Printer Friendly

Inheriting the wind ... (Exchange).

We endured our own KT-event regarding David Hawkes's review of Stephen Jay Gould's last book, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory ["The Evolution of Darwinism," June 10]. Scientists and nonscientists e-mailed us in numbers too large to reflect here (a longer exchange is at Editors

Tuscaloosa, Ala.

* I have always respected The Nation as one of the few remaining sources of responsible journalism, so it was with a sinking Et tu Brute? feeling that I read David Hawkes's "review" of Stephen Jay Gould's last book. Hawkes has not reviewed the book Gould actually wrote. Instead, he has chosen to proselytize for the religious movement commonly known as intelligent design (ID). He begins the review in a fantasy world in which Darwin did not originate the concept of natural selection. Such an assertion flies in the face of literal mountains of historical documents. Errors fly thick and fast. Whereas there is some justice to the assertion that Darwin's theory of evolution was reductionist, it is nothing short of absurd to claim that the study of genes is even more reductionist. Modern evolutionary theory is far more holistic than was Darwin's and partners with ecology and developmental biology to offer powerful insights about life on earth.

Curiously, Hawkes digresses at length to castigate Richard Dawkins, showing clearly that his real purpose is to attack evolutionary theory. He returns to science, but it is the science of the 1960s. Referring to Triceratops as a member of Reptilia is almost like referring to phlogiston as if it were a valid scientific concept. This is followed by the astonishing claim that evolutionary biologists insist that natural selection is the only cause of evolution and that catastrophes (such as meteor impacts) have no place in their theories. Hawkes proceeds to unveil his revelation, which boils down to: Shit happens. Unfortunately for Hawkes, evolutionary biologists discovered this long before our "reviewer." The technical literature of the past fifty years shows clearly that Hawkes is attacking a straw man. Hawkes then claims that Niles Eldredge and Gould developed the punctuated equilibrium model of evolution as a replacement for what creationists like Hawkes choose to call "Darwinism." Nothing could be further from the truth. The debate over the relative merits and explanatory power of punctuated equilibrium and gradualism revitalized the study of evolutionary rates a few decades ago, and ample proof was shortly discovered that both modes of evolution are common in the real world.

Finally we come to the point of the whole "review." Hawkes claims that intelligent design should be taken seriously because of recent political and pedagogical successes. Here is where Hawkes's training in English (but not science) fails him. Scientific theories do not win acceptance the way one wins a beauty contest. Political successes do not cut the mustard. In the realm of science, theories gain acceptance when they are supported by facts, and when they are shown to have explanatory power. Unfortunately for those who would like ID to be a scientific theory, it is not. ID isn't science for the very simple reason that (1) it makes no testable predictions, (2) its adherents do not do scientific research and (3) there is not one single published scientific paper that uses facts and reason to provide credible support for any aspect of it. ID may be wrong, it may be right, it may be a lot of things. But it won't be science until it acts like science and until its followers begin doing the things that real scientists do.

The Nation didn't earn any points by printing this religious tract masquerading as a book review. David C. Kopaska-Merkel

Geological Survey of Alabama

Spokane, Wash.

* David Hawkes sets a new standard for obtuse reviewing by trying to spot-weld Stephen Jay Gould's last book to the giddy expectations of Michael Behe's intelligent design. While it is unclear whether Hawkes thinks it a good or a bad thing that the philosophy of nineteenth-century Darwinism owed a bit to progressive capitalism, his overall notion that the K-T extinction somehow "represents a mortal threat to mainstream Darwinism" skids way off the track.

If anybody should be sweating over this it should be ID theory, which must account for the distinctive pattern of what happened next. Instead of a Designer stepping in to fill the void with engineered novelty, the fossil record clearly shows only a long procession of grubby microevolutionary speciation based on the straggle of surviving fauna. By the way, contrary to Hawkes's gloss, most Intelligent Designers do not "accept the fossil record as evidence of species change." Nor is natural selection turned off by mass extinction. Indeed, the rate of natural speciation doesn't change appreciably: As Niles Eldredge noted in Reinventing Darwin, it is the probability of successful speciation that temporarily rises until vacated ecological niches are filled. And since it takes time for nondesigned variations to accumulate, subsequent adaptive radiations play out over millions of years.

