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February 13, 2003

Another shot in the Darwin wars

The New York Review of Books has another predictably hostile review of The Blank Slate but at least this time they got a scientist to review it rather than one of those literary intellectuals[1]. GNXP readers - critique away!

[1] Pot calling the kettle black you might think? Well in fact as an economist I'm very sympathetic to plight of evolutionary biologists who have their work misinterpreted by literary intellectuals who seems completely incapable of understanding the concept of *mathematical modelling*. We also get accused of producing 'just so stories' because most of the time we have to reconstruct things and are not always able to construct definitive experiments.

Posted by razib at 01:44 AM

I read that one yesterday. I'm curious as to why these Blank Slate reviews are like six months late. H. Allen Orr (who's two favorite targets appear to be ID and Sociobiology) is taking out arguments that weren't even good in the seventies when they were invented. Worse yet, Orr is underhanded; this particular line made me swear out loud:

The main target of his wrath is the radical science movement that sprung up in the wake of E.O. Wilson's 1975 book Sociobiology....The main problem with this Red Scare argument isn't that it's unnecessarily vicious (though it is).

Unnessecarily vicious? Red Scare? Please, Mr. Orr, we're talking about open Marxists who trotted out the accusations of Fascism before they ever raised a scientific argument. The visciousness of those who opposed Sociobiology was legendary, and for Pinker to leave that out of his tome about the blank slate zeitgeist would be dishonesty through silence. Orr, with his rhetoric about "red baiting", seems to not understand what a majority of scientists do- that a small contingent of very motivated and vocal critics in the seventies and early eighties tried to extinguish a young science for political reasons. Call it a "red scare" or whatever, just don't deny it or dismiss it, Mr. Orr.

As for all this nonsense about "story-telling", it's not that I deny the special intellectual problems of Evo Psy (in fact I fully admit that ad hoc is very common in it), it's that I wonder why critics keep trying to use them to "debunk" the science. A creationist who points at gaps in the fossil record or an ID person who thinks he is being profound by pointing to the complexity of a flegellum, both suffer from the same problems 1) they are pointing out things that are already recognized, and more importantly 2) they offer nothing of scientific worth in place of the thing they are criticizing. The problem with throwbacks like Orr, is that they talk about the "just-so stories" and the "spandrels" as if they are defeating a soft science in the process, but really they are just pointing to the gaps in the fossil record and whining like brats. What better or more effective method than Evo Psych is offered in return? I'll quote from one of thetwo critques from Human-nature.com of Stephen Rose's new book (all of the arguments there-in also apply to Orr's review):

Throughout Alas, Poor Darwin, the Roses makes great promises for their 'alternative' to current evolutionary biology : 'liberatory biology'. First touted twenty years ago (Rose 1982), this new approach to biology has yet to generate any new hypotheses or research, and shows no sign of doing so. As Martin Daly notes, "[The] call for an alternative paradigm has failed to impress practicing biologists both because adaptationism is successful and well-founded, and because its critics have no alternative research program to offer. Each year sees the establishment of such new journals as Functional Biology and Behavioral Ecology. Sufficient research to fill a first issue of Dialectical Biology has yet to materialize." (Daly 1991). Part of the reason for the lack of 'alternative' research is perhaps that contributors to Alas, Poor Darwin "do not speak with a single voice", (Rose and Rose 2000, p9). Steven Rose recognises the problem, but decides that "it is not necessary to adjudicate between these positions" in order to "escape" evolutionary psychology, (Rose 2000, p260). The situation is reminiscent of an earlier round of anti-Darwinism, of which John Maynard Smith FRS said: "I have little sympathy . . . for schools of thought that have been constructed by bringing together everyone who has something anti-Darwinian to say, however mutually contradictory their own views may be." (Maynard Smith 1988, p123).

A tear comes to my eye.

Posted by: Jason Malloy at February 13, 2003 07:30 AM