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What’s Wrong With “What Darwin Got Wrong”

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7 comments to What’s Wrong With “What Darwin Got Wrong”

  • I recently encountered a comment to a post on another blog reviewing ‘On the Origins of Species’ attacking “believers” of evolution as being less than true skeptics. This individual suggested that those that “buy” evolution are gullible and selective in their application of skepticism. He evidently has it all figured out – if only we would visit his blog to witness his wisdom. I declined to give him the traffic. Show me the evidence in a legitimate format – like a peer reviewed journal or a well referenced book.

    The authors of this book are likewise attempting to dethrone Darwin as if he were a god. Don’t these folks realize that any good skeptic would reject Darwin’s tenants given well vetted evidence. You have to do your homework. You have to bring to the dance some semblance of reasonable data that can stand up to the mountains of data that substantiate natural selection (or one crucial fatal piece of data like a mammalian fossil from the Cambrian). Darwin did his homework. These guys evidently have not.

  • Good show, Bob! I see that you picked out a few of the same red flags I did when reading the article. I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of the ‘brilliant’ insights they had were mostly of the ‘no sh*t sherlock’ variety if not outright strawmen. It shows that the authors didn’t do the legwork to know what they were talking about, with or without a lack of qualifications. Their goal of setting up their Darwinian strawmen was pretty obvious just from the title. Sorry, cognitive science dudes, but we’ve moved on since the 19th century, get up to speed!

  • VentureFree

    On the very bottom of the very last page in tiny little letters you’ll find the words “…or is it?”. See? They’re just asking questions! By pretending that they making statements of fact you are taking them entirely out of context.

  • johntheplumber

    Dear Bob – You say the authors of What’s Wrong with Darwinism don’t appear to have training in anything related to evolution. Are they not highly trained in cognitive science? Are you of a mind to think brain function has not evolved so a slime mould has equal cognitive capacity to you? – Surely a study of cognitive capacity and its relationship to our evolved state ought to give much insight into the questions evolution poses.

    Jerry Fodor’s basic proposition has long been that a study of cognitive science suggests that natural selection requires a second mechanism, beyond the current adaptive mechanism. – Then surely natural selection would be further empowered – rather than killed off by a fatal flaw.

    However, you debunk his ideas by making a parody. – Was it wise of you to use the Doppler effect for this purpose? – Doppler in 1842, observing binary stars, proposed that, in your words, “ objects moving towards or away from us would affect the frequency of radiation we receive. In other words …redshift and blueshift.” – Your point seems to be that because this concept hasn’t changed since, it would be foolish to think that Darwinism might ever need modifying. – But the Doppler effect did have to take on board a second ‘mechanism’. – Doppler’s proposition was based on the relationship of source, observer, and velocity between them. This is now augmented by a second concept – redshift caused only by the expansion of the universe.

    I am skeptical that Darwinism is as done and dusted as you seem to insist? – Is it not possible that evolution too may have to change with new knowledge – maybe even take on board the expansion of the universe.

    As to linked genes which Fodor has linked himself to, you quote him as saying, “…when phenotypic traits are endogenously linked, there is no way that selection can distinguish among them: selection for one selects the others, regardless of their effects on fitness.”

    Realigning his thoughts, you say, “…natural selection evaluates the traits as they were presented…. as a package. If the sum of a suite of traits raises fitness level, then that suite is adaptive. It doesn’t matter if only one trait among several actually had any real benefit.”

    As an example you say, “…what if fast genes were linked with big ear genes. If you have one trait you will almost invariably get the other. They come together as a genetic package. The environment then selects for one trait that helps with survival but brings along one or more separate traits that do not necessarily help with survival.

    This is a touch confusing. – If ‘fast’ is to be selected for advantage, big ears would offer more wind resistance, producing a linked positive negative package – thus neutral. – At the same time, I take it that you do not envisage faster elephants with better cooling – thus linked positives. Your intention seems to be for an adaptive ‘fast’ gene linked to a neutral gene and that ears have nothing to do with speed.

    What seems quite clear is that both you and Fodor subscribe to the idea of ‘selection for advantage’. – In Fodor’s case, he wants to know why advantage seems to disappear when cancelled out by the carrying of disadvantageous baggage, whilst you explain that even with the baggage, if the sum of the gene package is adaptive, advantage is satisfied.

    Personally, if ‘betterment’ really is the name of the game, I think you both may be on sticky ground.

