The Plastic Brain

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Review: The Neck of the Giraffe, or Where Darwin Went Wrong, by Francis Hitching

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I’ve been reading a lot of books/blogs on evolution recently – and being somewhat biased towards Darwinian models, have natural focussed on pro-Darwin sources like Dawkins.

A while back I noticed The Neck of the Giraffe (TNoTG) on my father-in-law’s bookcase, and asked if I could borrow it. I thought it would be an interesting exercise in hearing a counter-argument to my view-point in order to force myself defend where I stand.

With this aim in mind I plunged in, and immediately ran into two issues. Firstly, it wasn’t immediately obvious which camp Hitching fell into. Secondly, his arguments were sometimes more nuanced and harder to refute than I had expected.

Nonetheless, despite the subtitle, and many of the conclusions he draws, Hitching does little to show that Darwin was ever wrong. What he actually shows is that Darwin’s theory, as original stated and as Darwin admitted, was limited, and possibly contained minor flaws and simplifications. None of this, however, issurprising in a work over 150 years old, and it certainly doesn’t show that evolution by natural selection is wrong.

TNoTG is itself around 30 years old, and I note that in some (possibly later) editions the subtitle is changed to “Darwin, Evolution and the New Biology”.

Dawkins seems to have read it before drafting Climbing Mount Improbable, in which he sets out to doggedly and rigorously undermine two key planks of irreducible complexity, which from a major part of  TNoTG – namely the evolution of flight and of “the” eye.

Despite logical errors, straw men (eg the odds of getting the 20 amino acids the for a 100-mer peptide in their exact order to be functional) and out of date arguments, I found it good fun and well worth a read,

[Q] What is proofiness?

[A] It’s the mathematical analog ofStephen Colbert’s “truthiness.” It’s using numbers to prove what you know in your heart is true, even when you know it’s not. Numbers have a particular ability to fool us. It’s using that ability to turn nonsense into something that is believable with numbers.

The Dark Art of Statistical Deception