Suzan Mazur: Why has American science been slow to accept a reduced role for natural selection in evolution? Is it the physics that people just can’t grasp?
Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini: It’s not just American science, but rather Western science, though indeed France has, in this respect, a different story, not quite a noble one.
Some consider Darwinism to be quintessentially “Britannique” and they had Bergson suggesting a different approach to evolution, then the mathematician Rene’ Thom and his school, stressing the role of topological deep invariants. They may have come to anti-Darwinian conclusions for rather idiosyncratic reasons.
Anyway, even if we take the many, many biologists in many countries who have contributed to the new rich panorama we have today of non-selectionist biological mechanisms (including the masters of the Evo-Devo revolution), they are reluctant, in my opinion, to steer away from natural selection. They declare that the non-selectionist mechanisms they have discovered (and there are many, and very basic) essentially leave the neo-Darwinian paradigm only modified, not subverted.
I think that abandoning Darwinism (or explicitly relegating it where it belongs, in the refinement and tuning of existing forms) sounds anti-scientific. They fear that the tenants of intelligent design and the creationists (people I hate as much as they do) will rejoice and quote them as being on their side. They really fear that, so they are prudent, some in good faith, some for calculated fear of being cast out of the scientific community.
There are, however, also biologists who do not fear to declare, as Gregory C. Gibson (the William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor of Genetics, North Carolina State University) wrote in Science (2005), reviewing a book on robustness and evolvability:
“[this book] contributes significantly to the emerging view that natural selection is just one, and maybe not even the most fundamental, source of biological order”.
“Robustness must involve non-additive genetic interactions, but quantitative geneticists have for the better part of a century generally accepted that it is only the additive component of genetic variation that responds to selection. Consequently, we are faced with the observation that biological systems are pervasively robust but find it hard to explain exactly how they evolve to be that way”.
G. C. Gibson SYSTEMS BIOLOGY: The Origins of Stability. Science, 310 (5746), p. 237.
Prudent, but explicit.
And the distinguished evolutionary biologist Massimo Pigliucci, in an excellent book co-authored with the philosopher Jonathan Kaplan, writes:
“It is unwarranted to think that adaptation, diversification and evolution more generally are closely related phenomena that take place via the same mechanisms in the same populations […] Adaptation can, and verifiably does, take place without speciation, as does nonadaptive evolution more generally”.
Massimo Pigliucci & Jonathan Kaplan (2006), Making Sense of Evolution: The Conceptual Foundations of Evolutionary Biology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. (Chapter 9, Box 9.2).
There are other expressions of discontent with canonical neo-Darwinism, but, all in all, prudence prevails.