Monday, February 13, 2006

Eldredge in VQR

Virginia Quarterly Review will be devoting an upcoming issue to the evolution and ID. Niles Eldredge has contributed this lengthy essay to the issue.

Much of the essay deals with Edlredge's involvement with the American Museum of Natural History's Darwin exhibit. But the essay also includes this interesting paragraph:

I take being called anti-Darwinian very personally. It has always hurt, for I have always thought of myself as more or less a knee-jerk neo-Darwinian, someone who thinks the basic mechanism underlying evolutionary change, including the origin, modification, and maintenance of adaptations, resides squarely in the domain of natural selection. And I have always felt that, with one or two major exceptions, my version of how the evolutionary process works lines up very well with Darwin’s. Take natural selection, for example: I see natural selection just as Darwin originally did—as the statistical effect that relative success in the economic sphere (obtaining energy resources, warding off predators and disease, etc.) has on an organism’s success in reproducing. This conservative view contrasts strongly with the modern tendency to see natural selection as a matter of competition among genes to leave copies of themselves to the next generation—a position I take to be hopelessly teleological, obfuscating the real interactive dynamics of economic and reproductive organismic behavior driving the evolutionary process.

The first part of this paragraph is yet another useful reminder that punctuated equilibrium, created by Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, has nothing to do with whether natural selection can craft complex adaptations.

But the remainder of the paragraph is bizarre. The view of natural selection as a statistical effect produced by competition among organisms does not contrast sharply with the gene's eye view of things. In reality, they are just two sides of the same coin, just like the classical view and the statistical mechanical view are two different ways of understanding the phenomena of thermodynamics. Dawkins, who is the primary defender of the gene-centric view, made this perfectly clear in the first chapter of The Extended Phenotype. There he describes the idea that evolution should be viewed as competition among genes as merely one way of looking at evolution, not as the sole correct way to understand biological phenomena.

Thus, the statistical effect produced by competing organisms in the economic sphere is simply reflected in certain genes increasing or decreasing their representation in the population. And certain complex biological problems, especially in ethology, are just easier to understand if you take the gene-centric view. So I think Eldredge is wrong in his characterization of natural selection.

Eldredge's essay is well worth reading, but I must confess to one other small frustration. It seems that every time journal editors decide to wade in to this issue they keep going to the same people. I'll read anything Eldredge writes, but the fact remians that much of this essay is recycled from his past writing. I notice that Michael Ruse, who has been on auto-pilot for quite some time, will also be contributing an essay.

But somehow arguments over punctuated equilibria or selfish genes seem so late twentieth century. Surely there are other angles to this issue that can be mined. For example, how about an essay or two about the role that blogging plays in disseminating information on this subject? Why not get someone like P.Z. Myers to do an article on current issues in evolution? Instead of yet another biographical sketch about Darwin, why not an article about the ways Darwin's writing continues to be relevant to current research. I'll look forward to reading the entire issue of VQR when it comes out, but it also seems like an opportunity missed.


At 12:49 PM, Blogger cecillia said...

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