Pharyngula

There’s going to be a meeting this summer in Altenberg of a small subset of evolutionary biologists to discuss the next step in the evolution of evolutionary biology, which this article describes as a “Woodstock of evolution”, populated with scientific “rock stars”. All I can say is “bleh.” This meeting sounds like it will be wonderfully entertaining, but get real: it will not settle or even define much of anything. These are interesting times in biology, with a lot of argument at a high level about levels of selection and evo-devo and modes of speciation and self-organisation and etc., etc., etc. (and I have to rush to say that these debates have nothing to do with creationism, although the creationists love to pretend that the scientific arguments are related to their flat-earth philosophy). However, the actual state of the theory will be determined by the working scientists who produce useful results, not by theorizing at a mansion in Vienna. Expect emergence from a practical perspective, not rock-stars issuing edicts.

Larry Moran appreciates the article because the author reached out to scientists who are not attending the meeting, like Richard Lewontin — and that’s another problem with puffing up the importance of Altenberg. Not only is it a small meeting that can’t be representative of the breadth of thought in the world of evolutionary biology, but it leaves out people like Lewontin? What insane world would consider the future of modern biology without consideration of the perspectives of Lewontin? So I’ll agree with Larry that far, kudos to the writer for trying. Otherwise, though, I find much that is objectionable in the story.

She seems to have reached out for diverse perspectives with little selective thought — any old random wheezer with an opinion on biology is grist for her mill. Case in point…have you ever wondered what became of Stuart Pivar? You know, the fellow who wrote the strange self-published book on the development and evolution of balloon animals, and then tried to sue me for my dismissive review? Well, he’s got a substantial section in this article, and it’s an entirely uncritical summary.

Stuart Pivar, has been investigating self-organization in living forms but thinks natural selection is irrelevant – and has paid the price for this on the blogosphere. Pivar’s an extremely engaging man, trained as a chemist and engineer – a bit of a wizard who loves old art. He was a long-time friend of Andy Warhol and a buddy of the late paleontologist Steve Gould, who continues to serve as an inspiration for Pivar’s work.

I suspect the highlighted part is an oblique reference to Pharyngula’s role in Pivar’s blogospheric humiliation. That Pivar is treated so respectfully sets off great gonging alarm bells for me; perhaps Larry wasn’t so distressed because he doesn’t care much for evo-devo, and Pivar certainly is the cartoonish caricature of an extreme Goetheian structuralist, and tends to make developmental biology look bad by association.

Pivar says his theory is this. Body form is derived from the structure in the egg-cell membrane. And he handsomely illustrates in his book, The Engines of Evolution, how various species arise from the same basic structure, the Multi-torus, so-named by its discoverers — mathematicians, biologists Jockusch and Dress in 2003.

He has renamed his book again! It used to be Lifecode, but now he’s calling it Engines of Evolution … but it contains the same old fanciful sketches that bear no relationship to biological reality. He still hasn’t bothered to crack an embryology textbook to see how fingers develop — they aren’t wrinkles in a bent tube!

The responses to Pivar’s hypotheses are revealing, and can be used to judge the judges. Stanley Salthe thinks it is reasonable: Salthe must be a kook. Lewontin doesn’t know anything about Pivar, and skips over it to point out that there are non-genetic factors that influence development: very sensible. Massimo Pigliucci apparently does know about Pivar’s ideas, and dismisses them: which is what I’d expect Lewontin to do if he actually wasted the time to look at the book.

The whole story is a chaotic hodge-podge, I’m afraid. One other interesting thing in the article: she called Kevin Padian, who really is a nice guy, but you wouldn’t get that impression from this:

Curiously, when I called Kevin Padian, president of NCSE’s board of directors and a witness at the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover trial on Intelligent Design, to ask him about the evolution debate among scientists – he said, “On some things there is not a debate.” He then hung up.

It’s true that there is no debate about the reality of evolutionary processes, and someone like Padian who is right there on the forefront of the creationism wars has good reason to be brusque when dealing with nonsense, but he would have probably been much more responsive if the reporter had made it clear that she was discussing the real arguments among genuine scientists about the details of evolution…but then again, she seems to have confused Pivar’s nonsense with a serious intellectual contribution, so maybe it’s her fault for being unable to clarify that distinction.

