# Darwi-fraggin-ists

UPDATE (11 October): After being Language Logged — wow, thanks! — I realized I had been imprecise in my talk about “British usage.” See my follow-up, which hopefully clarifies things a little. Now, for my original post:

We begin by talking about words, and words about words. From there, we go on to discuss science, words about science, and what happens when the meanings of those words get all tangled up.

My favourite conversation about language and words was before we went on the air, when Ian told us not to swear (as Radio 3 is only allowed one serious swear word per show) and also not to answer any question with an enthusiastic “ABSOLUTELY!” (which is apparently what writers tend to do). And when I said that I thus presumed that “absofuckinglutely” was right out, Deborah Cameron (Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Oxford) enthusiastically explained to me that swearing is the only example of infixing in the English language and I was happy, for I had learned something.

Let’s pass over the creepiness Rupert Murdoch endowing a chair in any field related to communications. Other weirdness is at work here. Specifically, something strange is afoot in this talk of expletive infixation, which is the practice of inserting an expletive, often in participial form, into the middle of another word. For example, consider Sheridan’s catchphrase in Babylon 5, “abso-fraggin’-lutely,” or Abbie Hoffman’s exclamation to Forrest Gump, “The war in Viet-fucking-nam!” Both these examples illustrate the typical situation, in which the expletive is inserted just before a stressed syllable. John McCarthy has put forward a more general model, in which syllables are organized into binary trees, and infixes can only be inserted in certain locations on the tree; this model appears to describe which constructions the listener hears as “well-formed” and which sound aberrant (fanta-fuckin’-stic just doesn’t sound right).

Infixation is rare in English, but are expletives the only things which we use as infixes? Surely, the Internet can tell us. In fact, let’s just click on the hyperlink which Gaiman provides to define infix. This page, from Answers.com, pulls information from several sources, one of which is a Wikipedia article; we read the following.

English has very few infixes, and those it does have are marginal. A few are heard in colloquial speech, and a couple more are found in technical terminology.

• The infix <iz> or <izn> is characteristic of hip-hop slang, for example hizouse for house and shiznit for shit. Infixes occur in some language games. The <ma> infix, whose distribution was documented by linguist Alan C. L. Yu, gives a word an ironic pseudo-sophistication, as in sophistimacated, saxomaphone, and edumacation.
• Chemical nomenclature includes the infixes <pe>, signifying complete hydrogenation (from piperidine), and <et> (from ethyl), signifying the ethyl radical C2H5. Thus from picoline is derived pipecoline, and from lutidine is derived lupetidine; from phenidine and xanthoxylin are derived phenetidine and xanthoxyletin.

I see little reason to exclude chemist-speak from the “English language,” although I’ll leave it to the professionals to decide how to classify Ned Flanders’ “Wel-diddly-elcome” and “Mur-diddly-urderer” (also an example of reduplication, I think). As for the <iz> infix, I can testify that among folks of my background — middle-class white kids from sub-frickin’-urbia — infixation is sometimes used to palliate the offensiveness of a word. When playing Halo in mixed company, for example, Shiznit! and Biyotch! are more acceptable exclamations than their uninfixated counterparts. This is clearly not the same as expletive infixation: instead of adding an expletive to an innocent word, a curse is diluted, sometimes for humorous effect.

I can also attest to edumacate and sophistimacation, not to mention alcomohol and even the variant boozeomohol.

So, no, I don’t think swearing is “the only example of infixing” which the English language provides. I wouldn’t go on at such length about it unless another linguistic issue, also related to Deborah Cameron, had come to my attention. This conundrum revolves around that old goblin of a word, Darwinism.

At Language Log, Mark Liberman calls attention to a Sunday Times article on Cameron’s latest book, The Myth of Mars and Venus (2007). Ed Caesar writes,

So it turns out that after all the rows about the washing up, the shopping and the school run, men are not from Mars nor women from Venus. Both sexes are, rather prosaically, from Earth. And, despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, men and women do speak the same language.

