What’s wrong with evolutionary biology?
Biology & Philosophy, December 2016
John J. Welch
There have been periodic claims that evolutionary biology needs urgent reform, and this article tries to account for the volume and persistence of this discontent. It is argued that a few inescapable properties of the field make it prone to criticisms of predictable kinds, whether or not the criticisms have any merit. For example, the variety of living things and the complexity of evolution make it easy to generate data that seem revolutionary (e.g. exceptions to well-established generalizations, or neglected factors in evolution), and lead to disappointment with existing explanatory frameworks (with their high levels of abstraction, and limited predictive power). It is then argued that special discontent stems from misunderstandings and dislike of one well-known but atypical research programme: the study of adaptive function, in the tradition of behavioural ecology. To achieve its goals, this research needs distinct tools, often including imaginary agency, and a partial description of the evolutionary process. This invites mistaken charges of narrowness and oversimplification (which come, not least, from researchers in other subfields), and these chime with anxieties about human agency and overall purpose. The article ends by discussing several ways in which calls to reform evolutionary biology actively hinder progress in the field.
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