He might also have been scared off by a reporter talking about this crackpot notion of a “new theory of evolution.” There isn’t one. There is talk about emphasizing or even acknowledging additional concepts of biology (like development! Take that, Larry!) in the framework of evolution, but a new theory? We kind of like the old one and still find it useful, and none of the people interviewed actually proposed what I would consider a new theory.

Except for Pivar, of course. But then expanding biology to encompass bagels and balloons is a little bit radical, I think.

Comments

  1. #1 bill r
    March 4, 2008

    …not by theorizing at a mansion in Vienna

    What does that refer to, please?

  2. #2 Brownian, OM
    March 4, 2008

    Will there be mud, marijuana, and Free Love, too?

    Let’s hope not. I can’t bear the thought that you all might turn into SUV-driving yuppies in 35 years.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    March 4, 2008

    Man, that Pivar business was fun. Even hearing the ol’ classic crackpot’s name brings back so many memories.

  4. #4 PZ Myers
    March 4, 2008

    Altenberg is a Viennese mansion formerly owned by Konrad Lorenz, where the meeting is being held.

  5. #5 Alex
    March 4, 2008

    “SUV-driving yuppies in 35 years.”

    ummm…that would have to change to wuppies.

  6. #6 schmeer
    March 4, 2008

    Those drawings from Pivar aren’t even consistent among themselves. What the hell is he trying to show with those? He shows two different drawings for the development of infant and adult homo sapiens. WTF?

  7. #7 Glen Davidson
    March 4, 2008

    At least a couple of hits of acid might make Pivar’s nonsense look mighty fine. OK, only to someone who doesn’t understand evolution, but to that person, anyhow.

    It does sound like a pointless time. Seems to me that the real discussions are already happening in the journals, and this is just a place for cranks to ejaculate their nonsense. I mean, let’s hope there are drugs, since otherwise it’s just going to be a lot of dreary haggling over settled issues, like that Pivar is a kook (and has a tendency to try to sue those who say that he is).

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  8. #8 Blake Stacey
    March 4, 2008

    Hey, schmeer, you better watch what you say, or Pivar will send his ten-legged spiders after you!

    (Or at least have his PR flack claim to be a lawyer and accuse you of not being “open minded”.)

  9. #9 skyotter
    March 4, 2008

    don’t eat the brown aci-

    *gets tackled and pulled from the stage*

  10. #10 Dan
    March 4, 2008

    Man, that Pivar business was fun. Even hearing the ol’ classic crackpot’s name brings back so many memories.

    Posted by: Blake Stacey

    Well, you would have a soft spot for the guy. He gave you a PhD.. I didn’t even get a phone call. Pivar treated me like a cheap tramp.

    Oh, but NO! Blake Stacey gets all the accolades.

    HE ALWAYS DID LIKE YOU BEST!

  11. #11 Ichthyic
    March 4, 2008

    Pivar says his theory is this….

    “All brontosauruses are thin at one end, much thicker in the middle and then thin again at the far end. That is my theory, it is mine, and belongs to me and I own it, and what it is too.”

    This meeting sounds like it will be wonderfully entertaining, but get real: it will not settle or even define much of anything.

    meh, you’re just jealous you weren’t invited.

    :p

    seriously, though, the purpose of meetings like this isn’t to RESOLVE issues. It’s to generate them (and have some fun reminiscing about the history of the field). Likely someone will come up with some bright idea to sick their grad students on, no doubt.

    One of Lorenz’s original grad students and a leading behavioral ethologist in his own right (George Barlow) died of a stroke a few months back. I wonder if the choice of venue had anything to do with that?

  12. #12 raven
    March 4, 2008

    The meeting is a waste of time. I already know where evo-devo is going. We have now recreated ancestral proteins using phylogenetic analysis. The technology is close at hand to ….RECREATE THE DINOSAURS. My pet project from the 80′s, before Speilberg/Crichton, and I know there are avian dinosaurs all around us.

    All we have to do is identify the key morphogenic genes, determine the ancestral sequences, and makes some transgenics. The whole sequence would be nice but the housekeeping and noncoding shouldn’t matter much.

