Blog Rating

Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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Comments

Raymond Weitzman

You might be interested in watching the 10th lecture of the Stanford University series Darwin's Legacy on YouTube. The lecturer, George Lewis Levine gives a stunning literary analysis of Darwin's work. In fact, the whole lecture series is well-worth watching.
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BLOGGER: Here's the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qf4AEMVB46g

Karthik Durvasula

very nicely put!

Dfried

Blair,

A brilliant post, and I entirely agree with you about the necessity of narrative. But I do think someone should say a word for Stephen Jay Gould and the "just-so story." As I understand it, Gould's meaning was something much more specific than the unreliability of evolutionary narrative. Gould was referring to the popular misunderstanding of evolution, in which every discrete feature has to be separately accounted for by a specific adaptive advantage.

An example would be the distribution of our remaining hair, where the conservation of head hair supposedly has to do with keeping the brain cool, whereas axillary hair is there to trap pheromones and pubic hair is a visual exclamation point, a dry lubricant, etc. Different but equally plausible explanations were deployed a number of years ago in support of the theory that homo sapiens evolved by the seaside. We're essentially hairless because it helps us swim, but we have hair on our heads to protect our scalp while we wade. Of course, we could equally have evolved coats like otters!

Gould was not sneering at Kipling, but comparing the evolutionary naivete in such stories to "How the Elephant Got his Trunk" and similar origin fables. Gould's point was that features like axillary hair may be accidental byproducts of changes in mechanisms of growth and/or control driven by some other adaptive advantage altogether. Gould famously called such byproducts "spandrels."

Gould's acerbity on this point was of course partly driven by his liberal politics. Vulgar biological determinism constantly deploys such stories in the service of fatuous Panglossianism at best and social Darwinism and eugenics at the worst.

A good example is the bizarre and irritating idea that men are promiscuous and women monogamous because they are pursuing different reproductive strategies, as if they belonged to different species. The problem, of course, is that the proliferation of one's genes requires one's children to survive and reproduce, so that fathers should be no less invested in the nurturing and support of their offspring than mothers. If they're not, there must be some other explanation, of which the simplest and most parsimonious is that natural selection and therefore evolution is still going on, in this area as in every other.

As Richard Dawkins has been heard to complain, most Americans first learned their evolutionary theory from Gould. I'm one of them, and it wasn't a bad place to start.

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