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When people proudly take ridiculous positions

Tom Wolfe on evolution:

I think it’s misleading to say that human beings evolved from animals. I mean, actually, nobody knows whether they did or not.

This is just sad. Does Wolfe really think this? My guess is he’s trying to do a solid for his political allies.

Jerry Coyne writes:

Somewhere on his mission to tear down the famous, elevate the neglected outsider and hit the exclamation-point key as often as possible, Wolfe has forgotten how to think.

Well put. But I think Wolfe does know how to think.

You know what they say, right? “Any prosecutor can convict a guilty man. It takes a great prosecutor to convict an innocent man.” Similarly, I think Wolfe takes it as a point of pride that, as a great writer, he can make the case for something as ridiculous as anti-Darwinism.

And, after all, who goes to Tom Wolfe to learn about science? The man’s an entertainer.

This is not to defend Wolfe’s statement, which is flat-out ridiculous, comparable to that of Kenneth Ludmerer, a professor of history and medicine at Washington University in St. Louis who testified that he had “no opinion” on whether cigarette smoking contributes to the development of lung cancer in human beings—and he said that in 2002, that’s right, 38 years after the Surgeon General’s report. I just think we take it in context: Wolfe doesn’t give a damn about science but he cares a lot about politics, so he probably thinks it’s charming to say something ridiculous with a straight face, his way to give a poke in the eye to those pesky experts who know more than he does about something.

That’s right. Tom Wolfe is a low-rent G. K. Chesterton (or, to put it in modern terms, a witty, intelligent, socially conscious version of Michael Kinsley).


  1. What a weird thing he says at the end of the interview, too. We should recognize, he says, that “the theory of evolution applies ONLY to animals.” No matter what we may think about evolutionary psychology in practice, surely we have to recognize that almost everything about us is explained, at some level, by evolution. The only salvageable hypothesis that Wolfe might be suggesting is that after the evolution of language the game changed completely and now our “animal” past explains nothing about our current behaviors, capacities, desires etc. But this does seem completely silly.

    • Ed Hagen says:

      Thomas Basbøll wrote: “No matter what we may think about evolutionary psychology in practice, surely we have to recognize that almost everything about us is explained, at some level, by evolution.”

      Evolutionary psychology comes up a lot on this blog, but I get the impression that many folks don’t know much about it. I humbly offer this Ev Pysch FAQ I wrote as a graduate student in the late 90’s, which I think holds up pretty well (and is miraculously still online after all these years):

    • Alex Gamma says:


      “…surely we have to recognize that almost everything about us is explained, at some level, by evolution.”

      I tend to agree, but your statement is very unspecific. Was that on purpose or did you have some particular mode of explanation in mind?

      Because there are very different ways in which evolution might “explain” “something about us” – ranging from “trait X is an adaptation resulting from natural selection”, to “X resulted from random drift”, to “X is correlated developmentally to Y, which was selected for”.

      • I think that’s a very interesting set of distinctions, but I was indeed being deliberately unspecific. I was only trying to address Wolfe’s strange idea that, however they apply to animals, they DON’T apply to humans. Animal traits are also subject to selection and drift and development. The idea that we can understand an animal trait better by explaining it as a result of drift rather than selection (i.e., by finding evidence to support the conclusion that it was not selected for) but that the same sort of reasoning is pointless when trying to understand human traits is just weird.

        It’s funny he ties it to language and literature. “Every word was once an animal,” Emerson is to have said. (Unless Ben Marcus made it up, which is possible too.)

  2. Thanatos Savehn says:

    I suspect Wolfe has fused Nagle, Chomsky, The Epic of Gilgamesh and discoveries like the Pylos Combat Agate to claim that there’s some essential aspect of mind for which there’s no evidence of change over time. Not sure why he picked Darwin as his foil in this mind/body cage match but my hunch was that it was to bring out and roil Darwin’s reflexive defenders while subtly mocking his creationist detractors (Wolfe’s an atheist). Kinda like how one of your colleagues likes to go around popping the balloons of the multiverse kids.

