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Not by DesignReview - Not by Design
Retiring Darwin's Watchmaker
by John Reiss
University of California Press, 2009
Review by Christina Behme, Ph.D.
May 15th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 20)

To say that the topic of evolution has been covered extensively is an understatement. The Wikipedia entry cites 288 sources and interested readers with all levels of background knowledge can chose from a wide selection of publications. The easily accessible Zimmer (2001) and Dawkins (2006), the more demanding but rewarding Gould (2002), Maynard Smith & Szathmáry (1997) and Mayr (2001) offer introductions for general readers, Hull & Ruse (2007) and Okasha (2007) for philosophers, and recently Hurford (2011) for language evolution. Countless volumes are available for those who want to explore more narrow and/or specialized topics. Any new contribution to such an oversaturated market runs the risk of being ignored. It is my hope that Not by Design will not meet that fate. Written by a zoologist, who has read widely in philosophy and history, it offers a rare synthesis of insights from quite diverse fields.

The chapters are thematically grouped into four parts. Part 1, Prolegomena, lays out the problem and introduces philosophical background assumptions. Part 2, How did we get into this mess, covers in some detail the development of philosophical thinking about teleology and 'conditions for existence' from Socrates and Lucretius to Cuvier and Darwin. Part 3, Evolution in Mendelian Populations, describes the mathematical foundations of evolutionary thinking, and Part 4, The conditions for existence and evolutionary biology, offers a synthesis of the important, yet often misunderstood notions, of adaptedness and natural selection from a biological perspective. A short Epilogue touches on the political debate between evolutionary biology and intelligent design, and the extensive glossary and 40 pages of references will be particularly helpful to readers new to the topic and/or students from diverse fields.

The first part of the volume provides a detailed overview of the historical development of teleological debates. Reiss considers this to be of importance because (often misleading) design metaphors abound in the evolution literature. Therefore, he attempts "to show … that the analogy between natural selection and a designer is both pernicious and unnecessary" (xiii). Recently published confusions about the mechanisms of evolution by eminent philosophers (e.g., Fodor, 2008; Fodor & Piattelli-Palmarini, 2010, McGilvray, 2012) and distinguished linguists (e.g., Chomsky, 2007, 2009; Piattelli-Palmarini & Uriagereka, 2004) show that clearing up fundamental misunderstandings is indeed needed. According to Reiss we need to go back all the way to ancient Greek philosophy to understand why many authors mistake metaphors for mechanisms and draw the wrong conclusions about the nature of adaptation, natural selection, and fitness. Plato and Socrates used teleological arguments to explain the order of the universe. Teleology accounts for the apparent functionality of organisms by invoking purposeful design and this tradition has shaped natural philosophy beyond the scientific revolution. Darwin's (1859) work was greatly influenced by the predominant natural philosophy of his time. Obviously, Darwin himself was careful to stress that natural selection is no purposive force. Nevertheless, he defended the use of teleological metaphors and relied on their explanatory power. Reiss suggests that an alternative philosophical view, which he traces back to Greek atomists, can overcome the limitations of teleological thinking. Especially French atheistic materialists of the 18th century combined "an Epicurean antifinalism with Newtonian mechanics [and] developed the first modern evolutionary theories" (p. 60). This development culminated in Cuvier's principle of the conditions for existence that provides an argument against a teleological position for natural selection. Cuvier's thought is presumably ignored by many evolutionists because he "appears as the villain, the fixist, creationist conservative, who used his immense power and prestige to ridicule the forward-looking – if misguided – evolutionary theories of his rivals" (p. 85). But Cuvier's principle eliminates the need for recourse to a designer by showing that since organisms exist they must logically meet the conditions for existence: "If we observe that an organism exists then it must be possible for it to exist, but this does not mean it was designed to exist or that it had to exist" (p. 18, original emphasis). This shift to a conditional teleology helps separating adaptation from existence and allows a better account of natural functions.

