Saturday, November 29, 2014

Do We Need an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis That Includes Biopolitical Science?

Last month, there was a debate in the pages of Nature over whether evolutionary theory needs to be reformulated (October 9, 2014, vol. 514, pp. 161-64).  This continues the debate that began in the summer of 2008 at a gathering in Altenberg, Austria, of biologists and philosophers who argued that Standard Evolutionary Theory (SET) needed to be replaced with an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES). 

At the time, some proponents of intelligent design theory and scientific creationism pointed to this as evidence that Darwinism was "a theory in crisis."  But if one looks at the papers presented at the conference and published later as a book, one can see (as I indicated in some blog posts) that EES is not a denial of Darwinian science but--as their language indicates--an extension of Darwinian thinking.  This is clearly not a denial of Darwinism because it sees no need to disagree with Darwin's claim that the theory of natural evolution is superior to any "theory of independent acts of creation."

Now Kevin Laland and his colleagues are restating their argument that SET is too "gene-centric," and that those drivers of evolution that cannot be reduced to genes must be studied as part of EES.  There are at least four missing pieces:  developmental bias, phenotypic plasticity, niche construction, and extra-genetic inheritance.

In their response, Gregory Wray, Hopi Hoekstra, and their colleagues argue that all of the concepts proposed by Laland and colleagues have already been integrated into evolutionary theory, and that these concepts can even be found in Darwin's own work.  For example, Darwin's last book--The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms (1881)--was a book on evolutionary niche construction, although he did not use that term.

Since Eva Jablonka is one of the co-authors of the article advocating EES, I was disappointed not to see any comments on what she has identified as the symbolic system of inheritance that is unique to human beings.  Such human symbolism might be seen as a form of niche construction, which would include religion, science, morality, and politics.  This could be the theoretical basis for a biopolitical science.

So, for example, one might argue, as I have, that the history of classical liberal philosophy has created an evolutionary niche in which peaceful cooperation and declining violence are adaptive, and this could even drive a genetic adaption for this classical liberal niche.

Some of my posts on these points can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

No comments: