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The result need not be a genuine alternative theory of function i. If the imaginary agency is sufficiently diffuse, dynamical systems theory can become a sort of mysticism e. Bateson ; Waddington , pp. If both groups of critics misunderstand the study of adaptive function, they do so in radically different ways, and with radically different motivations. Nevertheless, neither group writes in isolation, and each can influence, and be influenced by the other Laland et al.

Claims that evolutionary biology is flawed or importantly incomplete are as old as the field. Mivart ; Mozley , pp. Laland et al. This does not mean that the critics are wrong. It has been argued here that the discontent is better understood as stemming from a few inescapable properties of living things, which lead to disappointment with evolutionary biology, and a nagging feeling that reform must be overdue.

It has been further argued that particular discontent stems from misunderstandings and dislike of one well-known subfield: the study of adaptive function, in the tradition of behavioural ecology Tinbergen ; Cuthill One of the few things shared by the laundry list items is their minor role in theories of adaptive function. Therefore, all can be championed as alternatives to such research things we that we might, or should, study instead , or as observations that promise to invalidate these theories because they affect outcomes in the world, but are not centre stage in the theories. This subfield is a particular target because it is atypical most researchers do not share its goals , because it requires a very partial description of evolution as something like inclusive fitness maximization , and because it uses ideas of apparent purpose and imaginary agency, but in a limited way to make testable predictions, and not to inspire or dignify.

For all of these reasons, the special criticism directed at the subfield is not surprising, but it is a pity.

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With its inherent focus on plastic phenotypes Grafen , and whole organisms Grafen , its common focus on sociality and cooperation West et al. If the account above can explain some puzzling things, it also has obvious weaknesses. First—and as ever in biology—an attempt to explain a pattern is not to deny the exceptions.

This article makes no serious attempt to rebut any single criticism of evolutionary biology, and no attempt at all to restrict what is studied. What has been argued is that there can be smoke without fire—that persistent and voluble criticism of evolutionary biology is to be expected, whether or not anything is seriously wrong. Second, the above account involves some speculation about extra-scientific motives, and this is always foolhardy and offensive. But it may be unavoidable. It is also undeniable that a lot of writing about evolutionary biology has its mind on higher things the same, shopworn collection of topics, from Marx and Spencer, to markets and trolley problems.

Evolutionary biology, like history, but unlike other natural sciences, raises issues of purpose and agency, alongside those of complexity and generality Anonymous ; Mount , and so there will always be those who agree with Carr that methods and explanatory goals cannot and should not be separated from political or religious agendas Maynard Smith , Ch. If criticism of evolutionary biology is inevitable, why grouse about it? It is easy to habituate to misleading alarm calls Cheney and Seyfarth , and churlish to complain about peripheral ideas, which, by definition, have little influence on what most scientists do.

However, claims that evolutionary biology is misguided or importantly incomplete are not harmless, but actively hinder progress in the field. Indeed, they do so in several ways. First, the claims misrepresent the field to the wider public.

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Such claims find an eager audience among those who reject the scientific consensus on other grounds. For example, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini present a priori objections to their version of natural selection, but also include a fairly typical laundry list to add some empirical heft. Chorost criticized Nagel for not including a laundry list.

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Second, and within the field, the claims encourage neophilia. It also distracts attention from the ways in which all biologists can do something genuinely new, such as expanding the range of study organisms. Rose a mentions genetic accommodation, epigenetics, co-operative interactions, group and ecosystem selection, self-organisation, niche construction, behavioural and symbolic transmission, and Marxism. See also Chorost and Maynard Smith , Ch.

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And the factory was designed by Charles Darwin. See also Eldredge , p. It states that a truly novel environment will not preferentially induce mutations that are appropriate to that environment. This must be distinguished from the claim that the rate and spectrum of mutations might adaptively evolve e. Kimura , and from the falsism that all mutations are equally likely to occur.

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If directed mutation did happen, it would be very important, and very difficult to explain with current scientific theories; but there are many more published articles about directed mutation than well-documented instances. Miller makes an explicit connection to miracles.

But it is doing so e. The fact that old frameworks are so often applicable to novel data follows directly from their high levels of abstraction. Evolutionary conflicts can arise when interacting biological agents are of different types i. Conflicts are of special interest for three prosaic reasons: they are more likely than mutualisms to lead to ongoing evolution; they play an important role in disease Stearns and Koella ; and the widespread assumption of shared interests has led to several scientific errors Williams I am bracketing several debates here, whose importance for scientific practice can be exaggerated.

In short, functional ascription can be indeterminate and change over time, while the presence of a trait can be explained in several different ways, all of which will be incomplete see, e. For some purposes, it may be possible to avoid intentional language altogether Godfrey-Smith , but it is both useful, and necessary if we want to explain why organisms look as if they were designed since apparent design implies imaginary agency. This is difficult to take seriously; the research involves imaginary agents. Such properties of the genetic system can all evolve under the action of natural selection, but are not easily studied with optimization-based approaches e.

Grafen Indeed, this is the area of evolutionary biology where unsupported claims about adaptive function are most common Lynch , Ch.

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  • The failure of understanding is clearest in claims that the research programme is empty: that by manipulating the Price equation a mathematical identity , and relegating factors to the transmission term, researchers make claims that are unfalsifiable Pigliucci ; Cummins and Roth ; Allen et al. This echoes the old criticism that natural selection is a tautology Maynard Smith , and takes no account of how predictive theories of adaptation are actually used.

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    My account of this debate is simplified, and I ignore criticisms that do not put the opposing case at its strongest. For example, Allen et al. This relates to a more serious question: whether standard accounts of adaptive function undermine all realist theories of value Street Realist theories have been defended by appealing to niche construction Rouse , or to group selection Okrent , or to something as yet unknown to science Nagel Waddington, also concerned with this issue , pp.

    There is ambiguity even in the most serious and substantial arguments.

    What’s wrong with evolutionary biology?

    This is, at least in effect, a request to shift emphasis away from the study of adaptive function, and towards more detailed dynamical descriptions of particular lineages see also Laland et al. None of this would have mattered to Waddington , who had non-scientific reasons for elevating the beaver to codirector, and focusing on cybernetic feedbacks Chs.

    For a remarkable, but atypical attempt, see The Editors The fact that the laundry list items play little role in theories of adaptive function is another way of saying that they cannot explain apparent design. This may explain why so many appear in natural theology e. Bateson ; Bowler , e. Skip to main content Skip to sections. Advertisement Hide. Download PDF. Open Access.

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    First Online: 20 December Several different critiques of evolutionary biology make more sense if understood, at least in part, as failures to appreciate the distinctive goals of research on adaptive function. These critics Nowak et al. IFT has made few predictions that are truly quantitative. Defenders of IFT e. Gardner et al. Anonymous The Namier View of History. Arnold SJ Morphology, performance, and fitness.

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    Evolution — CrossRef Google Scholar. Chorost M Where Thomas Nagel went wrong. Chronicle of Higher Education. May 13, Google Scholar. Church D The genie in your genes: epigenetic medicine and the new biology of intention. Elite Books, Fulton Google Scholar. Cambridge University Press.

    Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews Crick F What mad pursuit: a personal view of scientific discovery.