virus: A war by any other name

Wade T.Smith (
Sat, 4 Oct 97 01:38:52 -0400

Herein a clip from the local rag-

(There is a leveling of sorts on this coast as well....)


Survival of the theorists

Professors battle over Darwin's concept of evolution

By John Yemma, Globe Staff, 10/03/97

CAMBRIDGE - With his rock-star mass of curly locks and his breezy =
rhetorical style, MIT's Steven Pinker doesn't match the image that =
''fundamentalist'' usually calls to mind. Neither does Tufts' Daniel =
Dennett, the very picture of a mild-mannered, tweedy academic.

But that is what these two professors have been labeled by Harvard's =
formidable paleobiologist, Stephen Jay Gould, who has touched off one =
of the season's prickliest controversies among Cambridge =

''Darwinian fundamentalists,'' Gould calls them - men with a =
''propensity for cultism and ultra-Darwinian fealty.''

It gets worse: Dennett says Gould is out to ''poison minds.'' Pinker =
says Gould is ''nasty and strident'' and is ''scrambling things so =
that his opponents have horns and he has a halo.''

Getting into a fight with Gould is nothing new. A profilic essayist, =
he has been outspokenly controversial on a wide range of topics, from =
Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak to race, IQ, and ''The Bell Curve.'' =
But in this case, says Pinker, ''Gould has raised the vituperation to =
levels that I think are extreme even among academics.''

All the chest-puffing is over a fine point of evolutionary theory. =
Gould, who was not available for comment, has laid out his views in a =
pair of articles and an exchange of letters in recent issues of The =
New York Review of Books.

As Gould sees it, too many biologists, psychologists, and =
philosophers are buying the notion that natural selection is the =
be-all and end-all of evolution. Allowing this view to prevail, he =
says, is bad for science and is fueling the growth of evolutionary =
psychology, a field full of ''narrow, and often barren speculation'' =
about how and why humans behave as they do.

Pinker, Dennett, and others profess puzzlement at Gould's concerns. =
There is no real argument, they say, except perhaps over emphasis - =
and, Dennett adds, ''it's not going to be settled this way.''

A professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of =
Technology and author of the current best seller, ''How the Mind =
Works,'' Pinker says he thinks Gould is probably picking a fight for =
ego reasons - to distinguish himself from the pack of evolutionary =
theorists at work today and because of a longstanding grudge Gould =
has with sociobiology.

Sociobiology was the predecessor of evolutionary psychology, which is =
Pinker's field. Gould and others criticized it heavily two decades =
ago as having racist overtones. In a sort of modern-day Darwinian =
adaptation, sociobiologists evolved into evolutionary psychologists =
and animal behaviorists in order to survive the intellectual =

Pinker, a rising star among academic lecturers, jumped into the =
current fight with Gould unbidden. It was Dennett, a philosopher and =
director of Tufts' Center for Cognitive Studies, whom Gould really =
had in his sights.

Dennett's way of seeing evolution is ''miserly and blinkered,'' wrote =
Gould, and puts natural selection on a pedestal not even Charles =
Darwin would have wanted it on. Dennett's 1995 book, ''Darwin's =
Dangerous Idea,'' was an ''influential but misguided ultra-Darwinian =

Dennett dismisses Gould's theories of evolution as an attempt to =
create artificial distinctions. Because Gould is such a capable =
writer, he says, the public may be getting misled into thinking there =
is fire beneath all the smoke he is blowing.

''The public needs to know that his views are not widely shared by =
evolutionary biologists,'' said Dennett. So, after enduring Gould's =
criticisms for years, he said, ''I got tired of it and pointed out =
that his influential criticisms were not serious.''

A key Dennett ally, British biologist John Maynard Smith, also cuffed =
Gould around. In a favorable review of Dennett's book, Maynard Smith =
said most evolutionary biologists see Gould as ''a man whose ideas =
are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with.'' The only =
reason they had not lambasted Gould earlier, Smith added, was that =
they figured ''he is at least on our side against the creationists.''

It was really Maynard Smith's criticisms, says Dennett, that made =
Gould ''blow his cork.''

''I resent Maynard Smith's pompous offer of grudging acceptance for =
my utility in fighting creationism,'' Gould wrote in The New York =
Review. ''I did not do so to win entry into his circle of genuine =
professionals ... but rather as a member of the larger scientific =
community. ... We will not win this most important of all battles if =
we descend to the same tactics of backbiting and anathematization =
that characterize our true opponents.''

Depending on whose argument is being made here, there may be crucial =
scholarly distinctions at stake. It is hard to tell. The public could =
be excused for seeing this as one of those perplexing academic =
arguments that in an earlier age would have involved angels dancing =
on the head of a pin.

But just in case creationists are listening in, all parties take =
pains to point out that this fight has nothing to do with God, =
religion, the Bible or, as Gould put it, attempts to ''smuggle =
purpose back into biology.'' It is, notes Pinker, an argument well =
within the world of ''secular science.''

In such a world, there are no angels.

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 10/03/97.
=A9 Copyright 1997 Globe Newspaper Company.

Wade T. Smith | "There ain't nothin' you | shouldn't do to a god." |
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