Gene Expression

i-b26d30171cc3d890e253453d2e3e4488-GOUSTR.jpgChapters read:1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.

17% of the way through The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, can I get a w00t, w00t!?!?! Chapter 3 was a change. I am wondering if the verbal excesses on garish display in the first two chapters was just an extended fart that Stephen Jay Gould had to get out of his system so that he could be a bit more comfortable. Barely a mention of Shakespeare, medieval architecture or the Bible. An occasional gratuitous toss of Latin here and there, but a most definite improvement in that most nebulous character, readability. Though Gould won’t be accused of Hemingway-like prose economy, he’s definitely not in stylistic stasis anymore, and the substance on offer was more appetizing. Take Peter J. Bowler, mix with logorrhea and top it off with an ax-to-grind1, and you get chapter 3. Unfortunately, not a lot of up-to-date science or a detailed elucidation of Stephen Jay Gould’s majestic system of the world. Rather, he focuses on thinkers and controversies within the field of evolution which span the period between the French Revolution and the pre-Mendelian era (i.e., about 1900). But the survey of the history of the science during this period is not simply for the sake of understanding the precursors of modern theories; rather, Gould makes the argument that the structure of scientific revolutions, or lack of, can give us a sense of of the plausibility of various theories. As someone who has repeatedly made the case that science is a culture much more than a specific formal method I am not without total sympathy for this idea; that being said, I do think that science is temporally discriminatory so that ideas and intellectual dynamics of centuries past are discounted and not generally relevant to the issues at hand. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory obviously takes a different tack, and it is certainly consistent with Gould’s insistence on the importance of historical perspective in any evaluation of dynamics. I would though make the case that if Gould is right, that the minute details of intellectual history of the 19th century is extremely relevant to our understanding of the theoretical debates in the field today (the 21st century), then in many ways evolutionary biology is a very piss-poor excuse for a natural science. Perhaps we should resurrect the term natural philosophy and subsume it within that.

1) Jean-Baptiste Lamarck is an important figure of some influence whose intellectual journey and conflicts prefigured trajectory of his heirs. Specifically, he conceived of evolutionary process as occurring on two dimensions, the vertical and the horizontal. The latter consists of local enviornmental adaptation, that is, the generation of ecotypes. The former was the quasi-vitalistic assertion that organisms tend to ascend the chain of complexity through an endogenous drive. Selection on the level of the individuals (through acquired characteristics) was important in the former case, but not the latter.

2) Charles Darwin unfairly discounted Lamarck, and was uncharitable in disavowing any positive influence.

3) August Weismann, a panselectionist and one of the most preeminent classical Darwinians of the late 19th century, eventually had to abandon a focus on the organism as the locus of selection due to his debates with neo-Lamarckians such as Herbert Spencer.

4) Ernst Haeckel and another obscure German biologist were also multi-levelists in their understanding of the theory of evolution.

5) To solve the riddle of species diversity Charles Darwin also had to ultimately appeal to species level selection despite his resistance.

6) The scientific biographies extant in this chapter show strongly that 19th century scientists who wished on a priori grounds reject higher level selection than the individual had to ultimately concede its reality because of the weight of facts and its value as an explanatory principle. Gould makes the argument that these data should tells us both the importance and trend of the biases of the present, and the possibility that species level (and higher) selection is still the best possible answer to some perplexing problems.

7) Lots of obscure historical minutiae. Lots, these few ideas were embedded in reams of marbled factual fat. 80 pages worth. But fatty meat is better than fart.

1 – Though Gould admits his ax as it’s the whole point of the book!

Comments

  1. #1 John Lynch
    January 31, 2008

    fatty meat is better than fart.

    I think you meant *fat*. Maybe I’m wrong though.

  2. #2 razib
    January 31, 2008

    I think you meant *fat*. Maybe I’m wrong though.

    no. fart. see the beginning. the first 2 chapters were like farts. multiple people have said they couldn’t make it past the first chapter. well, hold your nose ;-) the smell abates.

  3. #3 John Emerson
    January 31, 2008

    One of the philosophical claims about evolution is that it’s a historical rather than a theoretical science, in the sense that it’s deeply and irreversibly path-dependent and also unpredictable. (This was the point both of “Wonderful Life” and “Time’s Cycle, Time’s Arrow). From this point of view a historical presentation would seem more appropriate.

    One of Gould’s main concerns is the significance of biology and evolution for the greater intellectual world, rather than just questions internal to biology. Of course, if his biology is wrong, then his conclusions about the greater significance will probably be wrong too. But the fact that he didn’t write a pure biology book isn’t a criticism. (Razib doesn’t write pure biology here either).

    I think that Gould probably has an emergence view, with higher levels of organization not explainable in terms only of information found at the lower component levels. (Recently Philip Gintis and Stuart Kaufman recomended Morowitz’s “Emergence of Everything”, which develops this view farther than even I want.) I suspect that he is linking his reading of biology up with what he thinks about the higher levels, too. I do not think that there is anything intrinsically wrong with that, though the specifics still have to be right.

