Yesterday I posted a long critique of a misguided article from the Guardian arguing that the modern theory of evolution is obsolete and needs to be replaced. One of my comments is that the article seemed say that the claim that evolution needs to be expanded by incorporating phenomena like epigenetics, niche construction, and plasticity has created a “culture war”. They quote Massimo Pigliucci to this effect, and let me reprise my denial of that:
e.) The scientific debate about the ambit of evolutionary biology is a “culture war.” This bit really got my knickers in a twist:
To release biology from the legacy of the modern synthesis, explains Massimo Pigliucci, a former professor of evolution at Stony Brook University in New York, you need a range of tactics to spark a reckoning: “Persuasion, students taking up these ideas, funding, professorial positions.” You need hearts as well as minds. During a Q&A with Pigliucci at a conference in 2017, one audience member commented that the disagreement between EES proponents and more conservative biologists sometimes looked more like a culture war than a scientific disagreement. According to one attender, “Pigliucci basically said: ‘Sure, it’s a culture war, and we’re going to win it,’ and half the room burst out cheering.”
Bad call, Massimo! No, it’s not a culture war, even if sometimes scientists get heated and use terms like “evolution by jerks” to characterize advocates of punctuated equilibrium. The debate was conducted, and largely settled, by scientific argument that didn’t include that kind of acrimony. It is simply a debate about what mechanisms are important in evolution. My own view is that yes, the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis includes stuff that we didn’t even dream of 80 years ago (the “neutral theory” is one), but there is simply no reason to pronounce neo-Darwinism obsolete. “Expansion” is an okay word, but saying that “we need a new theory of evolution” is both ignorant and hyperbolic.
Steve Pinker read my piece and seemed to like it, but he did disagree with me on the “culture war” issue. In fact, he thinks the “expansionists” versus “we-don’t-need-to-trash-evolution” conflict is indeed a culture war. He gave me permission to quote his take on this. I’ve bolded his disagreement with me, and I have to say, the guy can think! And he has a great memory; I didn’t even remember that Lewin piece, much less where and when it was published!
Pinker (bolding is mine, and I’ve added links):
Fascinating that this [the Guardian article] is almost an exact Groundhog Day of Roger Lewin’s 1980 Science article inspired by Gould’s punctuated equilibrium (which he disingenuously associated with macromutations), species selection, and spandrelism.
I suspect that this is a culture war. Left-wing intellectual elites can’t stand the aroma of Darwinism, with its apparent glorification of competition, functional utility, and inheritance. They’re too respectful of science to go the creationist or ID route, so they probe for loopholes that seem to allow for more agency and creativity. It’s all what Richard [Dawkins] called “poetic science” and what I call “science schmaltz.” That’s why this spectacle of twisting codicils and asterisks into “scientific revolutions” periodically gets played out in NYRB, the Guardian, and other right-thinking publications.
The role of plasticity and genetic assimilation goes back more than a century to the “Baldwin effect,” interestingly simulated a while back by Geoff Hinton of deep learning fame, noted in a Nature commentary by Maynard Smith.
I responded to Steve by saying that yes, it may well be a culture war, but a scientist like Pigliucci shouldn’t couch a scientific dispute in such terms, as it devalues the empirical issues at stake. But Steve’s probably right, as usual!
Steve added this in a subsequent email, and I will forward the papers to anyone who asks for them (but you gotta read ’em if you ask):
BTW the Hinton-Nowlan simulation of the Baldwin effect is, I think, a beautiful little evolutionary model. (I’ve attached it, together with Maynard Smith’s commentary). Needless to say it falls squarely within the modern synthesis—no revolution needed, thanks.