Sunday, March 01, 2009

Against intuition   posted by Razib @ 3/01/2009 01:49:00 PM

John Hawks points to an article by James F. Crow, Mayr, mathematics and the study of evolution. As John stated this is Open Access assuming you take the time to register. Here is a taste:
In 1959 Ernst Mayr...flung down the the feet of the three great population geneticists RA Fisher, Sewall Wright and JBS Haldane..."But what, precisely," he said, "has been the contribution of this mathematical school to the evolutionary theory, if I may be permitted to ask such a provocative question?" His skepticism arose in part from the fact that the mathematical theory at the time had little to say about speciation, Mayr's major interest. But his criticism was more broadly addressed to the utility of the entire approach. A particular focus was the simplification that he called "beanbag genetics", in which "Evolutionary genetics was essentially presented as an input or output of genes, as the adding of certain beans to a beanbag and the withdrawing of others."
Recent mathematical work has gone well beyond that of the three pioneers. Partly this is due to skilled mathematicians entering the field and bringing new techniques with them; especially noteworthy are stochastic processes. Second, and perhaps more important, is the extensive use of computers. Often you can use a computer to get by without deep mathematical knowledge. An additional influence is the explosive growth of molecular data, which lend themselves to mathematical treatment. In the first half of the twentieth century, population genetics and evolution had a beautiful theory, but there were very limited opportunities to apply it. Now the situation is reversed. Molecular data accumulate too fast to be assimilated.

Crow referred to some of these questions 3 years ago when I interviewed him. Though much of the essay is a restatement of ideas floated elsewhere, it's still awesome that Crow is publishing at the age of 92. Judging by how quickly he replied when I sent him an email he is also still actively corresponding.

As for the general thesis outlined in the article, of course I tend to agree with Crow. From what I know Ernst Mayr's viewpoint in Systematics was overturned by the cladist revolution, which introduced a rigorous hypothetico-deductive framework into the field. It is perhaps just part of a trend of a marginalization of more philosophical biologists who rely on intuition in the realm of theory, and serves as a specific case study of Mayr's own philosophy of science and how it is ceding ground to more moral analytic techniques. Nevertheless, we can thank Mayr for his mentoring of someone like Robert Trivers. I remember talking to a friend of mine who was at OEB in the early 2000s, and she mentioned getting stuck in the elevator with Ernst Mayr, and my first reaction was, "Dude is still alive?!?!"

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