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May 2002

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From:
Ivan Handler <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Date:
Wed, 22 May 2002 17:44:56 -0500
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Can someone explain to me what is meant by John Maynard Smith's claim
that Gould was "confusing"?  Most of the obits I have read contain a
section on the controversy around punctuated equilibrium, (they neglect
to mention that it has apparently been accepted by even some of his most
vociferous critics such as Richard Dawkins) then they go on to quote
Maynard Smith or someone else making a statement about how his theories
were not well constructed.  While I am not a biologist, I have been
following many of these battles quite closely and it seems to me that it
is likely that the word, confusion, is used as a cowardly way of saying
"disagree."

I saw him a few years back at the Chicago Natural History museum where
he gave a lecture, using devices such as Maxwell's Demon, which
concluded that the universe was "ontologically random."  A conclusion
that I think is somewhat confusing in that he was attempting to use
metaphysics to characterize the universe when it seems to me that as an
evolutionary theorist he should have realized that a more pragmatic
conclusion ("based on scientific experience it seems that the idea the
universe can be ordered according to any universal principles is nil")
was better warranted.  I doubt that this is the type of confusion
alluded to by Maynard Smith.

The reason I raise this is that I believe that Gould and others like
Lewontin (and many others on this list) have raised a far more
fundamental critique of the New Synthesis.  In some
sense it goes back to the struggle to create the New Synthesis.  There
the struggle was to consolidate Darwinist theory with a consistently
objective view as opposed to the various subjective trends that grew up
around his name (many were based upon Lamark, not Darwin).  It seems to
me that the new struggle has been to continue to move the Darwinist
tradition away from received wisdom and an unfortunate sub-culture which
accepts poorly formulated questions (such as, What is human nature? or
Why do men rape women?) toward a far more rigorous and sophisticated
view of life.  It is hardly surprising that there is a political side to
this.  In fact, historically, evolutionary theory has been intertwined
with politics since the time of Darwin's grandfather Erasmus (a
contemporary of Lamark).

My guess is that since most people who have been raising these critiques
are leftist and because many of the critiques themselves have sometimes
fallen into meaningless polemic, that it has been easy to dismiss the
basic issues as political even though at root they are not.

On the other hand, I have not read his tome and do not know all of the
nuances.  I wonder if anyone could comment on the critique offered in
these obits.

Thanks -- Ivan

--
Ivan Handler
Networking for Democracy
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--
--
Ivan Handler
Networking for Democracy
[log in to unmask]

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