Monstrous Hope: Reply to Coturnix

This is my reply to a post by Coturnix called The Hopeless Monster? Not so fast!

First, the phylogeny of the discussion.

Olivia Judson wrote this:

The Monster Is Back, and It's Hopeful

Which was responded to here:

Hopeless Monsters--A Guest Post from Dr. Jerry Coyne

That dyad of posts was passed around by Carl Zimmer, who asked for commentary. This is the set of posts of which I'm aware that resulted:

Why wither Goldschmidt?

Nature makes no leaps...

Jerry Coyne smacks down Olivia Judson
Coyne is on the Loom

Macromutations and Punctuated Equilibria

Hopeful Monsters and Hopeful Models

Then, we hav Coturnix's metacommentary, here:

The Hopeless Monster? Not so fast!

So go read all of that and report back.

Back already?


In my view, Coturnix's main point is that a range of evolutionary biologists, including geneticists, reacted to Judson's post with vitriol and nastiness because she used a few key words that struck a negative cord with them. Coturnix even claims that Coyne's response to Judson is more wrong than Judson's initial commentary!

Well, I completely agree with Coturnix. This reminds me a lot of something that happened to me recently, where words that I was using to make a point to the average initiated blog reader were used to launch a very nasty attack on me, that most onlookers saw as totally inappropriate, by various individuals who shall go unnamed (else they start whining at me again).

I felt the same way as Coturnix about Coyne, but I pulled punches when speaking about it because I was feeling somewhat burned by recent experiences. Coyne was being an ass and stuck his foot in his mouth while doing so. This is what happens when geneticists try to deal with real life anatomy, I suppose. Well, at least he wasn't staring at his navel.

In the end, however, there is a larger question: What the hell are you'all talking about anyway? I find that the discussion of "hopeful monsters" and saltational evolution has not addressed the essential, fundamental question of adaptation. This may be because most of the people who are talking about it are not adaptationists, and the current trend in the blogosphere is to be anti-adaptationist (it seems to me). But this is a conversation about adaptations and how they arise, so this is something we should talk about.

I've got a half-written post extending this topic in this direction that has been sitting open on my computer screen for about three days. Perhaps someday I'll finish it and subject you all to it. Or, more to the point, I'll post it and thus subject myself to the whining berating of the holier than thine. Well, bring it on, I say.

Finally, thanks Coturnix for sticking up for not being a jerk.

UPDATE: The discussion continues here: Evolution is not the change in allele frequencies?

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Bbbbbut, jerkitude is good for traffic!

Thanks. And please post your longer response.

Coyne is a knee-jerk anti-Gouldian and he will use any opportunity to slander Gould, appropriate or not. And I am not an adaptationist myself, but the questions of the origin of diversity and the origin of adaptation are central questions of Biology which can partly, but only partly, be explained at the level of the genes.

I had missed a few of those posts, so thanks for the summary of links. As is the way of the blogosphere, even debates about adaptation and evolutionary genetics can get personal and nasty. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I have to believe there's still room for a bit of civility on the internet, and as you say, for not being a jerk. If not in discussions between scientists, then where? I'd be interested to read your adaptation post, if you finish it.

I think I'm about to be a jerk.

Coyne's piece was a disgraceful piece of crap. Kudos to you, to Bora, to Brian, to the others who've illustrated why an accomplished geneticist is not necessarily a competent commentator or even a particularly learned biologist.

And speaking as one who works to defend evolutionary theory, I'm not sure I can imagine a more beautifully gift-wrapped confection for Reasons To Believe or Answers in Genesis. His idiotic dismissal of domesticated species alone is grounds for questioning his understanding of evolutionary theory. How sad -- and frustrating -- that he's been given a prominent venue to create such misunderstanding.

There's no way he's as incompetent or dumb as his piece suggests. Obnoxiousness is the remaining explanation, and let's all therefore fervently hope Coyne realizes that blogging is not his calling.

Thanks for the link Greg (and thanks for the compliment, Steve). I've generally been unimpressed with Coyne's popular articles, especially given that he seems to go out of his way to attack Gould and evo-devo whenever it seems fit to do so (which is just about anytime, apparently). Criticism and controversy is fine (even expected), but the way Coyne reacted to Judson's post was a bit too harsh and condescending. Part of the problem, I think, is that there doesn't seem to be a good definition of what a hopeful monster is or is not, what a saltation is or is not, etc. When I had a look through the literature there have been confirmations and refutations of these concepts but everyone defines them differently, so it the confusion seems to create a lot of problems. Still, from what I can tell Coyne's view of evolution is awfully narrow, and it's a view that many of us don't seem to share.

I pointed out two things in my article [Macromutations and Punctuated Equilibria].

First, Coyne is wrong about macromutations and saltation. It's not common but there are some very good examples. Gould described some of them and Dawkins described others.

Second, Coyne is wrong about Gould and punctuated equilibria.

Not a very good track record for Coyne, right? I like people who are outspoken and willing to stand up for their opinions but in Coyne's case he seems to be more wrong about evolution than most biologists. I think it's time we stopped treating him as an expert.

Greg says,

I find that the discussion of "hopeful monsters" and saltational evolution has not addressed the essential, fundamental question of adaptation. This may be because most of the people who are talking about it are not adaptationists, and the current trend in the blogosphere is to be anti-adaptationist (it seems to me). But this is a conversation about adaptations and how they arise, so this is something we should talk about.

"Hopeful monsters" and saltations are not primarily concerned with the "fundamental question of adaptation." They are questions about mutations--specifically macromutations. Once the mutation occurs we still have to consider whether it will persist in the population. It could be neutral or it could be beneficial.

One of Dawkins' examples (snake vertebra) is probably neutral. It spread by random genetic drift and not by natural selection.

My point is that the mechanism of evolution is different from mutation and macromutations are about mutations.

Larry: You are right, the mechanism of evolution and of any {hopeful monster" are not the same, but once the monster arrives on the scene it is subject to selection.

Hopeful monsters could be crazy freaks we see when we are very very lucky in the fossil record, or they can be turning points in evolutionary history for a species. For the latter to occur they must be neutral or adaptive, but frankly, being neutral would hardly ever matter as the novelty would most likely go away. Having a strong positive fitness value is the most likely way that HM changes could matter.

Alan: What is your question please? Use more words, make clear. Thanks.