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Dawkins Vs Gould: Survival of the Fittest Paperback – June 25, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Kim Sterenly is the author of several books, including "Sex and Death" (University of Chicago Press, 1999) and "Thought in a Hostile World" (Blackwell, 2003). He works in the philosophy departments at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand and the Australian National University, Canberra.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

A Clash of Perspectives

Science in general, and biology in particular, has seen its fair share of punch-ups. In the 1930s and 1940s, Britain’s two greatest biologists, J.B.S. Haldane and R.A. Fisher, feuded so vigorously that their students (John Maynard Smith tells me) were hardly allowed to talk to one another. But their behaviour was civilised compared to the notorious feuds in biological systematics between cladists – notorious for wielding unintelligible terminology and vituperation in equal measure – and their opponents. Mostly these fights are kept more or less in-house, often because the issues are of interest only to the participants. Almost no one except systematicists are interested in the principles by which we tell that Drosophila subobscura is a valid species. But sometimes these disputes leak out into the open. Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould have different views on evolution, and they and their allies have engaged in an increasingly public, and increasingly polemical, exchange.

At first glance, the heat of this exchange is puzzling. For Dawkins and Gould agree on much that matters. They agree that all life, including human life, has evolved over the last 4 billion years from one or a few ancestors, and that those first living things probably resembled living bacteria in their most crucial respects. They agree that this process has been wholly natural; no divine hand, no spooky interloper, has nudged the process one way or another. They agree that chance has played a crucial role in determining the cast of life’s drama. In particular, there is nothing inevitable about the appearance of humans, or of anything like humans: the great machine of evolution has no aim or purpose. But they also agree that evolution, and evolutionary change, is not just a lottery. For natural selection matters too. Within any population of life forms, there will be variation. And some of those variants will be a touch better suited to the prevailing conditions than others. So they will have a better chance of transmitting their distinctive character to descendants.

Natural selection was one of the great discoveries in Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). If a population of organisms vary one from another; if the members of that population differ in fitness, so one is more likely than another to contribute her descendants to the next generation; if those differences tend to be heritable, so the fitter organism’s offspring share her special characteristics, then the population will evolve by natural selection. Australia is renowned for its poisonous snakes and of these the taipan is the most famously venomous. Let’s consider the mechanism through which it became so impressively lethal. If a population of taipans differ in the toxicity of their venom; if the more venomous snakes survive and reproduce better than less venomous ones, then taipans will, over time, evolve more toxic venom. Gould and Dawkins agree that complex capacities like human vision, bat echolocation, or a snake’s ability to poison its prey evolve by natural selection. And they agree that in human terms, natural selection works slowly, over many generations. Bacteria and other single-celled organisms whip through those generations at speed, and that is why drug resistance outpaces new drugs. But for larger, more slowly reproducing organisms, significant changes take tens of thousands of years to build.

Adaptive change depends on cumulative selection. Each generation is only slightly different from the one that precedes it. Perhaps, very occasionally, a major evolutionary change appears in a single generation, as the result of one big mutation. But the parts of an organism are delicately and precisely adjusted to one another, so almost all large, random changes are disasters. Adding a horn to a horse’s head might seem to provide it with a useful defensive weapon, but without compensating changes to its skull and neck (to bear the extra weight) it would be not only useless but detrimental. So large single-step changes, Gould and Dawkins agree, must be very rare. The normal history of an adaptive invention is a long series of small changes, not a short series of large changes.

Yet Dawkins and Gould have clashed heatedly on the nature of evolution. In two notorious articles in New York Review of Books, Gould scathingly reviewed Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, a work of Dawkins’ intellectual ally Daniel Dennett. In 1997, there was a better tempered but no more complimentary exchange in Evolution, as they traded reviews of each other’s most recent creation.

Dawkins and Gould are representatives of different intellectual and national traditions in evolutionary biology. Dawkins’ doctoral supervisor was Niko Tinbergen, one of the co-founders of ethology. Ethology aims to understand the adaptive significance of particular behavioural patterns. So Dawkins’ background sensitised him to the problem of adaptation; of how adaptive behaviours evolve in a lineage and develop in an individual. Gould, in contrast, is a palaeontologist. His mentor was the brilliant but notoriously irascible George Gaylord Simpson. The match, if it exists, between an animal’s capacities and the demands of its environment is less obvious with fossils than with live animals. A fossil gives you less information on the animal and its environment. So it is tempting to suppose that the passion of these exchanges reflects nothing deeper than competition for the same patch of limelight, magnified by different historical and disciplinary perspectives. I think that suspicion would be misplaced, and it’s my aim in this book to explain why. Despite real and important points of agreement, their clash is of two very different perspectives on evolutionary biology.

