The poverty of intellectual correctness – Part One: Neo-Darwinism

I wrote this essay a few years ago as part one of a two-part article that would illustrate some parallels between intellectual authoritarianism in neo-Darwinism and in neoclassical economics. In some ways my response to Paul Krugman’s response to me was Part Two. But, wanting to quote this essay in another essay I’m working on – “Disciplines as institutions” I’m publishing it now in all it’s unfinishment. 

I. Denis Noble on what’s wrong with gene centred Neo-Darwinism

A few weeks ago I finished reading Denis Noble’s very intriguing and provocative Dance to the Tune of Life, a comprehensive take-down of Neo-Darwinism and excessive reductionism in science. Noble was one of Richard Dawkins’ PhD examiners and used to identify with the Neo-Darwinist mainstream – of which more in a moment. But, through his work in mathematical physiology gradually became aware of mounting problems with certain doctrinal foundations of Neo-Darwinism.

Often he shows us recent work that seems to debunk very important Neo-Darwinist doctrines at the same time as showing us that those heterodox ideas have been around for many many decades – sometimes over a century – but that they’ve been marginalised by the Neo-Darwinist consensus. And that consensus has been enforced by a Neo-Darwinist ‘political correctness’ police in which Richard Dawkins takes pride of place. My purpose in this essay is to delineate some intellectual roots of this political correctness and also to show strong parallels with the way ‘scientific rigour’ is policed in another discipline – economics – with similar disastrous results. 

Fittingly enough, cross-fertilisation between economics and biology has been common. Since economics first threatened to become little more than a branch of applied mathematics as the marginal revolution took hold, numerous economists of note have insisted that economics should be more like biology. In fact the cross fertilisation goes right back to the beginning of modern evolution. When Darwin read Malthus’s political economy, particularly his famous Essay on the Principle of Population it turned his mind toward every creature’s and every species’ struggle for survival.  The rest was history – well biology actually, but you get my meaning.

II. Reductionism: Here’s looking at Euclid

Noble’s immediate target is what he argues is the excessive reductionism of the gene centred view of the world, popularised by Richard Dawkins. Of course, judging what’s excessive by way of reductionism can only be properly done on the merits. After all, the extreme reductionism of the Newtonian Revolution was a huge success. As Adam Smith put it (yes that Adam Smith), Newton’s theory of gravity proposed “an immense chain of the most important and sublime truths, all closely connected together by one capital fact, of the reality of which we have daily experience”.

The point is that, at least in physics, although flaws eventually emerged as they always do in science, extreme reductionism was miraculously successful, generating vast new areas of practical knowledge. Many of the motivating ideas behind Neo-Darwinism [1. To summarise very simply, I’m taking Neo-Darwinism to be what Julian Huxley christened the Modern Synthesis in biology 1942. From Wikipedia “The modern synthesis was the early 20th-century synthesis reconciling Charles Darwin‘s and Gregor Mendel‘s ideas in a joint mathematical framework that established evolution as biology‘s central paradigm“. In what follows, I use the term Neo-Darwinism somewhat loosely as Noble often does to cover this core and a cluster of supporting doctrines sometimes, though not necessarily including a strongly gene-centred view of evolution.] from which the gene-centred view of evolution grew were likewise a powerful engine of new knowledge. But they and the intellectual ‘temperament’ they embodied also came to marginalise important work and to foreclose its being assessed on its merits.

The gene centred view of evolution so brilliantly and trenchantly popularised by Richard Dawkins’ best-seller The Selfish Gene has a powerful logic to it. So powerful that it feels like some kind of key. If only we can root biology in the genome, then not only will we have got to the bottom of the whole thing – right down to the molecular level – but we can also replicate the Newtonian manoeuvre of building a whole science from crystalline axiom like formal propositions just as Euclid built his geometry all those centuries ago.[1. One of my favourite titles for a popular maths book was Here’s looking at Euclid, but I digress.]