At least we do according to Deborah Cameron, Britain’s pre-eminent feminist philologist (not often that you meet one of them) and the current Rupert Murdoch professor of language and communication at Oxford University.

Cameron, 48, is a firebrand with an impressive list of pet peeves, including Tories, Darwinists, GNER’s passenger service announcements, Big Brother’s language “so-called” experts, man-hating “pseudo-feminists” and societies for the protection of the semicolon. Don’t get her started on Lynne Truss.

OK, I’m with you on the “men and women do speak the same language” bit. I’ve written before about how inaccurate pseudoscience concerning male and female communication has been propagated by credulous media outlets. So far, no quarrel here. But. . . and I’m sure you’re ahead of me here. . .

What’s up with that “Darwinists” remark?

This is how Cameron describes her own motivations:

“The main thing about the book is that I wanted to offer people more than the evidence-free rubbish they get every day,” says Cameron. “My pitch was basically the CSI pitch: let the evidence tell the story.”

If you “let the evidence tell the story” of biology, you find yourself led straight into evolution, no doubt about it. Non-random survival of randomly varying repli-fraggin-cators, biyotch. Why, then, the gripe about “Darwinists”?

Americans have grown sensitive to the word “Darwinism” and its variants, since in the United States, scientists are more apt to say “evolution by natural selection,” without attaching Charles Darwin’s name to the idea. It is the creationists who refer to modern biology as “Darwinism,” perhaps projecting a religious view that truth derives from prophecy onto the science they despise. On this side of the Atlantic, hearing a person say “Darwinism” is a red flag that you’re dealing with a creationist or, at least, a person whose knowledge of science derives primarily from creationist claptrap. To me, calling evolutionary biology “Darwinism” makes as little sense as calling all modern music “Beethovenism.” The year is no longer 1859; we understand many things which Darwin did not, although we stand on his shoulders.

In British usage, “Darwinism” is much more synonymous with evolution in general. (Richard Dawkins is a prime example of this tendency.) I find this unfortunate, partly because it slights all the relevant discoveries we have made since, from Mendel’s time to the present day, and partly because it provides unwarranted ammunition to creationists over here. Still, that’s the way they talk.

Is Cameron, a professor at Oxford, expressing disdain for all evolutionary biology? That would be, I submit, a remarkable position — all the more so for a person who wants to “let the evidence tell the story.”

So, let’s see what Prof. Cameron has said about “Darwinism.” An essay in the Winter 1997 Critical Quarterly entitled “Language: Sociolinguistics and Sociobiology” is instructive. This essay explores some of the same territory covered by her Myth of Mars and Venus book: the oversimplified and inaccurate portrayals of gender differences in communication. Upon examination, the essay itself reveals evidence of a communications failure, and it is that irony which I wish to unfold.

Let’s begin with the second paragraph of Prof. Cameron’s essay:

Not all researchers agree that gender differences in the use of language are as pronounced as they are Popularly believed to be, and those linguists who do judge them significant are careful to attribute them to social factors. Recently, however, scientists at the Institute of Child Health published a study which suggested that male-female differences in communicational style might have a genetic basis. The scientists asked parents to assess their children’s ‘social cognition’, using indicators like whether a child could intuit when an interlocutor’ was angry, or had enough awareness of others to avoid interrupting them constantly. Some children in the study were girls with Turner’s syndrome, meaning they had only one X chromosome rather than the two which are normal in females. These girls scored lower for social cognition than their XX counterparts (as boys did by comparison with ‘normal’ girls), suggesting to the researchers that the skills being assessed might be associated with a gene on the X chromosome. No one claimed this piece of DNA had actually been identified, but the extensive press coverage of the study generally treated the existence of a ‘female intuition’ gene as a foregone conclusion. Explanations were typically of a vulgar Darwinist kind: for example, it was suggested that since men have spent millennia specialising in activities like hunting and making war, there might be some survival advantage in their lacking empathy or sensitivity.

