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WWDT (What Would Darwin Think?)

John Alcock

Dear Mr Darwin: Letters on the Evolution of Life and Human Nature. Gabriel Dover. xvi + 268 pp. University of California Press, 2000. $27.50.

In Dear Mr Darwin, Gabriel Dover invents a lively correspondence with a revived Charles Darwin, who listens and comments sagely as the author discusses what interests him about genetics, evolutionary biology and human nature. In the course of these letter-essays, Dover informs Darwin that his theory of evolution by natural selection was first amplified by the discovery of Mendelian genetics and then diminished by the discovery of various non-Mendelian mechanisms of inheritance, including the phenomenon of molecular drive that Dover discovered nearly 20 years ago. According to Dover, molecular drive and genetic drift have the effect of reducing the evolutionary impact of natural selection, which would otherwise tend to cause the spread of adaptations through populations.

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Darwin takes the news like a man, although he requires some extra assistance in understanding molecular drive; in this, he may be joined by some of the book's lay readers. However, the dedicated reader will learn from the interchange between Dover and Darwin much that is interesting about molecular genetics and the evolution of developmental mechanisms.

Unfortunately, when Dover turns from genetics to human nature, he adopts an altogether different tone, harshly reviewing the supposed failures of Richard Dawkins and the "selfish gene" concept that Dawkins made popular. To win his debate with Dawkins, Dover caricatures all those who use natural selection theory to study adaptation, including George C. Williams and John Maynard Smith, as naive genetic determinists. According to Dover, these adaptationists fail to grasp the simple point that genes must cooperate with other genes in a protein-laden cellular environment if development is to occur. Never mind that Dawkins and company have repeatedly refuted this charge, as well as the canard (also trotted out by Dover) that they tell "just-so" stories when discussing the adaptive value of behavioral traits. Dover informs Darwin that the attributes of living things are actually a complex blend of adaptation by natural selection, exaptation by neutral genetic drift and adoptation by molecular drive. Dover attempts to persuade Darwin that this view of development and evolution is somehow nondeterminist and thus restores free will to its rightful place as a causal agent of human behavior against the "determinist" adaptationism of the Dawkinsites.

In the movie Annie Hall, a young professor is giving his date an error-riddled minilecture on Marshall McLuhan's ideas when Marshall McLuhan himself magically materializes to set matters straight. Would that Darwin could reappear, after having digested Dover's comments and having read Williams's Adaptation and Natural Selection, Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker and Robert Wright's The Moral Animal.

Darwin would surely then ask Dover just how to test the proposition that, say, the devotion of human parents to their genetic offspring is an unspecified m?lange of adaptation, exaptation and adoptation. Moreover, Darwin would also be skeptical of the claim that human behavior is too varied and complex to be understood in evolutionary terms, a claim that Dover makes without discussing even one published study in human sociobiology or evolutionary psychology. This body of research, which is large and growing very rapidly, would deeply interest Darwin, who would be gratified to learn that his theory of natural selection has been used to generate testable and tested hypotheses on parental behavior, sexual tactics and cooperativeness in human beings (and many other species). Dover dismisses the entire lot with a wave of the hand, a just-so sneer and an appeal to a belief in free will. Darwin deserves better.

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