Sunday, April 27, 2008

Serial Endosymbiosis and Intelligent Design

AUTHOR: Allen MacNeill

SOURCE: Original essay

COMMENTARY: That's up to you...

It's very gratifying to see Lynn Margulis finally getting the recognition that she deserves. As the most effective exponent of the serial endosymbiosis theory (SET) for the origin of eukaryotes, Lynn's work provides an excellent example of how ID should (but currently doesn't) proceed. During the late 1960s, Lynn published a series of revolutionary papers on the evolution of eukaryotic cells, culminating in her landmark book Symbiosis and Cell Evolution, in which she carefully laid out the empirical evidence supporting the theory that mitochondria, choloroplasts, and undulapodia (eukaryotic cilia and flagella) were once free living bacteria (purple sulfur bacteria, cyanobacteria, and spirochaetes, respectively).

Her theory was greeted with contempt and scorn by almost all evolutionary biologists (sound familiar?), who believed at the time that all eukaryotic cellular organelles evolved by gradual elaboration of invaginations of the plasma membrane. But Lynn didn't give up, or continue to simply restate her original theory (sound familiar?). Instead, she continued to do extensive field and laboratory research, publishing hundreds of papers and dozens of books in which she presented the accumulating empirical evidence supporting her theory. With time, other researchers (encouraged by the success of her field and lab research) began to test her hypotheses themselves, and discovered yet more empirical evidence supporting her theory.

And so today, Lynn Margulis's SET has become the dominant theory explaining not only the origin of eukaryotes, but also the origin of evolutionary novelty at dozens of different levels in biology (see her book, Acquiring Genomes for a comprehensive review). So well accepted has her work become by evolutionary biologists that finally, after almost four decades, creationists and ID supporters have begun to attack her theories. As she said at our Darwin Day celebration at Cornell this past February, no greater affirmation of one's "having arrived" as a major theorist in evolutionary biology could be imagined.

The point here is that, if ID wants to become accepted as part of evolutionary biology in the same way that Lynn Margulis's SET has become accepted, then ID supporters have to do the same thing she did: get out in the field and get your hands dirty, and get into the lab and do the same thing. Her ideas were just as unorthodox and unacceptable in 1969 as ID is now. However, she didn't put all of her effort into public relations and political propaganda. No "Symbiosis Institute" dumped millions into the production of deliberately distorted press kits and one-sided propaganda films. Legions of self-appointed experts whose only exposure to biology was in high school classes or what they read on Answers in Genesis or Uncommon Descent bloviated on SET and declared themselves experts after a week of superficial study of articles on Wikipedia.

No, Lynn and her colleagues did the hard work of finding the empirical evidence that eventually carried the day and established her SET as one of the bedrock foundations now worthy enough of respect as to earn the ire of the creationists and IDers. Her ideas are still radical, and still raise the blood pressure of many evolutionary biologists. Her dismissal of the "modern evolutionary synthesis" in particular is not popular among many evolutionary biologists, who are largely still mired in paradigms that are at least four decades of out of date. She has said some things about the "modern synthesis" that have brought smiles to the faces of the creationist quote-miners. The difference between her and them is that they can't even begin to claim any credibility in science; their "work" is entirely parasitic on hers, and deserves nothing but contempt.

When the history of evolutionary biology in the 20th century is written (I hope to contribute to it myself, if I live long enough), the work of Lynn Margulis will rank right up there with the work of Fisher, Haldane, Wright, Dobzhansky, Mayr, Simpson, Stebbins, Gould, Lewontin, Kimura, Williams, Hamilton, Trivers, and the two Wilsons. And unless and until IDers decide that it's finally time to stop doing agitprop and start doing science, they and the creationists will at best be a trivial footnote.

Comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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Friday, April 18, 2008

Evolution and Ethics: Is Morality Natural?

ANNOUNCEMENT: Seminar in History of Biology

AUTHOR: Allen MacNeill

COMMENTARY: Allen MacNeill

First the announcement, followed by a brief commentary:

I am very excited to announce the following course, to be offered this summer in the six-week summer session at Cornell University:

COURSE LISTING: BioEE 467/B&Soc 447/Hist 415/S&TS 447 Seminar in History of Biology

SEMESTER: Cornell Six-Week Summer Session, 06/24/08 to 07/31/08

COURSE TITLE: Evolution and Ethics: Is Morality Natural?

COURSE INSTRUCTOR: Allen MacNeill, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University

COURSE DESCRIPTION: This seminar addresses, in historical perspective, controversies about the cultural, philosophical, and scientific implications of evolutionary biology. Discussions focus upon questions about gods, free will, foundations for ethics, meaning in life, and life after death. Readings range from Charles Darwin to the present (see reading list, below).

In 1871, Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man "…the first foundation of the moral sense lies in the social instincts…and these instincts no doubt were primarily gained…through natural selection.” A century later, Edward O. Wilson, in
Sociobiology: The New Synthesis
, wrote “The biologist…realizes that self-knowledge is constrained and shaped by…natural selection. This simple statement must be pursued to explain ethics and ethical philosophers….”

And so it has: in the past few years the publication of hypotheses for the evolution of ethics and “the moral sense” has become an explosive growth industry and a hot topic of debate. In this seminar course, we will take up this debate by considering two alternative hypotheses:

(1) that ethics can be derived directly from human evolutionary biology, or

(2) that ethics can only be derived from philosophical principles, which are not directly derivable from evolutionary biology.

