If I told you that evolution was in crisis, what would you think I meant? You would probably think I meant that the theory was on its way out. You would think that new discoveries had shown the untenability of evolution, and that biologists were in despair over their lack of a central organizing principle. You would think that maybe those creationists and ID folks weren't as crazy as you had been told. If you're an old hand at this you might even recall Michael Denton's 1986 book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, which proved so inspirational to ID folks in the years before Philip Johnson and William Dembski.
You certainly would not think I meant that the entire discipline was being enriched by a variety of new ideas. Nor would you think that the foundational ideas of the subject were as solid as ever, or that evolutionary biologists of old had unnecessarily limited their explanatory options. Those are positive developments, you see, and no one, but no one, uses the word “crisis” to refer to something good.
Why, then, would John Dupre, a prominent philosopher of science, title an essay summarizing some recent developments in evolutionary biology, “Evolutionary Theory's Welcome Crisis”? And what force on earth could prompt him to write something as foolish as this:
The creationists are right about one thing: contrary to the impression given by much popular writing on the subject, the theory of evolution is in crisis.
Prior to this essay I knew of Dupre only from his book Darwin's Legacy: What Evolution Means Today. I liked that book quite a lot, not least because it pulls no punches about the serious challenges evolution poses for traditional religion. I cite the book favorably in Among the Creationists. So it was especially disappointing that he would hand the creationists such a huge propaganda victory.
The substance of his essay, minus the absurdly hyperbolic language, seems fine to me. He writes things like this:
The current crisis in evolutionary science does not imply complete rejection of this paradigm. Rather, it entails a major, progressive reorganization of existing knowledge, without undermining the fundamental tenets of evolutionary theory: organisms alive today developed from significantly different organisms in the distant past; dissimilar organisms may share common ancestors; and natural selection has played a crucial role in this process.
Other assumptions, however, are under threat. For example, in the traditional “tree of life” representation of evolution, the branches always move apart, never merging, implying that species’ ancestry follows a linear path, and that all evolutionary changes along this path occur within the lineage being traced. But examination of genomes – particularly microbes – has shown that genes moving between distantly related organisms are an important catalyst of evolutionary change.
Moreover, the new synthesis assumes that the main drivers of evolution are small mutations generated by chance within a species. But recent evidence suggests that large changes, caused by the absorption of a chunk of alien genetic material, may be just as significant. Indeed, the absorption of entire organisms – such as the two bacteria that formed the first eukaryotic cell (the more complex cell type found in multicellular animals) – can generate large and crucial evolutionary change.
I could nitpick, but that seems basically fine to me. Likewise for Dupre's other points. So why not write a headline like, “New Developments Show Evolution is More Interesting Than We Thought”? Unlike the actual title, that one would be accurate.
Mind you, the problem is not simply that it is politically unwise to phrase things as Dupre has done. It is that Dupre's statement is completely false, and not at all supported by anything that comes after it. When creationists tell their flock that evolution is a theory in crisis -- and I can tell you from personal experience that they use that phrasing routinely -- do you think they have in mind any of the esoteric points Dupre is discussing? Of course not. They are saying that the whole theory is ridiculous. They are saying that the three points that Dupre describes as the solid foundation of the theory are being soundly rejected by more and more scientists. The creationists are not right, about anything, even granting every point that Dupre makes.
I have no doubt that Dupre will think I quoted him out of context. For the record, here's the text surrounding the one sentence I quoted earlier:
Those who believe that a supernatural being created the universe have never posed an intellectual challenge to evolutionary theory. But creationists, whether biblical fundamentalists or believers in “intelligent design,” do pose a threat to scientific thinking. Indeed, creationism’s insidious genius lies in its ability to reinvent evolution in its own image as a dogmatic belief system – and thus the antithesis of science.
The creationists are right about one thing: contrary to the impression given by much popular writing on the subject, the theory of evolution is in crisis. But this is a positive development, because it reflects the non-linear progress of scientific knowledge, characterized by what Thomas Kuhn described in his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions as “paradigm shifts.”
Dupre concludes his essay with this:
This brings us back to where we started. Radically rethinking evolutionary theory invariably attracts the attention of creationists, who gleefully announce that if professional advocates of Darwinism cannot agree, the concept must be in retreat. And, evolutionists, confronted with this response, tend to circle the wagons and insist that everyone is in agreement.
