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Blute's blog about evolutionary theory: biological, sociocultural and gene-culture.

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Remembering Werner Callebaut

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I was greatly saddened last month to be informed of the death of Werner Callebaut, Scientific Director of the Konrad Lorenz Institute, Editor-in-Chief of the journal Biological Theory published by Springer, Co-editor of the Vienna book series in Theoretical Biology published by MIT Press, and at the time of his death, President of the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology.

I have been trying to remember when I first met Werner. I clearly remember the actual conversation and I believe it probably was at the ISHPSSB (ishkakibble to insiders) meetings at Oaxaca, Mexico in 1999. At a coffee break he came up to me and said “you’re Marion Blute” and to my astonishment he began talking about a paper I had published on “Sociocultural Evolution: An Untried Theory” in Behavioral Science in 1979 based on part of my PhD thesis! I looked down at his name tag and exclaimed “Ah, Werner Callebaut”, your book is my favourite book in the philosophy of science” and it was. The book was Werner’s “Taking the Naturalistic Turn: How Real Philosophy of Science is Done” (1993). As a sociologist I had loved the way he had studied the philosophy of science (specifically of biology) by analyzing texts and interviewing theorists. The subtitle of his book had been a playful reference to debates over realism and relativism in philosophy and the title as a whole drew attention to the fact that he was studying science studies empirically – i.e. doing “real” philosophy. Unbeknownst to Werner, I long had the idea of replicating something of his study and finally got around to it a decade later with a graduate student, Paul Armstrong. We analyzed texts and interviewed some philosophers and others who had put forward general theories of the scientific process and published the results it in Perspectives on Science in 2011. One of my great satisfactions as an academic was the pleasure I gave Werner in talking about some extensions of that work at the ISH meeting in Cleveland in 2011. He sat in the front row with a big grin on his face – so pleased that his classic continued to bear fruit.

We had many interactions over the years both in person and via e-mail. We disagreed about systems theory but were both admirers of Donald Campbell. I remarked to him once that a lot of the conceptual analyses that philosophers of science engage in at ISHPSSB and elsewhere are scientifically useful and important and he agreed, adding that was why he was attempting to start a journal. I helped him out with Biological Theory, particularly in the early days, with some refereeing and other things, published a few pieces in the journal, and have remained on the editorial board and later the editorial advisory board to this day. I spent a pleasant afternoon at KLI after the Vienna meetings in 2003. In 2008 he wanted me to come and finish my book there, but with the books and papers I had accumulated for the work over the years, I decided it was impractical. In 2010 we discussed organizing a colloquia on the evolution of anisogamy (the foundations of the biological theory of gender differences and relations) which his board quickly approved but then we caught wind of a book to be published including articles by most of the people we would have invited so decided to scrap the project. Instead, I wrote an article on the topic and published it in Biological Theory in 2013.

This spring in the course of communicating about a book review he wanted me to do, he sent me a long e-mail about all the things he had been up to. He was so pleased that the new KLI building was more or less complete – at least the large, noisy crane had finally been dismantled! I read his article on scientific perspectivism that he sent with pleasure and true to his habit, which he said he had inherited from Donald Campbell, whatever I sent him he broadcast to anyone he thought would be interested. I was on the ISHPSSB nominations committee when Werner was nominated as President. Although enthusiastic, I wondered whether anyone could really handle managing KLI, the journal, the book series and the society all at once. But sure enough he assembled the biggest group of people to work on various committees for ISH that we have ever had. And this is the point. Werner was not only an accomplished intellectual in the traditional sense of broad-ranging interests, but also a great colleague and a superb networker. It is going to take a minimum of at least four people to replace him functionally, but he will never be replaced to his friends.

Written by Marion Blute

December 8, 2014 at 8:55 pm

At Harvard: Remembering Lewis Feuer

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I gave a lecture on “The evolutionary approach to history: sociocultural phylogenetics” to a workshop held weekly on History, Culture and Society organized by sociologist Orlando Patterson and historian Daniel Smail at Harvard last week. Speaking in a building named after William James reminded me of Lewis Feuer who did his PhD there under another great Harvard philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead. Lewis Feuer was the supervisor under which I began my PhD dissertation although he left for the University of Virginia before it was completed. So I thought I would post here my reminiscences of him that first appeared in our Sociology department’s newsletter in the fall of 2003, the year after he died at age 89.

