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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Lamarckism making a comeback?: Otherwise, what to make of this?

In "The Evolution of Evolution, a "a review by Oren Harman of Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life by Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb, we read,
In the end, a broader view of heredity might help to solve age-old perplexities, such as the origin of novel structures like the wings of birds or the flippers of once-terrestrial whales. Even more dramatically, it may provide a much firmer basis for the appearance during evolution of what the imagination-challenged proponents of intelligent design nonsensically refer to as examples of "irreducible complexity," such as the eye, the brain, or the kidney. Darwin, with Lamarck, may have failed in trying to describe a system of heredity, but he grasped a basic truth, or the second, "softer" meaning of Lamarckism: that the fit between an organism and its environment is much tighter and more intimate than would be expected if natural selection always acted on totally random variation. Explaining nature's perfection would be very difficult indeed if there existed no mechanisms to allow somehow for the transmission and the assimilation of acquired information, even if this information is not strictly genetic.

While Jablonka and Lamb have provided a cogent and impressive theoretical basis for such an argument, there is still much experimental work to be done. In the midst of the present controversies about evolutionism and creationism, this scientific path is a better one to follow, I think, than the re-iteration of an outdated neo-Darwinian theory or the defensive admission that Darwin was a religious pluralist (he was--so what?) and really a teleological theist (which he most assuredly was not). Intelligent design is an important political issue, but scientifically and intellectually it is a hollow subject. The truly interesting reflection is taking place not in some real or imagined Bible Belt or in the backwaters of a needlessly dogmatic neo-Darwinian establishment, but right under our noses, in the fascinating new insights springing from the scientific realm of evolutionary theory itself.

Ignoring the obligatory slam at ID, the article admits that neo-Darwinism is just not producing the goods, and perhaps the poor, much-ridiculed Lamarck was right, that some acquired characteristics are inherited. The article as a whole (for which you need a password) shows the usual obsequiousness toward Darwin. He can never be just plain wrong, as Einstein sometimes was.


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