Dick Lewontin reviews What Darwin Got Wrong

If you’ve followed this website, you’ll know that nearly all the reviews of Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatttelli-Palmarini’s (F&P-P) What Darwin Got Wrong (including mine) have been highly critical.  But in this week’s New York Review of Books, Dick Lewontin’s take is a bit different.  It’s neither critical nor laudatory; in fact, while giving a cursory description of the book’s thesis, it almost perversely refuses to offer a critical evaluation.

First, full disclosure: Lewontin was my Ph.D. advisor at Harvard, and I’ve admired him for decades. He was a great mentor.

Those who have followed Lewontin’s writings, and seen his many critical book reviews, as well as some laudatory ones (here is one classic), will be puzzled at his failure to let the reader know whether What Darwin Got Wrong is good or bad.  Instead, he reiterates what I call Lewontin’s “greatest hits,” the ideas that he’s discussed many times over the past few decades.  These include the weakness of the adaptationist program, the failure of evolutionists to take seriously the idea of niche construction (the notion that organisms are not passive responders to environmental conditions, but affect their own evolutionary fate by changing their environments [think beaver dams]), and the eagerness of evolutionary psychologists to engage in storytelling rather than hard science.

When Lewontin does address the book, he makes two points. The first is his agreement with F&P-P’s thesis that the idea of natural selection as a “force” imposed on organisms by Mother Nature has been deeply misleading:

Darwin, quite explicitly, derived this understanding of the motivating force underlying evolution from the actions of plant and animal breeders who consciously choose variant individuals with desirable properties to breed for future generations. “Natural” selection is human selection writ large. But of course, whatever “nature” may be, it is not a sentient creature with a will, and any attempt to understand the actual operation of evolutionary processes must be freed of its metaphorical baggage. Unfortunately, even modern evolutionary biologists, as well as theorists of human social and psychological phenomena who have used organic evolution as a model for general theories of their own subjects, are not always conscious of the dangers of the metaphor.

I think this is a gross exaggeration.  That “metaphorical baggage” has been about as heavy as a wallet.  As I emphasized in my discussion of selection in The Nation, biologists use the construction “natural selection acting on trait/species X” as simple shorthand for a longer and more awkward description of differential gene replication reflecting the ability of those genes to leave copies in the current environment.  Here’s what I said:

Although we evolutionary biologists might describe the polar bear scenario as “natural selection acting on coat color,” that’s only our shorthand for the longer description given above. There is no agency, no external force of nature that “acts” on individuals. There is only differential replication of genes, with the winners behaving as if they were selfish (that’s shorthand, too).

And I think that nearly every evolutionary biologist would agree with this view. Even the evolutionary psychologists whom Lewontin dislikes so strongly would almost all agree.  I am 100% sure that Steve Pinker, for instance, is fully cognizant that nature is not “a sentient creature with a will.”

In fact, although Lewontin emphasizes the dangers of the “selection-on” metaphor, he gives not a single example of how it’s misled us.  When Dick and I had some exchanges about this piece before it was published, I asked him to support this statement by giving some examples. He never did.

When Lewontin does discuss the “problems” with F&P-P’s book, he does so only by alluding to the strong negative reaction it’s elicited from philosophers and biologists:

The appearance of Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s book at this time and the rhetoric and structure of its argument are guaranteed to provoke as strong a negative reaction in the community of evolutionary biologists as they have among philosophers of biology. To a degree never before experienced by the current generation of students of evolution, evolutionary theory is under attack by powerful forces of religious fundamentalism using the ambiguity of the word “theory” to suggest that evolution as a natural process is “only a theory.” While What Darwin Got Wrong may have been designed pour épater les bourgeois and to forcibly get the attention of evolutionists, when two accomplished intellectuals make the statement “Darwin’s theory of selection is empty,” they generate an anger that makes it almost impossible for biologists to give serious consideration to their argument.