“Many of us were saddened last year when we learned of the death of Lewis Feuer at the age of 89. He was a professor of sociology and taught theory and the sociology of science here from 1966 to 1976. An obituary summarizing his career was published in the New York Times on Nov. 30, 2002 and he previously published an autobiographical essay in Philosophy, History and Social Action so I will confine these remarks to some personal reminiscences. Lewis Feuer’s view of sociology was that it concerned the functioning of a universal human nature, one best understood by Freud and his heirs, under different social and historical conditions. If we were to substitute Darwin for Freud, this view would approximate that of contemporary sociobiologists (which he flirted with at one point). In addition to his numerous papers and books on philosophy, sociological theory, and the sociology of science, he is often remembered as one of a network of intellectuals loosely surrounding Commentary magazine which provided the intellectual foundations for the “new right ”in American politics.

The reality however was considerably more complex. Having been a Marxist in his youth, he had a love-hate relationship with radical students. He was fond of quoting Churchill to the effect (I paraphrase), “If you are not a socialist when young you have no heart, and if you are still a socialist when old you have no head.” In fact, with an academic wife, a daughter, and as an admirer of John Stewart Mill (whose Logic of the Moral Sciences he thought the best work on sociological methodology), he believed strongly in the equality of women. He always went out of his way to encourage women students, as well as those few third world students who found their way to the University of Toronto in those days. At the same time, he was prophetic in his deep conviction that the Soviet Union was an evil empire which would some day fall. He also believed that in our admiration of Mao, Fidel, Che, Fanon and so on, we were repeating the follies of his generation in their youth with respect to the Soviet Union. Of course, we thought that the experience of old fogies like him in talking about the forced collectivization of peasants or Stalin’s show trials was irrelevant to us and for our times. These debates were usually carried on with a twinkle in his eye but he had a temper too. We will never forget the day when a minor shoving match with one of our more radical graduate students ended up with the student falling through the glass door of the library. He was extremely proud that it was the student and not he that went through the door! What today would undoubtedly result in endless legalistic proceedings was probably resolved in those days by the chair telling Lewis to smarten up and the director of graduate studies telling the student to smarten up!

What I most remember was his scholarliness, his gratitude and his generosity. He loved the quality and depth of our library almost as much as the New York city library of his youth. Browsing in the stacks with Lewis was a learning experience. Instead of the newest shiniest book, he always reached for the oldest, dustiest volume that had been pushed to the back – seeking (and sometimes finding) some long-lost gem. A footnote to his career of which he was very proud was some detective work that led him to infer that at least one of the supposed letters from Marx to Darwin was actually written by Marx’s son-in-law, an inference that was later verified.

He always remembered kind treatment with gratitude. He was particularly grateful to the University of Vermont for having employed him in a time in which his political background may have made him unemployable elsewhere. In fact, his whole personality very much resembled the stubborn independence that we associate with Vermont’s political culture.

In addition to being my thesis supervisor until his move to Virginia, I worked for him as a research assistant one year. He pointed me to a data set on the scientific productivity of various nations. I figured out how to do the statistical analysis, including asking some questions that went beyond his initial one, did the analysis, and wrote the first draft of the paper. Despite the fact that he supplied the original data set and paid to have the work done, he generously insisted that I submit it to the American Sociological Review under my own name with just a footnote thanking him. His genuine pleasure when it was accepted could not have been greater if it had been his name on the paper.”

Written by Marion Blute

April 1, 2014 at 12:19 am

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You Tube Interview

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Link to video interview given at and posted by the International Summer School on Evolution, University of Lisbon, Summer 2013.

Written by Marion Blute

August 30, 2013 at 1:38 pm

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Major transitions in evolution

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Before going to Portugal to teach I attended the semi-annual meeting of the International Society for the history, philosophy and social studies of biology which was held this year in Montpellier, France. Along with Alejandro Rosas of the National University of Colombia, I organized and took part in a round table on the major transitions in evolution. Here are five questions I asked and what I had to say about them.

1) Should the topic be understood as “transitions” or additions i.e. as a change from one level of selection to another or as an addition of another level of selection?

I would argue for additions i.e. there is an evolving metapopulation of mitochondria in an evolving population of eukaryotic cells, an evolving metapopulation of cells in an evolving population of multicellular animals, an evolving metapopulation of modules in an evolving population of modular organisms and an evolving metapopulation of multicellular individuals in an evolving population of eusocial colonies etc. To employ a metaphor that has been used, such a point of view is neither deflationary nor inflationary but both simultaneously.

2) What is required for the emergence of an (additional) aggregate level of Darwinian individuals?

