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The Human Nature Review 2002 Volume 2: 3 ( 2 January )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/gintis.html
Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the Fittest
by Kim Sterelny
Icon Books (UK)
Totem books (USA), 2001.
Reviewed by Herbert Gintis, Professor of Economics, University of Massachusetts, USA. Gintis' most recent book is Game Theory Evolving, Princeton University Press, 2000.
Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould are prominent evolutionary biologists. Both are great writers and both are extremely contentious. Moreover, they disagree in public forums with a startling level of invective. Kim Sterelny is a philosopher with a solid background in evolutionary theory, and in this book tells the tale of their disagreements with skill and journalistic polish.
Despite the bitterness of the debate, most of the issues Dawkins and Gould disagree on are either unscientific (e.g., militant atheism vs. tolerance for religion and other non-scientific forms of knowing) or matters of interpretive preference (e.g., the role of chance versus selection in evolution, the extent to which evolution involves increasing complexity, the importance of population genetics versus the study of large-scale patterns in the history of life, or the view of evolution as a conflict of genes vs. an organic conflict among species-level and higher biological forms). Other issues that separate them relate to the schools of thought to which they belong---Dawkins' friends being the sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists (G. Williams, W. Hamilton, E. O. Wilson, et al.) and Gould's being the left-wing critics of sociobiology (R. Lewontin, L. Kamin, et al.). By limiting the debate to Dawkins and Gould alone, the book does not flesh out this larger, and quite interesting intellectual opposition. Sterelny neither takes sides nor tries to adjudicate the differences between these writers, though he does say that their differences appear to be narrowing over time. Being less unpresuming, I assess the situation as follows. Dawkins' gene-centered view makes for good journalism, but is fatally flawed for one simple reason: the heart of evolution is mutation and selection, not replication, which is simply an uncreative prerequisite for evolution. A mutation can spread only if it is more fit that existing alleles, and fitness is a frequency dependent, highly nonlinear phenomenon, best described by game theory on the level of phenotypes. Gould's mass extinctions and punctuated equilibria make perfect sense from evolutionary game theory, and involve nothing beyond mutation, selection, and replication. On the other hand, Gould's dismissal of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are ideologically based and quite without merit.
Sterelny describes a debate that is more a reflection of the expansive egos of two great popularizers, and their inability to understand, or their reluctance to publicize, the work of younger generations of evolutionary biologists, rather than some real scientific clash of paradigms. But if it gets young people interested in evolutionary biology, I'm all for it, and Sterelny does a good job of dramatizing the debate.
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© Herbert Gintis.
Gintis, H. (2002). Review of Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the Fittest by Kim Sterelny. Human Nature Review. 2: 3.