Monday, October 17, 2016

Extending evolutionary theory? - Susan Antón

I will be attending the Royal Society Meeting on New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives. I'll post each of the abstracts and ask for your help in deciding what question to pose to the speakers. Here's the abstract for Susan Antón's talk on Human evolution, niche construction and plasticity.

Recent humans are biocultural organisms. Our worldwide distribution and status as the lone surviving species of our genus signal a level of evolutionary success often explained by both biological and cultural mechanisms. A bio-behavioural package of traits that co-exist in Homo sapiens, including large brains and bodies, small teeth and jaws, extensive cooperative care, a great deal of developmental plasticity, and an extensive amount of niche construction, are variously implicated in our success or seen as its result.

It is broadly accepted that recent humans are ‘different’, particularly in the extent of our cultural interventions, than our earlier hominin forebears. But whether this is a difference in kind or degree, how far back that difference stretches, and whether those outcomes modifiable over an individual’s lifetime are important to human evolution is open to debate. Regardless of whether we accept exogenetic changes – including developmental niche construction – as consistent with an extension of, or break with the evolutionary synthesis, Homo erectus has often been proposed as the locus at which more ‘human like’ modes of behaviour (and presumably more biocultural evolution) is seated. But the paucity of the fossil record and the tenuously established links between bones and behaviours of interest limit our ability to test these assertions. I review the evolution of Homo and recent attempts to locate the transition to a biocultural organism with new data and by both working back from recent humans through archaeological time and working forward from ancestral genera.
Susan Antón is a professor of anthropology at New York University (New York, NY, USA).

It's interesting to learn about the history of life and the evolution of a particular species. However, that specific history usually doesn't usually have much impact on evolutionary theory. I wonder if some speakers are confused about the relationship between studying the history of life and the big picture of evolutionary theory? I fail to see how this study translates to a deeper understanding of the evolution of mushrooms, maple trees, and microbacteria.


24 comments :

  1. Most of the talks given at this symposium are dealing with subjects that IMO do not warrant an overhaul a lá EES. This doesn't mean that mathematical frameworks shouldn't be developed for them (e.g., cultural evolution, niche construction). However, the only listed talk that really pushes the envelope is epigenetic inheritance, with talks with Eva Jablonka and Paul Griffiths. The crucial questions about this is 1) whether there is any or substantial epigenetic inheritance that spans more than a finite number of generations, and 2) whether and how the epigenetically inherited variation is influenced by the environment, rather than being random with respects to the traits (just like other mutations).

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  2. First, biologists should all make an effort to use cladistics instead of Linnaean taxonomy. In this case it doesn't make much difference since the Hominin clade and Homo genus are the same, it is still important to use cladistics since it doesn't suffer from the subjectivity the same way that Linnaean taxonym. Stepping down from my cladistics soap box . . .

    Every species is different in some way. Defining a term so that only one species meets that definition in no way indicates that this species is special since this could be done with every single species. We could make separate definitions for chimps, gorillas, and orangutans. In fact, we could produce different definitions for bonobos and chimps. Once again, we see people worrying more about definitions than actually explaining the underlying biology.

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  3. Well in the case of humans I would certainly argue that their "specific history" has much to teach us about the big picture of evolutionary theory, particularly in extending specific ways in which evolution can occur. For example, one can model cultural evolution and its control on a phenotypic trait as a two-locus system (both the cultural trait--e.g., a behavioral preference--and the phenotypic trait are each controlled by a single locus, and the two loci are linked). Non-genetic cultural transmission of the cultural trait can have implications for the evolution of the phenotypic trait. Another example is Alan Rogers' model of "accumulated wealth and bequeathments", since humans are the among the only creatures to typically store wealth and then leave it for subsequent generations--"heritable wealth." Modeling this process has implications for life history trade-offs in terms of offspring quality and quantity. Another example is dual-inheritance theory of Boyd, Richerson, McElreath, Henrich and others. In all cases I would suggest that human's "specific history" has taught us something new about how evolutionary processes can act on populations. Many of these modelling efforts need not be limited to humans, but could also be applied to other cultural creatures (dolphins, elephants, chimpanzees), but certainly they were initially explored because of humanity's idiosyncratic evolutionary history.

    That doesn't sound like what Anton will talk about though...

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  4. Humans have introduced genetic engineering and intelligent design into evolutionary theory. This seems like a big deal to me - speeding up evolution in a manner broadly similar to the evolution of sex. As a result, in an evolutionary eyeblink, we have travelled to the moon and sent probes to other planets.

    Innovations that affect evolutionary theory do happen from time to time. It is part of the evolution of evolvability. Think of the first parasite, the first predator or the first sexual recombination, for example. Now we have seen the first engineer. There are going to be more of them. This is, in fact, a big deal.

    Innovations don't have to affect the whole tree of life to be significant to evolutionary theory. The invention of sex didn't make much difference to asexual creatures. At least not straight away. However, engineering is already having a large impact - including on engineered mushrooms, engineered trees, and engineered bacteria. It seems hard to dispute its significance.

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  5. This conference has a very strange mix. The one thing I can say for it is that they aren't just going back to the usual suspects. Does anyone know what is the overlap with the creepily political "third way"? http://www.thethirdwayofevolution.com/people

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    1. Some of the same suspects. The main thing about The Third Way of Evolution is that there are about 50 different ways, all imagined to somehow be a single "way". It reminds one of the famous line from the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock that his hero "galloped madly off in all directions".

      Since not all of them will be at that meeting, they will probably gallop madly off in only 15 or 20 directions.

