People who don’t understand modern evolutionary theory shouldn’t be writing books criticizing evolutionary theory. That sounds like rather pedestrian and obvious advice, but it’s astonishing how often it’s ignored — the entire creationist book publishing industry demands a steady supply of completely clueless authors who think their revulsion at the implications of Darwinian processes is sufficient to compensate for their ignorance. And now Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, a philosopher and a cognitive scientist, step up to the plate with their contribution to this genre of uninformed folly.
I haven’t read their book, What Darwin Got Wrong, and I don’t plan to; they’ve published a brief summary in New Scientist (a magazine that is evolving into a platform for sensationalistic evolution-deniers, sad to say), and that was enough. It’s breathtaking in its foolishness, and is sufficient to show the two authors are parading about quite nakedly unashamed of their lack of acquaintance with even the most rudimentary basics of modern evolutionary biology.
In our book, we argue in some detail that much the same [they are comparing evolution to Skinner's behaviorism] is true of Darwin’s treatment of evolution: it overestimates the contribution the environment makes in shaping the phenotype of a species and correspondingly underestimates the effects of endogenous variables. For Darwin, the only thing that organisms contribute to determining how next-generation phenotypes differ from parent-generation phenotypes is random variation. All the non-random variables come from the environment.
Suppose, however, that Darwin got this wrong and various internal factors account for the data. If that is so, there is inevitably less for environmental filtering to do.
I am entirely sympathetic with the argument that naive views of evolution that pretend that populations are infinite plastic and can respond to almost any environmental demand, given enough time, are wrong. I appreciate a good corrective to the excesses of adaptationism; evolution is much more interesting and diverse than the kind of simplistic whetstone it is too often reduced to, but we don’t need bad critiques that veer off into the lunacy of selection-denial. It’s also literally true that Darwin was completely wrong on the basic mechanisms of inheritance operating in organisms — he didn’t know about genes, postulated the existence of distributed information about the organization of tissues and organs that was encapsulated in unobserved mystery blobs called “gemmules” that migrated from the arm, for instance, to the gonads, to pass along instructions on how to build an arm to the gametes. Telling us that Darwin got the chain of information wrong is nothing new or interesting.
It also gets the problem backwards. Darwin’s proposed mechanism actually supported the idea of the inheritance of acquired characters, and as Fodor wants to argue, encouraged the idea that organisms were more responsive to environmental effects than they actually are. The neo-Darwinian synthesis melded the new science of genetics with evolutionary theory, and did make “various internal factors” much more important. They’re called genes.
What do you get when authors who know nothing about genetics and evolution write about genetics and evolution?
This is what makes Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s ideas so embarrassingly bad. They seem to know next to nothing about genetics, and so when they discover something that has been taken for granted by scientists for almost a century, they act surprised and see it as a death-stroke for Darwinism. It’s rather like reading about the saltationist/biometrician wars of the early 1900s, when Mendel was first rediscovered and some people argued that the binary nature of the ‘sports’ described in analyses of inheritance meant the incremental changes described by Darwin were impossible. The ‘problems’ were nonexistent, and were a product merely of our rudimentary understanding of genetics — it was resolved by eventually understanding that most characters of an organism were the product of many genes working together, and that some mutations do cause graded shifts in the phenotype.
Here, for instance, is one of their astonishing revelations about the nature of inheritance:
Darwinists say that evolution is explained by the selection of phenotypic traits by environmental filters. But the effects of endogenous structure can wreak havoc with this theory. Consider the following case: traits t1 and t2 are endogenously linked in such a way that if a creature has one, it has both. Now the core of natural selection is the claim that phenotypic traits are selected for their adaptivity, that is, for their effect on fitness. But it is perfectly possible that one of two linked traits is adaptive but the other isn’t; having one of them affects fitness but having the other one doesn’t. So one is selected for and the other “free-rides” on it.
That is so trivially true that it is a good point to make if you are addressing somebody who is biologically naive, and I think it is a valuable concept to emphasize to the public. But this is Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini chastising biologists with this awesome fact as if we’ve been neglecting it. It’s baffling. Linkage is a core concept in genetics; Alfred Sturtevant and Thomas Morgan worked it out in about 1913, and it’s still current. The genographic project, which is trying to map out the history of human populations, uses haplotype data — clusters of alleles tend to stay clumped together, only occasionally broken up by recombination, so their arrangements can be used as markers for geneology. The default assumption is that these sets of alleles are not the product of selection, but of chance and history!
They might also look up the concepts of linkage disequilibrium and epistasis. Are we already aware of “free-riding,” background effects, and interactions between genes? Yes, we are. Do we think every trait in every individual is the product of specific selection? You might be able to find a few weird outliers who insist that they are, and perhaps more who regard that as a reasonable default assumption to begin an analysis, but no, it’s obvious that it can’t be true.
It also should be obvious that a fact of genetics that has been known for almost a century and that was part of the neo-Darwinian synthesis from the very beginning isn’t going to suddenly become a disproof of the synthesis when belatedly noticed by a philosopher and neuroscientist in the 21st century.