  3. abdulh says:

    funny how no one ever said of Chomsky, the anti-Darwinian par excellence, that he had “forgotten how to think” (well, N Goodman did, but as far as I know it never made it into the WaPo)

    • Statsgirl says:

      Chomsky is a creationist?

      • Thanatos Savehn says:

        Because too many people following the Darwin bandwagon like to claim that contestable (and politically useful) theories like materialism, reductionism and increasingly eliminative materialism are entailed by natural selection and so are also Darwinism, sensible thinkers can dispute such “Darwinism” without disputing evolution.

        • Alex Gamma says:

          Agree. Michael Ruse distinguishes two notions of “Darwinism”: a scientific one dealing with evolution by natural selection, but also one which is more a “Weltanschauung”, a metaphysical world-view that can be appropriated by shifting ideologies such as materialism and the program of scientific naturalization.

      • abdulh says:

        Andrew G didn’t mention creationism and neither did I. Nor did I speak of political implications. I just said that stricto sensu Chomsky is an anti-Darwinian theorist and no one ever seemed to care about it in the general public (or called his theses “ridiculous”).
        I guess convicting a guilty man isn’t so easy after all

        • ojm says:

          I guess the key question here is does Chomsky deny that humans have ‘animal’ common ancestors?

          I doubt he does, right?

          • abdulh says:

            he certainly doesn’t, and doesn’t deny that we are all made of stardust either… this is beside the point

            • ojm says:

              Point at stake was whether:

              > I think it’s misleading to say that human beings evolved from animals. I mean, actually, nobody knows whether they did or not.

              is a ridiculous position or not. Not the details of any particular evolutionary mechanism etc.

              • abdulh says:

                From Mind and Language:
                1. language is a “distinctively human ability … In fact, Descartes argued that the only sure indication that another body possesses a human mind, that it is not a mere automaton, is its ability to use language in the normal way; and he argued that this ability cannot be detected in an animal or an automaton which, in other respects, shows signs of apparent intelligence
                exceeding those of a human, even though such an organism or machine might be as fully endowed as a human with the physiological organs necessary to produce speech. I will return to this argument and the ways in which it was developed. But I think it is important to stress that, with all its gaps and deficiencies, it is an argument that must be taken seriously. There is nothing at all absurd in the conclusion.”
                2. “Rather, these studies [on animal communication] simply bring out even more clearly the extent to which human language appears to be a unique phenomenon, without significant analogue in the animal world. If this is so, it is quite senseless to raise the problem of explaining the evolution of human language from more primitive systems of communication that appear at lower levels of intellectual capacity” (there are literally dozens of statements like this in M&L)
                3. Now tell me how Tom Wolfe’s quote isn’t the necessary conclusion to this syllogism?

              • Andrew says:


                I think you’re overthinking this one. 40% of Americans don’t believe in evolution, Tom Wolfe doesn’t care about evolution one way or another, and he finds it amusing to troll his well-educated friends by saying he doesn’t believe in evolution either. It’s just a special case of the general phenomenon of “X denialism,” where X is some proposition that is clearly correct but where there’s some political or financial gain to be had from denying it. See the Ludmerer reference above. To take Wolfe’s statement about evolution seriously makes about as much sense as taking Ludmerer’s statement about cancer seriously. Ludmerer was doing it, I assume, for the dough; Wolfe’s doing it for the lulz.

              • abdulh says:

                *Language and Mind

              • abdulh says:

                “I think you’re overthinking this one.”

                perhaps I should start a blog

              • ojm says:

                Hmm OK.

                Let me try an analogy to see if I understand your argument.

                Humans have animal common ancestors and this can be traced and understood via an understanding of biological evolution.

                On the other hand, I am typing this into an internet comments section on a mobile phone connected to the internet. Such devices and activities are distinctly human and perhaps not best understood via the specific mechanisms of biological evolution, though these have provided the necessary physical substrate or whatever for these things to have developed.