    Consider the ‘genetic package’ options:
    1. Negative bias – more baggage than advantage.
    2. Positive bias – more advantage than baggage.
    3. Neutral bias – equal baggage and advantage.

    It seems to me that if advantage is the name of the game, then only neutral bias is viable !!!

    Lets start with the rules of the advantage game. – Only advantageous genetic packages are allowed to persist. – So – Disadvantageous packages will not persist. – You and Fodor seem to agree on this as a basic rule of Darwinian natural selection. – We might also add that any race seems run in the direction of complexity.

    Package no. 1 then, negative bias, is a non starter. – But surely package no. 2, positive bias, is a winner – and yes it might be – in your and Fodor’s game today – but the question must be asked, if we follow the advantage rule, how did a gene package get to be there in the first place – yesterday?

    Linked genes appear to be more complex than unlinked genes. So we must consider that simple unlinked genes came before linked genes, however far back that was, in evolution’s history. – Where is advantage in linked genes, with baggage of any description, compared to sleeked down lean and unlinked genes? – According to an evolution based on advantage, there must be some advantage.

    Why should a linked gene, one for ‘fast’ but carrying baggage linked with ears, have persisted in the complexity game, in effect dethroning a simpler more efficient, unlinked, just fast gene? – Because that is what you sanction.

    Disadvantaged in the advantage game from the outset, linked genes should not have been able to persist. – Yet here they are.

    An answer can be contrived. – A linked double positive package would win out over two separate but equally positive unlinked genes. A linked double positive would be getting on with the job of prolific reproduction, whilst the unlinked would still be trying to find each other together, in one phenotype.

    But this answer brings another problem. – If correct, then solo genes would have been at a disadvantage, compared to linked double positives, so would not have persisted. Yet here they are.

    My contrivance begs the question, why aren’t all genes linked double positives – even triple and more positives? – In the advantage game, the more positives the merrier?

    If neither negative nor positive biased packages ‘fit’ easily in the advantage game, what of no. 3, the neutral package? – This fellow doesn’t seem to hold much interest for you. – I presume this is because you see it as nothing but baggage one way or the other.

    But of the three it seems the best option – simply because the first two of the trio are definitely problematical – and we cannot discard all options. Linked genes definitely exist.

    Of course a neutral gene package does not sit well in an adaptive view of evolution. – However, it does find a comfortable cushion in both Kimura’s neutral theory of evolution, and Eldredge and Gould’s punctuated equilibrium.

    If the game never really was about betterment and advantage, linked genes sit comfortably in the scheme of things, whatever their bias. – But then what might the game be about?

    Note.
    Please accept my apologies Professor Massimo Piattelli-PalmaRini for leaving your name out sir. It’s just that your name is somewhat of a mouthful to type. On the other hand there is a nice hobbit-like quality about the name Fodor in quests for truth?

  • majendie

    Johntheplumber – Firstly, I’m not a scientist, or specialist in any field related to evolutionary biology, so forgive me if my questions are a little pedestrian or basic…

    As I read it, you’re saying that the existence of both linked and unlinked genes argues against the idea that only advantageous genes or combinations of genes will be prolific across the evolution of a species. The first question I have there is – do we consider the evolution of any species to be a completed “game”, to use your terminology. Over what kind of timescale (or number of generations) would we need to let volition run it’s course before we could say that the organism or species is complete? That all necessary consequences of the mechanism of evolution, such as the complete weeding out of any left over things like single, unlinked genes, would be done? I would suggest that a method of evolution whereby advantageous genes or combinations thereof are generally favored possibly would eventually lead to a complete genome of linked genes, but only as an end result of the system, and that examining the genome at some middle point would yield a combination of linked, unlinked, advantageous and disadvantageous genes or gene groups…

    The second question would be about the true advantage of linked genes: you say that linked advantageous genes would out-compete their unlinked brethren, which makes sense to an extent. However, I think there are considerations working against linked genes that you did not mention here, specifically:

    Chance: Simplicity is far more common than complexity; even though linked pairs of advantageous genes would have a distinct advantage over the same genes unlinked, the incidence of linkage could be excessively rare, and the sheer numbers game could hide the success of the linked genes. Similarly, the likelihood that two entirely complimentary genes would link could be extremely low. How many other distinct traits would be directly and purely complementary to faster legs, for example? Big ears might be bad aerodynamically (not at the speeds we’re talking of here though!) but good for many other reasons. Perhaps bigger lungs would work great with faster legs, but what are the odds that the two would not just appear in a single individual, but link in that individual?

