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ObliqueFault comments on For progress to be by accumulation and not by random walk, read great books - Less Wrong

35 Post author: MichaelVassar 02 March 2010 08:11AM

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Comment author: ObliqueFault 02 March 2010 10:30:35PM 1 point [-]

Likewise, much in Darwin is part of contemporary evolutionary theory but was virtually unknown by evolutionary biologists half a century ago.

I disagree with the statement that evolutionary biology isn't making clear progress. I'm guessing you're talking about punctuated equilibrium, which was part of Darwin's On the Origin of Species (albeit not by that name), deemphasized by later evolutionary biologists, and later assertively brought back by Gould et al. However, this hypothesis is only vacillating in and out of 'style' because it 1) has scientific merit and 2) is difficult to prove. Other aspects of Darwin's theory have been easier to validate or disprove and so have been retained or decisively refuted over the years. On the whole modern evolutionists have a vastly more complete understanding of their subject than Darwin did. The entire new fields of genetics and molecular biology have opened up since Darwin's day, expanding on Darwin's theory as well as explaining the mechanics that underlie it.

Ultimately one has to look at the empirical question of the relative per-capita intellectual impressiveness of people who study only condensations and people who study original works. To me, the latter looks much much greater in most fields, OK, in every field that I can quickly think of except for astronomy.

Who says derivative works are always condensations? To continue with the Darwin example, On the Origin of Species was a seminal work, to be sure, but it doesn't explain many necessary modern concepts, such as sexual selection, kin selection, silent mutations, genetic drift, etc. If you are an evolutionary biologist then you should clearly read On the Origin of Species, among other things. But if you are an interested amateur and only have time to read one book then you should read a modern evolution textbook, in the same way you would read a modern medical textbook instead of one written in the 19th century. The old texts would contain some discredited concepts and be missing a lot of substantiated ones.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 03 March 2010 06:18:33AM *  6 points [-]

I don't just mean punctuated equilibrium.
Darwin wrote more than Origin and did talk about sexual selection.

I agree that an interested amateur should read the modern textbook over Origin. It's not THAT good. If you can only read one book in a discipline it should pretty much always be a textbook unless the discipline is totally dysfunctional.

Comment author: wedrifid 03 March 2010 06:20:25AM 1 point [-]

One book in a discipline?

Comment author: ObliqueFault 03 March 2010 05:58:28PM 0 points [-]

Darwin wrote more than Origin and did talk about sexual selection.

Yes, you're right. Thanks for the correction.

The bulk of my point still stands, though. Evolutionary biology has made clear progress, especially since molecular biology took off in the 50's. Simplistically speaking, evolution is composed of mutation and natural selection, the latter of which was developed impressively by Darwin. But that was only half the story, so it was left to later biologists to complete the picture.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 04 March 2010 03:10:35AM 0 points [-]

Progress in the last 50 years is a non sequitur response to a claim that the situation was dire 50 years ago. At least, if you claim to disagree.

Comment author: ObliqueFault 04 March 2010 03:57:47PM *  -1 points [-]

Unless I misunderstand him, his claim is that there hasn't been clear progress in the field since Darwin. My position is that there has been clear progress in the last 60 years. I concede that progress before that was slim.

Comment author: FAWS 04 March 2010 04:41:17PM 1 point [-]

Still, if the field has actually regressed between Darwin and mid 20th century (by today's standards) without evolutionary biologists of that time being aware of that fact that's evidence that progress in evolutionary biology is not necessarily clear, and reason enough to at least consider the possibility that the field might have regressed in other ways that we are not aware of.

Comment author: ObliqueFault 04 March 2010 09:01:08PM *  1 point [-]

I said progress was stagnant, not regressing. All of Darwin's books have always been widely available and read, so no information was ever lost. Some of Darwin's conjectures were deemphasized, and the biologists of the time were right to do so; they didn't yet have the techniques to prove or disprove them, and mere conjecture should never be foundations of a scientific discipline. They weren't central to the theory anyway, and even Darwin considered them just speculation.

With modern technical know-how, such as radiometric dating and molecular clocks, they've discovered evidence supporting some of Darwin's more difficult-to-prove ideas, such as punctuated equilibrium. Darwin was an exceedingly smart man, so it's no surprise that some of his idle speculation turned out to be accurate. But that's a far cry from modern evolutionists "catching up" with Darwin.

Comment author: FAWS 04 March 2010 09:21:02PM 0 points [-]

I said progress was stagnant, not regressing.

I'm not necessarily trying to conivince you of anything, just interested. Assuming that you are convinced that Bayesian statistics are the correct way to treat uncertainty, would you say that the field of statistics never regressed in that respect because the works of Bayes and Laplace were always around?

All of Darwin's books have always been widely available and read, so no information was ever lost.

That's a pretty good argument for reading the work of the old masters though, isn't it? (Not that you voiced any disagreement with that)

Comment author: ObliqueFault 04 March 2010 11:45:52PM *  2 points [-]

You have me at a disadvantage because I don't know much about the history of statistics, but here is my view. Assuming the core principles of Bayesian statistics were demonstrably effective, if they were widely accepted and then later rejected or neglected for whatever reason, then that would be regression. If Bayes' and Laplace's methods never caught on at all until a long time later, and there were no other significant advances in the field, then that would be stagnation.

By these (admittedly my own) definitions, evolutionary biology didn't regress after Darwin because the only parts of his theory that were neglected were the ones that weren't yet provable. It's as if, theoretically, Bayes came up with a variety of statistical methods, most of which were clearly effective but others were of dubious utility. It wouldn't count as a regression, at least to me, if later generations dropped the dubious methods but kept the useful ones.

That's a pretty good argument for reading the work of the old masters though, isn't it?

I apologize, I haven't made my position clear about this. I think that experts should read the classics as well as modern works in their field. The interested amateur, though, should skip over the classics and go directly to modern thought, unless he or she has more free time than most.