                We probably don’t need to explain the development of a specific sophisticated technology like mobile phones in terms of elementary tool use by other apes, though they share common necessary but not sufficient biological bases?

                So it is an argument against explanatory reductionism?

                If so, OK, not ridiculous. Now the question to me is what is Wolfe getting at? Explanatory reductionism or arguing that humans didn’t biologically evolve from animals?

                Because you _can_ say that humans evolved biologically from other animals while maintaining that some specific human characteristics are perhaps best understood as shaped through other natural mechanisms than biological evolution.

        • abdulh says:

          ojm I don’t know what Wolfe is getting at, I don’t think I had heard his name before :) I was prompted by this: “Any prosecutor can convict a guilty man. It takes a great prosecutor to convict an innocent man.”

          Regarding your analogy: read Chomsky’s paraphrasing of Descartes again. Language isn’t just something that humans (and only humans) can have, for example a smartphone. The conclusion is that (ability to use) language is what defines being human: if you don’t have it…

          • ojm says:

            Yes I get that but defining humans that way seems to beg the question and make it impossible to say something reasonable like the biological basis of humans is the same as other animals despite them having additional interesting features.

            Otherwise we could similarly find some ‘unique’ characteristic of some other animal and thus claim they didn’t evolve from other animals.

            • abdulh says:

              “defining humans that way seems to beg the question…” this is called the innateness hypothesis my friend

     ctrl+F “great leap forward”

            • ojm says:

              As far as I can tell none of this is in conflict with the idea that humans are a type of animal that share a common evolutionary history with other animals, though other natural influences beside those we typically label ‘evolution’ may have shaped those specific characteristics that distinguish humans from other animals.

              If Wolfe was arguing about such nuances, sure OK I guess. But if he was denying the common evolutionary history then I think that puts him in a very different boat to Chomsky.

              • ojm says:

                Here is Chomsky in the interview:

                > There is nothing more mysterious about the concept human nature than about the concept bee or chicken nature, at least for those who regard humans as creatures in the biological world. Like other organisms, humans have a certain genetic endowment (apparently varying little in the species, not a surprise considering its recent separation from other hominids). That determines what we call their nature.

                This is enough for me for now.

  4. Not Tom Woolfe says:

    I think his point is that the theory of macroevolution is a theory of history, not a scientific theory derived from experiments and the scientific method. And he is dissatisfied with this historical story because among other things it doesn’t account for the creation of language, a singular development.

    • TBW says:

      Are not most domesticated animals experiments in humans using evolution as a tool? People hypothesized that by applying selective pressure on a population by controlling which individuals we allow to breed, we could enhance or exaggerate certain desirable characteristics in future generations. Our experiments testing this hypothesis have yielded Dobermans, Basset Hounds, Poodles, etc. Look at the modern domesticated turkey which has been bred to have breasts so large that they cannot reproduce on their own, they must be artificially inseminated. How did this happen? Humans wielding evolution as a tool to remake the world as we see fit. The notion that evolution is just a theory or hasn’t been observed in real time is absurd. You might as well deny that hammers and saws exist and claim that your bookcase appeared spontaneously because you personally didn’t observe it being built.

    • Ben Prytherch says:

      I’ve never found the “historical events cannot be investigated scientifically” line of argument persuasive. Yes, you cannot experiment on history. Thankfully “the scientific method” (an ill-defined term) doesn’t require such experimentation. Predictions can still be made regarding as of yet uncovered historical evidence. Hypotheses can be proposed and subjected to critical tests.

      If this is indeed what Wolfe is arguing, I’d be interested in knowing whether he applies the same argument to astronomy.

      On the secondary point of accounting for language, I’m unaware of the general rule that a theory cannot be scientific unless it answers every question we can put forth. If that’s the standard, there are no scientific theories.

