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Give one species the task to come up with a theory that spans them all: what good can come out of that?


Kokko, Hanna (2017). Give one species the task to come up with a theory that spans them all: what good can come out of that? Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B: Biological Sciences, 284(1867):20171652.

Abstract

Does the progress in understanding evolutionary theory depend on the species that is doing the investigation? This question is difficult to answer scientifically, as we are dealing with an n = 1 scenario: every individual who has ever written about evolution is a human being. I will discuss, first, whether we get the correct answer to questions if we begin with ourselves and expand outwards, and second, whether we might fail to ask all the interesting questions unless we combat our tendencies to favour taxa that are close to us. As a whole, the human tendency to understand general biological phenomena via ‘putting oneself in another organism's shoes’ has upsides and downsides. As an upside, our intuitive ability to rethink strategies if the situation changes can lead to ready generation of adaptive hypotheses. Downsides occur if we trust this intuition too much, and particular danger zones exist for traits where humans are an unusual species. I argue that the levels of selection debate might have proceeded differently if human cooperation patterns were not so unique, as this brings about unique challenges in biology teaching; and that theoretical insights regarding inbreeding avoidance versus tolerance could have spread faster if we were not extrapolating our emotional reactions to incest disproportionately depending on whether we study animals or plants. I also discuss patterns such as taxonomic chauvinism, i.e. less attention being paid to species that differ more from human-like life histories. Textbooks on evolution reinforce such biases insofar as they present, as a default case, systems that resemble ours in terms of life cycles and other features (e.g. gonochorism). Additionally, societal norms may have led to incorrect null hypotheses such as females not mating multiply.

Abstract

Does the progress in understanding evolutionary theory depend on the species that is doing the investigation? This question is difficult to answer scientifically, as we are dealing with an n = 1 scenario: every individual who has ever written about evolution is a human being. I will discuss, first, whether we get the correct answer to questions if we begin with ourselves and expand outwards, and second, whether we might fail to ask all the interesting questions unless we combat our tendencies to favour taxa that are close to us. As a whole, the human tendency to understand general biological phenomena via ‘putting oneself in another organism's shoes’ has upsides and downsides. As an upside, our intuitive ability to rethink strategies if the situation changes can lead to ready generation of adaptive hypotheses. Downsides occur if we trust this intuition too much, and particular danger zones exist for traits where humans are an unusual species. I argue that the levels of selection debate might have proceeded differently if human cooperation patterns were not so unique, as this brings about unique challenges in biology teaching; and that theoretical insights regarding inbreeding avoidance versus tolerance could have spread faster if we were not extrapolating our emotional reactions to incest disproportionately depending on whether we study animals or plants. I also discuss patterns such as taxonomic chauvinism, i.e. less attention being paid to species that differ more from human-like life histories. Textbooks on evolution reinforce such biases insofar as they present, as a default case, systems that resemble ours in terms of life cycles and other features (e.g. gonochorism). Additionally, societal norms may have led to incorrect null hypotheses such as females not mating multiply.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:07 Faculty of Science > Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies
Dewey Decimal Classification:570 Life sciences; biology
590 Animals (Zoology)
Language:English
Date:2017
Deposited On:17 Jan 2018 18:52
Last Modified:19 Feb 2018 10:19
Publisher:Royal Society Publishing
ISSN:0962-8452
OA Status:Closed
Free access at:Publisher DOI. An embargo period may apply.
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2017.1652

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