Geneticists are narrow a**holes?!?!

By Razib Khan | January 28, 2008 10:09 am

Over at Greg’s place, Brian Switek notes:

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.

First, I would recommend Brian check out Speciation, it’s a good read! Jerry Coyne in his popular stuff has a delivery which people might charitably term “bracing.” But his science is cool. And at the end of the day that’s the measure of a man. As for Coyne being narrow, I think his criticisms of evo-devo can come off as intemperate, but Sean Carroll is making some big claims. With that comes fame, and the fury of the establishment for undermining reigning orthodoxies. The reality is that in science most of the time the orthodoxy is orthodoxy for a reason, it is a consensus derived from decades of results and not pure dogma from on high; there really are reasons to believe! Finally, I’ll admit to being somewhat of a partisan of a narrow view of evolution; or, more precisely, I think the reductionistic bottom-up mentality of evolutionary and molecular genetics has a lot of clarity to offer. I’m sure that this vantage point misses a lot, but I really don’t know what. That is, do people really believe that evolution is not scale independent? If so, how so?
A few years ago Bryan Caplan wrote Why I Am Not an Austrian Economist, where he said:

Given this, I conclude that while self-labeled Austrian economists have some valid contributions to make to economics, these are simply not distinctive enough to sustain a school of thought. The task of developing an alternate Austrian paradigm has largely failed, producing an abundance of meta-economics (philosophy, methodology, and history of thought), but few substantive results. Whatever Austrian economists have that is worth saying should be simply be addressed to the broader economics profession, which (in spite of itself) remains eager for original, true, and substantive ideas.

Granted, I’ve criticized the simplifications of neo-classical economists myself, but sometimes to begin a process of correcting those very simplifications you need to start from some spare assumptions. Though I am interested in ideas such as group level selection (see my posts on the topic) quite often I feel like the same thing that Caplan describes is going on in these discussions where geneticists come out to be narrow-minded bad-guys; a lot of the critique involves foundations and philosophy. But at the end of the day the criticism never seems to move to generating an alternative view of the same crisp clarity. Jerry Coyne has been spending his years in the trenches working on questions such as the origin of species; he’s surely wrong a lot of the time, but he has been making substantive contributions which broadens our understanding of nature. Coyne won’t be penning bestsellers anytime soon, but that’s fine by me.

  • p-ter

    here’s coyne’s punchline:
    “The way to find out what kinds of genes have caused evolutionary change is simply to do genetics.”
    the fact that this could be considered “narrowminded” (other than a simple truism) is ridiculous. of all the people commenting on this, only coyne has actually put in the legwork. everyone else is just jerking around (to carefully choose my prepositions), and it’s a little embarrassing.

  • Laelaps

    Razib; Speciation is definitely on my reading list, the price is just a little prohibitive at the moment. I was primarily reacting to Coyne’s popular articles that I had been able to read and get access to, and as I’ve said elsewhere I know I have a different perspective than geneticists do (not better or worse, just different). I might not have the “right” to say anything being that I haven’t put in the legwork that Coyne or others have, but what I said was primarily in context of the response to Judson and pieces like “Don’t know much biology” from a few months back.

  • Larry Moran

    Razib asks,
    … do people really believe that evolution is not scale independent? If so, how so?
    I’m a pluralist. I believe that the evolution of life on this planet cannot be explained by microevolution alone. (And it certainly can’t be explained by adaption alone.) Mass extinctions are just one example.
    Here’s why I believe this [Macroevolution] [Evolution by Accident].
    There’s a reason why hierarchical theory is important. Have you read The Structure of Evolutionary Theory by Gould? Why do you reject his main thesis?

  • razib

    brian, not be a smart-ass, but it’s in the rutgers library.
    this “different” perspective, that’s fine. the fact that i’ve read (read) a lot of pop genetics papers and you have (read) paleontology surely influences us some in regards to evolution, but it shouldn’t. right? so let’s work this through and see how we differ. for example, do you think that evolution is scale independent or not? are there higher level dynamics above groups such species and what not? if you do believe this, then obviously genetics has some limitations.

  • razib

    to be concrete. i recommended you read speciation. is there a paleontology text you’d recommend to me so that i can “get” you?

  • razib

    Have you read The Structure of Evolutionary Theory by Gould?
    christ dude, that’s like asking if you’ve read the talmud, and if not, how can you reject judaism? but yeah, i’ll read it soon to get it over with….

  • Colugo

    Larry Moran is Christ? Who knew? He is risen!
    Let me put in a plug for full blown unapologetic hopeful monsterism as the extreme end of a wide continuum that mostly encompasses much smaller changes. I am talking about single generation, higher taxa, macroevolutionary transformations. Rare as hell? Sure. Important? Could be.
    Possible or certain hopeful monster events (in the broad sense; not precisely as Goldschmidt envisioned. Some were pointed out by others on the various Coyne-Judson threads.): endosymbiont origin of eukaryotic cell, origin of transmissible cancers, dorsal-ventral inversion in vertebrate origins, amniote egg. Processes: Mutation of very large effect, single step degeneration to cancer and virus, symbiogenesis, other ‘functional integration’ events (e.g. multicellularity), inserted germline bacteria and viruses, hybridization across higher taxa. Maybe this looks like a laundry list of the weird, arcane, and marginal, but over the history of the biota it could add up bigtime.
    Now, am I endorsing the overzealousness of Sanders/Vargas? No way.

  • razib

    is that guy for real??? every time i read one of his comments i have to shake off the impression that he’s a mole trying to make paleontologists look ridiculous.