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        In particular, the study of evolution of species is studied scientifically in the field of phylogenetics, where one tries to “infer” the evolutionary relationships of species based on molecular data. One cannot expect perfect results, as with any other statistical techniques, and also because often data are limited by circumstances (e.g., lack of data from time/place combinations where no specimens have been found). Yet one can plausibly get more information by these methods than by “armchair philosophy” reasoning.

      • Alex Gamma says:

        Gradation is the key here. With Ben, it’s certainly wrong to claim, as a principle, that “historical events cannot be investigated scientifically”. With Martha, it’s certainly true that you can get more or less reliable clues about phylogenies from present data, such as using molecular patterns or fossils. However, when it comes to mental traits, evolutionary inferences cannot be reliably made as such traits and their associated behaviors leave basically no historical record, and to get at them using data on present-day mental and behavioral traits is a fool’s errand.

        • Martha (Smith) says:

          I agree with you for the most part about mental traits — but I am aware of one exception: There has been some work on constructing language phylogenies. The point here is that languages sometimes do leave historical records.

  5. Paul Alper says:

    The English language often acts to confuse rather than enlighten. Gerd Gigerenzer has written about the clash between ordinary English and the English of logic; for example,”AND” is instantly recognized as “or” in the following sentence:

    “I invited friends and colleagues to the party.”

    Perhaps more deeply, the term “theory” is a mess because to the lay public, theory is just an assertion, a feeling, a vague contention, etc. But in science, the label “THEORY” is the highest praise obtainable because here the term both explains and predicts diverse phenomena. Witness Einstein’s Theory of Evolution, Quantum Theory, Electromagnetic Theory, etc. Scientists and fundamentalists argue about the theory/Theory of evolution without each side being fully aware that the meanings of “theory” and “Theory” are quite different.

  6. Al says:

    Interestingly, Paul Meehl had his doubts. Here he is in 1999 (colorful as ever):

    ‘The theory of evolution is one of the most ad hoc and jerry-built of scientific theories. It is not “overwhelmingly confirmed”, as all the books tell us it is. My colleagues in Elliott Hall take it as axiomatic that no one could conceivably have any doubts, even faint ones, about neo-Darwinism – the modern synthesis of the 1930s and ’40s by Haldane, Huxley, Mayr, Dobzhansky, Fisher, Wright, & Co. – unless he was a barefoot Baptist from Tennessee with an IQ of 85. Well, I wear shoes and I don’t have a southern accent and I never was a Baptist and my IQ is closer to 185, but I have read enough about neo-Darwinism to know that it’s certainly not all it’s cracked up to be as science. That does’t mean I look upon “creation science” as science, which I do not. Nor does it mean I have a good scientific alternative of my own. It just means that I have been able to recognize a shaky, ad hoc, speculative, jerry-built, and not very quantitative scientific theory for what it is.’

    • Alex Gamma says:

      While in the passage quoted Meehl’s doubts remain vague, his observation that his “colleagues… take it as axiomatic that no one could conceivably have any doubts, even faint ones, about neo-Darwinism – the modern synthesis of the 1930s and ’40s by Haldane, Huxley, Mayr, Dobzhansky, Fisher, Wright, & Co.” can be extended to most scientists, including evolutionists, today.

      There’s a gross misconception that everything is fine chez Neo-Darwinism. The eminent evolutionist Ernst Mayr claimed in 1998 that all controversies in evolutionary biology are “within the synthesis theory”. How wrong. In fact, at least one core element of Neo-Darwinism needs radical revision: the idea that inheritance is exclusively or essentially genetic. Another ubiquitous idea that needs to be buried is that genes are more strongly determinative of traits than other developmental causes.

      • Thanatos Savehn says:

        I’ll never forget that first missive from ENCODE. Genetic determinism died that day. Since then the elucidation of the microbiome and the discovery that, collectively, these bugs may be breeding us! has only further undermined the old narrative. The truth is likely to be far more bizarre than anything Dawin could have imagined.

