|Sistine Chapel; Wikimedia Commons|
This kind of ism/ist description applies in cultural combat but also in science. Thus people can be reductionist, frequentist, or falsificationist and so on, in the words of their detractors -- so these aren't compliments. People actually would not use the word about themselves if they feel that others use the term in a derogatory way.
Creationists (and they really are ists in the sense of holding tightly to a specific ideology or creed!) often denigrate people who understand the real world as 'evolutionists',as it is not clear exactly what these terms mean, which can be important. It is a castigating characterization when used by creationists, and it may imply that one is an ideolog about, rather than an explorer of, the subject of evolution.
We often refer critically on MT, to evolutionary or Darwinian or genetic 'determinists' or 'determinism.' However, our meaning is important to understand. At a seminar in our department a couple of years ago, when we questioned the nature of genetic determinism being invoked in some darwinian adaptive Just-So story-telling, someone stated that he was a determinist--"and isn't everyone?" Well, in science the answer is clearly yes, and no.
Here's where language gets in the way. If determinism means that Nature is causal and that every effect must have some cause, then most scientists would plead guilty to the charge. To invoke effects without cause is to be mystic, and certainly that has nothing to do with science. That doesn't mean that we have identified or understand the causation of effects under discussion, and there is where the legitimate issues lie.
|Darwin, Museum of Natural |
This doesn't mean that eyes or birds' wings or hominid locomotory apparatus got here 'by chance', as creationists still falsely often suggest, but it can mean that some functional elements ended up in our genomes by chance, if their initial harmfulness or helpfulness was slight compared to the populations they were in (in genetic terms, they got into the genome by 'drift'). Duplicate genes that have no harmful effect but provide redundancy that can subsequently be used for new function constitute one of many examples.
Selection must build on what's there, however it got there. Such chance-installed elements don't suddenly produce wings out of reptilian forelimbs, because complex traits involve too many changes. But the elements themselves need not have got here by selection, since most will have slight effect. Likewise, truly harmful things are eliminated by not being viable, and that is a form of selection, but not Darwinian or adaptive selection, since the defunct forms weren't really competing with anybody or anything. They just didn't work.
The bottom line here is that determinism depends on the degree to which (1) truly probabilistic cause exists, and/or (2) one believes that a specific cause under consideration perfectly predicts a specific outcome, and/or (3) the cause acts alone but only has predictive power if very accurately measured, and we can't get such quality measures. If a causal effect is truly probabilistic, it does not in the usual sense 'determine' the outcome. And if the cause is but one of many contributors, and hence has weak predictive power, or does so if inaccurately measurable, then arguing for 'determinism' stretches the truth and merits criticism. It doesn't mean there is no cause, but in these instances we cannot reliably or accurately predict the outcome from observing the cause.
Likewise for adaptive selectionism or 'Darwinism'. If selection is weak, sporadic, erratic, or distributed over many different contributing factors, or if there is no selection but only drift, or if there is selection but we have no serious way to argue what its mechanism was, then the adaptationist argument stretches the truth and merits criticism. Knowing the genes involved in a trait doesn't predict their change from on generation to the next and, indeed, different genotypes can generate the same phenotype, so that we cannot infer the cause from the result. Again, this doesn't mean there is no cause, but it does mean that selectionism is over-stated.
What we argue when criticizing what we think are excessive claims of genetic determinism or selectionism is that the assertion being made does not bear scrutiny in these above senses. We're not arguing for mystical causation or effects that are not 'determined' by physical causes. We may be arguing that we have little idea or way of knowing what the cause(s) was or were, or that the assumption of a kind of causation can be made self-fulfilling rather than really scientifically testable. It often seems to be true that based on methods and criteria we use today, some of these causal situations simply cannot in principle be worked out beyond some very imperfect level of precision. Things too probabilistic, or too weak to be understood from the kinds of samples we can actually collect, are simply not accurately predictable from observing putative causes, and that also means we have inadequate ways of even identifying the causes.
We do seem to live in an orderly causal world. There are 'laws' of Nature, even if the word is a human one that doesn't imply a law-giver. Whether causation can be truly probabilistic, and whether there may be causal aspects whose very existence humans have not learned to detect or characterize, we have no idea. Nor does anybody else. There are wild theories of multiple universes to get around pure probabilistic causes, and things like dark matter and energy to get around some of what we observe in ordinary matter. Who knows what else someone may some day discover. Given this, we believe that more circumspection is in order about causal claims in the life sciences. In part this is because science has practical implications for society, can be used towards evil or harmful ends (even if unintentionally), and costs resources that could be used for other things, if we had a less lobbying-based or ideological social environment in terms of making such decisions.
To argue that someone is a 'determinist' is not to label them with a slur as if they should instead by a mystic or crystal ball reader. It is to argue that assertions should be tempered, and we should take more seriously the things that are clearly inadequately known but could be quite fundamental. To be a 'Darwinian' or 'adaptationist' can mean not just that one recognizes the clear truth of evolution as a fact, and that survival requires success by definition, but can refer to someone who goes beyond that, to and assumes what is to be shown, and that certainly is not good science. One wants to have an interpretive framework, without which science would be difficult if not impossible, but the framework needs to be tested rather than assumed.
Assuming a framework--being an 'ist'--may be good for hustling attention or grants, but not for a more serious--if avowedly less complete--understanding of things that we now have or than the ists of this world would lead you to believe.