I respectfully submit that that last sentence is COMPLETE FAIL—and insulting to boot. If you’ve read any of the reviews What Darwin Got Wrong, you’ll see that all of them have involved very serious consideration of F&P-P’s arguments. Just read the reviews. I doubt that the critics have been largely motivated by a desire to protect their turf against fundamentalist anti-evolutionism. I know I wasn’t.   Instead, we’ve been motivated by a desire to protect our field from the aggressive stupidity of fellow academics who don’t understand natural selection, biology, and the way that evolutionists do their jobs.

Lewontin, I’m afraid, has missed the mark with this one. In his crusade against facile adaptive explanations of human behavior (a crusade that I’ve often joined), he has allied himself with those like-minded critics who, sadly, know very little about evolutionary biology.

29 Comments

  1. NewEnglandBob
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Jerry, for telling us how you perceive this. It must be difficult for you.

    In my opinion, this is not Lewontin’s first mistake.

    • artikcat
      Posted May 7, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      You cant be serious: whys is it difficult to tell your ex boss wrong-I mean you suggest he is? Dr Lewontin could be accused of many things, but I and thousands are sure he knows his biology better than most.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted May 7, 2010 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

        A Ph.D. advisor is not just an ex-boss.

        • artikcat
          Posted May 7, 2010 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

          Of course it is not just, but it is nonetheless. It is morally impecable to tell you, my exadvisorboss-metaphorically-I believe you wrong. Even if I prove to be wrong. That is all.

        • NewEnglandBob
          Posted May 7, 2010 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

          At least one of us understood what you wrote.

          • artikcat
            Posted May 7, 2010 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

            Not again please, i was doing so well.

  2. Karel de Pauw
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Well, at the risk of being accused of ‘red baiting’ – a favourite tactic of certain ‘progressives’ – may one wonder what role Lewontin’s Marxism has played in the stance he has taken, here and elsewhere?

  3. Kirth Gersen
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    In a sense, Dr Lewontin’s crusade addresses an important point. By using metaphors implying an intelligent agency at work, we open the door (and I’ve seen it happen often) for misinterpretation by laypeople, into a BioLogos-type muddling of selection with so-called “intelligent design.”

    All biologists, and almost all other hard sceintists, understand that the metaphors are simply metaphors. But the general public is generally not so penetrating in their thinking. The more we imply, even without meaning to, that changes in species “have a purpose” (or are “selected”), the more we encourage Sunday enthousiasts to assume that we mean a magical Creator rather than a mechanical process.

    • Posted May 9, 2010 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      I think about some reactions to The Selfish Gene… Dawkins mentions at least once a chapter that “remember, this is all metaphor, and we need to look past the metaphor from time to time to make sure we haven’t followed it too far into a mistaken idea.” He makes this point so often, in fact, that I found it mildly irritating.

      And people STILL panned the book saying, “How can he say genes are selfish?! Genes don’t have thoughts and feelings!” Facepalm…

  4. Steve13
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    Just a quick question, how is niche construction different from the ideas Richard Dawkins puts forth in his book the Extended Phenotype?

  5. Morgan-LynnGriggs La
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    Face it: the accommodationists are encouraging in effect that role for teleology when as Simpson and Mayr note that teleonomy is ever at work– no planned outcomes as the atelic or teleonomic argument notes! Teleonomy-causalism as Weisz calls it- thus contradicts any role for any supernatural agency at work, and thus evolution creationism or evolution creationism is a no-starter!
    This is not just a philosophical statement as Scott avers, but what scientists find to be true : natural causes require no external boss. From that scientific finding, one then makes Lamberth’s atelic argument.
    Also scientists are investigating how people see agency – intent- when there isn’t any and thereby arises Lamberth’s argument from pareidolia when they see intent and design rather than teleonomy and patterns.
    Jerry,yet Miller,Giberson and Ayala obfuscate with their form of yes, I.D. as you and Amiel Rossow @ Talk reason note!
    Faith doth that to people!
    Thales and Strato knew better!

