The Structure of Evolutionary Theory blogging, chapter 2

By Razib Khan | January 29, 2008 8:55 pm

GOUSTR.jpgChapters read:1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.
Booyah! Over 10% of the way through The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Unfortunately, I’m still in heavily exegetical territory. Personally I much prefer Richard Elliott Friedman when it comes to textual interpretation of ancient works, but I knew what I was getting into. In any case, in chapter 2 Stephen Jay Gould mentions the Bible and Shakespeare considerably less, though his verbosity keeps on a truckin’. Instead of an exposition of Gould’s own view of evolutionary theory he recapitulates and interprets Charles Darwin’s argument in Origin of Species. Now, I read Origin of Species when I was a wee lad, so honestly I don’t remember it too well. It seems that all you need from it are the general insights; I don’t see the point of pouring over the welter of specific arguments that Darwin marshaled to convince a still partially Creationist intellectual class as to the correctness of evolution as a fact and the primacy of natural selection as the process which drove that fact.1 Gould is correct that many evolutionary thinkers tend to view Darwin as a saint, and that it can be a bit much. That being said, I’m not sure if it really happens that much in a field such as evolutionary genetics, where the genuflection is notional and symbolic. In The Mating Mind evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller does go back to Darwin’s original work in The Descent Of Man And Selection In Relation To Sex to help shape his argument that sexual selection was a primary driver of the our own species’ development over time (e.g., the gradual increase in brain size between 2 million years BP and 200,000 years BP). But I think this is an exception to the rule, evolutionary biology is of course a science, and venerable works of one age are simply the bricks buried and forgotten deep in the structure of scientific knowledge. Darwin’s looms large because of his cultural significance; to some extent he was a sign of the overthrow of the old religious dispensation. Like Nietzsche or Marx he will remain in the spotlight for centuries because of his historical importance above and beyond what his scientific accomplishments. In The Structure of Evolutionary Theory Stephen Jay Gould in is proposing an alternative path from that of the “orthodox Darwinism” which reaches back to the original founder, and so he must grapple with Darwin as a launching off point. Below, my general impressions….


1) Gould claims that Darwin was focused on the uniformity of the small. This seems to me a way to say that Darwin emphasized the uniform action of microevolutionary processes.
2) Additionally, Darwin was attempting to generate a rigorous historical science with standards analogous to physics. He attacked the problem from multiple dimensions, appealing to uniformitarianism, the sequence of events (I assume this is basically natural history?), consilience (how an assemblage of facts cohere into a larger system) and discordance (an analysis of the exceptions to the rule and how they may still illuminate the general processes).
3) Charles Darwin was a man of his age. The influence from predecessors within his field, such as Charles Lyell, are clear, but so is the stamp of the social Zeitgeist, from Thomas Malthus to the liberal economists who followed in the wake of Adam Smith. Gould makes the claim that the central position of natural selection within Darwin’s model is obviously derived from the precedent of the “invisible hand” of the free market, whether the great man knew it or not.
4) Render unto natural selection nearly all. Though Darwin did grant some role to non-selective evolutionary forces, ultimately selection was the predominant force in shaping the tree of life.
5) Render unto the individual all priority. Darwin was an individual selectionist par excellence. Here Gould suggests that the influence of liberal economists was strong. Instead of species level selection which might be reminiscent of mercantalism Origin of Species shows how competition between individuals results in the scaling of the adaptive peak. Darwin rejected higher order levels of selection, and repeatedly attempted to reinterpret communitarian or social behavior through an individual selectionist frame.
6) Darwin was an ultra-Darwinian. Gould asserts that Darwin was an extreme gradualist who believed that selection placed a gentle and uniform pressure upon phyletic lineages which slowly drifted across enormous geological spans through anagenetic somnolescence.
7) Darwin’s adaptationism was embedded firmly within his selectionist paradigm.
8) Darwin was not a pluralist, he emphasized a high frequency manifestation of his dynamics of choice in a particular form. That is, gradual change was nearly constant, selection was the overwhelming driver of adaptation, phyletic change resulted in a continuity of form over geological time, and so forth.
1 – There were other evolutionary works in the air at the time which laid the groundwork for the revolution which Darwin catalyzed. So that’s why I say partially Creationist.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution
  • John Emerson

    The similarities between economics and evolutionary biology are real and remain relevant. They’re often used as a point against one field or the other, but there are similar dynamics in place and there can be no-fault comparisons. And some of the same controversial individual-vs.-group issues come up in both fields.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    right, and game theory got big in both fields at about the same time. as you note, i think a lot of it has to do with universal dynamics. a lot of primatology is behavioral economics for apes & monkeys ;-)

