While Bret Weinstein is a stalwart champion of free speech and progressivism because of his brave behavior at Evergreen State, his views on evolution often seem to me to be pretty wonky. And not just biology: look at these tweets he exchanged with Sam Harris:
I’m a “New Atheist,” and I don’t know what you’re talking about… https://t.co/Q2uVXruAYG
— Sam Harris (@SamHarrisOrg) September 19, 2019
Non-Darwinian? New Atheism, which is simply the revival of Old Atheism in popular format, along with a healthy dose of science, is not “non-Darwinian” at all!
Here’s the Q&A session of a discussion between Alister McGrath, a philosopher of science and theologian, and Weinstein hosted by Justin Brierley, a podcaster and religionist. (The link to the main discussion is below.) Sadly, it was apparently sponsored by both The Templeton Religious trust and Christian Radio.
The part that concerned me most was Weinstein’s claim at the outset that evolutionary theory hasn’t moved much since 1976, when Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene was published. (This is the first question on the video.) Weinstein argues that there hasn’t been a theoretical breakthrough since then, and we have only empirical studies. When Bret discussed this with Richard Dawkins, Richard said that was probably because previous generations had gotten the Big Stuff pretty much right.
In response, Bret says no, Dawkins is wrong because, as he says,
“What I know from my own work is that that’s not true because there are a great many questions that we can’t yet answer—big questions, like about the nature of sexual selection, what we call “lekking”, about speciation. These big questions have simply moved into another phase where we’ve stopped asking them and embarrassing themselves because we can’t answer the question. Why, for example, are there more species more densely packed as one moves from the poles to the Equator. That’s a question we should be able to answer. . . .Why can’t we answer it? Because we’ve lost the thread of the conversation, not because we’ve answered all the questions. In some sense progress seems to have stopped; why it’s stopped we can argue about, but that we should do something to jump-start it is almost beyond question.”
Well, no. Speciation, sexual selection, and the latitudinal diversity gradient are active areas of research, and I should know about speciation because that was my own area of work. Allen Orr and I wrote a book about it in 2004, and much of the progress that occurred in speciation, documented in the book, took place after 1976. And yes, we do understand speciation a lot better now than we did 45 years ago.
The diversity gradient remains an active area of research, and the various theories about its existence (as with theories of speciation) are well known and being tested.
Finally, there is a ton of work on sexual selection going on as you read this. Here, too, there are lots of theories about how it works (see this paper for a compendium), but they’re hard to test in the wild, and so our knowledge accumulates slowly. But none of these areas need jump-starting: the theoretical frameworks are in place, and what remains is the empirical slogging and testing that Weinstein seems to deem unproductive.
What Weinstein is saying here is equivalent to saying, in 1900, that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is insufficient because there hasn’t been a Big New Theory since 1859 proposing how life evolved, and there’s just a bunch of empirical studies needed to confirm it. But Darwin got it pretty much right at the outset. (No, not completely right, of course, but his theses of evolutionary change, gradualism rather than saltation, common ancestry, splitting of lineages, and natural selection as a cause of “designoid” features of organisms are still accepted as true.)
In short, I’d take Bret’s (and his brother Eric’s) claims that evolutionary biology is in the doldrums, and that some newer paradigm is needed, with a grain of salt.
Here you go:
Here’s a link to the 70-minute main part (part I) of the discussion, called “Religion: Useful fiction or ultimate truth?” I haven’t yet listened to it, but reader publius ovidus has, and comments: “Part 1 has [Weinstein] comparing scientists’ faith with religious faith. He says scientists operate on faith because they have to assume they are real and the materials they are working on are real.” If that’s what Bret said, it conflates “faith” as “confidence in replicated observations” (scientific “faith”) with religious “faith”: belief in propositions and events that aren’t supported by strong evidence (see my Slate piece, “No faith in science.“)
At any rate, I’d be delighted if any readers would listen to part I and put any comments below.
h/t: Nilou, publius ovidus