Saturday, March 11, 2006


Evolution, Education, and Einstein

I read somewhere that an author will sometimes use famous quotes in an attempt to bolster a fundamentally weak argument. My purpose in including quotes in today's post is somewhat different and hopefully will become apparent long before the concluding remarks.

The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education. (Albert Einstein)

A soldier returning to civilian life may experience an initial difficulty in not automatically walking in step with whomever they accompany. This conditioned behavior is, of course, a function of what was instilled during basic training and then re-inforced throughout the remaining term of service.

A student can become similarly conditioned in the classroom (whether at school or sunday school) particularly during those periods where they have to revise for 'examinations'. This can lead to the retention of concepts which excede their sell-by dates and psychological resistance to any suggestion that the concepts be abandoned and/or modified.

Generally speaking it doesn't matter how good the grades a student achieves are because delight in success may be accompanied by relief that the externally applied pressure has finally ceased. There's no such thing as a free lunch: the price of passing the exams in this way is indicated by another of Einstein's quotes, "It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education".

In "The International Flat Earth Society" and an Internal Evolutionary Mechanism I spoke about looking for specific cultural trends and also included the following quote by Dr. Richard von Sternberg of the Smithsonian Institute:

Finally, even the specter of Lamarck has reappeared. Lamarck's idea was, of course, that acquired traits can be passed on to offspring. None other than "Darwin Day" organizer Massimo Pigliucci is giving second thought to Lamarckism - after all, he notes, Darwin was a Lamarckian!

One of the basic trends I'm looking for is one leading to recognition that (in Gould and Lewontin's words) "organisms should be analyzed as 'integrated wholes'". An example path could be reductionism -> 'epigenetics inheritance systems' -> ? (where "?" is the point the proposal of an internal evolutionary mechanism may come in).

From a cultural perspective, the problem with considering that organisms are integrated wholes is that the center of integration does not lie in the intellect (it's not your mind that keeps you alive while you sleep is it?).

[I'm a bit unhappy with the last couple of paragraphs but I haven't the time to expand on them. They'll have to do for now. The main purpose of this post is the next part (and even that will have to be briefer than I hoped) - maybe I'll come back to the above in another post or edit this one at a later date. I'll certainly come back to the topic!]

With regard to Sternberg's comments about Pigliucci: "Expanding evolution: A broader view of inheritance puts pressure on the neo-darwinian synthesis" was posted to the Main Blog today which is a book review by Pigliucci of: "Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life by Eva Jablonka & Marion J. Lamb" (Amazon UK | US).

It contains lots of interesting stuff but I'll restrict myself to two extracts:

...The authors argue that there is more to heredity than genes; that some hereditary variations are non-random in origin; that some acquired information is inherited; and that evolutionary change can result from 'instruction' as well as selection. This may sound rather revolutionary, even preposterously close to lamarckism. But Jablonka and Lamb build on evidence from standard research in evolutionary and molecular biology, and their case should be examined on its merits, rather than being dismissed by a knee-jerk reaction...

Two brief points:

1) The 'error' with associating Lamarck with new proposals and/or discoveries is described in An Error In Associating Lamarck With 'Adaptive Mutations'?

2) Note the use of (an anticipated) 'knee-jerk reaction' - common when a suggestion is made contrary to what has been taught and irrespective of the natural reality of that suggestion.

...The clamour to revise neo-darwinism is becoming so loud that hopefully most practising evolutionary biologists will begin to pay attention. It has been said that science often makes progress not because people change their minds, but because the old ones die off and the new generation is more open to novel ideas. I therefore recommend this and the other books I mentioned on the future of evolutionary theory to the current crop of graduate students, postdocs and young assistant professors. They'll know what to do.

1) The observation that "science often makes progress not because people change their minds, but because the old ones die off" is again consistent with the effects of cultural conditioning.

2) I feel "and the new generation is more open to novel ideas" would be more accurate if it were to say "and the new generation is more open to novel ideas relative to the older generation"

3) "They'll know what to do": It certainly helps when people as well known as Pugliucci help create a psychologically healthier environment in which progress can be made (which he has contributed towards by writing this review) but I don't think they'll know what to do until they have a better idea of what it is they are looking for - and even why they are looking.

John Latter / Jorolat

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Pigliucci's review of: "Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life by Eva Jablonka & Marion J. Lamb" is no longer available without a subscription but you can always email me and I'll see what I can do!

An alternative review can be found here

John Latter / Jorolat
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