Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year 2012! Let's start with some social activity and a lab-meeting

I hope everybody have enjoyed your well-deserved holidays, and you are now full of energy when returning to Lund! What else could then be better than to start with some social activity? I suggest we aim for this on Tuesday January 3 2012, when we meet at 18.00 at the pub "Bishop Arms" in Lund. We will then have time to eat (if we wish to), and can decide if we want to stay in the pub the whole evening, go to another one, or even go for a late movie around 21.00.

A new year also means new intellectual and scientific challenges. One such challenge is to always question old "truths", including once own's scientific biases. One such "truth", which I have myself defended in a recent blog post, is the importance of carefully distinguishing between proximate and ultimate explanations in evolutionary biology. I wrote this blog post after a recent ASAB-meeting in London in December, when both I and Machteld Verzijden were critical of Malin Ah-Kings suggestion that evolutionary explanations ("ultimate" explanations" for why animals reproduce ("animals reproduce to maximize their fitness") could be replaced by the proximate explanation ("animals reproduce for the sake of pleasure"). As I pointed out, these two explanations are not mutually exclusive, but rather complementary, and adress different "layers" of reality.

My own position here is not very controversial, but rather mainstream among today's evolutionary biologists, and I referred to the important conceptual insights by evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr and ethologist Niko Tinbergen, who laid the groundwork for this way of viewing nature and biology. It is now 50 years ago since Ernst Mayr published his important paper in Science entitled "Cause and effect in biology", and time is therefore mature to return to this classic paper and critically examine if its main message is still valid. We should therefore read this paper on this weeks lab-meeting (Wednesday, January 4 at 13.00), together with a new critical review in the same journal by Kevin Laland and colleagues entitled: "Cause and Effect in Biology Revisited: is Mayr's Proximate.Ultimate Dichtomy Still useful?"

These two papers should be read in conjunction (download them here and here), and well ahead before the lab-meeting, as these are important but difficult concepts which hold a central position in evolutionary biology. In particular, we should ask ourselves if Mayr's rigid dichotomy and position (he was rigid in many other areas, e. g. sympatric speciation) is still useful, or if it hampers further conceptual advances, as argued by Laland et al. Could it even be that Mayr's position at the time when it was formulated was necessary to get rid of "murky thinking", just like George C. Williams hardcore gene selectionist standpoint was necessary to get rid of naive group selectionism? But could it be so that both the proximate-ultimate dichotomy and the dogmatic gene selectionist standpoint have now played out their role, as the former naive views have since long been abandoned and pose no serious threat anymore to clear thinking?

Lab-meeting details and reminder: Wednesday January 4, in "Argumentet" at 13.00. Any fika volunteer?

1 comment:

  1. Dear Erik,

    I just want to clarify my message from the winter ASAB-meeting. I do comprehend your misunderstanding, especially after Dave's question. But I did not say that ultimate explanations should be replaced, nor that animals reproduce for the sake of pleasure. I said that sexual behaviours are used for many other reasons than merely reproduction. Therefore in order to understand the whole range of sexual behaviours among animals we need to widen our perspectives beyond merely focusing on reproduction.
    This is my way of addressing the question "Why do animals mate with the "wrong" partner?"

    Malin Ah-King.