  • http://scienceblog.com/evolvingthoughts John S. Wilkins

    Pretty much all these are false or overstated. If anyone was a selectionist, it was Wallace, not Darwin. Taking notions like division of labor and invisible hands doesn’t make any of Darwin’s views capitalist, any more than the use of a Pareto tradeoff in genetics makes that person a free market theorist. Gould’s categories are polemic and designed to read back the sins of the present into the past, in order to make Gould’s positions seem credible and different.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    well, like i said, this is exegesis, but
    If anyone was a selectionist, it was Wallace, not Darwin.
    gould points out that wallace was not necessarily an individual selectionist. as a matter of fact my own reading on the topic does suggest that wallace was more a believer of the gale-force power of selection…but you wouldn’t know that from reading gould so far ;-)
    Taking notions like division of labor and invisible hands doesn’t make any of Darwin’s views capitalist, any more than the use of a Pareto tradeoff in genetics makes that person a free market theorist.
    gould isn’t saying that i think. not that strongly at least. rather, i think he’s saying that the universal free market views of liberals like darwin (who was from a capitalist family historically) during the 19th century bled over into his scientific views. specifically, the emphasis placed upon individual competition to maximize profit and the intraspecific competition to maximize individual fitness.
    Gould’s categories are polemic and designed to read back the sins of the present into the past, in order to make Gould’s positions seem credible and different.
    yeah, probably. but he’s a little too wordy to be “polemic.”

  • John Lynch

    There were other evolutionary works in the air at the time which laid the groundwork for the revolution which Darwin catalyzed. So that’s why I say partially Creationist.
    I assume by this you are hat-tipping to Robert Chambers?
    Be that as it may, the term “Creationist” is a little problematic – or rather the capitalization of it. If by “Creationism” you mean the sort of Biblical literalism advocated today by YECs, that was – despite the efforts of the scriptural geologists – well and truly killed off by the professionalization of geology in the 1830′s and certainly by the time Chambers was writing in 1844. If you really mean “creationism” – the often abstract belief in a Creator – then, yes, there was a partially creationist intellectual class.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    I assume by this you are hat-tipping to Robert Chambers?
    yeah, but more than that if peter j. bowler is right. i’m going off him. and you’re right, i was sloppy with my use of the term “creationist.” though gould’s selection of arguments in origin does have a lot of stereotypical anti-creationist ones.

  • BGC

    One of the best science books ever IMHO is Science as a Process by D Hull – he gives the evolution of evolutionary theory as his example of the processes of science.
    Hull (a professor in the philosophy of biology at Northwestern) later wrote deeply on the nature of selection, and the precise analogy between economics and biology.
    Hull is also delightfully witty, once you tune into his style. He described Ernest Mayr as willing to give up time to talk to *anyone*, even the humblest PhD student, and tell them where they were wrong…

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    tx for the rec. i’ve looked into hull before but never read a whole book….

  • John Lynch

    Yes, definitely more to it than Chambers, but certainly in the popular imagination Chambers did more then anyone to breach the dam.
    A second recommendation for SaaP (and I’m sure Wilkins will provide another!). It is a great book, particularly if you know individuals involved in the phenetics/cladistics wars of the 70′s and 80′s. Hull uses the first half of the book to tell the history and the second half to analyze it using his particular model of scientific change. Good stuff!

  • Colugo

    David Sloan Wilson claims that Darwin was a group selectionist.
    http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/07-07-04.html
    “traits that are “for the good of the group” require a process of between-group selection to evolve and tend to be undermined by selection within groups. Darwin was the first person to reason this way about the evolution of human morality and self-sacrificial traits in other animals.”
    Razib: “Gould is correct that many evolutionary thinkers tend to view Darwin as a saint, and that it can be a bit much.”
    I agree. The Darwin adulation gets excessive: the Beagle project, Darwin Day, Darwin month, Darwin’s visage used as a symbol of evolutionary biology. And there is not enough attention and credit given to predecessors and later major contributors.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    David Sloan Wilson claims that Darwin was a group selectionist.
    gould disagrees. he thinks that darwin actually simply used terminology that is misunderstood because they had different connotations during his lifetime. that is, when he speaks of community/group benefits they’re all ephiphemonena derivable from individual level selection.
    I agree. The Darwin adulation gets excessive: the Beagle project, Darwin Day, Darwin month, Darwin’s visage used as a symbol of evolutionary biology. And there is not enough attention and credit given to predecessors and later major contributors.
    sir charles darwin is the axis mundi, rising out of the dark earth and reaching up to the light of the heavens….

  • windy

    Nah, Darwin is more of a mascot than a prophet. But why not celebrate Fisher Day this year instead? (17 feb)

  • http://www.rishon-rishon.com David Boxenhorn

    Darwin holds up remarkable well to a modern reader (once you get past the lack of genes), as does Adam Smith. To me, it is amazing how little we’ve learned since then.

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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 http://www.razib.com

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