  6. Morgan-LynnGriggs La
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    creation evolution or evolution creationism [ I prefer these terms over theistic evolution!]
    Skeptic Griggsy

  7. gruebait
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    The idea of confusing Natural Selection with an agency or force is one I can’t take seriously. It affects me the same way as the Mythbusters TV show – all too often, after proposing the “myth” they are going to refute, I loose interest, because I can’t believe that there are really a lot of people who think that, whatever it is. It’s a strawman.

    • Posted May 9, 2010 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      Ah yes, but then — ‘SPLOSIONS!!! I think we’d all appreciate Lewontin’s review more if, taking a tip from the Mythbusters, he ‘sploded something at the end of his review.

  8. Posted May 8, 2010 at 4:20 am | Permalink

    If you’ve read any of the reviews What Darwin Got Wrong, you’ll see that all of them have involved very serious consideration of F&P-P’s arguments.

    I really enjoyed Elliot Sober’s review for that reason.

  9. Atheist.pig
    Posted May 8, 2010 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    “But I have become very hostile to the sort of mainstream Marxist attitude toward genetics and evolution and I think it is causing immense confusion to some people whom I greatly admire. For example, Dick Lewontin who is a great biologist I think is seriously confused on these issues essentially because of this dialectical problem… I’ve just been reviewing in fact for evolution a collection of essays presented to Dick Lewontin on this occasion I’m not sure what occasion just…anyway and he richly deserves honor don’t get me wrong about that, I greatly admire and like him but this book is permeated with nonsense… essential provoked by Marxism.”

    John Maynard Smith, 2001

    • artikcat
      Posted May 8, 2010 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      So? That is what he thinks….thinks, doesnt know

      • Atheist.pig
        Posted May 8, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink

        Very perceptive of you???

        • Karel de Pauw
          Posted May 8, 2010 at 11:08 am | Permalink

          Or, as Richard Dawkins had remarked (1985) a propos ‘Not In Our Genes’ by Lewontin et al:

          ‘.. to think that, through all these years working in universities, I had imagined that the purpose of science was to solve the riddles of the Universe: to comprehend the nature of existence; of space and time and of eternity; of fundamental particles spread through 100 billion galaxies; of complexity and living organisation and the slow dance through three billion years of geological time. No no, these trivial matters fade into insignificance beside the overriding need to legitimate bourgeois ideology .. to concentrate on our historic mission to exploit workers and oppress minorities.. ‘

  10. Heleen
    Posted May 8, 2010 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    Niche construction: has that any appreciably scientific support?

  11. Miranda
    Posted May 8, 2010 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    Lewontin: “when two accomplished intellectuals make the statement “Darwin’s theory of selection is empty,” they generate an anger that makes it almost impossible for biologists to give serious consideration to their argument.”

    Coyne: “I respectfully submit that that last sentence is COMPLETE FAIL—and insulting to boot. If you’ve read any of the reviews What Darwin Got Wrong, you’ll see that all of them have involved very serious consideration of F&P-P’s arguments.”

    I don’t think there’s such a contradiction between Lewontin and Coyne. I think Lewontin would agree with Coyne here, but would add, “Did you kind of gloss over my word, ‘almost’?”

    So, there’ve been a number of careful reviews — but how many more would there have been had FPP not have written that objectionable line?

    On a different note:

    Coyne points out that Lewontin talks about “the eagerness of evolutionary psychologists to engage in storytelling rather than hard science.”

    For what it’s worth, he was not just referring to psychologists.

    • Miranda
      Posted May 10, 2010 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      Example:
      If I said it was almost impossible to hit a center-field homerun in Houston’s Minute Maid park, and then a few big hitters said my comment was “a COMPLETE FAIL,” I’d respond with, “you know what I mean!!”