But nothing more clearly demonstrates that science and creationism are polar opposites than the latter’s assumption that disagreement signals failure. In fact, disagreement – and the deeper insights that result from it – enables new approaches to scientific understanding. For science, unlike for dogmatic belief systems, disagreement is to be encouraged.
Evolutionary theory’s current contretemps – and our inability to predict where the field will be in 50 years – are a cause for celebration. We should leave the creationists to their hollow convictions and happily embrace the uncertainties inherent in a truly empirical approach to understanding the world.
It's great that he includes all that nuance, but no one can be so naive as to think the creationists will care in the slightest. They will happily quote that one sentence, and their audiences will lap it up.
This whole thing is reminiscent of that appalling New Scientist cover, the one that breathlessly announced, in enormous type, “Darwin Was Wrong.” The magazine was quite properly excoriated for putting sensationalism ahead of accuracy. It took about ninety minutes for a picture of that cover to become slide number one in every creationists presentation I subsequently attended. And why not? Why shouldn't they crow that a major popular science magazine was using precisely their language to describe the state of evolution? Dupre's essay is in the same mold. It's a scientifically interesting commentary buried under a cover of silly, unhelpful sensationalism.
It's really very frustrating. Why this endless desire to present every two-bit discovery in biology as prompting a revolution? Why the endless language of crisis, radical rethinking and paradigm shifts? It is not a radical rethinking of the subject to say that horizontal gene transfer shows that a tree isn't always the best metaphor for evolution, especially in the earliest stages of the process. It is not a paradigm shift to go from thinking that genes alone determine the physical structure of an organism to thinking that it's actually an interaction between genes and environment that does that.
And is Dupre serious that we can't predict where the field will be in fifty years? I think we can make some pretty strong predictions about where evolution will be. Fifty years from now it will still be true that modern organisms are related by common descent, it will still be true that naturalistic mechanisms are entirely sufficient to explain that descent, and it will still be true that complex adaptations evolve gradually by natural selection. Those are mighty big things. In fact, they are precisely the claims that cause evolutionary theory to have cultural relevance beyond the esoteric questions studied by scientists.
At any rate, Jerry Coyne also takes Dupre to task for his hyperbolic rhetoric.
Massimo Pigliucci plays mediator in this post. I was pleased that he said this, early in the post:
As it turns out, Jerry had a point in chastising John: contra the latter, there is no “crisis” in evolutionary theory.
Later on, Massimo points out that Dupre should not have used the word, “Radically,” when “Significantly” would have been more measured and reasonable. Alas, Massimo somewhat spoils the effect by concluding his post with this:
Jerry concludes his critique of John’s essay thusly: “As an evolutionary biologist — which Dupré is not — I think I’d know if my field was in crisis.” No Jerry, plenty of us have been telling you, you just haven’t been listening.
Hmmm. That makes it sound like Massimo really does think the theory is in crisis. I wish he would get his story straight...
As a layperson reading the debate, it's really hard to tell just what is meant by the theory being in crisis. I go back to thinking of Ernst Mayr's pillars of Darwinian evolution as he highlighted in What Evolution Is:
1. The nonconstancy of species
2. The descent of all organisms
3. The gradualness of evolution
4. The multiplication of species
5. Natural selection
As the article points out: "Rather, it entails a major, progressive reorganization of existing knowledge, without undermining the fundamental tenets of evolutionary theory". In the view that's on offer, it doesn't sound like it is "Radically rethinking evolutionary theory".
Either way, though, it's interesting what new findings biologists are discovering.
Calling the mentioned developments a "crisis" for evolution seems to me about as legitimate as saying that Einstein caused a scientific crisis concerning gravity.
I don't care how creationists will use Dupre's text. They misquote anyway and anticipating to that is a hopeless task. What irritates me is Dupre's sensationalism. Because that's the only reason he uses "crisis"; to draw attention. A philosopher should know better than using such a cheap trick.
Making assertive, clear statements is like waving a red flag in front of Massimo and he can't resist trying to ram his horns into it. And if Jerry Coyne's face is painted on the flag, all the better!
Even Jesus was allowed a crisis of faith. You sit back, reexamine the evidence, make some minor corrections if justified, and move on. When evolution scientists have to invent their own version of dark matter to fertilize the tree of life, then we have a true crisis.