    Realistically this could take a decade or 3 but with adequate funding a lot less time. Laugh if you will, someday while you are laughing a T. rex will run by chasing some duckbills. How to do this for the hobbyist crowd is outlined below.

    PandasThumb:

    Reconstruction of Ancestral Proteins
    By Ian Musgrave on February 8, 2008 12:30 AM | Permalink | Comments (33) | TrackBacks (1)

    Yesterday a really cool paper came out in the journal Nature that demonstrates why evolutionary theory is so useful and fruitful in biology. A team of researchers has recreated an ancestral bacterial protein to determine that the ancestral bacteria grew in hot water around 3.5 billion years ago. continues

    PS People are already using a similar approach to dissect out morphogenetic changes and functions. Someone tried to turn a mouse into a bat. Wasn’t a total failure but didn’t look much like a bat either.

  13. #13 Kseniya
    March 4, 2008

    Heed the skyotter. The brown deoxyribonucleic acid that is circulating around us is not specifically too good.

    *glances at Brownian*

  14. #14 Ichthyic
    March 4, 2008

    coincidentally, just the other day the Discovery Channel had a special featuring Sean Carroll outlining the latest efforts to have chickens grow long tails, hands, and teeth.

    In each case, simple epigenetic changes resulted in “old” genes being expressed again to produce primitive versions of these things, but none have gotten past the early formation stages (teeth were little more than curved nubs, tails were only extended a few vertebrae, “hands” were little more than limb buds).

    It sounds promising, but they didn’t go into what the limiting factors are. Long way to go, still.

  15. #15 decius
    March 4, 2008

    Salthe is indeed a major kook. A surviving member of the moronic herds bred by the Age of Aquarius; a veteran of the sandal-wearing decades of unbounded new-age gullibility, powered by cheap LSD and drones of delusional memes.

    Take this excerpt from his site, for instance:”Postmodernism: by this I mean a viewpoint critical of the realist pretensions of any universalist, totalizing discourse, including science, natural philosophy, and the Abrahamic faith religions. It takes seriously the dichotomy: actual / real. That is, while the actual world is that which you can bump into, or feel as a toothache, or as a frisson during a ritual, the real world is a global product of discourse, and consists in texts, inscriptions, models (like MEP and hierarchy theories), films, equations, experimental setups, simulations, computer software, symbols, etc. It is the home of the laws of Nature and the laws of matter, as well as of the gods. This real world has been the concern of externalist discourses, from theology to science and postmodernism itself — wherever the observer sits outside the system being studied. The actual world is of concern to internalist discourse”

  16. #16 David Marjanovi?, OM
    March 4, 2008

    Woodstock! ROTFL! I’ve been to Altenberg, and the thought of putting Woodstock there… LOL! There’s not even space for it! :-D

    However, Altenberg is the name of the town where Konrad Lorenz’s villa is. It’s fairly close to Vienna, but by no means inside.

    ————–

    The current practice that journalists are expected to write stories about things they have no clue about must be ended.

    ————–

    And everyone who calls science a discourse ought to be laughed off the stage.

  17. #17 David Marjanovi?, OM
    March 4, 2008

    Woodstock! ROTFL! I’ve been to Altenberg, and the thought of putting Woodstock there… LOL! There’s not even space for it! :-D

    However, Altenberg is the name of the town where Konrad Lorenz’s villa is. It’s fairly close to Vienna, but by no means inside.

    ————–

    The current practice that journalists are expected to write stories about things they have no clue about must be ended.

    ————–

    And everyone who calls science a discourse ought to be laughed off the stage.

  18. #18 Sven DiMIlo
    March 4, 2008

    I have it on good authority that most of Robert Trivers’s good ideas came to him while smoking dope. Not sure about the mud or love, though.

  19. #19 Ichthyic
    March 4, 2008

    Woodstock! ROTFL! I’ve been to Altenberg, and the thought of putting Woodstock there… LOL! There’s not even space for it! :-D

    it’s kind of an inside america joke.

    think of it like all the puns on watergate:

    contragate
    irangate
    whitewatergate

    etc.

    the “woodstock” meme gets applied to any large gathering of like-minded folk.

  20. #20 Ichthyic
    March 4, 2008

    …Pharyngulastock

    :p

    The current practice that journalists are expected to write stories about things they have no clue about must be ended.

