Once more with feeling


Darwinism’s Struggle for Survival; Heredity and the Hypothesis of Natural Selection. By Jean Gayon; Translated by Matthew Cobb. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. xvi + 516 pp.

Jean Gayon’s newly translated book is an oddity. It treats the history of Darwinism from an ‘internalist’ perspective, focusing almost exclusively on the scientific issues on their own terms. Somewhat apologetically, perhaps defensively, Gayon sets out to provide a ‘rational reconstruction’ of the development of Darwinism from 1858 to the death of Motoo Kimura. Thus he describes himself as an ‘historian–epistemologist’ (e.g. p. 398), in the spirit of the late Imre Lakatos. His rather Whig orientation is out of style in the modern humanities and social sciences, where nihilism and the primacy of the text rule. But Gayon, thankfully, doesn’t seem to care.

The obvious criticism to be made of this venture is that it covers almost the same territory as Will Provine’s 1971 The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics, using more or less the same methods. Provine’s work has long been my favourite book about the history of evolutionary biology. Interestingly, it is one of Gayon’s favourites too, as he explicitly acknowledges his indebtedness: ‘the present study owes a considerable debt to the pioneer work of William Provine’ (p. 104). This raises the question, does Gayon’s book really add much to Provine’s?

The answer is a resounding affirmative. This book is a gem. Structuralists, post-structuralists, deconstructionists and post-deconstructionists might hate it, but many evolutionary biologists and intellectual historians will revel in its lucid prose, thoughtful analysis and careful judgements. As of this writing, there is no better history of the origins of modern evolutionary genetics.

Some specific comments might be useful. Gayon’s analysis of Darwin’s confusions about heredity is breathtaking. One has the feeling of travelling inside Darwin’s mind and plunging into its depths. The detail and insight with which he takes apart Darwin’s thinking about heredity goes some distance beyond Provine’s original analysis. In particular, his elucidation of how confused both Darwin and Wallace were about basic concepts of heredity, including the relationship between heritable variants and the distribution of quantitative variation in populations. Darwin was categorically unready to found population genetics, even if he had been willing to accept discrete inheritance. That much wasn’t clear to this reviewer before reading Gayon.

Perhaps the highlight of the book is its treatment of the period from Fleeming Jenkin’s devastating paper of 1867 to the rediscovery of Mendelism in 1900. This was the era when the egregious Francis Galton was the leading figure in the prolonged, awkward gestation of population and quantitative genetics. With great care and lucidity, Gayon leads the reader through Jenkin’s paper, Galton’s statistical groping and on to Pearson’s elaborate, but dunderheaded, theoretical constructions. A rich and detailed analysis takes one through the individual steps, and missteps, of this scientific period. It is perhaps the best historical analysis of science I have ever read.

Turning to the twentieth century, Gayon’s treatment slowly winds down. He tells the story of the actual birth of population genetics from a somewhat different slant than Provine, emphasizing Fisher less. He then pays the usual homage to the ‘three founders’ of evolutionary genetics, Fisher, Haldane and Wright. Yet again we are treated to the hoary debates about the Fundamental Theorem and Wright’s shifting balance theory, somewhat improved by recent advances in the interpretation of the mathematics of Fisher and Wright. I, for one, am getting tired of these debates. Evolutionary genetics has to get over its obsession with theories that have virtually no empirical support, however intuitively appealing. We have plenty of theories that are empirically relevant. Let’s worry about them instead.

One of the best features of the twentieth century material is the attention given to the pioneering population cage experiments of Teissier and L’Héritier in the 1930s and 40s. It amazes me that Gayon only introduces this important work after considerable apology (p. 366). This book might have been even better if it had been written under less influence from conventional Anglo-American histories of evolutionary biology.

This brief review cannot do justice to the many incisive analyses in Gayon’s book. His discussion of Galton’s quincunx alone is about as much fun as one can have reading a work of non-fiction. Provine’s 1971 book has been displaced from the top of my list of great books on the history of evolutionary biology.