Rhetorical question? For the same reason New Scientist used "Darwin was wrong" - to sell product.
Don't know whether mathematicians are the same way, but one of the foibles of the scientific community I find most endearing and amusing is when a researcher intentionally downplays an important result. Its like they want you to reason your way to the big implications on your own, without holding your hand as you get there. Often in science, its not the articles titled "Darwin was Wrong!" you really need to pay attention to. Its the ones titled things like (illustrative example only) "A revised measurement of the role of natural selection in the adaptation of the green monkey ant."
That you were trying to sell some books.
Sorry, was that a trick question?
"Crisis" in modern usage denotes an emergency, a state of danger.
Its original meaning, derived from Greek, was "turning point" - a fork in the road, a change of course, a situation requiring a choice which will have significant consequences.
Even in the classical sense, the discovery of horizontal gene transfer barely qualifies as a crisis, except perhaps for those with strong emotional attachments to a "tree of life" model beginning in a single point.
Personally, I suspect the modern misusage began with Richard Nixon's memoir Six Crises and the coverage of same, but then again, I just like to blame things on Republicans and the media.
Very good point. Another good example: what layperson would think that a paper titled "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies" would completely revolutionize our view of space and time. (In case you aren't familiar, the author of that paper was Albert Einstein)
I read that paper! The surprise revelation in that case was the existence of the green monkey ant. :)
Of course, it also means "cry sis", or that female family members cannot be relied on during emergencies. (from Cracked).
On a more serious note, a related issue with hyperbolic declarations of biological revolution is that creationists often argue -- or even silently assume -- that newer developments in the science are really band-aids on a cracking infrastructure. Any day now (think creationists), those Darwinists will admit that humans have no common ancestor with any living species; right now, all the evidence leading in that direction is being hastily, desperately re-interpreted so that they can continue to deny God.
Could this come from a deeper, psychological dislike of induction? To people who grow up with a source of information that (they are told) is complete, perfect, and unchanging, science has got to appear to have a lot of flaws. You can never pin anything down for sure! There are always caveats and you can always be wrong. That MUST be a sign of a leaky boat.
So, there's kind of a layered rejection of evolution based on constant revisions. The 'top layer' is a rejection based on the notion that this particular revision may undermine the theory. But there's a second layer, where they are rejecting a(ny) body of knowledge that constantly undergoes revision, simply because constant revision is taken as a sign that the body of knowledge must not be very good.
"Hmmm. That makes it sound like Massimo really does think the theory is in crisis. I wish he would get his story straight…"
He now has. Looks like it was just bad wording.
"I made it explicitly clear in the post that I don't think the field is in crisis. The last sentence, directed to Coyne, is about the fact that plenty of professionals have been telling Coyne that his dismissal of the new developments as anything more than icing on the cake is unwarranted."
I think he makes his point even clearer in this older post.
He summarizes some of the biological developements mentioned in the recent post on Dupre vs Coyne, and then clarifies the situation (you have to read the whole thing to understand the context).
"Now, did you see ANYTHING in the above that suggests that evolution is “a theory in crisis”? Did I say anything about intelligent designers, or the rejection of Darwinism, or any of the other nonsense that has filled the various uninformed and sometimes downright ridiculous commentaries that have appeared on the web about the Altenberg meeting? Didn’t think so. If next week’s workshop succeeds, what we will achieve is taking one more step in an ongoing discussion among scientists about how our theories account for biological phenomena, and how the discovery of new phenomena is to be matched by the elaboration of new theoretical constructs. This is how science works, folks, not a sign of “crisis.”"
Aaaaand then... :-)
"I’ll tell you what does constitute a crisis, though: the fact that creationists have been on the retreat ever since the Scopes trial, having to invent increasingly vacuous versions of their attacks on science education in order to keep pestering the Courts of this country with their demands that religious nonsense be taught side by side with solid science. You want serious disagreement? How about several orders of magnitude difference in the estimate of the age of the earth among creationists: some of them still cling to the primitive idea that our planet is only a few thousand years old, their only “evidence” a circular argument from authority -- that’s two logical fallacies at once! (The Bible says so; how do you know the Bible is right? Because it’s the word of God; how do you know it’s the word of God? The Bible says so...) Other creationists, particularly many in the ID movement, concede that the science of geology and physics is a bit too well established to throw it out of the window, so they accept the figure of about four billion years for the age of the earth. Now, if any scientific theory were to make statements that varied by six (I repeat: six!) orders of magnitude about a basic aspect of reality, that would really mean that the theory in question is in deep trouble. C’mon, guys, fix your own house first, then start knocking at our door if you must."
