The Non-Linearity of the History of Science

As I mentioned in my last post, in a history of biology course I am sitting in on we were discussing Cuvier, and if we were discussing Cuvier, we were probably also discussing catastrophism vs. Lyell’s uniformitarianism. Which is true.

The story that is frequently told about this debate and its influence upon Darwin is, as is usual, simpler and a lot less interesting than what actually happened.

Catastrophism was a geological theory that claimed that the planet had experienced large-scale… catastrophes… that completely changed the world rather quickly. No one living at the time, or for the past few thousand years, had ever experienced these kinds of events. Frequently catastrophism was linked to Biblical events such as Genesis and Noah’s Flood (and in the future, Armageddon), but there were scientific reasons to believe catastrophism was true (but I am not currently aware of them). Cuvier avoided Biblical talk in his own catastrophic ideas, arguing for more regional (rather big regions, mind you, but not global) disasters that didn’t wipe out the entirety of existence.

The English geologist, Charles Lyell, constructed the theory of uniformitarianism – a theory very much opposed to catastrophism. Lyell argued that catastrophism was unscientific, but Stephen Jay Gould, in an essay in Ever Since Darwin points out that Lyell was attacking Biblical catastrophism which is somewhat of a strawman. I don’t know the details here so I can’t tell you what the scientific evidence was for or against catastrophism .

Lyell’s uniformitarianism postulated that processes acting today are the same processes that acted yesterday. Instead of mountains rising or canyons furrowing rather suddenly, as the catastrophists believed, Lyell argued that everyday earthquakes and river erosion acting gradually were sufficient to explain these natural formations.

As is typically said in histories of science, Lyell’s uniformitarianism paved the way for Darwin’s theory of evolution.* Special Creation can be construed as a biological form of catastrophism – God, in six days, created all of the life that now exists today, and is an event that we do not experience in our daily lives. Evolution, on the other hand, is obviously not catastrophist as the process happens all around us on a continuous basis, even today. We can explain what happened yesterday by examining what is happening today.

There is an aspect of Lyell’s uniformitarianism that is frequently ignored, however, and it formed a rather large part of Lyell’s worldview. Gould called this tenet the “dynamic steady-state.” It is almost like the Law of Conservation of Mass and Energy, but applied to geology. In regards to land mass, Lyell believed the size of today’s landmass is the same as yesterday’s; the distribution may have changed, but the total amount has remained. Because climate wasn’t “conserved” due to the landmasses moving about the globe, he was able to accept some form of transmutation of species. (Because the continents moved around, Lyell had a cyclical view of history in which biological eras, such as “the age of reptiles” and “the age of mammals,” would also cycle.)

Leaving out the dynamic steady-state in the history of Lyell’s impact on Darwin’s theory of evolution is misleading. The typical story casts the catastrophists in a negative light, even though they were correct about a linear history of the planet. Darwin had to abandon a major tenet of Lyell’s theory to construct his own theory of evolution. The idea of “progress” was “in the air” in Darwin’s time, so I have no idea if the catastrophists’ beliefs regarding linear time influenced him at all, but it would be interesting to check whether or not that is the case. But in any case, there wasn’t a simple jump from uniformitarianism to Darwin’s theory of evolution; instead, Darwin had to eliminate one of the central tenets of Lyell’s theory in order for his to make any sense.

(As for which school of thought is true, modern geology is a mixture of both. Canyons and mountains are generally formed by uniformitarian processes, but asteroids slamming the earth and causing mass extinctions is clearly a catastrophic event. Depressingly, one of the lectures by the creationist Terry Mortenson I saw last spring was focused on disproving uniformitarianism and proving catastrophism. As with all false dichotomies, neither is exclusively true and the answer is somewhere in the middle. The dichotomy is especially false because Mortenson labels modern geology as exclusively uniformitarian when in reality, it’s he who is the oddball extremist.)

The Historical Importance of Modularity

I am currently sitting in on a graduate philosophy of biology seminar and the theme of this semester’s seminar is evo-devo and we recently discussed the concept of modularity. I’m also sitting in on a history of biology course and we have talked a little about the early 19th century French scientist, Georges Cuvier. While attending the seminar, I was delighted to make a historical link between the two! (And oddly enough, one of the works we read in the seminar was a chapter from a book on modularity co-authored by Gunther Wagner which opens with the same link I had made.)

In my posts about the Spencer-Weismann debates, one of Spencer’s anti-Darwinian arguments I focused on can be called the “correlation of parts.” It was an idea articulated earlier by Cuvier, who said (as quoted by Wikipedia),

Today comparative anatomy has reached such a point of perfection that, after inspecting a single bone, one can often determine the class, and sometimes even the genus of the animal to which it belonged, above all if that bone belonged to the head or the limbs. … This is because the number, direction, and shape of the bones that compose each part of an animal’s body are always in a necessary relation to all the other parts, in such a way that – up to a point – one can infer the whole from any one of them and vice versa.

This article from the Academy of Natural Sciences quotes another passage from Cuvier:

Every organized being forms a whole, a unique and closed system, in which all the parts correspond mutually, and contribute to the same definitive action by a reciprocal reaction. None of its parts can change without the others changing too; and consequently each of them, taken separately, indicates and gives all the others.

The parts of an animal are so thoroughly integrated, that changing a single part – without proportionately modifying everything else involved as well – would produce a non-working animal. The correlation of parts prevented Cuvier from accepting Lamarckian evolution, or transmutation, in principle.

