Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Learning About Evolutionary Theory

 
There seems to be a bit of a trend over on ScienceBlogsTM. First Razib decides that it's finally time to read The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, then John Lynch figures he should too. And now Laelaps gets into the act.

I have long maintained that you can't have a serious discussion about evolutionary theory until you've read Gould's tome. You don't have to agree with him but at the very least you have to understand the arguments and there's no better way to do it than by reading all 1432 pages. Take lots of notes. Write in the margins. Use a highlighter.

There are several things you need to get out of this book. First, Charles Darwin Was a Gradualist. Second, try to understand punctuated equilibria. Don't just assume that you know what it is. Listen to Gould explain it in his own words. An open mind helps. Third, understand what Gould means when he talks about hierarchical theory. Fourth, pay attention to the description of species sorting. Don't read your own biases into the concept.

Enjoy. It's worth the effort.


Warning: The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is written at a very high level. It's not for high school students. If the language and style turns you off then maybe it's not for you. Try Dawkins or Dennett. Their version of evolutionary theory can be understood by 5th graders.

27 comments :

  1. Where can I get an audio version?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I refuse to follow the crowd. I am not going to [re]read the Brick. Besides, it's keeping the office door open right now.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Yes. Reading the whole thing was hard work. It required self-discipline and quite a lot of time. But I assumed this is not something I would read several times so I really paid attention to every sentence and paragraph and I really enjoyed it (even those points I disagreed with) and found the experience very valuable. It is an important work and it should be read carefully by everyone interested in evolutionary theory.

    I found it more enlightening to read it as a proscription for the project for the 21st century research (i.e., what we don't know but should study) than as description of what we know now.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I have long maintained that you can't have a serious discussion about evolutionary theory until you've read Gould's tome.

    LOL. we'll see.

    ReplyDelete
  5. If the language and style turns you off then maybe it's not for you. Try Dawkins or Dennett.

    illustrative that you point to two people who are primarily (in dennett's case exclusively) popularizers of science as comparisons. perhaps that shows the level at which gould thought, huh? ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks for the tips Larry (and Bora). I initially picked up the book when I knew practically nothing about evolution, Gould, the history of evolution as an idea, etc. about 2 years ago and I just couldn't handle it. Unfortunately I couldn't devote as much time as I would have liked to it tonight (my attentions were on a human osteology lecture instead), but I am definitely getting more out of it the 2nd time around. Plus, the physical benefits aren't that bad; I'm sure my physique will improve as I lug the tome around campus to read between classes.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I've considered buying it but up until now I've been put off by the reports that it read, unfortunately, like a first draft and really needed to be edited into a more readable tome. Is that an accurate portrayal of this book?

    ReplyDelete
  8. illustrative that you point to two people who are primarily (in dennett's case exclusively) popularizers of science as comparisons. perhaps that shows the level at which gould thought, huh?

    Hmm...Gould wrote lots of popular science books, too. I'm sorry, but his style is awful. Using more words, more complicated words, and more convoluted constructions does not necessarily mark you as the greater thinker.

    ReplyDelete
  9. When I started reading it several years ago the literary style was definitely off putting.

    I will probably reattack it at some stage. Especially so that I can get a better idea of this whole punctuated equilibria business.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Gould was a great writer and a great man, but I still wouldn't trust only his account of intellectual history, particularly regarding the place of PE in evolutionary theory and the mostly pointless discussion of Darwin's gradualism (which is especially silly given that the views Gould was arguing against were just as modern and beyond Darwin's level of understanding as Gould's ideas).

