Making Sense of Evolution: The Conceptual Foundations of Evolutionary Biology

University of Chicago Press
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Making Sense of Evolution explores contemporary evolutionary biology, focusing on the elements of theories—selection, adaptation, and species—that are complex and open to multiple possible interpretations, many of which are incompatible with one another and with other accepted practices in the discipline. Particular experimental methods, for example, may demand one understanding of “selection,” while the application of the same concept to another area of evolutionary biology could necessitate a very different definition.

Spotlighting these conceptual difficulties and presenting alternate theoretical interpretations that alleviate this incompatibility, Massimo Pigliucci and Jonathan Kaplan intertwine scientific and philosophical analysis to produce a coherent picture of evolutionary biology. Innovative and controversial, Making Sense of Evolution encourages further development of the Modern Synthesis and outlines what might be necessary for the continued refinement of this evolving field.

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About the author

Massimo Pigliucci is associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University. Jonathan Kaplan is assistant professor of philosophy at Oregon State University.
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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Chicago Press
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Published on
Feb 15, 2010
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Pages
236
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ISBN
9780226668352
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Language
English
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Genres
Science / General
Science / Life Sciences / Evolution
Science / Philosophy & Social Aspects
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Recent polls suggest that fewer than 40 percent of Americans believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution, despite it being one of science’s best-established findings. More and more parents are refusing to vaccinate their children for fear it causes autism, though this link can been consistently disproved. And about 40 percent of Americans believe that the threat of global warming is exaggerated, despite near consensus in the scientific community that manmade climate change is real.

Why do people believe bunk? And what causes them to embrace such pseudoscientific beliefs and practices? Noted skeptic Massimo Pigliucci sets out to separate the fact from the fantasy in this entertaining exploration of the nature of science, the borderlands of fringe science, and—borrowing a famous phrase from philosopher Jeremy Bentham—the nonsense on stilts. Presenting case studies on a number of controversial topics, Pigliucci cuts through the ambiguity surrounding science to look more closely at how science is conducted, how it is disseminated, how it is interpreted, and what it means to our society. The result is in many ways a “taxonomy of bunk” that explores the intersection of science and culture at large.

No one—not the public intellectuals in the culture wars between defenders and detractors of science nor the believers of pseudoscience themselves—is spared Pigliucci’s incisive analysis. In the end, Nonsense on Stilts is a timely reminder of the need to maintain a line between expertise and assumption. Broad in scope and implication, it is also ultimately a captivating guide for the intelligent citizen who wishes to make up her own mind while navigating the perilous debates that will affect the future of our planet.
A philosopher subjects the claims of evolutionary psychology to the evidential and methodological requirements of evolutionary biology, concluding that evolutionary psychology's explanations amount to speculation disguised as results.

Human beings, like other organisms, are the products of evolution. Like other organisms, we exhibit traits that are the product of natural selection. Our psychological capacities are evolved traits as much as are our gait and posture. This much few would dispute. Evolutionary psychology goes further than this, claiming that our psychological traits—including a wide variety of traits, from mate preference and jealousy to language and reason—can be understood as specific adaptations to ancestral Pleistocene conditions. In Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology, Robert Richardson takes a critical look at evolutionary psychology by subjecting its ambitious and controversial claims to the same sorts of methodological and evidential constraints that are broadly accepted within evolutionary biology.

The claims of evolutionary psychology may pass muster as psychology; but what are their evolutionary credentials? Richardson considers three ways adaptive hypotheses can be evaluated, using examples from the biological literature to illustrate what sorts of evidence and methodology would be necessary to establish specific evolutionary and adaptive explanations of human psychological traits. He shows that existing explanations within evolutionary psychology fall woefully short of accepted biological standards. The theories offered by evolutionary psychologists may identify traits that are, or were, beneficial to humans. But gauged by biological standards, there is inadequate evidence: evolutionary psychologists are largely silent on the evolutionary evidence relevant to assessing their claims, including such matters as variation in ancestral populations, heritability, and the advantage offered to our ancestors. As evolutionary claims they are unsubstantiated. Evolutionary psychology, Richardson concludes, may offer a program of research, but it lacks the kind of evidence that is generally expected within evolutionary biology. It is speculation rather than sound science—and we should treat its claims with skepticism.

The announcement in 2003 that the Human Genome Project had completed its map of the entire human genome was heralded as a stunning scientific breakthrough: our first full picture of the basic building blocks of human life. Since then, boasts about the benefits—and warnings of the dangers—of genomics have remained front-page news, with everyone agreeing that genomics has the potential to radically alter life as we know it.
For the nonscientist, the claims and counterclaims are dizzying—what does it really mean to understand the genome? Barry Barnes and John Dupré offer an answer to that question and much more in Genomes and What to Make of Them, a clear and lively account of the genomic revolution and its promise. The book opens with a brief history of the science of genetics and genomics, from Mendel to Watson and Crick and all the way up to Craig Venter; from there the authors delve into the use of genomics in determining evolutionary paths—and what it can tell us, for example, about how far we really have come from our ape ancestors. Barnes and Dupré then consider both the power and risks of genetics, from the economic potential of plant genomes to overblown claims that certain human genes can be directly tied to such traits as intelligence or homosexuality. Ultimately, the authors argue, we are now living with a new knowledge as powerful in its way as nuclear physics, and the stark choices that face us—between biological warfare and gene therapy, a new eugenics or a new agricultural revolution—will demand the full engagement of both scientists and citizens.

Written in straightforward language but without denying the complexity of the issues, Genomes and What to Make of Them is both an up-to-date primer and a blueprint for the future.
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