Should Hawkes consider reviewing any more technical scientific works, where a firm grasp of specialized terminology is a must ... well, as the saying goes, don't give up the day job. James Downard


* David Hawkes writes that "every serious evolutionist" before Darwin accepted the theory of natural selection. Not so. Darwin's achievement lay not, pace Hawkes, in Darwin's "change of emphasis" concerning the process of natural selection. Rather, Darwin's claim to fame rests on his positing the theory of natural selection to explain what had, indeed, been widely accepted for some time: the ubiquity of adaptation and the common ancestry of all living organisms.

True, many natural historians before Darwin accepted a limited notion of survival of the fittest. This process, they reasoned, merely culls "monsters" from a species, preserving its essential features. Darwin turned such logic on its head. The theory of natural selection instead claims that "self-interested" individual struggle creates species-level change. Darwin located the cause of both adaptation and common descent in the process of natural selection, dealing a blow to the intellectual descendants of William Paley.

The theory of natural selection thus postulates a causal relation wholly unappreciated by natural historians before Darwin. Unless I have misread him, Hawkes is wrong to suggest otherwise.
Jason M. Baker
Department of Biological Sciences and
Department of Philosophy
University of Maryland

Northampton, Mass.

* David Hawkes's reflections on Darwinism are mostly wrong. He is, after all, a specialist in Renaissance literature and theology, John Milton and Marxist philosophy, not biology. His biological insights are about as sophisticated as those of the creationists, and his understanding of evolutionary theory as limited.

The idea that Gould is to Darwin as Karl Marx is to Adam Smith is too ludicrous for words. Gould was an essayist and popularizer of the highest caliber and a pretty good paleontologist, but even were his theory of punctuated equilibrium correct (and this is more of an interpretational issue than anything), it would not be an overthrow of Darwinism but an enrichment. The idea that an asteroid impact could change the course of evolution, for instance, does not at all threaten Darwinian evolutionary theory.

Hawkes bases his argument on the idea that Darwin, like Smith, was a reductionist and a methodological individualist, while Gould, like Marx, was a system-level thinker. In fact, Smith, like Marx, was a powerful systematic thinker, and Darwin, like Gould and most evolutionary thinkers (Dawkins and a few others aside), were population-level theorists, not methodological individualists.

Hawkes would like us to believe that if you reject laissez-faire market ideology, you must reject Darwinism. I hope not, because there has never been anything close to a successful attack on basic evolutionary theory, and Gould's is no exception (nor did he think it was). On the other hand, Adam Smith's invisible hand is not sufficient to run a successful and fair economy, and laissez-faire capitalism has little support from modern economic theory.
Herbert Gintis
Professor of Economics
University of Massachusetts


* I was quite dismayed by David Hawkes's ignorance of both biology and the history of science. His inability to comprehend the process of natural selection hobbles his understanding of Gould's arguments and leaves the reader at a serious disadvantage in approaching a topic as complex as evolutionary theory. In the most laughable example, he falsely suggests that the asteroid that ended the reign of the dinosaurs has "yet to be fully assimilated by evolutionary theory." Hawkes fails to understand that such an event is an environmental challenge to the survivors that natural selection acts upon in precisely the same way as any other factor. Even a schoolchild would realize that an asteroid that removes the top predators of an ecosystem does nothing more than alter the landscape of natural selection for the survivors by opening new niches to be exploited and closing others.

How can Hawkes be so wildly confused regarding such a seemingly simple concept? Hawkes's confusion stems from his lack of understanding of the key differences between the concept of evolution as a whole and the various factors it comprises. For instance, Hawkes dredges up an old creationist misconception that Gould and Eldredge's theory of punctuated equilibrium is somehow radically disconnected from "Darwinian evolution" when it is, in fact, nothing more than an extension of the Darwinian concept of allopatric speciation!

