Dick Lewontin reviews Brown, Gibson, Darwin, and Coyne in the NYRB

May 8, 2009 • 11:00 am

Richard Lewontin (who, I confess, was my Ph.D. advisor at Harvard) reviewed WEIT and three other books in the latest New York Review of Books (Janet Browne’s Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography, James Costa’s The Annotated Origin,  Greg Gibson’s  It Takes a Genome: How a Clash between Our Genes and Modern Life is Making Us Sick.)

As usual, Dick’s intellectual energy (and immense knowledge) takes him far beyond the bounds of the books under review. He traces Darwin and Wallace’s theory back to the socioeconomic climate of Victorian England, explores the hagiography of Darwin, and takes on the hegeomony of selection (this harkens back to his and Steve Gould’s famous –and explicitly antiselectionist — paper, The Spandrels of San Marco).  He does disagree somewhat with how I dealt with selection in WEIT:

The scientific community has the definite sense of being embattled and one of its responses is to use the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of its apostle of truth about the material basis of evolution and the 150th anniversary of the appearance of his gospel to carry on the struggle against obscurantism. Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True is intended as a weapon in that struggle.

Coyne is an evolutionary biologist who, like his former student H. Allen Orr, has been a leader in our understanding of the genetic changes that occur when species are formed. His primary object in writing this book is to present the incontrovertible evidence that evolution is a physical fact of the history of life on earth. In referring to the theory of evolution he makes it clear that we do not mean the weak sense of “theory,” an ingenious tentative mental construct that might or might not be objectively true, but the strong sense of a coherent set of true assertions about physical reality. In this he is entirely successful.

Where he is less successful, as all other commentators have been, is in his insistence that the evidence for natural selection as the driving force of evolution is of the same inferential strength as the evidence that evolution has occurred. So, for example, he gives the game away by writing that when we examine a sequence of changes in the fossil record, we can “determine whether the sequences of changes at least conform to a step-by-step adaptive process. And in every case, we can find at least a feasible Darwinian explanation.”But to say that some example is not falsification of a theory because we can always “find” (invent) a feasible explanation says more about the flexibility of the theory and the ingenuity of its supporters than it says about physical nature. Indeed in his later discussion of theories of behavioral evolution he becomes appropriately skeptical when he writes that “imaginative reconstructions of how things might have evolved are not science; they are stories.”  While this is a perfectly good argument against those who claim that there are things that are so complex that evolutionary biology cannot explain them, it allows evolutionary “theory” to fall back into the category of being reasonable but not an incontrovertible material fact.

There is, of course, nothing that Coyne can do about the situation. There are different modes of “knowing,” and we “know” that evolution has, in fact, occurred in a stronger sense than we “know” that some sequence of evolutionary change has been the result of natural selection. Despite these misgivings, it is the case that Coyne’s book is the best general explication of evolution that I know of and deserves its success as a best seller.

I have to say that Dick has indeed hit on a tricky issue in compiling the evidence for evolution.  While natural selection is the only reasonable explanation for the evolution of adaptations, we cannot in most cases do more than adduce its plausibility.  Direct demonstrations are rare (note to creationists: this is only because they’re HARD TO DO, so don’t take this out of context), and demonstrations in the past nearly impossible.  And I should have talked more about this in WEIT (although we have discussed it on this website).  But I can’t help but sense Dick’s own anti-selectionist views here:  views that may stem from seeing others support preconceived biases by invoking soft adaptationism , and views that were of course instrumental in Lewontin and Gould’s battle against sociobiology in the 1970s.   When I was at Harvard with Dick and Steve, it was almost as though selection was a forbidden topic — just once I would have liked either of them to have admitted openly, “Yes, of course selection is the only plausible explanation for adaptations.”  In their fight against unthinking adaptationism, they nearly threw the baby out with the bathwater.

Nevertheless, Dick has a point.  But I’m glad he that he seems to have liked the book.  As one friend wrote me today:

An interesting piece.  Lewontin certainly can’t be accused of lobbing his old student a batting-practice pitch!  Even so, I see that he was careful to supply a line that would serve perfectly in an ad: “Coyne’s book is the best general explication of evolution that I know of and deserves its success as a best seller.”

Oh, and for those who didn’t see this before, Dick turned 80 this year.