Sunday, September 20, 2009

Books: The Changing Role of the Embryo in Evolutionary Thought, by Ron Amundson

I’m well accustomed to the contemporary impetus to hyper-contextualize art and literature—to pull the work down out of the space of the ideal, and tease it apart, qualifying or disqualifying it not by locating any intrinsic Quality (i.e. value, typically of a formal kind) but by revealing the historical and political machinations that, in the mind of the contemporary academic, somehow spring forth art and literature almost in spite of the artist or writer (as opposed to the traditional view, in which the artist or writer births his or her work by a kind of inspired and partnerless parthenogenesis).

Dabbling in extreme relativism myself at times, I fully understand this impulse (though by the nature of the writing here you see that I am ultimately against it). That said, I was always certain that this inclination to contextualize was safely trapped in the (wishy-washy) humanities. The colder realm of science, for example, would be immune to this obsessive historicization, because science moves forward as scientists discover new facts, and subjectivity and feelings don’t enter the lab. But reading Amundson’s book revealed to me that science is just as prone to this kind of infestation.

Amundson is a philosopher and a historian of biology, not a biologist proper, and it is the cross-pollination of these fields that allows this academic parasite ingress to what appears to be science. But in spite of its title, this is not a science book at all. Amundson offers none of his own laboratory research to demonstrate the viability of his argument (I won’t even call it a hypothesis). Instead, he recounts the history, beginning in the 19th Century, of biology’s attempt to understand the process by which life forms are generated. Highly polemical and peppered with as many unnecessary philosophy terms as science terms (woe to the reader who confuses “ontology” with “ontogeny”), Amundson frames that history as an as yet unresolved argument between developmentalists and geneticists (or proto-geneticists, for those 19th Century Darwinists who believed in adaptation, though they were uncertain of its mechanical means).

As a layperson who hasn’t thought about these things since AP Biology in high school ten years ago, my ultimate response to this argument may sound naïve to Amundson or a reader who has something invested in this controversy. But it seems to me that the development v. selection question is moot; both are valid and it simply depends on the direction in which one faces. The developmentalists, who demonstrate that fetuses of various species temporarily show homologous structures, have located a vestige of an inter-species relationship that fully supports the adaptationists’ belief that species diverge by mutation. Likewise, the adaptationists’ understanding of evolution on a population-level leaves room for the individual ontogeny to be the bearer of that evolution. Amundson admits that this is ultimately a chicken-and-egg question.

But if it is, why has he gotten his skivvies tied up in such a sweaty knot? For more than 250 pages, Amundson rather testily challenges primary and secondary sources, scourges certain 20th Century scientists for misreading certain 19th Century scientists, and creates a bogey man out of the Evolutionary Synthesis. In his concluding chapter, he then waffles a bit and concedes that it is awfully hard to make a case for the developmentalists inside the framework of the Evolutionary Synthesis (after he has spent so much effort discrediting that Synthesis!). Perhaps if he were an actual scientist Amundson would be pragmatic enough to make his argument with data, rather than (often opaque) rhetoric, and I might be more inclined to join his cause. As it stands, I’m still uncertain as to whether his cause even exists outside of his own academic paranoia.

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