OCTOBER 16, 2006
Preaching to the choir
Edward O. Wilson devotes much of his open letter to repeated assertions of scientific fact trumping religious belief ("Apocalypse Now," September 4). A religious man of science will already be aware of these conflicts; a religious fundamentalist will not admit them. So I cannot fathom to what end Wilson lists them, other than to take an opportunity to make digs at poor fools still clinging to the outdated beliefs he has foresworn. Most major religions are increasingly warming to the idea of global stewardship as a religious duty, so there is plenty of room for detente between religious and secular environmentalists.
Variations on a gene
Oren Harman offers an insightful commentary on the stimulating book by Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb ("The Evolution of Evolution," September 4). I noted only one imperfection detracting from the review: the dubious references to biological perfection. The notion of a globally ideal phenotype does not fit comfortably into either a neo-Darwinian or post-neo-Darwinian (a la Jablonka and Lamb) framework. Genetic variability and the compromises necessitated by multiple--and often conflicting--selective forces virtually guarantee that any phenotype will be less than ideal in some potentially accessible environment.
Professor of Pathology
Case Western Reserve University
Harman describes two ways in which current evolutionary theory diverges from the neo-Darwinian model of random variation and natural selection. But the examples both seem to fit the variation/selection model. The shortage of the amino acid in the bacteria's environment and the introduction of aquatic activities in the monkey's environment both seem to be analogous to longer winters, which select white bears over brown ones. Therefore, it isn't clear that the new conditions add new variations, rather than simply select from existing ones.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Oren Harman responds:
Yes, as Neil Greenspan says, the belief in perfection has historically hindered our understanding in biology, since perfection has almost always entailed a belief in a final cause, or telos, in evolution--a quantity that cannot be studied scientifically. Understanding that the study of biological systems must be purged of teleological thinking was Darwin's initial great achievement, even before he offered a naturalistic mechanism to explain the diversity of life on earth. Ironically, as I write in my review, nature's imperfections served as valuable clues in working out such a mechanism. One of the achievements of modern biology is to understand that there is no such thing as a "globally ideal phenotype"--there are only genotypes and their resulting phenotypes, selected to fit their local environments as optimally as possible under all the constraints acting on organisms at the genetic, physiological, anatomical, and environmental levels. On this issue, at least, both neo- Darwinians and "post-neo-Darwinians" agree. Nothing in nature is truly perfect, since perfection is a human designation, and nature isn't in the business of giving itself grades. Also, as Phil Shaw notes, the Darwinian variation/selection model still holds. What is now argued over is the extent to which all variation is random and the extent to which all heritable variation is genetic. The examples provided show both that variation can often be facilitated or instructed and that it need not always be genetic to be heritable. These are two important points that were dismissed by the neo-Darwinists for much of the twentieth century but that are, thankfully, gaining more attention today.
Department of clarifications
Due to an editorial error, last week's cover story by Thomas Frank lacked an author identification. It should have noted, "Thomas Frank is the author of What's the Matter With Kansas?. He is currently working on a book about conservative governance."
Department of corrections
Our article on the family of Hurricane Katrina evacuees who moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan ("The Golden Ticket," August 14), stated that a large-screen television in the family's home had been donated by a chef at the local Radisson Hotel. Actually, the chef only delivered the television. It was donated by the Radisson itself, in response to a fund-raising drive conducted by Lynn McLeod and the volunteers from Kalamazoo who organized the family's resettlement.
In "Double Enmity" (September 26), a quote attributed to Dan Gerstein--"Joe Lieberman does NOT beat his wife"--was not written by Gerstein. Rather, it was written by an unknown person posting under the name "Dan Gerstein" in the Lieberman campaign blog's comments section. We regret the errors.