Saturday, June 16, 2007

Reinventing Evolution

In 2002 Alan Alda gave the commencement address for the graduating class at the California Institute of Technology. Alda was selected because he had starred in a play about Richard Feynman, a physicist who spent most of his career at Caltech.

Among his opening remarks:
One day, exactly 28 years ago, he was standing right here, giving the commencement address. This is the way the universe operates. First Richard Feynman gives the talk; then, 28 years later, an actor who played him on the stage gives it. This is what’s called entropy. This is what happens just before the cosmos reaches a temperature of absolute zero.
Alda continues:

I was reading a book by Freeman Dyson the other day and a paragraph about Feynman jumped off the page at me.
"Dick was… a profoundly original scientist [Dyson says]. He refused to take anybody's word for anything. This meant that he was forced to rediscover or reinvent for himself almost the whole of physics . . . He said that he couldn't understand the official version of quantum mechanics that was taught in textbooks, and so he had to begin afresh from the beginning . . . At the end he had a version of quantum mechanics that he could understand."
In an oblique sort of way that's what I'm trying to do with this blog. I want to present evolutionary theory in a way that makes sense to me. Some differences:

1. I'm not as smart as Feynman. I don't feel too bad about that, because hardly anybody is.

2. It's not that I don't understand evolution. Evolution isn't as abstruse as physics, but it is much more complex. In particular, the evidence that supports evolution is much more varied than the evidence that supports physics. But there are some things about the way evolution is usually presented that I think could be better expressed.

Some matters to be considered:

Attackers of evolution often say "It's only a theory, not a fact!" Defenders say "Evolution is both a theory and a fact!" Each of these positions does violence to the concepts of fact and theory.

Attackers complain that evolution doesn't make predictions. In this they confuse evolution with physics. They ignore the fact that physics has always restricted its attention to situations in which prediction is possible. Biology doesn't have that luxury.

A more positive note: Darwin talked about variation followed by natural selection. His big problem was that he had no idea why an organism might vary from its parents, or why the variation was somewhat heritable. In the past couple of decades biologist have begun to fill in the details, in the form of evolutionary developmental biology, aka evo-devo. This is the source of my motto: "Nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of biology."

This means that I'll be putting quite a lot of biology in here. I'm still learning, though. There will be a good deal of history, both the history of organisms and the history of ideas.n

An occasional book review will be in order.

I may from time to time respond to an attack. I owe a lot to the discussions at the Access Research Network. A few of the posters are sharp observers. Many are not, and my debt is mostly to them, because they force me to think about why they are wrong.

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