PoMo, Oh No! A comment on The Logic of Chance

For a long time I was meaning to write a review of Eugene Koonin’s The Logic of Chance: The Nature and Origin of Biological Evolution.  The book has been out for over 6 years now.  In lieu of an actual review, I’d like to discuss Koonin’s characterization of an emerging view of evolution as a “post-modern” alternative to the “Modern” synthesis.  What could that mean?

The “post-modern” epithet is sure to rankle the majority of evolutionary biologists, who are used to disparaging post-modernism as the kind of academic woo-woo that ought to stay in humanities departments.  However, Koonin’s comparison has much more substance than one might expect superficially.  As PZ Myers argues in “Can we rehabilitate post-modernism, please?“, there are sound philosophical reasons for scientists to consider the perspectives offered by post-modernism on how to understand the world.

A superficial view of pomo offerings

Let’s start with a very brief comparison of modernist and post-modernist themes.  The table below is an edited version of a comparison by Martin Irvine of Georgetown.   Many similar lists can be found online.  I chose this one because it was more extensive, with clearer explanations.  I have edited it by deleting the rows least relevant for my purposes.



Faith in “Grand Theory” (totalizing explanations in history, science and culture) to represent all knowledge and explain everything. Rejection of totalizing theories; pursuit of localizing and contingent theories.
Faith in, and myths of, social and cultural unity, hierarchies of social-class and ethnic/national values, seemingly clear bases for unity. Social and cultural pluralism, disunity, unclear bases for social/national/ ethnic unity.
Sense of unified, centered self; “individualism,” unified identity. Sense of fragmentation and decentered self; multiple, conflicting identities.
Hierarchy, order, centralized control. Subverted order, loss of centralized control, fragmentation.
Faith and personal investment in big politics (Nation-State, party). Trust and investment in micropolitics, identity politics, local politics, institutional power struggles.
Root/Depth tropes.Faith in “Depth” (meaning, value, content, the signified) over “Surface” (appearances, the superficial, the signifier). Rhizome/surface tropes.Attention to play of surfaces, images, signifiers without concern for “Depth”. Relational and horizontal differences, differentiations.
Dichotomy of high and low culture (official vs. popular culture).Imposed consensus that high or official culture is normative and authoritative, the ground of value and discrimination. Disruption of the dominance of high culture by popular culture.Mixing of popular and high cultures, new valuation of pop culture, hybrid cultural forms cancel “high”/”low” categories.
Mass culture, mass consumption, mass marketing. Demassified culture; niche products and marketing, smaller group identities.
Art as unique object and finished work authenticated by artist and validated by agreed upon standards. Art as process, performance, production, intertextuality. Art as recycling of culture authenticated by audience and validated in subcultures sharing identity with the artist.
Broadcast media, centralized one-to-many communications. Paradigms: broadcast networks and TV. Digital, interactive, client-server, distributed, user-motivated, individualized, many-to-many media. Paradigms: Internet file sharing, the Web and Web 2.0.
Determinacy, dependence, hierarchy. Indeterminacy, contingency, polycentric power sources.
Seriousness of intention and purpose, middle-class earnestness. Play, irony, challenge to official seriousness, subversion of earnestness.
Sense of clear generic boundaries and wholeness (art, music, and literature). Hybridity, promiscuous genres, recombinant culture, intertextuality, pastiche.
Clear dichotomy between organic and inorganic, human and machine. Cyborgian mixing of organic and inorganic, human and machine and electronic.

Some of these distinctions can be applied rather directly to biology, e.g., it’s a short step from “promiscuous genres” to “promiscuous genes,” e.g., the promiscuous genes underlying multiple antibiotic resistance (via lateral transfer of tranposons and broad-host-range plasmids).  Where previous generations of biologists thought entirely in terms of bounded things and hierarchical ordering, in both the external and the internal organization of the biological world, today we also emphasize webs of interconnected things, and networks made of processes.  Systems biology tells us that a gene can’t be understood outside of an entire “system”.   Boundaries are breaking down: we sometimes think of a human as an endosymbiosis with microbes; in some species, we recognize not a genome, but a “pan-genome” that is not present in any single strain.

Organisms and their features used to have middle-class earnestness of purpose (function), but we now recognize irony, subversion, and divided loyalties, from “selfish” genes to maternal-fetal conflicts.  We model interactions as games, literally according to “game theory.”

The Modern Synthesis as a modernist view

Can we go deeper than this?   How can we understand the Modern Synthesis as a genuinely modernist view?  How are contemporary developments post-modern in a way that conflicts with Modern-Synthesis modernism?

For some people, the words “Modern Synthesis” mean “whatever we think today.”  This makes the Modern Synthesis a moving target.   I will refer here to the original Modern Synthesis or OMS, which is the view expressed by leading thinkers in the 1950s and 1960s.

The overarching theoretical claim of the OMS is that we can account for evolutionary phenomena, including “macroevolution” and everything else, in terms of shifting gene frequencies in the “gene pool”, and that this justifies Darwinism and renders all rival views either unnecessary or impossible.  Darwinism, in turn, is the view that evolution is a product of variation and selection, where the variation merely plays the role of raw material: selection is the potter and variation is the clay.  Every historical alternative to Darwinism rejects this limited role for variation.

In the OMS, the “population” or population “level” was understood to be a higher-level implication of Mendelian inheritance operating in families, and was identified as the central locale of causation, unifying all mechanistic ideas.  The population had a certain unity or cohesion itself, and was treated, not merely as a collection of things, but as an entity, a “gene pool”.  There was a clear hierarchy and certain levels of that hierarchy were privileged: genes mutate, individuals develop, but only populations evolve.

Thus, the OMS was not reductionistic, as some misinformed critics  suggest (e.g., Denis Noble).  The OMS literally envisions an emergent “population” level where large-scale factors play out regardless of the underlying details.  The classic view from Ronald Fisher to Nick Barton is that, in the end, the genetic details don’t really matter, because selection rules.  Evolution does not reduce down to mutations: it coalesces upwards, emergently, into the form of a governing power, the power of selection to adapt organisms given masses of infinitesimal variations.

This view rationalized certain grand claims.  There may be a lot of complications in evolution, but the master force of selection comes in and gives it all a direction, e.g., Mayr said, by way of explaining modern neo-Darwinism, that selection is the only direction-giving force in evolution, clearly a modernist claim for exclusivity.   Dobzhansky’s claim that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, or Ayala’s claim that natural selection is “the ultimate source of explanation in biology” are quintessentially modernist claims matching the top row of the table above, which refers to “Faith in ‘Grand Theory’ (totalizing explanations in history, science and culture) to represent all knowledge and explain everything.”

In practice, the OMS is often difficult to grasp separately from the mid-century “Synthesis” movement that brought about an organized discipline of evolutionary biology.  The Synthesis Story strongly conveys modernist themes of order, authority and unification: a unifying synthesis swept away a cacophony of competing views and united various factions into a single organized discipline of biology with a fixed orthodoxy.  Pluralism in evolutionary thought was not seen as productive or healthy, but as a kind of disease or error, as if the One View That Rules Them All must ultimately arise and take over, because truth consists in unity rather than plurality.

Much more could be said, but this is getting dull.

When I pick up this topic again (look for the link here), I’ll address some ways in which contemporary evolutionary biology is post-modern.


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