Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Ascent of Darwinism

The latest issue of Discover has several articles on Darwin and evolution. They are introduced in an editorial by Corey S. Powell, Discover editor-in-chief.
Today it is difficult to read the news without invoking Darwinian thinking. It shows up not just in the obvious places, such as stories about drug-resistant bacteria in hospitals. In dispatches from the Middle East, it is hard not to see the way that kin selection can organize people into tight-knit, warring clans. In financial news, it is difficult not to notice an evolutionary battle between self-preservation and altruistic group impulses. If anything, it is too easy to perceive the hand of natural selection everywhere and to lapse into just-so stories. On the pages that follow, we strip away the embellishments and show how the true, unvarnished Darwin remains one of the most powerful, controversial, and influential figures in science.
Hmmmm ... this doesn't sound very encouraging. Let's see how Discover gets to the "true, unvarnished Darwin."

The very first article is titled "The Ascent of Darwin: 'Survival of the fittest' is helping us understand not only the origin of species but also love, politics, and even the cosmos." The author is Karen Wright who lists herself as a science writer living in New Hampshire. The website version of the article is We All Live in Darwin's World.

It begins ....
You could call Helen Fisher a Darwinian matchmaker. The acclaimed anthropologist from Rutgers University is also a best-selling author of books on love and the chief scientific adviser to an online dating service called This service utilizes a questionnaire that Fisher developed after years of research on the science of romantic attraction. It reveals which of four broad, biologically based personality types an applicant displays and helps identify partners with compatible brain chemistry. In designing the questionnaire, Fisher relied on the principles of evolutionary psychology, a field inspired by Charles Darwin’s insights. She has even used those principles to size up Darwin himself. (He is a “negotiator,” “imaginative and theoretical,” “unassuming, agreeable, and intuitive”—but also married, alas, and dead.)

Fisher’s work is just one of the innumerable offshoots of Darwin’s grand theory of life. In the 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species, it seems no sphere of human thought or activity has been left untouched by Darwinian analysis. Evolutionary theory has infiltrated the social sciences, where it has been used to explain human politics and spending habits. It has transformed computer science, inspiring problem-solving algorithms that adapt and change like living things. It is cited by a leading theoretical physicist who proposes that evolution helped shape the laws governing the cosmos. A renowned neuroscientist sees ideas of selection as describing the honing of connections among brain cells. Literary critics analyze the plots, themes, and characters of novels according to Darwinian precepts. Even religion, the sector most famously at odds with Darwin, now claims an evolutionary evangelist.
I don't think this is helpful. When it comes to understanding science, one of the problems most people have is appreciating that scientific knowledge helps us understand the universe and how it works. Biological sciences help us understand life.

The average person is all too willing to take any bit of science and apply it to their daily concerns. "What's in it for me?" is the usual question. This year we have a wonderful opportunity to explain the science of evolution and why nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. Instead, the lead article in Discover begins with an example of how Darwin's ideas helps you find a partner on an online dating service.

The article goes on to mention some real science but the emphasis comes perilously close to praising social Darwinism. Evolutionary biologists agree that biological evolution does not provide any justification for human behavior and many of them are skeptical of evolutionary psychology.
According to Helen Fisher and other proponents of evolutionary psychology, the theory of evolution helps them address questions like “What is love?” and “Why do we vote the way we do?” Many evolution­ary psychologists believe that the cognitive and emotional makeup of human beings represents an adaptation to our ancestral environment. Biologist Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University launched the discipline in 1975 with one slim chapter in his book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, suggesting that insights into animal behavior afforded by evolutionary theory could apply to human animals, too.

Today the evolutionary worldview has expanded into analyses of economics and politics as well as of human mating behavior. It has enriched the “rational choice” model long espoused by economists to explain human behavior in the marketplace. Traditional economic models assume that people act exclusively in their self-interest, just as traditional evolutionary theory describes competition among individuals. But cooperation and altruistic tendencies also show up routinely in studies of economic behavior. People who stand to lose from progressive taxation, for example, may still vote for it. “You can’t predict how people will vote on the issue of income redistribution based on their income,” says economist Herbert Gintis of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico.
Last week I was involved in a discussion with Chris Mooney. He was lamenting the fact that science writers were losing their jobs and I suggested that we might be better off if most of them stopped writing. I said, "Seriously, most of what passes for science journalism is so bad we will be better of without it." [The Future of Science Journalism]

This is an example. I honestly believe that this article does more to degrade and demean science than to enhance it. I think it misrepresents Darwin and his contribution to biology. I think it seriously distorts the modern field of evolutionary biology. We would have been better off if Discover had published nothing at all in celebration of Darwin's birthday.


  1. Edward O. Wilson influenced Joseph Carroll Darwinian Literary Studies (aka Literary Darwinism) discussed on Sandwalk February 15, 2009.

    The sentences,"[Fisher] has even used those principles to size up Darwin himself. (He is a “negotiator,” “imaginative and theoretical,” “unassuming, agreeable, and intuitive”—but also married, alas, and dead.)" indicate that this isn't only bad science writing, it's bad writing. Of course Darwin is dead; that's why we are celebrating his 200th birthday.

  2. Bayesian Bouffant, FCDFriday, March 06, 2009 9:02:00 AM

    I didn't see that. I let my subscription to Discover lapse last year, after their quality had been in decline for a couple years. I think the last issue I received was the one with the piece by an HIV-AIDS denialist.

  3. I think Larry is totally wrong. The blame is hardly to be placed on science journalists. It is poltically active academics that have abused darwinism to get funding and churn out all this pseudoscience, from within academia itself. The problem is within the system itself that will finance and uphold research adn academic positions for this kind of crap. When the science journalist arrives, what he finds is people that have been succesful within academia, so he/she simply passes on what these academics have to say.

    The problem is that this sloppy academics exist in the first place, isn't it? I can't believe Larry is stuypid enough not to realize that, but then he CAN be really, really dumb.

  4. Those clowns are fake darwinians. Go here to read about some real Darwinians: