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Monday, November 03, 2008

Maynard Smith on Stephen Jay Gould

 
Someone resurrected an old quotation by John Maynard Smith in a comment on Good Science Writers: Stephen Jay Gould.

Here's how I replied on March 26m 2002 on the newsgroup talk.origins. It was at least the tenth time I had addressed this silly comment by Maynard Smith.
This is not a universally held view. LAM is no doubt familiar with John Maynard Smith's famous remarks about Gould:


"Gould occupies a rather curious position, particularly on his side of the Atlantic. Because of the excellence of his essays, he has come to be seen by non-biologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist. In contrast, the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists. All this would not matter, were it not that he is giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory."
As an aside, isn't that beautifully written?
Genes, Memes, & Minds JOHN MAYNARD SMITH November 30, 1995, New York Review of Books (the essay was a review of "Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life" by Daniel C. Dennett).

Unfortuantely JMS drops the issue at that point and has, so far as I know, never taken it up again.
He probably thought he had better things to do.
Either that, or he was very embarrassed by his inappropriate remarks and hopes that most people will forget about them. I wonder what Maynard Smith thinks of all those idiots in the AAAS who elected Gould President of the largest scientific society in the world? What in the world could Maynard Smith have been thinking when he invited Gould to Oxford to give a prestigious series of lectures on evolutionary theory?
For those interested in the background to all this, I can do little better than suggest reading Segerstråle's book "Defenders of the Faith", where she discusses the history of all this, the arguments between people like Lewontin, E.O. Wilson, Gould, Dawkins, etc. JMS comes out of it well - he was sat in the middle trying to makes sense of both sides.
Do you really think that Maynard Smith's remarks quoted above represent someone who's trying to make sense of Gould's side? Maynard Smith is firmly on the side of Dawkins in this debate. Like Dawkins, he has never given any indication that he understands the main issues. When Maynard Smith says that Gould is presenting a "largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory" you should appreciate that what Maynard Smith is really saying is that Gould presents a picture that Maynard Smith disagrees with. Only Maynard Smith and his friends know about the *true* picture of evolutionary theory.

Gould is not nearly as arrogant as his opponents.
I've also noted on several occasions that just because Maynard Smith can't understand the complications of modern evolutionary theory doesn't mean that his simplistic version is correct.

In addition I've pointed out that Gould is often referenced in evolution textbooks for his contributions to pluralism, heterochrony, punctuated equilibria, progression, disparity, the tape of life, species selection, and spandrels. You have to look hard to find references to Maynard Smith.

To me that suggests that Maynard Smith is a man hardly worth bothering with.


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

20 comments :

  1. While I agree that his comments on Gould at that point in time were foolish, nd in retrospect much of the vehemence espoused in that "debate" between Dawkin's and Gould's arguments was just plain silly, neither one really precluded the other unless you took the ideas to their extremes.

    But JMS is hardly irrelevnt, his contributions to evolutionry biology through the application of game theory have been quite important theoretically and in terms of computational modeling were pretty influential.

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  2. But JMS is hardly irrelevnt, his contributions to evolutionry biology through the application of game theory have been quite important theoretically and in terms of computational modeling were pretty influential.

    And the reason it's not as well known as, say, punctuated equilibria (yes, it was plural in the original) is at least in part that Maynard Smith wasn't nearly as good at thinking up neat metaphors like 'spandrels.' Games? Checkers? Huh?

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  3. How on earth do you think that game-theory in evolutionary biology is less well known then punctuated equilibrium? Try a literature search, I'm guessing the concepts are pretty comparable.

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  4. MS is awfully "pretty" mathematics, but you'd fool yourself to think that impeccable rationalization makes it as "hard" and predictive as physics. Much less so "true".
    It's full of ugly exceptions, unexpected observations, etc.

    You can slap pretty math onto anything if you have a set of simplified assumptions; doesn't mean those assumptions are correct, nor does it make your model realistic

    I think people who love math are more likely to love MS than people who are interested in, say, ontogeny, homology, natural history... you know. Classic evolutionary knowledge. All of which MS was convinced was dismissable. Now that WAS foolish.

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  5. I'm sure game theory may help and even "predict", but it's always under a set of "given" biological conditions (much like game theory helps predict in economy, once you take a set of "givens", that is, "game rules".
    I am not denying the utility of game theory. What I am criticizing is it's enthrnization as the "créme de la créme" fo evolutionary theory just becuase it's mathematical. It's only good for certain kinds of questions; as a general "logic of life", it's pretty much hopeless.

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  6. Ryan asked

    How on earth do you think that game-theory in evolutionary biology is less well known then punctuated equilibrium? Try a literature search, I'm guessing the concepts are pretty comparable.

    I remind us that the core of the quotation from Maynard Smith in Larry's OP was:

    Because of the excellence of his essays, he has come to be seen by non-biologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist.

    That's "non-biologists," and was the focus of my remark even though Larry made a midstream switch to talking about issues associated with Gould within the discipline -- "... pluralism, heterochrony, punctuated equilibria, progression, disparity, the tape of life, species selection, and spandrels."

