There are two problems with this funding. The first is the source of the funds. I agree with Jerry Coyne and many others that Templeton Fund money is tainted because the clear purpose of the fund is to lend credence to religion [Templeton keeps up the woo]. Templeton will only fund projects that advance that objective.
The second problem is the science. The advocates of EES promote things like "developmental plasticity," "niche construction," "evo-devo," and "epigenetics"—all of these phenomena are supposed to play a major role in evolutionary theory, a role that is not covered by the Modern Synthesis.
I think that all of these processes may play a role in explaining the history of life on Earth1 but so do plate tectonics, asteroid impacts, and endosymbiosis. The problem is that there's a difference between explaining the events behind the history of life and evolutionary theory. They are not the same thing.
The real question is whether any of these things need to be incorporated into modern evolutionary theory and whether they extend the Modern Synthesis. Personally, I don't think any of them make a significant contribution to evolutionary theory.
But my real beef is with the outdated view of evolution held by EES proponents. To a large extent they are fighting a strawman version of evolution. They think that the "Modern Synthesis" or "Neo-Darwinism" is the current view of evolutionary theory. They are attacking the old-fashioned view of evolutionary theory that was common in the 1960s but was greatly modified by the incorporation of Neutral Theory and increased emphasis on random genetic drift. The EES proponents all seem to have been asleep when the real revolution occurred.
When you listen to them, you get the distinct impression they have never read The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme. I have no confidence in biologists who want to overthrow a view of evolutionary theory that's already been dead for half a century. I have no confidence in biologists who aren't at ease talking about non-adaptive evolution. This is the 21st century.2
Elizabeth Pennisi is all over this. She wrote an article for the April 22 (2016) edition of Science: Templeton grant funds evolution rethink. The opening sentence is very revealing ....
For many evolutionary biologists, nothing gets their dander up faster than proposing that evolution is anything other than the process of natural selection, acting on random mutations.Damn right! I'm not an evolutionary biologist but my dander gets up whenever scientists make such a ridiculous claim.
Help is one the way, according to Elizabeth Pennisi because the Templeton Foundation is funding research to show that there's more to evolution than natural selection. Unfortunately, the "extended" version doesn't include random genetic drift and modern population genetics.
No wonder some evolutionary biologists are uneasy with an $8.7 million grant to U.K., Swedish, and U.S. researchers for experimental and theoretical work intended to put a revisionist view of evolution, the so-called extended evolutionary synthesis, on a sounder footing. Using a variety of plants, animals, and microbes, the researchers will study the possibility that organisms can influence their own evolution and that inheritance can take place through routes other than the genetic material.I don't object to work on those subjects. My beef is with the idea that they pose a problem for our current understanding of evolutionary theory. More importantly, my main complaint is that the biologists who will spend all this money missed the real revolution that took place 50 years ago.
Here's how Pennisi describes the extended evolutionary synthesis. Her description is pretty accurate.
The extended evolutionary synthesis is a term coined in 2007 to imply that the preeminent current evolutionary theory, the so-called modern synthesis, needed to broaden its focus because it concentrated too much on the role of genes in evolution and lacked adequate incorporation of new insights from development and other areas of biology. The idea has gradually gathered momentum since its advocates first met in Germany in 2008 (Science, 11 July 2008, p. 196). Later, Kevin Laland, an evolutionary biologist at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom, and several colleagues took up the cause, arranging for a point-counterpoint discussion in Nature in 2014 and a comprehensive review last year in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B's annual Darwin Review.This is a profoundly adaptationist view of evolutionary theory. The "extended" version merely adds a few more mechanisms that might improve adaptation.
Advocates stress that animals, plants, and even microbes modify their environments, exhibit plasticity in their physical traits, and behave differently depending on the conditions they face. Chemical modifications of the DNA that affect gene activity—so-called epigenetic changes—seem to explain some of this flexibility. These and other factors suggest to some biologists that an organism's development is not simply programmed by the genetic sequences it inherits. For them, such plasticity implies that parents can influence offspring not just through their DNA but by passing on the microorganisms they host or by transmitting epigenetic marks to subsequent generations. “Innovation may be a developmental response that becomes stabilized through genetic changes,” explains Armin Moczek, an evolutionary developmental biologist at Indiana University, Bloomington.