        • Martha (Smith) says:

          “these bugs may be breeding us”

          I suggest better yet: We and our microbiomes are an example of co-evolution — similar to pollinators and plants (was about to say “bees and flowers,” but decided that was too narrow — in fact, I could consider “prevailing winds” to be included in “pollinators”, which shows that co-evolution needn’t be restricted just to living organisms.)

    • is a link to parts of a PhD thesis which was defended on 29 September 2017 at RUG, the University of Groningen, The Netherlands.

      The first sentence of the first chapter of this PhD thesis is: “Evolution is commonly defined as the change in gene frequencies in populations over successive generations, and the process of natural selection has a strong social component because competition is involved (Darwin 1859).”

      See for the entire text of Chapter 1 of this PhD thesis. Disclaimer: its about birds, and not about humans.

      • Alex Gamma says:

        What’s your point?

        The definition of evolution as change in gene frequencies is a particularly egregious example of some of Neo-Darwinism’s dogmatism. It confuses a phenomenon with its purported explanation. Evolution is the fact that phenotypes change over time, that’s the very basis of why this question even became an issue: observations that species differ in appearance and behavior.

        Gene frequency change is thought to underlie these evolutionary changes, but to identify one with the other is an obvious conceptual mistake and the fact that it is still taught today just shows how much traded ideas can suppress independent thinking. See for elaboration, including this: “If evolution were change in gene frequencies in a population, Darwin would never have been able to know about it.”

        • Martha (Smith) says:

          Your ending quote says it well.

          Also, looking more broadly: The change from Darwin’s thinking to the “redefinition” of evolution that you mention is analogous to the poor translation of the original frequentest idea of hypothesis testing to the twisted version that is so often taught and practiced (and sometimes even hallowed) today. (I think of both of these as something analogous to bowdlerization — except that what is removed isn’t vulgar; but perhaps one might say that the result is vulgar.)

  7. The biggest problem is that “Darwinian Evolution” is a nebulous term that simply isn’t precisely well defined in a universal way as to be falsifiable. So, let’s go for something more specific and quantitative:

    1) There exists a chemical mechanism of heredity (DNA is this mechanism).

    2) The chemical mechanism affects phenotypes which includes gross physical traits and physiological traits and basically everything, especially in combinations.

    3) There exists natural random variation in the genotypic traits and their combinations such that some phenotypes are correlated with higher fertility / more offspring.

    4) In the presence of random variation correlated with offspring count, through time, the percentage of the population having those phenotypes increases, all else equal.

    Now we have something relatively testable, and all of the above is just easily observed in populations, and is in fact what Darwin observed with his finches or orchids or whatever. None of that is really ad-hoc or factually controversial: DNA exists, it provides heredity of traits, and those traits affect everything from gross physical form to resistance to disease etc. 4 is just a mathematical fact about correlation.

    What *is* potentially controversial is *predictions about whether certain traits will or will not result in positive correlation for offspring* that is claims of what really does constitute “fitness”

    • What was actually controversial back in Darwin’s day was (1 and 2). Since it was a pure hypothetical that there might exist a chemical mechanism by which physical traits were determined through heredity. The alternative “Lamarkian” story was that stuff that happened to the parents could somehow be incorporated into the offspring… which we now know is *sort of* true to the extent that “stuff that happens” to the parents alters the DNA in the parent’s gametes (like exposure to radiation, viruses, or mutagenic chemicals).

    • Andrew says:


      But, just to stay on track, Thomas Wolfe didn’t just dispute claims about “Darwinian evolution.” Rather, he specifically said, “I think it’s misleading to say that human beings evolved from animals. I mean, actually, nobody knows whether they did or not.” Wolfe made the extra step to be sure he was saying something nutty. After all, saying something scientifically defensible, that would be boring. Wolfe wanted to be extra special and say something completely ridiculous.

      • ojm says:

        Wiki says:

        > Evolution is change in the heritable characteristics of biological populations over successive generations.[1][2] Evolutionary processes give rise to biodiversity at every level of biological organisation, including the levels of species, individual organisms, and molecules.[3]

        Regardless of specific mechanisms etc saying ‘I think it’s misleading to say that human beings evolved from animals’ seems pretty contra this minimal basic definition, e.g. he seems to deny the concept of speciation? Or at least that humans have ‘animal’ common ancestors?