  4. #4 D
    February 1, 2008

    Over and above the biases, I’ve found the signal to noise ratio of this man’s work dauntingly low. Thanks for reading this so I won’t have to.

    Feature request: from now on, could you make it so each part of this review links to the previous one?

  5. #5 razib
    February 1, 2008

    One of the philosophical claims about evolution is that it’s a historical rather than a theoretical science, in the sense that it’s deeply and irreversibly path-dependent and also unpredictable. (This was the point both of “Wonderful Life” and “Time’s Cycle, Time’s Arrow). From this point of view a historical presentation would seem more appropriate.

    an important point is that there can be a predictability to unpredictability…if you know what i mean. in any case, i haven’t gotten to the real meat of gould’s book. this is historical exposition of the intellectual history of biology, not the historical contingency of biology in the sense that biological evolution is path dependent.

  6. #6 John Emerson
    February 1, 2008

    There’s always been plenty of predictability in history, because all sorts of routines have been established and the majority of the time the routines are followed. Likewise, there are real constraints on what can happen, and these are followed. But all this together is not enough to get the kind of exact and unerring predictability you get with linear physicial systems, chemical reactions. In specific, the turning points are (by definition) what is not predictable. (If they were predictable, they would be a regular part of the system and not turning points, obvs.)

    Thinking in terms of constraints rather than causes might be a way to formulate it. A process can be very rigorously constrained without the outcome being predictable. In engineering you add constraints until the point that outcomes are completely predictable or almost, and teleological and theistic thinkers think that the universe was designed that way too, with unique intended outcomes as in engineering. Advocates of indeterminism and emergence argue that, while the system is constrained, there are not enough constraints to make the outcome unique.

    Saying that biological evolution is like history is to say that it includes major turning points that are not predictable. This was the dispute between Gould and Conway Morris, I think, and as far as I know that dispute is still on the table. (The argument may be about the magnitude or importance of the turning points).

    Gould really is, by intent, a historian and philosopher in addition to being a biologist. For me this is not a criticism at all. In order to critique Gould, you can’t just say “Most of this isn’t biology”. The criticism is good only to the extent that Gould has the biology wrong.

    To Gould I think that evolution is more like history than it’s like physics, and history is continuous with evolution.* And with “evolutionary epistomology” (Campbell) and (non predictive-determinist) evolutionary approaches to history, the history of science and thought become more relevant than for an ahistorical formal or theoretical science. So while Gould’s intellectual history hasn’t reached the discussion of path-dependence in what you’ve read, treating science historically is pretty integral to his point of view.

    This is getting very far afield now, but as I hinted above, historically the predictive-determinist view of the world was historically connected to theistic, teleological views of the world, coincident with the scientific revolution, in which God was a super-engineer, so that by looking at his works we can see his mind and intentions.

    * Gould’s hostility to ev psych is a weakness or inconsistency in his thinking in this respect.

  7. #7 razib
    February 1, 2008

    To Gould I think that evolution is more like history than it’s like physics, and history is continuous with evolution.*

    ok. but like i said, he’s not even talking about evolution as a historical science as such. so let’s not get ahead of ourselves (yes, i know the generality of gould’s views; but i’m reading this book to see what specifics he puts on the table). his point in the current chapter is just to pin-point where the ancients repeatedly went wrong to show how the moderns repeatedly go wrong.

    This is getting very far afield now, but as I hinted above, historically the predictive-determinist view of the world was historically connected to theistic, teleological views of the world, coincident with the scientific revolution, in which God was a super-engineer, so that by looking at his works we can see his mind and intentions.

    who disagreed with the predictive-determinist view? i know that paley influenced darwin. that’s not new. but atheists like laplace were determinists too. so who wasn’t?

  8. #8 John Emerson
    February 1, 2008

    That’s my point, historically determinism is theistic even though atheists kept it. That’s part of the “death of God” argument; XIXc atheists kept a lot of Christianity, ethically teleologically, and metaphysically, while discarding God.

    When I say “determinism” I usually mean predictive determinism, even though chaos and complexity describe determinist systems which are not predictable.

    Too far afield, really.

  9. #9 razib
    February 1, 2008

    That’s my point, historically determinism is theistic even though atheists kept it. That’s part of the “death of God” argument; XIXc atheists kept a lot of Christianity, ethically teleologically, and metaphysically, while discarding God.

    well, historically almost everything has a tinge of theism since theism in the west was the enforced order. pro-slavery arguments were theistic, anti-slavery arguments were, there was christian socialism and christian lasseiz faire arguments, and so on. the bigger issue does the determinism of which you speak entail necessarily from theism? does not entail only from theism? or does it entail sufficient from theism? or does not not entail at all, and is it simply a preexistent mental bias which was justified through a theistic lens?

  10. #10 toto
    February 2, 2008

    does the determinism of which you speak entail necessarily from theism? does not entail only from theism?

    Pierre-Simon de Laplace is famous both for his atheism/agnosticism (“I didn’t need this hypothesis”) and strong determinism (Laplace’s demon).

  11. #11 razib
    February 2, 2008

    toto, i mentioned him already ;-)

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