Thursday, 15 March 2012

Tim Tyler: Ryan, Darwin's Blind Spot (review)


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler and this is a brief review of this book:

Darwin's Blind Spot: Evolution Beyond Natural Selection by Frank Ryan.

The book is about symbiology. My interest in the history of the idea of symbiosis arises because I am interested in a symbiological theory of cultural evolution - namely memetics. Academia was incredibly sluggish in adopting symbiosis in the organic realm. It was almost a hundred years between its discovery and its acceptance. The modern problems with the failure of academia to adopt symbiosis in the cultural realm broadly mirrors the probem it had in adopting symbiosis in the organic realm. If cultural symbiology takes a hundred years to be accepted that might take us up to around 2075. The thought of one of my favourite theories sitting around in limbo for another sixty three years before going mainstream is not much fun to contemplate. So - I'm hoping that - by better understanding the history of symbiosis - I'll be able to find a way to move things along a little.

Frank Ryan's book is quite good. Probably the part I found most interesting was the speculation about how metamorphosis in butterflies could possibly have arisen out of a symbiotic union. I had not previously considered that possibility - and I looked it up on the internet. The most vocal advocate of the idea has been a fellow called Don Williamson, who has written a whole book on the topic. Numerous scientists have poured scorn on Don's idea. Don proposed that a winged insect impregnated a velvet worm - to produce butterflies. That seems to be an unlikely story. However there are plenty of wasps that use caterpillars as incubators. In some cases there's one host insect for each baby wasp (for example that happens with Jewel wasps). It is relatively easy to imagine that such a symbiosis eventually evolves to cut out the stage where the adult has to track down a new host.

Frank Ryan has gone on to write another book titled "The Mystery of Metamorphosis: A Scientific Detective Story" - which is all about this topic - which I might have to read one day - in order to determine whether the idea of metamorphosis being linked to symbiosis has anything to it.

The rest of the book didn't teach me that much. The writing was okay - though not exactly riveting. The book rambled around quite a bit covering The Gaia hypothesis, the origin of life and the origin of sex - and many other topics.

The book does approvingly mention memes - but it doesn't seem to grasp the possibility of them acting as cultural symbionts. It does have a chapter starting with a quote from Richard Dawkins that reads:

But do we have to go to distant worlds to find other kinds of replicator and other, consequent, kinds of evolution? I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.
That sounds promising - right? I though so too - however, the chapter rambles around the idea that maybe cooperation between humans is a form of symbiosis - and then concludes with the idea that maybe trade is another form of symbiosis - and that's the extent of it. It is great to see some coverage of cultural symbiology. However, this coverage is feeble and misses out most of the topic. Ryan doesn't seem to understand the possibility of cultural creatures existing - and so tries to find ways of considering cultural symbiosis that involve multiple humans. The history of symbiosis will need rewriting once cultural symbiology is more widely understood.

One area where I wanted more information than the book provided was the negative effects of science stumbing along with the wrong theory for decades. Without symbiosis, evolution is less cooperative and more more competitive. One of my concerns is that: people might stumble along with the wrong theory of cultural evolution for a long time - and in the process cause substantial damage to society through promoting competitive variants of politics and economics. Indeed, the damage done by incorrect forms of Darwinism in the past seems to have been substantial. The idea that a Darwinian economy or political system is one dominated by competition has the potential to be especially harmful to society - and this is part of why a symbiotic theory of cultural evolution is such an urgent issue.

My appetite for the topic was not entirely satiated by the book - and I might yet have to read more books on the history of symbiosis, to get a fuller picure of the subject.


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