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  7. "And the reason it's not as well known as, say, punctuated equilibria (yes, it was plural in the original) is at least in part that Maynard Smith wasn't nearly as good at thinking up neat metaphors like 'spandrels.' "

    Sorry to contradict you, but JMS was the most inventive coiner of nifty neologisms. He was adept at summarizing complex ideas in a single phrase: kin-selection, the haystack model, the hawk-dove game, protein space, the evolutionary stable strategy, the two-fold cost of sex or the cost of meiosis were all terms that he coined. Plus he had a sense of humour in naming one particular mating strategy "Sneaky Fucker"!

    Mark Pallen
    http://roughguidetoevolution.blogspot.com

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  8. I'm pretty sure that MS is more popular among economists, "evolutionary psychologists" and other non-biologists than SJ Gould is.

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  9. the "sneaky fucker", huh. Very subtle metaphor hehehe

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  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  11. Actually, Maynard Smith's comment is still valid on this side of the Atlantic. To evolutionary biologists Gould is not a main figure in the profession (neither is Dawkins), but to non-biologists he is still one of the two sources of information about evolution.

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  12. "To evolutionary biologists Gould is not a main figure in the profession"

    Maybe not to population geneticists and adaptaionists, but that's just part of their traditional narrowness. The field of evo-devo is THE great addition to evolutionary biology, and Gould's "Ontogeny and Phylogeny" undoubtedly helped spark it.

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  13. Heleen says,

    To evolutionary biologists Gould is not a main figure in the profession ...

    I think you need to rephrase that statement. What you meant to say was, "Those who disagree with Gould's view of evolutionary theory don't pay much attention to him."

    Your actual statement is incorrect. There are many, many evolutionary biologists who think that Gould has made important contributions to evolutionary theory. This includes many evolutionary biologists who disagree with him.

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  14. I'm enjoying this discussion because the arguments laid out here have many similarities with the creation-evolution "debates". Maybe the Gould or Maynard Smith supporters should go count up the number of Steves that think Gould or Maynard Smith was the bomb (or a bum)!

    Or maybe one should compare cites between "Spandrels of San Marco" to "Evolution and the Theory of Games" using google scholar or WOS. It is these cites that will determine the ultimate fate of their ideas, not the heavily world-view dominated opinons expressed in this discussion.

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  15. The field of evo-devo is THE great addition to evolutionary biology, and Gould's "Ontogeny and Phylogeny" undoubtedly helped spark it.
    NO.
    The field of evo-devo was sparked by the unravelling of Drosophila embryological development, together with the technical advances that made comparison of genes possible between species.
    If you compare even Cells, embryos and evolution by Gerhart & Kirscher (1998) with Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977), it will be clear how much the contents differ: the difference is even larger now. The date of Ontogeny and Phylogeny - 1977- is fortuitously near to the actual experiments that made evo-devo later possible. But this is fortuitous – not adaptive, but chance. Read Ontogeny and Phylogeny, and you’ll realize this book belongs to a much older world. The connection between this book and evo-devo is a backwards re-interpretation of history – even if it was a nice book at the time

    If Larry Moran likes criticism of unwarranted adaptive loose talk, perhaps see:
    Austin L. Hughes
    The origin of adaptive phenotypes
    PNAS 2008 105:13193-13194; published ahead of print September 3, 2008, doi:10.1073/pnas.0807440105

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  16. Heleen, you're not an evo-devo person and it's clear you don't know what you're talking about. You only have a shallow impression that molecularization of development must have somehow rendered all pre-molecular work by Gould as obsolete and unconnected. That's awful silly.

    For instance, before BMP and chordin, Gould was the guy discussing the dorso-ventral inversion. Before many other advances, Gould was also discussing "regulatory" genes, homology vs convergence, hopeful monsters vs gradualism, the cambrian explosion and origin of body plans... all of those topics the molecular era has followed up on, not abandoned. They continue to be researched and discussed.

    And, these topics WERE largely neglected in the golden age of the neodarwinians. And it was not simply becuase of lack of data on the molecular development of the fruitfly. Actually, the ideological reasons to ignore development given by MS are STILL echoed by many of the more narrow-minded pop geneticists and adaptationists, as well as all non-biological fans of MS: evolutionary psychologists, economists, computer scientists...

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  17. That PNAS article is very, very interesting
    It make me feel produ of my anti-adpatationism. I have been saying for years that those "positivie selection" signatures in sequences are fishy. That new evidence from rhodopsins seems to be truly hardcore. Bravo!

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  18. Fascinating blog. I hope you don't mind the intrusion of a historian's view on this issue. Maynard's comments as well as Dawkins' republishing them in _Unweaving the Rainbow_ wherein the latter also hopes Dennett's attack of Gould will, "one might hope, [signal the] terminal critique of Gould's influence on evolutionary thinking" are particularly horrid and extreme personal denigrations of a fellow scientist. Whatever the value of their own contributions, they reveal that scientific training is, sadly, no check to meanness of character.

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  19. So much hypocrisy here.

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  20. Robert Trivers has worse to say about Gould:

    "Many of us theoretical biologists who knew Stephen personally thought he was something of an intellectual fraud precisely because he had a talent for coining terms that promised more than they could deliver, while claiming exactly the opposite."

    http://www.unz.com/article/vignettes-of-famous-evolutionary-biologists-large-and-small/

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