Up until the penultimate sentence, this reads as the same story we’ve seen all too many times before: interesting research on a socially relevant topic misrepresented by its press coverage. “Researchers Find Gene for X.” Unfortunate, but by now, hardly surprising. Then we come to that last bit: “Explanations were typically of a vulgar Darwinist kind.” Aha! For Cameron, “Darwinism” is really evolutionary psychology.

How is this unfortunate? Let me count the ways.

First, a vast amount of evolutionary biology has nothing to do with human psychology. If your business is the embryonic development of the zebrafish, you’re just not involved with making up stories about why men and women act different. That is, I think, hardly a shocker, but if you’re writing for an academic audience which interprets “Darwinism” to mean “the entire modern legacy of Charles Darwin” (i.e., all of modern biology) you’re going to leave a confusing impression. Genetics is part and parcel of our modern understanding of evolution, so — given the broad, British meaning of the D-word — how can talk of chromosomes and genes be anything other than “Darwinist”?

Second, it buys into the depiction of natural selection as “nature red in tooth and claw.” Evolutionary biologists have always incorporated altruism and cooperation into their hypotheses; the idea of “group selection,” for example, goes back to Darwin himself, and the concept of “kin selection” dates back to mid-TwenCen. A “Darwinian” explanation — either in the British sense of “an evolutionary explanation” or the restricted meaning of “an idea Darwin might have had” — could easily include the benefits of social cooperation.

After describing the tendency to attribute gender-related strife to “communication problems,” Cameron goes on to say the following:

On the face of it, the ideas promoted by today’s Darwinians are less comforting. Though one scientist involved in the Turner’s syndrome research pointed out that social skills can be learnt, meaning that men’s deficiencies are not irremediable, the more obvious implication of locating male cloddishness in the genes is that most men cannot realistically be expected to match women in the sensitivity stakes. In this discourse, nature always wins over nurture: boys will indeed be boys, and men will go on behaving badly.

Again, one must point out that serious biology recognizes that genes are not all. Natural selection acts upon the phenotype, and the mapping from genotype to phenotype involves complex developmental pathways subject, to some extent, to environmental influences. Not every feature of a living thing is an adaptation, evolved to do what it is doing now: life is full of unintended consequences, of features once used for one purpose and later reappropriated for another.

People gripe about the “evolutionary psychologists” because, for one thing, often they don’t pay attention to this. To a physics buff like me, it looks like the evo-psych people take the certainty of evolution, combine it with the vagaries of psychology and make oracular pronouncements with complete certitude about things which we don’t yet know. Hey, it’s hard to understand people: we breed too slowly, and in too uncontrolled a fashion, to do experimental tests upon our hereditary characters. When you can’t collect solid data, it’s all too easy to elevate circumstantial tidbits to a status they do not deserve.

But that is not a failure of “Darwinism.” To the extent it is true, it is a failure of evolutionary psychology. There’s some wicked synecdoche going on here: attributing the flaws in one small subfield to an entire science is just sloppy practice, as is using an umbrella term for the whole science to refer to that small subfield.

In a footnote, Cameron elaborates somewhat:

I call this ‘vulgar’ because if I understand current Darwinian orthodoxy correctly, the unit which is now held to be basic to the workings of natural selection is not the whole organism but the so-called ‘selfish gene’, which survives by being passed on. Insensitivity would only be an advantage if it allowed men to mate more frequently and successfully than more sensitive rivals. At least one recent Darwinian thesis about language and gender strongly suggests that the opposite is more plausible — humans and other primates do better when they are socially skilled (see Robin Dunbar, Gossip, Grooming and the Evolution of Language, London, Faber 1994). This points to one of the troubles with Darwinism: within the parameters of the theory, you can make two opposing cases with equal conviction, or, to put it less politely, tell any story you like.

