Michael Ruse—Is Darwinism past its ‘sell by’ date? The challenge of evo-devo

How can I resist an opportunity to see Ruse gibbering on the stage? I’m curious to see whether he annoys or enlightens. It could go either way.

He’s not going to talk about evo-devo! OK, I’m already annoyed.

Criticizes the infamous New Scientist cover, “Darwin Was Wrong”; received email from Paul Nelson (boo) claiming the edifice of darwinism is crumbling; Rudy Raff has written that evolution requires development to remain relevant. Are today’s evolutionists genuinely Darwinian or not?

Plans to pick on something that was self-consciously in Darwin’s thinking. Darwin became an evolutionist in 1837 while analyzing the specimens he had collected on his voyage; he became a Darwinian in 1838 when he realized the mechanism of adaptive change, natural selection.

William Whewell was a major influence. Whewell tried to define good science: identifying a true cause, which is a hypothesis that explains the evidence. Darwin doesn’t see evolution at work, but the evidence is marshalled to point to the hypothesis. He’s not doing the original research, but picking it up and putting it together in a new and powerful way. Fossils, biogeography, homology, embryology, etc. all were assembled to support his theory.

Did Darwin trigger a paradigm shift? Huxley didn’t appreciate natural selection at all. It took the rediscovery of Mendel, popgen, etc. to bring about a major appreciation of the theory. Further revision with the synthetic theory that incorporated molecular biology.

Positively reviewed Dawkins’ latest book, and Dawkins is contemptuous of eyewitness testimony, but says the theory demands respect because of the volume of evidence, which is clearly in the spirit of Darwin and Whewell.

EO Wilson’s work on ants show the amazing specialization of castes in particular distributions. This is material Darwin never considered, but Wilson is using the tools of evolutionary biology to explain his hypotheses.

Pre-Cambrian was terra-incognito to Darwin; he had many ad hoc hypotheses to explain why we don’t have specimens from that era. Modern explanations do a better job of fitting the pre-Cambrian into a Darwinian framework.

We know much more about human evolution, extinction, geographical distributions (plate tectonics) than Darwin did, but these are still thoroughly explained by Darwin’s ideas.

Hox genes show deep homology between flies and humans, also interpreted in a Darwinian context.

Draws an analogy with the Volkswagen, which was completely different between the 40s and modern day, with no parts that are identical, and yet it is obviously linked. We will still be celebrating Darwin 100 years from now because we will still be using his ideas.

OK, not bad, not too annoying. Needed more evo-devo. Philosophers sure do talk a lot; this talk was definitely not as information-dense as the biology sessions.