James Barham on Mary Jane West-Eberhard and teleology

UD has featured a post by James Barham on the work of Mary Jane  West-Eberhard.  I shall be questioning Barham’s conclusions.

Unlike the subject of my previous column in this series, James A. Shapiro, she does not present her ideas as revolutionary or as a mortal threat to the Darwinian worldview.

In my opinion (as a non-biologist), she is entirely correct about that.

And yet, I shall argue that West-Eberhard—who is a researcher at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, as well as a professor of biology at the University of Costa Rica—has made a foudational contribution to a new and revolutionary approach to evolutionary theorizing that bids fair (whatever her expressed intentions) to turn mainstream Darwinism on its head.

Perhaps it challenges the strawman version of Darwinism that creationists and ID proponents love to criticize.  But I don’t see it as any challenge at all to Darwinism.

West-Eberhard’s ideas are crucial for one main reason: The Darwinian project is intended, more than anything else, to demonstrate that teleology, or purpose, can be eliminated from our theoretical understanding of the living world.

Barham must have been listening to too many creationists.  I am not aware that there is any such intention.  As I understand it, the intention is to understand biological systems as well as possible.  To this end, scientists will always prefer a mechanistic explanation over a teleological explanation.  It’s not an attempt to eliminate teleology.  It’s just that mechanistic explanations are more useful for the scientist.

West-Eberhard’s work helps to upend that project by showing how purposiveness (or goal-directedness) lies at the heart of any realistic explanatory framework in evolutionary biology. In other words, her contribution consists in demonstrating that, far from eliminating purpose from nature, evolution in fact presupposes it.

In a nutshell, West-Eberhard’s thesis is contained in the title of her magnum opus, Developmental Plasticity and Evolution (Oxford UP, 2003).

What is developmental plasticity? It is the property that all living things possess of being able to compensate during ontogenetic development for variations in either internal or external conditions. Note that “compensation” is a teleological concept. It implies that there is a particular end- or goal-state that one is trying to attain by means of the compensatory maneuvers.

I don’t think there is anything here that is new to biologists.  They have even coined the term “teleonomy” for this sort of thing.  However, contrary to Barham’s claim, it does not require a particular end or goal state.  It requires only that development uses trial and error methods to maintain a suitable equilibrium.

In the case of an organism, the developmental process is aiming at the viable adult form. If a perturbation occurs during this process—be it genetic, physiological, or environmental—then compensatory changes will occur elsewhere within the organism to ensure, insofar as possible, that the viable adult form is reached in spite of the perturbation.

But this is surely false, as stated.  Feedback system in the development process result in development often ending in a viable state, but not in the viable state.  If there is a development defect in early development, there is no compensation to correct that defect, even though doing so might actually be simple.  Babies are born with cleft palate, which could easily be corrected during development were the processes directed to a particular outcome.  And there are still born babies and naturally aborted fetuses, neither of which should be expected if there were a particular goal.

Barham quotes West-Eberhard as saying:

Phenotypic plasticity enables organisms to develop functional phenotypes despite variation and environmental change via phenotypic accommodation—adaptive mutual adjustment among variable parts during development without genetic change.(2)

You can clearly see the difference there.  She is not talking about a particular outcome.  She is not talking about being directed to achieve the adult form.  She is only saying that development tends to produce something functional.  That’s far weaker that the teleology that Barham is describing, and that’s why biologists prefer to use the term “teleonomy.”

Toward the end of his post, Barham says:

To avoid teleology, Darwinism must posit random genetic changes that result in random phenotypic changes. But West-Eberhard’s work shows us there is no such thing as a random phenotypic change. Instead, we can now see that all phenotypic change is goal-directed.

But that’s just wrong.  Avoiding teleology is not the goal.  Darwinists don’t posit random genetic changes – they observe them.  And if phenotypic change is less random, that’s because of natural selection, and of selective processes that are part of development.

13 thoughts on “James Barham on Mary Jane West-Eberhard and teleology”

  1. Joe Felsenstein

    Even if a physiological system (such as me) had its structure evolved to be able to regulate its body temperature near 37° Celsius, that amount of goal-directedness is hardly unknown to modern evolutionary biology.  I fail to see why the phenomena Barham touts are any different from that example.

  2. Woodbine

    So, if a snake should be ‘born’ with 2 less vertebrate than it’s parents, and the fact that the snake is not burdened with a two-vertebra-sized void in its spine/spinal column is to be taken as evidence of developmental teleology?

    Or something? 

  3. Joe Felsenstein

    I think in that case it is not “evidence of” developmental teleology, it is simply called teleology by Barham.  Then he concludes that a “Darwinist” (West-Eberhard) has now shown that teleology is present in biological systems.

