Dawkins and Dennett defend Adaptationism [Links]

by Perplexed1 min read23rd Feb 201119 comments

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Larry Moran is a Canadian biochemist and textbook author who has a blog about evolutionary biology called The Sandwalk.  Recently he has been posting essay questions which he intends to use in an upcoming test of his students.  Quotes from Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett that he wants his students to critique.  Also some quotes from Richard Lewontin that he wants his readers to admire.

The interesting thing is that Dennett and Dawkins have both jumped into the discussion, as have a number of my favorite (though lesser known) biology bloggers.  Interesting discussion.  Worth a look if you are interested in evolutionary biology.

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Lewontin link is EntirelyWrong.

Yes, this would be a link that's less wrong and not lesswrong.

"Reductio ad Tea Party" is a delight.

In my opinion, Dawkins wins this debate hands down. Though I find it amusing to think what the Bayesians here will say about the part where a commenter asks him, "If you had to bet, what would you say is the proportion of alleles that evolve neutrally?", and Dawkins replies, "How I would bet should be of no interest to you."

Humor aside, as for Lewontin, I actually had the attitude of humble and judicious open-mindedness towards these controversies until a few years ago, when I read that magnum opus by him, Rose, and Kamin titled Not in Our Genes. Even disregarding the parts that read like a complete parody -- for example, when they advise us, apparently in full seriousness, to read Chairman Mao for enlightenment -- most of the book is such a blatant ideological hack-job that I was left wondering how anyone could take these people seriously. (To make the it even more absurd, I stumbled across that book in a university library while looking for Pinker's The Blank Slate, of which I found one single crisp-looking specimen sharing a shelf with seven or eight well worn out copies of Not in Our Genes.)

Dawkins' review of Not In Our Genes was epic (pdf).

Wrong books are sometimes more popular. Penrose, is another instance that springs to mind.

It's always awesome to see Richard Dawkins in action, but where's the substance? So rhino horn count might or might not be adaptive. Blood groups might or might not be adaptive. The 'tongue-rolling' gene might or might not have adaptive pleiotropic effects. These questions aren't 'boring' exactly but they're minutiae.

Reading Darwin's Dangerous Idea gave me the impression that the fundamental divide between the "adaptationists" and their opponents is whether all non-trivial instances of "design" in nature are the result of natural selection (including sexual selection) for something (which may or may not be the same thing that the design is currently used for) or whether somehow 'constraints' and genetic drift can funnel the progress of evolution towards complex ("designed-looking") characteristics that confer no adaptive advantage.

(To me, the latter still seems weird and unmotivated, though I'm not ideologically wedded to it being wrong.)

... whether somehow 'constraints' and genetic drift can funnel the progress of evolution towards complex ("designed-looking") characteristics that confer no adaptive advantage.

(To me, [that] still seems weird and unmotivated, though I'm not ideologically wedded to it being wrong.)

I suppose the epistemological point that Lewontin would harp on here is that if you go in expecting Nature to only do things that seem well-motivated and 'natural', then you are going to produce ideologically biased science.

But as to whether evolution can produce complex 'designed-looking' characteristics that are not positively adaptive, give a look to this single-topic blog by Arlin Stoltzfus and this paper discussing an idea known as Constructive Neutral Evolution (pdf).

[-][anonymous]10y 0

The last features a pretty bizarre definition of "neutral":

In this broader sense, “neutral” changes would include not only random fixations and genetic hitchhiking (fixation of an allele tightly linked to a selected allele), but also pleiotropic effects of selective allele fixations.

Moran quotes Dawkins:

... When a gene mutates into one of its synonyms, you might as well not bother to call it a mutation at all. Indeed, it isn’t a mutation, as far as the consequences on the body are concerned. And for the same reason it isn’t a mutation at all as far as natural selection is concerned. But it is a mutation as far as molecular geneticists are concerned, for they can see it using their methods.

And then writes

Dawkins doubts that any mutation giving rise to a visible phenotype can be neutral ("ultra-Darwinists like me incline against the idea"). Such mutations are only important in molecular evolution.

Maybe this is accurate as to what Dawkins believes, but it sure doesn't follow from the Dawkins quote. Dawkins is talking about silent mutations, so Moran's discussion of Dawkins's view of phenotype-altering mutations is a non sequitur.

Would you mind sharing your opinion on the debate at Moran's blog? Which of the camps you identify with, if any?

Also, if you could write up a short list of top biology bloggers you follow and recommend, I'd be grateful. I want to follow the field and the debates more closely than I have been (which was hardly at all).

Would you mind sharing your opinion on the debate at Moran's blog? Which of the camps you identify with, if any?

I'm more or less in the middle. Moran is right that Dawkins and Dennett went a bit too far toward adaptationism (by dismissing the importance of neutral evolution) in the quoted passages. But it was forgivable carelessness/oversimplification on Dennett's part. Dawkins, OTOH, is just being stubborn in not conceding that many naked-eye visible characters are probably selectively neutral. But Moran is being a bit of an asshole as well.

I strongly second Moran's advice that everyone interested in biology should have read the "Spandrels" paper (pdf). But I would then add the recommendation that they read Queller's delicious skewering of Gould and Lewontin in "The Spaniels of St. Marx" in which we are invited to admire G&L's mastery of the 'Dark Arts'.

I suppose I should mention that while I enjoy Gould's ideas and writing, and usually admire Lewontin's viewpoint regarding science, I think that they were both inexcusably in the wrong in their attacks on both "Sociobiology" and "The Bell Curve".

Is Moran's crusade against vestiges of adaptationism mere quibbling? I don't think so. I will again recommend Stoltzfus's series called "The Curious Disconnect" in order to see a little better how seemingly minor errors in outlook and attitude among scientists can impede progress.

Also, if you could write up a short list of top biology bloggers you follow and recommend, I'd be grateful.

I'm probably not the best person to ask. I'm an amateur who has been following the biology blogosphere for less than a year. Larry Moran's blog has probably had the best coverage of evolutionary theory and molecular biology controversies. John Hawks covers human evolution, though I don't follow him. Carl Zimmer has the best science journalism blog, IMHO.

If you want to find a collection of evolution blogs that match your tastes, I would advise you to look through a few months of the "Carnival of Evolution" (and follow the links there to find other blog carnivals and bloggers you might like.)

I hadn't read "The Spaniels of St. Marx" before. It is pretty funny.

I found Stoltzfus pretty yawn-inducing, though. He seems to be trying to make a revolution out of a storm in a teacup.

Richard Dawkins appears to be posting under two different accounts on the thread.

Will the real Richard Dawkins please stand up?

I find it more likely that he's busy and doesn't bother with systematically using the same name.

Such things don't happen because of being "busy". Being consistent is as easy as not being consistent, if that consideration holds any attention.

Do you have a better explanation to offer? Do you really think the use of two different usernames (one time posting as "Richard" and signing "Richard Dawkins" and two times posting as "Richard Dawkins" and signing "Richard") is evidence that there's a fake?