Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Someone else's reflections

If you need additional inspiration for your reflections on the Origin, have a look at John Whitfield's final thoughts at Blogging the Origin.

He makes the excellent point that Darwin can be, and has been, claimed as a founding father by different schools of evolutionary thought. One is what John aptly names the 'lean and mean' school of evolutionary theory (R. A. Fisher, Bill Hamilton, John Maynard Smith, George Price, with Richard Dawkins as their most famous popularizer). This line of thinkers (mostly skinny Englishmen, as Whitfield points out) tends to focus on elegant mathematical models that strip evolution to its bare essentials, and views natural selection as both the most powerful and most interesting evolutionary force. This group appreciates Darwin for his ability to see the simple general principles underlying the polyglot diversity of nature. By contrast, the more loosely defined 'let a thousand flowers bloom' school (think Stephen J. Gould) admires Darwin the natural historian (the fact hound rather than the theoretician), and tends to see the polyglot complexity of nature as the net outcome of many complex interacting factors, of which natural selection is only one. I'm mostly a 'lean and mean' man myself, though I think there are interesting questions about the interplay of natural selection and other factors that both schools of thought tend to ignore.

In a previous post, Whitfield also notes, correctly I think, that a big part of Darwin's genius is his ability to see how patterns in space (say, biogeographical patterns in the distribution of species) can be generated by processes operating over time. Darwin had an extraordinary ability to visualize past sequences of events and how they could've resulted in present-day spatial patterns.

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