Let’s evolve public debates into real arguments

Last week I was in Newcastle for some of the British Science Festival and was pleased to catch the inaugural Huxley Debate on epigenetics. These new debates are marketed as a return to a more engaging, messy and accurate image of science, where researchers disagree and competing viewpoints dictate how data are analysed.

The idea of the debate is modelled on the famous Huxley-Wilberforce debate at the British Association’s annual meeting in 1860. As described on Tuesday, this started with a presentation by John William Draper, which was followed by discussion from others in the audience. The most famous arguments came from Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce. Exactly what was said appears to lost – a combination of biased memories and Huxley’s poor performance (apparently more Darwin’s basenji than bulldog at that point) – but the classic exchange goes something along the lines of Wilberforce asking whether Huxley was related on his mother’s or father’s side to a gorilla. Huxley retorted that he’d rather be related to an ape than someone who used his intellect to suppress debate.

Tuesday’s debate saw Tim Spector and George Davey-Smith, two epidemiologists, debate the science of epigenetics. Tim Spector advocated that changes in methylation patterns in DNA could be passed on for a few generations, whereas George Davey-Smith argued that the effects of epigenetics are currently being over-hyped. It was an interesting debate with two fascinating scientists, but, despite the prodding of the chair, Lisa Jardine, and the hopes of the audience, it never really got ‘messy’. It appeared to be more an argument of degrees, rather than of dogmas.

And that I find a pity. I find it a pity because there are some real arguments in evolutionary biology at the moment. Debates that cut to the core of how evolution works, profound challenges to the ‘Modern Synthesis’, and there is some real venom in the way that these disagreements are played out.

We were all taught that Wynne-Edwards was wrong and group selection was impossible, yet there is an increasing minority of evolutionary scientists who are examining multi-level selection. The battle is bitter, in 2010 Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson suggested that kin selection (favouring your genes, and hence your relatives’, selection) may be better represented as group selection. In response 137 evolutionary biologists wrote to Nature to say they had got it all wrong.

In 2011 Kevin Laland and colleagues argued in a paper in Science that the distinction between the ‘ultimate’ causes (evolutionary history) and ‘proximate’ causes (development or physiology) of evolved traits muddled the field. They argued that philosophically this was not sound and proximate causes should not be assumed to less important than ultimate. However, the distinction has strong support from those arguing that ultimate and proximate are different questions that act in separate realms of explanation. [See comment from Thom Scott-Phillips below] A trip to a conference on any topic in evolution in the past few years will tell you that the topic generates some real angst.

Now, these topics are not directly applicable to human health (although the proponents of evolutionary medicine may beg to differ) in the same way that the inheritance of methylation patterns may be. However, whereas epigenetics may be one of many factors why a health condition is inherited, some debates in evolutionary theory are fundamental to the field. They arouse strong passions, like those of Huxley, Wilberforce and others at the 1860 debate. If the spirit of 1860 is to resurrected, let us not pretend the public need to hear about their health to be interested, let’s engage them in a real fight.

Abbot et al. (137 authors) (2011) Inclusive fitness theory and eusociality. Nature 471, E1-E4
Khan, I The Huxley Debate. British Science Association Blog, 22/08/2013, http://www.britishscienceassociation.org/blog/huxley-debate
Laland KN, Sterelny K, Odling-Smee J, Hoppitt W & Uller T (2011) Cause and Effect in Biology Revisited: Is Mayr’s Proximate-Ultimate Dichotomy Still Useful? Science, 334 (6062) 1512-1516
Nowak, MA, Tarnita CE & Wilson EO (2010) The evolution of eusociality. Nature 466, 1057–1062
Scott-Phillips TC, Dickins TE & West SA (2011) Evolutionary theory and the ultimate/proximate distinction in the human behavioural sciences. Perspectives on Psychological Science 61 (1) 38-47

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2 thoughts on “Let’s evolve public debates into real arguments

  1. Hi Lewis. Only just seen this. I’d like to pick up on one of your comments about ult/prox. You say: “[Laland et al] argued that philosophically this was not sound and proximate causes should not be assumed to less important than ultimate. However, the distinction has strong support from those arguing that ultimate and proximate are different questions that act in separate realms of explanation.”

    There’s an suggestion here (caused by the “However,…”, which implies a contrast) that those who support the prox/ult distinction think that ultimate explanations are more important. That’s just not true. Here’s what our 2011 paper says (thanks for the citation): “If we wish to explain some particular trait, we must explain both why it is associated with greater reproductive success… and how it actually does that… the first of these are ultimate explanations, the latter are proximate explanations, and both are required for full biological understanding.” Emphasising the importance of the distinction, and of using it correctly, does not at all imply that one or the other type of explanation is more important. Quite the contrary, in fact.

  2. Thanks Thom; I hope that the edit above will draw readers to your comment and that it clarifies the post. I apologise for misrepresenting your arguments.

    My aim was to give a very brief summary of a couple of current debating points in evolutionary theory, so didn’t give myself much space to summarise each. However, I hope that you agree that it would be nice for all involved if these debates could be public and open.

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