I began research before I graduated from college, graduated in 1987, worked in research for two years, and began grad school in 1989. Evolutionary biologists know what this means: I was trained right in the thick of the cresting of popularity and conflicting interchanges between Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould.
It’s true that a lot of my starting grad class arrived firmly clutching an allegiance to one or the other, ready to fight about it. By the time we were finishing our degrees in the mid-90s, however, most of us had decided this was silly. There was no reason to collect the mini-positions held by either of them into a single basket, many of those positions were not incompatible across the two, no one of those positions was particularly sacred or irrefutable, there was a galaxy of important questions well outside either’s range, and neither person was being particularly proactive about addressing the issues with research. Neither owned any damn intellectual thing, or acted as its overseer. Any reasonable scientist could address any one of these things professionally, so aside from proper citation, who cares which one said what?
Unfortunately their over-hyped confrontation became hot intellectual property outside the discipline itself. And now I find that it’s bled all over pop culture and the social sciences, having gained absurd qualities and various books and t-shirts and who knows what else.
Disclosure: I haven’t met Dawkins, although my time in grad school at the U of Florida just missed overlapping with his temporary appointment there, and his presence was still keenly felt in a variety of ways. I knew Gould, although not long enough, and liked him as a person – and when it comes to academics of his status, believe me, that is a very binary thing. He was kind to me as a younger scientist, treating my thoughts with respect in public and providing reasonable counter-arguments. Many experiences through others confirmed to me that he cared about others’ success and put a lot of effort into being decent all the way down the hierarchy to the incoming undergrad. My present point isn’t about his main ideas, or anyone else’s – I’m talking about the objectification of him and others from people into fixed, monstrous images composed of bits of this and that which they happened to have said … and missing both the memory and experience of them as people, and the individual value or lack-of-value of the things that were said.
It would be dramatic to highlight an early exchange between these two specifically, but intellectually, the best example is the dialogue in 1987 between Gould and John Alcock, whom if you must know, I consider more significant in the study of animal behavior than Dawkins, which I hope will support my ultimate point all the more. It was conducted in that earlier version of the internet, the in-house Harvard journal Natural History. I’m considering the original exchange, not the version published in Chapter 8 of Gould’s 1991 Bully for Brontosaurus.
The problem is that it’s all way too much posturing and not enough biology about the organs. I’m going to say it once, clearly, and with any luck you’ll instantly see what’s up and get your thinking on, without who said what about God knows what.
In mammals, this is the same organ – pure and simple homology. That they have different names is a minor matter, that they do somewhat different things in male and female mammals is of some interest. You can see the size difference and an elaboration or modification of some c. cavernosum into c. spongiosum in the pic. You can see too that the penis accommodates the urethra, and the clitoris doesn’t, as the urethra ends in its own orifice (not shown here). The penis is an intromittent organ and the urethra transmits gametes as well as urine; the clitoris is not employed this way and the female mammal does not emit gametes outside the body at all.
This is a very ancient structure associated with amniote vertebrates, perhaps even with that group’s origin. To say “the penis is adapted for copulation” is … simplistic. The first thing to know is that mammals didn’t make or evolve it, they inherited it, with minor modification compared to birds (most of whom have lost the penis or rather its intromittent role) or squamates (who have lost it and use a different intromittent organ, the hemipenis). So don’t talk about “needing” it, as birds do just fine with their charmingly-termed cloacal kiss. We have it, done; what’s interesting about that is the
devil details, i.e., what a given mammal is doing, and how each piece of it has evolved.
Having researched and written my dissertation on that very thing, here’s a paraphrase of what I said about the exchange at the time:
That a given organ has a homologue is not an indicator of whether and how much selection is involved in that structure’s current form. No matter what either version is doing.
That a given organ is physiologically present and connected to the various systems of an organism’s body, and “does a thing,” is not an indicator of whether and how much selection is involved either. No matter how it’s connected, or how many other organ systems are integrated with it.
All organs have homologues, between and within species. To say, “it can’t be a selected-thing, because its homologue has all these other functions,” is nonsense. All attached pieces of an organism’s body are part of its systemic apparatus. To say, “it’s supplied with blood and has nerves and doesn’t kill the organism where it stands, therefore it’s an adaptation,” is nonsense too.
You see what’s going on here? It’s not about “different levels” or “talking past one another” as later writers claimed (P. W. Sherman, 1989, American Zoologist 32; S. D. Mitchell, 1992, Animal Behaviour 37). These eminent poo-bahs had forgotten about the biology and were being plain careless. If they hadn’t been famous or if people hadn’t been so willing to associate themselves with their names or so interested in who “gotcha’d” the other, the exchange would have been called out by the editor of Natural History, who’d have told them to go pound sand, or failing that, laughed outta the joint at first reading by anyone.
Science as an activity, i.e., thinking scientifically, is or it isn’t. For any given topic or endeavor, you’re doing it or you’re not. But science as a culture, which is to say, profession, employment, income, status, funding, peers, reputation, “consensus” (for fuck’s sake), success, and much related matters, isn’t itself a scientific act or endeavor. It’s a baboon fest of baboon status, exacerbated by our technological reach in time and space.
Given my age group, or cohort for the population ecologists among us, it’s inevitable that I’ll be posting more about this-or-that thing which calls for mentioning Gould, Dawkins, and any number of other scare-names, Darwin included. But they’re not graven images, and I do not regard various key phrases of their contributions as scripture from either a unified church or a collection of cults. Talking about ideas which they’re associated with professionally doesn’t factor into how those ideas operate scientifically. In later posts, if you feel your cult membership fires burning, hop on back to this one and read about the dick-and-clit. That’s what matters.
Links: Peaceful Parenting (I quite like this one)
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