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Planet Earth

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory blogging, chapter 6

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanFebruary 14, 2008 1:06 PM


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Chapters read:1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7. Chapter 6 of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory was short. Yes, you read that right, this was a short chapter! It was only 38 pages, but it was also one of the most readable and fast paced. Additionally, Stephen Jay Gould told me things I didn't know beforehand. Partly this has to be a function of the fact that because he focused on geology I was just ignorant, though his revisionism of 19th century Catastrophism and Uniformitarianism seemed well done to me. But, as I said, this is the chapter where my own knowledge has been the thinnest so far, so take that for what it's worth. Gould makes the claim here that Charles Darwin was wedded to a very narrow and specific view of phyletic gradualism which was congenial with an extremely old earth not subject to catastrophic events. The reason for this, according to Gould, is that in that way Darwin could emphasize intraspecific competition and biotic parameters as the predominant driver of evolution through selection. Environmental factors were exogenous, and Darwin takes a Malthusian view which contends that by and large population pressure was more important than shifts in climate, soil, etc. And through intraspecific competition Darwin rescues the idea that species over time become perfected toward their adaptive peaks; that is, progress exists even in evolution and there is an element of directionality. In contrast, rapid climatic or geological changes might result in mass extinctions and other rapid evolutionary events which would go against the grain of phyletic gradualism through micoevolutionary process. And so with that Darwin aligned himself with Charles Lyell's Uniformitarianism and against Georges Cuvier's Catastrophism. The standard narrative is that Cuvier was a Creationist, that Catastrophists were attempting to save the Biblical narrative despite the data. Gould contends this is a myth; rather, Cuvier and the Catastrophists were the empiricists while Lyell and his fellow travelers were ones who were more likely to extrapolate from data and assume from a priori axioms. A similar sort of revisionism also affected perception of the controversy about the age of the earth during the late 19th century, when Lord Kelvin deduced from the temperature of the crust that the world could be no more than 100 million years old, and perhaps as young as 10 million years. Today we are told that Kelvin was arrogant, and that the natural historians, geologists and biologists, stood their ground and were vindicated when radioactivity showed that the world could potentially be much older. Gould claims that the reality is that most geologists were satisfied with 100 million years, and biologists more sympathetic to saltation such as Thomas Huxley did not object much to Kelvin's assertions about the age of the earth (though there were more general rebuttals to the imperialism of physicists). Rather, it was Darwin in particular because of his adherence to phyletic gradualism who refused to bend the knee! All I can say is that Gould has made Charles Darwin into quite the ultra-Darwinian to this point....

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