As the great Neo-Darwinist Ernst Mayr is quoted in Noble’s book saying in 1982 “All of the directions, controls and constraints of the developmental machinery are laid down in the blueprint as instructions or potentialities.” And the fact that this is all encoded at the molecular level appeals to native reductionism in which the world is at least in principle, built like a pyramid with the tiniest things at the bottom and with larger things being uncomplicatedly built from them – like a wall is built of bricks, those bricks are built from clay particles which in their turn are built from molecules, then atoms with the atoms comprising sub-atomic particles and on it goes. As Francis Crick put it, “There are only molecules – everything else is sociology.”

III. The science and epistemology of non-reductionism

However there’s a problem with the extent of the reductionism in gene-centred Neo-Darwinism. It degenerates into incoherence. As Ernst Mayr put it in 1999:

An individual either survives or doesn’t … reproduces or doesn’t.… The idea that a few people have about the gene being the target of selection is completely impractical; a gene is never visible to natural selection, and in the genotype, it is always in the context with other genes, and the interaction with those other genes make a particular gene either more favorable or less favorable. In fact, Dobzhanksy, for instance, worked quite a bit on so-called lethal chromosomes which are highly successful in one combination, and lethal in another. Therefore people like Dawkins in England who still think the gene is the target of selection are evidently wrong.

Noble argues that, for all its success, Neo-Darwinism degenerated into hubris:

What went wrong was that the Modern Synthesis became hardened into dogmatism. Starting from the theory that this is the way in which evolution could have happened, it became transformed into the conviction that this was the only way in which evolution must have happened.

Noble proceeds to quote the transcript of a debate he chaired between Richard Dawkins and Lynn Margulis. At issue is the possibility of symbiogenesis in which certain organisms evolved not through the gradual accretion of random mutations a la Neo-Darwinism but by some process by which one organism acquires the characteristics of another – by physically absorbing it:

Dawkins: It [Neo-Darwinism] is highly plausible, it’s economical, it’s parsimonious, why on earth would you want to drag in symbiogenesis when it’s such an unparsimonious, uneconomical [theory]?

Margulis: Because it’s there.[1. Dawkins was subsequently gracious about Margulis. He subsequently described her as “one of the great achievements of twentieth-century evolutionary biology”, and regarding this episode (and no doubt others like it) commented “I greatly admire Lynn Margulis’s sheer courage and stamina in sticking by the endosymbiosis theory, and carrying it through from being an unorthodoxy to an orthodoxy.”]

One of the exciting things about Noble’s endeavour is the way in which it operates both at the level of science and of epistemology or the philosophy of science. Though Noble dignifies it with a grand title – “the theory of biological relativity” – his basic epistemology or theory of how to encounter the natural world can be simply expressed. Order, and so causation, is emergent at many levels and causation runs both ‘upwards’ – for instance from genetic material to its expression in organisms – and downwards – from organisms to their genetic material – and that there is (therefore) no privileged level from which causation somehow originates. Other essential tenets of his view of biology I relegate to the following footnote.[1. Post-Neo-Darwinism a la Noble

Noble summarises his essential points thus (apologies that the list uses terms introduced in the book that may be new to you but I’ve tried to help with relevant links to Wikipedia and some square bracketed explanations). Noble proposes:

1. that the Weismann Barrier is … relative … rather than absolute ….

2. that genetic variation is not always random with respect to function. In some situations evolution may work as our body develops antibodies – even though this isn’t passed to the next generation – by ‘targeting’ random variation until a successful antibody is found.

3. the existence of other forms of inheritance in addition to strict Mendelian inheritance.

4. that the Central Dogma of molecular biology is better represented as an important chemical fact about coding, rather than an absolute statement about control by and primacy of the genome.

5. the full significance of mobile genetic elements and the reorganisation of genomes.

6. the inheritance of epigenetic and similar Lamarckian forms.

7. the significance of symbiogenesis and many other forms of co-operation.

8. the significance of niche construction and the active role of organisms in evolution.

9. evolution is a multi-mechanism process, that the Neo-Darwinian mechanism is just one of them, and that we really do not yet know the relative contribution of each process to each stage of evolution. This would be a return to Darwin’s more nuanced view that other processes may also exist.]