    …and there must be world peace.

  21. #21 gring
    March 4, 2008

    Hang on a sec! Something’s wrong here. Pivar and Salthe are not invited to Altenberg. The article says: Here then are the Altenberg 16 – and then 16 pictures follow. But then the article starts cite completely different people, who have nothing to do with this event. This sixteen I suppose are serious scientists (at least one of them who I know, he wrote a book jointly with Maynard-Smith, published several papers in Science and Nature), and they are not connected at all to the crackpots. I think the journalist made a serious mistake by bringing together this meeting and the kooks in one article.

  22. #22 windy
    March 4, 2008

    In an aside, Lewontin noted natural selection’s tie-in to capitalism, saying, “Well, that’s where Darwin got the idea from, that’s for sure. . . He read the stock market every day. . .How do you think he made a living?”

    Eh… “for sure”? I don’t recall that there were many stock market analogies in the Origin. And how does he explain Wallace?

  23. #23 Heleen
    March 4, 2008

    Michael Lynch and Richard Lewontin are as good scientists as any of the 16 on the list. So, if Michael Lynch doesn’t know why there’s a push for an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis and says, “Everyone’s bantering around these terms complexity, evolvability, robustness, and arguing that we need a new theory to explain these; I don’t see it., and Richard Lewontin says … scientists are always looking to find some theory or idea that they can push as something that nobody else ever thought of because that’s the way they get their prestige. . . .they have an idea which will overturn our whole view of evolution because otherwise they’re just workers in the factory, so to speak. And the factory was designed by Charles Darwin., you know a nice little gathering is to take place, but to convince a journalist this is of the utmost importance to the science is fairly self serving.

  24. #24 Ichthyic
    March 4, 2008

    I think the journalist made a serious mistake by bringing together this meeting and the kooks in one article.

    *bing*

  25. #25 szqc
    March 4, 2008

    Mazur got interested in Pivar because of their mutual interest in artifacts from places like Iraq so that explains his presence in a frankly poorly researched and bizarre article. Mazur also seems oddly obsessed with Mormon’s (whole books on Bush Sr and Jr and the Mormons and a lot of Romney articles) and even in this evo article there is reference to NCSE having an advisor who is, I gather a practising Mormon. It seems she threw together a couple of her obsessions (well maybe politely I should say interests) into the conference and got a mess.

  26. #26 MAJeff, OM
    March 4, 2008

    Seriously, what’s with the title? Has there ever been an academic conference without marijuana?

  27. #27 Ichthyic
    March 4, 2008

    Has there ever been an academic conference without marijuana?

    I dunno, but I seem to have missed all the ones that had ‘Free Love’ as a significant component.

  28. #28 MAJeff, OM
    March 4, 2008

    I dunno, but I seem to have missed all the ones that had ‘Free Love’ as a significant component.

    Looking at my fellow sociologists clothed has been enough to keep me from those particular paper sessions.

  29. #29 Ichthyic
    March 4, 2008

    http://www.videosift.com/video/Futurama-Bender-As-A-Human

    scroll to about 4:30 in…

    “Do not judge me until you have tried my way of life for yourselves…”

    PARTY!

  30. #30 Marc Buhler
    March 4, 2008

    Speaking of all things Woodstock (which I was lucky enough to be at when I was a teenager), there is an article in the Sydney Morning Herald at the moment about possible psychedelic drug effects in the visions that Moses had.

    http://www.smh.com.au/news/world/high-on-mount-sinai/2008/03/05/1204402497518.html

  31. #31 Stuart Dryer
    March 5, 2008

    The rock star phenomena — and the conferences that function like their concerts — is the one thing about modern science that has always bugged me. My postdoctoral mentor once said about a certain Nobel laureate, “He could take a steamy shit in the middle of the road and all the Others would come and admire it”. In my field every meeting is sort of like Groundhog day. It is the same thing over and over and over again with minor variations.

  32. #32 Bob O'H
    March 5, 2008

    Stanley Salthe thinks it is reasonable: Salthe must be a kook.

    He is. Look at the Disco Institute’s Dissent from Darwin list. The good news is that he doesn’t like ID either (I’m hoping some IDiot starts advocating him as a supporter). He objects to evolution because of its (for him) moral implications.

