Michael Lynch on Adaptationism

 I've been studying Michael Lynch's book The origins of Genome Architecture. It's a marvelous book, I wish everyone interested in evolution could read it and understand it.

The last chapter is very interesting. Lynch talks about the importance of understanding modern population genetics.
... I will comment on the current state of affairs in evolutionary biology, particularly the perception of softness in the field that has been encouraged by the propagation of evolutionary ideas by those with few intentions of being confined by the constraints of prior knowledge.
He also talks about adaptationism/panselectionism and about evolutionary-developmental biology. I'll get to evo-devo in another post [Michael Lynch on Evo-Devo] but here are some choice words about adapationism.
Despite the tremendous theoretical and physical resources now available, the field of evolutionary biology continues to be widely perceived as a soft science. Here I am referring not to the problems associated with those pushing the view that life was created by an intelligent designer, but to a more significant internal issue: a subset of academics who consider themselves strong advocates of evolution but who see no compelling reason to probe the substantial knowledge base of the field. Although this is a heavy charge, it is easy to document. For example, in his 2001 presidential address to the Society for the Study of Evolution, Nick Barton presented a survey that demonstrated that about half of the recent literature devoted to evolutionary issues is far removed from mainstream evolutionary biology.

With the possible exception of behavior, evolutionary biology is treated unlike any other science. Philosophers, sociologists, and ethicists expound on the central role of evolutionary theory in understanding our place in the world. Physicists excited about biocomplexity and computer scientists enamored with genetic algorithms promise a bold new understanding of evolution, and similar claims are made in the emerging field of evolutionary psychology (and its derivatives in political science, economics, and even the humanities). Numerous popularizers of evolution, some with careers focused on defending the teaching of evolution in public schools, are entirely satisfied that a blind adherence to the Darwinian concept of natural selection is a license for such activities. A commonality among all these groups is the near-absence of an appreciation of the most fundamental principles of evolution. Unfortunately, this list extends deep within the life sciences.


... the uncritical acceptance of natural selection as an explanatory force for all aspects of biodiversity (without any direct evidence) is not much different than invoking an intelligent designer (without any direct evidence). True, we have actually seen natural selection in action in a number of well-documented cases of phenotypic evolution (Endler 1986; Kingsolver et al. 2001), but it is a leap to assume that selection accounts for all evolutionary change, particularly at the molecular and cellular levels. The blind worship of natural selection is not evolutionary biology. It is arguably not even science. Natural selection is just one of several evolutionary mechanisms, and the failure to realize this is probably the most significant impediment to a fruitful integration of evolutionary theory with molecular, cellular, and developmental biology.

It should be emphasized here that the sins of panselectionism are by no means restricted to developmental biology, but simply follow the tradition embraced by many areas of evolutionary biology itself, including paleontology and evolutionary ecology (as cogently articulated by Gould and Lewontin in 1979). The vast majority of evolutionary biologists studying morphological, physiological, and or behavioral traits almost always interpret the results in terms of adaptive mechanisms, and they are so convinced of the validity of this approach that virtually no attention is given to the null hypothesis of neutral evolution, despite the availability of methods to do so (Lande 1976; Lynch and Hill 1986; Lynch 1994). For example, in a substantial series of books addressed to the general public, Dawkins (e,g., 1976, 1986, 1996, 2004) has deftly explained a bewildering array of observations in terms of hypothetical selection scenarios. Dawkins's effort to spread the gospel of the awesome power of natural selection has been quite successful, but it has come at the expense of reference to any other mechanisms, and because more people have probably read Dawkins than Darwin, his words have in some ways been profoundly misleading. To his credit, Gould, who is also widely read by the general public, frequently railed against adaptive storytelling, but it can be difficult to understand what alternative mechanisms of evolution Gould had in mind.
I agree with everything Lynch writes except that I have a pretty god idea what alternative mechanisms Gould proposed.

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