Jerry Coyne seems to be rather kindly posting the reviews of “What Darwin Got Wrong” so that we can all read them in one place. Or, at least, all the negative ones.
The latest is here, and is short enough that I can quote all of Coyne’s article. I can’t access the full review, so I have no idea what else was said.
“Crack evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma (from SUNY Stony Brook) assesses Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s What Darwin Got Wrong in this week’s Science. It would be an understatement to say that the book doesn’t fare too well: the review is called “Two critics without a clue.”
These theories of natural selection work: they successfully predict research outcomes. John Werren predicted and experimentally confirmed that the first of two female parasitic wasps who lay eggs in a host insect lays a more female-biased brood than the second (2). No such prediction could be made without selection theory. Among countless other examples, the pattern of variation in DNA sequences that betokens a “selective sweep” of an advantageous mutation was predicted years before such data could be obtained. Natural selection theory makes successful predictions across a huge range of biological phenomena, and it inspires countless fruitful research programs. What more can one ask of a theory? Contrast that with the ludicrous analogy with which Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini end: “organisms ‘catch’ their phenotypes from their ecologies in something like the way that they catch their colds from their ecologies.” They helpfully explain that the similarity consists of there being both environmental and endogenous instrumental variables. I look forward to reading about the research that this formulation will inspire.
Mayr once wrote that “Evolution seems to be a subject on which everybody thinks he is qualified to express an expert opinion” (3). Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini show little familiarity with the vast literature on genetic variation, experimental analyses of natural selection, or other topics on which they philosophically expound. They are blithely agnostic about the causes of evolution and apparently uninterested in fostering any program of research. Because they are prominent in their own fields, some readers may suppose that they are authorities on evolution who have written a profound and important book. They aren’t, and it isn’t.
And he’s right.”
Well, there are a few things there that I find a little suspicious. I did manage to find a 1981 paper by Werren to try to figure out what Futuyma’s example meant, but I’m not all that impressed. I’d have to read it in more detail to see if there is even really a full natural selection explanation there, but:
1) It doesn’t look like the answer followed from selection for itself. It seems like there might have been competing theories that were all compatible with selection. At which point, it’s hard to see why Futuyma would want to claim that this meant something about natural selection: Werren worked on a benefit model, formed a theory — amongst others — and it happened to work out. It doesn’t seem like Werren was able to say “Well, of course! If we apply the selection model, it all works out!”. Which is kinda what we’d want to be able to say if we wanted to accept the claim that the prediction was the result of selection theory.
2) It’s also not clear that you couldn’t explain at least part of this without selection. I certainly — as I stated in my comments on Coyne’s review — accept that selection can and does play a part. But is it the only explanation? Is it the big one? Did other factors come into play? Even in the paper, it isn’t clear if selection isn’t just determining who survives at the end, in which case there is no mechanism for the second or third or whatever wasp to “tweak” the sex of the eggs produced. Which is what Futuyma seems to imply, and would be actually interesting.
And finally, note that here we are proposing a mechanism that has to include previous host detection and variable egg production. Selection explains the population of these cases, but doesn’t explain the existence of that combination itself necessarily. And as I said in my first post, it seems to me that that is what F & P-P want: explanations for the traits. Explanations for frequency in a population, then, aren’t particularly strong examples.
(My post is here, if anyone wants to refresh their memory: https://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/2010/04/23/coyne-on-what-darwin-got-wrong/ )
The final point is about “research programs”. Selection, Futuyma comments, has fostered a lot of them. F & P-P don’t seem interested in providing any of these. Seemingly, this is a strike against them.
Now, I’m going to say that might have been better if they hadn’t tried to posit an alternative explanation. Their supposed explanation is vague and rather odd, and it seems that lot of people focus on that instead of what else they said.
However, I do think that the calls for alternate theories or reseach programs miss the point. I don’t think that F & P-P are after — and know that I am not after — that level of detail. What I would want scientists to take away from the book — and hope that F & P-P want scientists to take away from the book — is at least a little doubt that you can explain every trait that has any genetic component by simply looking to benefit and, once finding one, declaring that the explanation. And maybe to question whether that’s the right way to start. If biologists and scientists doing evolution in all areas would reply: “Yeah, we know that already”, then I’ll shut up until I run into some that don’t seem to be doing that. But I’d at least like to hear someone comment on that, and just on that.
I don’t need to have a research program to point out that even though it seems to be working so far, there might be big problems with an approach and it might be better to think about that now before you screw something up.