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Reductionism versus ??? 
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Post Reductionism versus ???
In addition to "Unweaving the Rainbow" I've had the chance to take a look at a couple other books by prominant biologists lately, namely, Stuart Kauffman and Lynn Margulis. It seems as if their theories of evolution conflict greatly with the neo-Darwinian view promoted by Dawkins. Some have made the claim that neo--Darwinism is too "reductionist."

Question: if not reductionism, then what? I think it is important to define exactly what reductionism is. Correct me if I am wrong, but I have always viewed reductionism as simply breaking a process or item (whether organic or inorganic) into it's constituent parts. An example I can think of is the Krebs cycle which is responsible for cellular respiration. Here we have what once might have seemed to be an elusive, almost mysterious process that is broken down into simpler steps, hence, is intellectually reduced.

Obviously, Lynn Margulis and Stuart Kauffman are not exactly "fringe" scientists. I haven't delved too much into their works, so maybe you have some ideas as to what they mean when they state that neo-Darwinism (or even all of science!) is too "reductionist." What is the alternative?

Bradley




Sun May 04, 2003 1:44 pm
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Post Re: Reductionism versus ???
Darwinian evolution is based upon selection. And as far as I can tell, the differences of opinion rest on where that selection takes place.

Dawkins offers the concept of the "selfish gene". Which, in this context, means that the selection takes place within the body. As he says, cheetah genes don't cooperate with codfish genes very well, and so in a cheetah body the codfish genes would lose when it comes to selection. This is neo-Darwinism, or reductionism.

Others, such as Mayr, think that the selection takes place within the species. Attributes are selected for or against within the context of the entire species, with those groups on the fringes specifically being selected for or against, leading to micro and then macro evolution.

It's all a matter of perspective on where the seeming importance is placed.


Lynne




Mon May 05, 2003 11:24 am


Post Re: Reductionism versus ???
Quote:
Correct me if I am wrong, but I have always viewed reductionism as simply breaking a process or item (whether organic or inorganic) into it's constituent parts.


I have always understood reductionism to be the simplistic breaking of a complex process or item into constituent parts. In other words, it is limited in explanatory value due to the fact that it reduces a set of phenomena into a mechanistic and restrictive process. For example, the view that consciousness can be entirely explained through the ego/id/superego model of the mind is reductionistic, or that the economic structure directly determines the values and behavior of the population.

Perhaps the selfish gene theory is criticized as reductionism because it exclusively attributes all matters of selection to processes at the gene level, and as such, does not allow for any other kind of selection. I have not read The Selfish Gene nor much of Dawkin's other writings so I cannot comment on the meritability of his theories or their criticism, but hopefully I have been able to demonstrate why some views are called reductionistic. I should also say that those who fling around the term reductionism are often guilty of reading a deterministic relationship between explanation and reality when there is none. In Dawkin's case, he may be arguing that selection ultimately is determined at the level of genes, but not exclusively so. Again, this is mostly conjecture.




Mon May 05, 2003 12:13 pm
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Post Re: Reductionism versus ???
Brad

There is a movie I think you ought to see called "Mindwalk" that focuses on this very subject. In all my life I have only been captivated by one movie enough to watch it two times in one day...and this was Mindwalk.

Mindwalk review

Mindwalk - excellent information posted by educators

Amazon.com review

Quote:
This strange experiment in filmed conversation finds three people--a physicist, a poet, a politician--yammering about the environment, science, art, government, and much else, all in an effort either to find or to dispute connections between disparate subjects. There is no story, as such--just lots of chatter (much of it not particularly profound) shot against a variety of picturesque backgrounds. If director Bernt Capra thought this would turn out to be another My Dinner with Andre, that fantasy falls on its face. --Tom Keogh


Above is the only negative review I have ever heard about this movie. Some people just don't appreciate science. Brad - you will love this movie. The conversation hits on the differences between reductionism and "Systems Theory," which is the discipline of taking a look at the whole picture, as opposed to simply breaking it down into its smaller parts.

Chris




Mon May 05, 2003 3:35 pm
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Post Re: Reductionism versus ???
Brad

Your title is Reductionism versus? I think what you would compare Reductionism with is systems theory. I should have stated it that way in my last post.

