Neuroanthropology

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Posts Tagged ‘Evolution’

Genomics and ‘Post-Neo-Darwinism’

Posted by gregdowney on June 17, 2008

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchI’ve been trying to put together my reader for a new unit (class) on human evolution at Macquarie University that I’ll be doing next semester. As usual, I’m doing this at the 11th hour, but this should be my last completely new, never-before-taught-at-my-university class for at least a year (I hope). In the process of checking out the most recent edition of my favorite human evolution journals, I happened across an odd and really thoughtful piece by Prof. Kenneth Weiss, who’s at Penn State. In the past, I’ve remarked about ‘post-neo-Darwinism,’ a term that I’m sure causes grimaces and eye-rolling, but that I think is worth discussing (I can’t take credit for the term; I think I heard it from Prof. Emily Schultz of St. Cloud State University at the last meeting of the American Anthropology Association).

By the way, Daniel posted a great ‘Evolution Round Up’ just recently with a whole lot of interesting material (I especially enjoyed Mo’s piece at Neurophilosophy on ‘Synapse proteomics & brain evolution’). We’re not really an evolution theme website, but it’s obvious how important it is to locate brain development in frameworks consistent with evolution. (I’ll come back to why being overly persuaded by evolutionary frameworks can be pernicious in a second, and it’s broader than my recent rant about memetics.)

Unfortunately, because the Weiss piece is more of an essay, in his recurring column entitled ‘Crotchets & Quiddities,’ there’s really no abstract of it, so I can’t link through to a nice concise summary of the piece. So, more than usual, I’m going to copy blocks of text from his essay, ‘All Roads Lead to… Everywhere?: Is the genetic basis of interesting traits so complex that it loses much of its traditional evolutionary meaning?’, before I get into my own commentary. Obviously, if you have access through a good research library, you should be able to get your hands on the original article. (More on Weiss’s columns can be found here – they’re quite good.)

The set-up for Weiss’s discussion is the idea that it doesn’t make sense to talk about ‘THE road’ to any particular place in a complex systems of highways and secondary roads because there are many routes:

With such choices, it doesn’t make much sense to ask, ‘‘What is the road to Rome?’’ In a somewhat similar way, rapidly growing knowledge about the nature of genomes and what they do suggests that what’s good for the Romans is good for biology as well. Instead of a gene for this and a gene for that, we face the possibility that all genes lead to everywhere, which may have important
implications with regard to our understanding of the genetic basis or evolution of traits like the shape of the skull, a skull, or this skull. If all real roads lead to the Circus Maximus, do all our craniofacial genetic roads lead to the foramen magnum?

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Posted in Evolution, general, Genetics, Human variation | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

We hate memes, pass it on…

Posted by gregdowney on June 12, 2008

Vaughn at Mind Hacks has a short post, Memes exist: tell your friends (clever, Vaughn, very clever), which links to a couple of meme-related talks at TED. Daniel linked to a lot of the TED talks back in April (TED: Ideas Worth Spreading), but Vaughn focuses on videos of Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore, both of whom are ardent meme advocates.

I’ve watched both talks, more than a half hour of my finite lifespan that I will never get back (okay, I’ve wasted part of my finite life doing worse… I think), so I need to unburden myself. I think ‘memetics’ is one of the bigger crocks hatched in recent decades, hiding in the shadow of respectable evolutionary theory, suggesting that anyone who doesn’t immediately concede to the ‘awesome-ness’ of meme-ness is somehow afraid of evolutionary theory. Let me just make this perfectly clear: I teach about evolutionary theory. I like Charles Darwin. I have casts of hominid skulls in my office. I still think ‘memetics’ is nonsense on stilts on skates on thin ice on borrowed time (apologies to Bentham), as deserving of the designation ‘science’ as astrology, phrenology, or economic forecasting.

What’s hard for me to understand is that I LIKE some of Daniel Dennett’s work, and I can’t cite Dennett’s other work confidently when he has picked up a ‘meme franchise,’ and is plugging away with the ‘meme’ meme, making it appear that I’m down with this later material. Blackmore, on the other hand, is a reformed para-psychologist, so she’s, at worst, made a lateral move in terms of respectability. I get particularly irritated during her talk because I think she does an enormous disservice to Darwin’s Origin of Species, but I will try not to late my irritation show too much (even though our regular readers know I won’t be able to manage). I wasn’t going to really heap scorn on Blackmore until I read her own account of TED on the Guardian’s website; gloves are now off.

But I digress, back to the content of the concept and Vaughn’s comments…

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Posted in Cultural theory, Evolution, general, Human variation, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , | 37 Comments »

 
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