This is a misunderstanding of what kin selection models are all about, perhaps fueled by a careless reading of the word “selfish.” Consider a situation in which a gene has two forms, or alleles, one dominant and one recessive. Let’s say that the recessive form has some negative influence on its bearer’s ability to spawn offspring. This disadvantage does not appear, however, unless the organism has two copies of the recessive allele: if it is “heterozygous,” having one dominant and one recessive allele, the phenotype which appears is that produced by the dominant allele. It is possible that a double-recessive organism can still materially contribute to the reproductive success of those in its family. (Perhaps an individual which cannot bear children has more time for gathering food.) If that is the case, then recessive alleles in one organism can increase the chance that recessive alleles in a related organism are passed on to the next generation.

Generalizing a bit, we have a mathematical statement of this idea, called Hamilton’s rule:

$$\frac{\hbox{\em Cost}}{\hbox{\em Benefit}} < \hbox{\em relatedness}.$$ Altruistic behavior is expected to evolve when the ratio of the cost to the altruist over the benefit to the recipient is less than the relatedness between them. Cameron tells a story of selfish people, while the model of kin selection explains how genes can be “selfish” while people are altruistic.

Cameron then asserts that evolution is unfalsifiable, or in her terms, that with “Darwinism” you can “tell any story you like.” This would be bad, if it were true — but it’s not. To the extent that evolutionary psychology is unfalsifiable, then it’s not good science, and we can be justifiably upset about it. However, this is not due to any intrinsic problems with natural selection; instead, it’s due to the difficulty we have gathering data and testing hypotheses about the human species. There’s no crime in making a claim based on some few observations, gathering more data, discovering that the prior claim was wrong and making a better one.

Remember that bit about telling “any story you like.” It’s going to be important in a moment. We hop out of the footnotes and sally forth:

Yet paradoxically, its bleak certainty is what makes Darwinism so compelling: that may be why it is rapidly emerging as the most powerful secular grand narrative available to fin de siecle westerners. It’s not just that the evolutionary narrative speaks to us about who we are and why; more importantly, it does so with a confidence and clarity other narratives lack. Darwinism affirms, contra Marx, that the point is not to change it, for we cannot change our nature. It thumbs its nose at most variants of feminism, suggesting that sexual difference in its most stereotypical forms is irreducible and essential. It cocks a snook at postmodernism, a movement dedicated to destabilising all master narratives, by robustly declaring that there is, indeed, such a thing as human nature (evolutionary psychology is the study of how natural selection has shaped it).

OK, we just got through with saying that “Darwinism” was a crock of just-so stories, a way of telling whatever story you want to tell, and now it’s a “bleak certainty”?

The certainty of modern evolutionary biology is based upon the innumerable pieces of solid evidence which support its principles. Why is this certainty “bleak”? That’s a judgment call, a subjective claim whose validity is, needless to say, disputed by the scientists who actually work with evolution — perhaps because they know more about it than a “nature red in tooth and claw” caricature.

And how can evolution possibly imply that our “nature” is fixed and unalterable? We are who we are because our ancestors survived billions of years and trillions of generations of natural selection, a process contingent upon countless variations in the environment. The expansion of our brains allowed us to employ technology to an extent demonstrated by no other species in our planet’s history, adapting ourselves to situations far different from those in which our ancestors evolved, contending for generation after generation with pressures unlike any which shaped our ancestors’ genes. We are the machine which lives to expand beyond its specifications.

Biology and chemistry tell us what causes diabetes. Using this knowledge, we can invent medicines which allow the diabetic to live a normal life, free from the constraints imposed by unfortunate accident. The same holds true for an ever-increasing number of diseases and infirmities. We have extended our lifespan, more than doubling it beyond where it stood at the dawn of civilization, thanks to our understanding of living things and their interactions — and medicine, a discipline grounded in the evolutionary science of biology, becomes more and more explicit in that relationship with each passing year. We rely upon evolution to understand why germs become resistant to treatment, what we can do about cancer, and why HIV is the way it is.

If you want a truly “bleak” future, a dismal failure of the human experiment, one good way to get there is to chuck evolution out upon its ear.