The second half of the book examines the rise of the modern evolutionary synthesis and requires solid mathematical background knowledge on part of the reader. Reiss explores in detail how the teleological aspect of Darwin's theory has affected the mathematical formulation of population genetics, especially the influential work of Wright and Haldane. Here the failure to overcome the conceptual separation between adaptedness and existence resulted in a "lack of clarity over such fundamental issues as the relation of natural selection to population growth, the meaning of 'genetic load', and the distinction between natural selection and genetic drift" (p. 153). In a very technical discussion Reiss shows how the confusion between absolute and relative fitness arose, how it affected the notion of 'adaptive landscape' and lead to several fallacious or meaningless conclusions that still hamper evolutionary debates. Further, Reiss provides a detailed account of the different notions associated with the term 'adaptedness' and shows how equivocation between them can lead to confusion. He differentiates between several types of natural selection: 'Broad Sense', 'Medium Sense' and 'Narrow Sense' Natural Selection. Broad Sense Natural Selection has to satisfy the conditions for existence for individuals. Medium Sense Natural Selection accounts for the differential survival of classes of organisms and/or changes in populations over time. Narrow Sense Natural Selection refers to differential survival and reproduction among genotypic or phenotypic classes or individuals. Only the last reflects the common understanding of Natural Selection and Darwin and Wallace's use of the term. An overview of the well-known cases of experimental evolution (bacteria, peppered moths, and Darwin's finches) shows "that there is no reason to interpret the role of (narrow sense) natural selection in evolution as anything other than a factor maintaining adaptedness in the face of environmental change and associated changes in the mode of adaptedness (lifestyle)" (p. 277). Throughout Reiss insists that it is essential to draw a distinction between the concept of natural selection as a mechanism of evolution, in a probabilistic sense and its use as principle of interpretation that allows us to understand the process of evolution.

Not by Design aims mainly at biologists who are intimately familiar with the empirical aspects of evolutionary work but need more awareness of some of the conceptual background assumptions and philosophical underpinnings. This audience will certainly profit from the volume. Philosophers engaged in evolutionary debates also should put it on their reading list. For them, mainly the second part that shows how philosophical work is utilized by scientists will be of interest. Further, it will allow them to gain a better understanding of the complexity of current evolutionary theorizing and, hopefully, reduce the temptation to engage in fruitless armchair speculation. It is important that philosophers offer help to specialists in other fields but "those who wish to help their neighbors are well advised to spend a little time discovering just what it is that those neighbors do" (Block & Kitcher, 2010). Not by Design is a good place to make relevant discoveries.

 

 

References:

 

Block, N. & Kitcher, P. (2010). Misunderstanding Darwin: Natural selection's secular critics get it wrong. Boston Review. http://bostonreview.net/BR35.2/block_kitcher.php

Chomsky, N. (2009). Conclusion. In J. Uriagereka, M. Piattelli-Palmarini, & P. Salaburu (eds.) Of Minds and Language: The Basque Country Encounter with Noam Chomsky. (pp. 379-401). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chomsky, N. (2007). Some Simple Evo-devo Theories about Language: How Might They Be True of Language? Presented at Conference on Language, Stony Brook University.

Darwin, Charles (1859). On the Origin of Species. London: John Murray.    

Dawkins, R. (2006). The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fodor, J. & Piattelli-Palmarini, M. (2010). What Darwin Got Wrong. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Gould, S. (2002). The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Cambridge: Belknap Press.

Hull, D. & Ruse, M. (2007). The Cambridge Companion to the Philosophy of Biology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hurford, J. (2011). The Origins of Grammar: Language in the Light of Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Maynard Smith, J. & Szathmáry, E. (1997). The Major Transitions in Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mayr, E. (2001). What Evolution Is. New York: Basic Books.

Okasha, S. (2007). Evolution and the Levels of Selection. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Piattelli-Palmarini, M., & Uriagereka, J. (2004). The Immune Syntax: The Evolution of the Language Virus. In L. Jenkins (Ed.), Variations and Universals in Biolinguistics (pp. 341-377). Amsterdam: Elsevier North-Holland.

Zimmer, C. (2001). Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea. London: HarperCollins.

 

© 2012 Christina Behme

 

Christina Behme. Ph.D., Philosophy Department, Dalhousie University


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