The correlation of parts later became an argument for Lamarckian evolution against Darwinian evolution,* as exemplified by Herbert Spencer. (I wonder if there has been any study on this shift in the principle’s use?) He believed, like Cuvier, that frequently a feature of an organism is tightly linked to a multitude of other parts and it would be very unlikely for all these parts to simultaneously vary to the appropriate magnitudes and directions required by neo-Darwinian evolution that prohibits the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

For example, an elk’s antlers are supported by thick skulls and strong back and neck muscles. If an elk were to gain an extra point to the rack through continued growth, increasing its weight, its muscles would be strained to keep the head up and the animal wouldn’t survive. However, in Lamarckian evolution, the muscles that the buck strengthens over its lifetime are passed on to its offspring. Over generations, the muscles would continue to strengthen to the point where extra growth in the rack could be supported. Thus the correlation of parts showed that pure Darwinian evolution couldn’t work in elk antlers, but Lamarckism could – according to Spencer, anyway.**

So, historically, according to some, evolution (or specifically, Darwinian evolution) couldn’t work because of the correlation of parts. I think the concept of modularity easily resolves this.

A module can be loosely defined as a semi-autonomous individual part or process. (I have written about modularity before in a previous post.) An example of modular part is the assortment of lobster appendages: they act and move mostly separate from the rest of their body. A modular process is exemplified by the development of the appendages themselves: each appendage develops indepently of the others, and these appendages are specified and created by modular genetic networks and pathways. Additionally, these modular structures, processes, and genetic networks can evolve freely from the rest of the organism-at-large.

Modularity answers Cuvier’s and Spencer’s objections to evolution. Yes, an organism may be well-integrated, but it is also built of semi-autonomous modules. A part or process of an organism can vary without the rest of the organism falling apart! Spencer argued that if Lamarckian inheritance, which sidesteps the correlation of parts, weren’t true, then evolution couldn’t happen, but perhaps he was half-right: modularity (which also sidesteps the correlation of parts), not Lamarckian inheritance, is what allows evolution to happen.

* I am obviously omitting Darwin’s views on the topic, but given what I read in Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, his views seem a bit muddy and complicated. Perhaps I will investigate Darwin’s views on the correlation of parts at a later date, but here I am focusing on correlation of parts vs. modularity.

** I don’t understand why Spencer excludes the possibility of later fluctuations or mutations that could arise after the weight increase in the antlers. He also doesn’t mention how the skull would thicken as a result of Lamarckian processes. I don’t think Spencer’s argument works at all given his framework, but it still illustrates the use of the principle of correlation of parts as an argument against Darwinian evolution.

The Peregrine and the Snoring Bird

So the blog posts have again come to a near halt but not without reason: I find it hard to write my typically dense posts if I’m not inspired to write one in the first place. I’ll try to come up with shorter “asides” (as WordPress calls them) that ask the questions I am pondering or to make a quick observation for the times that I don’t feel so inspired.

My photo of Hanging Lake

Also, the two books I have read in the past couple weeks weren’t science or history books, really, but more in the genre of nature writing. My family and I recently had a road trip to Colorado and Utah, getting a chance to hike to Hanging Lake, visit Arches National Park (our fourth time there, but first time at night, and we saw the ISS fly overhead as I laid under one of the arches!), do some rafting along the Colorado River, and I even got to see Jurassic Park at the Red Rocks Amphitheater. I knew it was going to be a great week and I certainly wasn’t going to bog it down with a dense history or science book. I instead opted for a book Jerry Coyne recommended a few months ago and recently wrote about again: The Peregrine by J. A. Baker.

Jurassic Park at the Red Rocks with the Denver skyline in the background.

I have long had an interest in raptors, particularly the falcons – they’re my favorite living vertebrates –  and have considered taking up falconry several times throughout my life. I just don’t think I can commit to the sport at this point, and I’m not sure if I ever will, but it will forever be in the back of my mind. Anyway, I like poetic/romantic writing, had never read a “nature book” before, and loved peregrine falcons so it sounded like the perfect fit for a road trip to Colorado. (It only would have been more perfect had I seen a falcon during the trip but alas, I only saw turkey vultures, Stellar’s jays, magpies and maybe some kind of snipe. All were worth seeing, of course, especially the three vultures that stared at us while perched on a tree on the bank of the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs as we rafted by, but nothing matches a falcon, in my opinion.)

The Peregrine is just as beautiful as Coyne said it would be. While there were a couple paragraphs (out of hundreds) that made me cringe a bit as some of Baker’s comments on human nature just seemed out of place, the vast majority of the book is wonderful. I felt I could actually see the falcons as they stooped, hovered, and soared, causing woodpigeons and other birds to scatter in fits of mass frights. The few entries (it is written as if a journal) that took place in winter were absolutely breathtaking, especially when Baker writes about a kingfisher he found. I am currently unable to quote from the book (I read it on a Kindle which I accidentally broke), but I’ll post some at a later date. I would seriously recommend The Peregrine to everyone and I’ll be sure to read it again. I want more books like this! (I have yet to read the second part of the Baker collection, The Hill of Summer, mind you.)

Continuing in the vein of nature writing, I picked up The Snoring Bird by Bernd Heinrich. What I thought would be solely nature writing actually turned out to be a memoir – an autobiography of Bernd and a biography of his father, Gerd Heinrich. This unexpected aspect definitely did not disappoint – both he and his father lead spectacularly fascinating lives. His father, born in 1896, modeled himself after the classic Victorian explorers, such as Darwin and Wallace, and collected mammals, birds, and especially ichneumon wasps, from Asia, Africa, Europe and North America, for museums in Europe and the United States, while Bernd, born in 1940, became a modern experimental biologist with the mind of a naturalist – he, too, explored the woods around him and studied the organisms that surrounded him, such as ravens, bees, and moths. The book also provides a unique wartime story as his father, German and Polish, fought for Germany in both World Wars and was forced to flee west with his family as the Russians advanced towards Berlin who creating their own reign of terror. The Heinrichs were lucky to be alive and everyone in the family knew it – something we don’t always appreciate.