Cont’d. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Icon Books (June 25, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1840467800
  • ISBN-13: 978-1840467802
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #782,984 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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129 of 139 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on March 13, 2002
Format: Paperback
As anyone who has read even one book on evolution will know the names most likely to be mentioned are Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. They are usually referred to not only for their very different views on evolution, but also because in the often contentious and very public debates on these issues, these two gentlemen act as champions for opposing camps. Gould through his books, but also famously in a series of articles and letters in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS. Dawkins prefers to limit his books to scientific arguments and rebuttals and reserves his critical comments for his public engagements.
With a title DAWKINS vs GOULD the focus is naturally on these two combatants and because both are brilliant thinkers and prolific writers it makes for some stimulating and very interesting reading. The only problem with this book is that by narrowly limiting the discussion to these two men, some readers may remain unaware that they are merely representative of a much larger debate involving most of the scientific community. A debate that covers topics such as human morphology and intelligence, human origins, intelligent design vs creationism. The field of enquiry involved is much wider than evolution and includes genetics, sociobiology, primatology and paleontology to name a few.
As it relates to the two specific positions of DAWKINS vs GOULD though this litte book offers a concise and fairly complete encapsulation of the subject. Dawkins' position is sometimes called reductionist or minimalist in that he sees the gene (a selfish one) as the principal explanatory agent. From it, all we see around us are adaptations. Gould has a more catholic or broader approach and sees exceptions to the rule.
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40 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Carlos Ponce on August 2, 2001
Format: Paperback
I found Kim Sterelny's review to be a very accurate yet understandable summary. I have read many books written by Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, so I already had a rough sketch of their contention. Sterelny's book was a great way to solidify the nature of Gould and Dawkins' scientific conflict and a great way to fill in the gaps.
I was particularly grateful by the Gould section. Dawkins has stated his views on evolution and Gould quite extensively, but I have been less exposed to Gould's original writings on punctuated equilibrium (probably because, as Sterelny noted, Gould has written about the subject mostly in essays and scientific papers). The Gould section in this book was a great clarification of punctuated equilibrium and other Gould theories.
I have not heard the opinions of the title subjects on this book, although I would very much like to. But for the moment, I found 'Dawkins vs. Gould' to be an objective, impartial and fair description of this well-known scientific clash.
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84 of 91 people found the following review helpful By Herbert Gintis on December 30, 2001
Format: Paperback
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 vs. selection in evolution, the extent to which evolution involves increasing complexity, the importance of population genetics vs. 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.
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on June 12, 2003
Format: Paperback
Kim Sterelny's overview of the Stephen Gould - Richard Dawkins conflicting views of evolution is a masterful summation. Setting himself an immense task, he addresses the material published by the two evolutionists, assessing evidence, logic and interpretation. To Sterelny's lasting credit, personality is almost entirely omitted in this account. A brief education background note [Dawkins studied under Tinbergen, Gould's mentor was George Gaylord Simpson] and Sterelny moves quickly to the essence of the debate. His presentation makes this a fine introduction to the issues involved.
Debate is a gentle word to apply to some of the acrimonious exchanges the pair engaged in either directly or through proxies. The opening shot was Gould's scornful review of Daniel C. Dennett's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" in which Dennett challenged Gould and Eldredge's notion of punctuated equilibrium as setting the pace of evolution. The clash brought to light more fundamental differences in outlook - gene-centred evolution or a multi-level interacting set of forces. As Sterelny ultimately points out, the two are subject to merging into a broader synthesis. Dawkins has made that point frequently, as Sterelny notes, but that reality failed to find fertile ground on this side of the Atlantic.
Gene-centred evolution results in the creation of adaptations through mutations. Whether these adaptations are successful over time is the story of evolution. Gould found many ways to challenge this theme, chiefly because it would apply equally to human evolution, something Gould always found abhorrent. Gould's argument went deeper than human evolution. He advanced "contingency" and mass extinctions of whatever cause, as more viable mechanisms than what he labelled "gene centrism".
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