Friday, July 10, 2009

lewontin on darwin

i learned something very interesting in reading this review essay on books about darwin in a recent new york review of books (i like this magazine because it lets me 'read' dozens of books on the cheap, by simply reading their reviews, which always include the best or worst parts). i had always heard that political philosophy in the late 19th century borrowed from darwin's theories of evolution, to create the notion of "social darwinism," a corruption of his theories. lewontin argues pretty persuasively that it was the other way around: darwin grabbed hold of prevailing political and social assumptions about society, that under industrial capitalism the strong were getting stronger and the weak, weaker, and translated it into biological terms. this resonance explains the massive and immediate popularity of his major work, 'the origin of species.' "the perceived structure of the competitive economy provided the metaphors on which evolutionary theory was built. one can hardly imagine anything that would have better justified the established social and economic theories of the industrial revolution than the claim that our very biological natures are examples of basic laws of political economy."

he also asserts that the theory ought to be called "darwin-wallace-mendelism." without mendel, a german monk, the theory lacked an explanation of inheritance. darwin and wallace thought of organisms combining as a mixture of liquids, with the offspring being the average of the parents. but this leads to the ironing out of all extremes and variations. mendel saw genetics as a matter not of liquids but of little bits of something that retained their variety even after combination.

1 comment:

Chi said...

Lewontin is typically dishonest in the essay. John Hawks sets out some of the points he dodges here.

Another review.