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    2. I should add that Denis Noble is a central figure in both the Third Way website and the Royal Society conference.

      I wouldn't say that "creepily political" is the best description of either. "Silly" is much more accurate.

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    3. To correct the URL: here is the link to The Third Way of Evolution.

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    4. The "first way" is naturalistic evolution. The "second way" seems to be Young Earth Creationism" and its close relatives.

      I can't help but think the "third way' is some hybrid version that involves religion. If not, what's the point of even mentioning creationism?

      Arlin's description (creepily political) seems appropriate but so does Joe's description (silly). They are not mutually exclusive!

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    5. (had to edit my comment) I say "creepily political" because the "third way" meme means finding middle ground between two entrenched parties (a la Bill Clinton or Tony Blair), and the only two entrenched parties that seem to be relevant here are the ones that Larry names, on opposite sides of the culture war in the US. Is the third way a compromise between Darwinism and creationism-ID? Actually, it isn't just Brits, but people from all over, and the US people are mostly not biologists. Maybe that is the explanation for the inappropriate name-- the lack of an American sensibility about the creation-evolution war. Scott Gilbert is the only person on that list who is in the US and comes from the evolutionary biology tradition. The rest of these people just don't realize how inappropriate it seems to us here, to appear to be extending an olive branch to science denialism.

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    6. There are some other people like Helena Caporale and Stuart Newman who are in the US and have a biology background, but they are edge cases, in a sense. Newman originally came from physics, and this is probably important for his outlook. Caporale has more of a molecular biology background.

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    7. One interpretation of the phrase "Third Way" is that it implies that contemporary evolutionary biology is so wrongheaded that a whole new theory has to be founded. This is somewhat contradictory to the name of the Royal Society meeting which involves Extending the evolutionary synthesis. The overlap of people involved makes these terminologies puzzling.

      In any case, the views at the Third Way website are so diverse and contradict each other so much that it is not possible to make a single Way out of them.

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    8. In any case, the views at the Third Way website are so diverse and contradict each other so much that it is not possible to make a single Way out of them.

      Yes, but The 3...n Ways of Evolution doesn't make for a snappy website title.

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    9. Nor does creationism constitute a way "of evolution", so even if the Third Way is only one Way, it's actually the Second Way.

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    10. I wonder if the First Way was supposed to be natural selection and the Second Way was supposed to be neutral theory. Don't they ever specify what the first two Ways are?

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    11. By the Way, Three Ways is spaghetti, chili, and cheese.

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    12. And Adam and Eve on a Raft is bacon and eggs on toast, but we digress.... :-)

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    13. @John: I wonder if the First Way was supposed to be natural selection and the Second Way was supposed to be neutral theory. Don't they ever specify what the first two Ways are?

      Their main statement makes it clear that number 1 is creationism, which they however say isn't science, and number 2 is "neo-darwinism", which they define very narrowly, so lots of phenomena need a Thitd Way.

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  6. Now that memetics is already 10 years dead, even while the high-jacked term 'meme' continues to live on (as in viral media), the notion of 'niche construction' appears now to be the strongest argument in the 'cultural evolution' camp. Would anyone disagree & offer an alternative leader in the field of 'cultural evolution,' i.e. the main topic of Day 3?

    Anton is more biological/physical anthropologist than cultural anthropologist. This also indicates her typically biologistic position towards humanity. Not really 'philosophical and social sciences perspectives' credentials for Royal Society meeting in Anton.

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  7. "the Royal Society meeting which involves Extending the evolutionary synthesis. The overlap of people involved makes these terminologies puzzling." - Joe Felsenstein

    Yes, I agree it does. That's why I'm offering a 'fourth way'. Or is it a fifth? Or seventh? Lol. It is post-Darwinian or extra-Darwinian (depending how you slice or fuse it), and either non-Darwinian or contra-Darwinian. But that shouldn't bother most natural scientists other than those concerned with time scales. I'll link to it here soon.

    I'm curious, Joe, what's with capitalising Extending? Just a typo or something more to it? Do you just mean biological extension or a more inter- or trans-disciplinary term?

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    1. @Gregory: I'm curious, Joe, what's with capitalising Extending? Just a typo or something more to it? Do you just mean biological extension or a more inter- or trans-disciplinary term?

      Nothing that exciting. I was just referring to the fact that the word was used in the title of the Royal Society meeting, hence was capitalized. Perhaps I should have used quotes instead.

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    2. Which title & meeting? The upcoming Royal Society meeting is called "New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives." Nothing there about Extending, though they are surely interested in the extension, if not over-extension of evolutionary ideas.

      Do you mean 'biological extension' sounds exciting?

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    3. @Gregory: You're right, they don't say "Extending", so my error. However they do say:

      Developments in evolutionary biology and adjacent fields have produced calls for revision of the standard theory of evolution, although the issues involved remain hotly contested.

      So it's "revision" which can mean almost anything.

      There have been calls in the last few years for an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, but this event does not use that adjective.

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    4. Yeah, I'm not really much interested in 'revision' either. Developments, yes, and those include theories. Something major is going to happen by Nov. 09, but probably not due to the biologists. It's the "philosophical and social science perspectives" that makes this meeting so dangerous for Darwinists and evolutionists. You don't get to parade for 3 days with your a little-bit extended, somewhat extended, actually really extended, perhaps even over-extended views of 'evolution', only for 2 days. There's no getting around that one now. On the 3rd day, humanising hope will rise again from SSH, but not due to the official Royal Society speakers.

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