  4. Flint

    I see this as a case of there being no neutral in the creationist mind. If a system does not REQUIRE, and depend on, purpose and intent, then that system necessarily DENIES purpose. It can’t be indifferent. And since the enterprise of science attempts to figure out how things work and not “final cause”, science (in the creationist view) necessarily rejects and opposes intent and purpose, which therefore becomes the PURPOSE of science!

    And while biology is no different in this respect from any other scientific field, it is singled out because it rubs up against creationists’ tender spots, where their doctrines are most insistent about (and even revolve around) some kind of external final cause.

    I think this is why it comes as such a relief to “discover” that evolution, in working by trial and error, enjoys the successes that adaptive feedback processes always enjoy, which can be misinterpreted as purposes which biology is then achieving. If such processes do not oppose purpose, they must require purpose! We are saved!   

  5. Neil Rickert Post author

    Flint:I see this as a case of there being no neutral in the creationist mind. If a system does not REQUIRE, and depend on, purpose and intent, then that system necessarily DENIES purpose.

    It does not seem to be only a creationist problem.  As far as I know, Barham is an atheist.  But apparently, he still prefers teleological explanations.

    What I am gathering from his post, is that he is willing to accept the idea of a natural teleology, and is taking West-Eberhard as finding evidence for that.  He fails to understand that the scientist won’t be satisfied with that, and will look further for the processes that generate the kind of behavior that Barham sees as natural teleology.  Presumably, Barham prefers the incomplete explanation based on an unexplained natural teleology to the more complete scientific account, which Barham probably sees as too mechanistic for his liking.

  6. Amadan

    An interesting perspective. Perhaps it deserves its own name: howabout “Barhaminology”?

  7. petrushka

    All this should be easily resolved by the understanding that dynamic systems can learn without violating any laws of nature.

    That’s really the lesson of GAs — that simple systems can learn. Once you grock that, you can investigate the details.

  8. Joe Felsenstein

    Barham is at it again on his The Best Schools blog today.  His post is also touted at Uncommon Descent.  He concludes that

    This fact, in turn, means that the theory of natural selection derives whatever plausibility it has largely from the unspoken assumption that when you perturb the living organism, it will compensate as best it can.

    This power of spontaneous compensation—which West-Eberhard refers to as “developmental (or phenotypic) plasticity”—distinguishes organisms from machines. It is presupposed by natural selection—in its absence, evolution is inconceivable—and so natural selection cannot explain it.

    He then touts the work of four scientists who have shown various kinds of plasticity in biological systems.  It is not clear that any of them would argue against natural selection.

    Same old argument from Barham.   A vitalist argument that living systems inherently have properties of homeostasis, ones that machines don’t have.  (He needs to talk with my home thermostat before making generalizations like that).   He seems oblivious to the idea that mutations that make an organism more homeostatic might be selected over those that make it less homeostatic.  If organisms have properties of homeostasis, he assumes that this is inherent and cannot have evolved.

    Furthermore he seems to think that this inherent homeostasis is absolutely necessary if you want natural selection to work. He seems not to understand that nonhomeostatic biological systems might undergo natural selection too.

  9. Joe Felsenstein

    He is allegedly an atheist, at least according to Denyse O’Leary’s descriptions at Uncommon Descent.  If so, he’s the most mystically-inclined atheist I ever heard of.

    The type of hypotheses he seems to favor are ones that were popular in the 20s.  Not the 1920s, the 1820s.  Back then people like Lamarck supposed that there were inherent forces toward complexification, or (as in Barham’s case) mysterious vital forces inherent in life.  These were supposed to be as-yet-unknown rules of nature.   They strike us now as absurdly mystical, but people like Lamarck thought of themselves as strict materialists.

  10. petrushka

    Apparently it’s a good gig to be an atheist and ID advocate. Berlinski seem to travel that circuit.

  11. Flint

    While the UD people are always beside themselves with joy to find an “atheist” ID proponent, I’ve never seen even one of these “atheists” suggest who the Designer might be.

    Now, there’s a perhaps subtle point here. NO explanation of anything is ever discarded into a vacuum, it is ALWAYS supplanted by what is regarded as a superior explanation. Even proposals flat contradicted by some observations are accepted tentatively if no better proposals are available.

    And accordingly, the claim that ID must be the case because evolution “just doesn’t explain the facts well enough” is dishonest as well as illogical. ID is acceptable ONLY through faith in the Designer. As an atheist, Berlinski is a fan dancer. 

  12. Allan Miller

    Berlinksi seems to have two main motivations. One is that he seems to draw a pretty straight line from Darwin to Hitler – “not a sufficient condition for Nazism, but a necessary one”. This son of jewish refugees presumably feels that destruction of the “Darwinist” meme is a necessary condition for a better society, or avoidance of descent into a worse one. The other is a somewhat egotistical contrarianism. If this is what the mainstream is saying, I can appear far more clever by going against it than by being in favour of it. Fellow-travelling with religious ID-ers seems a cynical means to an end.

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