      • +1 yes that’s worth stressing. Wolfe must have been deliberately nutty.

        • His trolling was effective since it brought out statements in the comments here like these:

          “Genetic determinism died that day” -> I can’t tell which cartoon version of evolution this plays against but I don’t really want to know.

          “I think his point is that the theory of macroevolution is a theory of history, not a scientific theory derived from experiments and the scientific method” -> this claim has to be based on ‘macroevolution’ because that term has a comfortably fuzzy boundary so that you can arbitrarily exclude stuff like microbial evolution experiments, animal breeding, plant breeding, ring species, etc… the problem is that macroevolution is supposed to be about species and we don’t have one species definition so people go on trolling about how macroevolution is never observed in experiments.

          “And he [Wolfe] is dissatisfied with this historical story because among other things it doesn’t account for the creation of language, a singular development.” -> there are lots of seemingly singular objects we don’t fully understand but that doesn’t have anything to do with the validity of a set of theories that have predictive power, operate by well described mechanisms, and have been observed to operate experimentally both in the lab and in animal/plant breeding. There are things we don’t fully understand in physics but that doesn’t mean relativity is somehow in question.

          It would be interesting trolling if it triggered some creative thinking but this particular trolling is profoundly boring because the thinking it brings up is straight from the playbooks of cdesign propentsists[1].


          • Ed Hagen says:

            “There are things we don’t fully understand in physics but that doesn’t mean relativity is somehow in question.”

            To give an example from human evolution: we have no idea how human bipedalism evolved. There are dozens of theories, of course, but none are supported by much evidence, and hence there is no consensus on this topic. Nevertheless, I have yet to encounter a biological anthropologist who doubts that bipedalism evolved (somehow) by natural selection.

          • Not Tom Woolfe says:

            “there are lots of seemingly singular objects we don’t fully understand but that doesn’t have anything to do with the validity of a set of theories that have predictive power, operate by well described mechanisms, and have been observed to operate experimentally both in the lab and in animal/plant breeding. There are things we don’t fully understand in physics but that doesn’t mean relativity is somehow in question.”

            What predictive power does the theory of speciation have? The theory of macroevolution is very satisfying and compelling as a theory of natural history. But it has not been subject to rigorous testing *by the scientific method*. Apparently some people have a very strong need to believe that it has been. Given the relative unimportance in our day to day lives of macroevolutionary theory compared to theories in the hard science, I allow people their quirks in their speculations about natural history.

            • So now we have the “theory of speciation” which is not well defined and the “theory of macroevolution” which is also ill-defined, and vague statements about “some people”. Are you going to be specific about what sort of evidence you would accept or are you just going to throw generalities around?

              • Not Tom Woolfe says:

                I’m clearly referring to the theory that all species share a common ancenstor, and that the diversity of species we have today is the outcome of an evolutionary process of speciation. That is what Tom Woolfe was referring to. What’s the confusion?

                Given that I already accept the theory of macroevolution as a compelling theory of natural history, I presume you are asking me what evidence I would require to believe that the theory of macroevolution is well-tested by the scientific method? But that seems like a question with a clear answer…

              • Not TW:

                I’m starting an experiment right now, going to call up Slartibartfast and get a planet built, we’ll come back here in about 4 billion years and see if it has something more or less mouse-like that experiments on something more or less ape like that wears both lab coats and digital watches.

              • Not Tom Woolfe says:

                Daniel Lakeland: looks like you got the point!

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      I agree with “The biggest problem is that “Darwinian Evolution” is a nebulous term that simply isn’t precisely well defined in a universal way as to be falsifiable. ” — but your “so let’s go…” seems to be going off on a tangent.

