Pinker: The “evolution war” is also a culture war

June 30, 2022 • 12:30 pm

Yesterday I posted a long critique of a misguided article from the Guardian arguing that the modern theory of evolution is obsolete and needs to be replaced.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.

22 thoughts on “Pinker: The “evolution war” is also a culture war

  1. I think there is a culture war aspect to it, though that doesn’t mean that everyone who challenges Darwin is consciously being a culture warrior. I would add to what Pinker says that Progressives dislike the implication that we are not blank slates, moldable into perfect beings by the right policies (carrots and sticks).

  2. I recently looked into definitions of “culture war”, and there is for example this: “A culture war is a cultural conflict between social groups and the struggle for dominance of their values, beliefs, and practices. It commonly refers to topics on which there is general societal disagreement and polarization in societal values.” That was from Wikipedia, and similar descriptions can be found elsewhere. In a way, I’m finding the term to be so broad that one can claim any dispute between “camps” as being a culture war.

    1. The original Kulturkampf (from which our modern terminology is derived) took place in the 19th century between Bismarck and the Prussian government on one side and Pius IX and the RCC on the other.

      1. The Guardian like many other newspapers has pedigree in ‘culture wars’ articles. Over twenty years ago, it published a spate of articles by a freelance journalist, one Andrew Brown, which included commentary on biology filed in the Guardian’s science or environment sections. The Guardian also promoted his book, ‘The Darwin Wars : how stupid genes became selfish Gods’, including at least one long article based on this work.

        Brown’s science ‘qualifications’ in its dust jacket seemed to amount to being winner of the 1995 Templeton Prize ‘as the best religious affairs correspondent in Europe’.

        ‘Nature’ saw fit to review ‘the Darwin Wars’ in the issue on April Fool’s Day 1999, written by philosopher of science David Hull.

        Hull’s Nature review has a smashing opening paragraph : ‘Dust jackets are frequently adorned by quotations from famous people praising the book. The Darwin Wars is no exception. Pithy quotations from Steve Jones, Dawkins, Maynard Smith, Gould and Dan Dennett. Who could ask for more? However, on closer inspection these quotations turn out to be not about Brown’s book at all, but quotations that Brown uses in his book. Only Dennett’s blurb refers to one of Brown’s own publications : ‘what a sleazy bit of trash journalism’.’

  3. The study of phenotypic plasticity does not go back to the Baldwin effect (what is about learning) but to the reaction norm a concept introduced by R. Woltereck in 1909
    ( Woltereck R. (1909): Weitere experimentalle Untersuchungen über Artveränderung, speziell über das Wesen quantitativer Artenunterschiede bei Daphniden. Verhandlungen der Deutschen Zoologischen Gesellschaft, 1909:110-172. )
    Woltereck realized that the reaction to an environmental variable is specific to a genotype: not a fixed value, but the environmental sensitivity is what characterizes the genotype. So much so that the pre-molecular idea was “the genotype is the reaction norm”. Later, the phenotype over environments as the genotype was experimentally exhaustively detailed.
    In their 1998 book, Phenotypic Evolution: a reaction norm perspective, Carl Schlichting and Massimo Pigliucci, subscribe to this traditional view.

  4. I am (slightly) hesitant to make stylistic recommendations to Steven Pinker, rather as I would hesitate to give tennis advice to Andy Murray, but I wish he would put scare quotes around “right-thinking” to make sure any random reader would know it was…sarcastic, so to speak, like “scientific revolutions”. It’s not really important, of course.

    However, I cannot see the term “right-thinking” without reflexively regurgitating the following Monty Python quote: “I think all right-thinking people in this country are sick and tired of being told that ordinary, decent people are fed up in this country with being sick and tired. I’m certainly not! And I’m sick and tired of being told that I am.”

  5. Today’s call for a replacement of the Modern Synthesis *may* be an aspect of a culture war, but I’m not so willing to accept that yet. I, too, remember Roger Lewin’s 1980 piece (but not in detail) and, as a student of Gould, was excited to be in a place that was getting a lot of attention. I don’t remember what Steve (Gould) thought of the Lewin article, but the graduate students knew about it and discussed it. (Yes, all the stuff about spandrels and macromutations muddied the waters badly, IMHO.)