  12. Posted May 9, 2010 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    It reminds me of Larry Moran’s reaction to What Darwin Got Wrong. It appears that folks who are (legitimately!) very irritated at adaptationism run rampant are also prone to sympathizing with F&P on a sort of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” basis. I suppose I can understand. When Pat Condell, for instance, makes an unfair criticism on Islam, there’s a part of me that’s still like “Right on!”, and I still forward the video to my friends, even though he doesn’t follow a particularly sound line of argumentation.

    To put it another way, the feeling I get from Lewontin and Moran is that they are so glad for someone to be making points against their pet peeve, that they are willing to look the other way a little about the absurdity of F&P’s argument when taken as a whole.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted May 9, 2010 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      I think you’re right on the mark here!

  13. erpiu
    Posted May 21, 2010 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    F&PP are wrong with respect to many if not most of the petty quibblings they included about natural selection (NS) and about evolution by natural selection (EBNS) as well as about what empirical studies of NS and EBNS can and cannot disentangle; but they got the most important thing right:

    According to F&PP, game theory (GT) would not be a theory either, because whenever you look at a GTal system that can be “understood” using GTal analysis and principles, you cannot say anything about who will win unless you are told say what symbols the cards have, how many cards there are, what the specific rules of the game are, etc….

    And indeed game theory is not a “scientific theory” like that of gravitation since most GTal phenomenology depends crucially on the arbitrary details that are GTally relevant in each case.

    Natural selection (NS) narratives fall between these two extremes: they mobilize a firework of circumstantial natural-historical details that are GTally relevant (in ceteris-paribus or dynamically positive ways), but abstractly speaking the winners are always “the result” of the Bauplan’s potential to be altered (due to mutation, etc) so that modified “units” show up that deal with the specific selective agent/regime better than existing units do.

    This *non-exhausted* Bauplan’s potential is part of the unifying “gravity-like” force driving evolution by natural selection (EBNS) and GT-oriented evol.bio models have nothing “ontologically” comparable to offer (i.e., they have no obligate links to unifying natural entities and quantities).

    But this potential of Bauplaene is part of what van valen went after when he proposed what he called “the 3rd law of natural selection” (1976; van valen meant EBNS when writing “natural selection”).

    No need to say that the unifying “gravity-like” force driving NS (as opposed to that driving EBNS) cannot be studied in the same way and time scales as that driving EBNS…

    All in all, the trailer-park-level understanding of what a scientific theory should be that has been put on display by most of the phil.of biol and evol.biol establishment frauds who have commented on F&PP’s “idiots-savants” book rivals non-necessarily favorably with that of the peddler of puerilo-retarded animistico-suggestive anthropomorphizations, r.dawkins; and their arguments are barely less misguided and heuristically less pernicious that D’s syllogistic imbecility about “DNA with intentionality”.

    Therefore F&PP sense it correctly that the unifying “gravity-like” forces driving NS and EBNS remain unknown and neglected, and that available NS and EBNS stories are “different for each case” (let’s celebrate diversity!) because these narratives are ontologically truncated.

    Yes, in his tired recent NYRB piece on this affair, r.lewontin mentions that F&PP have stated that they are not asking for such a unifying force, but the real question is whether F&PP would have had anything to grumble about if the force was already a highly visible central concern and main research focus in evol.bio.

    Truly, it’s shocking to see –among “professional” philosophers of science– such ignorance of the deep epistemological canons that distinguish better-developed scientific theories, and to see –-among “professional” evolutionary biologists– such ignorance of deep evolutionary biology.

    This whole debate shows one more time what kind of charade the american system of promoting self-complacent paper-churner/grant-chaser hybrid frauds has generated…

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 21, 2010 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      And indeed game theory is not a “scientific theory” like that of gravitation since most GTal phenomenology depends crucially on the arbitrary details that are GTally relevant in each case.

      I respectfully submit that that last sentence is COMPLETE FAIL. It displays your ignorance on science in general and physics specifically right from the start, and with a heap of irony to boot.

