Can biologists admit they are wrong?

By Razib Khan | March 22, 2011 9:59 am

Jason Collins, an economist strongly grounded in biological principles, has a post up in response to Mike the Mad Biologist’s critique of economic misunderstandings of biology. Jason asks:

On the flip side, did Dawkins or Gould (or their respective supporters) ever concede to the other side that they were wrong and substantially change their world view?


I have some opinions on this. My own attitude is that both Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould retreated from maximalist positions when it came to the gradualism vs. punctuated equilibrium arguments of the 1970s substantively. But rhetorically they often seemed to downplay their modifications, and assert more that their own positions were a change of degree, while their antagonist in the argument would have to make a change of kind to align with the evidence. This sort of semantic gamesmanship is disappointing, though alas rather conventional. But since i’m not a thorough master of the oeuvre of both men I’d be curious what readers think.

Also, it is to be noted that Dawkins has reversed himself on ‘the handicap principle’. He spent some time rejecting it in The Selfish Gene, but in the preface to the more recent editions he admits that he would rewrite that section today as he accepts the validity of this mechanism.

Finally, at least with much of biology a lot of these debates are of historical interest. Old debates have a tendency of dying down and achieving some sort of resolution. From what I can tell people don’t talk about broad cut-out general frameworks such as ‘neutralism vs. adaptationism’ or ‘gradualism vs. punctuated equilibrium’ anymore. Especially with genomics’ surfeit of data there’s no point in fixating on one theory to explain all dynamics of interest.

Image Credit: David Shankbone

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Genetics, Genomics
  • Ian

    My observation (in general) is that new hypotheses are usually proposed in a ‘maximalist’ form all the time. Grand theories capture people’s opinions in a way that incrementalist theories just cannot. People sort into one camp or the other, run experiments, argue about what they mean, and eventually settle into some middle position that is largely driven by data. So punctuated equilibrium goes from being a big, idea that threatens the way evolution is understood into a little idea that explains some of what we see.

    The SLOSS debate (whether a single large reserve or several small ones is more effective) made waves in ecology for about a decade before receding into some sort of a middle ground. The answer was a somewhat unsatisfying “yes, a little of both”, but the debate helped advance ecology, especially in areas like metapopulation biology and the study of habitat fragmentation. I don’t think a lot of ecologists would put themselves in one camp or the other any more, although I sometimes wonder how well the compromise has filtered down the conservation practitioners.

    The debate between multi-regionalism versus out of Africa is another good case. While I suspect that Wolpoff feels vindicated by the discovery of Neanderthal genes in modern humans, the two models have largely converged thanks to additional data.

    At the heart of doing science is a need to be able to admit you’re wrong. After all, ideally, to do science is to try to prove yourself (or someone else) wrong. The people who are unable to admit that they’re wrong, at least on a certain level, are the ones who are destined to become cranks. Therein, it would seem, would like the difference between biology and economics. Rather than being seen as cranks, economists who are unmoved by data continue to be seen as respectable. (Maybe that explains part of the reason why economists seem to like climate change denialists…maybe there’s an element of institutional culture.)

  • Diogenes

    I agree with Ian, people just don’t pay enough attention to sensible non-extreme opinions. Even scientists are mostly motivated by emotion and ofter of the baser variety. People want to know who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are I think it may be innate in our form of thinking since it strenghtens group cohesion and identification… People more aware of this may compensate but it’s there.
    Sensible “middle ground” opinions and particularly open revisions of one’s views in accordance with adversary argumentation are emotionally felt as “weak” or worse as “lacking integrity”. This is most obvious is politics but also happens to a smaller extent in science. Truth normally comes through dialectics, as both sides “negotiate” over a common position or paradigm, one side always trying to pressure/deceive the other into conceding more. Things more frequently evolve not through radical change but through directing old instincts in old ways. Scientists have to argue like bargainers at the market because that’s what’s congenial to our instincts.

    Another digression, hope’s not too long and boring:
    As for Human evolution, obviously a very intermediate position is most likely right. Recent human evolution is undeniable. It’s just that it’s likely through accreation of ever diminishing returns as the same gradual “pathways” are perfected. An analogous process to specialization?
    Greater populations counter this and I believe Human evolution was never faster, probably more in unstable and less in stable regions. But is enough “evolutionary slack” present in our current path?

    Major change likely needs special conditions, and instability of environment. As our environment is now of our own making, major future change likely will be produced by major environment (culture, tech possibilities) changes. Such as are happening now.
    Also multiplicity of cultural niches and revolutionary communications may create new global overlapping cultural environments and different paths for different personality-types, and these will coexist with older communities at some unknown level of tension.

    I’m not a biologist (I’m in a related field though) but another mechanism of evolution (and for producing instability) is increasing the gene pool with genes from (evolving in) different cultural environments and thus challenging equilibriums. I believe a question for the future will be what level of instability versus faster change are people prepared to accept? What short term costs for what long term gains? And how will group competition constrict those choices?
    Very diverse populations, especially if recent, will have much more shorter term cultural/genetic instability/incompatibility problems and all that that entails.
    However for very low diversity populations the future may be grimmer, since these will struggle to match the changes and will inevitably lose the race even if one postulates any amount of initial advantages. Perhaps we are already observing the beginnings of a future trend for some populations?

  • gcochran

    Generally speaking, a proper readjustment of opinion for Gould would have entailed setting himself on fire.

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  • marcel

    Ian wrote: ‘At the heart of doing science is a need to be able to admit you’re wrong. ”

    Nah. In (eonomist) Paul Samuelson’s paraphrase (& in translation) of a statement that I think is originally attributed to Max Planck: Science advances funeral by funeral.

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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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