Mark Buchanan believes that physics has entered a new era where it has gone beyond the fundamental forces into the realm of "collective phenomena". He claims that biology is about to do the same as he explains in an article that was just published in Nature Physics: "Collectivist Revolution in Evolution."
It now seems clear that biology may also have a second act linked to the widespread importance of collective phenomena. The explosion of genetic and genomic data, of course, has ushered in the era of systems biology, as biologists have come to recognize the need to gain a more holistic understanding of the functioning of organisms. But this may not be the most radical transformation in store for biological science. A coming revolution in biology, some suggest, may go so far as to unseat Darwinian evolution (ran in its modern form) from its position as the key explanatory process in biology, and may just bring back some form of Lamarckian evolution—that old idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics.No, it's not epigenetics, it's lateral gene transfer (LGT) that's going to unseat Darwinian evolution and bring back Lamarck.
Much of what he writes about LGT is correct. It does, indeed, make interpretation of molecular evolution more difficult, especially at the root. But some of his ideas do not represent the consensus view in biology: for example, the role of lateral gene transfer in the evolution of the genetic code.
The conjecture is that horizontal gene transfer was indeed required for the present genetic code to take the form it has, and that the emergence of life most likely went through a series of stages, with the early stage more Lamarckian in character, and only the latter stages becoming more Darwinian.This kind of hyperbole is not helpful. Shame on Nature Physics for publishing it.1
Exploring that point in greater detail will be a task for a new kind of biology, one that breaks with many of the presuppositions of traditional evolutionary thinking, and explores the potential for rich and surprising dynamics in a collective setting. It will almost surely benefit from the ideas and experience of physics, which has already experienced its own collectivist revolution.
1. I wonder if Nature Genetics publishes opinion pieces by evolutionary biologists on the overthrow of quantum mechanics?