      First, because what we need to have from a theory in the end is predictivity, so that we can test it. And that is “all” we need. Both selection and gravity fulfill that, as do game theory. For example, game theory predicts Nash equilibria, and they have AFAIU been observed for example in biology, ironically enough.

      Second, and here the irony run rampant, exactly the kind of problem you and FP&P accuse game theory and selection for is at the basis of our best theory of gravity, general relativity (GR). In GR, an effective theory as the other two, you cannot say anything about specific solutions unless you are told say what masses you have, what the specific laws for energies pressure there are (dark energy, say), et cetera.

      This is because there is no general applicable energy condition in GR:

      In general relativity and allied theories, the distribution of the mass, momentum, and stress due to matter and to any non-gravitational fields is described by the energy-momentum tensor (or matter tensor) Tab. However, the Einstein field equation is not very choosy about what kinds of states of matter or nongravitational fields are admissible in a spacetime model. This is both a strength, since a good general theory of gravitation should be maximally independent of any assumptions concerning nongravitational physics, and a weakness, because without some further criterion, the Einstein field equation admits putative solutions with properties most physicists regard as unphysical, i.e. too weird to resemble anything in the real universe even approximately.

      The energy conditions represent such criteria. Roughly speaking, they crudely describe properties common to all (or almost all) states of matter and all nongravitational fields which are well-established in physics, while being sufficiently strong to rule out many unphysical “solutions” of the Einstein field equation. [Wikipedia]

      The same kind of problem is at the basis of quantum mechanics, which can be seen by looking at Feynman’s pathway formulation. Quantum physics can be seen as a sum of all possible pathways, which again necessitate knowing details to predict specific solutions. While again we can test the general theory simply by verifying its predictability.

      And to accuse professional biologists of not being professional or having ignorance of their chosen field… please, that isn’t only COMPLETE FAIL but COMPLETE FAILURE, since you loose all credibility.

  14. nicolae
    Posted June 15, 2010 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    bloggingheads.tv – Fodor v. Sober

    http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/26848

    Nice debate! Enjoy!

  15. Posted June 24, 2010 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    [ less cryptic now ? ] F&PPs were wrong about much if not most of the petty details that their book included about natural selection (NS), evolution by natural selection (EBNS), and about what students of NS and EBNS can and cannot disentangle; but they got the most important thing right:

    Game-theory(GT)-based narratives about nature (like those invoking the principle of NS and its obvious implications for the evolution and the diversity of the living) are exercises in math rather than “scientific theories” if their legitimacy derives only from their being backed by proper GTal analysis and assumptions. Sex-ratio theory is an example (see below).

    Such narratives cannot be compared to a true scientific theory like that of gravitation if they do not appeal to unifiable natural-historical facts, entities, and processes.

    NS narratives fall between these two extremes because they mobilize a firework of circumstantial and non-unifiable natural-historical details that are GTally relevant (in ceteris-paribus or dynamically positive ways), and yet at least abstractly speaking they assume, almost always implicitly, a unifiable background “force field”.

    Indeed in any NS event the “winners” are always “the result” of the Bauplan’s cybernetic potential to be altered (due to mutation, etc) so that modified “units” can show up that deal with the specific selective agent/regime better than other co-occurring units do.

    This *non-exhausted* cybernetic potential is also a big part of the unifying “gravity-like” force driving EBNS and is part of what Van Valen went after when he proposed what he called “the 3rd law of natural selection” (1976; he meant EBNS when writing “natural selection”).

    Current GT-oriented evol.bio models have nothing “ontologically” comparable to offer (i.e., they have no obligate links to the ultimate unifying natural entities and quantities that cause NS and EBNS “force fields”).

    These stories are indeed “different for each case” (let’s celebrate diversity!) because they are ontologically truncated and make a mockery of science: Imagine people discussing cases of selection imposed by a predator and hearing them talk non-stop about faster muscle fibers, better camouflage, favorable shifts in activity pattern, better olfactory detection of the predator, etc, i.e., a litany of sufficient but *not* necessary things under selection, but never witnessing anybody mention the necessary thing which is “to avoid being killed by the predator” (but note that a narrative that stops at the latter statement would still be “ontologically truncated” because it would not apply to all living systems!).

