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.

More good books

February 26, 2009 • 7:57 am

by Greg Mayer

In an earlier post, Jerry called Janet Browne’s two-volume work the best of Darwin biographies, calling it “magisterial and engagingly written.”  I concur, and some of our readers have mentioned it approvingly in the comments.  But, at 1200 + pages, it may be a bit daunting as a starting place.  Let me offer two other starting places for the Darwin enthusiast.  Charles Darwin, by Tim BerraThe first is Charles Darwin: The Concise Story of an Extraordinary Man, by Tim Berra, an ichthyologist from Ohio State.  In this slim (144 pp.), well illustrated, volume Berra covers most of the highlights of Darwin’s life, work, and death, and includes a handy annotated list of Darwin’s books and chronology of his life.  There is a nice section of color plates (many by Berra himself of the Galapagos and Down House, Darwin’s home), including my favorite, a painting of 32 breeds of domestic pigeon, one of Darwin’s favored study animals. An afternoon’s read, it is a good place to start.

For a broader view of the science of evolution, but, like WEIT, aimed firmly at the general reader, I highly recommend The Discovery of Evolution, The Discovery of Evolution, by David Youngby David Young of the University of Melbourne. Richly illustrated with both color and line art from contemporary scientific publications, and covering a broad sweep of history, from John Ray and Francis Willughby in the 17th century through to the Modern Synthesis, with a quick tour of more recent developments, it is one of the finest books I’ve ever read not just on the history of the field, but on evolutionary biology itself.  It achieves this distinction by introducing and explicating, in chronological sequence, not just the ideas and historical figures, but the evidence on which the major discoveries of evolutionary biology are based.  It is refreshing and, indeed, exciting, to have these discoveries and attendant scientific debates addressed through the evidence adduced by the discoverers and debaters.  Thus, for example, the phenomenon of natural extinction,  which we today take for granted, is presented as the lively debate it was at the time, and we see it is resolved not by some textbook fiat (as too much of science education seems to be), but by careful anatomical, biogeographic, and geological research, with the great Georges Cuvier’s work on elephants, mammoths, and mastodons playing a major part in the resolution.  The entire book is replete with such examples, and is itself an edifying model of how science should be taught and learned: by direct consideration of the evidence.

WEIT and Darwin’s Sacred Cause reviewed in Washington Post

February 15, 2009 • 7:49 am

Yesterday’s Washington Post reviewed my book together with Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s new book, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution. An o.k. review for me, though the “too textbooky” comment stung a bit. More important, it described Desmond and Moore’s book in detail, and in a way that will make us all want to read it. Darwin’s Sacred Cause apparently rests on the authors’ thesis that Darwin’s writings on evolution, including The Origin, were part of a detailed plan to demolish slavery by proving the common ancestry of all races. This idea, which is certainly novel, is said to be supported by detailed scholarly research (those who have read the authors’ earlier biography of Darwin—and every Darwin fan should—know how thorough these authors are and how well they write). Clearly this is a must-read book for all of us.

A footnote:  although Desmond and Moore’s Darwin biography is great, I give the edge to Janet Browne’s two-volume work (link is to second volume) as the best among Darwin biographies. It is magisterial and engagingly written.