Evo devo in the real world

I disagree with Razib Khan on a lot of things, but he’s exactly right on recent fads in biology.

Periodically I get frankly stupid comments that seem to imply that the incredible swell of results coming out of molecuar genetics and genomics are revolutionizing our understanding of evolutionary and population genetics. Over the past generation it’s been alternative splicing, then gene regulation and evo-devo, and now epigenetics is all the rage. The results are interesting, fascinating, and warrant deeper inquiry (I happen to see graduate school admission applications for genetics, and I can tell you that conservatively one out of three applicants mention an interest in epigenetics; the hype is grounded in reality, as epigenetics may be a pretty big deal in human health that we can effect).

All those phenomena he mentioned are real and often very interesting, but they’re not changing deep concepts in evolutionary biology. You’re most often going to hear that they’re revolutionary from people who don’t understand evolution very well.

He’s got a good assessment of evo devo, too.

There are some Christians who assert that their religion is the natural completion of Judaism and Greek philosophy.* There are others who rather argue that Christianity was a radical revolution against all that came before. Historically the latter has been a minority view. The Marcionites failed, and the Jewish origins of Christianity were sewn into the fabric of its foundational scripture in the form of the Old Testament. And despite periodic revolts, the reality is that intellectual Christianity speaks with a Greek philosophical voice. Ultimately this debate is of purely academic interest for me. But it exhibits a similarity with academic arguments and debates. In Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo
Sean B. Carroll takes a traditionalist approach which suggests that novel results from the new field of evolutionary developmental biology firmly supports and extends the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis. Carroll’s book is under 400 pages. It is elegantly written and economical of prose, and it proposes an evolution in our thinking about the nature of the variation which serves as the raw material for natural selection. Contrast that with the late Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, which came in at nearly 1,500 pages. Published in the early 2000s, much of it was written earlier. There are only two references to epigenetics within it. If Gould had not died in 2002 he would probably have come out with a new revised edition by now, and I’m rather confident that epigenetics would loom very large indeed. Though Sean B. Carroll is a very eminent scientist, he remains a bit player on the public intellectual scene. That’s because he does not promise revolution, he comes bearing a twist on the orthodoxy. In contrast, Gould’s prolix prose was rich with the promise of paradigms shattered and lost, and grand visions of heretics risen up to prophetic status, as the statues of the grand old men of the Neo-Darwinian orthodoxy were torn down to make way for the new idols (this old Paul Krugman slap at Gould is pretty on point about why he was so popular in the 1990s). Reality is more prosaic than intellectual revolts plotted in used bookstores!

I agree, except that I don’t think Krugman’s comments on Gould were that much on point. He dismisses punctuated equilibrium as wrong; it’s not. The problem with it is what Khan is saying here, that Gould took what should have been a good idea within the field of population genetics and puffed it up as revolutionary.

As for Carroll…yes, the big push in his evo devo book was for more recognition of the importance of regulation in evolution, which I think fits quite well within mainstream genetics. Some people seemed to bristle at the idea that cis regulatory elements could possibly be as important as coding genes, but they’re just cranky and wrong. I’ve also argued that evo devo is not revolutionary.

At least evo devo never was seized upon by creationists, like punctuated equilibrium (it’s hopeful monsters all over again! They just invented PE to leap over gaps in the fossil record!), nor was it rapturously embraced by New Age cranks, like epigenetics (You can change your evolution just by thinking about it!). I think that’s because most of evo devo’s proponents were fairly sober about presenting it as a facet of evolutionary theory, not a replacement for it.

Wait! I wrote that last paragraph and then realized that yes, there have been cranks touting evo devo. How could I have forgotten Susan Mazur and her Altenburg freak-out? And then I remembered Rupert Sheldrake and his morphogenetic fields. Nope, sorry, evo devo has suffered with its share of weirdos, too.


  1. stevenjohnson2 says

    You and Razib Khan both agree that Krugman correctly characterized the acceptable evolutionists, except for the point on Gould. So the three of you agree with this: “The really amazing thing I have found when reading evolutionary theory is how little they talk about evolution as an ongoing process. Instead, they tend to try to explain what we see as the result of a finished process, in which each species has adapted fully to its environment – an environment that includes both other members of its own species and members of other species.”

    This admission that the acceptable evolutionists nearly universally assume that natural selection has unlimited power to optimize species I submit is a confession. And it is all the more convincing because it was inadvertent. I am aware that when diplomatically useful practically all acceptable evolutionists deny being panselectionists and give lip service to these things (and neutral evolution and random genetic drift too,) so long as they don’t undermine the genetic determinism by natural selection they have made a pillar of their practice. Evidence for punctuated equilibrium etc. is always deemed over-hyped whenever it is presented as undermining a version of evolutionary theory in which Evolution can function as Paley’s watchmaker. Evolution functions as God for people who don’t like church I suppose. As near as I can make out, epigenetics etc., insofar as they are denying the assumption that everything is optimized isn’t overhped, but overdue.