This time it’s personal: abusing evo-devo
As bad as building an argument on the faulty premise of ignorance might be, there’s another approach that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini take that is increasingly common, and personally annoying: the use of a growing synthesis of evolutionary ideas with developmental biology to claim that evolution is dead. This is rather like noting that the replacement of carburetors with electronic fuel injection systems means that internal combustion engines are about to be extinct — evo-devo is a refinement of certain aspects of biology that has, we think, significant implications for evolution, especially of multicellular organisms. It is not a new engine. People who claim it is understand neither development nor evolution.
Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini throw around a few buzzwords that tell me right away where they’re coming from: they’re jumping on that strange structuralist bandwagon, the one that shows some virtue when the likes of Brian Goodwin are arguing for it, but is also prone to appealing to crackpots like Pivar and Fleury and the ridiculous Suzan Mazur…and now, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini.
The consensus view among neo-Darwinians continues to be that evolution is random variation plus structured environmental filtering, but it seems the consensus may be shifting. In our book we review a large and varied selection of non-environmental constraints on trait transmission. They include constraints imposed “from below” by physics and chemistry, that is, from molecular interactions upwards, through genes, chromosomes, cells, tissues and organisms. And constraints imposed “from above” by universal principles of phenotypic form and self-organisation — that is, through the minimum energy expenditure, shortest paths, optimal packing and so on, down to the morphology and structure of organisms.
It’s a shame, too, because there really is some beautiful work done by the structuralist pioneers — this is a field that combines art and mathematics, and has some truly elegant theoretical perspectives. I read the paragraph above and knew instantly what they are referring to — the work of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. This D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson:
For the harmony of the world is made manifest in Form and Number, and the heart and soul and all the poetry of Natural Philosophy are embodied in the concept of mathematical beauty.
Ah, but I love Thompson. He wrote the best developmental biology book ever, On Growth and Form, the one that will make you think the most if you can get past the flowery prose (or better yet, enjoy the flowery prose) and avoid throwing it against the wall with great force. It’s another hundred-year-old (almost) book, you see, and Thompson never quite grasped the idea of genes.
The summary I read doesn’t mention the name Thompson even once, but I can see him standing tall in the concepts Fodor is crowing over. My inference was confirmed in a review by Mary Midgley (who, it has rumored, has actually written some sensible philosophy…but every time I’ve read her remarks on biology, comes across as a notable pinhead).
Besides this — perhaps even more interestingly — the laws of physics and chemistry themselves take a hand in the developmental process. Matter itself behaves in characteristic ways which are distinctly non-random. Many natural patterns, such as the arrangement of buds on a stem, accord with the series of Fibonacci numbers, and Fibonacci spirals are also observed in spiral nebulae. There are, moreover, no flying pigs, on account of the way in which bones arrange themselves. I am pleased to see that Fodor and Piattelli Palmarini introduce these facts in a chapter headed “The Return of the Laws of Form” and connect them with the names of D’Arcy Thompson, Conrad Waddington and Ilya Prigogine. Though they don’t actually mention Goethe, that reference still rightly picks up an important, genuinely scientific strand of investigation which was for some time oddly eclipsed by neo-Darwinist fascination with the drama of randomness and the illusory seductions of simplicity.
Her whole review is like that; she clearly adores the fact that those biologists are getting taken down a peg or two, and thinks it delightful that poor long-dead Thompson is the stiletto used to take them out. I’ve got a few words for these clowns posturing on the evo-devo stage.
D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson was wrong.
Elegantly wrong, but still wrong. He just never grasped how much of genetics explained the mathematical beauty of biology, and it’s a real shame — if he were alive today, I’m sure he’d be busily applying network theory to genetic interactions.
Let’s consider that Fibonacci sequence much beloved by poseurs. It’s beautiful, it is so simple, it appears over and over again in nature, surely it must reflect some intrinsic, fundamentally mathematical ideal inherent in the universe, some wonderful cosmic law — it appears in the spiral of a nautilus shell as well as the distribution of seeds in the head of a sunflower, so it must be magic. Nope. In biology, it’s all genes and cellular interactions, explained perfectly well by the reductionism Midgley deplores.
The Fibonacci sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8…each term generated by summing the previous two terms) has long had this kind of semi-mystical aura about it. It’s related to the Golden Ratio, phi, of 1.6180339887… because, as you divide each term by the previous term, the ratio tends towards the Golden Ratio as you carry the sequence out farther and farther. It also provides a neat way to generate logarithmic spirals, as we seen in sunflowers and nautiluses. And that’s where the genes sneak in.
There’s an easy way to generate a Fibonacci sequence graphically, using the method of whirling squares. Look at this diagram:
Start with a single square on a piece of graph paper. Working counterclockwise in this example, draw a second square with sides of the same length next to it. Then a third square with the same dimensions on one side as the previous two squares. Then a fourth next to the previous squares…you get the idea. You can do this until you fill up the whole sheet of paper. Now look at the lengths of each side of the squares in the series — it’s the Fibonacci sequence, no surprise at all there.
