“Niche construction” before “niche construction” was cool?

One of the most useful aspects of being aware of the history of science is that much like literature and the arts, one can trace the historical origins of ideas and make connections among various thinkers who lived at different times. Last week’s post was a great example of such a connection: the arguments of Gould & Lewontin were articulated over 70 years before 1979 by TH Morgan, and more astoundingly, William Bateson (who even nailed down the idea of a “spandrel”). While there may be no link between Gould & Lewontin and Morgan & Bateson, this example shows us that biologists have had to argue against adaptationism since at least 1903. We can see a clear historical trend.

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“Spandrels” before “spandrels” were cool

In 1979, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin famously attacked what they called the “Adaptationist Program.” They accused evolutionary biologists and sociobiologists of concocting “just-so stories” in which scientists would claim a particular trait, an adaptation, was a result of natural selection without rigorously testing their hypotheses. If they did test the claim and it turned out the claim was false, the scientist would create another just-so story, rarely questioning whether the trait was an adaptation or possibly a byproduct or fixed by non-adaptive processes. Most readers are familiar with this argument, so I won’t expand any further.

Upon reading material for my history major paper, I came across some arguments by the biologists T.H. Morgan and William Bateson that seemed oddly familiar…

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