Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What is "Darwinism" and am I a "Darwinist"?

I don’t use the term “Darwinism” at all, any more than I would use the term “Newtonism” when referring to classical physical mechanics, “Einsteinism” to refer to relativity theory, “Bohr/Feinman/Heisenberg/Schroedingerism” to refer to quantum mechanics, or “Mendeleevianism” to refer to chemistry. What I and my colleagues (and friends) do is probably best described as “evolutionary biology”, and includes (at a bare minimum) the following:

1) the formulation and testing of a set of interconnected theories explaining the origin of biological diversity, consisting of descent with modification from common ancestors over deep geological time, describable via cladistic analysis, and supported by inference from multiple sources of empirical evidence, including comparative anatomy, biogeography, developmental biology, genomics, historical geology, and paleontology; and

2) the formulation and testing of a separate but related set of interconnected theories explaining the origin and modification of the phenotypic characteristics of living organisms, consisting (at a bare minumum) of the mechanisms of natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, and neutral molecular evolution in deep geological time, grounded (at least in part) in theoretical mathematical models of population genetics, depending on multiple sources of heritable phenotypic variation, and supported by inference from multiple sources of empirical evidence, including field and laboratory research in the fields of biochemistry, cell biology, comparative physiology, developmental biology, ecology, ethology, genetics, neurobiology, and physiological ecology.

Note that these two definitions of the principle domains of evolutionary biology correspond roughly to what are sometimes referred to as “macroevolutionary theory” and “microevolutionary theory” (in that order) and do not explicitly mention:

• theories of the origin of life from non-living materials, which are properly the purview of astrophysics, chemistry, and geology, not biology;

• the concept of “adaptation”, which has had a checkered past in evolutionary biology and is facing increasing challenges within the field; and

• teleology, which is almost never mentioned, except for those evolutionary biologists who have thought about it (which, in my experience, are relatively few), who generally assume that resort to teleological explanations in evolutionary biology is unnecessary. Not wrong, just unnecessary (not to mention unproductive as an empirical research hypothesis).

As philosophical concepts, both adaptation and teleology have a very long history, stretching back at least to Plato and Aristotle. However, recent developments in evolutionary theory, including (but not limited to) theories of epigenetics, exaptation, genetic drift/draft, neutral and nearly neutral molecular “drift” in deep evolutionary time, and punctuated equilibrium, have rendered the concept of “adaptation” as an increasingly marginal diversion rather than a central topic in evolutionary biology.

And teleology, rather than being considered “wrong” (when it is considered at all, which is seldom) is now increasingly being incorporated into new theories of “evolved agency”, especially in evolutionary psychology (my own field). I am currently working on a treatise on this latter subject, which I hope to finish before departing this veil of tears and laughter for that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.

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