    ReplyDelete
  11. Where can I get an audio version?
    I sure hope it's mp3-encoded and not raw CD audio... you could get an even worse hernia from carrying that many CDs than from the book.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Try Dawkins or Dennett. Their version of evolutionary theory can be understood by 5th graders.
    I'm sure you're just trying to be provocative here, but (IMO) you just come off as a dick. I know you hate Dennett because he dared to criticize your hero (Gould, Praised Be His Name), but people who haven't read DDI should be forewarned that a lot of it is pretty difficult reading, agree with him or not. As for Dawkins, as far as I know The Extended Phenotype is not used in many elementary schools.
    But what's the point...this is your blog, you can say what you want, but it's statements like that one that keep me from reading you much any more. Which is kind of too bad, since I used to learn & relearn some interesting biochemistry here.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I'm a senior Zoology student at U of T, and I think Gould has maybe been mentioned ONCE in my four years of classes (and I've taken every course I can with the world "evolution" in the title). Can anyone sum up why Gould is important/hated? Is this book worth reading for someone who is serious about entering the field of evolutionary biology?

    ReplyDelete
  14. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is written at a very high level. It's not for high school students.

    I read this book when I was in high school and just learning about evolution, but I certainly got more out of it the second time around.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Kieran that is a very good question. I also barely heard Gould's name mentioned during my evolution courses.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I don't think Gould was ever mentioned in my biology class when we were taught about the evolutionary theory. (11th grade)

    ReplyDelete
  17. Kieran says,

    I'm a senior Zoology student at U of T, and I think Gould has maybe been mentioned ONCE in my four years of classes (and I've taken every course I can with the world "evolution" in the title).

    That's a really serious problem and I'm hoping to do something about it.

    It means you have never learned about hierarchical theory. It means you have never discussed adaptationism and the Spandrels paper in any of your classes. It means you know nothing about punctuated equilibria. It means you probably have no idea about species sorting. It means you never had a serious discussion about evolution and developmental biology because you haven't read Ontogeny and Phylogeny. It means you don't know much about speciation. And it almost certainly means you you've never debated the concept of contingency or the problem of diversity in the fossil record.

    That's really, really sad.

    Oh yes, I almost forgot. You probably don't know very much about the illusion of progress and why it's an illusion.

    Oops, one more thing. We're discussing hopeful monsters and saltations on various blogs. You can't really participate in those discussions if you haven't read Gould's essays.

    Is this book worth reading for someone who is serious about entering the field of evolutionary biology?

    Like they say, .... if you have to ask the question ...

    Kieran, what books have you discussed in your classes? I know some of your Profs so I can guess that The Selfish Gene was on the reading list. What else? Sociobiology?

    You've probably spent a lot of time learning about evolutionary psychology and similar pseudoscientific babble right? Gould has something to say about that subject. Aren't you even the least bit curious?

    Gould and his allies represent one side of a serious controversy in evolutionary biology. It doesn't matter which side you come down on but it matters a great deal that you can graduate with many evolution courses under your belt and be completely unaware that there even is a controversy. That's a travesty and your Professors need to be taken to task for not educating you properly.

    ReplyDelete
  18. sven dimilo says,

    I'm sure you're just trying to be provocative here, but (IMO) you just come off as a dick. I know you hate Dennett because he dared to criticize your hero (Gould, Praised Be His Name) ...

    That's just one of the reasons. If you're going to do a hatchet job on a scientist then you should at least get some of the things right. Accusing Gould of having a secret religious agenda is not helpful.

    The real reason for disliking the philosopher Daniel Dennett is that he doesn't understand evolution. It's not for nothing that he's called "Dawkins' lapdog."

    ReplyDelete
  19. Can anyone sum up why Gould is important/hated?

    He's disliked because his essays/books were extremely popular among laypeople but were dismissive of or hostile to mainstream evolutionary biology. His tendency to overstate his influence within said field probably didn't help. He's liked because some people find that hostility warranted, and think his criticisms still haven't been taken to heart.

    Neither Gould, Dawkins, or Dennett should really be part of a course on evolution (except perhaps the selfish gene, because it's an excellent condensation of some primary research and was hugely influential, and the spandrels paper because everyone cites it). Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course: the only reason some of us decided to look more into biology is because of populizers.

    don't mind Dr. Moran's hyperbole--read gould if you like, but if you've got time to kill and are interesting in truly classic work, i'd recommend trivers instead.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Kieran, what books have you discussed in your classes? I know some of your Profs so I can guess that The Selfish Gene was on the reading list. What else? Sociobiology?

    This may or may not shock you, but I don't think I've ever had a biology class with a reading list (besides research articles and textbooks, naturally)! That is, I can safely say that I've never been assigned to read a particular book in any of my biology classes. Is that unusual?

    Perhaps there is need for a new course, "Readings in Evolutionary Biology"?

    You've probably spent a lot of time learning about evolutionary psychology and similar pseudoscientific babble right? Gould has something to say about that subject. Aren't you even the least bit curious?

    Indeed. However, this has certainly piqued my interested in Gould.

    It doesn't matter which side you come down on but it matters a great deal that you can graduate with many evolution courses under your belt and be completely unaware that there even is a controversy.

    To be fair, I haven't taken every evolutionary biology class at U of T (I have a soft-spot for the taxonomic disciplines) and my ignorance could be a chance event.

    That's a travesty and your Professors need to be taken to task for not educating you properly.

    I agree, but I am now regretting using my real name. Goodbye, reference letters!

    ReplyDelete
  21. kieran, who is probably writing under an assumed name :-), says,

    That's a travesty and your Professors need to be taken to task for not educating you properly.

    I agree, but I am now regretting using my real name. Goodbye, reference letters!


    I realize your comment wasn't mean to be taken seriously but for the benefit of lurkers I'd like to mention that this is a common fallacy.

    Most Professors love it when their students disagree with them provided they can back up their case. It's simply not true that Professors are out to punish students who dare to disagree. That's completely contrary to what a university is all about. We didn't get into academia because we want to behave like the shift manager at McDonald's or a Vice President at WalMart.

    ReplyDelete
  22. p-ter says,

    Neither Gould, Dawkins, or Dennett should really be part of a course on evolution (except perhaps the selfish gene, because it's an excellent condensation of some primary research and was hugely influential, and the spandrels paper because everyone cites it). Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course: the only reason some of us decided to look more into biology is because of populizers.

    We all have our biases. Yours are just as obvious as mine.

    You can say what you want about Gould but I think it's a little disingenuous to ignore punctuated equilibria.

    Just for fun, I looked up the reference list in Douglas Futuyma's latest textbook Evolution (the short version). As I'm sure you know, Futuyma doesn't fall into either camp so he's about as close to an unbiased opinion as we're ever going to get. His book is the most popular textbook on evolution, by far.

    There are 11 references to work by Stephen Jay Gould including five that were published in scientific journals. There are three references to Dawkins of which one is in a scientific journal. There is one reference to Dennet (Dawrin's Dangerous Idea).

    ReplyDelete
  23. Much as I would like to agree that students be aware of controversies in evolutionary biology, I agree to the fact( as does p-ter) that Gould, Dawkins & Dennett be kept out of conventional class room teachings simply because yes - they still are the "popularisers". You can pique your interest in Evolutionary biology from them but I doubt you can continue any serious research in graduate school reading them. They indeed give you a feel for the subject & is very important know where people cannot agree but they help less if you choose evolutionary biology as a professional career. I can't deny that I myself was attracted to evolutionary bio reading Dawkins & Gould, but none of my teachers ever asked me to read it as a part of class ( except ofcourse The Selfish gene). And these same teachers did not hesitate to lend me their copies of the books when asked "out of" class.

    Read the classics by all means, but I guess it is not fair to blame your teachers for not mentioning them to you in class.
    And if I may suggest Prof Moran, since Kieran, you & myself are talking about the same institution we are a part of & all three of us care about it - if interested, why don't we open a club for reading worthwhile popular books on evolution by ourselves. Informal clubs are exactly meant for these things not taught in class.

    BTW Kieran - I am also interested to know which U of T course spends a "lot of time" teaching you evolutionary psychology & pseudoscientific gabble. While Dr. Moran is upset, under the same breath, p-ter recommends you to read Trivers.

