Physics Envy

More from Darwin’s Pious Idea. One of the problems Darwin and early biologists had to contend with revolved around the group/individual selection problem. Did natural selection only work individually or did it work within groups?

Cunningham notes:

“Advocates of the modern synthesis of Darwinism, especially in its ultra-Darwinist mode, sought to approach this question by moving the goal posts of the unit of selection debate, because they refused to advocate group selection in any pure sense. Yet they moved away from individual selection also. Why were they so against group selection? One can speculate that it was probably because it went against nominalist ontology. In other words, they wanted a deflated account of biological existence in which only individuals existed. But even individuals were too complex, too inexact. They too had to be discarded, especially if this somewhat nascent science (biology) was to achieve its desired wish to qualify, not only as a fully professional science, but as a hard science. And for that, biology needed its ‘atom.’”

He goes on:

“The level of “group” having been rejected, the individual soon followed. But if the individual is discarded, what could evolution by natural selection be about? What could now be selected? Enter the ‘gene.’”

The hope was that the gene would be to biology what the atom was to physics. This, of course, is not how it turned out, which we see from these quotes.

The Truth is that the science of biology has never been weaker; it is in crisis, and that crisis is made worse, not better, by the extraordinary success scientists have had in discovering the structure and basic mechanisms of genetic material. (Richard Bird, 2003).

Molecular biology has profoundly transformed many aspects of the life sciences, not least itself. Genes did not “command,” nor did proteins execute their orders. The informational flow from DNA to proteins was not unidirectional, as the central dogma of the 1960s would have had it. It is incorrect to say that the specificity of proteins is determined by the nucleic acid sequence to determine the amino acid structure of proteins. In the form of chaperonins, proteins are often required to determine the tertiary structure of proteins. (Jan Sapp)

Paradoxically, the more we have learned about the genetic material from molecular genetics, the less we seem to know about what exactly a gene is. (Mario Bunge and Martin Mahner)

So, the physics envy continues as biology still looks for something to hang its hat on that is weighty and concrete—something that would make it a “hard” science, as it were.

Talk about chasing after windmills. I hate to break this to scientists and biologists everywhere, but there is no “hard” science and there never will be. There are only observations, tests, formulas, equations, methods, and a myriad of other empirical work that is all done, reflected upon, articulated, discussed, and woven and spun into abstract metaphorical language, which ends up being the narrative, the story, of how we think things came to be, are, and what it might mean.

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4 Responses to Physics Envy

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Heavens! My ears are burning!

    So why is it that the folks doing biology are finding new things all the time, while those sitting around and figuring out what it all means always seem to keep coming up with the same darn answer?

    I would suggest the pursuits that open new vistas of knowledge are the ones doing productive work, and the ones rehashing the same old same old are the opposite. I can just imagine who really has the envy here.


  2. Darrell says:


    I would try and respond to your thoughts here if I could figure out what they have to do with anything I posted. You may be reading too much into what I posted. One thing I should make clear is that the book is not negative toward biology or science and in fact is very respectful and supportive of biology, biologists, and science in general. If anything the point of the book is that biology and science needs to be rescued from both the ultra-Darwinists and creationists. The only people who will have problems with this book are, indeed, the creationists and ultra-Darwinists, which is understandable since no one likes it when their views are revealed to be completely ridiculous and based mostly in ignorance.


  3. Burk Braun says:

    Oh- no problem, then. I guess your author is tilting at straw men and windmills… whatever ultradarwinists are.

    As you may have noted on my blog, I have been a proponent of group selection, and also see gene-centrism as misguided, at least in terms of posing as the sole unit of selection, though it does stand as the ultimate hereditary unit of mutable code that (re)generates all the other units of selection.

    It is a bit difficult to wrap one's head around, admittedly. The field has taken a long time to properly grapple with the issue.


  4. Darrell says:


    Cunningham is using the designation “ultra-Darwinist” as a marker for people like Dawkins and Dennett, who are certainly real people and represent a real and certain segment of biology just as creationists represent a certain segment of theology. These segments are hardly windmills or strawmen.


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