Razib Khan has weighed in [Evolutionary orthodoxy may be boring, but it is probably true]. I strongly disagree with his post but it's important to be clear about the disagreement. If "evolution orthodoxy" means evolution by natural selection then, yes, it is definitely true. That's not being disputed. The question isn't whether evolution orthodoxy is correct, it's whether it is sufficient.
I'm also not defending the specifics of Dobbs' article. Many of the most recent attempts to extend evolutionary theory are misguided and Dobbs happens to focus on one of these misguided attempts. However, the main point of Dobbs' article was that the "selfish gene" metaphor is an inappropriate metaphor for evolution and I agree strongly with this conclusion even though Dobbs' argument was faulty.
Razib Khan agrees that this is the main point. He says,
Dobbs has clarified the thrust of his article, but the general takeaway by many was that the science has passed Richard Dawkins by, and he’s something of an old-fashioned dinosaur. That might not have been the intent, but that’s basically going to be the implication seen by a lot of non-scientists, and people outside of evolutionary biology. I know this because my whole life I’ve run into people who know the "real deal" about evolutionary biology, and aren’t shy about telling me. When I was 13 years old I remember my science teacher explaining that he didn’t buy into Darwinism. Why? Because he accepted Stephen Jay Gould’s punctuated equilibrium, which was definitely the wave of the future. Twenty years later I don’t think much has changed. Standard evolutionary biology is being modified on the margins and edges, extended and expanded, but in a gradual and incremental fashion. Gould and his acolytes are always a decade away from overturning the established order.Gould wrote about many things and punctuated equilibrium was only one of them. Nevertheless, it's true that if punctuated equilibria represent the dominant pattern of evolution then some of the assumptions of orthodox Darwinism are wrong. In fact, the challenge is still there even if the pattern only holds for part of the history of evolution.
The idea behind punctuated equilibrium is that evolutionary change is associated with speciation by cladogenesis. I don't know why Razib Khan dismisses this concept. Perhaps he thinks that evolution by natural selection includes the idea that speciation can lock in change?
Razib then quotes from some evolutionary biologist who doesn't like Gould. Razib then goes on to say ....
This may be harsh, but it gets to the heart of the fact that non-specialists esteem Gould far more than most working within his own purported field (I say purported, because from what I can tell Gould was a fine paleontologist. But he left much to be desired as an evolutionary theorist). An analogy with physics might be the fact that Stephen Hawking has been acclaimed as the "most brilliant mind since Einstein," mostly due to his elegant and popular series of books for the general public. Hawking is brilliant, but he stands head and shoulders above other prominent physicists (e.g., Ed Witten) in the public mind mostly because of his popular contributions, not his scientific work. This is not necessarily a problem, except when people confuse cultural popularity with intellectual eminence.
Let's see if Gould really "left much to be desired as an evolutionary theorist." A good place to start would be the Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive. Check out the bibliography to see a list of books and papers that Gould published.
Gould, S.J. (1977) Ontogeny and phylogeny (Belknap press).
His first book was Ontogeny and Phylogeny, a masterful look at the relationship between evolution and developmental biology [Table of Contents]. This is where Gould first advocated his ideas about heterochrony and his coverage of neoteny is still one of the best in the business. Gould discussed heterochrony in several additional publications. Just because most people haven't got a clue what that means (Razib?) doesn't meant that it isn't a significant contribution to evolutionary theory.
The Internal Brand of the Scarlet W from The lying stones of Marrakech: Penultimate reflections in natural history. That's the essay where Gould shows us what's wrong with genetic determinism and evolutionary psychology.
It seems a bit silly to dismiss these as useless contributions to evolutionary theory. Even essays like The return of hopeful monsters make a substantive contribution—but only if you take the time to understand it.
Gould, S.J. (1981) Evolution as fact and theory. Discover 2:34-37. [article]
Gould, S.J. (1977) The return of hopeful monsters. Natural history 86:22-30. [PDF]
Gould, S.J. (2001) The lying stones of Marrakech: Penultimate reflections in natural history (Random House).
As far as I'm concerned, Gould's biggest contribution to evolutionary theory was his challenge to conventional "Darwinism" as it came to be expressed in the hardened version of the Modern Synthesis. This may be what upsets Razib Khan since it's an attack on the Dawkins view of evolution and a threat to evolutionary orthodoxy. The opening salvo was the famous "Spandrels" paper with Richard Lewontin. You may not like what Gould & Lewontin have to say but it seems ridiculous to claim that it had no impact on evolutionary theory. After all, aren't we still talking about it today? [see Stephen Jay Gould Challenged the Modern Synthesis]
The attack was followed up in several papers published in the scientific literature and defended brilliantly in The New York Review of Books when Daniel Dennet launched his famous, and confused, diatribe against Gould. It baffles me how anyone can say that these aren't solid contributions to evolutionary theory—expecially because Gould was absolutely correct!
Gould, S.J. (1980) Is a new and general theory of evolution emerging? Paleobiology 6:119-130. [PDF]
Gould, S.J. (1982) Darwinism and the expansion of evolutionary theory. Science 216:380-387.
Gould, S.J. (1997) Darwinian fundamentalism. New York Review of Books 44, 34-37. [PDF]
Gould, S.J. (1997) Evolution: The pleasures of pluralism. New York Review of Books 44, 47-52. [PDF]
Who can forget Wonderful Life? That's an explanation of the role of chance and contingency in the history of life. I suspect that Razib Khan and his buddies haven't read the book, or, if they have, they didn't understand it. Maybe that's because it conflicts with evolutionary orthodoxy.
I defy you to identify anyone other than Gould who has championed and explained this aspect of evolutionary theory.
Razib Khan continues ...
Every decade there’s always a new trend which is gaining traction and pushing the edge in terms of what we know about evolutionary biology. In the 1970s there was molecular neutralism, which superseded tired arguments between Fisherian selectionists and Wrightian balancing selectionists.Gould, of course, has argued that Neutral Theory and random genetic drift have superseded the orthodox view of evolution based on the old population genetics of the 1930s. Razib's esay gets a bit confusing here so I'm not sure what version of orthodoxy he is defending. I'm pretty sure it's not one that incorporates these anti-Darwinian concepts. It seems to me as though Razib and his like-minded buddies are dismissive of Gould because they don't believe anything he says and not because they are able to recognize when their opponents have good arguments.
There was a recent tribute to Stephen Jay Gould on the 10th anniversary of his death [A Tribute to Stephen Jay Gould]. Ryan Gregory gave a talk and listed the important lessons we learned from Gould.
- Narrative: The details of "pure history" are important.
- Origins: The reasons a trait first evolved and why it still exists may be different.
- Exaptation: Features can become co-opted to serve new functions.
- Development: The connections between genotype and phenotype are important
- Pluralism: Small genetic changes accumulating slowly over time due to natural selection is not all there is.
- Contingency: Unique events can have a large influence in the long run, even if they seem minor initially.
- Hierarchy: Evolutionary processes can occur at multiple levels.
- Scholarship: Know the history of one's field.
[Image Credit: Photograph of Stephen Jay Gould by Kathy Chapman from Lara Shirvinski at the Art Science Research Laboratory, New York (Wikipedia)]