    Aren't we confusing a kid here?

    This should give you the answer - the classics that we are talking about have provided the raw materials for controversy. You would not understand the controversy until you read both of them.

    ReplyDelete
  24. oliveoyl says,

    Much as I would like to agree that students be aware of controversies in evolutionary biology, I agree to the fact( as does p-ter) that Gould, Dawkins & Dennett be kept out of conventional class room teachings simply because yes - they still are the "popularisers". You can pique your interest in Evolutionary biology from them but I doubt you can continue any serious research in graduate school reading them.

    I think you're wrong to dismiss Dawkins and Gould as mere "popularisers" who haven't made a serious contribution to evolutionary theory.

    I think you're wrong if you claim that you can be a successful graduate student in evolutionary biology without understanding the selfish gene, the extended phenotype, the concept of progress, punctuated equilibria, species sorting, adaptationism vs pluralism, arms races, contingency and a host of other things that both Gould and Dawkins have written about.

    I think we shouldn't dismiss books as legitimate contributions to science just because you can buy them in our local bookstore. After all, that's where you would have gone to buy Origin of Species in 1859.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Accusing Gould of having a secret religious agenda is not helpful.
    I do agree that that conclusion was way over the top.

    ReplyDelete
  26. I am also interested to know which U of T course spends a "lot of time" teaching you evolutionary psychology & pseudoscientific gabble. While Dr. Moran is upset, under the same breath, p-ter recommends you to read Trivers.

    wait, are you suggesting trivers is pseudoscientific gabble? some evo-psych surely was, but trivers's work in the 70s was effing brilliant.

    I have nothing against gould, by the way--I enjoyed some of his essays back in the day.

    ReplyDelete
  27. I think you're wrong to dismiss Dawkins and Gould as mere "popularisers" who haven't made a serious contribution to evolutionary theory

    I consider myself too trivial & light years away to dismiss such great scientists & science communicators. I merely stated the reason as to why I think one does not go through an entire semester of class room teaching evolutionary theory based on their writings.

    I think you're wrong if you claim that you can be a successful graduate student in evolutionary biology without understanding the selfish gene, the extended phenotype, the concept of progress, punctuated equilibria, species sorting, adaptationism vs pluralism, arms races, contingency and a host of other things that both Gould and Dawkins have written about

    No doubt you should have an understanding of these. At the same time, even if one understands these, one might still not be proficient to add up simple alleles together to get how exactly evolutionary change occur at the population level or get the basic genetics behind evolutionary logic. This is what students are taught in class, so that they go and read Dawkins/Gould to make sense of them, to get the bigger picture. That's what I meant by all means to read the classics "outside" class. I never said not to read them.

    As I stated earlier, I was drawn to taking up evolutionary biology primarily through their writings, so I cannot dare understate their importance in my career but at the same time I hold nothing against my teachers for not mentioning them in class. I read them out of my own interest. I thought that my last comment in this thread began with that argument.

    wait, are you suggesting trivers is pseudoscientific gabble? some evo-psych surely was, but trivers's work in the 70s was effing brilliant.

    Ofcourse p-ter, I meant the evo-psych one but let's just ask whom others think as pseudoscientific garble, for someone :-) thinks both are similar. I was just too amused by your comment to Kieran to start off with Trivers right after someone had just dismissed evo-psych earlier. I couldn't help writing that. :-) For all I know, Trivers himself doesn't mind calling him an evolutionary pscychologist or a sociobiologist for that matter.
    Let's just say, I am defending a close friend here, and that friend happens to be someone by the name of Robert Trivers. And that the last sentence is a very personal one! No pseudo-science here. Or as my friend would have said " No self-deception" here. Am happy that someone brought him up in this discussion of Gould. Knowing his sense of humour, even Trivers' would have been amused.

    I repeat once again, I consider myself too trivial & not even wee bit of a biologist to dismiss anybody, particularly when it concerns people who inspired me to be here in the first place. I have enjoyed reading them.

    ReplyDelete