    Like many others before, F&PP had the gut feeling that the unifying “gravity-like” forces driving NS and EBNS are unknown and neglected. Indeed, in the recent bloggingheads exchange between Fodor and Sober ( http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/26848 ), Sober won every exchange but was strangely silent when towards the end Fodor lambasted NS-based narratives as tirades listing “one damned thing after another”.

    Ironically, Sober in his masterpiece, The Nature of Selection (1984; in which Lewontin’s greasy fingers left marks in every other page), tried to canonize such explanatory “diversity” by positing the “supervenience” of fitness with respect to its material causation (two individuals may have the same fitness even if one is say a bird and the other a bacterium, which “implies” that *obviously* the material causation of the two fitnesses is not even worth being compared let alone worth being considered for unification).

    Any serious scientist would cringe at this schizophrenic claim for epistemologico-ontological “singularity” for evolutionary-biology narratives, and with good reason: The world is only one and natural phenomenologies that are not unifiable are best studied by French charlatans [already seen Leotard's idiocies about life, evolution, and "la condition humaine" ? ;) ]

    Van Valen with his “3rd law of natural selection” and several authors with earlier efforts never considered elevating such transient helplessness and ignorance to an intrinsic “almost-merit” of evolutionary-biology narratives.

    Take a look at vV’s paper (cit. below) and ask yourself if the “idiot-savants” F&PP (boy if they say stupid things otherwise!) would be able to disparage vV’s effort as one more instance of an ad-hoc narrative full of “one damned thing after another” (even if the law were wrong).

    Imagine if physicists now were still stuck describing free and not-so-free falls, of various bodies of disparate nature in the most various media, of varying spatio-temporal heterogeneity, etc, etc, and telling us that they need to “find the atoms” in order to make “even more sense!” of the “holy fact of free fall” discovered by the ancient Newton!

    Yes, in his tired recent NYRB piece on this affair, Lewontin mentions that F&PP stated somewhere that they are not asking for such a unifying force, but the real question is whether they would have anything to grumble about if the unifying force was already a central focus of research in evol.bio.

    All in all, the trailer-park-level understanding of what a scientific theory should be that has been put on display by too many phil.of biol and evol.biol establishment frauds who have fallen upon each other to denounce apoplectically the many moronic errors in the “idiot-savant” book by F&PP rivals not necessarily favorably with that of the peddler of puerilo-retarded animistico-suggestive anthropomorphizations, r.dawkins (written small), and their arguments are barely less misguided and heuristically less pernicious that d’s trademark syllogistic imbecility about “DNA with intentionality”.

    Truly, it’s shocking to see –among “professional” philosophers of science– such ignorance of the deep epistemological canons that distinguish better-developed/-grounded scientific theories, and to see –among “professional” evolutionary biologists– such ignorance of deep evolutionary biology.

    This whole debate shows one more time what kind of dysfunctional charade the american system of promotion of self-complacent paper-churner/grant-chaser/research-university-bureaucrat-pleasing hybrid frauds has generated…

    [ Leigh Van Valen: ENERGY AND EVOLUTION; Evol. Theory 1: 179-229 (April, 1976) and citations therein]

  16. Posted November 1, 2010 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    First of all, thanks for the comment on my italian blog!
    And now:

    To a degree never before experienced by the current generation of students of evolution, evolutionary theory is under attack by powerful forces of religious fundamentalism using the ambiguity of the word “theory” to suggest that evolution as a natural process is “only a theory.”

    I’m only a theoretical physics and for me the difference between philosophy and science is the existence of theory in the second field.


One Trackback/Pingback

  1. [...] http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/05/07/dick-lewontin-reviews-what-darwin-got-wrong/ [...]

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 27,727 other followers

%d bloggers like this: