Non-Fiction Reviews

Dawkins vs Gould: Survival of the Fittest

(2007) Kim Sterelny, Icon Books , 7.99 / Can$16.00 /US$12.95, pbk, 205 pp, ISBN 978-1-840-4-6780-2


Scientists often disagree. This is part of the scientific process whereby hypotheses are tested and challenged so as to be independently verified until a more sophisticated understanding provides fresh challenges. Such disagreements are usually resolved amicably through analysis, debate and experimentation. However sometimes (especially where the opportunities for analysis and experimentation are limited) the debate can become heated. Nowhere is this more typically exemplified that in a debate over evolution: no not the one between creationists and Darwinians (that debate is not between bioscientists but largely involves non-scientists). The famous heated evolutionary debate within biology of recent decades has between the British biologist Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould from the US. Both scorn the others perceptions as to the detail in the way Darwinian evolution works and both have written somewhat vitriolic reviews of the others books. So what is the fuss all about?

Now let me be clear, I am not an evolutionary biologist heavily into systematics and cladistics (the finer detail of the 'evolutionary' way 'individual' species relate to each other). Having said that I am an environmental scientist into science communication (in the broadest sense) and with a longstanding interest in human ecology, energy and biosphere interactions and development. This package does necessitate an understanding of Earth's evolutionary history and processes even if such an understanding is not so great as to be expert. OK, so now you know from whence I come.

The right old ding-dong between Gould and Dawkins has been going on for many years up to Gould's death in 2002. Indeed it still continues as the Gould camp has many adherents quite capable of formulating a coherent challenge to Dawkins' views and those of his allies. So what is all the fuss about and who is right?

Step up Kim Sterelny, an Australasian academic working in philosophy but with an interest in biology. He has distilled a reasonably concise take on the Gould - Dawkins debate that both explores their points of difference and explains a number of the drivers of evolution along the way.

Now before you all go thinking that this is rather academic and irrelevant let me remind you that evolution is fundamental to life on Earth. Our current range of biodiversity, relationships between species and so forth, is the end point of evolutionary pressures albeit that these pressures are many, varied and interrelated, not to mention have been changing over time. For example human activity is currently depleting biodiversity yet this is only comparatively recent in the Earth five or so billion year history, and our species itself is an evolutionary product. Consequently the way evolution works is both complex and fundamental to the BIG picture of life on our planet (and possibly elsewhere).

Both Dawkins and Gould agree that Darwinian evolution of selection and survival of the fittest (traits) enables speciation (one species turning into another). However they disagree as to the principal driving forces within this process in a number of ways. To take one example: is the gradualist approach most important where by one tiny mutation confers and advantage and so survives and then this gets slightly further developed and so on until species are different (gradualism), with perhaps a catastrophe (a continent tectonically parting or an asteroid impacting) occasionally helping things. Alternatively does the day-to-day battle for survival prevent too much gradual change so that it is more important in evolutionary terms when a continent does part, or an asteroid impacts, causing some species dies out and leaving others with opportunities so giving a temporary spur to evolution? (This is punctuated equilibrium).

Remember, both these views are in line with Darwinian evolution, but which is the more essential driver of evolution shaping the tree of life? Both Gould and Dawkins agree that both the gradualistic and 'punctuated equilibrium' processes operate (though the way they apply these words might differ slightly). What separates these two scientists is which evolutionary processes are most important in terms of the scale of time (millennia, epochs, eras and eons) and species (genus, family, order, class, phylum). And then of course there are the implications as to all of this on the likely answers to questions such as what would happen if we re-ran the history of life on Earth from scratch, or the nature of life on other planets, let alone more mundane issues such as the evolutionary implications of what we are now doing to our planet.

Kim Sterelny has explained the Gould - Dawkins arguments with fair clarity, and along the way one gets a glimpse as to the complexities and subtleties of those whose specialist expertise concerns evolution. It is written at the proverbial New Scientist level so those with pre-university school science qualifications should understand it with ease. Yet it explains things of relevance to undergraduate life science students and I would certainly place this on the booklist sent as a summer holiday read to prospective students. Qualified biologists, who are aware that there has been some acrimony between Gould and Dawkins, but who are not entirely sure what it is all about, will also find this useful as well as an engaging read.

By now I suspect that some of you will be wanting me to reveal whom Kim Sterelny ends up supporting. Well that would spoil matters. Suffice to say I have long had some sympathy with much, but not all, of his conclusions, and that for once the butler did not do it but was himself the product of evolution.

Jonathan Cowie

Common gripe. The planet 'Earth' was stripped of its proper noun status and reduced to a common noun meaning soil. Icon copy editor please note.

Note for scientists: Those interested in the latest science related to this debate might want to check out Estes, S., & Arnold, S. J. (2007) Am. Nat. 169, 227-244 or a perspective on this by Hendry, A., (2007) Nature 446, 147-150 which has a model that neatly incorporates both gradualism and punctuated evolution with fitness being a movable feast.)

A shortened version of the above review appeared in the journal Biologist.


Editorial note

Those interested in Dawkins vs. Gould and specifically 'evolution' may also be interested in the following books reviewed elsewhere on this site:-
-- When Life Nearly Died about the Earth's greatest mass extinction since the Cambrian.
-- Catastrophes and Lesser Calamities: The Causes of Mass Extinctions is a very readable synopsis.
-- Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe presents the case for co-evolution on another Earth-like world.
-- Astrobiology: The quest for the conditions of life -- is written at first year undergraduate level.
-- Paradigms Regained about six big questions including: how did life on Earth arise, nature or nurture, and the possibility of alien life?
-- Life on Other Worlds: The 20th Century ET Life Debate does much of what it says in the title.
-- Evolving the Alien a biologist's look at the logic and considerations needed when considering alien life possibilities.

Or you may be interested in the following article:-
Should we trust scientists?

Finally, also of possible interest to scientists stumbling across this website, there are both 'general science' and a 'natural science' news sections within our seasonal SF news bulletin as well as a listing of forthcoming science fact and non-fiction SF books.

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