The Coyne paradox.

From everything I have heard, Jerry Coyne’s new book Why Evolution is True is very good. I haven’t read it yet (it is on my list), but I am willing to assume that the reviews have been reliable and that he makes a superb case for the fact of evolutionary descent.

What I don’t understand is the consistent contradictions that seem to come up whenever I encounter his writings. For example…

  • He co-authors a very useful book on Speciation and is considered an expert on the topic. But the book includes almost nothing about punctuated equilibria (i.e., one of the major issues with regard to patterns of speciation in the fossil record), and he even misconstrues it as saltationist.

The idea of macromutational hopeful monsters, or “saltations,” had a prominent resurrection in 1980 when Stephen Jay Gould, as part of his and Niles Eldredge’s theory of punctuated equilibrium, proposed that macromutations could explain the “jumps” in the fossil record. After getting a severe drubbing from geneticists, Eldredge and Gould retreated in 1993, claiming that they never suggested the idea of saltations. [See rebuttals here and here]

Until now, however, the prize horse in our stable of examples has been the evolution of ‘industrial melanism’ in the peppered moth, Biston betularia, presented by most teachers and textbooks as the paradigm of natural selection and evolution occurring within a human lifetime. The re-examination of this tale is the centrepiece of Michael Majerus’s book, Melanism: Evolution in Action. Depressingly, Majerus shows that this classic example is in bad shape, and, while not yet ready for the glue factory, needs serious attention. [See Majerus’s paper in E:EO about this]

  • He is a vocal critic of creationists, but he also defends the use of their favourite term “Darwinism”. Biologists rarely use it anyway (because, as I and many others feel, it is misleading both historically and scientifically), so this can only provide benefit to anti-evolutionists. He also doesn’t seem to grasp that it’s not that eliminating the term would cause creationists to vanish, it’s that they would no longer have the (let’s face it, effective) tool for persuading non-scientists that evolution is an ideology based on one man’s teaching.

9 comments to The Coyne paradox.

  • Blake Stacey

    Actually, the first review I read of Coyne’s new book was an unenthusiastic one.

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  • Anonymous

    If Gould didn't intend it as a saltationist theory, he shouldn't have promoted it as one.

    In "Is a New and General Theory of Evolution Emerging?" in Part IV–the lead up to punk eek–he discusses Goldschmidt & saltationism, then directly connects them with punk eek in part V. He does everything but explicity state that punk eek *requires* saltationism. But he makes it very clear that there is likely a connection.

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  • Anonymous

    He writes a book about the evidence for evolution, but he also was one of the people responsible for undermining the peppered moth example in a strange book review.
    ==

    I haven’t read WEIT yet, but does he mention the peppered moth or not? If not, no paradox. He’s allowed to be convinced or unconvinced by whichever arguments he “chooses”. From what I’ve seen, there WERE legitimate problems with the peppered moth study.

    ==
    He is a vocal critic of creationists, but he also defends the use of their favourite term “Darwinism”.
    ==

    Again, he is free to use whatever terms he chooses. While I’m not a big fan of the “-ism”, I don’t really see any problem with the term. The “-ism” doesn’t have to be any more charged than the “dogma” in “central dogma”. And obviously the science has changed, but it pays respect to the guy who started it all (like “Newtonian mechanics”).

    And if we stop calling ourselves “Darwinists”, it sure as hell doesn’t mean that the creationists will. They promote the “evolution is a religion” rubbish regardless.

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  • T Ryan Gregory

    If Gould didn't intend it as a saltationist theory, he shouldn't have promoted it as one.

    In "Is a New and General Theory of Evolution Emerging?" in Part IV–the lead up to punk eek–he discusses Goldschmidt & saltationism, then directly connects them with punk eek in part V. He does everything but explicity state that punk eek *requires* saltationism. But he makes it very clear that there is likely a connection.

    I’d be interested in seeing the particular text that you’re interpreting as linking saltationism with punctuated equilibria.

    As far as I can tell, he discusses punctuated equilibria primarily in a discussion on levels of selection and larger trends.

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  • Larry Moran

    Anonymous says,

    If Gould didn’t intend it as a saltationist theory, he shouldn’t have promoted it as one.

    He never did. Anyone who undesrstands punctuated equilibria will understand that it’s not about sudden changes at all. It’s a theory that links evolutionary change to speciation events and those speciation events can take tens of thousands of years.

    Furthermore, the changes are often so subtle that it takes an expect to recognize that two species have formed by cladogenesis.

    The myth arises only among those whose misunderstanding of punctuated equilibria is so profound that they can confuse two entirely different things.

    Here’s what Gould says in his essay Punctuated Equilibrium’s Threefold History.

    In particular, and most offensive to me, the urban legend rests on the false belief that radical, “middle-period” punctuated equilibrium became a saltational theory wedded to Goldschmidt’s hopeful monsters as a mechanism. I have labored to refute this nonsensical charge from the day I first heard it. But my efforts are doomed within the self-affirming structure of the urban legend. We all know, for so the legend proclaims, that I once took the Goldschmidtian plunge. So if I ever deny the link, I can only be retreating from an embarrassing error. And if I, continue to deny the link with force and gusto, well, then I am only backtracking even harder (into stage 3) and apologizing (or obfuscating) all the more. How about the obvious (and accurate) alternative: that we never made the Goldschmidtian link; that this common error embodies a false construction; and that our efforts at correction have always represented an honorable attempt to relieve the confusion of others.

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  • T Ryan Gregory

    I quite honestly can not find any link in Gould (1980), so I will await clarification from those who argue that he made one in that discussion.

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  • RPM

    While Coyne and Orr’s book is called “Speciation”, it’s really about reproductive isolation. With that in mind, it makes sense that he did not discuss speciation from the various angles not involving reproductive isolation (phylogenetics, fossils, etc).

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  • T Ryan Gregory

    Well, Chapter 12 is entitled “Speciation and macroevolution”. As I recall, they also mention species selection, which would have been a fine place to discuss punctuated equilibria. Now, if one thought that punk eek was just saltationism, then I could see why it would be omitted.

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  • Elle

    “He writes a book about the evidence for evolution, but he also was one of the people responsible for undermining the peppered moth example in a strange book review.”

    You might want to know that when presented with new data he has become convinced that the peppered moth story is solid.

     http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/02/10/the-peppered-moth-story-is-solid/

     

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