From Massimo Pigliucci at Nautilus:
Is evolutionary biology about to prove a two-millennia old metaphysical speculation? Or is metaphysics about to fundamentally change the way we look at biology? Andreas Wagner, a developmental biologist at the University of Zurich, argues for both theses. I’m not convinced.
Just read the last two sentences of his 2014 book, Arrival of the Fittest: How Nature Innovates. They come in an epilogue, titled “Plato’s Cave.” “We are shedding new light on one of the most durable and fascinating subjects in all of philosophy,” he writes. “And we learn that life’s creativity draws from a source that is older than life, and perhaps older than time.” (Italics mine.) The source of this creativity, Wagner argues, is “nature’s libraries.” It’s a metaphor for an abstract storehouse of information that we can never physically encounter. “These libraries and texts,” he writes, “are concepts, mathematical concepts, touchable only by the mind’s eye.” This is Platonism, and Wagner’s not shy about admitting it. Are conceptual truths discovered, or invented? Platonists believe the former, and “Platonism,” Wagner writes, “has the upper hand in this debate.”
We probably won’t be overwhelming readers with surprise when we reveal that Pigliucci does not agree:
This is odd because the reconciliation of genetics and Darwinism is one of the crowning achievements of 20th century biology, the so-called Modern Synthesis. It incorporates the ideas of common descent, natural selection, mutation, and recombination into a general mathematical theory of how evolution works. Harking back to De Vries would seem to be a dead-end but, undeterred, Wagner introduces the metaphor—presumably taking inspiration from Jorge Luis Borges—of “nature’s libraries” to clarify why he doesn’t seem himself walking toward a dead end. More.
Should we tell Massimo that the Modern Synthesis is coming under fire at the upcoming rethinking evolution meet?
Aw, it’ll probably be live streamed anyway.
Michael Denton’s Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis, defends the role of form in evolution as well, and is recommended reading, to get some idea what the defenders of form are referring to: Everything in the history of life is not random and directionless; life forms express innate laws of form during their development. (Otherwise, they would not develop at all.)
See also: Massimo Pigliucci on string theorists vs. “Popperazi”
It is safer for Darwin’s followers to just ignore Andreas Wagner than to pick a fight.
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