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The Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 1-2 ( 1 January )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/nettle.html

Book Review

Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the Fittest
by Kim Sterelny
Icon Books (UK)
Totem books (USA), 2001

Reviewed by Daniel Nettle, Department of Biology and Psychology, Open University, United Kingdom. Nettle's most recent book is Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity and Human Nature, Oxford University Press, 2001.

The opposition between Dawkins and Gould is perhaps the best-known intellectual stand-off in modern science. In this zippy, readable little book (which weighs in at 140 small pages and no footnotes), philosopher Kim Sterelny takes us through the belief systems of the two protagonists, and explores some of the disagreements between them.

Sterelny is very clear about the main matters of fact over which these two evolutionists differ. The chief of these is the relative importance of gene-level selection and consequent adaptation. For Dawkins this is the central phenomenon of evolutionary history. For Gould, physical constraints, developmental interactions, chance, cascades of species extinction and punctuated equilibria mean that the overall shape of life on earth is not be explicable in selfish-gene adaptationist terms. Pithy chapters take us through the main issues related to these debates: genes and levels of selection, punctuated equilibrium, mass extinctions, the Cambrian explosion, and so on. Apart from a rather odd take on the current status of group selection, this is all capable and succinctly done.

The facts over which this battle is contested are perhaps not its most interesting aspect. After all, the answers to large-scale questions are in many cases not determinable by the evidence we have before us. Nor is it established, apart from by rhetoric, that the different world-views are wholly incompatible (why should there not be punctuations and equilibria in an adaptationist universe?). Sterelny hints intriguingly that the key differences between the two men are in their philosophy of explanation, which stems in part from the paradigm within which they developed.

Thus Dawkins, a student of animal behaviour under Niko Tinbergen, works with a number of tacit axioms. First is that you can ask, for any behaviour or function, a why question in terms of adaptive function. Second is that you can ask this largely without knowing or caring what the genetic and physiological mechanisms involved are; the mechanisms do it somehow, and selection acts on their output. As far as adaptive explanation goes, they are a black box. The third is that, of all the various types of explanation in biology, the adaptive one is the linchpin, the master key. This is because it is this alone which really tells us why; all other accounts merely tell us how. It is of course a short step from these premises to the view that adaptation is a universal moulder of forms and behaviour, and adaptationism a universal acid for dissolving away scientific problems.

Gould by contrast is a palaeontologist, and as such long schooled in the difficult reconstruction of the details of the past. In particular, paleontology has been concerned with multi-leveled patterns of organisation in the fossil record; species and radiations, guilds and kingdoms, stasis and change. What counts as explanation is in many respects a description of pattern, one that captures all the relevant complexity. It is thus no surprise that Gould’s view of evolution is one of many-levelled patterns and contingencies, not reducible to any master force like gene-level selection.

The differences between the two men go further than this, clearly. There are those in science who crave a universal explanatory strategy, and once they have this, science becomes about filling in the details. Whilst there are others who are interested in the  details as the primary phenomenon, and explanation only as a way of marshalling information about those details. The debate between Dawkins and Gould, far more than being about the facts of the evolutionary record, is a debate about how science should be done. Needless to say, it is the Dawkins camp (though interestingly not Dawkins himself) who allow adaptive explanation to rage unchecked across all spheres, including human behaviour, and the Gould camp who are cautious and full of caveat here.

The truth is of course that we need both explanatory frameworks and inductions from evidence; we need both Dawkins and Gould, in a way. We can frame taut adaptive hypotheses with testable predictions on the assumption that the world is as Dawkins describes. If the predictions of these hypotheses are not met, one possible explanation is that the world contains some of the other contingencies and factors that Gould supports. Adaptationism is not, as its critics sometimes seem to think, a claim that only adaptation is important in the world. It is an explanatory strategy. Where it succeeds, we have a satisfying explanation. Where it fails, we may invoke other contingencies  Either way, we have to do research informed by the twin beacons of Dawkins and Gould.

Overall this is a useful and fun book. It has some oddities. I understand that the lack of in-text references was a (successful) strategy to enhance readability, but it is odd in a book about Dawkins and Gould that neither figure is ever quoted at all. This leaves a lot of the statements of the type ‘Dawkins believes that…’ seeming almost divine in their omniscience. How do you know he believes it? Again, though focussing on the two men is a useful device, I would have liked it to be clearer that Gould and Dawkins are not lone titans but figureheads for different intellectual movements.

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© Daniel Nettle. 

Citation

Nettle, D. (2002). Review of Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the Fittest by Kim Sterelny. Human Nature Review. 2: 1-2.

 
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