The book is riveting from start to finish, even during times of low tension. Heinrich somehow makes his work on the thermoregulation of moths and bees fascinating – I couldn’t put the book down even at this point – and the time he spent in the Hahnheide forest in West Germany was a time I wish I could have shared with him. Not only is the book (auto)biographical, but it gives perspectives on the gift of life, the longing for home, the desire for life full of purpose, the experiences of immigrants, and the need to explore and spend time in nature. While I was looking for more nature writing, I found nature writing plus wartime and immigrant experiences, among other aspects. Both Bernd and Gerd Heinrich’s lives are inspiring, but in almost totally different ways, and The Snoring Bird inspirationally tells their stories. Like The Peregrine, I give The Snoring Bird a whole-hearted recommendation. (You can also find a review of the book by GrrlScientist here which contains more details than what I wrote here.)

As I mentioned, I am eager to find more nature writing books. I will of course check out more of Bernd Heinrich’s other books, especially The Mind of the Raven, Ravens in Winter, One Man’s Owl, and Winter World, but other books I currently have on my list are:  The Goshawk by T.H. White, The Voice of the Dolphins by Hardy Jones, Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams, Monsters of the Sea and The Search for the Giant Squid by Richard Ellis, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, and Lonely Land by Sigurd Olson. That’s quite a few books, and I’ll try to use them as in-between books to give my mind a bit of a rest. If anyone has recommendations, please let me know! (I’m aware that I’m missing Thoreau, Leopold and Muir – I’ll get to them eventually too).

Once I delve back into science and the history of science, expect more informative posts, but I might try to sneak in just one more nature book before Labor Day…

Book Review: Biology’s First Law by McShea and Brandon (2010)

Book coverBiology is typically known as a science without laws. There is evolutionary theory, of course, but it’s quite complex and looks different depending on what level you are looking at it; nothing like Newton’s Force = mass * acceleration. Biology does have quite a few “rules” though, such as Cope’s rule, which states that “population lineages tend to increase in body size over evolutionary time,” but there, of course, always exceptions to the rule. The existence or non-existence of laws in biology (and specifically, evolution) is a large matter of debate in philosophy of biology and I am certainly not qualified to discuss it (especially because I haven’t read much about it!).

Back in September, I wrote a blog post about the work of philosopher Robert Brandon which claimed that genetic drift is actually biology’s first law – analogous to Newton’s first law of motion, inertia. If you want more details, read the post or the footnote.*

So imagine my surprise when I found Robert Brandon had co-authored a new book (2010) with Daniel McShea titled Biology’s First Law: The Tendency for Diversity & Complexity to Increase in Evolutionary Systems. That doesn’t sound like what Brandon had written about at all and in the very same year! And well, it isn’t, although it shares some essential features. Perhaps the most essential shared feature is that both drift-as-first-law and this law is that they describe change as the default state which doesn’t exactly line up with Newton’s first law of inertia which describes stasis as the default state. However, both biological first laws and the first law of motion tell us what happens when nothing acts upon or constrains the subject of interest, i.e., they are *zero-force* laws.

So what McShea and Brandon’s zero-force evolutionary law (ZFEL)? The language is written accessibly enough to just quote them outright:

ZFEL (general formulation): In any evolutionary system in which there is variation and heredity, there is a tendency for diversity and complexity to increase, one that is always present but may be opposed or augmented by natural selection, other forces, or constraints acting on diversity or complexity (4).

“ZFEL (special formulation): In any evolutionary system in which there is variation and heredity, in the absence of natural selection, other forces, and constraints acting ond iversity or complexity, diversity and complexity will increase on average (3).

What they are saying is that increasing diversity and increasing complexity is what we should expect out of any evolutionary system. Two of biology’s “great sources of wonder,” diversity and complexity , are expected by default. Complexity is typically seen as a result of natural selection, but this is an unnecessary assumption; complexity *can* be the result of natural selection, but not always so. McShea and Brandon do save adaptation, the third great wonder, for natural selection to explain, however.

The simplest analogy of the law the authors employ is a white picket fence. The fence begins as a uniform sequence of white planks. Over time, however, the individual pickets accrue changes, such as warping, holes, and mold, making this sequence of pickets more complex and more diverse than it originally. There was external or teleological reason for the accumulating complexity and diversity; it’s just a natural tendency – it just happens. Similarly, biological systems tend to become more complex and diverse. Take a genome sequence, for example: independent point mutations accrue throughout the sequence and each mutation causes increasing diversity and complexity. Selection didn’t create the complexity – it just happened as a result of the imperfect copying process.

The rest of this review will examine problems I had with the book before reading and discuss how the authors satisfied my initial complaints.

The problem of complexity.

When I first read the subtitle, “The Tendency for Diversity & Complexity to Increase in Evolutionary Systems,” I was skeptical. Complexity talk frequently veers toward focusing exclusively on animals, and usually ends up anthropocentric – I’m a die-hard anti-anthropocentrist – but McShea and Brandon avoid this issue altogether with how they establish and interpret Biology’s First Law.

We typically say humans are more complex than bacteria because instead of one cell, we have billions, and those billions of cells constantly signal each other and are tightly integrated; even a single organ, like the brain, is considered more complex than a bacterium. McShea and Brandon point out how muddied this concept is: how do we quantify it? How do we restrict ourselves to a precise definition? And most importantly (to me), how do we avoid our zoo- and anthropocentric perceptions?

