It's been a few years since I posted Michael Lynch's scathing comments on panadaptationism and how it applies to understanding genomes [Michael Lynch on Adaptationism and A New View of Evolution]. You're in for a treat today.
Contrary to popular belief, evolution is not driven by natural selection alone. Many aspects of evolutionary change are indeed facilitated by natural selection, but all populations are influenced by nonadaptive forces of mutation, recombination, and random genetic drift. These additional forces are not simple embellishments around a primary axis of selection, but are quite the opposite—they dictate what natural selection can and cannot do. Although this basic principle has been known for a long time, it is quite remarkable that most biologists continue to interpret nearly aspect of biodiversity as an outcome of adaptive processes. This blind acceptance of natural selection as the only force relevant to evolution has led to a lot of sloppy thinking, and is probably the primary reason why evolution is viewed as a soft science by much of society.
A central point to be explained in this book is that most aspects of evolution at the genome level cannot be fully explained in adaptive terms, and moreover, that many features could not have emerged without a near-complete disengagement of the power of natural selection. This contention is supported by a wide array of comparative data, as well as by well-established principles of population genetics. However, even if such support did not exist, there is an important reason for pursuing nonadaptive (neutral) models of evolution. If one wants to confidently invoke a specific adaptive scenario to explain an observed pattern of comparative data, then an ability to reject a hypothesis based entirely on the nonadaptive forces of evolution is critical.
The blind worship of natural selection is not evolutionary biology. It is arguably not even science.
Despite the tremendous theoretical and physical resources now available, the field of evolutionary biology continues to be widely perceived as a soft science. Here I am referring not to the problems associated with those pushing the view that life was created by an intelligent designer, but to a more significant internal issue: a subset of academics who consider themselves strong advocates of evolution but who see no compelling reason to probe the substantial knowledge base of the field. Although this is a heavy charge, it is easy to document. For example, in his 2001 presidential address to the Society for the Study of Evolution, Nick Barton presented a survey that demonstrated that about half of the recent literature devoted to evolutionary issues is far removed from mainstream evolutionary biology.
With the possible exception of behavior, evolutionary biology is treated unlike any other science. Philosophers, sociologists, and ethicists expound on the central role of evolutionary theory in understanding our place in the world. Physicists excited about biocomplexity and computer scientists enamored with genetic algorithms promise a bold new understanding of evolution, and similar claims are made in the emerging field of evolutionary psychology (and its derivatives in political science, economics, and even the humanities). Numerous popularizers of evolution, some with careers focused on defending the teaching of evolution in public schools, are entirely satisfied that a blind adherence to the Darwinian concept of natural selection is a license for such activities. A commonality among all these groups is the near-absence of an appreciation of the most fundamental principles of evolution. Unfortunately, this list extends deep within the life sciences.
... the uncritical acceptance of natural selection as an explanatory force for all aspects of biodiversity (without any direct evidence) is not much different than invoking an intelligent designer (without any direct evidence). True, we have actually seen natural selection in action in a number of well-documented cases of phenotypic evolution (Endler 1986; Kingsolver et al. 2001), but it is a leap to assume that selection accounts for all evolutionary change, particularly at the molecular and cellular levels. The blind worship of natural selection is not evolutionary biology. It is arguably not even science. Natural selection is just one of several evolutionary mechanisms, and the failure to realize this is probably the most significant impediment to a fruitful integration of evolutionary theory with molecular, cellular, and developmental biology.
Natural selection is just one of several evolutionary mechanisms, and the failure to realize this is probably the most significant impediment to a fruitful integration of evolutionary theory with molecular, cellular, and developmental biology.It should be emphasized here that the sins of panselectionism are by no means restricted to developmental biology, but simply follow the tradition embraced by many areas of evolutionary biology itself, including paleontology and evolutionary ecology (as cogently articulated by Gould and Lewontin in 1979). The vast majority of evolutionary biologists studying morphological, physiological, and or behavioral traits almost always interpret the results in terms of adaptive mechanisms, and they are so convinced of the validity of this approach that virtually no attention is given to the null hypothesis of neutral evolution, despite the availability of methods to do so (Lande 1976; Lynch and Hill 1986; Lynch 1994). For example, in a substantial series of books addressed to the general public, Dawkins (e,g., 1976, 1986, 1996, 2004) has deftly explained a bewildering array of observations in terms of hypothetical selection scenarios. Dawkins's effort to spread the gospel of the awesome power of natural selection has been quite successful, but it has come at the expense of reference to any other mechanisms, and because more people have probably read Dawkins than Darwin, his words have in some ways been profoundly misleading. To his credit, Gould, who is also widely read by the general public, frequently railed against adaptive storytelling, but it can be difficult to understand what alternative mechanisms of evolution Gould had in mind.