You can also connect the corners with a smooth curve, and what emerges is a very pretty spiral — like a nautilus shell.
It’s magic! Or, it’s mathematics, which sometimes seems like magic! But it’s also simple biology. I look at the whirling squares with the eyes of a developmental biologist, and what do I see? A simple sequential pattern of induction. A patch of cells uses molecules to signal an adjacent patch of cells to differentiate into a structure, and then together they induce a larger adjacent patch, and together they induce an even larger patch…the pattern is a consequence of a mathematical property of a series expressed on a 2-dimensional sheet, but the actual explanation for why it recurs in nature is because it’s what happens when patches of cells recruit adjacent cells in a temporal sequence. Abstract math won’t tell you the details of how it happens; for that, you need to ask what are the signaling molecules and what are the responding genes in the sunflower or the mollusc. That’s where Thompson and these new wankers of the pluralist wedge fail — they stop at the cool pictures and the mathematical formulae and regard the mechanics of implementation as non-essential details, when it’s precisely those molecular details that generate the emergent property that dazzles them.
Let’s consider another classic Thompson example. Thompson was well-known for his work on how different forms could be generated by allometric transformations, and here’s one of his illustrations showing the relationship between the shape of the pelvis in Archaeopteryx and Apatornis, a Cretaceous bird. He’s making the point that one seems to be a relatively simple geometric transformation of the other, that you could describe one in terms of the changes in a coordinate grid.
By use of simple mathematical transforms, one can generate a whole range of intermediates, fitting perfectly with the Darwinian idea of incremental change over time. Again, this is where Thompson falls short; he’s so enamored with the ideal of a mathematical order that he doesn’t consider the implementation of the algorithm in real biology.
That mechanism of making the transformation is the crucial step. Thompson can see it as a distortion of a coordinate grid, but there is no grid in the organism. What there are are populations of cells in the developing embryo that interact with each other through molecular signals and changes in gene expression; the form is the product of an internal network of genes regulating each other, not an external ideal. Ignore the artificial grid, and imagine instead a skein of genes in a complex regulatory network, changes in one gene propagating as changes in the pattern of expression of other genes. A mutation in one gene tugs on the whole skein, changing the outcome of development in a way that is, by the nature of the whole complex, going to involve shifts in the pattern of the whole regulated structure.
There is nothing in this concept that vitiates our modern understanding of evolutionary theory, the whole program of studying changes in genes and their propagation through populations. That’s the mechanism of evolutionary change. What evo-devo does is add another dimension to the issue: how does a mutation in one gene generate a ripple of alterations in the pattern of expression of other genes? How does a change in a sequence of DNA get translated into a change in form and physiology?
Those are interesting and important questions, and of course they have consequences on evolutionary outcomes…but they don’t argue against genetics, population genetics, speciation theory, mutation, selection, drift, or the whole danged edifice of modern evolutionary biology. To argue otherwise is like claiming the prettiness of a flower is evidence against the existence of a root.
We’re all pluralists now
We’re just not all willing to admit it, and some of us tend to overemphasize our own disciplines too much. I admit that I think the most interesting, key innovations in metazoan evolution all involve shifts in gene regulation — recombinations of genes, novel interactions between genes being more important than new genes themselves. Others will argue that those are changes in genes, and that focusing on regulation is not so much a dramatic revolution as a narrowing of interest to a subset of heritable change. I will say that evolutionary history is dominated by random chance, that all those “free-riders” that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini sieze upon as arguments against evolution are actually the coolest aspects of evolution, and represent the bulk of the diversity and specializations that we see in the natural world. Others will argue that selection is the engine of functionality, the one process that produces useful adaptations.
We’re all arguing for the same core ideas, though, just emphasizing different aspects. Life on earth evolved. Selection is the process that produces more efficient matching of organism to the environment, chance is the process that produces greater diversity. We all study these processes through our own lenses, our own specialties, and complaining that Charles Darwin’s lens had defects is irrelevant and silly — we already knew that, just as we all know our own lenses are imperfect. That’s why we all work together and argue and argue and argue, testing our ideas, trying to work out clearer, closer approximations to the truth.
Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini are following on a grand tradition of noticing the fact that evolution is complex and uses a multiplicity of mechanisms to play one strand of science against another; that because one discipline emphasizes selection and another emphasizes diversity and another emphasizes regulation and another emphasizes coding sequences, the differences between each mean the whole tapestry must be wrong. It’s fallacious reasoning. (I must also add that arguing that just one strand is the important one is also the wrong way to address the problem.) All it demonstrates is that they are blind to the big picture of evolutionary biology.
It’s also embarrassing to a developmental biologist that they should try to ride our field as if it were a refutation of that big picture of evolutionary biology. They can talk about constraints and gene regulatory networks and developmental mechanics all they want, but don’t be fooled: neither Fodor nor Piattelli-Palmarini are developmental biologists. Their authority is that of the bystanding dilettante, and while they mouth the words, they don’t seem to grasp the meaning.