Synopsis: Was a selectionist model of evolution favored over a stochastic model due to the worldviews of the Synthesis’ architects? Particularly Fisher’s eugenics and wish to “improve” humanity as well as Julian Huxley’s progressivism and evolutionary humanism?
I was suggested Vissiliki Betty Smocovitis’ Unifying Biology by Sage Ross as an introduction to Modern Synthesis history. Her thought provoking history was thankfully not just a textbook history but also a discussion of its philosophical roots and of the architects’ personal beliefs. One argument in particular caught my attention and that is what I will briefly discuss below – why did a selectionist/adaptationist model of evolution win over a stochastic model?
Smocovitis claims a selectionist/adaptationist view of evolution was partly borne out of the worldviews of the Synthesis’ architects, especially RA Fisher and Julian Huxley. Fisher and Huxley believed knowledge and understanding of natural selection could help humanity “improve” itself (i.e., eugenics) and “progress” forward to some goal. This was of special concern following the horrors of World War II.
Of course, evolution is not “progressive,” and Huxley had to strike a “middle ground – deterministic enough to make predictions, but having enough indeterminism… which made possible a meaningful life with humans as agents of their own free will” (131). Furthermore, Smocovitis thinks that a stochastic process where genetic drift was supreme would have been unpalatable to the optimistic Americans. Indeed, “so powerful would be the felt need for a progressive, selectionist, and adaptationist framework that in the 1940s even Dobzhansky and Wright would come to adopt more strongly selectionist models” (131).
Was selectonism/adaptationism a result of Fisher’s eugenicist beliefs and Huxley’s evolutionary humanism (which Smocovitis argues was adopted and expressed by Carl Sagan)? Smocovitis’ argument is one I have not encountered before reading Unifying Biology and I unfortunately do not have the time to read the works of the Synthesis’ architects. Does anyone know more about this?
Smocovitis cites articles by John Beatty (“Dobzhansky and Drift: Facts, Values, and Chance in Evolutionary Biology” from Probabilistic Revolution, pp. 271-311) and by William Provine (“The Development of Wright’s Theory of Evolution: Systematics, Adaptation and Drift,” from Dimensions of Darwinism, pp. 43-70). I’ll check these out when I can, but if anyone can offer input here, it will be greatly appreciated!
(I should note that Smocovitis only spends a page or two on this subject so how strongly she favors this argument or not is uncertain. I’m more or less posting this to provoke some thoughts and record what I have read.)
Smocovitis, Vassiliki Betty. Unifying Biology: the Evolutionary Synthesis and Evolutionary Biology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1996. Print.