Re: James Shapiro Article and Neo-Darwinism

Tim Ikeda (
Sun, 20 Sep 1998 22:27:04 -0400

Hello again,
You wrote:
>Thanks for your point by point response to my questions regarding evolution.
>After reading what you wrote in such great detail, which I appreciate, I
>am reminded of Thomas Kuhn's observation in *The Structure of Scientific
>Revolutions* to the effect that the work of *normal science* is that of
>extending the given paradigm to cover an ever widening range of phenomena.
>I believe that is what you and other evolutionary authors are engaged in.
>But normal science does not lead to scientific progress.


The paradigm that I am seeing extended, not just by other evolutionary
authors but also by Shapiro as well, _is evolution_, by which I mean
common descent with modification. I will add to this that it is thought
that these changes occur via "natural" processes (I use "natural" in quotes
to allow for the possibility that god set up this "natural" system.)

The "paradigm" which Shapiro thinks has some shortcomings is Darwinism
(or Neo-darwinism) with which he associates (reasonably, I feel), Dawkins
and Dennett. However, everything Dawkins nor Dennett say do not
necessarily represent the entirety of evolutionary thought (This is an
understatement). It's pretty clear what Shapiro objects to. Those are
(in Pun's post): "localized random mutation, selection operating 'one
gene at a time' (John Maynard Smith's formulation, and gradual
modification of individual functions...". Later on he writes:
"...neo-Darwinist writers like Dawkins continue to ignore or trivialize
the new knowledge and insist on gradualism as the only path for
evolutionary change."

Let me make it clear; Shapiro is not objecting to the idea that neo-
Darwinian mechanisms _can_ operate in evolution. He's objecting to the
notion that they are the _only_ mechanisms at work in evolution. Neither
Howard Van Till, nor Bill Hamilton, nor myself, nor many other biologists
(including some I've referenced elsewhere in this topic) find Shapiro's
objections to be controversial. My biggest question about Shapiro's
article is "what got him so pissed off?" But that's gossiping over a
catfight more than anything else.

>Both Kuhn and Shapiro would agree that such activities do not advance
>scientific understanding.

I've never heard Shapiro comment on the subject. However, given that his
own work mostly consists of merely "expanding a given paradigm", I think
that James might not agree with your characterization.

> I believe Shapiro is calling for a revolution in
>thinking about longstanding biological problems.

I think it's more of a catfight with Dawkins et al. The "revolutionary"
ideas have been out there for some time. Really.

> He wrote, "Novel ways of
>looking at longstanding problems have historically been the chief motors of
>scientific progress." He is not talking about stuffing more phenomena into
>the paradigm, but doing something as follows--

I'm missing something here.
Which paradigm are we talking about: Evolution or neo-darwinism? His
writing strongly suggests it is neo-darwinism. His discussion is nothing
new by itself. Many evolutionary biologists don't think that neo-Darwinism
is the whole story (& we've been through this before).

As for rolling more phenomena into a paradigm, that is _exactly_ what Shapiro
doing with evolutionary theory.

>Identifying long standing problems. What are "longstanding problems"?
>They are not easy to identify, partly because evolutionary authors no longer
>consider some of them problems. I suggest that aging of species is one.
>No evolutionary writer would open up the debate on whether species actually
>age and if so, what are the mechanisms, because it is no longer a problem.
>Shapiro described four of them in his article. More of them need to be
>placed on the table.

Which four, long-standing problems does Shapiro highlight in his article?
Particularly, which ones are "no longer considered problems" by
evolutionary authors? I can't see any "problem" he presented which is
being ignored.

I did go back to Pim's post and the only groupings of four that I found
were not listed as "problems", but as possibly under-appreciated mechanisms
that might produce evolutionary change. He described these as "four
categories of molecular discoveries that open up exciting, new ways of
thinking about the biological processes that underlie evolutionary change".
If I had time, I could go through his list and discuss his observations,
but I see nothing that is particularly new to me. For quite a few years,
I've known about most the mechanisms he's described -- Most biochemists
have and it's hard to believe that evolutionary biologists/biochemists
are ignoring them. Mind you, I'm not trivializing the mechanisms, I'm
only saying that we've known about them for awhile. The only thing that
might be considered terribly controversial is his suggestion that the
genome (or its regulation) might be more of an "active" participant in
its evolution than was thought. I'm certainly open to that possibility,
as are many others who are actually in that field.

>Finding "novel ways of looking" at them. What does this mean? I believe
>it means operationally to step outside one's favorite paradigm and to look
>for and at problems as if the paradigm did not exist. We need to remove
>the blinders that habitual, comfortable ways of looking at phenomena

I'm all for that. I like change. Over the course of my career in biology/
biochemistry I've seen lots of paradigms -- big and small -- rise, fall and
be replaced.

>I hope these comments shed some light on the discussion.

Tim Ikeda -- despam address before use