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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Has John Brockman's stable lost its edge?

John Brockman is a famous literary agent. Over the years he has assembled a group of intellectuals, and people who aspire to be intellectuals. Every year they publish short articles on the question of the year at the Edge. Here's this year's question: annual question.
Science advances by discovering new things and developing new ideas. Few truly new ideas are developed without abandoning old ones first. As theoretical physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) noted, "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." In other words, science advances by a series of funerals. Why wait that long?


Ideas change, and the times we live in change. Perhaps the biggest change today is the rate of change. What established scientific idea is ready to be moved aside so that science can advance?
There was a time—about a decade ago—when reading the answers to the question was exciting and stimulating.

Jerry Coyne picks two answers that deal with evolution: The Edge question: two bad answers about evolution. Roger Highfield's answer to the question of what idea should be retired is "Evolution is true." Kevin Kelly thinks that the idea of "Fully random mutations" should be tossed in the scrap heap of history.

Jerry shows us why these guys are not intellectuals. Read his blog post.

Lest you think that Jerry found the only bad examples, let me point out another one. Athena Vouloumanos is a psychologist at New York University. The idea that she wants to retire is "Natural Selection is the Only Engine of Evolution." Excellent, I thought, at last somebody has a good answer. Alas, here's what she says ...
Epigenetic control of gene expression contributes to cells in a single organism (which share the same DNA sequence) developing differently into e.g. heart cells or neurons. But the last decade has shown actual evidence–and possible mechanisms–for how the environment and the organism's behavior in it might cause heritable changes in gene expression (with no change in the DNA sequence) that are passed onto offspring. In recent years, we have seen evidence of epigenetic inheritance across a wide range of morphological, metabolic, and even behavioral traits.

The intergenerational transmission of acquired traits is making a comeback as a potential mechanism of evolution. It also opens up the interesting possibility that better diet, exercise, and education which we thought couldn't affect the next generation–except with luck through good example–actually could.
If I had to give a reason why natural selection is not the only engine of evolution I would have picked something very different—something that's been around, and proven, for decades. Epigenetics requires DNA sequences and proteins and if epigenetic modification of a specific DNA site provides a selective advantage under some circumstances then that's natural selection in action.


  1. The intergenerational transmission of acquired traits is making a comeback as a potential mechanism of evolution.

    Oh please, not someone *else* convinced that what they've read means Lysenkoism is back again.

    1. Yeah, I don't get it either. There's nothing about epigenetics that isn't explained by simple biochemistry and evolution by natural selection. Am I missing something? Does a psychologist see something that I can't see because of bias and blinders?

    2. Psychologist sees " "new" " biology fad, doesn't understand/hasn't read what the literature says about ecological and evolutionary implications, writes about it ignoring the fact that it doesn't supersede what she claims it matches in importance. She's fighting a strawman (that's been dead since the 70's), very typical of people who misunderstand the subject they're musing on.

    3. What's so scary about Lysenkoism? Is this — — all guys are really decent scientists.
      Come on, this is a political buzz word, well derided by Lewontin in «Biology as Ideology». What do you know about Lysenkoism except PR rumours?
      I bet you have no idea even about Michurin.

  2. If a scientific idea can be retired then it was never worthy of being called a scientific idea.
    Science is , seemly, a methodology to ensure accuracy in confident conclusions.
    Evolutionary biology is not a biological scientific theory. Creationists defeating it once and for all will not be defeating a scientific idea but rather a unsupported hypothesis.
    Science ideas should be solid conclusions or it makes all conclusions suspect.
    if science exists it must not be possible for hypothesis on which science ideas are headed to the trash.
    It tells the public here science ideas are not very settled.

    1. Ol' Bobby B trolls on almost every science blog I read. Always a good laugh to read his ... interesting ... take on things.

    2. Another word salad from Booby Byers. An example showing that not all the looneys are in Canada's southern neighbor.

  3. I see nothing wrong with Kevin Kelly's piece (other than the lack of documentation of anything he is saying-- but it's not a scientific article, it's an opinion piece by a non-scientists). It is disingenuous to suggest that “random” has a special “evolutionary” meaning different from what the term normally means in science. In fact, this special meaning, which says nothing other than that mutation is not selection, was only invented to fend off the critique that “mutation is random” is deeply misleading, and is only pulled out by evolutionary biologists when someone challenges the idea that mutation is random. When we are not being challenged on this point, evolutionary biologists happily rely on the doctrine that mutation is random to justify EXACTLY the kinds of things that “random” NORMALLY means in science, and which are wrongly applied to mutation– namely that it is uniform, that it is spontaneous, that it is independent of other system variables, etc.