Of course, one must place at least some of the fault at the feet of Gould himself. Gould wrote so many articles for nonscientist audiences that often his own hard science was clouded by his tendency to reduce complex problems to almost theatrical simplicity to drive his points home to those audiences. His "dumbed down" yet entertaining articles have often become fuel for his lay critics (the creationists in particular and Hawkes in this example) to criticize concepts they themselves have typically never actually read in their primary sources, such as the peer-reviewed science journals. In the "punk eek" [punctuated equilibrium] example, Gould himself set up a straw man in his popular articles pitting "gradualism" as the enemy punk eek was fighting; but even a cursory examination of Gould's own writings in the actual scientific literature shows this to be an exaggeration for the lay public. The mere fact that punk eek is wholly founded on Ernst Mayr's allopatric speciation (a concept alluded to by Darwin himself) belies the fact that it is not the antithesis of "gradualism" but a complement to it as one (Gould would argue the primary one) of several paths possible for the diversification of a lineage of organisms. Hawkes and those like him have been easily taken in by the similarly styled, but scientifically vacant siren song of creationism in its latest guise, intelligent design.

Hamstrung by a lack of familiarity with the actual science behind Gould's writings, Hawkes easily makes the leap to erroneously assuming that Gould's final work represents that horrible cliche, a "paradigm shift." That is "rubbish," to use Hawkes's own word, but Hawkes makes this claim as an innocent yet fatal mistake. This conclusion becomes even more obvious when Hawkes states, "The recent advocates of `intelligent design,' however, demand to be taken a little more seriously because of their recent political and pedagogical successes." Hawkes apparently considers ID's failure to find any scientific success a matter so trivial it doesn't warrant mentioning, despite the obvious fact that the very subject is a scientific one, and thus popularity polls and political success become meaningless when they fail to do so much as scratch the scientific standing of evolutionary biology or its adherents like Gould. Amazingly, Hawkes seems to think that popularity should somehow take precedence over actual scientific research when he is puzzled that Gould doesn't waste time on popular but scientifically falsified concepts such as those argued by Michael Behe. Gould doesn't waste time on the flat-earth idea either and for the same reason--it has already been shown to be false by actual scientific scholarship. This pernicious fact gives the ID community conniptions, but no amount of flowery metaphysical rhetoric and political lobbying can obviate the fact that what Gould did was based on hard science, and it is the misreading of this fact that relegates the verbiage of Hawkes and fellow travelers to the Op-Ed pages and not science journals.

To use one's own ignorance to unjustly flail the late Stephen J. Gould's final opus is an example of why Darwin's work is still read today and his critics in the newspapers and magazines of his day have long since been forgotten.
John Hedley


Washington, DC

* The abandoned fervor of their prostration before the idol of "science" has impaired my correspondents' reason and destroyed their coherence. Within a single paragraph John Hedley hectors us on "the actual science behind Gould's writings," fulminates about "the actual science behind Gould," demands "scientific success," insists that "the very subject is a scientific one," interrogates our "scientific standing," refers us to "science journals" where we will find not only "actual scientific research" but also "actual scientific scholarship," dismisses ideas he considers "scientifically falsified" and generally scrapes and genuflects before what he calls, inevitably, "hard science."

For the acolytes of this cult, "science" performs an emotional rather than a rational function. For them, science is a shibboleth, a fetish, a superstition. It is, in short, a surrogate religion that provides facile answers to difficult questions and reassuring certainty in the face of scary skepticism. And no god in the pantheon of fetishized science is more slavishly adored than Charles Darwin.

Stephen Jay Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory demands a knowledge of history and philosophy as well as of science. It is a critical retrospective and re-evaluation of Gould's career, in which he renounces many of his earlier positions and courageously reassesses his relationship to Darwinism. I believe it represents, to invoke the Hegelian terms that Gould himself frequently employs, an Aufhebung fashioned by the contemporary zeitgeist. Gould's book develops a new theoretical synthesis that finally frees evolutionary science from its Victorian shackles.