I guess this settles the matter.
@Eric: "That MUST be a sign of a leaky boat."
I propose to call this the Joe the Plumber fallacy.
I kinda picture the Modern Synthesis as an Okie pickup truck, with mattresses piled on top and furniture tied onto the sides. It's not elegant, but it is still a functioning truck, and it has not tipped over.
Jason writes: "It’s a scientifically interesting commentary buried under a cover of silly, unhelpful sensationalism."
Now you know how philosophers feel about the title of Lawrence Krauss's book, and how frustrating it can be to spend time trying to set things straight afterwards
Good point couchloc. Evolution is in crisis because of those who pretend to defend it. See for example this for a new spin on that old issue:
Of course! If you defend an idea, that PROVES it's wrong!!!
Jesus wept, how much arsehole can two idiots bring to the table before it becomes one big black hole...
BDoyle, I see science theories more like someone making a boat out of natural materials with only a penknife to help.
If you were to design the result with the proper tools, you'd have a much better result than you get with only nature's accidental props, but it still works for what's needed.
@SvG: ah, Plato's cave pimped up. Irrelevant for us living within that simulation. I think the modern expression is "not even wrong".
Ugh, is Pigliucci playing Science Police again? What a blowhard.
Ugh, is couchloc playing Science Police again? What a blowhard.
In fairness to Krauss, he addresses the 'philosophical definition of nothing' issue in the forward of the book. Before chapter 1. You can't ask for much better billing than that.
Now, I'm not saying he agrees with philosophers about the definition (he doesn't), or uses the same definition they do (he doesn't), or even that the book title wasn't a bit sensationalist (it is). But he does point out the difference in positions between himself and his philosophical opponents. If you find yourself needing to set people straight as to how philosophy's nothing differs from Krauss' nothing, its probably because they didn't read Krauss carefully, not because they did.
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The philosopher's definition of "nothing" is a leftover from the 19th century. Given the development of quantum field theory, we now know that that definition is meaningless as applied to physics. As we now understand it, all of space is permeated by the quantum vacuum, one of those peculiarities of quantum field theory which nobody understands. The quantum vacuum, which consists of virtual particles (e.g. virtual electrons, photons, protons, etc.) exists but at the same time it doesn't exist. It can't be directly observed but the concept can be indirectly observed via such observables as the anomalous magnetic moment of the electron.
I read this and did a headdesk. Modern endosymbiotic theory goes back over 40 years and was widely accepted by the time I was taking high school biology. This is the evidence that biologists are just now having to completely rethink evolutionary biology?
I found the article amateurish. Even assuming that there are recent findings that "upset the paradigm" if you will, he picked ones that have been known about for decades and aren't controversial. Some crisis.
"So why not write a headline like, “New Developments Show Evolution is More Interesting Than We Thought”? Unlike the actual title, that one would be accurate."
I agree. However, I also hasten to add that I think it would also have been close enough to have used a headline, "Contemporary Genetics Is in Crisis."
To understand why that could be involves a developed argument about the current paradigm in molecular biology. In particular, the paradigm's picture of gene-expression as an essentially deterministic process has such serious flaws that it has in effect become as much an obstacle as an aid to further progress in genetics and molecular biology. As it happens, this argument has been made by the author and work mentioned below.
Many scientists and researchers practicing today in molecular biology operate according to certain accepted assumptions about gene and cellular behavior by which they unconsciously import under one form or another what one of their leading critics, the biologist and researcher, Jean-Jacques Kupiec, calls "biologic holism" in his detailed argumentation setting out an alternative view, The Origin of Individuals, (2009, World Scientific, Singapore; translated by Margaret and John Hutchings from L'origine des individus (2008, Librarie Arthème Fayard, Paris).
This holism is, in effect, a departure from the random character of Darwin's picture as given in natural selection, a process which is a combination of environmental conditions and probabilistically-driven ( i.e. stochastic, or randomly-based) adaptations within and among living organisms because it involves a view of the gene as determining through stereospecific processes the outcome of biological development whether on the individual or the geneological level.
