ARTICLE: Disentangling life: Darwin, selectionism, and the postgenomic return of the environment

In the April 2017 issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences:

Disentangling life: Darwin, selectionism, and the postgenomic return of the environment

Maurizio Meloni

Abstract In this paper, I analyze the disruptive impact of Darwinian selectionism for the century-long tradition in which the environment had a direct causative role in shaping an organism’s traits. In the case of humans, the surrounding environment often determined not only the physical, but also the mental and moral features of individuals and whole populations. With its apparatus of indirect effects, random variations, and a much less harmonious view of nature and adaptation, Darwinian selectionism severed the deep imbrication of organism and milieu posited by these traditional environmentalist models. This move had radical implications well beyond strictly biological debates. In my essay, I discuss the problematization of the moral idiom of environmentalism by William James and August Weismann who adopted a selectionist view of the development of mental faculties. These debates show the complex moral discourse associated with the environmentalist-selectionist dilemma. They also well illustrate how the moral reverberations of selectionism went well beyond the stereotyped associations with biological fatalism or passivity of the organism. Rereading them today may be helpful as a genealogical guide to the complex ethical quandaries unfolding in the current postgenomic scenario in which a revival of new environmentalist themes is taking place.

BOOK: Spare the Birds! George Bird Grinnell and the First Audubon Society

As a lover of history and nature, my eye was immediately attracted to the cover of this new book of environmental history. Where was I when I saw it? In the nature store at the Audubon Society of Portland. Of course. I look forward to learning about Grinnell and the first Audubon Society.

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Carolyn Merchant, Spare the Birds! George Bird Grinnell and the First Audubon Society (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 344 pp. 

Publisher’s description In 1887, a year after founding the Audubon Society, explorer and conservationist George Bird Grinnell launched Audubon Magazine. The magazine constituted one of the first efforts to preserve bird species decimated by the women’s hat trade, hunting, and loss of habitat. Within two years, however, for practical reasons, Grinnell dissolved both the magazine and the society. Remarkably, Grinnell’s mission was soon revived by women and men who believed in it, and the work continues today. In this, the only comprehensive history of the first Audubon Society (1886–1889), Carolyn Merchant presents the exceptional story of George Bird Grinnell and his writings and legacy. The book features Grinnell’s biographies of ornithologists John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson and his editorials and descriptions of Audubon’s bird paintings. This primary documentation combined with Carolyn Merchant’s insightful analysis casts new light on Grinnell, the origins of the first Audubon Society, and the conservation of avifauna.

BOOK: How Evolution Shapes Our Lives: Essays on Biology and Society

A couple of years ago, Princeton University Press published the huge volume, The Princeton Guide to Evolution (out in paperback in February 2017), which provides a large overview of evolutionary biology, as a science and its relationship to human society (you can read the introduction here). Now the press has condensed a variety of chapters that address evolution as it relates to human society into a shorter book.

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Jonathan B. Losos and Richard E. Lenski, eds., How Evolution Shapes Our Lives: Essays on Biology and Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 416 pp.

Publisher’s description It is easy to think of evolution as something that happened long ago, or that occurs only in “nature,” or that is so slow that its ongoing impact is virtually nonexistent when viewed from the perspective of a single human lifetime. But we now know that when natural selection is strong, evolutionary change can be very rapid. In this book, some of the world’s leading scientists explore the implications of this reality for human life and society. With some twenty-three essays, this volume provides authoritative yet accessible explorations of why understanding evolution is crucial to human life—from dealing with climate change and ensuring our food supply, health, and economic survival to developing a richer and more accurate comprehension of society, culture, and even what it means to be human itself. Combining new essays with essays revised and updated from the acclaimed Princeton Guide to Evolution, this collection addresses the role of evolution in aging, cognition, cooperation, religion, the media, engineering, computer science, and many other areas. The result is a compelling and important book about how evolution matters to humans today. The contributors are Dan I. Andersson, Francisco J. Ayala, Amy Cavanaugh, Cameron R. Currie, Dieter Ebert, Andrew D. Ellington, Elizabeth Hannon, John Hawks, Paul Keim, Richard E. Lenski, Tim Lewens, Jonathan B. Losos, Virpi Lummaa, Jacob A. Moorad, Craig Moritz, Martha M. Muñoz, Mark Pagel, Talima Pearson, Robert T. Pennock, Daniel E. L. Promislow, Erik M. Quandt, David C. Queller, Robert C. Richardson, Eugenie C. Scott, H. Bradley Shaffer, Joan E. Strassmann, Alan R. Templeton, Paul E. Turner, and Carl Zimmer.

