Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Jerry Coyne on Darwinism

Jerry Coyne is an adaptationist. Thus, it comes as no great surprise that he is comfortable with equating evolutionary biology and Darwinism. Here's what he writes in defense of Carl Safina's New York Times article [Darwinism must die????].
Well, how much confusion has really been caused by using the term “Darwinism”? How many people have been made to think that we biologists adhere to an ideology rather than a strongly supported theory?
That's a tough question. I'd estimate it at about 3 billion but I could be off by a factor of two.
Would creationism and its country cousin, intelligent design, suddenly vanish if we started using the terms “modern evolutionary theory” (ugh!) or the insidious-sounding “neoDarwinism”? I don’t think so.
Nope. The problem isn't so much how the IDiots interpret the term "Darwinism," it's how the average evolution supporter interprets it. The average person seems to be completely unaware of the fact that natural selection doesn't explain everything about common descent. They are surprised to learn that many modern scientist are not adaptationists or confirmed traditional Darwinists.
“Darwinism” is a compact, four-syllable term for “modern evolutionary theory,” which is ten syllables long.
No it is not. Nobody in their right mind would claim that random genetic drift—the dominant mechanism of evolution—is Darwinian. Nobody in their right mind would suggest that it is just a slight modification of natural selection.

Today we know that new beneficial mutations have only a slight chance of becoming fixed in a population. We know that deleterious mutations can become fixed. And we know that a large percentage of mutations are completely invisible to natural selection but they can, nevertheless, become fixed.

Ryan Gregory made the same point in his posting: Jerry Coyne on Darwinism. So did Eugenie C. Scott and Glenn Branch in Don't Call it "Darwinism".

Jerry Coyne is not stupid. He's well aware of the fact that Darwin didn't know everything. But according to Coyne, the expansion of evolutionary theory hasn't amounted to anything more than simple "refinement" and the term "Darwinism" still encompasses the essence of modern evolutionary theory.

Apparently Coyne has an article about to appear in Current Biology where he says ....
Still, these advances amount to refinements of Darwinism rather than its Kuhnian overthrow. Evolutionary biology hasn’t suffered the equivalent of quantum mechanics. But some biologists, chafing in their Darwinian straitjacket, periodically announce new worldviews that, they claim, will overturn our view of evolution, or at least force its drastic revision. During my career I have heard this said about punctuated equilibrium, molecular drive, the idea of symbiosis as an evolutionary force, evo-devo, and the notion that evolution is driven by the self-organization of molecules. Some of these ideas are worthwhile, others simply silly; but none do more than add a room or two to the Darwinian manse. Often declared dead, Darwinism still refuses to lie down. So by all means let’s retain the term. It is less of a jawbreaker than “modern evolutionary biology,” and has not, as was feared, misled people into thinking that our field has remained static since 1859. What better honorific than “Darwinism” to fête the greatest biologist in history?
This is a remarkable bit of writing. Every modern textbook on evolution has a large section devoted to random genetic drift as a fundamental mechanism of evolution and yet Coyne doesn't even mention it. He also doesn't mention population genetics. Isn't that strange?



9 comments :

  1. I seem to remember one of Gould's essays arguing that 'Darwinism' is a good term for summarizing evolution as Darwin formulated it (e.g., adaptationism); and thus should be used as such. However, in referring to all of evolutionary theory, one should choose a different, all-encompassing term.

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  2. I agree - "Darwinism" is a terrible way to refer to a scientific theory. Justifying it based on syllabyl counts is beyond terrible. Science is supposed to be about accuracy, not catch-words and jingoism.

    However, here in the US at least, I don't think the problem is really that few people are aware of genetic drift. That is, I'm sure few people are aware of genetic drift, but I don't think that's the main problem. If most people here accepted evolution, or even if most people accepted that scientists accept evolution as a strongly supported theory, not as an ideology, I'd be thrilled.

    Eliminating the use of Darwinism and replacing it with evolutionary theory isn't going to change anyone's awareness of genetic drift. It may do at least a little to reduce people's view of evolution as an ideology.

    Hey, I can hope, right?

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  3. Prof. Morans' obsession with the relative importance of genetic drift vs natural selection has no relevance to the opposition of religious whackjobs to the theory of evolution. These folks don't have the foggiest notion of the difference and they could care less. Their opposition is based on disbelief in what Ernst Mayr called the 4th element in the theory, namely common descent. Common descent means humans and apes descended from a common ancestor which, as Stephen Jay Gould once observed, is the bete noir of religious nuts.

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  4. SLC said:"Prof. Morans' obsession with the relative importance of genetic drift vs natural selection has no relevance to the opposition of religious whackjobs to the theory of evolution."

    Actually it is relevant, since many anti-evolution arguments are based on equivocation on the meaning of Darwinism. The "anti-Darwinism" petition touted by the Discovery Institute would be something Larry would sign, if he knew it wouldn't be misconstrued as a statement against evolution.

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  5. Would creationism and its country cousin, intelligent design

    This is an odd use of the term "country cousin."

    “Darwinism” is a compact, four-syllable term

    Four syllables or three? Is "-ism" one syllable or two?

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  6. Re Tracy P. Hamilton

    What most religious opponents of evolution mean by the term "Darwinism" is common descent. Thus, for instance, the Dishonesty Institutes' Casey Luskin gets his panties in a twist every time a transitional fossil is discovered or genetic evidence such as the merger of ape chromosomes 12 and 13 in human chromosome 2 is uncovered. The issue of natural selection vs genetic drift is of no relevance to them; in fact, it is likely that most of them don't know the difference.

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  7. Four syllables or three? Is "-ism" one syllable or two?

    When you are next in southeastern Pennsylvania I will buy you the beer of your choice if you can find a dictionary entry anywhere that shows "-ism" (or "-nism") as one syllable.

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  8. [O]pposition is based on disbelief in what Ernst Mayr called the 4th element in the theory, namely common descent. Common descent means humans and apes descended from a common ancestor which, as Stephen Jay Gould once observed, is the bete noir of religious nuts.

    I'm not sure this covers the entirety of what creationists (young-Earth and ID variety) find objectionable. I think another very large objection can be found in the terms "creationist" and "intelligent design." It seems to me creationists resent what they see as the usurpation of God's role as Creator/Designer by the natural, unguided forces involved in evolution.

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  9. "Every modern textbook on evolution has a large section devoted to random genetic drift as a fundamental mechanism of evolution and yet Coyne doesn't even mention it. He also doesn't mention population genetics. Isn't that strange?"

    Not really. Coyne is a fool. He's a fool when he trashes Gould, he's a fool when he trashes evo-devo, he's a fool when he makes up idiotic new definitions of creationism in pathetic attacks on belief. He's a buffoon, and you should look at his whole body of work outside fly genetics before you cite him as an atheist authority. He's in the same league as Behe, just on a different team.

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