arguing about arguing about evolution

“I was an 18-year-old creationist when I first read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. A freshman, pre-vet major at Colorado State University, I found myself in Bernard Rollin’s honours biology course. As well as Dawkins’s book, he assigned Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), James Watson’s The Double Helix (1968), and Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf (1963).” – Karen James, biologist

Much of the most engaging and popular writing about science over the last fifty years has been about the twin subjects of evolution and genetics. It’s easy to see why this is. Evolutionary theory offers bracingly direct answers to our most profound epistemic question: why are we the way we are? How did we come to exist as a species? What explains the differences between us as individuals? And the science of genetics touches directly on our health. Will I get sick? Will my children be born “normal.”

Plus, the development of the modern scientific consensus around evolution is a thrilling intellectual achievement, the very best of what human beings are capable of doing collectively, collaboratively, cooperatively.

Like all human endeavors, this work grinds forward not only through the machinery of rational analysis, logic, transparent communication, and fair-minded evaluation of hypotheses, but just as much via argument, intuition, politics, polemics, and personalities. Because there is so much great writing about evolution and genetics, the shape and texture and mechanics of this scientific project are much more accessible to laypeople than is usually the case. We – and by “we” I mean non-specialists, relatively ignorant in the staggeringly complex specifics of the subfields involved – can see the sausage being made. And that’s wonderful!

If you are a layperson interested in the evolution of the Theory of Evolution, it’s worth reading David Dobbs’ recent piece in aeon magazine about Richard Dawkins’s classic book The Selfish Gene and the follow-up thoughts from four working scientists, plus Dobbs himself.

As you’ll have come to expect if you follow the popular writing about evolution, Dobbs’ essay provoked a storm of commentary, sharp-elbowed and personal even by the standards of proud people arguing about important ideas. Dobbs’ original piece is lengthy, careful, and framed by effusive praise for Dawkins. The responses (including Dawkins’s) accuse him of bad faith, dishonesty, laziness, and journalistic malpractice.

There are at least a couple of reasons for this. First, public debate about “the selfish gene” idea hardened long ago into a rigid and binary argument. In the latter third of the twentieth century, the field was blessed with two high-profile figures who were both giants as research scientists and both enormously gifted popularizers and communicators: Richard Dawkins and Stephen J. Gould. But every blessing is also a curse, and perhaps two was one too many. Dawkins and Gould argued with, at, and past each other for more than a quarter-century.

Dawkins argued that everything about evolution and speciation – everything about all living things, including human beings – revolves around, depends on, and is completely explained by, competitive selection pressures on genes.

Gould argued that, while genes are certainly the central mechanism of inheritance and evolution, natural selection of the “fittest” genes is not the only mechanism that’s important to evolution. (Examples of other mechanisms include genetic drift, environmental influences that result in non-genetic adaptations, phenotype changes that are related to certain advantageous genetic changes but were not themselves selected for.) Most of these may be minor, compared to straightforward natural selection. Most of them may even be bridges of a sort, setting up the context for natural selection to work. But they’re an important part of how evolution works and to reject them as part of the story is dogma, not science.

Gould argued the more subtle position. But he didn’t argue it gently. He took no rhetorical prisoners. “If T.H. Huxley,” he wrote in 1997, “truly acted as ‘Darwin’s Bulldog,’” , popularizing and defending Darwin’s challenging ideas, “then it is hard to resist thinking of Dennett … as ‘Dawkins’s lapdog.’” Daniel Dennett, a major figure himself, was certainly on Team Dawkins. And Gould’s lacerating prose makes for invigorating reading. But Gould was not writing to heal a rift. He was jamming a wedge into that rift and then throwing dynamite down after.

Which brings us to the second reason that discussion of selfish gene ideas is so fraught. By any normal analysis, Dawkins and Gould are arguing almost exactly the same position. (The rift between them should be very small.) They both believe in the primacy of genes, in the centrality of natural selection as a mechanism, and in almost all particulars about how genes and natural selection work. But there’s a third pole in this argument that’s very, very different from their (nearly) shared perspective. Even today, 150 years after Darwin, “the Theory of Evolution” is provocative and politically contested.

That debate – between the scientists and the revanchists on the Texas state Board of Education – is the only debate Dawkins thinks we should be having in public. Admitting that there’s disagreement within the scientific community about exactly how evolution works is giving ammunition to creationists. Dawkins is fighting for science. If you’re not with him, you’re against him.

And that is problematic. Science progresses via argument and public, collective, adjustment of consensus. The trick – the great magic at the heart of the project of science – is in passionately cultivating rational, useful, specific ideas and frameworks while at the same time being willing to dispassionately amend and adjust those same ideas. Even if Team Dawkins is right in every skirmish they ever had with Gould, or now with Dobbs, stigmatizing and marginalizing open, public argument is the opposite of science. It’s impossible to promote Science-with-a-capital-S while hiding under a bushel the jewel at the heart of the enterprise. Winning that battle would be the same as losing the war.

In other words, starting from the proposition that evolution can only work via natural selection of specific genes, therefore insisting that every mechanism that contributes to evolution must be explained as natural selection of specific genes, is perilously close to being the kind of faith-based belief system that Dawkins thinks he’s fighting to rid the world of.

Originally published at machine-theory.com.

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