Field of Science

On coordinate systems and polarisation in science

While reading and writing about neutral evolution, the theme of polarisation in science (pitting of ideas against each other) comes up a lot. Coincidentally, today I had a discussion with someone about group selection and the tendency of issues in academia (and elsewhere in life) to get grotesquely hyperpolarised. A frequent tactic used perhaps almost subconsciously is to pick the most extreme nutcase example from the side you argue against, and use it to represent the entire subfield. Also known as strawman arguments.

This is done almost ubiquitously in academia, and is often not even recognised as a common phenomenon. Perhaps it's some effect of our tribalistic tendencies, I don't know. Government politics is also quite similar. But at least one could be better informed about how their discipline works to be able to correct for some of it on the individual level. I think these practical aspects of philosophy and sociology of science (real fields, btw -- there are people out there who go into science labs and study labrats...very meta.) should be taught along with basic stats and hypothesis testing. Knowing how your field -- and academia in general -- works is arguably more important than memorising Rho GTPase associated pathways.

Curiously, perhaps some of the vicious arguments in science, such as group-level vs. individual-level selection, are actually similar to arguing over the superiority of cartesian vs. polar coordinates in math, rather than using the optimal one for the given circumstances. That is, if you have a flat plane to model, you'd probably go with cartesian coordinates where it's very easy to describe; defining a plane by polar coordinates is cumbersome and absurd (in most cases). Conversely, describing spherical objects would probably favour polar coordinates which simply work better for that type of thing. Similarly, depending on what you're trying to model, you can pick whether group selection or individual selection best fits the situation. Just like both polar and cartesian coordinates exist in the same reality and are ultimately interconvertible, group and individual selection are also both extant and suitable for different situations. The war is utterly unnecessary.

I like that analogy so much I'll breech my own policy of avoiding exposing who I happen to interact with and attribute it to its author -- Wayne Maddison. Now I wonder how many other raging wars in evolutionary theory and beyond are actually arguing over the existence of polar vs. cartesian coordinate systems... selectionism vs. neutralism is one such area that comes to mind.

People in science seriously need to stop obsessing over having a single all-encompassing model for everything, especially in messy fields like biology (fields that deal with real world data, that is). Theoretically, it all does boil down to quantum physics+relativity (or whatever the hypothetical unified version of that would be), but almost any biologist will tell you we actually could care less. Some models are more practical in given situations than others. That doesn't mean one is absolutely superior to another. In order to get anyone, one has to be rather pragmatic. Unless there are actually people in science who think our business is dealing with The Truth. I sincerely hope only undergrads can be that deluded...

PS: Neutral evol part II on its way, not tonight though: really tired and test tomorrow =(


  1. I have been pondering something similar, I think. The debate between "adaptationism" and "neutralism"/"pluralism" seems to get a bit nasty sometimes (compared to other scientific disagreements I have encountered anyway) full of mischaracterizations of the opposition.

    I have been thinking a lot of the debate is due to differences in perspective. For example, Michael Lynch (molecular/genomic) and Larry Moran (biochemistry) work on a completely different scale than the typical "adaptationist" (Dawkins, for example). Neutralism is much less obvious to someone concerned with traits on the macroscale.

    It is interesting how biology, a science, is so prone to differing perspectives - evolution is just such a complex topic. Kind of gets at the whole "Does biology have laws?" question.

  2. "Neutral Evolution"! That's what I was trying to say the other day when I came up with the dogs example. I chosen a wrong term and you answered me in a way that made me want to fight instead of trying to find the right terminology :P


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