Monday, November 02, 2009

Evolution for Everyone--Even Biologists?

Those defending the importance of teaching evolutionary science often like to quote a famous remark by Theodosius Dobzhansky (an evolutionary biologist): "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." Some of us would like to expand that claim to read: "Nothing in any of the academic disciplines--the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities--makes sense except in the light of evolution."

Opponents of evolution--including the proponents of creationism and intelligent design--like to challenge such claims. In fact, they argue, evolutionary ideas are not essential to biological research, and they certainly contribute nothing good to the social sciences and humanities.

Oddly enough, it really is true that many biologists have no great interest in evolution, and they certainly don't see evolution as a bridge across all of the intellectual disciplines.

This point comes up in the first issue of the EvoS Journal: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium. One of the articles is by Neil Blackstone. Neil is a colleague of mine at Northern Illinois University. He's an evolutionary biologist in the biology department. We have team-taught a course on evolutionary topics that is cross-listed in the political science and biology departments. He has complained to me that his fellow biologists often show little interest in evolutionary reasoning. In this article, he illustrates his point by showing how molecular cell biologists fail to see how evolutionary thinking could help them in their research. In particular, he argues that research on the functioning of the STAT3 protein could be illuminated by considering the evolutionary history of mitochondria as originally bacteria that entered into a symbiotic relationship within eukaryotic cells.

Such thinking is rare, Neil indicates, because evolutionary theorists tend to study genetics and organisms without studying cell biology, while cell biologists often pay no attention to evolution. A similar kind of narrowness is indicated in another article in this same issue of EvoS. The article by Fisher et al. is a report by young evolutionary psychologists on how their careers have developed. One of them--Aaron Goetz--says that while he developed an early interest in evolution in high school, he was not so interested in other areas of biology. "I was (and still am) fascinated by whole organism biology and absorbed in macroevolution but turned off when zooming in to the cellular level. Golgi bodies and ATP transport systems (whatever those are) never excited me" (13). This is remarkable because ATP (adenosine triphosphate) is the primary source of energy for almost every process in the cell requiring energy. As Neil indicates, the STAT3 protein contributes to this vital generation of ATP. But evolutionary psychologists don't think this has any interest for their evolutionary studies, just as many cell biologists have no interest in evolution.

Similarly, another one of the evolutionary psychologists--Karol Osipowicz--reports that many neuroscientists don't apply the principles of evolution to cognition (20). And Steven Platek expresses shock that many biologists don't accept the reasoning of evolutionary psychology (25).

The fundamental problem is that career paths in higher education today often tend to be highly specialized, so much so that even within the same academic department, faculty can hardly talk to one another. Consequently, extending evolutionary reasoning across all areas of biology and then even across other disciplines in a university meets resistance.

But as the EvoS program at Binghamton University shows, the intellectual excitement generated by such expansion of evolutionary ideas will attract thoughtful students and faculty. After all, what can be more exciting than the prospect of that ultimate unification of all knowledge that has always been the seductive promise of liberal education?

For some of my posts on "Darwinian liberal education," go here, here, here, here, here, here, and .here.


Bryan D. Jasker said...

It has been my experience that Northern Illinois University was quite open to interdisciplinary studies as I pleasantly recall a typical semester consisting of anthropology, biology, psychology, and political science courses.

I continue to read consilently. Thank you Larry.

expeedee said...

I am reminded of E.O. Wilson's book Consilience and how he hoped for a unification of disciplines.

I thought I understood evolution from it's cursory presentations in high school and college, but it wasn't until I retired a few years ago that I starting reading about evolution (neo Darwinism) in depth along with books on genetics and biosciences.

Anyway, I have discovered a beautifully simple, cruel, but impartial truth that now colors my views on just about everything. I cannot see how any scientist could truly begin to understand his discipline without a good understanding of neo Darwinism.

Arv Edgeworth said...

Humans can produce more melanin in their skin to adapt to changes in the environment. The human body can do amazing things. Birds can change the size of their beak for adaptational purposes. Animals can grow longer hair for adaptational purposes. Salt-water fish can adapt to live in fresh water and vice-versa. Doesn't this type of change require pre-existing genetic information in their DNA code to allow for that type of change? Should we perhaps be looking for a different source for this information rather than random mutations?

Timothy E. Kennelly said...

I find the claim that nothing in "any of the academic disciplines - the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities - makes sense except in the light of evolution" wildly excessive. The fact that the claim is then followed by the suggestion that the claim is opposed by Creationists and IDers is rather disappointing - not that you are saying, "If you disagree you are one of these ignorant, unwashed vulgar types," but the implication is in the comment.

There are many areas of academic investigation which are unrelated to evolutionary theory. The reading of Plato, or Homer, or Machiavelli is not somehow aided by the use of Darwin or evolutionary theory. Your suggestion would seem to have the implication that there are two kinds of reading of all texts: the evolutionists reading and the non-evolutionist reading - such an idea looks like simple nonsense. The reading of texts has creteria of its own which have nothing to do with evolutionary theory. The same might be said of mathematics, formal logic, art history, military history, Atomic Physics, Engish Literature, Applied Ethic, etc..


Timothy E. Kennelly

Larry Arnhart said...

Mr. Kennelly,

I have written extensively on this blog about evolutionary reasoning as applied to many of the areas of study you mention. How would you respond to those posts?

For example, how would you respond to my posts on "Darwinian liberal education"?

Do you believe that a science of human nature has nothing to do with any unifying themes in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities?

Do you deny the very idea of human nature as the ground of liberal education?

Do you agree with Leo Strauss that the ultimate aim of liberal education is a comprehensive unification of knowledge, against the typically modern tendency to Cartesian dualism?

Or would you argue that each field of study is absolutely separate from all the others? If so, how do you understand liberal education?

Larry Arnhart said...

Mr. Kennelly,

Why do you dismiss proponents of "intelligent design" as "these ignorant, unwashed vulgar types"?

How would you respond to my posts on the Platonic origin of intelligent design reasoning--particularly, in the LAWS (book 10) and the TIMAEUS?

Anonymous said...

Dr. Arnhart,

Let me begin by saying that I am excited about the work you have done and are doing with evolutionary theory in a political context or in the context of political theory. I have to date read only a little of your work, but as one who is both an evolutionist and fond of Leo Strauss and Western Political Theory generally, I am very enthusiastic about what you are doing.
Regarding the importance of evolutionary theory to all academic investigations or the unification of all knowledge, I think the importance of one theory can be overstated. If the prospect of a unification of knowledge is to be taken serious, it must reside in those habits of thought or investigation which are generally present throughout the sciences, soft and hard, and humanities; viz.: formal logic, careful observation, the careful use of language and the definition of terms, the modeling of events or actions in thoughts, etc.
I will agree that the evolution is a very important theory and likely has implications in all of the life sciences as well most of the social sciences, but there are areas of knowledge that seem to be beyond its influence.
I suppose you could argue that all academic investigations are conscious activities and that consciousness, however we define and understand it, is a product of evolution and therefore no knowledge or academic activity is beyond its influence. Such an argument would likely work, and it would support your original claim, without giving the false impression that there must be two readings of Plato: the evolutionist and non-evolutionist.
I would remain a bit skeptical to the point as I do not think that evolutionary theory has given an adequate account of consciousness, but I certainly can not deny that such a thing is possible.
Regarding my comment about "the unwashed and ignorant" IDers and Creationists, I will simply apologize. I have spent too much time on lists with people who make such reference to the end of smearing others.
I am not particularly blog savvy, but I will look for your bloggs on Plato and ID and Darwinian Liberal education.

Thanks & Kind Regards,

Timothy E. Kennelly