    Mechanism of linkage: This one will show my ignorance of biology, however, how do genes become linked? The mechanism here could favor certain types of combination, or could lead to weak links or strong links or all sorts of things. I can only raise that question hoping the answer is known – i think the possible consequences of the variables are too extensive to speculate on.

    I’m going to cut my post short here, as on this device I can’t scroll up through the text input field, so i don’t want to ramble too much!

    Thanks for reading this far!

    -m

  • johntheplumber

    Thanks for your response Majendie.

    Questioning to find understanding is the mark of a scientist – then to ask of any answer, am I sure I’m right – have I looked into every single corner? Scientists seem to have forgotten this when the subject is evolution.

    You say – “As I read it, you’re saying that the existence of both linked and unlinked genes argues against the idea that only advantageous genes or combinations of genes will be prolific across the evolution of a species.”

    I argue that the existence of both linked and unlinked genes, looked at from the perspective of the evolution of genes, questions the current all encompassing usage of the adaptive concept.

    The question embedded here is, ‘Does evolution follow the same rules at cell level, in particular at the level of genes, nucleic acids, etc., as it does at species level?’ – I would add, ‘Does evolution follow the same rules at a moment of speciation as it does to secure the ongoing survival of a species?’

    This begs the question, “What are the rules?’

    “Nature guarantees the survival of the fittest,” said Herbert Spencer. – Darwin included this overview of Natural Selection in his later editions of The Origin of Species.

    The simple rule was ‘only the strong survive’ but this has been found too simplistic – replaced by a loose combination of ‘adaption’ and genetic drift.

    In the current synthesis, the phrase survival of the fittest is out of fashion but there is no alternative quick overview – the situation seems to remain the same but the literature becomes ever more ambiguous.

    Bob Novella quotes Wikipedia, describing Natural Selection, “…heritable traits that make it more likely for an organism to survive….It is a key mechanism of evolution.”

    [Can living round the corner from a supermarket be a heritable trait? - Ponder this one to discover the complexities of both evolution and homo sapiens.]

    The Wikipedia piece Bob Novella quotes from continues:
    The natural genetic variation within a population of organisms means that some individuals will survive and reproduce more successfully than others in their current environment. For example, the peppered moth exists in both light and dark colors in the United Kingdom but during the industrial revolution many of the trees on which the moths rested became blackened by soot, giving the dark-colored moths an advantage in hiding from predators. This gave dark-colored moths a better chance of surviving to produce dark-colored offspring, and in just a few generations the majority of the moths were dark.

    [Still sounds like unfashionable survival of the fittest.]

    Of course with the introduction of the clean air act in the U K and the demise of industry, the peppered moth situation reverted more or less to what it was. So whilst the peppered moth saga hints at evolution, it is no example of speciation. The only key concept here – the only facts – are that Peppered moths come in dark and light varieties – that how they fare depends on whether it’s a good or bad day – and that ‘adaption’ is a reversible process, not the one way route to success that it was in Darwin’s day.

    It should also tell us that to survive, supporting variety is a good idea – that mono-culture might have its drawbacks. [Look at the current dire state of the honey-bee in America.]

    The peppered moth saga tells us that, during the time we have studied the peppered moth, it has stubbornly remained a peppered moth in all its variety. [With luck, so might the honey-bee.]

    It certainly shows that a species might continue as the species it is, by utilising a strategy (which has been called survival of the fittest) whereby, in your words, “advantageous genes or combinations of genes will be prolific across the evolution of a species”. It does not tell us how one species does become another. – Science still struggles even to define ‘species’.

    From this you might see why a strictly survival of the fittest overview is less fashionable than it was – why ambiguity abounds when the subject of speciation arises – why Fodor and Palmarini propose that a second mechanism is required – why I have concentrated on your first sentences – and why scientists should press on into the darker corners of the theory – it is far from done and dusted.

    Does evolution follow the same rules at cell level, in particular at the level of genes, nucleic acids, etc., as it does at species level?’ and What are the rules?

    Those are the real questions this matter poses.

    The rule still seems to be, ‘only the strong survive’. – Politicians seem to love it – Hitler went for it in a big way. – But maybe on occasion the weak survive?

    Regardless of whatever is the rule, just consider a rule you might think of tomorrow. It will certainly have to be valid to cover what we have learned of the unfolding of all life, from the earliest simple cell, basking wherever it basked, to the heady heights of man walking upright on the moon.

