Dick Lewontin reviews Brown, Gibson, Darwin, and Coyne in the NYRB

Richard Lewontin (who, I confess, was my Ph.D. advisor at Harvard) reviewed WEIT and three other books in the latest New York Review of Books (Janet Browne’s Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography, James Costa’s The Annotated Origin,  Greg Gibson’s  It Takes a Genome: How a Clash between Our Genes and Modern Life is Making Us Sick.)

As usual, Dick’s intellectual energy (and immense knowledge) takes him far beyond the bounds of the books under review. He traces Darwin and Wallace’s theory back to the socioeconomic climate of Victorian England, explores the hagiography of Darwin, and takes on the hegeomony of selection (this harkens back to his and Steve Gould’s famous –and explicitly antiselectionist — paper, The Spandrels of San Marco).  He does disagree somewhat with how I dealt with selection in WEIT:

The scientific community has the definite sense of being embattled and one of its responses is to use the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of its apostle of truth about the material basis of evolution and the 150th anniversary of the appearance of his gospel to carry on the struggle against obscurantism. Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True is intended as a weapon in that struggle.

Coyne is an evolutionary biologist who, like his former student H. Allen Orr, has been a leader in our understanding of the genetic changes that occur when species are formed. His primary object in writing this book is to present the incontrovertible evidence that evolution is a physical fact of the history of life on earth. In referring to the theory of evolution he makes it clear that we do not mean the weak sense of “theory,” an ingenious tentative mental construct that might or might not be objectively true, but the strong sense of a coherent set of true assertions about physical reality. In this he is entirely successful.

Where he is less successful, as all other commentators have been, is in his insistence that the evidence for natural selection as the driving force of evolution is of the same inferential strength as the evidence that evolution has occurred. So, for example, he gives the game away by writing that when we examine a sequence of changes in the fossil record, we can “determine whether the sequences of changes at least conform to a step-by-step adaptive process. And in every case, we can find at least a feasible Darwinian explanation.”But to say that some example is not falsification of a theory because we can always “find” (invent) a feasible explanation says more about the flexibility of the theory and the ingenuity of its supporters than it says about physical nature. Indeed in his later discussion of theories of behavioral evolution he becomes appropriately skeptical when he writes that “imaginative reconstructions of how things might have evolved are not science; they are stories.”  While this is a perfectly good argument against those who claim that there are things that are so complex that evolutionary biology cannot explain them, it allows evolutionary “theory” to fall back into the category of being reasonable but not an incontrovertible material fact.

There is, of course, nothing that Coyne can do about the situation. There are different modes of “knowing,” and we “know” that evolution has, in fact, occurred in a stronger sense than we “know” that some sequence of evolutionary change has been the result of natural selection. Despite these misgivings, it is the case that Coyne’s book is the best general explication of evolution that I know of and deserves its success as a best seller.

I have to say that Dick has indeed hit on a tricky issue in compiling the evidence for evolution.  While natural selection is the only reasonable explanation for the evolution of adaptations, we cannot in most cases do more than adduce its plausibility.  Direct demonstrations are rare (note to creationists: this is only because they’re HARD TO DO, so don’t take this out of context), and demonstrations in the past nearly impossible.  And I should have talked more about this in WEIT (although we have discussed it on this website).  But I can’t help but sense Dick’s own anti-selectionist views here:  views that may stem from seeing others support preconceived biases by invoking soft adaptationism , and views that were of course instrumental in Lewontin and Gould’s battle against sociobiology in the 1970s.   When I was at Harvard with Dick and Steve, it was almost as though selection was a forbidden topic — just once I would have liked either of them to have admitted openly, “Yes, of course selection is the only plausible explanation for adaptations.”  In their fight against unthinking adaptationism, they nearly threw the baby out with the bathwater.

Nevertheless, Dick has a point.  But I’m glad he that he seems to have liked the book.  As one friend wrote me today:

An interesting piece.  Lewontin certainly can’t be accused of lobbing his old student a batting-practice pitch!  Even so, I see that he was careful to supply a line that would serve perfectly in an ad: “Coyne’s book is the best general explication of evolution that I know of and deserves its success as a best seller.”

Oh, and for those who didn’t see this before, Dick turned 80 this year.

13 Comments

  1. Posted May 8, 2009 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Jerry–

    As someone who was in Dick’s lab after you, I have the recollection that someone had left behind in one of the rooms of the lab a query as to why it might be that polar bears are white, with the unspoken and obvious answer being that it’s an adaptation to their environment. I’ve always thought it was you who posted the query. Was it?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted May 8, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Yes. I think it was a response to Dick’s insistence that the organisms create their environment rather than evolve to fit pre-existing niches. I always asked him if polar bears could affect the reflective properties of ice and snow!!!

  2. newenglandbob
    Posted May 8, 2009 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    A lot to say and ponder on this post, Jerry.

    As usual, Dick’s intellectual energy (and immense knowledge) takes him far beyond the bounds of the books under review. He traces Darwin and Wallace’s theory back to the socioeconomic climate of Victorian England…

    A wonderful book on this and the state of civil rights (slavery), etc. is “Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution” By Adrian Desmond, James Moore. It has terrific research and is well written and makes a very convincing case.