You can read the first chapter here.

BOOK: Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth

A new book of interest:

James Lawrence Powell, Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 384 pp.

Publisher’s description Over the course of the twentieth century, scientists came to accept four counterintuitive yet fundamental facts about the Earth: deep time, continental drift, meteorite impact, and global warming. When first suggested, each proposition violated scientific orthodoxy and was quickly denounced as scientific–and sometimes religious–heresy. Nevertheless, after decades of rejection, scientists came to accept each theory. The stories behind these four discoveries reflect more than the fascinating push and pull of scientific work. They reveal the provocative nature of science and how it raises profound and sometimes uncomfortable truths as it advances. For example, counter to common sense, the Earth and the solar system are older than all of human existence; the interactions among the moving plates and the continents they carry account for nearly all of the Earth’s surface features; and nearly every important feature of our solar system results from the chance collision of objects in space. Most surprising of all, we humans have altered the climate of an entire planet and now threaten the future of civilization. This absorbing scientific history is the only book to describe the evolution of these four ideas from heresy to truth, showing how science works in practice and how it inevitably corrects the mistakes of its practitioners. Scientists can be wrong, but they do not stay wrong. In the process, astonishing ideas are born, tested, and over time take root.

BOOK: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York : Henry Holt and Co, 2014), 336 pp.

A major book about the future of the world, blending intellectual and natural history and field reporting into a powerful account of the mass extinction unfolding before our eyes.

Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In The Sixth Extinction, two-time winner of the National Magazine Award and New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert draws on the work of scores of researchers in half a dozen disciplines, accompanying many of them into the field: geologists who study deep ocean cores, botanists who follow the tree line as it climbs up the Andes, marine biologists who dive off the Great Barrier Reef. She introduces us to a dozen species, some already gone, others facing extinction, including the Panamian golden frog, staghorn coral, the great auk, and the Sumatran rhino. Through these stories, Kolbert provides a moving account of the disappearances occurring all around us and traces the evolution of extinction as concept, from its first articulation by Georges Cuvier in revolutionary Paris up through the present day. The sixth extinction is likely to be mankind’s most lasting legacy; as Kolbert observes, it compels us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human.

Kolbert has done any radio interviews and podcasts about her new book, including for NPR, Slate, New Books in Environmental Studies, and the American Museum of Natural History.

On a similar note – a new documentary, 6 the Movie:

BOOK: On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson

I really enjoyed reading this new biography of Rachel Carson earlier this year. Souder touches on Carson’s evolutionary themes in some of her writing, as well as describing her work on an article in 1956, “Help Your Child to Wonder,” which later became the book, The Sense of Wonder which can be seen as a decades-prior-to-Last Child in the Woods effort to reconnect children to nature. I highly recommend Souder’s biography to anyone interested in nature and the environment, the history of science, or a well-told story about a significant figure of the twentieth century.

William Souder, On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson (New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 2012), 512 pp.

She loved the ocean and wrote three books about its mysteries, including the international bestseller The Sea Around Us. But it was with her fourth book, Silent Spring, that this unassuming biologist transformed our relationship with the natural world.

Rachel Carson began work on Silent Spring in the late 1950s, when a dizzying array of synthetic pesticides had come into use. Leading this chemical onslaught was the insecticide DDT, whose inventor had won a Nobel Prize for its discovery. Effective against crop pests as well as insects that transmitted human diseases such as typhus and malaria, DDT had at first appeared safe. But as its use expanded, alarming reports surfaced of collateral damage to fish, birds, and other wildlife. Silent Spring was a chilling indictment of DDT and its effects, which were lasting, widespread, and lethal.

Published in 1962, Silent Spring shocked the public and forced the government to take action-despite a withering attack on Carson from the chemicals industry. The book awakened the world to the heedless contamination of the environment and eventually led to the establishment of the EPA and to the banning of DDT and a host of related pesticides. By drawing frightening parallels between dangerous chemicals and the then-pervasive fallout from nuclear testing, Carson opened a fault line between the gentle ideal of conservation and the more urgent new concept of environmentalism.

Elegantly written and meticulously researched, On a Farther Shore reveals a shy yet passionate woman more at home in the natural world than in the literary one that embraced her. William Souder also writes sensitively of Carson’s romantic friendship with Dorothy Freeman, and of her death from cancer in 1964. This extraordinary new biography captures the essence of one of the great reformers of the twentieth century.