Forget McCain – the Real Problem in the New York Times – Adaptationism

Unlike McCain and his followers, generally, I really like the New York Times, especially the Science articles. But they do continuously irk me in one area – they repeatedly include lame adaptationistic evolutionary arguments. Now I am not the only person in the bloggersphere railing against people who say something MUST be adaptive simply because it is there (Larry Moran is the most persistent and interesting critic of adaptationism out there).

This week the Times has a doozy in the article on “Play” from the Sunday Magazine. In the article, Robin Henig writes

If play is an extravagance, why has it persisted? It must have some adaptive function, or at least a benefit that outweighs its cost, or it would have been winnowed out by the forces of natural selection.”

This is nearly a PERFECT adaptationistic line. And more importantly, it is simply not true. Some things persist in biological systems even when they have a cost that outweighs the benefit. And other things persist when they are neutral. Now I am not saying one way or another whether play has a benefit (the article is interesting and reasonably sound in many ways). But such statements as the one quoted above show a common misunderstanding of evolution. Evolution is NOT only about beneficial things persisting and detrimental ones going away. It is much more complex and interesting in fact. If you want to learn more about the perils of adaptationism, go to Larry Moran’s blog. He really has some good stuff on it. Or go to the great gurus themselves – Gould and Lewontin.

Author: Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

2 thoughts on “Forget McCain – the Real Problem in the New York Times – Adaptationism”

  1. I think that the error with assuming that play is adaptive has little to do with adaptionism in general but rather with the faulty assumption that play is a genetic trait at all that needs an evolutionary explanation (adapative or not) rather than a social one.Through much of human history, persons who we would consider “children” today worked and had children themselves rather than spending their youth “playing”.


  2. to me that is part of adaptationism … observing some trait and assuming it must be adaptive is done regardless of whether people think about if it is genetic or not … so part of the flaw of adaptationistic arguments is that in some cases some traits are not even geneticsand this was in some interpretations believe part of the point of the Gould and Lewontin spandrel story …


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