Nor is evolution controlled only by natural selection, the winnowing process by which the fittest survive and reproduce, Laland and others argue. Organisms, by transforming their environments and responding to environmental factors, help control its course, they contend. As such, the extended synthesis “represents a nascent alternative conceptual framework for evolutionary biology,” Laland and dozens of colleagues wrote in a funding proposal to the Templeton Foundation last year.
Most of the EES proponents are working on animals, many are physiologists. They share an evo-devo view of evolution that emphasizes the role of natural selection. I share Michael Lynch's view that we live in a post-Darwinian world and nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of population genetics. I agree with him that most scientists think of evolution as a soft science and that includes many biologists. It includes most of the EES proponents who probably couldn't tell you anything about population genetics beyond the fact that it's too mathematical. That doesn't stop them from criticizing modern evolutionary theory.
Natural selection is just one of several evolutionary mechanisms, and the failure to realize this is probably the most significant impediment to a fruitful integration of evolutionary theory with molecular, cellular, and developmental biology.
Michael LynchHere's a quote from Michael Lynch's book The Origins of Genome Architecture. In my view, it describes the group who were awarded $8 million to overthrow modern evolutionary theory.
Despite the tremendous theoretical and physical resources now available, the field of evolutionary biology continues to be widely perceived as a soft science. Here I am referring not to the problems associated with those pushing the view that life was created by an intelligent designer, but to a more significant internal issue: a subset of academics who consider themselves strong advocates of evolution but who see no compelling reason to probe the substantial knowledge base of the field. Although this is a heavy charge, it is easy to document. For example, in his 2001 presidential address to the Society for the Study of Evolution, Nick Barton presented a survey that demonstrated that about half of the recent literature devoted to evolutionary issues is far removed from mainstream evolutionary biology.The real revolution was the incorporation of nonadaptive mechanisms into evolutionary theory and the overthrow of adaptationism. That revolution is not complete. There are still thousands of biologists who remain strict Darwinists even as they try to promote different ways of achieving adaptation. Those biologists still dominate the popular press (e.g. Elizabeth Pennisi) and they are largely responsible for skepticism about junk DNA. That has to change. Evo-devo types need to listen to Michael Lynch when he says ...
With the possible exception of behavior, evolutionary biology is treated unlike any other science. Philosophers, sociologists, and ethicists expound on the central role of evolutionary theory in understanding our place in the world. Physicists excited about biocomplexity and computer scientists enamored with genetic algorithms promise a bold new understanding of evolution, and similar claims are made in the emerging field of evolutionary psychology (and its derivatives in political science, economics, and even the humanities). Numerous popularizers of evolution, some with careers focused on defending the teaching of evolution in public schools, are entirely satisfied that a blind adherence to the Darwinian concept of natural selection is a license for such activities. A commonality among all these groups is the near-absence of an appreciation of the most fundamental principles of evolution. Unfortunately, this list extends deep within the life sciences.
Unfortunately, the emerging field of evolutionary developmental biology is based almost entirely on a paradigm of natural selection, and the near-absence of the concept of nonadaptive processes from the lexicon of those concerned with cellular and developmental evolution does not follow from any formal demonstration of the negligible contribution of such mechanisms but simply reflects the failure to consider them. [my emphasis ... LAM] There is no fundamental reason why cellular and developmental features should be uniquely immune to nonadaptive evolutionary forces. One could even argue that the stringency of natural selection is reduced in complex organisms with behavioral and/or growth from flexibilities that allow individuals to match their phenotypic capabilities to the local environment.
1. Some of them are trivial and some are ineffective but that's been debated many times. I want to emphasize the fact that EES proponents don't understand modern evolutionary theory.
2. To be fair, some of these proponents do pay lip-service to non-adaptive evolution from time to time but it's clear that they don't really get it.