IV. Boys, girls, left, right, authoritarianism, permissiveness

It’s worth pausing to consider some deeper undercurrents of gender, temperament and ideology. In the extract just quoted, Dawkins, a man, is policing the discipline for ‘rigour’. Margulis is a woman, a scientific rebel and well to the left of Dawkins politically. It’s not coincidental – it’s part of the plot – that symbiogenisis entails biological cooperation between organisms, rather than competition which is central to the Neo-Darwinist vision of evolution. Something similar seems to have happened in considering the role of group selection in evolution (survival of the fittest groups) compared with survival of the fittest individuals. If the latter effect dominates competition remains the paradigm mechanism. Where the former effect intrudes, a dialectic opens up between competition (between groups) and cooperation (within them).

It’s not covered in Noble’s book, but group selection is another idea that tended to be marginalised by the gatekeepers of Neo-Darwinist orthodoxy, even though of course, as a matter of logic, there’s nothing in Neo-Darwinist logic that renders group selection marginal. The intellectual straighteners Dawkins and Pinker are still policing that boundary. They mount some quite good arguments. Perhaps they’re right. But permit me to be sceptical. (I’ve elsewhere briefly referenced how displinary gatekeepers of psychology resisted the use of the word “love” in Harry Harlow’s exploration of the mothering role with his terry towling monkey experiments. The word “proximity” sounded so much more scientific.)[1. See Love at Goon Park for a book length treatment of the issue.]

If you think this ideological reading of the debate is a bit far fetched, certainly Lynn Margulis bought into it – from the left – objecting to the dominant Neo-Darwinist paradigm is that it’s a “zoological, capitalistic, competitive, cost-benefit interpretation of Darwin”. She thinks it inherently implausible that the singular driving mechanism of evolution is random mutations. “I have seen no evidence whatsoever that these changes can occur through the accumulation of gradual mutations. … There’s no doubt, of course, that they exist, but the major source of evolutionary novelty is the acquisition of symbionts – the whole thing then edited by natural selection. It is never just the accumulation of mutations.” Sounds more plausible than strong Neo-Darwinism to me, but what would I know? And as for citing Lynn Margulis for support, she thinks the Sept 11 attack on the World Trade Centre was a “false flag operation”.

Here are some reasons why in some sense competition appeals to those I’ll suggest are of Neo-Darwinist ‘temperament’.

  • Given the undoubted role of competition and individual selection, as Dawkins initially argued against Margulis, the more you admit cooperation, the more messy – the less parsimonious – things get.
  • In a reductionist schema, the individual is also prior to and thus more fundamental than the group.
  • There are two additional psychological/sociological attractions of gene-centred Neo-Darwinism to someone attracted to policing intellectual rigour:
    • The Neo-Darwinist position is inherently paradoxical, especially to the intellectually uninitiated whether they’re a ‘creationist’ or just a sceptic about how random mutation subject to natural selection might enable the climbing of Mount Improbable to use Dawkins clever phrase. How can it be that the marvels of complexity, of coordination and cooperation within or even between species come from such a crude, competitive and cruel process? It marks one out as a sophisticated thinker and yet not so sophisticated that one’s case can’t be explained to an informed layperson in a couple of minutes on some TV panel show. Richard Dawkins is generous in that way, forever donating his time to explaining to people what fools they are; [1.Krugman reflects on something similar regarding free-trade. “It is hard not to suspect that our professional commitment to free trade is a sociological phenomenon as well as an intellectual conviction. … By emphasizing the virtues of free trade, we also emphasize our intellectual superiority over the unenlightened who do not understand comparative advantage. In other words, the idea of free trade takes on special meaning precisely because it is someplace where the ideas of economists clash particularly strongly with popular perceptions”]
    • Similarly, group selection opens up space for the wishful thinking of the Kumbaya crowd with all their blathering about living together in peace and harmony. The alternative suggestion – that the road to the miracles of nature is the cruelty of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ resembles the moralist’s injunction that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
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4 Responses to The poverty of intellectual correctness – Part One: Neo-Darwinism

