Homage for the master is palpable in John Vandermeer’s review (Science, Jan. 23)1 of a thick new book entitled Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution by Odling-Smee, Laland and Feldman (Princeton, 2004). Vandermeer seems almost worshipful in his opening lines:
The nascent germ of many novel ideas in biology can be traced directly or indirectly to Darwin. Thus it would probably be unusual if a book with laudatory cover blurbs by such notables as Lord May and Comrade Lewontin did not somehow reach deep into the master’s seed bank.
The force of Master Darwin’s insight was only recently brought to full power by subsequent disciples, like Lewontin and Levins. What is the “neglected process in evolution” indicated by the subtitle? It is called niche construction or constructivism, the idea that not only does the environment impact the organism, the organism impacts the environment. This “dialectic” approach produces a sort of Hegelian synthesis-antithesis-synthesis in the operations of evolution:
Organisms in one generation can modify their environment, which is then inherited by the next generation. Just as a sequence of generations of organisms changes through the pattern of intergenerational inheritance, the environment to which they respond likewise changes through ecological inheritance. The authors’ approach incorporates two constructs of inheritance, genetic and ecological, which are coupled through niche construction and natural selection.
Vandermeer honors the work of his comrades, with only a few reservations (not enough to get dismissed from The Party). One criticism, however, might be exploited by enemies of the revolution. He suggests that realistic experiments might reveal that the dialectic interplay between natural selection and niche construction does not drive evolution, but instead, steps on the brakes:
Consider, for example, an organism evolving increased resource use efficiency. If the dynamics of the organism and its resource generate a stable equilibrium over ecological time, then evolutionary dynamics will tend to reduce the equilibrium biomass of the resource. This arrangement is consistent with the niche construction framework. (The resource biomass is the consumer’s niche; thus, niche construction occurs through resource use while evolutionary change drives increased efficiency in resource use.) However, the gradual evolution of utilization efficiency requires, implicitly, a relatively predictable regime of resource density. It is not difficult to construct a dynamic model that generates well-behaved equilibria at low levels of utilization efficiency but chaos at high levels. Above some critical value of utilization efficiency, the resource is no longer available at predictable densities, which effectively negates the force of selection. This arrangement would imply an internally generated stop on the general evolutionary process (with niche construction) that derives from the nonlinear dynamics of the ecological model, a conclusion that would be missed with simpler models.
In other words, the thesis and antithesis might not lead to a synthesis, but to stasis – or extinction.
He has another criticism of the book: the authors’ “curious position” on the “fundamental problem of gene-culture transition,” i.e., the influence of biology on sociology. The authors claim, for instance, that “human cultural processes are only possible because of human genetic aptitudes.… For example, …the capacity for language is the result of biological adaptations.” Vandermeer gently illustrates the problems that leave him “somewhat perplexed” with their thesis, and expands it to a general word of caution:
My son loves nature as much as I do. Yet I doubt that even the most enthusiastic genetic determinist would claim that I transferred that love to him with my genes rather than my parental nurturing. But I would be first to admit that if he could not understand what I said, I could never have “culturally transmitted” that attitude to him. If this is all the authors mean, they make a rather trivial point. The culture-genetic dichotomy in general is rife with confused thinking. The fact that lactose tolerance is correlated with animal husbandry, arguably a product of gene-culture coevolution, is a far cry from speculations about “rape” genes or genetically determined biophilia. Critics, past and present, have no problem with lactose and cattle herding, but find certain speculations about more sensitive issues scientifically flawed and politically motivated.
Not to end on a note of contradiction, Vandermeer praises the comrades’ fine work, which might just lead to a new five year plan:
Attempting to reorganize the field of evolutionary biology certainly requires a work as long as Niche Construction, and any volume so rich with ideas is bound to incur criticism on particular points. I have offered some here in the spirit of constructive criticism of constructivism. And although I have more, my complaints do not signify a disagreement with the ringing endorsements by May and Lewontin on the book’s back cover. With this volume, we may indeed be looking at a major breakthrough.
Vandermeer stands in rank with Comrade Lewontin in honoring the venerable gray-bearded Master: “In their now-classic The Dialectical Biologist, Levins and Lewontin noted that Darwin’s major treatise ‘was the culmination and not the origin of nineteenth-century evolutionism.’” But we must acknowledge the Master’s prophetic powers. Vandermeer reminds us, “Indeed, the ideas expressed in Niche Construction can be seen in outline form in The Origin.…”
1John Vandermeer, “The Importance of a Constructivist View,” Science Volume 303, Number 5657, Issue of 23 Jan 2004, pp. 472–474.
Comrade – dialectic – materialism – homage to the Leader – the parallels are too striking to be coincidental. Is that why Marx found Darwin’s views so supportive of his economic philosophy? (Incidentally, though the story about Marx dedicating Das Kapital to Darwin may be apocryphal, Marx did send him a signed copy in 1873, writing “Mr. Charles Darwin on the part of his sincere admirer Karl Marx.” Darwin, in reply, wrote, “ I believe that we both earnestly desire the extension of knowledge & that this in the long run is sure to add to the happiness of mankind.” 100 years and 100 million dead bodies later…
And then you have the prophetic, exalted master, and a mystical force with two sides in eternal competition, permeating the universe. Darwin himself looked for humans with pointy ears. He thought they might be ativisms, i.e., evolutionary throwbacks. Interesting. The word Vandermeer chooses to speak of Darwin sounds best when uttered in a deep, breathy voice, like Mossstuh. Lewontin seems to be saying, “I was once the Learnuh, but now I am the Mosstuh.”
If you thought dialectical materialism went out of style when the Berlin wall fell, you can find it alive and well in modern evolutionary biology. The constructivists assume that evolution proceeds by the interplay of adaptation and feedback from the environment in a Hegelian way, but Vandermeer has unwittingly hit on a troubling fact. What if the vectors of thesis and antithesis, or adaptation and environmental constraint, are collinear and opposite? Nothing happens. There is no evolution. Vandermeer has pointed out an “internally generated stop on the general evolutionary process.” His example is telling. Natural selection adapts an animal toward utilizing a food source. The animal gets so good at it that the food source runs out. Now what? (For a similar discussion of this often unnoticed “slippage on the evolutionary treadmill,” see the important 03/17/2003 entry.)
For another headline related to Vandermeer’s criticism of the propriety of investigating the evolution of rape, see 07/18/2003.