Skip navigation. Gould and Richard C. Lewontin published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London in The paper emphasizes issues with what the two authors call adaptationism or the adaptationist programme as a framework to explain how species and traits evolved.
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A Nature Research Journal. Nature or nurture? Chance or necessity? These dichotomies embody a controversy that has raged among the top thinkers in evolutionary biology. The question is: does adaptation by natural selection explain everything in nature, including human behaviour, or is the situation more complicated?
The problem is that no one really believes the first proposition, but the second does not constitute a useful scientific hypothesis. And except as the impetus for a spate of books and articles, and lots of acrimonious debate, it may not matter much. This became the focus for the conflict between two lines of evolutionary thought. On one side are Richard Dawkins and like-minded evolutionary biologists, who believe that natural selection is adequate to explain virtually every observation in evolutionary biology.
On the other are Gould and his followers, who believe that natural selection is a very important force in evolution, but not the only one. The most heated controversy arises when we attempt to apply our knowledge of evolutionary biology to the origin of human behaviour. In The Evolutionists and Dawkins vs. Gould , Richard Morris and Kim Sterelny, respectively, recount this controversy in excruciating detail.
Sterelny gets almost to the heart of the matter, and Morris's engaging style makes the history, politics and political motivations fun to read. Unfortunately, neither author really brings us any closer to a resolution, and neither really explains why the controversy may never be resolved. Both try to dissect the argument into its component parts. Palaeontologist Gould sees evidence for rapid transitions, catastrophic extinctions and spectacular radiations in the fossil record, and thinks that a model of slow, steady change by natural selection acting on genetic variation is not adequate to explain history.
In particular, Gould's notion of contingency in evolution may be important in understanding the origin of new species and higher taxa, and aspects of the broad pattern of evolutionary history that have never been fully explained by the neodarwinian synthesis. Another area of disagreement concerns Gould and Lewontin's concept of 'spandrels' in evolution.
Named after an architectural feature that is a by-product of the construction, evolutionary spandrels are biological structures or traits that are accidental by-products of history, not the results of natural selection. However, natural selection can clearly mould a spandrel into a useful structure. Spandrels, Morris and Sterelny agree, don't much change our understanding of anatomical evolution. But the issue becomes very heated where sociobiology or evolutionary psychology are concerned.
Gould believes that many human behavioural traits are spandrels — by-products of the brain we evolved in the African savannah; the ability to read Nature is a spandrel, not a product of natural selection. The Dawkins party tends to think of the brain as a collection of traits moulded by natural selection. Morris gives an elaborate recipe, and even some preliminary data, for deciding between these two views by examining whether the brain is composed of isolated functions or parts or is an interacting whole.
But anyone who thinks a brain is composed of interacting parts, whereas a body is not, has never suffered a stiff neck as a result of limping with a sprained ankle, yet no one is arguing that ankles and necks aren't largely products of natural selection. Morris devotes a chapter to complexity theory, providing a lucid and enlightening explanation.
Why is it so important that we know whether human behavioural traits are spandrels, and whether human brains have emergent properties? The answer lies more in politics and philosophy than it does in science. Sterelny explains most of the conflict between Dawkins and Gould in terms of two distinct ideologies. He is probably right. But he also views some of science itself as outside the realm of investigation. Dawkins thinks that modern evolutionary theory provides a good model for the exposition of a natural system of morality, whereas Gould insists that morality is beyond the realm of science.
Morris and Sterelny both miss the opportunity to give us a bottom line on this argument. Gould, Lewontin and their followers believe that we should not take the application of evolutionary theory and genetics to human behaviour seriously, for otherwise we will see a resurgence of eugenics reminiscent of the Holocaust. Their fears may be correct. But no data on brain physiology, no studies on parallel evolution or rapid speciation, and no computer modelling of complex systems will ever change such perceptions.
These two slim and readable books target a well-defined problem in evolutionary theory. Sterelny could have accomplished more with an index, and both books could have profited from a thorough and organized bibliography. Both authors promise an unbiased summary of the arguments, but both come down predominantly in favour of Dawkins' perspective. Morris and Sterelny are on the cusp of an insightful analysis but never quite get to it.
But the aficionado of evolutionary theory and the intense debate it engenders would do well to read both accounts. Whereas Morris stresses the divergent approaches of complexity and reductionism, Sterelny emphasizes other issues, such as common descent or cladistics , which concerns Dawkins, and morphological similarity, which, to Gould, is of paramount importance.
Longer, and with an elementary introduction to evolutionary science, Morris's book provides more of a stand-alone account and is suited to the non-specialist.
We have created an icon in Darwin, a god whose every printed word is canon. But Darwin knew that not everything he said would stand the test of time and new data in every detail.
Darwin would be puzzled over the struggle for his soul, because the soul, like science, derives its strength not from rigidity but from fluidity. While some of today's most brilliant thinkers grope for the soul of Darwin, it is fortunate that so many experimental evolutionary biologists have decided not to wait for the resolution.
Reprints and Permissions. Goldman, M. Spandrels or selection?. Nature , — Download citation. Issue Date : 20 September Leonardo By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines.
If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate. Advanced search. Skip to main content. Register your interest. Download PDF. Freeman: The spandrels of San Marco's basilica, symbols of a long-running debate on evolution.
Dawkins vs. Goldman Authors Michael A. Goldman View author publications. You can also search for this author in PubMed Google Scholar. Rights and permissions Reprints and Permissions. About this article Cite this article Goldman, M. Peter D. Stebbing Leonardo Comments By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. Nature menu. Nature Research menu.
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Spandrels or selection?
Lewontin and published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London in Their critique of their own field of evolutionary biology spilled out of the Ivory Tower onto the pages of general intellectual forums such as the New York Review of Books. Gould died in but his coauthor is still active. Richard C. Lewontin is a population geneticist by training and pioneered the method of gel electrophoresis among many other accomplishments.