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.

ARTICLE: The impact of A. R. Wallace’s Sarawak Law paper reassessed

A new article in the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences will interest readers here. Its author, the creator of Darwin Online and Wallace Online, has devoted much time and research in reevaluating the story of Wallace and Darwin.

The impact of A. R. Wallace’s Sarawak Law paper reassessed

John van Wyhe

Abstract This article examines six main elements in the modern story of the impact of Alfred Russel Wallace’s 1855 Sarawak Law paper, particularly in the many accounts of Charles Darwin’s life and work. These elements are: 1 It was Wallace’s first avowal of evolution; 2 Wallace laid out the theory of evolution minus only a “mechanism”; 3 Darwin failed to see how close Wallace was approaching; 4 Lyell did see how close Wallace was approaching; 5 Lyell urged Darwin to publish because of Wallace; 6 Darwin wrote to Wallace to warn him off his path. Each of these are very frequently repeated as straightforward facts in the popular and scholarly literature. It is here argued that each of these is erroneous and that the role of the Sarawak Law paper in the historiography of Darwin and Wallace needs to be revised.

You can read this article online or download the PDF for free.

ARTICLE: The Creativity of Natural Selection? Part I: Darwin, Darwinism, and the Mutationists

A new article in the Journal of the History of Biology:

The Creativity of Natural Selection? Part I: Darwin, Darwinism, and the Mutationists

John Beatty

Abstract This is the first of a two-part essay on the history of debates concerning the creativity of natural selection, from Darwin through the evolutionary synthesis and up to the present. Here I focus on the mid-late nineteenth century to the early twentieth, with special emphasis on early Darwinism and its critics, the self-styled “mutationists.” The second part focuses on the evolutionary synthesis and some of its critics, especially the “neutralists” and “neo-mutationists.” Like Stephen Gould, I consider the creativity of natural selection to be a key component of what has traditionally counted as “Darwinism.” I argue that the creativity of natural selection is best understood in terms of (1) selection initiating evolutionary change, and (2) selection being responsible for the presence of the variation it acts upon, for example by directing the course of variation. I consider the respects in which both of these claims sound non-Darwinian, even though they have long been understood by supporters and critics alike to be virtually constitutive of Darwinism.

Journal special issue on “Replaying the Tape of Life: Evolution and Historical Explanation”

A whole issue of the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences is devoted to the topic “Replaying the Tape of Life: Evolution and Historical Explanation.” The contents are as follows:

Introduction: Evolution and historical explanation
Peter Harrison, Ian Hesketh

What was historical about natural history? Contingency and explanation in the science of living things
Peter Harrison

The “History” of Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Huxley, Spencer and the “End” of natural history
Bernard Lightman


Theological presuppositions of the evolutionary epic: From Robert Chambers to E. O. Wilson
Allan Megill


What are narratives good for?
John Beatty


Counterfactuals and history: Contingency and convergence in histories of science and life
Ian Hesketh

The spontaneous market order and evolution
Naomi Beck

Contingency and the order of nature
Nancy Cartwright


Freedom and purpose in biology
Daniel W. McShea


“Replaying Life’s Tape”: Simulations, metaphors, and historicity in Stephen Jay Gould’s view of life
David Sepkoski

A case study in evolutionary contingency
Zachary D. Blount


Can evolution be directional without being teleological?
George R. McGhee Jr.

Evolutionary biology and the question of teleology
Michael Ruse

Contingency, convergence and hyper-astronomical numbers in biological evolution
Ard A. Louis


It all adds up …. Or does it? Numbers, mathematics and purpose
Simon Conway Morris

ARTICLE: The Ascent of Man and the Politics of Humanity’s Evolutionary Future

A new article in the history of science journal Endeavour might interest readers here:

The Ascent of Man and the Politics of Humanity’s Evolutionary Future

Erika Lorraine Milam

Abstract Throughout the twentieth century, contemporary understandings of evolutionary theory were tightly linked to visions of the future freighted with moral consequence. This essay traces the origins and legacy of this scientific commitment to a universal family of man in postwar evolutionary theory, and elaborates how evolutionary scientists sought to reframe the politics of human evolution by claiming that the principles governing the physical past of humanity differed fundamentally from those that would matter in the coming decades, centuries, or even millennia. Education and public engagement embodied the moral importance of actively participating in the creation of that better, future world.

BOOK: Do Elephants Have Knees? And Other Stories of Darwinian Origins

In September of this year, the National Center for Science Education (seriously, donate to them now if you value evolution and climate change education) posted on their blog about how Stephen Jay Gould’s comparison of Darwinian evolution to Kipling’s “Just So Stories” did not sit well with many a biologist. While of course Gould’s use of the phrase is nuanced, and refers to views some biologists have compared to others regarding how evolution happened, the phrase is a favorite trope of creationists.

A new book uses the idea of “Just So Stories” and children’s stories in general to show how evolution can be better understood.

Charles R. Ault Jr., Do Elephants Have Knees? And Other Stories of Darwinian Origins (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016), 240 pp.

Publisher’s description Thinking whimsically makes serious science accessible. That’s a message that should be taken to heart by all readers who want to learn about evolution. Do Elephants Have Knees? invites readers into serious appreciation of Darwinian histories by deploying the playful thinking found in children’s books. Charles R. Ault Jr. weds children’s literature to recent research in paleontology and evolutionary biology. Inquiring into the origin of origins stories, Ault presents three portraits of Charles Darwin—curious child, twentysomething adventurer, and elderly worm scientist. Essays focusing on the origins of tetrapods, elephants, whales, and birds explain fundamental Darwinian concepts (natural selection, for example) with examples of fossil history and comparative anatomy. The imagery of the children’s story offers a way to remember and recreate scientific discoveries. By juxtaposing Darwin’s science with tales for children, Do Elephants Have Knees? underscores the importance of whimsical storytelling to the accomplishment of serious thinking. Charles Darwin mused about duck beaks and swimming bears as he imagined a pathway for the origin of baleen. A “bearduck” chimera may be a stretch, but the science linking not just cows but also whales to moose through shared ancestry has great merit. Teaching about shared ancestry may begin with attention to Bernard Wiseman’s Morris the Moose. Morris believes that cows and deer are fine examples of moose because they all have four legs and things on their heads. No whale antlers are known, but fossils of four-legged whales are. By calling attention to surprising and serendipitous echoes between children’s stories and challenging science, Ault demonstrates how playful thinking opens the doors to an understanding of evolutionary thought.

Purchase Do Elephants Have Knees? And Other Stories of Darwinian Origins through the publisher or the independent Powell’s City of Books. The author, who teaches at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR, will discuss his book at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne on November 28 at 7:30pm.