    In October of 1980 I attended a conference on macroevolution in Chicago (maybe you were there, too, Jerry) and the acrimony I saw there *seemed* fitting of a culture war. The debate raged on for a number of years after that—essentially until Gould died and was no longer writing—but at the end of the day, empirical biology won out. The evolutionary stasis that Eldredge and Gould placed at the heart of punctuated equilibrium did not need a new evolutionary synthesis, nor did the rapid (in a geological sense) change that the theory promoted. Eventually (for the most part and to my satisfaction), the main themes of the modern synthesis—that mutation and natural selection are largely responsible for adaptation and that the several known mechanisms of speciation (the splitting of lineages) are adequate to explain most biological diversity—won out. There might have been an incipient culture war, but it seems to me that the war was limited mostly to biology and, to some extent, to philosophers of science. There was a great deal of public interest in the whole matter—which surprised me at the time—but again if we lived through a culture war, I was perhaps too naive to know what was at stake. To me, it was largely a battle within biology.

    Of course this does not mean that Steven Pinker is wrong about the current debate, which may indeed be part of a culture war. But just as the 1980’s battle for the center of evolutionary biology ended largely through the empirical and theoretical work of biologists, the same may hold true here—given enough time. But, only time will tell.

  6. I have yet to see a convincing reason for why the title of Modern Synthesis should give way to Extended Evolutionary Synthesis. All the claimed new features for EES are in fact enclosed within genetics, and so have already been “eaten” by the MS. But is it still possible that the EES proponents will eventually win? It could boil down to a mundanity like differences in fecundity and rates of retirement.

    1. “It could boil down to a mundanity like differences in fecundity and rates of retirement.”

      That would be like natural selection, ironically enough.

  7. I think there is a culture war being fought on all fronts, including science, with no holds barred. The right wing is aiming for a white Christian America. Its values include the demolition of the line between church and state. The left wing wants a society where equity is more important than anything else. Thus, it claims that racism is everywhere and the concept of meritocracy is designed to maintain white dominance. In this battle there is an undercurrent that deserves much more attention. The business elite, although supposedly pledged to support equity, is quite happy that the politicos in the Republican Party are overjoyed to support policies that promote business interests. Business must be overjoyed with the current Supreme Court. Just today the Court severely limited the ability of the EPA to regulate toxic emissions.

    So, there is an unholy alliance between the right-wing masses, most of whom genuinely believe in or at least don’t get riled up about the far right social policies implemented by right wing state legislatures and the Supreme Court. They don’t care about or understand the right wing economic policies that are degrading their lives. Simultaneously, the left and center seem more and more impotent to counter this right wing alliance. There are least three reasons for this: the undemocratic aspects of the American political system that we are all aware of, the right wing’s superior ability to propagandize their views so much better than the left and center, and the foolishness of the left to allow itself to be associated with identity politics (even though white nationalists probably compose the biggest identity group at all).

    All this means is that the country is being transformed by a minority of the citizenry into a laissez-faire theocracy and fake democracy with the Supreme Court leading the way. The Court has only begun to dismantle American society as it has been known for at least the past 50 years. Such a situation will result ultimately in an explosion with unknown results. There doesn’t seem a way to avoid this.

    1. They [the masses] don’t care about or understand the right wing economic policies that are degrading their lives.

      I blame this at least in part on the decline of collective bargaining. Labor unions used to fill an educational and consciousness-raising function for wage workers.

  8. The Guardian is such a joke, a woke neurotic illness of a paper for highly anxious Champaign socialists. It is the NY Post of the left.

  9. There is definitely a culture war aspect to some of this debate.

    You can see it on The Third Way Site run by Denis Noble, James Shapiro, Eva Jablonka Evelyn Fox Keller and others. Whenever I read there articles or hear their talks I’m reminded more of preachers than scientists.

  10. Pinker: The “evolution war” is also a culture war

    Well, from the PoV of someone buried in American culture, it is. Outside ‘Murca, it is very definitely a “religion” vs science war. Now if you take them as two distinct cultures, that may be true. Outside., “religion” is considered as a mass delusion propagated by child abuse (largely performed by parents upon their children). If you see religion in that light, well, it’s a disease, not a culture.
    How did Petri put it? “When I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my Pasteur Flask. There’s got to be a better way to do this.”

  11. Doug Futuyma by way of a Carl Zimmer article said it best:

    If the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis was so superfluous, then why was it gaining enough attention to warrant a meeting at the Royal Society? Futuyma suggested that its appeal was emotional rather than scientific. It made life an active force rather than the passive vehicle of mutations.

    “I think what we find emotionally or aesthetically more appealing is not the basis for science,” Futuyma said.

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