And so with the completion of the 7th chapter the first half, book I of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, ends. From this point on we shift from history of science to science proper. At over 1,300 pages of narrative prose (add index, bibliography, etc., and it weighs in at nearly 1,450 pages) this is a multi-course meal. But judging from the initial comments when I began my trek through this undiscovered Gouldian land the author started with some rather unappetizing starters which suppressed rather than whetted the eagerness of many for future courses. I stated that the first two chapters of this work resembled farts; Gould at his most gaseous. As we move further on the proportion of substance increased, though it was predictably larded with self-indulgent and pretentious framing prose. Stephen Jay Gould has followed a rather predictable linear track in retracing the path of evolutionary science and setting the historical context; from the turn of the 19th century he caps the survey with references to the controversy over the neutral theory of molecular evolution, pegging the end date to about 1970.
Though projecting forward on occasion, or reaching back, and interlaced with his own observations from outside the chronological span in the spotlight, this seventh chapter focuses upon the period between 1909 and 1959, the 50th and 100th anniversaries of the publication of The Origin of Species respectively. Over this span Gould argues that two phases of the Modern Synthesis unfolded; first, the fusion of Mendelianism and Darwinism which resulted in the birth of theoretical population genetics, and the second, the synthesis of experimental genetics, field biology (e.g., ecology) and systematics. He argues that the first phase was restrictive, insofar as it resulted in the shedding of outmoded models and paradigms such as neo-Lamarckianism and orthogenetic theories within paleontology. The second phase, which he refers to as a de facto “hardening,” resulted in a singular focus on adaptation as the sole creative evolutionary genetic process. While offering guarded approval for the former, Gould obviously sees the latter as the apotheosis of all he believes has gone wrong in evolutionary biology.
I have little to quibble with in terms of the chapter’s characterization of the trinity of evolutionary genetics, R. A. Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane and Sewall Wright. Interestingly, while Gould had specific sections devoted to the first two, Wright’s story is scattered throughout this chapter. My own suspicion is that Wright’s ideas gel well with Gould’s later arguments so we’ll hear more about him. As for Fisher and Haldane, the biographical sketches seemed serviceable. I actually appreciated the fact that Gould objects to the soft-pedaling R. A. Fisher’s eugenicist views. The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection is really two books; the first half is the working out of the outlines of Fisher’s mathematical theory of natural selection, the second half is a eugenical interpretation of history and sociology. Fisher practiced what he preached; he had eight children. Stephen Jay Gould, like many right-thinking people, is obviously appalled by the white-washing of Fisher’s social opinions despite his stature as a geneticist and statistician. I am not. After all, I’m on record as saying we need to start having a discussion about eugenics again; though this time the implementation will be a bottom-up process through individual choice. Fisher’s historical speculations through a eugenical lens don’t persuade me much, but, he was a deep thinker and the general methodology which he employs is something we should reevaluate. The 20th century was the age of the fly, the worm, the mouse, and so forth. Because of the medical rationale for modern genomics the privilege of animal models is no longer so extreme and intellectuals need to begin taking evolution seriously again when it comes to questions of humanity, as Fisher did.
Gould’s narrative exhibits little life when addressing the work of the trinity, I suspect there is simply too little to disagree with or protest. So it is with relish that he shifts gears to the work of the second wave of thinkers who were more empirically oriented, the genetics of Theodosius Dobzhansky, the systematics of Ernst Mayr and the paleontology of G. G. Simpson. Gould observes that many of these thinkers, Dobzhansky in particular, and to a lesser extent Mayr, were not mathematically fluent. Though Dobzhansky appealed to Sewall Wright’s models of population substructure in constructing his empirical illustrations it is known that he never understood the theory with any depth. Similarly, Will Provine (who Gould cites throughout the chapter) has argued that Ernst Mayr did not understand Wright’s ideas in regards to the Shifting Balance despite being a transmitter of the basic concept to non-mathematical biologists! (to be fair, Provine also makes the case that Wright had some confusions himself about his own papers) In other words, there is a peculiarity that phase I of the Synthesis was not mastered by the savants of phase II. I think Gould’s point in highlighting this is to wonder as to the scientific rigor of some of the ideas which were promoted by principals of the Modern Synthesis, that it was perhaps just a fashion, and its success was due in large part to the force of personality of men such as Mayr.
As I think I’ve made clear in my relatively respectful treatment of Gould’s argument, I’d judge there’s a lot of substance to these objections in regards to the Modern Synthesis. Will Provine says much of the same; and he’s a professional historian of science. I myself have pointed out that some of the apologia of the self-conscious heirs of the Synthesis, such as Richard Dawkins, seem to be a bit much. I would assent to the contention that the cult of adaptation as it manifested itself into the 1960s was more a doctrine than a scientific supposition. Gould rightly compliments George C. Williams’ Adaptation and Natural Selection, which cleared out a great deal of the clutter which had accumulated since phase I of the Synthesis, even if one disagreed with the rhetorical thrust of Williams’ argument. That being said, one should be cautious about constructing Platonic ideals of camps and factions within the culture of science. It is well known that William D. Hamilton was one of the primary inspirations for Richard Dawkins’ argument in The Selfish Gene, and that in general one can account them fellow travelers. Dawkins was of course Gould’s bete noire when it came to the intellectual disputes which erupted within evolutionary biology. And both Hamilton and Dawkins could be considered the heirs to Fisher and his tradition. In contrast, Gould clearly has a soft spot for Fisher’s rival, Sewall Wright. With all that acknowledged, in Narrow Roads of Gene Land II Hamilton states that by the late 1970s Wright was his favorite evolutionist! (as an undergraduate in the late 1950s Hamilton had idolized Fisher) Science is a culture, a human endeavor, and so it will exhibit a faddish factional tendency which does not reflect well upon its own mythology as a pure method untainted by emotion. But the inverse is that because of its humanity we can not assemble scientists as if the were chess pieces arrayed against each other. Gould, and many others, come close to doing this when they characterize the Oxford School of evolutionary biology, and its adaptationism, and so on. These terms have a reality, they add value to our understanding of the coarse clusters. But we must not neglect the fact that on a fine grained scale the texture of human relations, perceptions and cogitations are subtle and nuanced.
Addendum: I want to be clear: Gould has his own “take” on things. He doesn’t talk much about Fisher, Haldane, etc., and focuses a great deal on the evolution of Ernst Mayr’s thought. I think there is some reality in what Gould is saying, but the point to which he pushes the argument is pretty obviously in the service of reinforcing his own themes and a launching off point for his own theory of evolution which will commence in the next chapter.