknown guy named Rosenhouse.

    They just came in to my “bookstore,” too – both Dawkins’ Greatest Show on Earth AND Jason’s The Monty Hall Problem are now available on Amazon’s Kindle.

    OK, all you folks out there with Kindles – click ‘n’ buy Jason’s book! (I will as soon as I get home to my Kindle this evening.)

  16. #16 heleen
    October 5, 2009

    “Nothing circular there, as long as the reader doesn’t take the liberty of tacking “therefore evolution is true” on at the end.”
    Quite, but is the subtitle of the book not: “The Evidence for Evolution”? So how should the reader decide ths hairpin is not evidence for evolution but about naming problems?

  17. #17 Alex, FCD
    October 5, 2009

    Quite, but is the subtitle of the book not: “The Evidence for Evolution”? So how should the reader decide ths hairpin is not evidence for evolution but about naming problems?

    Context: the hairpin illustration takes place in a section about naming problems. It begins with the creationist assertion that, because there are arguments amongst paleontologists about whether this or that fossil belongs in this or that genus, the theory of evolution must be somehow suspect, and then goes on to show why this is false. I suppose Dawkins could have avoided the problem you bring up by attaching a disclaimer to each sub-argument stating that it does not, by itself, constitute evidence of common descent at the cost of making the book unreadable.

  18. #18 Rafa
    October 6, 2009

    In Spain, a traditionally Catholic country, the Darwinian theory of evolution is not a cause of disputes. People know Evolution through high school and this theory is in the same esteem that, for example, the of the Mendeleiev elements periodic table: Although still not know everything, this much is pretty clear. The thing to do is to keep the scientific research. But there is no reason to take these issues beyond the scope of Science.
    So I am surprised that in more cultured countries than Spain, evolution remains cause for these disputes, and it is astonishing to me the popularity of authors that shown the Evolution as if it were something new or revolutionary.

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