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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Don't Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater

 
This summer, a number of people, including scientists and philosophers, will gather at the Konrad Lorenz Institute in Altenberg, Austria to talk about evolution. There will be 16 of them and the theme of the meeting is to develop a new theory of evolution. You can read about it in an article by Susan Mazur on Scoop [Mazur: Altenberg! The Woodstock of Evolution?].

The meeting is being organized by Massimo Pigliucci and that does not inspire confidence. Several of the other participants have pretty far-out ideas about evolution.

As most of you know, I'm a fan of Stephen Jay Gould and I support a pluralist approach to evolution. The journalist who wrote the article took the time to interview Richard Lewontin (see photo below) and several other prominent evolutionary biologists who were not invited to the meeting. Here's an excerpt from the article that illustrates one the problems with current thinking about evolution.

A central issue in making a new theory of evolution is how large a role natural selection, which has come to mean the weeding out of traits that don't favor survival, gets to play.

Natural selection was only part of Darwin's Origin of Species thinking. Yet through the years most biologists outside of evolutionary biology have mistakenly believed that evolution is natural selection.

A wave of scientists now questions natural selection's relevance, though few will publicly admit it. And with such a fundamental struggle underway, the hurling of slurs such as "looney Marxist hangover", "philosopher" (a scientist who can't get grants anymore), "crackpot", is hardly surprising.

When I asked esteemed Harvard evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin in a phone conversation what role natural selection plays in evolution, he said, "Natural selection occurs."

Lewontin thinks it's important to view the living world holistically. He says natural selection is not the only biological force operating on the composition of populations. And whatever the mechanism of passage of information from parent to offspring contributing to your formation, what natural selection addresses is "do you survive?"
If the meeting was only about the role of chance and accident in evolution then it would be a valuable contribution to evolutionary theory. Instead, as the article makes clear, the "New Evolution" will probably focus on the opposite point of view. You can expect to see heavy emphasis on design, epigenetics, evo-devo and on self-organization as a fundamental principle. (I'm surprised Lynn Margulis wasn't invited.)

These are difficult times for evolutionary theory. I firmly believe that new points of view have to be incorporated into an updated model of evolution. In most cases, these new points of view are not really new—they just haven't been widely accepted by most people who accept evolution. (I'm thinking of things like random genetic drift, punctuated equilibria, modes of speciation, molecular evolution, and our current understanding of how things work at the molecular level.)

Things get complicated because there are other points of view that are trying to capitalize on the current turmoil to push ideas that really lie on the fringe of kookdom. There's a great danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We might end up giving credence to some crazy ideas like Kaufmann's principle of self organization or Kirschner & Gerhart's idea of facilitated variation.

I don't see how most science journalists are going to thread their way through this complicated maze but I admire Suzan Mazur for trying.


12 comments :

  1. This is Pigliucci's position:

    Pigliucci, M. (2007) Do we need an extended evolutionary synthesis? Evolution, 61, 2743-2749.

    You can see a copy on his lab website:

    http://www.genotypebyenvironment.org/

    His point, as you can probably tell from the title, is about an extension, not a complete replacement.

    He says:

    Let me again be clear on a fundamental point underlying this whole discussion: one can reasonably argue that none of this contradicts any tenet of the MS, although it seems to me at least reasonable to concede that the new concepts and empirical findings I have briefly outlined above may eventually force a shift of emphasis away from the population genetic-centered view of evolution that characterizes the MS. On the other hand, to attempt to go further and state that there is not much new here and that all of this is already part of the MS, implicitly or not, would be intellectually disingenuous and historically inaccurate.

    and

    Be that as it may, the proof for the EES is in the pudding: it is up to those who advocate a significant expansion of theoretical biology (in the broader sense of conceptual understanding of the discipline’s foundations) to show tangible progress. It would be a shame, however, to curtail or dismiss the discussion in its infancy. Evolutionary biologists, whether they advocate theMSor the EES, have a lot ofwork to do to make sense of a rapidly growing amount of findings in molecular, developmental, and organismal biology. Instead of looking forward to retirement, we should appreciate what a truly exciting time is awaiting us all.

    I think it's an interesting summary, but then I'm not all that knowledgable. Massimo blogs, so hopefully he'll read this and come over for some spirited debate!

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  2. Larry,
    Don't be silly.
    No meeting is going to refound evolutionary theory , and much less, no one is going to refound it incorrectly.
    I'd honestly advise YOU to not throw out the baby with the water about what Pigliucci, Kauffman, Gerhart and others have to say about evolution. I have strong disagreements with all of these authors, but I also agree with some of their better points (which also happens to me with Gould and Lewontin) .
    Your post seems to consider concepts like epigenetics and self-organization to be kookisk...I think this reflects you own prejudice and ignorance. And that's it.
    (look at a chart of metabolic pathways...lots of closed circles, huh? that kookish self-organization is right there, evident in your lab's wall)
    rather than dedicate yourself to classifying some people as kooks and dismiss everything they say, I suggest that you sieve what the say, and cease to throw the baby out of the water. Grow up.