This standard paradigm resembles very much in its essential character the same sort of basic assumptions which are argued by the proponents of what goes by the names of "Intelligent Design" or "Creation Science" because it simply replaces a divine direction by another which proceeds by intention under the guise of the gene.
We have, then, in the standard genetic paradigm as working view of living organisms which, at a molecular level, to say nothing of the atomic level, violates the picture of the natural world which modern physics gives us--a world which is fundamentally based on probabilistic events rather than pre-determined events, whether by divine guidance or gene-guidance.
Jean-Jacques Kupiec's major writings, outside scientific papers, are:
The Origin of Individuals, (isbn: 978-981-270-499-3 ; Library of Congress cat. no. QH453.K8713 2009 )
L'ontophylogenèse : Evolution des espèces et developpement de l'individu (2012, éditions Quae, Versailles) (isbn: 978-2-7592-1786-1)
and, with co-author, Pierre Sonigo, Ni Dieu ni gène: Pour une autre théorie de l'hérédité (2000, Editions du Seuil, Paris) (isbn: 978-2-02-058510-1)
Evolutionary theory is most certainly at a crossroads. The movement has had two other changes. First was the move from uniformitarian gradualism to the neo-Darwinian genetics of the 30s. Then came the various modern alternations of Mayr, Dawkins, and Gould, all of which hold to neither of the first two as the foundation, but some combination that somehow must work. (It just *has* to work.)
Directionality is a hold-over from the religions views of the 19th century -- postmillennialism. It is also the core of the progressive ideals. But it is not scientific. Directionality must be abandoned. It was certainly an influence on Darwin for it drove most all of England for a century, and more.
Popper's influence must not be disregarded. Any theory (orthodoxy, that is) which denounces its critics instead of investigating the claims and challenges is automatically suspect.
"Any theory (orthodoxy, that is) which denounces its critics instead of investigating the claims and challenges is automatically suspect."
Firstly: that isn't Popperian.
Secondly, evolutionary theory IS NOT just denouncing its critics.
Indeed, it is those critics who are denouncing the evolutionary theory. And that, being all they are doing, makes them suspect.
I did not say that "evolutionary theory" is making the denunciations. Just the true believers. You know -- people who do not study science *or its rules* but alternatively denounce these rules. Sort of like claiming empiricism and avoiding the rules of empiricism.
"I did not say that “evolutionary theory” is making the denunciations"
It's the critics of the evolutionary theory making the denunciations.
"Just the true believers. "
The christians, right?
"people who do not study science *or its rules*"
Yes, creation scientists and those going in to biology classes to then join the creationist foundation to give them fake respectability.
"but alternatively denounce these rules."
Yes, the christian evolutionists, right?
We seem to be in agreement. It didn't appear this was what you were talking about in your earlier post, though.
What? Sad that the xtians pretend science? They've been doing it for years.
It hasn't stopped progress, though it has made it harder to get heard.
You're just angry because a professional philosopher put you in your place last time. It's no wonder you're anonymous. You are nothing but a chicken. Can't handle philosophy and can't handle challenges to your orthodoxy. So much for the search for intelligent life. (And keep taking your "science" from a mathematician. He's very good on the math side but equally mediocre on the philosophy and science side.)
Bye for now.
Nope, I'm not at all angry.
And I dont have a clue what you're on about with "a professional philosopher put you in your place last time", nor do I have the faintest inkling of what the hell that's got to do with evolution or the abuse of science by fakers like creation scientists.
"You are nothing but a chicken."
Compare and contrast with your earlier statement:
“Any theory (orthodoxy, that is) which denounces its critics instead of investigating the claims and challenges is automatically suspect.”
You're automatically suspect to your own mores.
Moreover you've just proven my case.
Much like climate deniers proved Lewandowsky's case.
"And keep taking your “science” from a mathematician"
I don't have a clue what this is about either.
"Then answer the directionality challenge."
Directionality is observed.
Evolutionary pressures leading to more apt adaptation to the environment is a method that adequately explains that there is a direction to evolution, and it is not "merely random changes".
Mutation is random change.
Evolution isn't mutation.
You aren't a cheesehead. You're a muttonhead.
"You say that I’m chicken?
Then answer the directionality challenge."
Moreover, even if I DO call you a chicken, how does that mean I must answer the directionality challenge?
My god your brain is a random mush of statements, isn't it.