    …explores the hagiography of Darwin, and takes on the hegemony of selection (this harkens back to his and Steve Gould’s famous –and explicitly antiselectionist — paper, The Spandrels of San Marco)

    In my opinion, hagiography is a misapplied term. It demeans Darwin’s enormous effort and body of work as a scientist.

    The Gould/Lewontin paper and some other works, in my opinion, is sloppy and obfuscatory.

    But to say that some example is not falsification of a theory because we can always “find” (invent) a feasible explanation says more about the flexibility of the theory and the ingenuity of its supporters than it says about physical nature.

    As you state, Jerry, he “has indeed hit on a tricky issue” and for this, his review is worthwhile. I also commend you, Jerry, for admitting “we cannot in most cases do more than adduce its plausibility” and will await your next book where it will be dealt with at length, I’m sure.

    One last comment before I quiet down. I have decided that a lot of work that Gould did (as well as Lewontin and Eldredge) on punctuated equilibrium, anti-sociobiology, spandrels etc. did more damage to the public’s understanding of evolution than the good that their other works had done. This is my own opinion.

    • CharlesInCharge
      Posted May 8, 2009 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      I have decided that a lot of work that Gould did (as well as Lewontin and Eldredge) on punctuated equilibrium, anti-sociobiology, spandrels etc. did more damage to the public’s understanding of evolution than the good that their other works had done. This is my own opinion.

      ==

      One I agree with completely.

      • Posted May 10, 2009 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

        I’ve also decided that Gould and evolutionary pluralists have done more to advance our understanding of the history of life and evolution than strict synthesists. This is my opinion. :)

    • Pdiff
      Posted May 8, 2009 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      I would second the thoughts on Gould here, but object to this talk of “being a tricky issue”. There’s nothing tricky or hard to comprehend. Natural selection is a model for an observable process. The data fit the model well. Well enough, in fact, that alternatives are comparatively unparsimonious and inefficient (i.e.”the only reasonable explanation”). Labeling it as “plausible” is unfair. Every model in Science that has data to support it is “plausible” in that sense.

      “Oh, and for those who didn’t see this before, Dick turned 80 this year.”
      :-) Yes. And so did E. O. Wilson. :-)

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted May 8, 2009 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

        I met E. O. Wilson this past winter when he and Hölldobler gave a lecture about their just released book “Superorganism” under the auspices of the Harvard Coop bookstore.

    • Caroline52
      Posted June 11, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      Apologies for posting on a long dead thread about an ancient post. But JAC is much too gentle on Lewontin here (for understandable reasons). I wholeheartedly agree with newenglandbob and thank him for saying what he did. Lewontin’s “spin” (with Gould) was IMO a disservice to biology, a smudge, an outrage — and by now, if he really were the best kind of scientist he should have taken to heart what his critics have aptly said, and be recanting in his WEIT review rather than doubling down. Very sad. Three cheers for JAC for being part of the necessary corrective.

  3. David Ratnasabapathy
    Posted May 8, 2009 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    The one book by Roger Lewontin that I read — “Not In Our Genes” — was sufficiently weird that I dropped it after a couple of chapters. I think it was claiming that people who said everything was gene-based were non-Marxists or some such tosh. I forget.

    Stephen Jay Gould’s books are very good, and set an excellent stage for Dawkins. Gould’s early essays — the one about the flamingo’s smile, the panda’s thumb, the development of eggs, about complex organs — were wonderful. It’s a pity his verbosity got out of control in his last ones.

  4. Bryan
    Posted May 9, 2009 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    Having read Jerry’s post on Dick’s 80th birthday, and now this post, I can’t help but wonder how the biological communicty really feels about Dick Lewontin’s work and views. An evolutionary biologist who doesn’t believe in natural selection strikes me as more idiosyncratic than insightful.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted May 9, 2009 at 7:50 am | Permalink

      It’s not that Dick (or Steve Gould) don’t believe in natural selection, it’s just that they constantly downplay its efficacy.

      • Dave Wisker
        Posted May 13, 2009 at 11:07 am | Permalink

        I agree. I do have to say though, that reading their Spandrels paper enabled me to integrate neutral theory and exaptations into my views on evolution

  5. Luke
    Posted February 22, 2010 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Most of the evidence that evolution has taken place (the evidence for common descent) is only to be expected if evolution has proceeded by quantifiable, natural processes. For example, there is no more reason why there should be an objective nested hierarchy if God is personally guiding evolution than if species are “specially” created. If God is picking and choosing new alleles to introduce into a population, there is no reason why he could not have simply deleted useless genes rather than rendering them nonfunctional and leaving them to litter the genome as pseudogenes.

    Could God have ‘planned’ ahead of time the course evolution would take? I guess so, although that still doesn’t entirely let him off the hook for said imperfections, but he surely did not play a significant and direct role in natural history.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] on Dick Lewontin and WEIT: what’s the deal with natural selection? Several days ago I called attention to Richard Lewontin’s review of WEIT and several other books in The New [...]

  2. [...] Coyne’s presentation is titled Why Evolution is True (and why many think that it’s not) and is based on his latest similarly-titled book. [...]

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