The authors spectacularly avoid what they call “colloquial complexity” – what we normally mean when we say complexity – in favor of “pure complexity,” a measure of “number of part types” and “differentiation among parts.” In this sense, a mammalian spine is more complex than a fish spine because there are different kinds of mammalian vertebrae (cervical, thoracic, etc.). The key, however, is that pure complexity is “level-relative.” Just because a mammalian spine is more complex than a fish spine doesn’t mean a mammal is more complex than a fish. Because pure complexity doesn’t scale up hierarchies, comparing two organs to two organisms (or taxonomic classes) doesn’t work. So to get back to the bacteria/human question, we need to compare a bacterial cell to a human cell (not the human organism). That’s how the complexity question actually becomes fascinating, especially because the answer is not quite so clear.

The roles of natural selection and function.

A another problematic aspect of colloquial complexity is that it usually gets tied up with function, and with function comes natural selection which further muddies the complexity concept. A trait may be seen as more complex if it specializes in some specific function and does it well, like the eye or the brain, and this function is usually assumed to be designed by natural selection. McShea and Brandon believe the entangling of these concepts is what causes so much confusion over complexity and think has prevented the study of complexity in biology to truly take off.

The authors again disentangle the mess with the “pure complexity” concept. The definition of pure complexity being “number of part types” or “degree of differentiation among parts” precludes any notion of function or selection. Under this framwork, one can (hopefully) study complexity without assuming it was the result of natural selection.

It is crucial to note that McShea and Brandon don’t think selection doesn’t explain complexity. There are certainly times when selection favors a more complex trait over another, but selection can also act against complexity. Their first law states that there is an omnipresent tendency to become more complex and diverse, but, again as the law states, this tendency “may be opposed or augmented by natural selection, other forces, or constraints.” Biology’s First Law and natural selection are separate laws and can act concurrently or against each other.

In addition, the law keeps open “an open empirical question the importance of natural selection as a force in evolutionary change” and that “the zero-force condition [gives] us a neutral background against which to see selection in action,” just like inertia does for the study of gravity (103-104). So when it comes to selection and adaptation, McShea and Brandon’s First Law potentially allows a clearer framework with which to study them. Not only is this good philosophy, it’s good science!

Isn’t this more like the Second Law of Thermodynamics?

In discussions of complexity, entropy often makes an appearance (or maybe it’s just me), because there is an assumption that complexity = order (like the eye)… or is it that complexity = disorder (like the human genome)? Complexity honestly seems to fit both and this is one of the reasons McShea and Brandon avoid invoking the Second Law – it’s messy when we take a law of physics and try to apply it to biology (110).

Furthermore, and more interestingly, McShea and Brandon argue that the ZFEL reduces to probability theory which is ultimately more general than entropy so why reduce to only the Second Law (110)?

What about Brandon’s 2010 paper (book chapter) that argued genetic drift is the first law?

[What follows is my attempt at an explanation of some ideas I didn't fully comprehend. If anyone wishes to correct me here, please do so!]

As I noted above, I previously blogged Brandon’s work arguing that drift is actually biology’s zero-force law and not Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium. Why the change?

To McShea and Brandon, while drift is not the ZFEL, it is still a component of the ZFEL. Populations or part types drift independently of and randomly in respect to each other; drift is a measure of how far a subject deviates from the rest – it’s specific to the subject. The ZFEL, on the other hand, measures the variance among these populations, a higher order phenomenon. Drift among the populations increases the variance – just what the ZFEL says will happen (93-84).

I’m not sure why Brandon makes the switch from drift to complexity/diversity but I think there is one crucial aspect that makes the newly formulated ZFEL more compelling and useful. Genetic drift is a part of population genetics which analyzes a specific aspect of evolution: allele frequencies. Thus it is difficult to apply drift-as-ZFEL to any other level of biological hierarchy, such as part types.** Their current ZFEL is applicable to all levels of biology, not just allele frequencies but also the complexity of vertebrate spines and cell structures or the diversity of arthropods and songbirds. So while the new formulation isn’t as immediately appealing to me – the Newtonian analogy of population genetics is tight and illustrative – I think it may be more useful and powerful.

An interesting historical note.

As is being made clearer with every blog post, I have a keen interest in the history of evolutionary thought, and thankfully, the authors note some historical antecedents.

McShea and Brandon argue that their historical ancestor is Herbert Spencer who had a concept of the “instability of the homogeneous” (5) and wrote that “evolution is a change from an indefinite, incoherent, homogeneity to a definite, coherent, heterogeneity, through continuous differentiations and integrations” (152), which appear alternative statements of the ZFEL: there is a tendency of the “homogeneous” to become more “heterogeneous.”

Furthermore, the ZFEL can almost be construed as a revival of orthogenesis (126-127). Orthogenesis is the idea that there is some internal driving force in the evolution of life in some direction. It was rightly discredited in the early 20th century but what else is the ZFEL but an innate tendency not subject to local environments and present adaptation? The ZFEL “acts independently of selection and potentially in opposition to it” (127) but unlike orthogenesis (as it was conceived), the ZFEL will not always overpower selection. So the ZFEL can be seen as a revival of internalism (or at least not-ecological-externalism) in the same tradition as orthogenesis.

As a book, Biology’s First Law is succint, coming in at about 150 pages. The authors write in an accessible style and typically make sure to clarify their views. If you are interested in an alternative view of how evolution and the biological world work, I recommend this highly. It will hopefully serve as a basis for further research in the nature of diversity and complexity – topics that have troubled us for centuries and will certainly do so for centuries to come. According to McShea and Brandon, though, we can count on more of each.


* Briefly, Brandon’s argument is that within the framework of evolutionary theory as a “theory of forces,” in which allele frequencies are pushed up and down as objects in a Newtonian analog, genetic drift does not constitute a force because it doesn’t have a predictable direction; instead, it is in the background. He points out that Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium cannot be a “zero-force” law (i.e., inertia is a zero-force law because it describes an object with no forces acting upon it) as is typically argued because one of its restrictions is that a population must be of infinite size to exclude the effects of drift… but how many populations are of infinite size? Brandon argues that drift is always present in any population and thus describes the default state of any population, i.e., “a population at equilibrium will tend to drift from that equilibrium unless acted upon by an evolutionary force.”

