Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Suck it or not- the fecudity anthem
For some time now, I have had passing discussions with a friend about the rift between Richard Dawkins and his "Selfish Gene" gene-selection theories and Stephen Jay Gould and his emphasis on organism/population selection. Quite often I hear of how Dawkins was somehow "discredited" some time after The Selfish Gene was published, but that the ideas were valuable insomuch as they were premature and published on the precipace of a great revolution in genetics and biotechnology. I attempted to argue this viewpoint and make generalizations about levels of selection for and in organisms but found myself talking in circles. So here is my blow-by-blow of the debate between two of the titans of evolutionary biology:
Dawkins- fetishizer of late model foreign sedans
The Selfish Gene put forward a gene-centric view of evolution, one which describes genes, rather than organisms as the unit of selection. In short, Dawkins says that a gene, the material which gives an organism a particular characteristic (phenotype), is responsible for driving evolution. The gene, through random chance and its ability to confer preferential fitness to its vessel, survives. Although the genes themselves do not "behave", the gene level is the level of organization where selection acts. Organisms are merely "survival machines" for genes.
This explaination became particularly popular because it made sense of a number of oberved but until-then counter-intuitive phenomena, namely kin selection. Preferrential and protective treatment by siblings seems to fly in the face of an organism-based selection theory but makes a great deal of sense when you explain such behavior as a protectiveness for genes. After all, your genome is more similar to your siblings than it is to any body else's. Essentially, Dawkins describes such behavior as being the natural consequence of genes building machines to protect like genes.
Behaviors or charicteristics that cannot be classified as strictly phenotype-derived are put under the classification of "memes"- info genes- where units of information are culturally transmitted.
Gould- thug denizen of bus station fashion
Gould was a paleontologist and curse-era Red Sox fan, so naturally he took the long view on biological issues. He believed that Dawkins was using a sort of "Darwinian fundamentalism" that was not unlike Social Darwinism and Genetic Determinism of times past. Even though Dawkins makes biological/mathematical justifications of pacifism in The Selfish Gene, Gould dismissed these examples as retrofittings of theory to conform to existing society as viewed through the Dawkins' own disposition. Furthermore, Gould's broad based view of cladistics (the science of biological classification) over geological history led him to believe that the expansive cascades of interactions (in life and in development) between broad groups of species or organisms within a species could not be explained so simply without empirical evidence. Furthermore, Gould felt that Dawkins did little to explain the herky-jerky stops and starts of species (and gene) proliferation at varying rates through geologic time. Dawkins really presents very little empirical evidence for his theorizing in The Selfish Gene, written before the modern era of genetic biotechnology.
In short, Gould felt that Dawkins was making a mistake by ignoring (as he saw it) the vast complexity of biological interactions in favor of a more unifying, dogmatic view of evolution wrapped in appealing and sexy rhetoric.
My take- makin peace like Tookie
Dawkins theory is sexy, Gould's theory is not, by virtue of its age. However, it's hard to assign (in my mind) too much agency to genes. Genes are the agents of evolution, phenotypes are the agents of selection. However, genes are pretty passive actors- they are subject to random mutation and crossing over during meiosis. It's kind of a chicken and egg argument in my mind- do genotypes passively control the preservation of phenotypes or do phenotypes actively control the preservation of genotypes? Without one, there is no other.
I understand Gould's concern about the retrofitting of a theory to confirm observed social phenomena and the potential distortion that could be wrought by those who seek to use "Darwinism" to confirm social beliefs. However, that point is largely moot- social liberalism, although admirable in my mind, cannot be used as a scientific defense, only empirical evidence can.
I'm pretty rusty on my evolutionary theory, so if anybody has any corrections or opinions they'd like to offer, have at it. I need to get my brains back in shape for when I return to school, and this is as good a forum as any.
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Without a strong rhyme to step to
I've been kind of neglecting this here blog for the last few weeks- other tubes have been keeping me all distracted. Here are some good links I've come across of late that will help me (and you) get back in the swing of things.
-St. Louis (where I just spent a weekend) has seen very high levels of development in its flood plain since the catastrophic flood of 1993. I remember flying over the Mississippi/Missouri confluence during that flood- it was like a small ocean- insane. People are obviously getting more attuned to coastal and riparian development since Katrina.
-One of the best blogs I've seen in a while- Endangered Ugly Things. Their tagline encapsulates the blog perfectly: "Sure, they're not cute. But they're at least as important as your fuzzy thing." I'm adding it to the blogroll as soon as I post this.
The Southern Cassowaries got their eye on the gold chain
-There was a scary fire in Philly a few weeks ago- a salvage yard in South Philly caught fire and spread disgusting smoke over most of the city. I was in Center City that night, several miles away from the fire, and I could barely breathe. Sometimes you forget how close we are to extreme catastrophes. Many remember or are familiar with the 1984 Bhopal disaster, when a poisonous cloud from a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India killed 3,000 instantly and at least 15,000 afterwards. Apparently, there have been numerous incidents of this magnitude in the United States which didn't cause nearly this level of carnage due to dumb luck- a change in wind direction or a holiday parade causing a town to empty out entirely (sorry, but I couldn't find a citation on the internet, but this was told to me by a university researcher).
This sort of thing can happen almost any time for any number of reasons- it's frightening. It makes you hope that the government takes it's responsibility as the executor of the public trust seriously. In China, where the government seems to only give a fuck arbitrarily, there was an 80 km long benzene slick in 2005. 2005! For decades chemists have been avoiding working with benzene because of its well-known carcinogenic properties- but it is most certainly in use in factories near where you or I live.