Monday, October 19, 2009

An Exposé of the Evolution Industry?

Susan Mazur is a science writer. A few years ago she got wind of a conference that was planed for Altenberg in Austria. This was going to be a small meeting for 16 biologists who were promoting some unusual perspectives on evolution.

She started to write about this meeting, promoting the idea that there was some sort of conspiracy to overthrow modern evolutionary theory. She managed to raise enough of a stink that the odor reached Science and Nature. [See The Altenberg 16 Make It into Nature.]

Of course, by the time Nature got on to the story it was easy to debunk the conspiracy theory and demonstrate that some of the Altenberg 16 were, how shall I put it? ... not in the mainstream of biological thinking [Biological theory: Postmodern evolution?].

Susan Mazur contacted me at the beginning of this episode and I tried to help her understand the difference between legitimate controversies in science and pseudo-controversies promoted by kooks. For a while I thought she was making progress but this turned out to be an illusion. She soon discovered that there was more fame and glory to be had by associating with the kooks than by siding with good science.

But here's the problem. There really are some important issues in evolutionary biology that need to be worked out. I think the so-called "Modern Synthesis" (hardened version) has to be extended in order to incorporate a more pluralist ic view [We Need to Soften the Modern Synthesis]. In that sense, I agree with some of the participants at the Alternberg meeting. However, they made a big mistake by including other, not-so-legitmate, controversies. That allows many evolutionary biologists to dismiss the entire exercise; as reported by Elizabeth Pennisi, in Science [Modernizing the Modern Synthesis].
That hyperbole has reverberated throughout the evolutionary biology community, putting Pigliucci and the 15 other participants at the forefront of a debate over whether ideas about evolution need updating. The mere mention of the "Altenberg 16," as Mazur dubbed the group, causes some evolutionary biologists to roll their eyes. It's a joke, says Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago in Illinois. "I don't think there's anything that needs fixing." Mazur's attention, Pigliucci admits, "frankly caused me embarrassment."
Jerry Coyne was wrong. There are some things that need fixing. Anyone who has read Stephen Jay Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory should know that.

Susan Mazur has now published the book that we all expected. As you can see from the title, the theme is still conspiracy, plus the idea that evolution is in trouble. It would have been great if Mazur had focused on the real problems in evolutionary theory and helped the general public understand that some of the "controversies" are not legitimate.

Alas, that lofty goal is too difficult for her. We'll have to wait until a better science writer picks up the baton.


  1. Breathlessly enthusiastic review from O'Leary coming in 3...2...1...

  2. Eamon beat me to it! I was about to say the same thing - hyperbolic manufactoversy from O'Leary any moment now. She is so predictable (it's got to the point that I can tell her pieces just by reading the titles).

    Larry - you live in Toronto - why don't you run over to her place and give a placade with "The End of Darwinism is Nigh" that she can parade up and down the streets?

  3. I see that the endorsement on the front cover of this book is by the famous and distinguished evolutionary biologist, Roger Morris.

    No wait...apparently he's not an evolutionary biologist. And in fact he's apparently not a scientist at all, but the biographer of Richard Nixon (and the Clintons too but curiously that doesn't get a mention). Who better to comment on the future of evolution, huh? I heard that she was oriignally going to ask her hairdresser for an endorsement but she was too busy writing the forewood for Dawkins latest book.

  4. I think that some of the Altenburg 16 have good ideas, while others are indeed kooks.

    I think that self-organization is likely a real force in evolution, as some participants propose. The hand-waving of people like Larry will not make this issue go away.

    Having conferences about real evolutionary issues is not a problem.

    But having breathless reporters who don't know what the hell they are talking about is a gigantic problem.

  5. There is a lot of stupid-talk going on in evolutionary biology, specially from adaptationism and it's birthchild, evolutionary psychology. It's is no surprise that Coyne would turn his head away from thid problem, since he belongs squarely within the adpataionist camp denying any true importance to anything but natural selection (drift development, symbiosis , phenotypic plasticity,mutations with strong effects, you name it).
    You can't take people like this seriously. They are just being ideological and turning their back onto the true diveristy of legitimate scientific opinion and biological phenomena. It's stupid, and even more sad when characters like these portray themselves as representatives of "rationalims". A sorry sight.
    A pseudorationalist ideologue like this is far more corrosive than any "kook" (scientist with a highly heterodox proposal)

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  7. I enjoyed this paper by Massimo Pigliucci:

    Pigliucci, M. 2007. Do we need an extended evolutionary synthesis? Evolution 61(12):2743-9.

  8. as a criticism to the more "heterodox" evolutionary biologists, too much has been talked about having a revolution, and while there are good theoretical reasons for demanding revolution, we shoul spend more time on new research programs than proclaiming revolution.

  9. I recently went to a talk by Lynn Margulis. Her abundant examples of symbiosis in speciation and adaptation are a nice example of a well-based, empirically strong argument for fundamental things that were left out of the "modern synthesis"