John O. Reiss is Professor of Zoology & Department Chair for Evolutionary and Developmental Morphology at Humboldt State University. Since 2005, he has been writing against the dominant paradigm that views evolution through the lens of natural selection and adaptation, pushing instead for a perspective grounded in the existence of animals – an approach with remarkable connections to Kant’s perspective on life I wrote about in Kant on Intelligent Design. His alternative paradigm is closely related to the conditions for existence discussed by Georges Cuvier before Darwin published his landmark book. We recently discussed his work, and the following interview serves as a bookend to this Summer’s discussions of the Myths of Evolution.
Chris Bateman: You waded into a whole host of philosophical discussions about evolution with your paper ‘Natural Selection and the Conditions for Existence: Representational vs. Conditional Teleology in Biological Explanation’, and your book Not by Design: Retiring Darwin’s Watchmaker.
John O. Reiss: Well yes, but let me start by reminding you that I am not a philosopher, but a scientist, and what concerns me is really making the science better.
Chris: Sure, and indeed that is why your stance on these issues is particularly useful and enlightening to me, coming at it from the philosophical fields. I always hope for greater osmosis between disciplines, and on this particular topic philosophy, science and even theology (in the case of certain specific issues...) all have a role to play in untangling the debate.
John: That is exactly what I think too – there was a time when philosophers and “natural philosophers” (scientists) were not so far apart, and it still seems to me that philosophy ought to be relevant to science, both in informing our perspective and keeping us from committing errors in logic.
Chris: I find your proposed 'overturning' of Darwinian metaphor and return to Cuvier's more Kantian approach to be one of a very small number of viable options for dealing with contemporary problems in this space.
John: I'm glad to hear you think it offers some possibility of escaping the problems of the design metaphor. It is a strange historical anomaly that Darwin’s intellectual environment was formed by the British context of Paley et al., who never really assimilated the Kantian perspective.
Chris: It seems you recognize the merit of scientific metaphor in so much as you say that “metaphors may have heuristic value in science”, and your concern appears to be the dangers inherent in taking such metaphors literally. In this, we agree – our principle difference is that I view the metaphors as inescapable, while you presumably view them as something that can be eliminated.
John: I guess I would agree – up to a point. Metaphor certainly helps the public understanding, and often plays a role in scientists' conceptual understanding – for example one might compare gravitational to emotional attraction. In a way mathematical models are themselves a sort of metaphor for what is "really" going on.
Chris: Stephen Yablo says exactly this, in fact – that numbers are metaphors.
John: To me the problem is not just metaphor, it is metaphor that obscures or confuses features of the phenomenon one is studying. As I detail in the book, I think the metaphor of design by natural selection has led people to some pretty strange views of the evolutionary process, and kept them from fully grasping the broad scope of evolution.
Chris: Yes, but your objection to the metaphor of design approach discussed by Michael Ruse seems to rest on a false dichotomy between “metaphor as real” and “only a metaphor” – but this kind of objection (which I do not subscribe to) is far from constrained to the metaphor of design. Darwin's metaphor of natural selection suffers the same problem, as for that matter does Cuvier's conditions for existence that you use. Talk of the conditions for existence of organisms as boundary conditions for evolution still makes heuristic use of a fiction, actually several fictions – “boundary conditions” and “conditions for existence” most pertinently. Is it that you see these metaphors as being “real” rather than just “heuristically useful”?
John: Well, while “boundary conditions for evolution” may also be a metaphor, it is one that (to me at least) does not have the same issues as the metaphor of design. As Ed Ricketts said, people are by nature teleologists, and the design metaphor plays to the natural tendency of humans to see purpose in nature.
Chris: Even Dawkins admits this, saying that people may have “purpose on the brain”.
John: Sure. Evolution as a process in time lends itself to teleological metaphors, but they are particularly dangerous here because we frequently don't have the rigor to go along with the metaphor.
Chris: So the issue isn’t the use of metaphors, it’s whether the science can back them up with sufficient rigorousness?
Chris: I wonder what the consequences would be of people accepting your viewpoint…
John: How so?
Chris: Well let's suppose that your approach proves popular as a solution to the excesses that we both agree occur in the context of the metaphor of design. Because it is the metaphor of design and that fitness-to-environment reading of natural selection that make these topics tractable for discussion with a wider audience, is it not an inevitable consequence of wide-acceptance of your proposal that it will become difficult, perhaps impossible, to teach evolution as part of a high school curriculum?
John: No I don't think getting rid of the design metaphor makes evolution less accessible to the public. In fact, there is a certain unreality and squishiness in the way evolution by natural selection is presented that I think makes evolution harder to understand – it is what I call in the book the separation of adaptedness from existence.
Chris: So you don’t think there’s a need for evolution to become solely a university topic – you believe there is some accessible way to present it without talking about the metaphor of design, selection, and adaptation?
John: Evolution needs to be presented based on evidence for its reality - fossils, homology, etc. Once the fact of evolution has been established, then the basic mechanism of mutation and differential survival and reproduction can be brought in to explain it. All of the talk of natural selection and adaptation just obscures. Or so I think.
Chris: My suspicion is that most people will find your approach too “thin” to be appealing – but of course, it is “thick” where it counts – its empirical foundations are unimpeachable. The question is: are biologists willing to set aside the adaptation-of-features paradigm and admit their ignorance of the evolutionary history of biological features? And even if they are, can this perspective be ‘sold’ to a wider audience who are usually not interested in what we don't know, even though it is frequently the case that the limits of knowledge have a great deal to teach us.
John: Well, the chance that I will prevail in this argument is rather small – too many are wedded to the current paradigm.
Chris: If the question is whether John Reiss’ account will become the new dominant paradigm, then like you I feel it is extremely unlikely! But if the question is whether you can influence the overturning of the old paradigm then I would be far more hopeful. My stance is that one cannot easily see beyond the boundaries of the current ways of thought (even when working against them!) but I would be surprised and disappointed if your contribution wasn't a part of the story going forward.