Genetics and the Logic of Evolution

Article excerpt

Genetics and the Logic of Evolution

Kenneth W. Weiss and Anne Buchanan

John Wiley and Sons, 2004

This is a truly exciting book - and one which contains surprises. Author Kenneth Weiss, professor of Anthropology and Genetics and Anne Buchanan, Senior Research Scientist in Anthropology, both of Perm State University, have produced a well-integrated discussion of the nature of evolution, which properly approaches the subject at the level of molecular genetics, before proceeding to discuss biological speciation. They observe that even today's knowledge of genetics does not permit us to fully understand how evolution works, and they cause the reader to reflect more deeply on the intricacy of the topic.

One gains the impression that although Henri Bergson is one scholar that Weiss and Buchanan do not mention, their conclusions come perilously close to his concept of the eacute;lan vital They are clearly not happy with the idea that evolution could have occurred solely and simply as a product of mechanical Darwinian selection. This leads them to hint at some vague driving force within living organisms that causes them to evolve, and also, rather quixotically, to present the integrated nature of complex organism as "cooperation" between the component parts.

Possibly, in their early student days, they may have become involved in the ethical fashion for favoring cooperation over competition, since something of this does enter into their discussion in a rather artificial, forced, kind of way. Thus they correctly show how competition is not the sole driving force in evolution, but ignore group competition as a selective force.

While stressing the importance of cooperation between members of a group in promoting that group's survival chances, (cf. humans and wolves), they ignore the complementary truth, that there is reproductive competition between individuals and also between groups. And they seem not to be interested in the fact that cooperation within a group enhances the competitive survival chances of that group, in the same way that cooperation between the members of a team enhances the competitive chances of the team. They argue that organisms are made up of "cooperating molecules," but this use of the term competition is a rather strained extenuation of the bi-polar philosophical dichotomy of cooperation versus competition. We may suppose that cancer is an example of cells within an organism that fail to "cooperate," as also diseases in which the protective agents go wild and attack the body's own organs. But is this truly what we mean when we speak of cooperation and competition as elements of the evolutionary process?

Darwinian competition, which they seem anxious to downplay, takes place between different organisms competing to reproduce, and cooperation within the members of a breeding population enhances the ability of that population to survive in competition with rivals competing for access to the limited supply of resources necessary for survival. In the opinion of this reviewer, the debate over the relative merits competition versus cooperation as an evolutionary force is rather like debating which is more important, the cart or the horse. Competition and cooperation both play significant roles in determining the evolutionary history of mammals, as also of birds, if not many other living organisms.

Nevertheless, it is a fact that many biologists remain in awe of the mystic power that seems to drive evolution, arid it remains hard to accept as adequate the purely mechanical explanation behind the concept of "survival of the fittest. …