    Also, who seriously thinks that neoclassical economics has a sound scientific grasp on reality? The similarities between evolutionary theory and neoclassical economics, which is blatantly ideological, strongly suggests the presence of ideological commitments threatening the practice of evolutionary science.

  2. Scott Simmons says

    Given where that screed ended up, I’m not sure there’s any point poking at it, but what the hell, let’s give it the old college try!

    1. Khan appears to think that Krugman’s critique of Gould is generally accurate. I’m not at all sure what an ‘acceptable evolutionist’ is, nor what either Krugman or Khan thinks one is, nor what Khan thinks of the rest of Krugman’s speech, which he links for the purpose of referring approvingly to said critique of Gould.

    2. Myers agrees with Khan’s essay, *except* for Khan’s approval of Krugman’s critique of Gould. He does not mention any other elements of Krugman’s speech, and certainly not the part you quote, and does not mention or approve any of Krugman’s supposed take on ‘acceptable evolutionists’, whatever those are. So there’s no indication above that Myers, Khan, and Krugman all agree on *anything whatsoever*.

    3. Nobody, even Krugman, said anything about natural selection having “unlimited power to optimize species”, either in the affirmative or negative. Nor whether that’s a position that all ‘acceptable evolutionists’ must hold … Gaah! What the hell is an ‘acceptable evolutionist’?

    Screw it. Let me start over.

    Johnson, you’re an idiot. Neither you, nor anyone reading your semi-literate screed, has any clue what you’re babbling about. Please go away and don’t come back until you can pass a grade 6 reading comprehension and essay writing test. Thank you.

  3. Lady Mondegreen says

    This admission that the acceptable evolutionists nearly universally assume that natural selection has unlimited power to optimize species I submit is a confession

    Having heard PZ lecture on the limits of natural selection and adaptationist thinking, I submit that you have no idea what you’re babbling about.

  4. chrislawson says

    Yeah, I generally like Krugman and dislike Gould, but those criticisms were way off base. At least he didn’t say punctuated equilibrium was wrong, just overhyped, but still the dismissive attitude was excessive.

    And as for those who think regulatory mechanisms are not as important as transcribed genes, I guess they also think you can learn how to speak a language by reading a dictionary.

  5. says

    I say:

    “I agree, except that I don’t think Krugman’s comments on Gould were that much on point. “

    stevenjohnson2 then says:

    You and Razib Khan both agree that Krugman correctly characterized the acceptable evolutionists, except for the point on Gould.

    So I reject Krugman’s point, and you read that as agreeing with Krugman.

    Fuck me, but you’re an idiot.

  6. stevenjohnson2 says

    JohnnieCanuck: The point was perfectly clear, which is why others were instantly offended when they immediately got it.. And the phrase “word salad” actually has a meaning, which you are misusing. Your advice on punctuation is noted. But I can’t see any reason to rate your literacy highly.

    Scott Simmons: 1. It’s Razib Khan (an unreliable writer in my opinion, even if you guys think differently,) who calls the Krugman piece a “slap at Gould.” Insofar as it is, it’s a ringing endorsement of the real evolutionary science because it resembles neoclassical economics. Acceptable scientists like him (Paul Krugman) use math, unlike an unacceptable incompetent like Gould who doesn’t. And frankly, if you really were the good reader you imagine yourself to be, you’d think the target was John Kenneth Galbraith. Taking a cheap shot at Gould was playing to the gallery who today would be an evopsych conference. Reading the Krugman piece’s point as an attack on Gould is to misread it.

    2. The Krugman piece is about the superior claim to science of orthodox evolutionists who focus on organisms that are optimal for their environment, and use equations! Commenting on the few lines against Galbraith (er, Gould) is like approving a guy who cites a Trump speech on Muslim immigrants but remarking that you don’t agree with insult to Hilary Clinton. You know what that kind of thing means, and that’s exactly the kind of stunt Myers pulled here.

    3. Yes, Krugman did, as in the quote cited. (I had trouble picking just one for the sake of brevity.) MYers read the Krugman speech, which insisted on the scientific superiority, no, the scientificity of treating all organisms as fully adapted, optimized. as opposed to unacceptable views like Gould’s. And all he had to say was he didn’t think Krugman should have dissed Gould for being wrong? Razib Khan had no good reason for citing an economist for support in a dispute on evolution. If, like Myers, you let that slide, just to quibble on one point, you are making a statement, like Myers.

    Lady Mondegreen: Then Myers is contradicting himself. This should be a problem for you and Myers.

    chrislawson: The dismissive attitude towards Gould was an aside. It was literally a few lines. The reasons for rejecting Gould as unacceptable as genuinely scientific are detailed rather clearly. And those reasons are not rebutted by simply asserting that Gould wasn’t wrong. As to the remarks on evodevo, I didn’t say anything on that.

    PZ Myers: Krugman’s point is Razib Khan’s point. You agreed with Khan. And you only quibbled with Krugman’s logical conclusions that Gould’s work was unacceptable as scientific, which is trivial. Your problem here is that I’m not the idiot.

  7. says

    When your only argument is to blatantly misrepresent what I said, I think we can safely say you aren’t worth talking to. Bye, stevenjohnson2.