“Combative, petty and self-serving” — evolutionary biology at its best?

What’s wrong with evolutionary biologists? Are they crazy before they enter the field or is all that evolutionary stuff steadily driving them mad …

Just think of Dan Graur, who just called an EBI director “the scientific equivalent of Saddam Hussein.”




Recalcitrant troglodytes in their desert hideouts

But even the less crazy ones are more shouty and opinionated than your average scientist. Here is another example (hat tip Patrick!)

Mark Pagel from the University of Reading wrote the foreword to the book Modern Phylogenetic Comparative Methods and Their Application in Evolutionary Biology edited by László Zsolt Garamszegi in 2014.

And what an introduction to the field it is! Here is what Prof Pagel has to say about his colleagues, who don’t use comparative methods:

“Remarkably, this simple truth [= importance of comparative methods] has only become widely appreciated among evolutionary biologists in the last 25 years or so, and even today some recalcitrant troglodytes refuse to acknowledge it, or perhaps more charitably, the word has yet not filtered as far as their caves, or in one or two cases I know of, desert hideouts. But happily, these people are an ever-shrinking minority whose eventual extinction no one will record on a Red List (…)”

I admire his passion over questions of statistical methodology.

But there is more:

“The old-guard Feyerabend-esque naysayers who cling to the desperate belief that science is just the province of who can shout loudest, and most effectively corrupt and coerce others, all in pursuit of their favourite myths, should take stock of the field of comparative biology: combative, and yes, often petty and self-serving, it has in these past 25 years or [so] produced a steady, even if sometimes stumbling, triumph of the scientific method applied to this particular outpost of the field of evolution.”

Pagel obviously hasn’t read nor understood Feyerabend’s Against Method, but at least his foreword adds some spice to what could have become a pretty dry statistical tome.

Feyerabend-bashing brings me to my third example, Axel Meyer from Konstanz, who inadvertently helped kick-start this blog 4 years ago. If you need a reminder of this sad episode: In October 2011 PLoS Biology asked a philosopher and an evolutionary biologist to review Feyerabend’s book ‘The tyranny of science’. The philosopher did a good job. And I channeled my contempt of Meyer’s combative, petty and self-serving review into the first blog post I ever wrote. Well, at least something good came out of it.

Cheers for that …



4 thoughts on ““Combative, petty and self-serving” — evolutionary biology at its best?

  1. Dear Florian, generalization is *always* unfair. I concede that some statements can be surprising to say the least, but as I am sure you know, idiosyncrasies occur everywhere. There are all kind of people in any kind of field. This is not evolutionary biologist at its best, just the personal opinion of a few individuals. Take care, D


  2. I do not see Florian doing any generalisation, he wrote 3 specific characterisations, and (having met all the 3 mentioned evol. biologists) I would agree with at least one of them!

    (keep the good work, I discovered your posts about Feyerabend and I enjoy reading them! Always nice to see scientists getting genuine interest in philosophy!)


    1. Florian’ posts are always fun and inspiring, but if one does not want to generalize then it should say “What’s wrong with these three evolutionary biologists” . Indeed I am just being picky for the sake of fun 😉 We all generalize half of the time. No need to apologize. Thanks for your posts Florian!


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