Friday, January 11, 2008

Evolution: rivalry between the sciences

The advancement of evolutionary thought is most definitely a multidisciplinary affair. At its core, it requires an understanding of natural history (paleontology) and genetics - the macro and the micro, if you will.

They're all meant to be united in a detailed understanding of biology, but writings on the subject often betray the specialist's perspective on the other scientists involved in the quest for knowledge.

What I have read sometimes reveals the bias of the particular discipline. If I personally have a bias, it would be towards the sweeping overview of natural history. I find geneticists (such as John Maynard Smith and George C Williams), to paraphrase Mark Twain, all seem to talk about sex but not do anything about it. This apparently places me around the middle rung in the hierarchy.

I think it was Stephen Jay Gould who revealed that a traditional bias of paleontologists was that taxonomists (those essential scientists who analyse similarities and differences between species) are sometimes disparaged as being akin to stamp collectors.

John Maynard Smith in turn revealed that a traditional attitude to paleontologists had been to wish they would "go away and find another fossil, and stop bothering the grownups".
Smith bookended this with context. By way of introduction, he claimed that in the modern synthesis of evolutionary theory that emerged in the 1940s, paleontologists took part, but essentially only to confirm the facts uncovered by "the rest of us", and not to propose any new theory.

This at the beginning of an essay that ultimately praised paleontologists, and Gould in particular for advancing theory in recent times. Then again, Smith admitted to some surprise at the knowledge revealed in the narratives of paleontologists (ably assisted by geologists, climatologists and the like). Genetic analysis is relatively silent on major events such as mass extinctions.

Paleontology is often regarded as being insufficiently hard a science specifically because it often inclines to persuasive narratives, whereas geneticists would have you believe they own the realm of detailed analysis and logic.

Yet the geological and fossil records are thoroughly essential for an understanding of the origins, history and direction of life.


Maynard Smith, J (1984): Did Darwin Get It Right? Penguin, London.

Williams, G.C. 1996. Plan and Purpose in Nature. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.


Anonymous said...

Did you know that the Chinese have no distinct physics or biology students?

I am writing up a new idea that you will most definitely be interested in, did you want me to to email it to you (It is about one particular evolutionary case)


S Simmonds said...


Not sure what you mean about the students. At the very least, I know there is quite an active paleontology community in China - several major discoveries over the past 20 years, including a fossil lode that rivals (complements) the Burgess Shale for its Cambrian soft tissue fossils.

New ideas are how we get paradigm shifts, so I'm always interested to hear. I don't have to agree with them, but the discussion can be enlightening on both sides.