    Must a rule you find be equally valid for the evolution of the various assortment of bits contained in that first simple cell and in all cells of all organisms? – I think it must. – I assume that Bob Novella would agree – or he might have to side with Fodor and Palmaniri and come up with a second mechanism.

    Before we go further, I would like to make it clear that I wholly support the concept that nature appears to select of the variety which life provides – call that Natural Selection – which effects the continuation of a species – and that over the millennia life has evolved from a simple origin. – What science still struggles to elucidate is, at what point does one species become another, or even to nail a definition of species. – Check out Wikipedia ‘species definition’ to see the depth of that problem.

    Let’s now have another look at Bob Novella and Fodor and Palmaniri’s difference of opinion.

    Jerry Fodor says, according to Bob Novella:

    “It’s a main claim of our book that, when phenotypic traits are endogenously linked, there is no way that selection can distinguish among them: selection for one selects the others, regardless of their effects on fitness.”

    Bob Novella argues that, regarding an advantaged ‘linked gene package’ in the phenotype:

    “The general idea is that natural selection evaluates the traits as they were presented….as a package. If the sum of a suite of traits raises fitness level, then that suite is adaptive. It doesn’t matter if only one trait among several actually had any real benefit.”

    I agree with Bob Novella that at phenotypic level, ‘survival of the fittest’ will happily select for a positive combination – adaption works – just as it works in the case of the peppered moth – supporting the continuation of a species.

    I argue though that if you apply the same adaptive principle to the evolution of genes – from simple to complex – from a sleek solo gene to complex baggage carrying genes – you get into deep water.

    Policemen chasing burglars win because the burglar is usually carrying someone’s television – there’s advantage in being an unencumbered policeman.

    An adaptive explanation at gene level (make up your own meaning to that) does not seem to work in explaining the evolution of a baggage carrying gene. In simple terms, a sleek solo gene wins. Packaged genes, carrying baggage should have been selected against. (This of course before a ‘phenotype’ was invented and only basic chemistry was on offer.)

    [At this point beware the chicken and the egg problem.]

    However, a wholly adaptive explanation of evolution has no option but to demonstrate the benefit of ‘mixed gene packages’ at phenotypic level, because the exist.

    Certainly, in the peppered moth scenario, at phenotypic level, we have seen that ‘housing variety’ works best for survival. It helps a peppered moth remain a peppered moth. As to how it became a peppered moth though, or how it might become something else, is still a little bit vague. The peppered moth just fell into being a peppered moth according to current theory – and one day it might fall into being something else. – In the meantime though, it seems that natural selection, ‘the adaptive process’, will continue to work to maintain the continuation of the peppered moth as a peppered moth – unless it becomes extinct.

    Evolution science fights shy of the corner it has got itself into. It does not like facing the questions. It will not accept there might be something missing – like a second mechanism.

    Keep asking the pertinent questions Majendie – which leads us further into your response – you ask very good questions.

    “ …do we consider the evolution of any species to be a completed “game”, to use your terminology.”

    The game I was referring to was ‘adaption’ which science says is the game. I ask, ‘Do the rules of the game need modification?’

    Over what kind of timescale (or number of generations) would we need to let volition run it’s course before we could say that the organism or species is complete?

    I consider that a species is only complete when it is extinct!!!

    Nature, unthinking, cannot think of an end product. It cannot select as we might. We select for a purpose. Nature cannot be allowed to think of purpose. We might envisage a species origin, it’s development and an end product, but to nature there can never be an end product – the game is constantly played – up until the moment of extinction – when ‘adaption’ fails to maintain continuation.

    That all necessary consequences of the mechanism of evolution, such as the complete weeding out of any left over things like single, unlinked genes, would be done?

    You might rethink this one – you’re looking for a perfect design. – Evolution accepts that anything that works on the day will do – there seems space for all sorts of things, good bad and indifferent, including left over things – consider the vast range of extant organisms, from virus and bacteria all the way through to flora and fauna. – Success might be measured in terms of longevity – then bacteria are way up in the champions league – we’ve barely picked up the bat – of course nature cannot think nor dream of success.

    I would suggest that a method of evolution whereby advantageous genes or combinations thereof are generally favored possibly would eventually lead to a complete genome of linked genes, but only as an end result of the system, and that examining the genome at some middle point would yield a combination of linked, unlinked, advantageous and disadvantageous genes or gene groups.

