Gene Expression

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

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.


  1. #1 Oran Kelley
    February 15, 2008

    It’s been a while since I’ve read this (next) portion of the book, but as I remember, Gould, (as always unable to resist revising history in favor of the underdog) tries to build Wright up a bit in respect to Haldane & Fisher.

    Genetic Drift is an important concept to Gould. And Gould has a soft spot for Wright, I think, because he sees him as more of a general intellectual whose legacy is less likely to encourage the sort of philistinism Gould hated so much in his fellow scientists.

    One thing I found interesting around here was the degree Gould plays up Williams and plays down Hamilton.

  2. #2 agnostic
    February 15, 2008

    the sort of philistinism Gould hated so much in his fellow scientists.

    another example of one-way hatred.

    Gould plays up Williams and plays down Hamilton.

    it’s human nature to play something down whenever one can’t comprehend it while the majority of one’s peers and competitors can.

  3. #3 razib
    February 15, 2008

    I think, because he sees him as more of a general intellectual whose legacy is less likely to encourage the sort of philistinism Gould hated so much in his fellow scientists.

    no, that can’t be it. fisher and haldane were broadly educated british intellectuals. in fact, it was wright who was more narrowly focused in his training as a biologist (which is one advantage he had over fisher & haldane, who had a weaker empirical sense for biological phenomena). haldane even passed in ‘greats’ (classical literature) and was well known as a dabbler in politics & social activism. i’m aware that wright ventured into philosophy, but that doesn’t mean he was more sensitive a thinker than fisher and haldane on the broader issues. it just has been wright’s emphasis on higher levels of selection and the greater weight given to drift.

  4. #4 Matt McIntosh
    February 16, 2008

    Not just Fisher & Haldane, but Hamilton too — nobody who’d read his collected works could accuse him of narrowness or philistinism. He was very well-read and it shows in his writing, which is peppered with literary allusions and at its best is as beautiful as anything Gould ever wrote. Reading “Gamblers since life began” gives a good example of the flavor.

  5. #5 Oran Kelley
    February 19, 2008

    it’s human nature to play something down whenever one can’t comprehend it while the majority of one’s peers and competitors can.

    Please demonstrate that Hamilton would be in some way less comprehensible for Gould than Williams.

  6. #6 Oran Kelley
    February 21, 2008

    Philistine was apparently a pretty favored word with Gould. He saw Philistinism in science’s neglect of popularization and popularizers; in Ken Schopf’s roots/rock drumming; to the Wolpert camp in the science wars; to what Barbie once said . . . Gould saw philistinism in lots of stuff.

    What I was most interested in was Gould’s distinctive use of the word against too-avid reductionists, those who consistently overemphasized the power of their explanatory tools and neglected to appreciate the scale of their ignorance, and those who had little or no respect for the abilities of other, non-systematic traditions of knowledge (like the humanities) to explain anything at all.

    Virtually every empirical scientist has a touch of the Philistine. Scientists tend to ignore academic philosophy as an empty pursuit. Surely, any intelligent person can think straight by intuition. . . . Although I will try to refute Bethell [an opponent of evolution generally], I also deplore the unwillingness of scientists to explore seriously the logical structure of arguments. Much of what passes for evolutionary theory is as vacuous as Bethell claims. Many great theories are held together by chains of dubious metaphor and analogy. Bethell has correctly identified the hogwash surrounding evolutionary theory. But we differ in one fundamental way: for Bethell, Darwinian theory is rotten to the core; I find a pearl of great price at the center. (Darwin’s Untimely Burial, 1976)

    Wright’s controversy with Fisher makes him, for Gould, a champion of the same sort of contingency (as opposed to determinism) that he himself was always urging on us.

    For Gould, Wright falls on the side of the angels because he recognizes a level of complexity in evolution that Fisher would reduce away, and also because of his general tendency to make smaller rather than larger claims for his own explanatory mechanisms.

    James Crow of the University of Wisconsin’s Genetics Department traveled to Chicago with a student of his to ask Wright some questions on genetic experiments. Wright disappointed the men when he responded to each question that he was “unable to answer” it. The men left disillusioned, only to find that Wright had researched each question, and had written a 14- page response attending to every possible intricacy of each question.

    This sort of intellectual discipline could not but have appealed to Gould who was appalled by how much SWAG got put forward as if it were legitimate research in sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology circles.

    Wright’s vision, I think seems to be more inclusive to Gould, allowing lots of room for things we can’t explain yet and unreduced complexity. That recognition seems to be directly related to respect for other ways of knowing and forms of knowledge. (Like, by extension, literature or folklore)

  7. #7 Ken Schopf
    July 11, 2008

    I’m curious how you know that Steve said this. He did like this adjective, and the curator at the MCZ was a bit perplexed when he realized I had a drum kit in the stacks of the collections. . . Can you enlighten me?

    “Philistine was apparently a pretty favored word with Gould. He saw Philistinism in science’s neglect of popularization and popularizers; in Ken Schopf’s roots/rock drumming. . .”

  8. #8 Oran Kelley
    July 12, 2008

    I believe it was in a reminiscence of someone else who worked with Gould. Can’t seem to locate the reference now, though. Sorry. I may be able to get more info once I’m at my own desk.

  9. #9 D
    April 26, 2009

    Why have you abandoned this delightfully snarky project?