Jason Baker claims that "the theory of natural selection ... postulates a causal relation wholly unappreciated by natural historians before Darwin." In fact, however, it was the "causal relation" that Darwin postulated between natural selection and evolution that was original, not the theory of natural selection itself. That theory is ancient: Its earliest known exponent was Empedocles, and it is summarized in Aristotle's Physics. In the early nineteenth century natural selection was described by Wells, Matthew, Blyth, Owen, Lamarck and Wallace, all of whose expositions preceded Darwin's. As Gould notes, "the debate in [Darwin's] time never centered upon the existence of natural selection as a genuine causal force in nature. Virtually all anti-Darwinian biologists accepted the reality and action of natural selection."

Darwin's departure from his predecessors lay in his claim that natural selection was the only cause of evolution (he later diluted this to the "main" cause). Scientists from Aristotle to William Paley thought of evolution as the result of an interaction between micrological causes such as natural selection and macrological causes such as an immanent essence, or telos (Aristotle), a transcendent essence, or eidos (Plato) or the providential design of an intelligent creator (Judeo-Christian religion). Darwin reduced this dialectic to one of its poles: that is why his theory is called "reductive." He instituted what Gould calls a "panselectionist paradigm" and employed a "microevolutionary extrapolationism" to argue that natural selection, based on random genetic variation and guided by the competitive adaptation of individual organisms to their environments, was effectively the exclusive cause of evolutionary change.

In other words, Darwin eviscerated earlier evolutionary thinking in order to render it "scientific," in the mechanistic, Victorian sense of the term. He believed that evolution could be explained only by empirically perceptible data and that it was illegitimate to seek any nonempirical purpose in nature. In Gould's words, Darwin identified the cause of evolution with "the most reductionistic locus then available"--the material actions of individual organisms. This is not an argument against intelligent design; it is a methodological decision to ignore it.

The ethical ramifications of this decision are profound. The world ceases to appear as a benevolent, organic unity and begins to look instead as if it were formed by the ruthless, selfish pursuit of individual advantage. Darwin explained all evolutionary phenomena by extrapolation from competitive individualism. He followed this reasoning in imitation of bourgeois political economists like Adam Smith. Smith argued that competition among individuals gave rise to an "economy" that would be of maximal collective benefit; Darwin argued that competition among individuals produced a process of "evolution" that was beneficial to the species as a whole.

The degree to which Darwin's theory stands or falls by this microevolutionary extrapolationism is often unappreciated. One of Gould's most important achievements was to remind us of this fact: "Darwin's commitment to the organismic level as the effectively exclusive locus of natural selection occupies a more central, and truly defining role than most historians and evolutionists have recognized." He rightly calls "Darwin's brave and single-minded insistence on the exclusivity of the organismic level ... the most radical and most distinctive feature of his theory"; notes that Darwin's "theory of natural selection is, in essence, Adam Smith's economics transferred to nature"; and observes that as a result it entirely depends upon the proposition that evolutionary causality is unidirectional, flowing only and always from the material actions of individual organisms.

If Darwin's theory depends on microevolutionary extrapolationism, as Gould says it does, then Gould was not a Darwinist. Gould and Eldredge's theory of punctuated equilibrium is utterly incompatible with Darwin's understanding of natural selection. Punctuated equilibrium suggests that selection takes place at the level of species as well as at the level of individual organisms, so that the Darwinian picture of evolution as powered by individualistic competition dissolves--evolution can equally be driven by cooperation among members of a species. It also indicates that species come into being quite suddenly and remain static for most of their histories. This contradicts Darwin's view that evolution is a constant, gradual process, as we might expect it to be if it were the result of natural selection based on competitive individualism. Furthermore, Gould cites recent paleontological evidence to suggest that there are internal, formal or structural constraints within species that exert an influence on their evolution. We can sense here the return of immanent teleology--an approach to science that, of course, assumes intelligent design.