    1. I pretty much agree with Jerry's comments. Kevin Kelly's argument is based on the idea that evolutionary biologists think mutation is "fully random" but no evolutionary biologist thinks that. It's a strawman.

      Yes, it's true that evolutionary biologists often say that mutations are "random" when they mean that mutations are "unbiased with respect to whether new alleles are beneficial, detrimental, or neutral." I don't think this is a major sin.

      If Kelly's argument was that biologists should stop using "random" and use a better word then it would be a much stronger answer to the question. Instead, his argument seems to be that biologists don't know about hot spots. Arlin, do you have a better word?

    2. Jerry's choice of a word, indifferent, sounds attractive ("... the chance of a mutation arising is indifferent to whether it would be helpful or hurtful to the individual").

    3. Incidental. As in: point mutations are an incidental consequence of DNA polymerase activity. This would imply the notion that mutations are not directed in any fashion and certainly that they are not purpose-driven, without implying restrictions regarding the possible distribution of mutagenic events in a sequence.

      But really, does this even matter? Anyone (scientist or layperson) who is concerned about the cause and nature of mutations should be able to comprehend the several caveats and qualifications that attend the notion that a mutation may, and eventually will, occur at any site in a molecule with (very broadly speaking) equal frequency.

      Is this another case of how it is difficult to formulate succint definitions in biology that do not require qualifying sub-statements?

    4. Applying any word other than a neologism imports as a minimum one unwanted connotation. That's the principle of Erewegoagain. Internet discussion of science would dry to a trickle without it.

  4. I have not noticed anybody is retiring the old concept of spontaneous emergence of life....


    I don't mean to be picky, but scientist should by now agree, that life can't be recreated by our mere intelligence, so it must have been created by some higher intelligence and source of power...Unfortunately, this concept is prohibited in almost all scientific circles... Why???
    I guess if someone has even suggested such a thing would commit a scientific suicide.... since so many sciences rely on this very fuck; they seem to forget that if emergence of life by itself is impossible, the rest is worth just as much as my rant....

    1. Well, at least you realize your rant is worth nothing. That's progress.

    2. usually when the word fuck appears in a sentence, I get the point...but not in this case.

    3. since so many sciences rely on this very ...

      No sciences rely on this ... ummm ... whatever your Tourette's got in the way of actually saying. Abiogenesis research is the only area that assumes abiogenesis. And even they would not be devastated by discovering a magic ingredient. They would be held to a standard of evidence, is all.

    4. "a magic ingredient"

      This is where all theistic explanations of the real world break down.

      There are whole shelves of theology asking how a soul and body are connected. They infer there's this magic, eternal, important ... stuff, possibly a substance (at least in the sense that all souls are made of the same ... thing), and it's [something something] connected to the body by [EMERGENCY EMERGENCY NO IDEAS DETECTED].

      There's no mechanism to explain how a non-mechanistic ... thing is connected to a mechanistic thing. How the ghost connects to the machine. You know current Catholic thought on the matter? It's a massive coincidence that we all perfect find our bodies and souls are aligned, a coincidence maintained by the will of God.

      And this is the problem all the way down the line. *How* would God part the Red Sea, if it's not 'material'. *How* is Jesus Resurrected? OK ... if we accept that a non-contingent thing created the universe (we don't, but for sake of argument), then *how*?

      And the answer is 'magic ingredients'.

    5. Yes that is always the central problem. Worse, people think that the word "God" is an answer to some question (and all questions) and walk away thinking they have a simple solution to the mysteries of our existence. They do not notice they have obtained no answers at all and, of course, they do not really care either.

    6. John,

      Thanks for your impute and the

      You have not failed me... again... lol

      I guess as a scientist, you must be proud of yourself, that you believe in something that can't be proven by science...?

      Oh! I forgot...biogenesis is not your area of expertise....

      But who's is it? I know 2 scientist who "claim" to specialize in biogenesis but they failed people like you miserably...

      BTW: I have a question for you and others as a matter fact....

      If scientist one day recreate life (let's pretend it would be possible one day...), is it going to mean that life could emerge spontaneously, or rather, that it had have been created by an intelligent being?

      I realize that biogenesis is not your of expertise, I'm just wondering if critical thinking is....

    7. "If scientist one day recreate life (let's pretend it would be possible one day...), is it going to mean that life could emerge spontaneously, or rather, that it had have been created by an intelligent being?"

      Let's approach that question critically.

      What are living things made of? That is to say: do you believe that there's a substance all living things have as an ingredient that non living things lack?

      I believe all the living things we know about are made exclusively from elements that are relatively common here on Earth. Do you believe that?

    8. "If scientist one day recreate life (let's pretend it would be possible one day...), is it going to mean that life could emerge spontaneously, or rather, that it had have been created by an intelligent being?"

      Depends how it's done.