I agree with Godfrey-Smith that it is the emergence of entities subject to evolution by natural selection. However, rather than B, G and I (i.e. bottleneck, germ line and integration) I would argue that what is required is an additional aggregate developmental cycle, including but not restricted to a life cycle. That in turn requires a minimum of a complementary pair of life history strategies, each of which constructs the ecological conditions that favour, and in the transition or addition, come to induce (or whatever predicts them comes to induce) the other. So niche construction or eco-evolutionary dynamics are central. For example in a renewable environment, a cycle of plentiful resources which favour (and come to induce) growth, which constructs scarce resources, which favour (and come to induce) maintenance in the form of diapause for example, which constructs plentiful resources again – is a developmental cycle subject to selection, albeit not a life cycle, i.e. not progeneration in Griesemer’s sense.

3) Queller’s “fraternal” or what Nowak’s group has called the “staying together” case: is it attributable to kinship or ecology?

Staying together is better described as kin facilitated, because it most fundamentally requires an ecological explanation. If it’s hot and you need to lose heat it is better to be apart, but if it’s cold and you need to retain heat it is better to be together; if parasites are the greatest threat it is probably better to be apart, but if predators are the greatest threat it is probably better to be together; and so on. Such advantages of being small or large and there are many others, pertain to the advantages of having a proportionately greater ratio of surface area to volume for the small relative to the large or volume to surface area for the large relative to the small. The point is that kinship can facilitate either staying together or going apart depending upon ecological conditions. This implies that in the recent great debate between E. O. Wilson and (almost) everyone else in which he emphasizes the importance of ecology over kinship (defensible nests for eusociality for example), I have concluded that he is more right than wrong, including his 2012 description of genomes as chimeric (selected for at different levels) albeit not about some of the more fanciful extensions e.g. that humans are a eusocial species.

On the “staying together” case too, it is worth noting that a new life cycle it is not typically just a “staying together” but a cyclical staying together and going apart. For example cells in a multicellular organism reproducing asexually by multicellular propagules do not just “stay together” – they cyclically stay together and go apart – the propagules go apart from each other and if there are distinct reproductive and somatic cells, the reproductive ones go apart from the somatic.

4) Queller’s “egalitarian” or what Nowak’s group has called the “coming together” case: are sexual families additional Darwinian individuals and if so, what role do cooperation and conflict play in them?

Like Michod, I think sexual families likely are additional Darwinian individuals i.e. there is an evolving metapopulation of individuals in an evolving population of sexual families. However, sexual families too are not just a coming together but a cyclical coming together (fertilization) and going apart (meiosis) in haploids with a zygotic meiosis, or a going apart and coming together in diploids with a gametic meiosis. On the role of cooperation and conflict in these comings and goings, assuming an equal allocation to both at equilibrium, the simplest possibilities would be that in haploids for example, they either come together in conflict and go apart in cooperation, or come together in cooperation and go apart in conflict. The former (conflict then cooperation case) is implied by the traditional PBS theory of the evolution of anisogamy in which at fertilization, microgametes are viewed as reproductive parasites of macrogametes, but then recombination at meiosis is assumed, as it traditionally has been, to be mutually advantageous for whatever reason. The latter (cooperation then conflict case) is implied by the “market” or “trade” theory which Noë and Hammerstein originally suggested and I more recently have revived, and which might then be taken to imply that meiosis is a matter of conflict with genetic recombination a side effect of the mechanics of gene conversion rather than gene conversion a side effect of the mechanics of recombination. In a stunning recent paper, Laurence Hurst and some colleagues from China (Yang et. al. 2012) employed next generation sequencing techniques to determine that the great majority of recombination events in Arabidopsis (over 90% and probably nearer 99%) are gene conversion events. On the other hand, whether they come together in conflict or in cooperation, it is still possible that they go apart in cooperation – sexual families having discovered the advantages of risk reduction under uncertainty (like investing in index funds or dollar cost averaging rather than trying to pick stocks or time markets). What is unlikely I think is that both are a matter of conflict which would not pay back the two-fold cost of sex and would hence be unlikely to out compete asexuals.

5) Can it be said, as Bourke (2011) believes for example, that egalitarian or coming together transitions (or additions) require a “shared reproductive fate.”?

