We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Dawkins vs. Gould: who will prove the fitter?

Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the Fittest
Kim Sterelny
Totem Books, 2001

This relatively short book (156pp., no index) should, perhaps be taken at a gulp, which I have not done. Much is made of the ding-dong controversy between Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould on the mechanisms and implications of evolution (“punch-ups … notorious for its intensity … savage battle …” – from the blurb), but unfortunately not in the words of the two antagonists. Instead Sterelny (a male, by the way) sets about describing what they disagree about. Perhaps unfortunately, as tends to be the way in Biology, it does not seem possible to set up some experiment, or look for a crucial observation, that will settle their differences.

In fact, these fall into two categories, one theoretical and technical, the other philosophical.

For the first, there is the disagreement between Dawkins’ theory of selection at the level of the gene as against Gould’s emphasis of the species as the selective unit (if I understand this aright). While Dawkins seems happy to accept the assumption of a gradual, steady, uniform pace of evolution, Gould has espoused the theory of “punctuated equilibrium”, in which selection acts in short concentrated bursts after some catastrophic alteration to the environment, such as the impact of a meteorite, which has resulted in the wiping out of most other species, as with the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous.

However, as Sterelny says, these disagreements are not adequate to explain the antagonism and in Chapter 12 (p. 123) he gets down to the more philosophical ones. “Dawkins is an old-fashioned science worshipper” he states (and lines up with him), while “Gould’s take on the status of science is much more ambiguous. … In Gould’s view, science is irrelevant to moral claims. Science and religion are concerned with independant domains.”

It should be said that Gould is as much an atheist as Dawkins, but whereas Dawkins sees religions as erroneous explanations of the world with usually unfortunate consequences, “Gould … interprets religion as a system of moral belief” and seems to think that science is in danger of being contaminated by its social milieu. Sterelny does not quite make the point that Gould is scared that science will lead him where he doesn’t want to go, but this is certainly implied by his statement, “Gould hates sociobiology.”

And surely this is simply the old Marxist dogma that human psychology and behaviour have no innate characteristics, but are infinitely plastic and manipulable, together with the social systems that have been and can be founded upon them.

Gould has died. Is that the end of the controversy? After all, as Max Planck said, he didn’t need to convince the opponents of his theory: “They died.”

6 comments to Dawkins vs. Gould: who will prove the fitter?

  • I’ve always found it amusing that the name given to the “punctuated evolution” school of thought by its opponents is “evolution by jerks”.

  • Findlay,

    Great stuff. I would only that your remark that “the social systems that have been and can be founded” upon egalitarianism passes over the left’s current great, cultural project. Sean Gabb’s two recent Free Life Commentaries (Issues 113 & 114) expose the bones of this in a UK context. But nowhere in the western world has been spared.

    Much more like Dr Gabb’s FLC’s and your present post are needed to open our eyes. Libertarians, especially, would benefit by distinguishing social and political factors that trend to equality from those that trend to liberty.

  • David Gillies

    I think it’s undeniable that Gould’s Marxism strongly influenced his opposition to gene-level selection and his support for group selection. In this he was almost certainly wide of the mark. John Maynard Smith (himself a Marxist) is on record as saying that Gould’s work was so incoherent that no real evolutionary biologist took him seriously. No-one would even have heard of Gould outside academia were it not for his excellent prose style. The neo-Darwinian synthesis of gene-selection is really the only game in town, and as time passes, Gould’s star will fade.

  • Shannon Love

    “it does not seem possible to set up some experiment, or look for a crucial observation, that will settle their differences.”

    Actually, it is and was possible to test punctuated equilibrium theory by looking at extremely fine grain sections of the fossil record. Such strata are rare but after Gould and Eldridge published their theory paleontologist went looking for punctuation and found several, most notably the rapid evolution of sea urchins from a form possessing a couple of dozen spines to a form with hundreds of spins within the span a hundred thousand years.

    Mathematically, it is easy to show that mutation that grants even a 1% improvement in the survivability of offspring can sweep through even a very large population only a hundred or so generations.

    I think the problem with the Gould-Dawkins debate is one like the parable of the blind men and elephant. Both sides make valid, coherent arguments because both side’s models are truthful descriptions of one part of elephant but neither side captures the elephant in it’s entirety.

    Both sides neglect that natural selection operates on any reproducible pattern regardless of whether that pattern is composed of only one pattern ( a single gene) or collection of smaller patterns (cells, organisms or groups of organisms). Natural selection is fractal in nature i.e. the same process operating on many different scales simultaneously.

    It is clear from reading both that their respective ideologies greatly impact their interpretation of the same data. Gould’s Leftism causes him to concentrate all his attention on the organism as the most significant unit of selection while Dawkin’s 19th century rationalist-reductionsism causes him name the gene as the most significant unit.

    Perhaps more interestingly, both conceded (when forced to at gunpoint) that the other was correct based on the evidence but each would then loudly claim that the nuance or emphasis of each theory was the really important thing. In the end, the debate seems to be one driven more by social competition than science.

  • Andy Wood

    …Dawkins seems happy to accept the assumption of a gradual, steady, uniform pace of evolution…

    This is simply not true.

    Whenever he mentions his spat with Gould in his books, Dawkins goes out of his way to deny that he believe evolution proceeds at a constant rate.

    Gradual, yes. Steady and uniform, no.

    Here’s an essay about Gould that’s worth reading.

  • I concur with Mr. Andy Wood. I have been reading Dawkins “Climbinb Mount Improbable” This weekend as a prelude to reading E. O. Wilson’s “Sociobiology” and I found Dawkins saying exactly that. He is willing to accept punctuation, it hardly challenges the essence of Darwin’s idea. It only amends gradualism.