      • My point was that if you define at least one mechanism of evolution through DNA heritability and correlation with offspring count… you get a very obviously well tested theory that Woolfe would have to be a nut or totally ignorant to claim that “no one knows” whether this is true. The existence of Teacup Poodles, HeLa cells, and wheat all pretty much show that this mechanism exists and is commonplace today.

        I don’t disagree or agree or have any opinion on Alex Gamma’s further claim that maybe there are other mechanisms of evolution (cultural for example) but it’s absurd to say that “no one knows” whether an organism with very different traits from some ancestor can ever come about through breeding in the presence of “fitness” variation (meaning just, a persistent correlation between specific traits and average number of offspring).

        If Woolfe would agree that teacup poodles have ancestors that were probably like Dire Wolves or some such thing 40,000 years ago, and that DNA exists… then whatever he’s railing against isn’t this, and so it’s too nebulous to even bother with. If he disagrees that teacup poodles have any ancestors that were wolf-like… then he’s a crank and can be safely ignored.

    • Alex Gamma says:


      Darwinian evolution refers to evolution by natural selection and is not particularly nebulous. It is typically defined by (variants of) the following three criteria:

      1. variation in traits
      2. some traits conferring a relative fitness advantage to their bearers
      3. parental traits being found in offspring at higher-than-random chance (“heritability”)

      Note that Nr. 3 does not (and does not *need* to) specify a particular mechanism by which offspring come to resemble parents. Although the Neo-Darwinian orthodoxy following the Modern Synthesis has taken it for granted that there’s only one inheritance mechanism (genetic), we know today that genetic inheritance is but one of a range of inheritance mechanisms, and this is especially true for humans, where cultural inheritance may well be much more important for evolution.*

      I happen to have just submitted to PeerJ a preprint on the concept of heritability, which, IMO, needs an urgent overhaul (just as the concept of genes does). In it, I try to show that Darwinian evolution actually could *not* work if there was *only* genetic inheritance.

      So stay tuned! I’ll post the link hereabouts as soon as it’s approved.

      * see e.g.
      – Jablonka, E. & Lamb, M.J., 2007. Précis of Evolution in Four Dimensions. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30(4), pp.353–365.
      – Jablonka, E. & Lamb, M.J., 2005. Evolution in Four Dimensions, Cambridge: The MIT Press.

      • I’m fine with there being other mechanisms of evolution, if you define evolution widely enough… that’s ok by me. But denying the basic DNA inheritance and variation mechanism as Woolfe seems to is crank-like.

        Also I’d like to say it’s extremely irritating to hear people talk about “animals” and “humans” as if they were different things… it’s like someone who insists on making distinctions between “plants” and “grass” and saying that “grass” is not a plant and such-like.

        Humans are very simply apes with a little too much time on their hands.

      • Ed Hagen says:

        David Haig, who has devoted his career to the study of epigenetic inheritance, wrote:

        “August Weismann rejected the inheritance of acquired characters on the grounds that changes to the soma cannot produce the kind of changes to the germ-plasm that would result in the altered character being transmitted to subsequent generations. His intended distinction, between germ-plasm and soma, was closer to the modern distinction between genotype and phenotype than to the modern distinction between germ cells and somatic cells. Recently, systems of epigenetic inheritance have been claimed to make possible the inheritance of acquired characters. I argue that the sense in which these claims are true does not challenge fundamental tenets of neo-Darwinism. Epigenetic inheritance expands the range of options available to genes but evolutionary adaptation remains the product of natural selection of ‘random’ variation.”

        He concludes:

        “I was familiar with much of the evidence presented by Jablonka and Lamb, yet considered myself, and still consider myself, to be a rather orthodox neo- Darwinist. Jablonka and Lamb accept that the intentionality of the ‘instructional’ systems they describe originates in natural selection, at some level, but consider themselves heretical neo-Lamarckians. Most of our disagreements are matters of preference, of how we choose to define terms, and of the particular ‘spin’ we choose to put on evidence. But such choices can have important consequences for how one understands biological systems. Jablonka and Lamb want to get rid of hard distinctions between soma and germ-line, replicators and vehicles, physiology/development and evolution, genotype and phenotype, ontogeny and phylogeny, proximate and ultimate explanations. These artificial distinctions, they believe, obscure more than they reveal. Questions of development, heredity, and evolution are too interdependent to separate (EFD, p. 102). Others may believe that the distinctions are still important to promote clarity of thinking. It behoves all evolutionary biologists to periodically question the utility of their basic conceptual tools.”

