Interview in Ready Steady Book:
Marek Kohn is a writer who lives in Brighton. His most recent book, A Reason For Everything: Natural Selection and the English Imagination, looks at the key thinkers behind the development of evolutionary theory in Britain, and why these ideas have thrived better in Britain than in other countries. His previous books have looked at drug culture, race, and the evolution of the human mind. Marek Kohn was talking to Stuart Watkins and Dave Flynn.
RSB: In your most recent book, A Reason For Everything, you talk about the different impact Darwinian thinking has had in Britain compared with the rest of Europe and the US. How do you account for this difference?
Marek Kohn: The distinguishing feature of English evolutionary thought has been its attitude to adaptation. An adaptationist tends to see the work of natural selection in every aspect of an organism – a reason for everything. You see bands on a snail’s shell: you wonder what good the bands do for the snail. And you go out into the field, and you look for possible reasons for them. In the case of the snails there’s a camouflage effect – different coloured or banded shells are better suited to different habitats, such as leaf litter or grass. Not the whole story but a robust example of English adaptationism in practice.
The palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould called this the British “hang-up”, and his colleague the geneticist Richard Lewontin said that it arose in large part from the fascination for butterflies, snails, birds and gardens typical of the pre-war upper middle class from whose ranks these scientists mostly came. True enough, though it doesn’t acknowledge the fascination with natural history that used to run right across the social spectrum. Also one can see its roots in Victorian natural history, which of course is where all this began. As Alfred Russel Wallace observed, it was a fascination with species and the subtle distinctions between them – beetle-collecting – that allowed him and Darwin to realise, independently, how natural selection works.
If by contrast your vision is shaped, as that of their counterparts on the continent was, by idealist philosophy, you are unlikely to see what is going on in nature. Idealism is concerned with ideal types and therefore discounts variation as ‘noise’. You need to be fascinated by variation to see natural selection, because variations are what nature selects.
More here. [Thanks to Mark Thwaite.]