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  3. Interesting post. I like the expression "Fringe of Kookdom". Must remember that!

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  4. I found the Mazur article a bit of a mess. It mixed together people who want to extend evolutionary theory in potentially interesting ways with people who think that natural selection is not the source of adaptive information in the genome. It did not make any real distinction between them -- and there is a big difference there. It also presented scientists who argue that natural selection is the source of adaptive information as intimidated by pressure from granting agencies to toe the natural selection line. This is nonsense (granting agencies can be more fairly criticized for too often ignoring evolution).

    In any case holding a meeting to formulate a new synthesis might work only if it were pretty-well gelled already -- and that is not the case. There might be a lot of interesting things said at that meeting, but I very much doubt that a comprehensible new synthesis will emerge from it.

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  5. heh I flipped out at the 'interviews', thinking they were people invited to the conference.

    Look, with epigenetics you have to be careful-- Woo-meisters luv epigenetics because they dont understand it and it sounds like magic.

    Im scared to death over a paper we have coming out and the implications of some of my research because I *know* wooers are going to freak out over it.

    But its not woo. Its just biochemistry.

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  6. there is a big differnce between knowing that many woo people will hang to epigentics, and wondering yourself whether epigentics is woo. The latter is more typical if you are ignorant and rely on hearsay and associations rather than science to "make up your mind" (this gossipy mentality is MUCH, MUCH more common in science than what you may think when people are basically opining about what they know nothing about and somehow consider it a menace)

    Remember: woo people can use anything as inspiration; much like many eugencists, racists and an endeless list of crap consider themselves inspired by darwinism. But that doesn't mena that natural selection does not happen, doesn't it.

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  7. "natural selection , which has come to mean the weeding out of traits that don't favor survival"

    Whatever its importance (surprise, I think it's pretty damn important), may I point out that that's a really crappy definition of natural selection?

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  8. When Pigliucci says he favours a shift of emphasis away from the population genetic-centered view of evolution that characterizes the MS, he is favouring something that has been existing for at least 30 years. He can only be surprised at that if he got into evolutionary biology on a heady rush of Dawkins admiration, was not looking at what was really being done, and got very disappointed by the sterility of the Dawkins view. Pigliucci’s statement: . On the other hand, to attempt to go further and state that there is not much new here and that all of this is already part of the MS, implicitly or not, would be intellectually disingenuous and historically inaccurate. is disingenuous itself. The Modern Synthesis existed in the 1940’s, was experimentally corroborated in the fifties, but has been only background since the sixties. It has been added on by the inclusion of ecology, behaviour, molecular biology and developmental biology since, without any labelling of an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis.
    The weakness of Pigliucci is not the validity of extending evolutionary biology, but his self-appointed role as trendsetter and arbiter.

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  9. "A wave of scientists now questions natural selection's relevance, "

    Is this true? (and does it mean what it appears to mean?)

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  10. Mazur wrote:

    A wave of scientists now questions natural selection's relevance, though few will publicly admit it. And with such a fundamental struggle underway, the hurling of slurs such as "looney Marxist hangover", "philosopher" (a scientist who can't get grants anymore), "crackpot", is hardly surprising.

    This is why I object to Mazur's article, and why Larry was worried about babies and bath water. The "wave of scientists" is mostly people like Pivar, woo-woo types, and the ID / creationist people. The 16 invitees to Pigliucci's meeting do not, as far as I know "question natural selection's relevance". Using the 16 as evidence for this "wave of scientists" is misleading.

    So in answer to divalent's question, no, Mazur's statement is not true.

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  11. I think the problem with the article is that it identified the views of the likes of Pivar and Fodor with the workshop. These types are not even invited, and in my view have nothing to contribute. If you look at the list of actual invitees, it is not that scary; Greg Wray and Sergey Gavrilets and many others are certainly company I am not afraid to be seen in.

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  12. I would like to second Gunter's post yesterday. The Mazur article is fairly hodge-podge as well as overblown. I was surprised to hear that I was in company with people who question selection - I doubt whether that characterizes most of the workshop attendees. Plus being a little hilarious - my entire research program is on documenting selection and adaptation at the molecular level!

    Having said all that, I do think it is time some serious issues need to be discussed with regards to how we try to incorporate some new facets into evolutionary thinking and hopefully the meeting can air out some of these issues.

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