** McShea and Brandon argue that drift can be applied at different levels (like selection may apply to groups) but as stated earlier, I didn’t fully understand this section or its applicability (96-97).

Ants and Their Castes in the Spencer-Weismann Controversy

Wikipedia: Meat eater ant feeding on honey

Ant (Wikipedia)

Ants are evolutionarily weird and are quickly rising in my favorite organisms list.  The same evolutionary principles apply to ants as they apply to us, of course, but because ants are haplodiploid, live in large colonies, and have a caste system, biologists have to apply the same principles differently – it isn’t exactly intuitive. Ants (and other insects such as bees and termites) are frequently the subjects of hot debate when it comes to kin selection, but their role in evolutionary disputes is over a century old. Charles Darwin discussed them in The Origin of Species, but they were later the center of the controversy between Herbert Spencer and August Weismann.

As discussed in my last post, Herbert Spencer was a Lamarckian who believed in “inheritance of acquired characteristics” and thought natural selection was “inadequate” for explaining how organisms have evolved. August Weismann contested this; he was known as an “ultra-Darwinian” who believed natural selection explained all biological traits and thought Lamarckism was dead wrong. He believed this because of his idea, called the “Weismann barrier,” which postulated an organism’s hereditary material is contained exclusively in reproductive cells (sperm and eggs) called the germ line. With the barrier, there would be no way for the environment or acquired traits developed in the soma (any cell not sperm/egg) to directly influence the germ line because they were totally isolated from each other. Because their respective biological theories were being questioned in their entirety by the opponent and because neither theory was completely accepted by the scientific community at the time, the stakes were high. Were acquired characteristics actually inherited? Could natural selection explain all traits? What was the role of the environment in modifying traits? Was the Weismann barrier even real?

The “Controversy” began with Spencer’s “The Inadequacy of Natural Selection” and “Prof. Weismann’s Theories” in 1893, followed by Weismann’s response, “The All-Sufficiency of Natural Selection.” Spencer then published “A Rejoineder to Prof. Weismann” and a brief follow-up called “Weismannism Once More.”

The ants were not initially discussed by Spencer, but brought up by Weismann as an example of where he thought Lamarckism faltered, specifically in the evolution and maintenance of their famous caste system. In the caste system, individuals are divided into classes within the colony: typical castes are the queen along with various workers such as soldiers and caretakers (of the larvae). A special quality of the worker class is that they do not reproduce – only the queen and the males do. Weismann exploited this feature to attack Lamarckism for all it was worth.

Weismann observed that worker ants have reduced reproductive organs, eyes, and wings (“retrogressive”). Because they don’t need them, these reductions may have occurred because of inherited disuse (a Lamarckian argument). As Weismann points out, the argument has one problem: the workers don’t reproduce! They can’t directly transmit their reduced organs (315-316)! Such morphological (and also instinctual) changes occurred after the evolution of the castes themselves, he argues, and thus cannot explain the caste system (328-331).

August Weismann (Wikipedia)

Weismann also makes a point regarding reduced wings: even if workers reproduced, wings can’t degenerate through disuse because wings are perfectly formed before use and deteriorate because of use. Additionally, eyes in the workers can’t have degenerated through disuse because workers still use their eyes! Instead, Weismann argues, the atrophy of worker ant eyes favors his theory of panmixia: highly developed eyes are superfluous for the worker ants and are not maintained by selection (317). [2] [3]

In “The Inadequacy of Natural Selection,” Spencer argued that selection could not produce complex morphological changes because such complexity would require all of the involved traits to vary to similar degrees and in parallel directions. For example, evolving the ability to jump would require many concurrent variations in the skeletal, muscular, and nervous/instinctual systems. In Paleyesque fashion, Spencer lists over two pages of required variations, arguing that the probability of having dozens of traits vary in the right degrees and in the right directions is extremely low. Natural selection wouldn’t even be able to act on the ability to jump. Instead, “using” one’s jump ability strengthens the muscles together – no variation in the isolated germ plasm is necessary – and these acquired changes are what gets passed on to the offspring. (I don’t know how skeletal changes would work though…)

Pheidole megacephela - the big-headed ant referenced by Weismann. Yeah, weird as hell. (Photo by Hirotami T. Imai and Masao Kubota, from Japanese Ant Image Database.)

Weismann adopts the list-as-many-connected-traits-as-possible argumentation style for the ants, but to argue against Lamarckism. In addition to degenerated organs, worker ants have specialty traits not found in the sexual castes such as thorns and larger heads and jaws (“progressive”). “Many parts must have varied simultaneously and in harmony with one another.” He piles on, in Paleyesque fashion, all of the variations required to produce such morphological changes. But Lamarckism can’t handle all of these necessary variations; because workers are sterile, the acquired characters are not passed on to the offspring! Lamarckism can’t work here.

Instead of using “inheritance of acquired characters” to explain the castes, Weismann believes his germ plasm theory is sufficient, arguing that castes are differentiated by multiple “determinants” (similar to what we would call chromosomes, I presume) within the germ plasm (325-326). Selection then acts on the workers through selection on the queen who carries inactivated worker determinants (i.e., kin selection). Weismann seems prescient, eh?

He admits proving this hypothesis to be true is nearly impossible because the sheer number of ants in a single colony and the nearly infinite amount of minute variations involved would be impossible to study closely. However, according to Weismann, because Lamarckism is inadequate for explaining ant castes, “that it is necessary for us to accept the principle of natural selection. It alone can explain the adaptations of organisms without assuming the help of a principle of design” (319). We know Lamarckism and design are false, so selection, the only alternative, must be the solution to the ant caste system.

