A recent editorial in the magazine New Scientist caught my eye. The title is "Long Live Evolution" and it offers support for "new ideas" about evolution. The online version is titled Darwin’s beautiful theory must itself be allowed to evolve. The author is not identified; I assume it's one of the editors.Here's the opening paragraph ...
Nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of population genetics.
Michael Lynch (2007)
Darwin's great theory must itself be allowed to evolveThere is no such thing as "THE" theory of evolution. Evolutionary theory is complex. It covers several mechanisms (natural selection, random genetic drift) and its core is population genetics—something that was unknown in Darwin's time.
THE theory of evolution is a splendid thing: an elegant and utterly logical explanation for how natural selection solves the problems of survival and creates the enormous diversity of life we see in the world around us.
We know that Darwin’s hypothesis of natural selection ... was correct, but we also know that there are more causes of evolution than Darwin realized ...
Douglas Futuyma (2009)
The New Scientists editor is describing the theory of natural selection but he/she even gets that wrong because most of life's diversity is probably NOT due to natural selection.
The irony here is that New Scientist then goes on to say ...
That brings to the fore areas that are not part of the canon of evolutionary theory: epigenetics, for example, which studies how organisms are affected by changes in the ways in which genes are expressed, rather than in the genes themselves.
Attempts to incorporate such elements into evolutionary theory have not always been welcomed, however. That is understandable, given how successful the theory has been without them. Occam’s razor applies: do not add complications unless they are absolutely necessary.
But another motivating factor is undoubtedly the fear that if scientists themselves are seen to suggest that even small details of the theory of evolution could be improved upon, its detractors will seize upon them with avidity. This is a well-founded fear: it happens all the time, with well-funded and highly visible front organisations distorting scientific discussion to create the false impression of disagreement about the basics of evolutionary theory.
It is a fear scientists need to overcome, lest the admirable defence of truth mutates into defensiveness and rigidity. It is one thing to counter reactionaries who reject evolution; it is quite another to be dismissive of or even hostile to scientists who have new ideas to offer.
If science journalists are going to write about whether epigenetics should be part of evolutionary theory then they better do their homework before criticizing prominent evolutionary biologists for being afraid of changing even "small details" of modern evolutionary theory. I suggest they start by reviewing some "small details" like Neutral Theory, random genetic drift, hierarchical theory, species selection, punctuated equilibria, sympatric speciation, group selection, directed mutation, cladistics, kin selection, selfish genes, endosymbiosis, and a host of other aspects of evolution that have been vigorously debated in the scientific literature over the past century.
Maybe after doing their homework they will realize that prominent evolutionary biologists who question epigenetics are not doing it because they fear change ... they're doing it because "epigenetics" has been debated for fifty years and it has little to do with modern evolutionary theory. Maybe the science journalists will realize that proponents of the "extended evolutionary synthesis" are as ignorant of modern evolutionary theory as they were before they did their homework.
The editorial ends with ...
Evolution is true. But it is also a living, breathing idea that must not be allowed to ossify into a dogma of the kind that it has done so much to sweep away.Ironically, the most common "dogma" is the false idea that evolutionary theory hasn't changed since Darwin's time and the editor of New Scientist is a prime example of this kind of ossification.