Gene Expression

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

And so it goes on as I march through chapter 4 of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, more of the same. Chapter 3 was a history of 19th century evolutionary thought viewed through the lens of the concept of hierarchies of selection. Though Stephen Jay Gould stayed on topic much of the time, it seems that on many an occasion the link of the exposition to the notional theme would become extremely tenuous as he followed a particularly fascinating tangent and the prose just snapped off the chain. In Chapter 4 Gould exhibits many of the same tendencies though the focus now shifts toward the dichotomy between functionalism and formalism; adaptation and structural constraint. But because of the relative clarity of the subject he manages to keep the eyes on the prize with greater discipline; and yet though the prose maintains greater focus it also lacks any clarity of deep insight. Like a middle volume in a epic trilogy the argument here seems to be setting the stage for later sallies and flanking maneuvers; the reader is treated to tentative exploration of the waters of banality. I have no great objections to the thrust of the tale told, but I am left scratching my head as to why 90 pages are necessary to say what Gould says. Having read Peter J. Bowler’s Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons and Evolution: The History of an Idea the pith of the argument in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is almost entirely known to me (e.g., Gould’s explanation of the complex attitude toward evolution evinced by the eminent anatomist Richard Owen was no revelation). I know that a la carte these chapters entail no need for the literary excess which riddles them, but I suspect that defenders of this reputedly brilliant work will claim the long build up cashes out in a stupendous climax which will leave me aghast at its audacity. We shall see, but after 341 pages, 1/4 of the narration, I’ve been treated to a nearly useless prologue and passable if self-indulgent history of science.

1) Long standing tension between functionalism & adaptation and formalism & structural constraint has always existed within biology.

2) The debate has also manifested regional and social dimensions; the English were far more predisposed toward functionalism and adaptation than Continental thinkers.

3) Darwin subordinated form, Unity of Type, to adaptation, Conditions of Existence. The former was simply derived from the latter; historical coincidences or byproducts.

3) Theories of Creation and Nature before evolution also exhibited this dichotomy. While some thinkers, such as Paley, emphasized how adaptation illustrated the hand of the Designer, others such as Agassiz, claimed that the variation of form and the taxonomy that one might derive from it was a window into the mind of God.

4) There were debates on the Continent around these issues prior to Darwin. In France Cuvier and Geoffrey faced off on this issue, with the former adhering to a functionalism that had no truck with evolutionary thinking, and the latter toward the party of form which nevertheless was transmutable. Here Gould illustrates the complexity of the alliances and the cross-linkages which might occur.

5) Lots of plant, vertebrate and arthropod anatomy.

6) Richard Owen, the great anatomist, was a formalist (he was known as one of Darwin’s most vehement critics).

7) Darwin was interested in constraint and form, but in the end he always marginalized it so that his favorite child, adaptation and functionalism, took center stage.

Comments

  1. #1 windy
    February 2, 2008

    I suspect that defenders of this reputedly brilliant work will claim the long build up cashes out in a stupendous climax which will leave me aghast at its audacity.

    After your inevitable conversion to pluralism, you’ll probably want to rename this blog?

  2. #2 razib
    February 2, 2008

    i am a “pluralist.” but for me these terms are conditional upon empirical data and the power of models, not philosophical and historical prior commitments. e.g., i have no objection to mike lynch’s argument that low effec. population size have resulted in the build of moderately deleterious regions of the genome in “complex” organisms.

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    February 2, 2008

    I’ve said it once and I’ll say it one more time:

    Well, is it interesting that many of us have had our copies of Theory for how long? Years? and other than looking up the occasional item are only now reading it, inspired by our collective conversation rather than the prospect of what the book actually says?

    Or did the book just go on sale or something…

  4. #4 razib
    February 2, 2008

    Well, is it interesting that many of us have had our copies of Theory for how long? Years? and other than looking up the occasional item are only now reading it, inspired by our collective conversation rather than the prospect of what the book actually says?

    there is a small minority who thinks it is the most important evolutionary book of the century. i’m paying my dues so that i can respond that angle of attack….

  5. #5 Oran Kelley
    February 5, 2008

    there is a small minority who thinks it is the most important evolutionary book of the century.

    Who thinks that? I like the book and that claim seems to me to be absurd. Who says that and why bother arguing with them?

  6. #6 Oran Kelley
    February 5, 2008

    Hey Razib:

    w00t!

    I commend you on taking up this very heavy project and on the generally fair-minded way you’ve done the exposition.

    But a couple of cavils:

    Contextualizing this as Razib’s search for the Kuhnian Revolution hidden in TSET isn’t fair or even interesting. A better context might be some of the bs and bile written about Gould in the past, both here and at the original gnxp.

    . . . Which would also help explain the lag in talking about the book to Mr. Laden: head on over to original gnxp, seach for Gould and tell me a) how much Gould these folks have actually read; and b) how anxious you think they’ve been to read TSET, rather than, say, fish around in it for ammunition (not easily done since the index sucks).

    I doubt the scales will fall from Razib’s eyes at any point, but I’d suggest just letting the deep-seated hostility go and get from the book whatever you can get from it. I’m sure in the end you’ll be unimpressed, but giving off the feel that your going to insist upon (ala Lynch and Laden) makes the whole exercise pointless from any standpoint.

    Also, I think Emerson’s point about evolutionary science being a “historical rather than a theoretical science” is part of what Gould is covering in some of the particularly difficult portions of Chapter One, which you brush over rather lightly (understandably)–though I’ll have to look to see.

  7. #7 razib
    February 5, 2008

    Who thinks that? I like the book and that claim seems to me to be absurd. Who says that and why bother arguing with them?

    bora/coturnix.