Sunday, May 17, 2009

For The Person Who Wished For A Transcript by Anthony McCarthy

If you are tempted to suspect that I am privy to anyone’s inside knowledge, I had no idea Richard Lewontin would have a major essay-cum book-review in the upcoming New York Review of Books when I wrote that belated birthday piece about him last month. As with his lecture which was linked to in that post, that piece touches on many of the issues that have gotten me into trouble here. As some of you might know, though Lewontin is one of the least favorite materialist of many another materialists, he is one of the living scientists for whom I have the most respect and affection.

The essay-review is worth reading because of Lewontin’s observations of the social milieu in which Darwin and other figures in evolution developed and published their work, it’s a short course in refutation of the typical romantic view of Darwin that constitutes the total of what many of his most ardent admirers think they know about him. The number of those who respond with a blank stare when you mention other figures in evolution who preceded and whose discoveries rival Darwin’s in importance, is always surprising. .

This three item list of the major discoveries made by Charles Darwin, and Alfred R. Wallace is probably more useful than most of what gets printed about evolution this year.

Darwin-Wallace explanation of evolution, the theory of natural selection, is based on three principles:

1) Individuals in a population differ from each other in the form of particular characteristics (the principle of variation).

2) Offspring resemble their parents more than they resemble unrelated individuals (the principle of heritability).

3) The resources necessary for life and reproduction are limited. Individuals with different characteristics differ in their ability to acquire those resources and thus to survive and leave offspring in the next generations (the principle of natural selection).

Lewontin’s pointing out the fundamental difference between biological evolution by natural selection and the social Darwinism that is it’s more usual popular construction, often at the hands of some of the most fundamentalist of “Darwinians”, is another most salient point..

The parallel between the arguments for natural selection and nineteenth-century economic and social theory, however, misses an extremely important divergence between Darwin and political economy. The theory of competitive socioeconomic success is a theory about the rise of individuals and individual enterprises as a consequence of their superior fitness. But even though the Industrial Revolution resulted eventually, at least in some countries, in a general rise in material well-being, the number of immensely successful entrepreneurs is evidently limited precisely because their success depends on the existence of a large mass of less successful workers. No population can consist largely of people like Henry Clay Frick.

The theory of evolution by natural selection, in contrast, is meant to explain the adaptation and biological success of an entire species as a consequence of the disappearance of the less fit. Provided that a species does not become so numerous as to destroy the resources on which it depends, there is no structural reason why every individual of that species cannot be highly fit. If we seek a true originality in the understanding of Darwin and Wallace, it is to be found in their ability to adapt a theory meant to explain the success of a few to produce a theory of the success of the many, even though the many may be competing for resources in short supply. Whether they were conscious of this divergence of the theory of evolution by natural selection from the reigning economic and social theory is a question.

You could justifiably ask how many of the ultra-Darwinians who are ascendant now ARE conscious of this diversion, today, and to what extent Darwin himself was. Though I’ve already posted on that this year and am not in the mood for that eruption just now.

Lewontin asks another question which I think is important to the understanding of the Darwin brand name, which I think is more harmful than helpful for the real science of evolution today.

How are we to explain the extraordinary activity surrounding the 150th anniversary of the appearance of On the Origin of Species ? It seems unlikely that an enthusiasm of equal magnitude will greet the 150th anniversary, seven years from now, of Mendel's paper, if we can judge by the moderate celebrations of its one hundredth in 1966. Yet genetics in its present molecular stage pervades the public consciousness as more and more genes are discovered that may be relevant to health and longevity.

I think there are a number of reasons that Gregor Mendel, whose work, as is pointed out in the essay, saved the Darwin-Wallace model of evolution, won’t be celebrated on his anniversary with even a small fraction of the hoopla surrounding the Darwin bicentennial.

First is that he wasn’t the subject of a devoted and ideologically driven campaign of promotion in his day. Wallace wasn’t either which is why his name is far lesser known today. Some of that is the place that Darwin holds in British nationalism, he’s a national hero and not the persecuted figure of some popular PR. Which brings in the difference in social class to the mix. Read the quotation from Ricard Owen, a contemporary rival to see that there were those who noted his social position and the part it played to Darwin’s advantage. It’s impressive how much today’s over-the-top ultra-Darwinism is done by Brits and their admirers here.

Second, there is Mendel’s position as an Augustine monk. Unlike Occam whose life as a member of the strictest faction of Franciscans is almost entirely ignored by those who invoke his name, ceaselessly and with wildly variant accuracy - you can’t pretend that Mendel wasn’t a “faith head”. That would render him an embarrassment to many of today’s more ardent Darwinists.

Third, related to the last point, pea plants don’t have the ability to excite the invention and imagination of those “red in tooth and claw” competitive scenarios that seem to be, alas, totally replacing the observation of the real in the popular evolutionary mind. His life, his discoveries from the patient work of pea cultivation and measurement doesn’t have the same theatrical appeal as the Voyage of the Beagle.

Anyway, please read the entire review. It’s a great refresher in this important part of contemporary culture and, in refutation to one of my recent opponents has claimed, that Lewontin definitely and demonstrably hasn’t “lost it”.