    Ha ha ha ha! From the article:

    Several months ago, Salthe hosted an intense email debate among leading evolutionary thinkers which I was later let in on.

    I was in that debate from the start. :-)

    On Altenberg, why D.S. Wilson? All he’s going to do is try to continue yakking on about the levels of selection debate that was sorted out years ago.

  33. #33 Blake Stacey
    March 5, 2008

    When are we going to get P-Zed’s statement on that whole “levels of selection” shindig? I’m sure the flamewars that would set off would be quite entertaining. :-)

  34. #34 Brownian, OM
    March 5, 2008

    *glances at Brownian*

    Don’t look at me. My guy told me the shit was good.

  35. #35 MAJeff, OM
    March 5, 2008

    Don’t look at me. My guy told me the shit was good.

    this is what we get for trusting an Albertan instead of a British Columbian.

  36. #36 Brownian, OM
    March 5, 2008

    this is what we get for trusting an Albertan instead of a British Columbian.

    Yeah, but lookit all the beef I brought. Say, you guys don’t have a problem with prions, do you?

  37. #37 Ichthyic
    March 5, 2008

    When are we going to get P-Zed’s statement on that whole “levels of selection” shindig? I’m sure the flamewars that would set off would be quite entertaining. :-)

    too late, we went there and did that last year. or were you there for that?

    there were some good battles IIRC, but PZ dropped out of the war.

    can’t recall the thread now, and the search function here has never worked with enough detail to find it based on something like “levels of selection” or “group selection”.

  38. #38 Ichthyic
    March 5, 2008

    Say, you guys don’t have a problem with prions, do you?

    Don’t worry about hi-hi-him, sir. He-he’s de. He’s de. He’s deaf and
    Mmmmmmmmmad, sir.

  39. #39 blf
    March 5, 2008

    [T]he search function here has never worked with enough detail to find it based on something like “levels of selection” or “group selection”.

    Using the “Search this blog” just now, searching for–including the quotes (“)–“levels of selection”, got just four (4) hits. Without checking, one or more of those could be what you are looking for?

    Also, I noticed it’s using a famous search engine to do the searching (which I think is new?). Give it a (another) try, there’s a distinct possibility the searching has improved.

    Now if only the SciBlogs site used UTF-8 exclusively, or at least consistently!

  40. #40 Christophe Thill
    March 5, 2008

    “Someone tried to turn a mouse into a bat.”

    That’s great news. It must have been a French scientist. We call a bat a “chauve-souris”, which translates litterally as a “bald mouse”. Turning a rodent into this would be a matter of simple epilation. But it sure wouldn’t look very much like a bat.

  41. #41 David Marjanovi?, OM
    March 5, 2008

    the “woodstock” meme gets applied to any large gathering of like-minded folk.

    Even if it’s actually quite small and doesn’t even remotely resemble sex, drugs & rock’n’roll? (Still laughing at the thought of sex, drugs & rock’n’roll in Altenberg… :-D )

    …and there must be world peace.

    Yeah, that too.

    Seriously, what’s with the title? Has there ever been an academic conference without marijuana?

    The sociologists must be a strange tribe.

  42. #42 David Marjanovi?, OM
    March 5, 2008

    the “woodstock” meme gets applied to any large gathering of like-minded folk.

    Even if it’s actually quite small and doesn’t even remotely resemble sex, drugs & rock’n’roll? (Still laughing at the thought of sex, drugs & rock’n’roll in Altenberg… :-D )

    …and there must be world peace.

    Yeah, that too.

    Seriously, what’s with the title? Has there ever been an academic conference without marijuana?

    The sociologists must be a strange tribe.

  43. #43 Sven DiMilo
    March 5, 2008

    The sociologists must be a strange tribe.

    Not sure about the whole tribe, but I’ve known some weird ones personally. Come to think of it, though, they always had good dope.
    Hey waitaminute–they must have been COPS!

  44. #44 windy
    March 5, 2008

    When are we going to get P-Zed’s statement on that whole “levels of selection” shindig? I’m sure the flamewars that would set off would be quite entertaining. :-)

    Flamewars are one thing, but there’s science to be found on the subject as well. You as a hard sciencey type might appreciate that the kin and group selection approaches are mathematically equivalent, as far as anyone has been able to figure out.