And what of the charge that evolution “thumbs its nose at most variants of feminism”? If you claim that “sexual difference in its most stereotypical forms is irreducible and essential,” you’re either wrong or right. If you’re right, then feminism is basically misguided, but if the evidence shows that you’re wrong, then feminism is grounded in science. One is reminded of Alan Sokal’s words:

If truth were on the side of the right, shouldn’t we all — at least the honest ones among us — become right-wingers? For my own part, I’m a leftist and a feminist because of evidence and logic (combined with elementary ethics), not in spite of it.

Again, oversimplifications which elevate gender stereotypes to gospel truth are the problem of evolutionary psychology, not evolution, biology or the scientific method, and it is deeply misleading to heap sins upon “Darwinism” while not bringing the specific subject of evo-psych into the discussion until almost the very end.

If you were given the following sentence, could you tell which “narrative” was the story of evolutionary biology?

Ultimately this is a struggle over competing narratives of human nature, one celebrating flexibility, variety and the possibility of change while the other, more austere, offers coherence and stability.

Evolution is the story of variety, a ceaseless wellspring of variety which allows life to adapt and take upon innumerable forms of dizzying diversity and subtlety. Knowing the facts, we have to put “flexibility, variety and the possibility of change” in the evolution column. Yet Cameron’s entire essay has been building the case that Darwin’s legacy is the stultifying one. That, I submit, is abso-fraggin’-lutely absurd.

## 17 thoughts on “Darwi-fraggin-ists”

1. This is an interesting case study. I have to say that 90% of evolutionary psychology makes me cringe, whether it’s the over-interpreted studies of full-time specialists in the field, or the painfully vacuous stories of amateurs. The quintessential example of an otherwise brilliant mind turning to mush at the chance to spout an evolutionary “explanation” for some fact or factoid has got to be V.S. Ramachandran’s “Why Do Gentlement Prefer Blondes?”

That said, letting one’s justifiable irritation at this nonsense spill over into a loathing for “Darwinism” is just sloppy and lazy. Terms like “faux-Darwinist”, “cod-Darwinist”, “pseudo-Darwinist” etc. might be useful labels for the crap that actually deserves a pasting; if “pseudo-feminists” merit the distinguishing prefix, it’s a shame Cameron can’t focus on the real enemy and spare the collateral damage here too.

2. I seem to remember somebody treating “Why Do Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?” as a joke, the result of casting a reductio ad absurdum! spell on evolutionary psychology, but I can’t remember where I read that.

3. Well, in a sense this is standard creationism boilerplate, always seizing upon those data points or those claims which are problematic, and ignoring the wealth of evidence in support of evolution in general. Interestingly enough, something like this seems to inform my on-line ‘debate’ with Vox Dei. He seems most incensed by the more speculative claims of evolutionary psychologists, rather than conventional, well-established subfields shaped by evolutionary theory. Perhaps he’s playing the same game?

4. BaldApe says:

Feminists don’t like biology because of the possibility that there is a “human nature.” In their pessimistic view, such a “determined” nature dooms them to acting out the stereotypical female roles.

More generally, postmodernists are hostile to any attempt to answer questions that asserts that here is a correct answer, and that other answers are wrong. They’d rather that everybody gets to create their own “narrative” and that all of them are equally valid.

A friend once told me that oppinions are like belly buttons- everybody has one. I would reply that no, they are like bank accounts; most people have one, but they are not all of equal value.

5. Feminists don’t like biology because of the possibility that there is a “human nature.” In their pessimistic view, such a “determined” nature dooms them to acting out the stereotypical female roles.

Have the most pessimistic women on campus finally and truly captured the title of “feminist”? That would be unfortunate. . . particularly since that view of biology is, as we specialists say, ass backwards. Come on: where do you think the Pill came from, a literary theorist’s typewriter? You don’t prevent a pregnancy by deconstructing the sperm.

