Saturday, January 2, 2010

On Darwinian Enthusiasms

Here is a great article by Stephen Shapin in the London review of Books, in which he tells an important story that has largely been sidelined during the past year's festivities associated with the bicentenary of Darwin's birth. In short, many protagonists in the Darwin-fest have used their religious opponents to mask a much more scientifically plausible form of dissent.

Shapin argues, for instance:

The academic wagons are more commonly circled to control the battle within than to repel attacks from without. Take the tensions internal to evolutionary theory. All is indeed well with modern evolutionary theory when set against creationism and intelligent design, but biologists themselves are not now singing from the same evolutionary hymn-sheet, and you might not know that from some of the enthusiastic accounts of Darwinism as ‘fact’.

The role played by scientists as propagandists is a key to what future historians may well judge to be nothing less than a political campaign waged by powerful scientific interests who seek to squelch dissent. This paragraph strikes me as absolutely on target:

‘Adaptationists’ take it as securely established that organic change proceeds through the natural selection of individual traits, each of which improves the organism’s reproductive chances, that each trait’s evolutionary end-point represents an optimum, and that no other process is needed for an evolutionary lineage to move along through time. But adaptationism has distinguished critics within biology departments – Richard Lewontin, Niles Eldredge and the late Stephen Jay Gould among them – and they have argued that there is a difference between asserting adaptation as a possible means of getting smoothly from evolutionary point A to point B and establishing that this is in fact how organic change has occurred. Maybe there are developmental constraints on how traits change, and change with respect to other traits; maybe some traits are accidental by-products of changes in other traits; maybe evolutionary change is in fact discontinuous; maybe there is a dialectical causal relationship between organisms and the environmental niches to which they ‘adapt’; maybe processes other than adaptation are at work but we just don’t know much about them yet. The adaptationist camp includes Dawkins, Dennett and Pinker – some of the most enthusiastic Darwin Year celebrants. Adaptationists tend to give spectators a misleading picture of the scientific state of play, while at the same time laying claim to a founding father who in fact had reservations about the power and sufficiency of natural selection. There is a struggle among scientists for Darwin’s soul. It is understandable that modern evolutionists should configure history as best suits present purposes, but truth in advertising should be part of the exercise.

In other words, Darwin's theory of evolution is a fact and a theory, just as Gould said. Read the whole thing though...