        Just FYI.

  8. Ed Hagen says:

    There is a connection between the Wolfe story and the topics usually discussed on this blog. In his book, Wolfe highlights the work of Daniel Everett, who claimed that the language of a very small indigenous Amazonian group, the Pirahã, had grammatical features that were exceptional among the world’s 6000+ languages, and thus “inexplicable” by what he claimed were widely accepted theories.

    As we see often on this blog, a small study by one person generates flashy headlines, but is undermined by later work:

    “Everett (2005) has claimed that the grammar of Pirahã is exceptional in displaying ‘inexplicable gaps’, that these gaps follow from a cultural principle restricting communication to ‘immediate experience’, and that this principle has ‘severe’ consequences for work on universal grammar. We argue against each of these claims. Relying on the available documentation and descriptions of the language, especially the rich material in Everett 1986, 1987b, we argue that many of the exceptional grammatical ‘gaps’ supposedly characteristic of Pirahã are misanalyzed by Everett (2005) and are neither gaps nor exceptional among the world’s languages. We find no evidence, for example, that Pirahã lacks embedded clauses, and in fact find strong syntactic and semantic evidence in favor of their existence in Pirahã Likewise, we find no evidence that Pirahã lacks quantifiers, as claimed by Everett (2005). Furthermore, most of the actual properties of the Pirahã constructions discussed by Everett (for example, the ban on prenominal possessor recursion and the behavior of WH -constructions) are familiar from languages whose speakers lack the cultural restrictions attributed to the Pirahã. Finally, following mostly Gonçalves (1993, 2000, 2001), we also question some of the empirical claims about Pirahã culture advanced by Everett in primary support of the ‘immediate experience’ restriction. We conclude that there is no evidence from Pirahã for the particular causal relation between culture and grammatical structure suggested by Everett.”

    We anthropologists are suckers for the myth of the hero’s journey: an intrepid but unknown anthropologist ventures into a remote region of the world to study an exotic people, bringing home news that vanquishes powerful defenders of the status quo, turning our own corner of the world upside down.

  9. Thanatos Savehn says:

    Then again, there’s this:

    Some kinda smart people wondered whether Mind could be reduced to atoms bumping ugli, no?

    • Andrew says:


      That’s a great obituary. Here’s one interesting bit, which happens to relate to the above comment thread:

      “We think that what is needed,” they wrote, “is to cut the tree at its roots: to show that Darwin’s theory of natural selection is fatally flawed.” . . .

      The book loosed an uproar among scientists. (Its review in the magazine Science appeared under the headline “Two Critics Without a Clue.”)

      “He and Chomsky had a modus operandi which was ‘Bury your opponents as early as possible,’ ” Dr. [Ernie] Lepore said, speaking of Dr. Fodor. “And when he went up against the scientific community, I don’t think Fodor was ready for that. He basically told these guys that natural selection was bogus. The arguments are interesting, but he didn’t win a lot of converts.”

      That’s an interesting idea, that a style of argument can be effective in an intellectual backwater such as academic linguistics but fail in the big leagues of biology.

  10. Daffyd says:

    Well, Darwinian (or any) natural selection is flawed. It claims survival of the fittest, when all we can safely say is ‘survival of the least unfit at the time in the circumstances’, or as one quip put it ‘survival of the luckiest’. Victoria -era progressivist determinist fantasies remain the preoccupation of at least much popular discourse on evolution.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      I don’t think that all versions of “natural selection” claim survival of the fittest. I describe natural selection as “survival of the fit enough to have survived so far (or until they went extinct or died, etc.)”

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