I doubt it. Assuming he means being confined inside the same ‘skin’ as say a vertically-transmitted symbiont, then I doubt it is necessary. I don’t know a lot about multispecies communities but occasional casual mutually positive interactions rather than regular cyclical ones between members of different species for example would not be sufficient. Nor do I think that “differential persistence” is sufficient – a slab of a hardwood persists longer than one of a softwood but are hardly Darwinian individuals (unless viewed as cultural ones). But I think it likely that theorists like Watson and Bouchard are still generally right. Some interspecific “coming togethers and going aparts” without remaining confined in the same ‘skin’ are likely systematic enough to indeed constitute additional Darwinian individuals. Positively non-additive fitness interactions at some stage at least sufficiently large enough to compensate for any negatively non-additive ones which may obtain at another would be a key requirement.

Written by Marion Blute

August 7, 2013 at 9:49 pm

Photos from Lisbon

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Instructors at the International Summer School on Evolution, at the Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Lab in the Faculty of Science, University of Lisbon. Left to to right, Derek Turner, Michael Ruse, Frédéric Bouchard,    , Fiona Jordan, Nathalie Gontier, Marion Blute, Ilya Tëmkin, Luis Villarreal, Frietson Galis, Emanuele Serrelli.

Thanks to Nathalie and her staff for their hospitality and the pics!

  Lisbon

My class.

portugalclass

Written by Marion Blute

August 6, 2013 at 8:56 pm

The new cell biology

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I have not been a very faithful blogger the last few months – whether that will change in the new year remains to be seen. I travelled more in November than usual and then spent December getting caught up on some book reviews, referees reports etc. that I had been asked for and had agreed to do. Among other things, I have been left with a pile of reading to catch up on. One thing that caught my attention as I began to do so was three related front-of-the-magazine pieces in Nature on December 1st, the first of which here was called “the new cell anatomy”.

Apparently a mixture of biophysicists, cell biologists and biochemists in recent years have been discovering all kinds of previously unknown structures inside of cells. The phenomena and terminology are bewilderingly diverse – various “tubes, sacs, clumps, strands and capsules” including filaments, nanotubes, purinosomes, microcompartments, carboxysomes, exosomes, cytoophidia (cell serpents) – some of which concepts undoubtedly will last, others of which undoubtedly will not. A lot of the discussion has been about the development of new methods as well as of applying old methods to single cells accompanied by a fair amount of arm waving about possible medical and industrial applications.

My point is that I hope in all of this, at least some of the researchers will keep their eye on a different question. As the late Lynn Margulis among others showed – there is a lot of knowledge to be gained about evolution working between the cell and the molecule, including by microscopy, newer fancier versions of which play a role in some of the new work. Since nobody thinks that life began de novo with prokaryotic cells fully formed, and since evolution always, always leaves marks of its history, there surely is a lot to be learned about the origin and early evolution of life by peering into, prodding and manipulating existing cells. So I very much look forward to eventually hearing more about the implications of the new work for that subject.

Written by Marion Blute

January 9, 2012 at 4:44 pm

Why is my organic (kitchen) waste so heavy?

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Like many cities in the developed world these days I suppose, mine has a recycling programme. Basically, organic (kitchen) waste is put out in one can once a week for composting; cans, bottles and paper in another every two weeks for recycling; garbage in a third every two weeks as well for disposal; and garden waste seasonally in paper bags. In our household, the first two are accumulated in similar sized plastic bags in containers in the kitchen and put out in the cans every once in a while, while the third is put out bagless in the third can more frequently as it accumulates. Now here is the puzzle. Whenever I happen to put out the first two at the same time, always in similarly sized bags and therefore similar in volume, the organics for composting are always, always heavier than the garbage for disposal, and by quite a lot. Every time I wonder why that is. Some possibilities might be:

– it’s just idiosyncratic to our household. I suppose if we were repairing cars and disposing of scrap metal (not that anybody would be, scrap metal is valuable these days) but if for the sake of argument we were, it would be different. But I doubt if our experience is unique (otherwise I would not be wondering about it here!)

– biological organisms need protection against antagonists, parasites and predators, hence the denser (from our point of view, waste) – thick skins, peels etc. as well as needing to reproduce – seeds etc. I doubt if that is the answer either. After all, a lot of our garbage is in fact protective – various kinds of non-recyclable packaging like the tissue thin plastic bags that bulk foods and produce are put in and some heavier packaging which have properties designed to persuade you to purchase it, i.e. to serve its reproduction.

-culturally-evolved processes have become more efficient than biologically-evolved ones. Now that is an intriguing possibility.

– finally my (originally an engineer) husband’s suggested answer is that the organic material is wet and water is heavy. Hmm – this possibility admits of an experimental answer, if we dried out a bag of organics would the weights be similar? I have never been much of an experimenter but . . .

Written by Marion Blute

January 2, 2012 at 9:22 pm