Friday, May 23, 2003

Darwin's Blog Spot

Asked to name the most important scientist of the twentieth century, most people would probably say Einstein, and physics would be the popular choice for the most influential of the sciences. But a case can be made that the most important and influential scientist of the twentieth century was the most important and influential scientist of the nineteenth century: Charles Darwin.

While 20th century science and its technology certainly changed the world in many respects, there is something to the point of view expressed by J.B. Priestly in Literature and Western Man: "The nineteenth century produced the ideas that, after some modifying and vulgarizing, our own [20th] century has transformed into action and history."

And while it is likely that the greatest impact of quantum physics and the chaos and complexity and other theories it helped spawn is yet to come in this century, so far it is impressive how dominant Darwin remains in the early 21st century. Perhaps part of the reason is that few people profess to understand relativity and quantum mechanics, while almost everyone thinks they understand Darwin's theory of "evolution"---even though they disagree greatly on what it is. And that's even before they start arguing about whether it is true or scandalously wrong.

Darwin reverberates through politics and society, and remains a hot button issue in wars of religion. His theories were almost immediately and erroneously used to justify eugenics and predatory capitalism in the 19th century, and common misunderstandings and misapplications of Darwin's theory of natural selection and the consequent meanings of evolution have become part of the conventional wisdom.

The issues are many and complex, but they are also basic to how we see ourselves, our world and our future. Many books in many fields touch upon these issues, and there are many that deal more directly with Darwin's theories, their "evolution" and their ramifications. A few of the ones I'd recommend are Robert Wright's Non Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny (Pantheon) and his earlier, The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are (Vintage) which is explicitly a foray into the new field of evolutionary psychology. For a witty analysis of Darwinism's internal logic and faulty reductionism, nobody can beat Mary Midgley and her newly revised Evolution As A Religion (Routledge.) Her quarrel is mostly with Darwinists rather than Darwin---in fact she dedicates the book " To The Memory of Charles Darwin, who did not say these things."

I have a small stack of other books in the field I've dipped into---some I intend to look at more intently, others seem more problematic, but I am very pleased to be able to say that I have just read the one I've been looking for, that both surveys the essential issues that have concerned and confused me, and adds new evidence from an overlooked area of evolutionary biology---an overlooked area, in fact, of life.

This admirable, essential book is Darwin's Blind Spot: Evolution Beyond Natural Selection by Frank Ryan, published in 2002 by Houghton Mifflin. There are two interlocking areas of contention regarding Darwin these days: in the public sphere, where it involves ethics, religion, and our general understanding of life; and among biologists testing and debating Darwin's theories against new discoveries (especially in genetics) as well as new experimental tests of those theories (thanks to more precise technologies, for instance.) This book surveys both areas with a clarity, transparency and generosity I haven't seen anywhere else. The early chapters of this book comprise simply the best description of what's been going on in both spheres from Darwin's time right into the 21st century.

But it is not just a survey: there's a definite argument here, a point of view, and a number of assertions and judgments. Ryan says what has been recognized as proven, and what he thinks has been proven, though others may disagree. His analysis of the history, though, is itself so cogent, and says so well what I've gathered from my own reading, that I tend to confer the presumption of credibility about the newer research . In any case, he's quite generous in naming other sources, so once again, this book is a great resource.

Much of the rest of the book is about those overlooked areas of life, namely bacteria, viruses, and fungi. They are often implicated in a phenomenon that biologists ignored even in better known creatures: symbiosis. It was ignored partly because Darwin's theories were shaped both for biologists and for the world at large by the prevailing politics of predatory capitalism and the cult of every man for himself. They combined to deny such observable realities as, for example, the fact that almost all trees cannot live without the fungi that clings to their roots.

Research into how symbiotic organisms can transfer or engage genes is also providing evidence for theories that explain the origin of species (which, oddly enough, Darwin could not explain in The Origin of Species)-that is, not change within a species (which natural selection does explain) but changing into a different species.

I also got the impression that another reason today's theorists of evolution ignore viruses and bacteria is that they are beneath them. They're bugs; they cause diseases. They aren't to be studied, just eradicated. The bigger animals were fashionable in the 19th century; now it's the genome. But if Ryan is right, they hold the key to explaining as well as linking both the other ends of this chain.

Ryan spins this out like a mystery, involving lots of detectives. They include well-known names of the past and present, and some obscure figures that emerge as unsung heroes. In the process Ryan creates context. For example, a lot of people have heard of the concept of Gaia, and many may have heard the names of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis associated with it. But usually it's either in the context of Earth Day evocations or the neo-Darwinists' dark mutterings of unscientific heresy and New Age babble. But Ryan describes the actual scientific achievements (and misses) of Lovelock and Margulis in historical context. We get a sense of their personalities, and the politics of evolutionary science.

I think I would be grateful for this book even if it hadn't suddenly appeared in my view just after I had ventured to say in print that the study of altruism, a sticky point in evolutionary theory and a matter of raging controversy today, might find some biological basis in the study of symbiosis. I made that suggestion as a provocation, because it was just an idea I had. (I do know of other scientific arguments in support of an evolutionary role for altruism.) It made sense to me intuitively, as I mused over such phenomena as biomimicry, animal learning and communication, animal use of medicines, and human learning of those medicines from animals, as well as a range of other intraspecies and interspecies learning and communication.

Nobody reacted to that provocation, not to me directly. Yet a few days later there was Ryan's book, where it really shouldn't have been: a 2002 book among a bookstore section of new books published five or more months later. Ryan comes at the subject from completely different places, and while some of his descriptions of symbiosis support my intuition, I've learned to think about the link in a more complicated way.

But even without this impetus, I think I would have found this book accessible and absorbing. If you going to read just one book on the state of evolutionary theory, I'd say start here.

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