I’m trying to imagine what feminism would be if we knew nothing about biology, and it’s not pretty.

6. Ramachandran says that the “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” thing was a joke. At least one evolutionary psychologist thinks it wasn’t funny, but his response is so steeped in pan-adaptationism that I can’t really take it seriously.

7. Thanks for setting me straight on that, Blake! In the interview you cite, Ramachandran writes:

Indeed, I once wrote a satirical essay, “Why do Gentlemen prefer blondes?”, which was so convincing that many in evolutionary psychology took it as a serious candidate theory rather than a spoof!

I heard him discussing it in a radio interview a few years ago, and while he certainly sounded as if he had a sense of humour about the subject, he did a very good job of convincing both the interviewer and gullible listeners like me that he meant the “science” in it seriously.

So I have egg on my face, but I’m rather relieved …

8. HennepincCountyLawyer says:

“Feminists donâ€™t like biology because of the possibility that there is a ‘human nature’.â€

There is a human nature: it’s adaptability. Other animals are stronger, or faster, or better able to withstand extreme cold (or extreme heat, or extreme whatever), but we can survive in a wide variety of environments (wider than any other species?). That’s precisely because we’re able to use our intelligence rather then being the prisoner of our genes. (I think it was Stephen Jay Gould who noted that the most salient characteristic of human intelligence is it’s plasticity.)

The feminist response to any claim that certain gender roles are the result of evolution should be (after, of course, “Where is your evidence?”) should be “So what?”.

Maybe there was a time when women did all the gathering and men did all the hunting, but that tells us nothing about how we can/should arrange things in our current environment. (It does, of course, tell us why women like shopping and men don’t. :) )

9. Fanta-fucking-stic feels wrong partly because it occurs in the middle of a syllable, at least to my ears. Fan-tas-tic, not fan-ta-stic. But even fantas-fucking-tic sounds a bit odd. But the rule isn’t as simple as you make out, because you can double-infix it for extra emphasis so long as you have enough syllables… which is absolutely fan-fucking-ta-shit-stic!

Though even then it sounds more “right” to just contatenate the curses: fan-fucking-shit-tastic!

You seem not to have encountered the (modern, inaccurate) meaning of “Darwinian”.

Like “Lamarckian”, “Darwinian” is nowadays more often used as an antonym of “evolutionary”, than a synonym. Neither of them are about psychology: they’re about evolution, predeterminism, and abuse of evolutionary theory to support sociological iniquities. I feel that Darwin is incorrectly demonised by the word “Darwinian”, since it doesn’t represent the views he proposed. Instead, it represents the predetermined, “ladder” view of evolution, everything aspiring to “higher forms”, where the loss of wings, eyes, limbs or a tail is seen as “devolution” rather than “evolution”, and organisms become ever more complex. Under this system, slavery is OK because whites are “higher up the ladder”, sexism is OK because males are “higher”, and so on. Obviously, ladder-height is established by the oppressors :)

This is contrary to current evolutionary understanding where stuff naturally becomes better-optimised, giving a decrease of complexity about as often as an increase, and the only reason for the apparent increase in complexity of organisms is there there’s no upper bound for it, but there is a lower bound, so the random walk of sizes can only tend to increase the maximum size. The fact that Lungfish have the largest genome (from http://www.genomesize.com/statistics.php) just goes to show that it’s all bollocks anyway.

“Darwinian” is also used to describe the kind of just-so-stories used in the now-outdated savannah theory, where large fangs and claws found with human skeletons were assumed without any evidence to be used by the men as weapons while the women cowered and gathered roots, rather than, say, the fangs being used as awls to poke holes in scavenged leather. Or as back scratchers.

Basically, using your opinions of sociological issues such as gender roles, and finding “survival advantage” reasons for them would be “Darwinian” rather than “evolutionary”.

10. Thanks for the elaboration. (I typically use onions as my example instead of lungfish.)

I’ve tried to summarize the different ways I’ve seen the D-word used in this follow-up.

