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The Longest Now

Expression and censorship : evolutionary theory
Tuesday December 27th 2005, 1:14 pm
Filed under: %a la mod

Evolution.  A word with
simple origins, narrowed by specific use over time through association
with genes, reproduction, random processes, fitness.  Selection,
even “natural selection“,
likewise.  Research into, or writing about, certain related
‘evolutionary’ theories (for loose definitions of the term) has become
systematically stigmatized — the most insidious form of censorship —
since Morgan’s work in the 1920s. 

It fascinates me that the successful description and study of one
mechanism for key observations about the world often pushes out
supplementary theories, without being fully aware of doing so, like
newborn chicks pushing their siblings out of the nest.  This post
is a brief meditation on how this has happened with evolution; with
links to a few related resources.  I have found myself having
related conversations a few times over the past weeks, thanks to the
often-reductionist debates in the US over
whether to teach the religious doctrine of “creationism
in public schools;

I have no strong feelings about creationism or intelligent design; I am no more or less
bothered by its teaching that by the teaching of any other religious
doctrine in schools.  However, in two conversations recently, I
found that well-read friends of mine,
with some talent and experience in biology, had no idea (and indeed,
were momentarily shocked) that scientists still investigate trait
transmissions other than natural selection.   This bothers me
a great deal.  Both
discussions quickly turned heated at the suggestion that one
might study anything but selection as a mechanism for biological or
genetic change.  [For an interesting an neutral view of that argument, predating modern preconceptions, see JBS Haldane‘s book below, or any writing from the 1880s to the 1920s.]

Back to free expression of ideas
— Stigmatization is a common, unconscious way for groups to settle on
a single set of principles and limit fundamental argument; in science,
evolution may be the subfield in which this has had the most profound
and widely-felt effect.  Unlike, say, Church-sponsored
stigmatization of novel astronomical theories
during the Renaissance, the modern stigmatization of novel evolutionary
theories is happily unconscoius; so research proceeds along other
lines, and finds funding and interest… but it tends to change its
terminology often to avoid being discarded out of hand.

Conrad Waddington was one of
the more prominent researchers pursuing such other lines  of
research in the later 20th century.  His 1975 book “The Evolution of an Evolutionist
says much — in the title he has already begun defending himself from expected attacks on his
position.  In it he describes his changing thoughts about
evolution over time.  Among other things, Waddington studied ‘canalization
– a term for the inclination of different members of a given species
with sidely different genes (often sharing no more than 50% of their
specific genes with one another, according to one quote) to develop
into very similar organisms.

Since the 1930s, when it was still possible
to investigate “Lamarckian” transmission of traits without being deeply
scorned, researchers have regularly changed the terminology used for
such studies.  While the definition of evolution became ever more
specific, the terms used for related concepts were in flux… 
currently, “epigenetic” and “neo-evolutionary” are two terms one might serach for to unearth ongoing research into alternatives to canonical evolutionary theory.

Some brief examples :

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