Not surprisingly, Spencer doesn’t think Weismann has refuted Lamarckism at all. Instead, Spencer offers his own evidence that selection is inadequate in explaining the ant caste system. He begins his argument with observations of wasps and extrapolating those to ants.

Spencer argues that social insect castes can be explained without selection. [4] He first invokes Haeckel’s concept of heterochrony – social insect development does not recapitulate phylogeny (Haeckel’s biogenetic law [5]), but has instead been reordered to reflect behavioral development. According to Spencer, just as girls play with dolls (maternal instinct) before having children (sexual instinct), queen-wasps progress from “building cells and feeding larvae” (maternal) to exclusively laying eggs (sexual). He argues that worker-wasps are undeveloped queen-wasps – their development was arrested before the sexual stage could arrive. (655). “Thus interpreting the facts, we have no occasion to assume any constitutional difference between the eggs of worker-wasps and the eggs of queens” and that “the larva of a worker-wasp can be changed into the larva of a queen-wasp by special feeding” (656). Additionally, he notes that malnutritioned eggs produce males. Feeding/nutrition – an environmental inductor – controls the caste system in waps, according to Spencer, and not information emanating from Weismann’s germ plasm.

Herbert Spencer (Wikipedia)

Although Spencer has been examining the wasps, he assumes ants develop similarly, applying the “arrested development” (658) argument to the rest of Weismann’s objections. For example, Weismann said that the worker caste has less developed eyes than the queen ants, but because the workers don’t reproduce, the Lamarckian argument of disuse can’t apply to them. Spencer replies that yes, disuse cannot apply here, but because eyes are among the latest organs to develop (larvae are blind), “arrested development” by lack of feeding leaves worker ants with underdeveloped eyes – they were prevented from fully forming (658)! Spencer says “arrested development” takes care of Weismann’s wing argument as well. Furthermore, many species show intermediate classes which under Weismann’s scheme would imply more and more determinants, but with Spencer’s “arrested development,” they are no surprise (659). [4]

He again applies the “arrested development” argument to explain away Weismann’s Amazon ant objection, that larger heads and jaws of the soldier class evolved after the caste system evolved and because they can’t reproduce, those features are not explained by Lamarckism. Spencer simply counters the objection by claiming the Amazon ants are most likely descended from ants that resemble the soldier-caste. He seems to believe that all ants with caste systems derive from an ancestral warrior species as he provides us with some intriguing ant/human sociology:

[The ancestors] must have had marked powers of offence and defence. Of predacious creatures, it is the more powerful which form societies, not the weaker. Instance human races. Nations originate from the relatively warlike tribes, not from the relatively peaceful tribes. Among the several types of individuals forming the existing ant community, to which, then, did the ancestral ants bear the greatest resemblance? They could not have been like the queens, for these, now devoted to egg-laying, are unfitted for conquest. They could not have been like the inferior class of workers, for these, too, are inadequately armed and lack strength. Hence they must have been most like these Amazon-ants or soldier-ants, which now make predatory excursions – which now do, in fact, what their remote ancestors did (663).

Thus Spencer bypasses Weismann’s objection that the soldier caste can’t transmit their acquired characteristics: they didn’t need to do so because they inherited them! “It is not that the soldier-ants have gained these traits,” he argues, but “the other castes have lost them” as “early arrest of development causes absence of [soldier traits] in the inferior workers; and from the queens they have slowly disappeared by inheritance of the effects of disuse” (663).

Spencer provides us with a Lamarckian framework for caste evolution. Not only does he claim that classical Lamarckian use/disuse inheritance is involved, but he also adds direct stimulation by the environment to explain how castes can form. (I think the latter is an underappreciated aspect of Lamarckism that I only just read about in Peter Bowler’s The Eclipse of Darwinism, but Spencer appears to find it an incredibly important aspect.) Weismann, on the other hand, also provides us with a useful framework in which to understand how the germ plasm theory and Lamarckian theory were distinct and at the time, completely opposed. We are left with no clear answer, however. As the paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn wrote about the controversy:

In fact, the reason these papers, interesting and able as they are, leave no final verdict in the mind is that neither meets the tests of scientific truth. When we look beneath the surface and recover from the first blinding effects of the brilliant style which characterizes both attack and reply, we see that both set forth mainly the modes in which nature may be supposed to act, rather than the mode in which nature does act. Nature, if anything, is illogical in many of her forms (313).

This discussion, at least in its theoretical phase, has reached its climax in this controversy (315).

In the end, and as with most false dichotomies, the answer to caste differentiation lies somewhere in the middle between Spencer and Weismann. Weismann’s barrier concept turned out to be correct, at least in many animals (to the exclusion of the rest of life… over 99% of it) – the germ cells are isolated from the somatic cells – but the barrier doesn’t rule out Spencer’s environmental influence on development either.

Caste differentiation is still a topic of debate over a century later. A study from just this past April found the protein responsible for queen development in bees that is found in “royal jelly.” When this “royal jelly” containing the protein is given to bee larvae, a queen bee results. Fascinatingly, when this protein is fed to flies – which have no castes – “queen flies” with large body sizes and ovaries come about. However, a neat 2008 review by Anderson et al. (PDF) points out that historically, environmental factors (as argued by Spencer) were shown to be the dominant form of caste determination (and involved more than just feeding, but season, temperature, and others) but that, at least in some ant species, genetic factors (Weismannian) have recently been shown to play a large role as well. Of course, genetics and environment do not act independently, but concurrently, and also act upon each other. Both Weismann and Spencer were right; they just didn’t know it!


