Writing for public audiences, and often even for themselves, biologists are not loath to make simplifying claims about uniqueness and importance that are rhetoric disguised as fact. Such generalizations serve purposes in the doing of science, but are often not themselves testable scientific claims and are subject to biases. Evolutionary biology may be especially vulnerable to hype, as suggested by the frequency with which revolutionary evolutionary claims in top-notch journals are debunked. Additionally, anthropocentrism, as it grades into "zoocentrism" and then "eukaryocentrism," surely remains a subtle distorter of objectivity.
Our aim here is to critique general claims about the uniqueness and special importance of eukaryogenesis, with an aim to making them more open to question and conceptual and empirical analysis. We ask (i) whether eukaryogenesis entailed such a "genuinely unlikely sequence of events" as to justify belief in its uniqueness as a process, (ii) if, as is often claimed, eukaryogenesis has a problematic or unique theoretical status in evolutionary biology, (iii) what intrinsic features might have conferred on eukaryotes their presumed "richer evolutionary potential," and (iv) if this greater potential might be just a presumption, an illusion reflecting eukaryocentric bias.
There are many useful ways of understanding evolution, and their articulations can be intellectually valuable and experimentally fruitful. We advocate a more self-conscious pluralism that would require not that we stop telling eukaryogenesis stories but that we do recognize them for what they are. We do not claim to know whether there is any best story, any theory by which the apparent differential success of eukaryotes can be objectively probed and causally rationalized. What we have questioned here is whether premises of existing theories have been objectively formulated and whether, despite widespread acceptance that eukaryogenesis was "special," any such notion has more than rhetorical value.
Booth, A. and Doolittle, W.F. (2015) Eukaryogenesis, how special really? Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) Published online before print April 16, 2015 [doi: 10.1073/pnas.1421376112]