I looked forward to this "conversation" because I was already familiar with Denis Noble and his strange views of evolution [A physiologist thinks about evolution]. Noble reiterated his view of modern evolutionary theory at the meeting. He thinks that modern evolutionary theory (The Modern Synthesis or Neo-Darwinism) is all about random mutation and natural selection. He thinks it is based on the views of Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. Neither he nor Michael Joyner (an anaethesiologist at the Mayo Clinic) have learned about random genetic drift or Neutral Theory and neither of them have much knowledge of population genetics. In other words, they are pretty ignorant about evolution even though they feel entitled to attack it.
It contains a number of papers from the usual suspects like James Shapiro and Eva Joyner as well as some others that are unfamiliar to me. None of the papers have anything to do with modern evolutionary theory as far as I can tell.
Don't be fooled. This is not about integrating modern evolutionary biology with physiology. The mood at the meeting was very antagonistic toward evolution. All the participants seem to be convinced that evolutionary biologists are gene-centered adaptationists who don't understand the importance of phenotype. They are certain that physiologists1 do understand phenotype and the connection between genes and phenotype—or rather the lack of connection.
They are convinced that epigenetics signals a return of Lamarck where the acquired physiological characteristics of an individual can be passed on to it's offspring and that this affects the evolution of the species in some unspecified way. They are convinced that plasticity means that evolutionary biologists are wrong. They claim that the discovery of variation between individual cells (e.g. the amounts of particular proteins) means that evolutionary biologists were wrong about the power of genes.
They believe that the failure of the human genome project to uncover the genetic basis of disease means that the core assumptions of gene-centered evolutionary biologists were wrong. The real basis of disease is much more complicated and physiologists are the only ones who known this. That's why they are primed to take over biology and lead scientists to a new understanding of evolution.
This is all in line with the ideas of The Third Way. Several of the "revolutionaries" listed on the site published papers in the special issue of The Journal of Physiology. Here's what the Third Way stands for ...
The vast majority of people believe that there are only two alternative ways to explain the origins of biological diversity. One way is Creationism that depends upon intervention by a divine Creator. That is clearly unscientific because it brings an arbitrary supernatural force into the evolution process. The commonly accepted alternative is Neo-Darwinism, which is clearly naturalistic science but ignores much contemporary molecular evidence and invokes a set of unsupported assumptions about the accidental nature of hereditary variation. Neo-Darwinism ignores important rapid evolutionary processes such as symbiogenesis, horizontal DNA transfer, action of mobile DNA and epigenetic modifications. Moreover, some Neo-Darwinists have elevated Natural Selection into a unique creative force that solves all the difficult evolutionary problems without a real empirical basis. Many scientists today see the need for a deeper and more complete exploration of all aspects of the evolutionary process.As far as I could tell, every physiologist at the session (about 100) fell hook-line-and-sinker for this nonsense.
Here's the last paragraph of the essay by Michael Joyner and Franklyn Prendergast in the journal.
We close this essay by postulating that there has been a pervasive influence of the gene centrism inherent in the Modern Synthesis in conjunction with the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology on biomedical thinking. We believe that this influence has now become counterproductive. Thus, it is critical for new ideas stemming from evolutionary biology highlighted in this special issue of The Journal of Physiology and elsewhere to more fully inform biomedical thinking about the complex relationship between DNA and phenotype. The time has come to stop chasing Mendel.The discipline should be embarrassed at this behavior. The journal should be embarrassed.
1. "Physiology" now means "human physiology." I don't think there were any plant physiologists or bacterial physiologists at the meeting.