[1] Panmixia is different from the economical hypothesis that traits may be lost because of the excess energy it costs to develop and maintain them. Instead, panmixia holds that selection has been removed allowing the trait to be reduced due to lack of maintenance.

[2] Weismann says Spencer accepts the giraffe’s neck as a result of selection because “the process appears easy to imagine” (320). A topic for future investigation.

[3] Weismann also applies panmixia to caste-specific behaviors (333).

[4] Here is an example of where I have trouble understanding why Spencer believes selection has no role to play in ant castes. Why couldn’t selection have produced the environmentally induced development? Is this an error/oversight on Spencer’s part, or me not properly understanding the debate (especially without the knowledge scientists have developed since)?

[5] So far, Spencer seems to not be applying Haeckel’s biogenetic law – ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny – but alludes to it when discussing ant wings: “Wings are late organs insect phylogeny, and therefore will be among those most likely to abort where development is prematurely arrested” (658).



Osborn, Henry Fairfield. “The Discussion Between Spencer and Weismann.”Psychological Review 1 (1894): 312-315.

Spencer, Herbert. “Appendix B. The Inadequacy of Natural Selection, Etc., Etc.” The Principles of Biology. Revised and Enlarged Edition. Vol. 1. New York: D. Appleton and, 1898. 602-91.

Weismann, August. “The All-Sufficiency of Natural Selection.” Contemporary Review 64 (1893): 309-338.


Anderson, Kirk E., Timothy A. Linksvayer & Chris R. Smith. “The causes and consequences of genetic caste determination in ants (Hymeonoptera: Formicidae)” (PDF). Myrmecological News 11 (2008): 119-132.

Kamakura, Masaki. “Royalactin induces queen differentiation in honeybees.” Nature 473 (2011): 478–483. doi:10.1038/nature10093

Wait. What? Herbert Spencer was a Lamarckian?

While reading Peter J. Bowler’s The Eclipse of Darwinism, I was surprised to find out that the “social Darwinist”* Herbert Spencer was actually more Lamarckian than Darwinian. He apparently expressed Lamarckian views prior to the 1859 publication of The Origin of Species, and while he accepted Darwinian explanations and the theory of natural selection, Spencer believed Lamarckism – defined (here) as the inheritance of acquired characteristics through use/disuse – was the more important of the two theories. In fact, in his article, “The Inadequacy of Natural Selection,” Spencer states quite strongly that “either there has been inheritance of acquired characters, or there has been no evolution” (621).

Why did this “social Darwinist” think natural selection was inadequate? I think it can be boiled down to his belief that Darwinism couldn’t explain non-adaptive features and features that varied so finely that selection couldn’t detect them, as evidenced by his example of “skin discriminativeness,” or what we would now call tactical acuity.

Figure 1.

It is trivially true that your fingertips are more sensitive than the skin anywhere else on your body. In a series of experiments, Weber took a compass (the geometrical kind) and tested at what minimum distance a subject could detect the compass’s two points. For example, subjects could detect the two points 1/12 inch apart on their forefinger, but the points had to be 2.5 inches apart to be detected separately on the subject’s back. The rest of the body parts fell somewhere between 1/12 inches and 2.5 inches. (My MSPaint Figure 1 shows the “skin discriminativeness” Weber found among body parts.)

Why this distribution of tactical acuity? Why doesn’t all skin show the same acuity? According to Spencer, if this distribution is to be explained by natural selection, then there must be some kind of fitness benefit to having more sensitive fingertips and having one’s “thigh near the knee be twice as perceptive as the middle of the thigh” (604), but he is unable to offer one. Furthermore, he argues, would people with a more sensitive “thigh near the knee” survive and reproduce more than those who don’t? He thinks it unlikely – selection can’t see differences so miniscule.

Spencer notes that blind people, especially those who read Braille, as well as typesetters, show higher tactile acuity than normal. He claims this is “clear proof” that skin discriminativeness is an acquired trait (605) and suggests that when the skin touches objects, additional nerve growth is stimulated which increases tactile acuity (647). This explains why the back has the least sensitive skin – it just touches clothes – whereas the stomach has slightly more as it is explored by the hands more frequently. The nose is more sensitive than the forehead because we rub our nose more, and our palms are less sensitive than our fingertips because the fingertips manipulate while the palms merely help grasp. The more used a body part is, the higher tactile acuity it shows.

Spencer thinks his argument is solidified when he brings up the tip of the tongue. Weber found that the tongue tip has double the sensitivity of the fingertips, but Spencer doesn’t think the increased sensitivity is because of some selective advantage. He argues that food is moved by the body of the tongue, not the tip, and while the tip is used in making some sounds, people can get by with less sensitive tongues. Instead, much like skin sensitivity, Spencer believes the tongue tip’s acuity is a result of constant environmental stimulation – the tongue is continually exploring the mouth and teeth. There is no adaptive function for having a tongue that can sense two points 1/24 inches apart, according to Spencer.

So now we have a standard Lamarckian explanation of tactile acuity: the more use, the more nerve growth, the more acute.** His argument is also non-adaptive and very much not (ultra)Darwinian.

Spencer’s argument was challenged by at least three people: the neo-Darwinians Alfred Russell Wallace and August Weismann as well as psychologist James McKeen Cattell. The dispute with Wallace is rather uninteresting: Wallace claims skin sensitiveness is a result of natural selection and Spencer disagrees but both claim the facts are on their side (646). Weismann points out that the other apes use the tongue as “an organ of touch,” but Spencer still disputes that selection could detect such fine-scale differences (like between 1/24 inches and 1/20 inches). Spencer further points out that Weismann’s argument is “suicidal” because it refutes Weismann’s own theory of panmixia – that traits may be lost because selection on the trait is removed – which has apparently not taken place in the human tongue as it is still extremely sensitive (665). Cattell points out that “relatively great accuracy of discrimination can be quickly acquired by ‘increased interest and attention. … Practice for a few minutes will double the accuracy of discrimination, and practice on one side of the body is carried over to the other’” (666). Spencer dismisses this challenge, claiming that those studies actually showed that the subjects were only able “to learn to discriminate between the massiveness of a sensation produced by two points and the massiveness of that produced by one, and to infer one point or two points accordingly” (666). While Spencer’s pro-Lamarckian arguments seem weak, being based on crude experiments and hearsay, he was able to handily refute his opponents as well.

