The Social Contract in Evolutionary Biology

Photo by matt knoth

This week I was teaching Lévi-Strauss who speaks frequently about his love of Rousseau, so I was interested to here the latest Radio Lab which investigates the question of animal (including human) nature and change. What does it take for a population to change, whether it be baboons, small town USA, or wild foxes? Particularly interesting is the suggestion, by biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham, that humans may have domesticated ourselves.

One question raised, but not answered, by the show is why Dr. Dmitry K. Belyaev, who did the research on the domestication of foxes, had to hide his work from Stalin? It turns out that “Belyaev and his brother … believed in Mendelian theory despite the domination of Soviet science by Trofim Lysenko, who rejected Mendelian genetics.” Lysenko rejected Mendel (and Darwin) because he was a Larmarkian:

The little scientific theory absorbed by Lysenko came by way of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the early–19th-century French biologist who promulgated the theory, later refuted by Darwinism, that acquired characteristics could be passed from one generation to the next. This fit neatly with the Stalinist idea that nature could be manipulated to suit the needs of man.

Lysenko was hot-tempered, and he brooked no criticism of himself or his work. Legitimate Soviet geneticists and other scientists who dared oppose him often learned this hard truth with a one-way ticket to the gulag. Lysenko, in fact, despised his more-learned colleagues in a way that only a complete fraud with near-absolute power can.

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