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Health

Geneticists are narrow a**holes?!?!

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanJanuary 28, 2008 9:09 PM

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Over at Greg's place, Brian Switek notes:

Thanks for the link Greg (and thanks for the compliment, Steve). I've generally been unimpressed with Coyne's popular articles, especially given that he seems to go out of his way to attack Gould and evo-devo whenever it seems fit to do so (which is just about anytime, apparently). Criticism and controversy is fine (even expected), but the way Coyne reacted to Judson's post was a bit too harsh and condescending. Part of the problem, I think, is that there doesn't seem to be a good definition of what a hopeful monster is or is not, what a saltation is or is not, etc. When I had a look through the literature there have been confirmations and refutations of these concepts but everyone defines them differently, so it the confusion seems to create a lot of problems. Still, from what I can tell Coyne's view of evolution is awfully narrow, and it's a view that many of us don't seem to share.

First, I would recommend Brian check out Speciation, it's a good read! Jerry Coyne in his popular stuff has a delivery which people might charitably term "bracing." But his science is cool. And at the end of the day that's the measure of a man. As for Coyne being narrow, I think his criticisms of evo-devo can come off as intemperate, but Sean Carroll is making some big claims. With that comes fame, and the fury of the establishment for undermining reigning orthodoxies. The reality is that in science most of the time the orthodoxy is orthodoxy for a reason, it is a consensus derived from decades of results and not pure dogma from on high; there really are reasons to believe! Finally, I'll admit to being somewhat of a partisan of a narrow view of evolution; or, more precisely, I think the reductionistic bottom-up mentality of evolutionary and molecular genetics has a lot of clarity to offer. I'm sure that this vantage point misses a lot, but I really don't know what. That is, do people really believe that evolution is not scale independent? If so, how so? A few years ago Bryan Caplan wrote Why I Am Not an Austrian Economist, where he said:

Given this, I conclude that while self-labeled Austrian economists have some valid contributions to make to economics, these are simply not distinctive enough to sustain a school of thought. The task of developing an alternate Austrian paradigm has largely failed, producing an abundance of meta-economics (philosophy, methodology, and history of thought), but few substantive results. Whatever Austrian economists have that is worth saying should be simply be addressed to the broader economics profession, which (in spite of itself) remains eager for original, true, and substantive ideas.

Granted, I've criticized the simplifications of neo-classical economists myself, but sometimes to begin a process of correcting those very simplifications you need to start from some spare assumptions. Though I am interested in ideas such as group level selection (see my posts on the topic) quite often I feel like the same thing that Caplan describes is going on in these discussions where geneticists come out to be narrow-minded bad-guys; a lot of the critique involves foundations and philosophy. But at the end of the day the criticism never seems to move to generating an alternative view of the same crisp clarity. Jerry Coyne has been spending his years in the trenches working on questions such as the origin of species; he's surely wrong a lot of the time, but he has been making substantive contributions which broadens our understanding of nature. Coyne won't be penning bestsellers anytime soon, but that's fine by me.

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