The main premise of the article is revealed in the short blurb under the title: "On the 60th anniversary of the double helix, we should admit that we don't fully understand how evolution works at the molecular level, suggests Philip Ball."The worst thing about the Nature article was the misuse of the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology. The second worst thing was the "revelation" that genes are regulated by regulatory sequences as if that was a new discovery. (He mentions the ENCODE results.)
What nonsense! We understand a great deal about how evolution works at the molecular level.
The best thing about the article was that Philip Ball seemed to understand random genetic drift and Neutral Theory and seemed to realize that there is more to evolution than just natural selection. However, his main theme was that there's lots we don't know about evolution and somehow the general public isn't being told about "... doubts, debates and discussions that are leaving the putative 'age of the genome' with more questions than answers."
My own view is that we are far, far, more certain about molecular mechanisms of evolution than Philip Ball imagines. Most of what he perceives as new and controversial was actually settled many decades ago in the 1960s.
Philip Ball read the recent Science article by Rosenberg and Queitsch (2014). I've already pointed out the deficiencies in that article [How does molecular biology overthrow the Modern Synthesis?]. Let's see how Philip Ball responds to that article in light of the feedback he received when he published last year. Here's a link to his recent blog post: Molecular mechanisms of evolution.
Let's begin by reminding ourselves that the old Modern Synthesis has been substantially revised and updated with the development of Neutral Theory and the recognition that random genetic drift is a major player in evolution. Those changes to modern evolutionary theory took place over forty years ago.
Here's what Philip Ball thinks today. Keep in mind that Philip Ball is a science writer—it's part of his job to keep up with the science he writes about.
“Molecular mechanisms that generate biological diversity are rewriting ideas about how evolution proceeds”. I couldn’t help noticing how similar that sounds to what I was saying in my Nature article last spring, “Celebrate the unknowns”. Some people were affronted by that – although other responses, like this one from Adrian Bird, were much more considered. But this is the claim put forward by Susan Rosenberg and Christine Queitsch in an interesting commentary in Science this week. They point out (as I attempted to) that the “modern synthesis” so dear to some is in need of some modification.As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing in the Rosenberg and Queitsch paper that requires modification of current evolutionary theory as described in modern textbooks. That theory, let me remind you, has already moved far beyond the 1930s version of the Modern Synthesis.
Philip Ball continues ...
“Among the cornerstone assumptions [of the modern synthesis]”, say Rosenberg and Queitsch, “were that mutations are the sole drivers of evolution; mutations occur randomly, constantly, and gradually; and the transmission of genetic information is vertical from parent to offspring, rather than horizontal (infectious) between individuals and species (as is now apparent throughout the tree of life). But discoveries of molecular mechanisms are modifying these assumptions.” Quite so.This is the part that really makes me angry. Why in the world do Philip Ball, Susan Rosenberg and Christine Queitsch think that our 21st century view of evolution is 80 years old? It's because they haven't kept up.
This is all no great surprise. Why on earth should we expect that a theory drawn up 80 or so years ago will remain inviolable today?
As I am sure Darwin expected, evolution is complex and doesn’t have a single operative principle, although obviously natural selection is a big part of it. (I need to be careful what I say here – one ticking off I got was from a biologist who was unhappy that I had over-stressed natural selection at the molecular level, which I freely confess was a slight failure of nerve – I have found that saying such things can induce apoplexy in folks who see the shadows of creationism everywhere.) My complaint is why this seemingly obvious truth gets so little airplay in popular accounts of genetics and evolution. I’m still puzzled by that.There are two problems here. Why has this "seemingly obvious truth" escaped the notice of some scientists, like, I suspect, Rosenberg and Queitsch, and why doesn't the general public have a better understanding of current evolutionary theory. (BTW, I suspect that I'm the "biologist" he refers to since we had an exchange of emails.)
We can blame the second problem on science writers who have not made the effort to keep up with evolutionary biology and population genetics. They don't explain it to the general public because they don't get it themselves.
The first problem is our fault. We are letting students graduate with Ph.D.s in biology without understanding evolution. It's no wonder that when they start their own research labs they perpetuate these misunderstandings of evolution among their own students.
Maybe Philip Ball has seen the light. Maybe he now realizes that the old-fashioned, 80-year-old version of the Modern Synthesis was abandoned by the experts a long time ago and that he (Philip Ball) just didn't notice. That would be nice ...
I realise now that kicking off my piece with ENCODE was something of a tactical error (even though that study was what began to raise these questions in my mind), since the opposition to that project is fervent to the point of crusading in some quarters. (My own suspicion is that the ENCODE team did somewhat overstate their undoubtedly interesting results.) Epigenetics too is now getting the backlash for some initial overselling. I wish I’d now fought harder to keep in my piece the discussion of Susan Lindquist’s work on stress-induced release of phenotypic diversity (S. Lindquist, Cold Spring Harb. Symp. Quant. Biol. 74, 103 (2009)), which is mentioned in the Science piece – but there was no room.Doesn't look promising. The real challenges to the 80-year-old Modern Synthesis come from Neutral Theory and random genetic drift. The things that Rosenberg and Queitsch write about are not new and not significant.
If science writers really want to educate the general public, they need to stop publicizing the trivial and ridiculous claims about overthrowing the Modern Synthesis coming from scientists who don't understand that the real revolution took place before they became scientists.
Rosenberg, S.M. and C. Queitsch (2014) Combating Evolution to Fight Disease. Science 343:1088-1089. [doi: 10.1126/science.1247472]