  45. #45 Stephen Wells
    March 5, 2008

    Would an ostrich egg be our best choice as incubator for our reconstructed transgenic dinosaur? We’ll have to go sequentially, starting with maniraptorans and working up to brontosaurs, to deal with the size issues.

  46. #46 MAJeff, OM
    March 5, 2008

    Not sure about the whole tribe, but I’ve known some weird ones personally. Come to think of it, though, they always had good dope. Hey waitaminute–they must have been COPS!

    Go read Howard Becker’s “Outsiders.” We can turn that shit into research programs.

    I guess chemists just toss something together in the lab. I did once have a chemistry major as an upstairs neighbor who decided to set up a lab for making Ecstasy in his bathtub (the newspaper said he found the recipe online).

    I moved out the month after the DEA busted him. Decided that wasn’t the neighborhood for me.

  47. #47 BB
    March 5, 2008

    Sex and drugs at Altenberg? Not so much. The mansion is quite patrician. (Lorenz’s father was one of the many people from the middle to outer reaches of the empire whom made it big in the capital, and then settled close to it.)

    On the other hand, if they just walk up across the Wienerwald behind Altenberg (or downstream along the Danube), they’ll end up in Klosterneuburg, which is well known for its wine!

  48. #48 JLT
    March 5, 2008

    Waterloooo!

    At Scoop freelance reporter Suzan Mazur pulls back the veil on one of science’s dirty little secrets — Darwinism is dead as a theory of evolution. [...]
    Say what? Sixteen scientists who recognize that the theory of evolution, which most practicing biologists accept and which is taught in classrooms today, is inadequate in explaining our existence. (Suzan, shhhh, don’t tell anyone, there’s hundreds more over here.)[...]
    Many different points of view are to be represented at the meeting from Stanley Pivar’s geometric approach, to Fodor’s endogenous variables, to Stuart Kauffman’s ideas on self-organization. Yet one entire field is not represented – intelligent design. It would seem that such a meeting would benefit from including Stephen Meyer or Michael Behe in its discussion as ID researchers, even if only to argue against their ideas.
    Regardless, there is a debate (whether the NCSE will admit it or not) and a paradigm shift is on the way.

    There, the Disco institute said it [here]. The end is near, Darwinism is dead. Again. And noone invited the idiots!

  49. #49 Blake Stacey
    March 5, 2008

    Ichthyic:

    too late, we went there and did that last year. or were you there for that?

    there were some good battles IIRC, but PZ dropped out of the war.

    I must have been on vacation from the Internet. Hmmmm. I should do that more often.

    windy:

    Thanks for the reference. I think this is about where I gave up the last time I tried to read through the evolution-of-altruism literature; it looks familiar (too many papers have passed through my head recently). Yes, this might have been the point where I decided it was all Somebody Else’s Problem.

    You know what drives me batty? Journal articles which harp on the “mathematical equivalence” of A and B without providing a single equation.

    Subsequently, it was shown that this debate was purely semantic and that the two methods were mathematically equivalent and just different ways of looking at the same thing (Frank, 1986b).

    Now I have to dig into the stacks to find (Frank, 1986b) and see exactly what is being proven equivalent to what. Sweet Zombie Jesus, physics has spoiled me.

    . . . on a first reading, (Frank, 1986b) is significantly clearer than many other papers I’ve had to dig through lately. At least that’s nice.

  50. #50 Blake Stacey
    March 5, 2008

    Quoth the DI:

    Many different points of view are to be represented at the meeting from Stanley Pivar’s geometric approach, to Fodor’s endogenous variables, to Stuart Kauffman’s ideas on self-organization.

    “Stanley Pivar”?

  51. #51 Ichthyic
    March 5, 2008

    Even if it’s actually quite small and doesn’t even remotely resemble sex, drugs & rock’n’roll?

    yes, which is why I compared it to the “watergate” meme.

  52. #52 windy
    March 5, 2008

    You know what drives me batty? Journal articles which harp on the “mathematical equivalence” of A and B without providing a single equation.

