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The Approval Complex and Darwinian Monoculture — Further Reflections on the Royal Society Meeting

RS panel.jpg

As important as parenting is, it should be a temporary undertaking. The end result is well worth the effort… when it does come to an end, that is. We’ve all seen regrettable cases where it doesn’t — fully grown adults who retain an unhealthy need for parental approval and aging parents who foster that kind of lingering dependence.

I left the recent Royal Society meeting in London, “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology,” with the distinct impression that I had witnessed a professional version of that unhealthy situation. Old-style neo-Darwinists were there, few in number but with a way of making their presence felt — like overbearing parents presiding over the affairs of their long-grown offspring. Emotional complaints were made against these parent figures during question periods, with spontaneous applause signaling a general mood of protest.

A lack of due recognition lies at the center of the grievance. The textbook version of evolutionary theory, solidified by the mid 1900s, continues to portray natural selection as the all-sufficient cause. But numerous lines of inquiry over the last fifty-some years have made it clear that selection doesn’t really deserve that position of honor. To scientists who’ve devoted themselves to these newer ideas, the solidification of the old orthodoxy looks more like calcification.

At the meeting I found myself siding with the protestors, but soon afterward I began to wonder whether maybe the “parents” were only partly to blame for the tension. I recalled one participant who, during question time, clearly identified the peculiarity of the protest stance. Addressing one of the speakers who exemplified that stance, he pointed out that this professor and her peers enjoyed good academic positions, complete with all the key ingredients for academic success: tenure, funding, publication records, positions on editorial boards, etc. Why complain, then? Why this odd obsession with a specific kind of approval that’s neither probable nor necessary?

Perhaps I sided with the protestors because I’ve had my own grievances. In fact, scientists who challenge not just the calcified version of evolutionary theory but the larger stream of naturalistic thought that gave birth to it have far more legitimate complaints than any aired at the London meeting. You can’t wade against this larger stream without jeopardizing those key ingredients of academic success. The academy, which has in recent decades become a self-righteous monoculture, vigorously opposes anyone who moves against it.

Maybe this regrettable situation will change, someday. A brave movement called Heterodox Academy is working to bring this about, and I certainly hope it succeeds.

In the meantime, the solution for many is to work outside the orthodox academy. The most liberating point in my own career was the moment I realized I didn’t need the approval of the academic monoculture — the moment I realized that the validity of my work came from the work itself rather than from any official seal of approval.

The danger, of course, is that critics of the current orthodoxy might start to become their own self-righteous monoculture by ignoring all opposing views. Perhaps the most pleasant aspect of the Royal Society meeting for me was that it proved this hasn’t happened among advocates of intelligent design, a good number of whom were in attendance — not to promote their own view but rather to hear the latest thinking of people who hold contrary views.

You can only do that kind of thing if you’re very confident of your own view.

Photo: Royal Society panel with (r. to l.) Nancy Cartwright, Douglas Futuyma, Tobias Uller, Marcus Feldman, and Andy Gardner.