File this one under: Mission Impossible. An Oxford college, St. John’s, is advertising to hire a pair of researchers to undertake a tough assignment: shore up the admittedly unsteady mathematical foundation of Darwinian theory, specifically in the ever distressing area of population genetics.
In a downloadable document of particulars for the two-year assignment, the college frankly concedes that ranged against them the new hires will face, well, basically the entire rest of the scholarly field that studies the subject. Biologists may accept that “natural selection leads to organisms that maximize their fitness,” the document observes.
However, mathematical population geneticists mainly deny that natural selection leads to optimization of any useful kind. This fifty-year old schism is intellectually damaging in itself, and has prevented improvements in our concept of what fitness is.
For half a century, mathematicians have been telling Darwinists to get stuffed. If only that would change! Maybe if we enter the figures again and push the “equals” button on our hand calculator just one more time, it will give a different answer. I’ve sometimes wished the same in seeing what the balance in our family checking account will be once those outstanding checks are cashed.
After reading Oxford’s job ad, a friend of ours with a tech background notes optimistically:
Perhaps if they really wish and stretch hard enough they can do it. I remember working with software programmers who told me that 1 + 1 = 3 for EXTREMELY LARGE values of 1. Maybe this could work for them.
For their labors, the pair of scholars will each get about $48,000 a year, which hardly seems very generous considering the work. Also free lunch and dinner.
Oh well. Darwin himself acknowledged his own helplessness at math. In his Autobiography he wrote about how he
deeply regretted that I did not proceed far enough at least to understand something of the great leading principles of mathematics, for men thus endowed seem to have an extra sense. But I do not believe that I should ever have succeeded beyond a very low grade.
So the great man’s legacy lives on.