11. “Feminists donâ€™t like biology because of the possibility that there is a â€œhuman nature.â€ In their pessimistic view, such a â€œdeterminedâ€ nature dooms them to acting out the stereotypical female roles.”

No, no, and a thousand times NO! You are doing the exact thing that Cameron is being taking to task on except with ‘feminists’ rather than ‘darwinists’ (this is not meant to say that feminism is a scientific theory. It is neither scientific nor a theory. It is a political tendency and social movment).

Anyways, what might be needed is an alternative to the word “darwinist” to use when refering to men come from mars types. People (like Cameron) who aren’t biologists, and are not qualified to make claims about biology (and I am sure that Cameron has no wish to make claims about biology) need a term to use for mars/venus types since thier claims do fall within her field of speciality. Cameron, I think, recognises this need by using “darwinism” instead of “evolution by natural selection”, but “darwinism” isn’t appropriate and nor is pseudo-darwinism or faux-darwanism because they are too long and not a single lexeme so unlikely to become widely used. Further they still link pop-psyc ideas back to darwinism.

The required word would be mocking, have a clear meaning, be strongly differentiated from serious science and have some inherent link to ideas about dishonesty. Does anyone have any ideas for such a neolgism?

12. No, not off the top of my head, but I’ll definitely try to think of one.

13. windy says:

It is possible that a double-recessive organism can still materially contribute to the reproductive success of those in its family. (Perhaps an individual which cannot bear children has more time for gathering food.) If that is the case, then recessive alleles in one organism can increase the chance that recessive alleles in a related organism are passed on to the next generation.

I think the deck is stacked against your hypothetical altruism allele in a couple of ways… Maybe it could work adding some other factors to the mix, but if you simply want to propose an uncomplicated kin selection model, a recessive ‘sterility’ allele might not be the best example. Try plugging the frequencies of the two alleles into the Hardy-Weinberg equation :)

Ramachandran says that the â€œGentlemen Prefer Blondesâ€ thing was a joke. At least one evolutionary psychologist thinks it wasnâ€™t funny, but his response is so steeped in pan-adaptationism that I canâ€™t really take it seriously.

Where’s the panadaptationism? Do you mean this bit: “The only scientifically coherent account of the origin of adaptations, and hence the only scientifically coherent account of “function”, is evolution by selection”?

Symons is quite right – what is left unsaid is that not everything is an adaptation, and that adaptations carry a lot of baggage of contingency, but I don’t think we can expect all the caveats to appear in a short email. (although it might be that Symons elsewhere gives cause for the accusation: his latest book is an “evolutionary analysis of slash fiction”?? :)

14. Sorry for the latency here; I’ve been trying to organize some thoughts on quantum mechanics. About the recessive-sterility thing. . . I think I had in mind sterile worker drones of social insect colonies, so I’ll beg off with some mumbles of haplodiploid sex determination and high relatedness coefficients, until such time as I can actually educate myself on the subject.

Also, Justin Werfel told me the other day that he’d done some additional work to address a few criticisms he’d heard of the PNAS paper he’d written with Bar-Yam. Now I need to figure out what that is all about, too. (The fact that no two people seem able to agree on their terminology doesn’t help, either. I mean, I swear I saw a passage in The God Delusion which described memetic evolution in almost the same way that I’ve heard Bar-Yam explain multilevel selection. Please, have mercy on a poor physicist!)

15. windy says:

I think I had in mind sterile worker drones of social insect colonies, so Iâ€™ll beg off with some mumbles of haplodiploid sex determination and high relatedness coefficients, until such time as I can actually educate myself on the subject.

Worker-ness is generally environmentally, not genetically determined. There is an exception, the red fire ant, in which workers and queens are genetically different:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v394/n6693/abs/394573a0.html

But note that the non-queen allele is upheld by genetic flow from other populations, since it can’t persist if it rarely makes it to the queens.

16. OK, “green beard genes”? Now they’re just screwing with us.