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October 13, 2004

The Other Half

Jason Malloy pointed me to the blog Science and Politics. The author is a biologist who is an admirer of Stephen Jay Gould.

This post is an attempt (from what I can gather) to box this blog into a particular slot that is convenient for the author's thesis that "genetic determinism is completely consistent with conservative worldview. Liberals, on the other hand, are drawn to interactionist, non-hierarchical models of society, economics, theology, biology and everything else." Yes, yes, I won't dispute I'm a "genetic determinist," you can see it quite clearly on this blog, since I believe that some of the variation on many traits within a population can be attributable to genotypic differences, I'm a determinist (as to opposed to the more nuanced "interactionist" viewpoint, which seems from my determinist angle to posit the bizarre view that genes and environment go hand in hand in a dynamic process to shape the phenotype).

Steve Pinker at Robert Wright's new site talks about how when he posits that something is 25-75% heritable, people automatically respond, "Oh, so you're saying it's all in the genes," neglecting some basic understanding of percentages. This is a common event, Ikram over at his blog once labelled me a genetic determinist (in juxtaposition with his "environmentalist determinism") because I submitted there was some evidence that religious zeal might be 50% heritable. Don't you see the symmetry? 50% heritable in a population automatically translates into 100% of an individual's phenotype is controlled by genes!

But I post this for two reasons. Here is something that I object to that the author above asserts:

...we see that the blog owner, as well as most commenters, choose William D.Hamilton, Ronald A. Fischer, John B.S. Haldane, John Maynard Smith, John Trivers, Richard Dawkins, Edwards O.Wilson, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker and Francis Crick as great heroes of biology...All these people have made great contributions to evolutionary theory. Yet, they were content to make their mathematical models (or play with molecules) without feeling a great urge to test their applicability to the real world....

Ignoring the fact that I was a bit more parsimonious with praise than the author implies, William Hamilton, the center-piece of the post quoted, died because he caught something while doing fieldwork.

Second, the author continues:

It is possible to go through college, and grad school, and get a PhD in one of the molecular fields without ever taking courses in evolution, ecology, behavior, anatomy, physiology or embryology.

This is rich, the author is trying to connect us to conservative Creationists (the other side of the coin of right-wing determinism) and ends up parroting one of their classic lines: that much of biology proceeds fine without evolution, that it is not necessary for a molecular vantage point! Additionally, I am highly skeptical that someone who does biological sciences would get away with not taking any evolution (outside of a few fundamentalist schools). I did biochemistry and had to take the standard year long general biology introduction that had an ecology and evolution term.

I'll stop now. I put that blog on the blogroll because I feel I'm looking into another universe when I read it. In Defenders of the Truth there is quite a great deal about the fact that the original left-wing scientists who smeared E. O. Wilson went to great efforts to portray the sociobiologists and their fellow travellers as right-wing genetic determinists, Wilson's vanilla liberalism, Trivers' radicalism and Dawkins' reflexive leftishness were irrelevant, they were all recast as conservatives so that righteous scientist activists could debunk and defy them.

Personally, I think the author underplays the convergence between fields, the multi-level and interactionist dynamic that is reshaping modern biology, as the Red Sea between molecules and organisms that rose up in the 1960s begins to recede. Molecular Evolution is emblematic of the new non-hierarchical relationship between organismic and molecular that have emerged out of the synthetic dialectic.

Keep the comments polite. I don't want this to be a flame war.

Addendum: Of course not everything the author says about the blog is off base. But below 70% fidelity is failing. I don't grade on a bell curve! And one more thing, I made it clear that I thought Sewall Wright was lesser to R. A. Fisher, but he was not second tier. Wright might have emphasized genetic drift while Fisher focused on selection, but both were mathematical geneticists who had also delved into the real world (Wright was a fly guy from what I remember, and Fisher started his career at an isolated agricultural outpost where he implemented his practical ideas about randomization and controls). You can see that they were two sides of the same coin if you google Wright-Fisher model, the typology just doesn't hold up with even the most cursory of critiques. Also, I found the attempt to lump in organismic but mathematical evolutionary biologists like Hamilton and Smith with molecular types confusing. Since the author is opposed to both, they must be on the same side. Lynn Margulis would be appalled.

Posted by razib at 02:49 AM