Included in this debate will be an extended consideration of the hypothesis that the capacity for ethical behavior is an evolutionary adaptation that has evolved by natural selection among our primate ancestors. We will read from some of the leading authors on the subject, including Frans de Waal, Paul Farber, Marc Hauser, T. H. Huxley, Richard Joyce, Elliott Sober, and David Sloan Wilson. Our intent will be to sort out the various issues at play, and to come to clarity on how those issues can be integrated into a perspective of the interplay between philosophy and the natural sciences.

In addition to in-class discussions, course participants will have the opportunity to participate in online debates and discussions via the instructor's weblog. Students registered for the course will also have an opportunity to present their original research paper(s) to the class and to the general public via publication on the course weblog and via THE EVOLUTION LIST.

INTENDED AUDIENCE: This course is intended primarily for students in biology, history, philosophy, and science & technology studies. The approach will be interdisciplinary, and the format will consist of in-depth readings across the disciplines and discussion of the issues raised by such readings.

PREREQUISITES: None, although a knowledge of philosophical ethics, evolutionary psychology, and general evolutionary theory would be helpful.

DAYS, TIMES, & PLACES: The course will meet on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 6:00 to 9:00 PM in Mudd Hall, Room 409 (The Whittaker Seminar Room), beginning on Tuesday 24 June 2008 and ending on Thursday 31 July 2008. We will also have an end-of-course picnic on Friday 25 July 2008.

CREDIT & GRADES: The course will be offered for 4 hours of credit, regardless of which course listing students choose to register for. Unless otherwise noted, course credit in BioEE 467/B&Soc 447 can be used to fulfill biology/science distribution requirements and Hist 415/S&TS 447 can be used to fulfill humanities distribution requirements (check with your college registrar's office for more information). Letter grades for this course will be based on the quality of written work on original research papers written by students, plus participation in class discussion.

COURSE ENROLLMENT & REGISTRATION: All participants must be registered in the Cornell Six-Week Summer Session to attend class meetings and receive credit for the course (click here for for more information and to enroll for this course). Registration will be limited to the first 18 students who enroll for credit.

REQUIRED TEXTS (all texts will be available at The Cornell Store):

de Waal, Frans (2006) Primates and philosophers: How morality evolved. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, ISBN #0691124477, $22.95 (hardcover), 230 pages.

Farber, Paul (1998) The temptations of evolutionary ethics. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, ISBN # 0520213696, $25.00 (paperback). 224 pages.

Hauser, Marc (2006) Moral minds: How nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong. Ecco/Harper Collins, New York NY, ISBN #0060780703, $27.95 (hardcover), 512 pages.

Huxley, T. H. (2004). Evolution and ethics & science and morals. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, ISBN #159102126X, $13.00 (paperback), 151 pages. Available free online here.

Joyce, Richard (2007) The evolution of morality. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, ISBN #0262600722, $18.00 (paperback), 288 pages.

Sober, Elliot and Wilson, David Sloan (1999) Unto others: The evolution and psychology of unselfish behavior. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, ISBN #0674930479, $22.50 (paperback), 416 pages.

(all texts will be available at The Cornell Store)

Darwin, Charles (E. O. Wilson, ed.) (2006) From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin's Four Great Books. W. W. Norton, New York, NY, ISBN #0393061345, $39.95 (hardcover), 1,706 pages.

Dawkins, Richard (2006) The selfish gene: Thirtieth anniversary edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, ISBN # 0199291152, $16.95 (paperback), 384 pages.

Dennett, Daniel (1996) Darwin's dangerous idea: Evolution and the meanings of life. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, ISBN #068482471X, $16.00 (paperback), 586 pages.

Katz, Leonard (ed.) (2000). Evolutionary origins of morality. Imprint Academic, Charlottesville, VA, ISBN # 090784507X, $29.90 (paperback). 352 pages.

MacKinnon, Barbara (2006) Ethics: Theory and contemporary issues. Wadsworth, Boston , MA, ISBN #0495007161, $95.95 (paperback), 504 pages.

Ridley, Matt (1998) The origins of virtue: Human instincts and the evolution of cooperation. Penguin, New York, NY, ISBN #0140264450, $15.00 (paperback), 304 pages.

Wright, Robert (1995) The moral animal: Why we are the way we are: The new science of evolutionary psychology. Vintage, New York, NY, ISBN #0679763996, $15.95 (paperback), 496 pages.


Perhaps the most common fallacy in philosophy and science is the tendency to assume that because something is “natural” (whatever that means) it must, ipso facto, be “good” (whatever that means) as well. In
last summer’s evolution and history of biology seminar, we talked about this tendency at some length. This summer I intend to make it the primary focus of our discussions.

From a historical standpoint, the tendency to conflate “is” and “ought” statements has been one of the ongoing arguments about the implications of evolution ever since Darwin first proposed his theory in 1859. Indeed, Darwin himself wrote much on the subject, especially in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, his second most popular (and controversial) book. It has also been one of the sources of both confusion and controversy about evolution today. In particular, evolutionary psychologists (among whom I number myself) have struggled with this problem, not always successfully.

Like last summer and the summer before, this is a fascinating topic and I hope that enough people will sign up for the course with opposing viewpoints on this subject to make for a very interesting and stimulating summer seminar.

So, watch this space; when the course blog goes up, I will announce it here and provide links to all and sundry. And remember:

"… the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating [nature], still less in running away from it, but in combating it." – T. H. Huxley, Evolution and Ethics (1893)


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