Chris




Mon May 05, 2003 3:37 pm
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Post Re: Reductionism versus ???
Just wanted to throw in my view of the criticisms of Dawkins' viewpoint on evolution. There are actually two separate camps which both criticize Dawkins, but for very different reasons. The first is the school of evolutionary biology following the ideas of Stephen Jay Gould, placing the emphasis on "macro"-evolution. These biologists make several claims about evolution, most notably: 1) evolution goes through long periods of stagnation followed by short (short by evolutionary terms) periods of rapid change and 2) that many of the major features of evolution are not the result of selective adaptation alone, but the combined action of several different forces which are more stochastic in nature. Dawkins has argued that where Gould's theories are revolutionary, they are not supported by the evidence, and where they are supported by the evidence, they are not revolutionary. Dawkins points out that stochastic proceses do have a place in evolution, but that the ultimate agent (the crane to use his term, if you've read The Blind Watchmaker) of evolution is selection, and that selection occurs at the level of the gene. Therefore, it makes sense, when talking about evolution, to talk about genes rather than about livers or panthers or ecosystems. There are several examples in modern molecular biology of "parasitc" DNA, which serves no purpose to the host but merely replicates itself within the host cells. This is what Dawkins means when he talks about the "selfish" gene, the fact that genes don't really "care" one way or another about organisms, so long as they make lots of copies of themselves.

The second group of critics to Dawkins' ideas are not evolutionary biologists, but lay-people who are for some reason offended that we evolved to be anything but good neighbours, kind, helpful people who are not predisposed to prejudice or malice. Dawkins, and many of his supporters, have made the obvious leap from biology to psychology, reasoning that since the human brain is an organ and evolved for a specific purpose (mainly hunting gazelles on the savannah), it makes sense to look at it from an evolutionary perspective. Evolutionary psychology seeks to put human behaviours in a biological context. Reactions to this have been very strong, as people now see the mind as their last refuge from the "unweaving"..."Scientists have told me my echinacea won't help, my star-sign doesn't matter, there are no helpful spirits in the wings, but they can't tell me I don't have a soul, since that's a purely introspective judgement." The new disciplines of cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology have started to assault that last stronghold of peoples' illusions about what they want the world to be like (as opposed to the much more impressive way it really is.)

Both camps are opposed to Dawkins' "reductionism". Personally I find it very strange that reductionism has acquired such a negative connotation, when in its pure sense it should be pretty much neutral. Another word with which it is often coupled for doubly pejorative effect is "deterministic". Odd. One great book on the topic is Daniel Dennett's "Freedom Evolves"...check it out if you have the time.

Edited by: Louis42 at: 6/23/03 5:04 pm



Tue May 06, 2003 8:34 pm


Post Re: Reductionism versus ???
As I said before, I feel that reductionistic and deterministic models of explantion tend to be cast in a negative light because they often turn out to be in fact inadequate explanations. Newton's laws of physics are deterministic, for example, and while sufficiently capable of describing material interaction to a point, they ultimately fail. It's not that reductionism or determinism is a poor approach to 'unweaving,' and as such I concede that they are pretty much neutral, but that they tend to be totalizing systems that do not easily allow for the postpartum introduction of extenuating variables. While this connotation may not be entirely justifiable according to the purest sense of the terms, I do not think that this should be allowed to obscure the substance of a critique as I sometimes think that it does.

Anyway, I am new to biology and evolution and found your response to be cogent and informative. I just wanted to clarify my earlier thoughts in light of your recent ones and commend you on your explanation. I need all the help I can get on this topic and enjoyed reading your response. I don't remember seeing you around before and hope that you will continue to participate.




Wed May 07, 2003 12:31 am
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Post Re: Reductionism versus ???
"Wonder without reductionism is art. Wonder with reductionism is science". E.O. Wilson.
Reductionism is misunderstood as an end. To fully understand a physical process in the real world, one needs to first break it down into it's component parts, and then understand how those parts work together. For example: Watson and Crick could not have assembled their model of DNA without specific knowledge of the exact charges of guanine, thiamine, cytosine, and adenine. The model worked because the parts fit together proportional to the charge-mediated attractions and repulsions of their component atoms. The straw-man version of reductionism would have them stopping: we understand the parts, now we are done. But that's not what happens at all. They understood the parts, then they assembled them together into a whole DNA molecule. And other scientists track how parts of DNA molecules act as genes. Understanding the physical substrate of genes, we have a better understanding of ontogeny and of organisms. Etc., right up to economics and mass psychology.

