Idle theories are the devil’s workshop

In the 1970s Richard C. Lewontin wrote about how the allozyme era finally allowed for the testing of theories which had long been perfected and refined but lay unused like elegant machines without a task. Almost immediately the empirical revolution that Lewontin began in the 1960s kickstarted debates about the nature of selection and neutrality on the molecular level, now that molecular variation was something they could actually explore.

This led to further debates between “neutralists” and “selectionists.” Sometimes the debates were quite acrimonious and personal. The most prominent neutralist, Motoo Kimura, took deep offense to the scientific criticisms of the theoretical population geneticist John Gillespie. The arguments around neutral theory in the 1970s eventually spilled over into other areas of evolutionary biology, and prominent public scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould got pulled into it (neither of these two were population geneticists or molecular evolutionists, so one wonders what they truly added besides bluster and publicity).

Today we do not have these sorts of arguments from what I can tell. Why? I think it is the same reason that is the central thesis of Benjamin Friedman’s The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. In it, the author argues that liberalism, broadly construed, flourishes in an environment of economic growth and prosperity. As the pie gets bigger zero-sum conflicts are attenuated.

What’s happened in empirical studies of evolutionary biology over the last decade or so is that in genetics a surfeit of genomic data has swamped the field. Some scholars have even suggested that in evolutionary genomics we have way more data than can be analyzed or understood (in contrast to medical genomics, where more data is still useful and necessary). Scientists still have disagreements, but instead of bickering or posturing, they’ve been trying to dig out from the under the mountain of data.

It’s easy to be gracious to your peers when you’re rich in data….

One thought on “Idle theories are the devil’s workshop

  1. Scientists still have disagreements, but instead of bickering or posturing, they’ve been trying to dig out from the under the mountain of data.

    But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators empirical biologists, data scientists and geneticists has succeeded; and the glory of Europe speculative evolutionary biology is extinguished forever.

    (with apologies to the late Edmund Burke)

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