But it is the discovery, barely twenty years ago, that the mass extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by the collision of the earth with a huge asteroid (the "K-T event") that will prove the most dramatic blow to Darwinian microevolutionary extrapolationism. Many people miss the importance of the K-T event because they do not understand the absolutely fundamental role played in Darwin's theory by the logical technique of extrapolation. Gould understood it well enough. He describes such events as "fracturing the extrapolationist premise of Darwinian central logic"; recalls Darwin's own awareness "that mass extinction, if more than an artifact of an imperfect fossil record, would derail the extrapolationist premise of his system"; remarks that "the K-T event ... fractured the uniformitarian consensus, embraced by a century of paleontological complacency" that tried to account for mass extinctions through "conventional [i.e., Darwinian] modes of evolution"; and points out that the K-T event is now "accepted as an empirical basis for expanding our range of scientifically legitimate hypotheses beyond the smooth extrapolationism demanded by ... Darwinian central logic."

Obviously the K-T event does not mean that natural selection does not operate. But it does mean that one cannot legitimately construct a theory of evolution by extrapolation from natural selection, or a theory of natural selection by extrapolation from the competitive adaptation of variant individual organisms to their environment. It means that the causality of evolution is not unidirectional. It means that evolution must be conceived as the complex product of various causes and not as the mechanistic consequence of a single material factor. It suggests that evolution takes place simultaneously at different hierarchical levels and that species can act as evolutionary agents as well as organisms. Together with the theory of punctuated equilibrium and the growing acceptance of internal, structural constraints on evolution, the discovery of the K-T event represents the point at which evolutionary theory ceases to be Darwinian.

Gould observes that Darwinism "embodied several broad commitments (philosophical or metatheoretical in the technical sense of these terms) more characteristic of nineteenth than of twentieth century thought." These Victorian philosophical prejudices include the "designation of a privileged locus of causality, a single direction of causal flow, and a smooth continuity in resulting effects." Gould systematically and unanswerably refutes each of these three essential components of Darwinian logic. He denies that organismal struggle is the exclusive level of operation for natural selection; he denies that natural selection is the sole creative force of evolutionary change; and he denies that macrological change can be explained by extrapolation from the micrological.

Early in his career, Gould regarded himself as merely fine-tuning some troublesome problems in Darwin's logic, but later he came to understand that his incremental tinkering had constructed a new machine: "I worked piecemeal, producing a set of separate and continually accreting revisionary items along each of the branches of Darwinian central logic, until I realized that a `Platonic' something `up there' in ideological space could coordinate all these critiques and fascinations into a revised general theory with a Darwinian base."

Forget about that "base." Gould is describing a paradigm shift, and this fact is all the more obvious for his unwonted coyness in discussing it. In a revealing allusion to George Eliot's novel about a young man discovering a pattern of spiritual significance in his life, Gould claims to feel "like a modern Deronda who gathered the elements of a coherent critique solely because he loved each item individually--and only later sensed an underlying unity, which therefore cannot be chimerical, but may claim some logical existence prior to any conscious formulations on my part." In other words, the zeitgeist is dictating new truths about evolution, and Gould is staking his claim to be its amanuensis. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is a rather inchoate work, largely because of Gould's reluctance to entirely abandon the "Darwinian base," but we can nevertheless discern in it the outline of a post-Darwinian theory of evolution.

The recent legal, educational and popular successes of intelligent design must not be understood as random aberrations but as manifestations of the spirit of our age. It may surprise my critics to learn that I take no pleasure in these developments. On the contrary, I regard them as the return of the repressed irrationalism that is the inseparable accomplice, and the inevitable result, of the fundamentalist "science" that my critics adore. The great parable of fetishized science, as Gould reminded us, is Goethe's Faust. Gould's magnum opus creaks and groans with logical exertion, but beneath the racket, I fear we can hear the squeaks and gibberings of the ghosts returning to Tegel. David Hawkes
COPYRIGHT 2002 The Nation Company L.P.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Publication:The Nation
Date:Oct 14, 2002
Previous Article:Women move up. (Comment).
Next Article:Chill on the Hill. (Articles).

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters