Saturday, 18 June 2016

The Balkanization of Darwinism

In modern times the study of Darwinian evolution has become split across multiple academic departments. There are evolutionary biology departments, ecology departments and departments of human evolution. Other departments study evolutionary economics and evolutionary epistemology. As far as I can tell, practically nowhere studies evolutionary theory itself.

The success of the field of evolutionary biology seems to be part of the problem to me. There are a number of academics who self-identify as "evolutionary biologists". There are evolutionary biology departments at universities all over the world. It seems to me that students of evolutionary theory who confine their attention to biology are missing out on Darwinian physics, and applications of evolutionary theory outside biology. Is this just a case of specialization? or do these folk not understand that Darwinism is more broadly applicable? Experience suggests that the latter hypothesis is usually the more accurate one.

For example, Mark Ridley's "Evolution" textbook says (3rd edition, page 4):

Evolution means change in living things by descent with modification

"Living things"? Since when is evolutionary theory limited to "living things". What about Darwinian physics? To me that's a classic example of the confusion associated with evolutionary biology. Those folk think they have a monopoly on evolutionary theory. What they actually have is bad terminology which is confusing the next generation of students.

Larry Moran once wrote: "Call me an evolutionary biologist". Well, OK - but it seems like a term of abuse to me. When I refer to people as "evolutionary biologists" I am usually referring to people who don't understand the true scope of Darwin's legacy.

1 comment:

  1. I agree completely. Evolution does seem to apply more generally, to living and non-living things alike. I don't find it shocking to talk about the evolution of a galaxy or the evolution of a city. What would you call the general science of evolution? I tend to think of it as the "science of change" as in, what are the rules or patterns of change for a given domain. I'm not sure that fully captures it but that is my rough and ready definition.

    It may, of course, turn out that all things evolve according to similar rules. In the book "The Singular Universe" Unger and Smollen argue that the even laws of physics evolve. I don't know if that is accurate but it's certainly intriguing.