    Noah filled his Ark with two of each species – questioning no further than had he got them all. Darwin asked a slightly more complex question – how did they get here in the first place – what is the origin of species? – In Darwin’s time, little was known of the mysteries of the reproduction process. We thought we had it solved when Watson and Crick pinned down the double helix. The problem is, we are only just discovering the delightfully subtle complexities of genetics. – Your suggestion beautifully probes into depths of where science has hardly yet delved. – A modern Noah might consider only taking one cell of each species with him – all life on earth to fit into his back pocket – and paddle off in a canoe.

    Genetics is still largely unknown territory – cutting edge. – That I think is how Bob Novella is at odds with Fodor and Palmarini. – Neither he nor they have an answer to problems yet to be solved. Certainly they have no answers to questions yet to be asked.

    The second question would be about the true advantage of linked genes: you say that linked advantageous genes would out-compete their unlinked brethren, which makes sense to an extent.

    This is the crux of my argument that the existence of both linked and unlinked genes questions the validity of a wholly adaptive evolution – and why I support Fodor and Palmarini on this one.

    I say that, ‘[At a genetic level] Disadvantaged in the advantage game, from the outset, linked genes [carrying baggage] should not have been able to persist [in competition against sleek solo genes]. – Yet here linked genes are.

    [Certainly at phenotypic level] a linked double positive package would win out over two separate but equally positive unlinked genes. [In simple terms, a fish, coming up with a linked gene mutation, giving it the abilities to both 'breathe' and 'walk' would be away up and running on land.] A linked double positive would be getting on with the job of prolific reproduction, whilst the unlinked [A fish with a solo gene to 'breathe' - another fish with a solo gene to 'walk'] would still be trying to find each other together in one phenotype.

    Of course if you wish to apply a similar argument at genetic level, and if the whole ‘game’ is to advantage, then from some moment when amino acids became the foundation of cell genetics, solo genes were at a disadvantage compared to linked double positives, and should not have persisted. – Yet solo genes do seem happy still to exist.

    If advantage is the game, why aren’t all genes linked double positives – even triple and more positives? – In the advantage game, the more positives the merrier? – If the whole game is advantage, then solo genes should have been weeded out by now. – Unless there is a further mechanism beyond simple advantage yet to be discovered.

    At the simple end of evolution’s adaptive theory one could ask, “Define species?” – On face value it is a collection of variants all the same – the best example I know of ambiguity. – One could also ask, “At what point does one species become another?” – At the cutting edge, one could ask, “Why have solo genes not been weeded out, when a double positive package should work best?

    A strictly ‘Survival of the Fittest’ explanation still struggles to answer such questions.

    Where the problem lies, appears to be in mistaking a mechanism for a rule. ‘Adaption’ is a mechanism – wrongly seen as a rule. – Study of a mechanism can lead to a rule being found.

    As a mechanism it explains a lot. – It largely successfully explains how species can remain discrete changing long lived entities in changing environment.

    The validity of the mechanism of ‘adaption’, in itself, as a natural phenomenon, is well demonstrated – but only as an explanation of survival – continuation as is in changing circumstances. Speciation – a new continuation – is still problematical – more so with the latest discoveries in genetics. Evolution seems to be crying out for a second but complimentary mechanism.

    [As a matter of interest, I discovered a second simple biological mechanism forty years ago but for now I am not ready to disclose it. - If Bob Novella takes interest though I might.]

    However, I think there are considerations working against linked genes that you did not mention here, specifically:
    Chance: Simplicity is far more common than complexity;

    But only if you try to keep it simple. – The universe is awesomely complex. – Before you can spit you’re into string theory.

    even though linked pairs of advantageous genes would have a distinct advantage over the same genes unlinked, the incidence of linkage could be excessively rare, and the sheer numbers game could hide the success of the linked genes.

    Linked genes and linked processes abound. – Wikipedia works that way – type in ‘genetics’ then, at the first word you falter on, follow a link back to a simpler point, then move forward again – it’s a very handy tool – nature seems to have found linked genetic process similarly useful.

    Thanks for stretching my brain Majendie – keep stretching yours.

    p s – I work on a word processing file then copy and paste to the site.

  • johntheplumber

    Oops – Cut and paste from a word processing file looses any italics. I put all quotes of majendie’s questions in italics – so the latter part of my response is not clear without reference back to majendie’s submission.
    Ho hum.

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