Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Stephen Jay Gould Challenged the Modern Synthesis

As most of you know, Gould (1941 - 2002) was a critic of the hardened version of the Modern Synthesis. He thought that evolutionary theory needed to be updated to include some things that the originators of the Modern Synthesis were unaware of—or rejected prematurely.

His paper in Science in 1982 reached a wide audience and most biologists first became aware of his challenge by reading this paper (Gould, 1982) [read it here—if you have a subscription to Science].

But two years earlier, Gould published a more scholarly critique in the journal Paleobiology (Gould 1980). The opening sentence of the abstract throws down the gauntlet.
The modern synthesis, as an exclusive proposition, has broken down on both of its fundamental claims: extrapolationism (gradual allelic substitution as a model for all evolutionary change) and nearly exclusive reliance on selection leading to adaptation.
Ryan Gregory discusses this paper in detail on Genomicron [Gould (1980)]. If you want to be informed in this debate you absolutely must read what he has to say about this key paper in evolutionary theory.

Ryan discusses three important myths about Gould. The false myths are: (1) he rejected natural selection, (2) he wanted to overthrow the Modern Synthesis, (3) saltation and punctuated equilibria are somehow connected.

The last myth is so widespread that people as diverse as Jarry Coyne, Greg Laden, and Daniel Dennett have gotten themselves hopelessly confused about punctuated equilibria by not reading carefully [see Macromutations and Punctuated Equilibria]. They should know better.

They will know better (I hope) once they have read Ryan Gregory's posting.

Today, there are many people who want to change the Modern Synthesis. Advocating some new addition to evolutionary theory has become a minor industry—aided and abetted by science journalist who are more interested in controversy than accuracy. But those failings should not blind us to the very legitimate challenges to the Modern Synthesis raised by Gould over twenty-five years ago.

It's disappointing that most of those challenges are still not understood by biologists. Read Ryan's summary of Gould (1980), and learn.


[Image Credit: Photograph of Stephen Jay Gould by Kathy Chapman from Lara Shirvinski at the Art Science Research Laboratory, New York (Wikipedia)]

Gould, S.J. (1980) Is a new and general theory of evolution emerging? Paleobiology 6:119-130.

Gould, S.J. (1982) Darwinism and the expansion of evolutionary theory. Science 216:380-387.

15 comments :

  1. I apparently am a Gould "fanboi" for this one. See the comments to my post. Even summarizing Gould makes people upset.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Beyond the post-Synthesis?

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7893414.stm

    ReplyDelete
  3. Coyne isn't going to "know better," whether or not he reads Ryan's post. Coyne's problem isn't ignorance.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I disagree. Coynes problem is probably ignorance. He would not be that selectionists iof he kwne more about development. I also suspect he does not grasp the seriousness of historical sciences. Like a good neodarwinian, he will claim hegemony for the study of natural selection "in action".

    ReplyDelete
  5. Coyne, Greg Laden, and Daniel Dennett ... they should know better.

    Coyne yes, Bennet maybe but Laden? - Absolutely not. You must be kidding. The guy knows no biology. His grasp of genetics is not even at a high school biology AP level.

    ReplyDelete
  6. The link in the 2nd paragraph does not lead to the 1982 Science paper, but to a PNAS paper of later date. Is that a mistake?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks for these pointers. I've been interested in Gould's thinking for a long while but as a non-biologist I find it difficult to evaluate his ideas. I'm very interested in his ideas of the role of historical contingency in evolution. The conflict with Simon Conway Morris fascinates me.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'm always to surprise to see how much publicity Gould gets, what about Kimura's challenge to the modern synthesis ? The most impressive predictive models in evolutionary biology are derived directly or indirectly from his work (although we should probably get beyond his models).

    No doubt about it, Gould was a great thinker and science popularizer, but I must admit I'm annoyed by our tendency in biology to talk mostly about science popularizers (Dawkins, Gould, even Darwin in a way). Science popularization is of great importance, but could we also discuss the ideas of the great theorists of our science ?

    ReplyDelete
  9. Corneel asks,

    The link in the 2nd paragraph does not lead to the 1982 Science paper, but to a PNAS paper of later date. Is that a mistake?

    Yes it was. I've put in the correct link. Turns out you can't read the article unless you have a personal subscription to Science.

    ReplyDelete
  10. PhDP says,

    I'm always to surprise to see how much publicity Gould gets, what about Kimura's challenge to the modern synthesis? The most impressive predictive models in evolutionary biology are derived directly or indirectly from his work (although we should probably get beyond his models).

    Neutral Theory is important, no doubt about it. What it mainly did was to restore random genetic drift to it's proper position as an important mechanism of evolution.

    Gould helped popularize that idea while giving full credit to Kimura, King, and Jukes. Kimura was not as successful at promoting his views.

    Don't downplay Gould's contributions to evolutionary theory. Just because he wrote for the general public doesn't mean that his views weren't innovative and original.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I'm showing my ignorance here, as even though I find Gould's ideas attractive and have more than a slight ring of truth about them, I just find him so hard to read. Am I the only person with this problem? The over elaborate, confusing, prose and language just kills me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Gould's complexity, his ability to read sympathetically, and his sensitivity to language and metaphor are enormous advantages when he is showing us how we think (or how historical figures have thought), i.e., the kind of cultural-historical-scientific analysis that he is best at doing, as in the spandrels paper or many of the historical sections of his 2001 book.

      But some of the same qualities are an enormous burden when he is attempting to do ordinary science. No one knows what punctuated equilibrium signifies mechanistically. Gould apparently could not bring himself to pin this down to a mechanistic thesis. Having understood that people encounter the world through metaphors and world-views, Gould attempts to provide alternative metaphors and world-views. But it turns out that science has other, necessary dimensions.

      That's my 2 cents anyway. I always enjoy reading Gould. But I read him to understand what other scientists have thought, not to understand evolution.

      Delete
  12. Monkeyman asks,

    I'm showing my ignorance here, as even though I find Gould's ideas attractive and have more than a slight ring of truth about them, I just find him so hard to read. Am I the only person with this problem? The over elaborate, confusing, prose and language just kills me.

    Many people make the same complaint.

    I suppose it's a matter of taste. I prefer Gould's style to that of, say Richard Dawkins, because Gould includes the nuances and qualifiers. It makes his sentences more complex, to be sure, but they are also more accurate.

    In addition, I find Gould's writing to be more entertaining, in general. I enjoy sarcasm, puns, humor, double entendres, and irony—but I suppose that's not everyone's cup of tea.

    ReplyDelete
  13. My wife returned from thrift shop hunting with a copy of Kim Sterelny's "Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the Fittest" (2001, ISBN 1-84046-249-3) and I'm wading my way through it. Have you read that one?

    ReplyDelete
  14. Tony Sidaway asks,

    My wife returned from thrift shop hunting with a copy of Kim Sterelny's "Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the Fittest" (2001, ISBN 1-84046-249-3) and I'm wading my way through it. Have you read that one?

    Yes I have. Kim Sterelny is a philosopher from New Zealand/Australia. He is very sympathetic to the adaptationist perspective and, like most adaptationists, he doesn't understand Gould and attributes motives that don't exist.

    Sterelny is impressed by many of the arguments that Dawkins uses and he tends to present them without the same kind of critical analysis that he applies to everything that Gould says.

    When you're finished that book, read "Reinventing Darwin" by Niles Eldredge. That's a different perspective.

    ReplyDelete