    I guessed that this might come up :) The West et al article is a comment on a reply to a review, so at this point they are mostly repeating stuff they said before. But I think it’s an useful read on the state of the field right now. Another older article that can be useful is:

    D.C. Queller, Quantitative genetics, inclusive fitness, and group selection, Am. Nat. 139 (1992), pp. 540-558

  53. #53 Blake Stacey
    March 5, 2008

    /me tunnels back through MIT’s network and downloads paper

    /me decides to procrastinate on important tasks by reading paper

    This part I find very interesting:

    At this point it appears that kin selection and group selection are simply different sides of the same coin. Each provides a method of analyzing social selection into useful components. Each succeeds where the simplest quantitative genetic model (eq. [2]) fails because it increases the number of parameters to a level adequate to encompass the complexity of the situation. However, the fact that both of these approaches work for the simple additive model discussed above is no guarantee that they will always succeed. Inclusive-fitness models in particular have been criticized for being inexact, which has tended to leave an impression that group-structured or family-structured models are more appropriate. In fact, neither formulation is intrinsically more appropriate than the other. Below, I show that both fail under the same condition. The failure is not due to any feature peculiar to the inclusive-fitness method. Rather, it stems from the attempt to achieve a clean separation, characteristic of quantitative genetics models, between parameters that relate genes to phenotype and parameters that relate phenotypes to fitness.

    And later,

    when there are nonadditive effects and interactants are related, it is not generally possible to separate the genetic parameters from the fitness parameters in the group-selection model.

    Speaking of people saying that so-and-so’s assumption of this-and-that is violated, the Goodnight et al. article on the “prudent predator” has officially appeared at Complexity. I think I can summarize it in the following way: “We have this model, see, whose behavior doesn’t follow (what we think is) kin selection or group selection, because it’s outside of a quasi-steady-state regime in which (we think) other models are operating. Connecting our model to anything in the biological world is left as an exercise to the interested reader.”

    A while back, I crossed paths with Justin Werfel, and we read through Zahavi’s reply to the Werfel/Bar-Yam paper in PNAS. (Werfel has, I gather, largely moved on to other things, like designing robot swarms for building structures. Screw altruism — let’s make robots to conquer the world!) His side of the conversation went something like this:

    “No, we didn’t consider that a fundamental assumption. . . Yes, slime molds are weird, and I could give better examples. . . Wait, he’s talking about gorillas, not bacteria! . . . Actually, this bit here is a good point. . .”

    That afternoon, he dug out his old simulation code, modified it to allow predators to interchange in the way Zahavi said they should, and ran the program again. Nothing changed.

  54. #54 Blake Stacey
    March 5, 2008

    By the way, I’m going to try taking a vacation from the Internet, so I probably won’t be responding in this thread (or any other) very rapidly. See you next week. . . .

  55. #55 Steve Fisher
    March 26, 2008

    While I agree that Mazur does not seem to know enough to differentiate between crack pots and real scientists, she does a good job of presenting all sides, and in getting the real (and interesting) arguments within evolutionary theory into he public eye(as opposed to the imaginary arguments inspired by religionists).
    Has anyone read “Evolution in Four Dimensions–Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, And Symbolic Variation in the History of Life” by Eva Jablonka (a member of the so-called Altenburg 16) and Marion J. Lamb? I have ordered but not received it yet.

  56. #56 Colugo
    July 6, 2008

    Steve Fisher: “Has anyone read “Evolution in Four Dimensions–Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, And Symbolic Variation in the History of Life””

    Yes, it’s terrific, and state of the art. It’s not exhaustive and I don’t agree entirely with Jablonka and Lamb but everyone interested in contemporary evolutionary science should read it.

  57. #57 Fred
    July 6, 2008

    I have met Mazur. Let’s just say she isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. She is one of those breathy science “journalists” (if she merits the term) who doesn’t really understand much about evolution, but gloms on to a supposed revision of Darwinism like ugly on a frog. All she really understands is that there are some people who think that neo-Darwinism is wrong or grossly incomplete in some of his tenets and–VOILA–she has a big story.

    As for the meeting, I think it’s likely to be a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I’ll start paying attenting to ideas like “self-organization” and “evolvability” when they start addressing real biological phenomena that we haven’t been able to understand using the current paradigm.

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