I've been trying to avoid the discussion of Dawkins vs Gould until the results of the poll are in (see left-hand margin). Those of you who voted for Dawkins will need some major reorientation to bring you into the 21st century. My task is enormous. (I know who you are!)
But since I brought up Daniel Dennett in reference to the aquatic ape just-so story [Aquatic Ape Speculation], I couldn't resist quoting him from Darwin's Dangerous Idea. After outlining the main points in favor of the speculation Dennett says,
The details—and there are many, many more—are so ingenious, and the whole aquatic-ape theory is so shockingly antiestablishment, that I for one would love to see it vindicated. That does not make it true, of course.We all love an underdog but this is going too far. The fact that Dennett can't see what's wrong with the aquatic ape speculation suggests that his understanding of evolution and how it works is vastly overrated. He then goes on to prove it.
The fact that its principal exponent these days is not only a woman, Elaine Morgan, but an amateur, a science writer without proper official credentials in spite of her substantial researches, makes the prospect of vindication all the more enticing. The establishment has responded quite ferociously to her challenges, mostly treating them as beneath notice, but occasionally subjecting them to withering rebuttal. ... I have often asked them just to tell me, please, exactly why Elaine Morgan must be wrong about the aquatic-ape theory. I haven't yet had a reply worth mentioning, aside from those who admit, with a twinkle in their eyes, that they have often wondered the same thing.
My point in bringing up the aquatic-ape theory is not to defend it against the establishment view, but to use it as an illustration of a deeper worry. Many biologists would like to say, "A pox on both your houses!" Morgan deftly exposes the hand-waving and wishful thinking that have gone into the establishment tale about how—and why—Homeo sapiens developed bipedalism, sweating, and hairlessness on the savanna, not the seashore. Their stories may not be literally as fishy as hers, but some of them are every bit as speculative, and (I venture to say) no better confirmed. What they have going for them, so far as I can see, is that they occupied the high ground in the textbooks before Hardy and Morgan tried to dislodge them. Both sides are indulging in adaptationist Just So Stories and since some story or other must be true, we must not conclude that we have found the story just because we have come up with a story that seems to fit the facts. To the extent that adaptationists have been less than energetic in seeking further confirmation (or the dreaded disconfirmation) of their stories, this is certainly an excess that deserves criticism. [my emphasis in red—LAM]This is classic adaptationist thinking. It assumes, without evidence, that there must be an adaptationist explanation for every feature. Hairlessness, for example, must be explained by some sort of just-so story involving running on the savanna or wading by the seashore. All the stories seem silly—including the aquatic ape speculation—but since one of the stories must be true we shouldn't reject it just because it makes no sense. There's no room for a non-adaptationist explanation in such a worldview.
Let's see how a pluralist might approach this problem.
For many reasons, ranging from the probable neutrality of much genetic variation to the nonadaptive nature of many evolutionary trends, this strict construction [adaptationism] is breaking down, and themes of unity are receiving renewed attention. ... One old and promising theme emphasizes the correlated effects of changes n the timing of events in embryonic development. A small change in timing, perhaps the result of a minor genetic modification, may have profound effects on a suite of adult characters if the change occurs early in embryology and its effects accumulate thereafter.If you are a Dawkins/Dennett adaptationist then your explanations are confined to the sorts of adaptationist just-so stories promoted by the likes of Elaine Morgan. If you are a pluralist like Gould, you have more choices. Some of the pluralist nonadaptationist explanations might be right. In this case I think Gould is more likely to be right about the evolution of hairlessness. Unfortunately, Dennet and his ilk can't imagine such explanations because it doesn't fit with their idea of how evolution works.
The theory of human neoteny, often discussed in my essays (see my disquisition on Mickey Mouse in The Panda's Thumb), is an expression of this theme. It holds that a slowdown in maturation and rates of development has led to the expression in adult humans of many features generally found in embryos or juvenile stages of other primates. Not all these features need be viewed as direct adaptations built by natural selection. Many, like the "embryonic" distribution of body hair on heads, armpits, and pubic regions, or the preservation of an embryonic membrane, the hymen, through puberty, may be nonadaptive consequences of a basic neoteny that is adaptive for other reasons—the value of slow maturation in a learning animal, for example.
Stephen Jay Gould in How the Zebra Gets Its Stripes