  • windy

    I am talking about single generation, higher taxa, macroevolutionary transformations.
    “Higher taxa” don’t originate in a single step, unless you want to deprive the term of all meaning. Let me be a good pluralist here and borrow a term from Gould: “retrospective coronation”.
    endosymbiont origin of eukaryotic cell
    Endosymbiosis (and -paratisism and -mutualism) are common as mud. Although we don’t know much of the details of how it happened with the eukaryotic cell, there’s no shortage of analogues.
    ‘functional integration’ events (e.g. multicellularity)
    Same here – should we divide unicellular and multicellular Volvocales (for example) into multiple higher taxa?

  • John Emerson

    “The way to find out what kinds of genes have caused evolutionary change is simply to do genetics.”
    Just in its form that looks like a small-minded, dogmatist statement.
    Sometimes statements like that are correct, but there are legit doubts about them until they’re proven correct. It looks like the kind of polemical methodological statement made by people trying to narrow a field by enforcing a strict paradigm, with the goal of controlling funding distribution, job placements, etc.

  • razib

    Just in its form that looks like a small-minded, dogmatist statement.
    well, it’s based on nearly 100 years of progress in the understanding of evolution through genetics. but it’s also a reformulation of a tautology predicated on reductionism. if you are hypothesizing macromutational processes based on development or the fossil record that by definition intersects with the domain of geneticists. this is part of the vehicle & replicator debate; inferences made from examination of data collected on the vehicles of the replicators must still face the mechanism at the level of replication. just as molecular biology is conditional upon the constraints of chemistry, evolution is conditional upon the priors determined by genetics. so like ‘em or hate ‘em, the geneticists voice should carry weight.

  • windy

    “Just in its form that looks like a small-minded, dogmatist statement.”
    Not really, Coyne clarifies it here.

  • John Emerson

    Sure, it should carry weight. Is there someone who says that it shouldn’t? But you also have the environmental contexts and the historical sequences. Someone talking about actual evolution would want to look at all of them, whereas Coyne seems to privilege genetics. “Simply to do genetics” is a very strong statement.
    “The way to find out what kinds of genes have caused evolutionary change is simply to do genetics.”
    This somewhat makes the question circular, since he seems to define understanding evolution as “finding out what kinds of genes have caused evolutionary change”, making it a geneticist’s problem by definition.

  • John Emerson

    These macromutations, like those producing bald chickens, almost always have highly deleterious side effects that make them unlikely to form the basis for evolution in nature. In fact, many cultivated species would never survive, much less take over, in the wild.
    “Almost always” is not a good point. It’s generally granted that most mutations are deleterious, or neutral at best. “Unlikely” is also weak; one of the arguments for evolution is that over long time periods unlikely things do happen.
    The thing about cultivated species is irrelevant to anything whatsoever. AKAIK, examples from chickens were used just because chickens are commonly bred and observed.

  • razib

    This somewhat makes the question circular, since he seems to define understanding evolution as “finding out what kinds of genes have caused evolutionary change”, making it a geneticist’s problem by definition.
    this is the standard ‘neo-darwinian orthodoxy.’ genetics is the key to understanding evolution at its most fundamental level. g. g. simpson was the paleontologist among the neo-darwinians, but that field was pretty much marginal. gould and others wanted to bring paleontologists back into the fray and (from what i can tell) direct genetic research predicated on what they inferred from the patterns of evolution. a lot of these issues are points of interpretation, semantics and philosophical emphasis. from where i stand i think a lot of geneticists get really frustrated by the fact that the public perceives a balance in the perspectives and within the scientific community when they don’t think there is one. i am pretty sure that coyne thinks that the same issue as at work with developmental geneticists like sean carroll who are promoting evo-devo. this was a serious problem with gould, he was the most famous ‘evolutionary biologist,’ but it just is a fact that within the study of evolution paleontologists aren’t that numerous or prominent today (and many of them make an impact via developmental genetics labs with extant taxa which are sister clades to extinct groups).

  • razib

    i think i can agree that coyne’s brief was a bit hurried and sloppy. this wasn’t a carefully written diatribe (since domestication was an original model for darwin’s theory it wasn’t a good line of attack i think rhetorically). that being said, i don’t think it is fair to dismiss coyne as excessively narrow as brian implied (and as many people in the science blogosphere have been saying), and it doesn’t take into account the enormous and out-sized role that geneticists such as coyne have in the production and advance of evolutionary science.

  • p-ter

    This somewhat makes the question circular, since he seems to define understanding evolution as “finding out what kinds of genes have caused evolutionary change”, making it a geneticist’s problem by definition
    well, yes. if someone claims that genetic mutations of large effect cause macroevolutionary changes, it’s obviously a genetic question. the original post in the nytimes blog that inspired all this crap made specific claims about specific genes being involved in specific large-scale evolutionary trends. genetics is the only tool to definitively resolve these genetic claims.
    this is an entirely empirical question, and going back and forth debating priors is pretty much a waste of time, since there is data (that obviously no one ever bothers to look for). see for example this paper on finding the precise genetic changes underlying a developmental difference between two drosophila species:
    genetics works. if you think that a changes in a single gene are responsible for major evolutionary transitions, do the damn experiments.

  • John Emerson

    I’m really not competent to judge here, but as in many such controversies the combined, eclectic or holistic approach will probably turn out best. It’s hard for me to see what’s at stake, but it looks like a bureaucratic turf fight to me.
    As a temporary expedient maybe it could be expressed in terms of weighting — 50/50 vs. 70 / 30 vs. 90/10 — though that’s still a very rough way of talking. Coyne seemed to be saying 100 / 0 and accusing the others of saying 0 / 100.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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