  1. “there is (therefore) no privileged level from which causation somehow originates.” feedback.
    Life creates so much of the environment that then selects for those life forms that are fittest for that environment.
    For example plants take in CO2 and water and use sunlight to make oxygen and leaves twigs trunks and oils and resins . It can be said that plants create the necessaries for fire. In places were soils are of fairly low fertility and at different times there’s enough rain for lots of growth followed by times when all those twigs and leaves can get very dry ,if that is then combined with a lifeform that is in itself a widespread constant source of ignition ; a walking fire stick that thrives on fire, then evolution can select for plants that don’t just cope with fire, rather they promote and come to dominate because of fire.
    Can’t see how a reductive focus on any one of the chain of factors and feedback that has resulted in much of Australia’s landscapes being largely dominated by plants that are incendiaries would lead to a better practical understanding of how to live in a land of fireforests.

  2. paul frijters says:

    I must admit that I am not too fussed about the genome people because they have latched on to something we can manipulate (genes), which makes for clean experiments and whatever progress there is to make in genes.

    What you talk about is what those genome people call G*E interactions where E is shorthand for anything in the environment. They prefer not to deal with it because they cant separate its influence from G, nor can they figure out the bit in E that is relevant, nor can they manipulate it. So they focus on G, which is easier to measure and play with. Other things simply have to prove they are also useful and can be manipulated. Since there is other stuff, the challenge is how to capitalise on them. If one can’t find a way to manipulate it in a G context, then the G-maffia will simply pretend there is nothing but G. That’s how it works.

    Yet, there are other things to say, both about mechanisms relevant for evolution and about this penchant for pretending that the only place that exists is ‘where the light is’.

    On the biology, one interesting thing is that far more is passed on to another generation than the genes. For one, a cell gets passed on every time, in an unbroken line. There is information in that cell that needs not be in the genome (and not merely the mitochondrial dna). Also, there is of course the whole stuff about influences in the womb: that cell developed into a human on the basis of what it could grab in the womb, meaning that all the nutrients and capabilities of the mother get reflected in that human quite apart from the genes. Ditto even for the grandmother in whose womb the original egg giving rise to the human first arose. These influences come with lots of genetic on/off switches, as well as direct effects on the structure of the brain and other elements of the baby, such as its size.

    So just on the bit that gets ‘passed on’, there is a lot more than the genes.

    The business of academic sects arising who claim that the bit they look at is the only thing that exists in their science is a combination of a desire for beauty (the aesthetics of simplicity and ‘elegance’) which indeed often is quite male, a search for certainty, and of course the business of territories. None of these three is going to go away: the same ingredients gave rise to monasteries in many places and religions.

    Whilst one is not going to get the monasteries to change what they do, one might well envisage other forms of scientific structures that do things differently. The experimental mindset of quite a few Sillicon valley companies seem to fit a quite different mold to the monastic one. More eclectic and pragmatic.

    • conrad says:

      I think that’s being a bit harsh. There are better studies coming out these days. Here is one by a guy I used to be down the hall from, who wanted genes and nothing else to explain everything (he even did his post-doc with Hans Eysenck). Not that I trust meta-analyses nor believe you can get rid of confounds from them statistically, but if the second author there is admitting there are strong G * E interactions, then it is safe to say there are, and all but those who don’t care about science at all (of which I imagine there are many in this area), would freely admit that.

  3. David Duffy says:

    I’m afraid I agree with Futuyma”s views eg here:

    That is, the existing “consensus” ES already has other processes like sexual selection and assortative mating and niche construction and gene-environment covariation and gene-environment interaction and phenotypic plasticity and multi-trait interaction and cultural transmission and parental care and complex non-linear selection. And there are good reasons why intergenerational epigenetic non-Mendelian inheritance exists, but is not a major force in evolution, and its function controlled by ordinary Mendelian genes. Much of the interest in epigenetic mechanism is within the organism – how genes are turned on and off in particular tissues if cells all start with the same complement of genes, how environmental factors alter gene function in those tissues.

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