reinventing evolution

I spent the last two days learning more about the field my fellowship is meant to be in: Evolutionary Development. This is because there was a lousy article by Jerry Fodor in the London Book Review, and some of the fellows were surprised by how offended people were by it.

Here's the article.

Notice there's a few replies at the bottom of that --- those are mild!

I think a lot of people have thrown out half of what Darwin said and then rediscovered it and called themselves revolutionaries. Not to say there hasn't been a lot of excellent work done on evolutionary theory in the last century, but people who try to set themselves up as being profoundly different usually aren't really the ones making the differences. Real science is generally incremental, and the best work is usually explaining or adding mechanisms, not overturning the basic understanding of well-established principles like natural selection.

Every since Kuhn (and probably before!) people want to be the heroes of a paradigm shift, and wind up running down other good work in the process. Although hopefully the end effect of this is all the science gets explained so much better that everyone understands it. But in the meantime, tons of good work is wasted.

There are other things going on in the article that bother philosophers, but the main thing that bothers me is the claim that standard selection doesn't take any account of history, so can't really explain why animals seem to change faster than the world does. Which is ludicrous. Of course evolutionary change (selection) is driven by the current environment (what does the "selecting") but what can be selected from, that is, what individuals are already in the population to compete, is entirely inherited, thus historic. That's in Darwin's first "Origin", yet people are claiming its some new revolution...

I also recently made a PhD student I examined for her doctorate take out a lot of revolutionary language around her otherwise very respectable data about "phenotypic plasticity" (individual learning) and its role in evolution. Phenotypic plasticity is important and often neglected and not fully understood, but it's also been a part of mainstream evolutionary theory since the late 1800s (see "the Baldwin Effect"). But even university professors here (or at least in the UK) aren't necessarily getting the education they need to know that before they start lecturing undergraduate biology, which is shocking.

EvoDevo is actually a collection of very interesting research problems and techniques, but it is not about overturning evolutionary theory. It's just using evolutionary theory to understand nature better.