Our understanding is least effective where the chain is broken. Sociology is weak because it makes theories without fully incorporating what is known about the individuals who make up the societies it studies. Does this mean sociology has nothing to offer? No. But as we learn more about individual humans, the "reductionist" components of social groups, and incorporate that knowledge into sociology, then sociology's predictive power will become greater, not less.




Wed May 07, 2003 6:26 am
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Post Re: Reductionism versus Margulis
Johnny
Quote:
I've had the chance to take a look at a couple other books by prominant biologists lately, namely, Stuart Kauffman and Lynn Margulis.
I recently finished Margulis and Sagan, Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species, and was dumbfounded that a scientist of her stature and obvious ability could be so narrow-minded and lacking in understanding. In very brief, her theory is that speciation is driven mainly by the merging of all or part of separate genomes together, thus making the "leap" to a new organism. The core of the book consists of evidence she has assembled for the reality of this process. So far, she could be right; I am certainly not in a position to challenge her facts.

Over and over in the book, Margulis rages about how wrong Dawkins and others are, and how they will have to eventually admit that she is right and they are wrong. The point she misses entirely is that they are talking about two different things, which barely overlap at all. Margulis has offered us a proximate explanation for speciation, which may be right, and may be wrong. If it is perfectly and exactly correct to the last decimal place it still tells us nothing about the ultimate causes of evolution.

The distinction between proximate and ultimate cause is critically important. "Why does a Panda eat bamboo"? Proximate cause



Wed May 07, 2003 6:52 am
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Post Re: Reductionism versus Margulis
Louis42

Wow...where did you come from? With a post like your first one above I sure hope you plan to stick around! Good stuff Louis.

I'm currently reading Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the Fittest, by Kim Sterelny, in an effort to understand the primary differences between their ideas. From my understanding, Gould really doesn't present anything revolutionary, as he simply joined forced with Eldridge and represented the theory of punctuated equilibrium.

You would have been a fun person to have around while reading "The Lucifer Principle" and "Global Brain." Howard Bloom believes much of the selection occurs far above the level of the gene. We'll have Bloom back for a chat in a few months so stick around.

Chris




Mon May 12, 2003 4:54 am
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Post Re: Reductionism versus Margulis
Quote:
Louis says:
The second group of critics to Dawkins' ideas are not evolutionary biologists, but lay-people who are for some reason offended that we evolved to be anything but good neighbours, kind, helpful people who are not predisposed to prejudice or malice. Dawkins, and many of his supporters, have made the obvious leap from biology to psychology, reasoning that since the human brain is an organ and evolved for a specific purpose (mainly hunting gazelles on the savannah), it makes sense to look at it from an evolutionary perspective. Evolutionary psychology seeks to put human behaviours in a biological context. Reactions to this have been very strong, as people now see the mind as their last refuge from the "unweaving"..."Scientists have told me my echinacea won't help, my star-sign doesn't matter, there are no helpful spirits in the wings, but they can't tell me I don't have a soul, since that's a purely introspective judgement." The new disciplines of cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology have started to assault that last stronghold of peoples' illusions about what they want the world to be like (as opposed to the much more impressive way it really is.)


Thank you.

That was extremely well stated. And I very much agree. The PCing of science is how I think of it. Darwinism at it's very core is designated "survival of the fittest", which is inherently competitive. Simply means you have winners, and losers. In today's PC climate it is not polite to admit that there will be losers. You have to make nice and support self esteem.

Which has exactly nothing to do with whether or not a gene survives.

Excuse me Mr. Cheetah Gene, we know you are a really good gene, even though this is a codfish body, that's not your fault, and so we, the codfish body, being good genes and all, because we understand that you are trying really hard and it's the effort that counts, have decided that you may live and flourish here.



Lynne




Tue May 13, 2003 3:25 am
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