However, the most problematic part of Spencer’s argument in my mind is the issue of heredity. For some reason, Wallace and Weismann never address the issue. James McKeen Cattell does challenge Spencer on this point, but Spencer leaves this problem unanswered. Was proving heredity not as essential in this period as it is today? Spencer apparently felt he showed that acquired traits were inheritable in Factors of Organic Evolution (which I have yet to read), but he didn’t even attempt to show that increased tactile acuity was.

So yes, Spencer was indeed a Lamarckian. In addition to skin discriminativeness, he thought the reduced size of the little toe in humans, the evolution of jumping, and the antlers of the Irish elk were Lamarckian features. Perhaps I should have known this already, but it seems strange that a man known for “social Darwinism” was actually a Lamarckian. He did accept Darwinian explanations for some features, but he thought natural selection was well, inadequate. He believed that Darwinism couldn’t explain non-adaptive traits, traits that varied in minuscule gradations, and traits that required parallel variations in other traits. Lamarckism filled those gaps in Spencer’s eyes.

* Eric Michael Johnson has a great series of posts on why “social Darwinism” is such a problematic term and also discusses some of Herbert Spencer’s beliefs, called “Deconstructing Social Darwinism.”

** A question I am interested in is: Was Spencer right or wrong on this point?  According to this study, “Tactile Spatial Acuity Enhancement in Blindness: Evidence for Experience-Dependent Mechanisms,” blind people do outperform the non-blind in tactile acuity and that touch is “the trigger for tactile spatial acuity enhancement.” They say the results suggest “the action of underlying experience-dependent neural mechanisms such as somatosensory and/or cross-modal cortical plasticity” but I have no idea what that means. Is this nerve growth or something else?


Spencer, Herbert. “Appendix B. The Inadequacy of Natural Selection, Etc., Etc.” The Principles of Biology. Revised and Enlarged Edition. Vol. 1. New York: D. Appleton and, 1898. 602-91. Print.

When the developmental context changes, so do the master controllers

In my last post, I mentioned that I was reading Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution and while I will highlight its major themes in a later post, I wanted to again briefly focus on one of its essays that I found fascinating. Developmental biologist H. Frederik Nijhout’s essay “The Ontogeny of Phenotype” (based on a 1997 paper) primarily argues that developmental pathways cannot be isolated from their genetic background, i.e., context matters, and the integration of developmental networks are also not cast in stone. There is a potential and remarkable fluidity to developmental systems that I was not previously aware of.

Fig. 1: A protein gradient can pattern the anterior-poster axis by activating or repressing genes where it is high in concentration. Image from Wikipedia.

In a computer model, Nijhout and Paulsen created a diffusion gradient (Fig. 1) with six “genes” controlling six different aspects of the gradient. The gene that produces the diffusion molecule (source), the molecule’s rate of diffusion and rate of decay, the time at which the gradient is “read” (T-end) and the threshold of activation, and the background rate of production of the molecule. Each gene has two alleles: a high and low value. They assigned the gradient a “phenotypic value” that can range from zero to one and is an abstract measure of the interactions among the six genes. (The exact nature of the phenotypic value is not crucial, I don’t think.)

Fig. 2: A. Response of the phenotype to selection. B. Response of the genes to selection. C. Genetic correlations of the genes to the phenotype during selection. From Fig. 5 of Nijhout & Paulsen (1996) and Fig. 11.6 of Nijhout (137).

With selection, the phenotypic value predicably falls from a high ~17 to a low 2 (Fig. 2A). There isn’t too much excitement here but that’s because the “phenotype” is hiding all of the dynamics going on behind-the-scenes…

As Fig. 2B shows, not all the genes respond the same to selection. Source and T-end react immediately: their allele frequencies are zero by generation 8 while the other four allele frequencies remain high. Diffusion subsequently falls to zero, followed by the other three in a progression of precipitous drops. While the phenotype fell deterministically toward zero, the six genes responded erratically.

Fig. 2C shows the correlation between each gene and the phenotype. The correlations follow from 1B: at first Source is most receptive to change by selection and most highly correlated with the phenotype, followed by the other five genes, which provides us an intriguing idea: there is no single “master” gene controlling this developmental system. The master gene, the one gene most highly correlated with phenotype and modifies the developmental system as it itself changes, shifts from one gene to another throughout the course of selection. Furthermore, variation with a single gene may not always have large effects on the phenotype – only sometimes (Fig. 2C). It’s the context – the genetic background – that matters.

This is a computer model and I wonder if any similar work has been done on living organisms, if the project would even be feasible. None of the articles on Google Scholar that cite this paper seem to have done so. I don’t see how though!- the dynamics of a “simple” diffusion gradient provide a much more complicated picture than I had previously thought. Why didn’t Sean B. Carroll talk about this in Endless Forms Most Beautiful?


Nijhout, H., & Paulsen, S. (1997). Developmental Models and Polygenic Characters The American Naturalist, 149 (2) DOI: 10.1086/285996

Nijhout, H. F. “The Ontogeny of Phenotypes.” Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution. Comp. Susan Oyama, Paul E. Griffiths, and Russell D. Gray. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2001. 129-40.