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Wednesday, February 07, 2018

The Salzburg sixty discuss a new paradigm in genetic variation

Sixty evolutionary biologists are going to meet next July in Salzburg (Austria)to discuss "a new paradigmatic understanding of genetic novelty" [Evolution – Genetic Novelty/Genomic Variations by RNA Networks and Viruses]. You probably didn't know that a new paradigm is necessary. That's because you didn't know that the old paradigm of random mutations can't explain genetic diversity. (Not!) Here's how the symposium organizers explain it on their website ...

For more than half a century it has been accepted that new genetic information is mostly derived from random‚ error-based’ events. Now it is recognized that errors cannot explain genetic novelty and complexity.

Empirical evidence establishes the crucial role of non-random genetic content editors such as viruses and RNA-networks to create genetic novelty, complex regulatory control, inheritance vectors, genetic identity, immunity, new sequence space, evolution of complex organisms and evolutionary transitions....

This new empirically based perspective on the evolution of genetic novelty will have more explanatory power in the future than the "error-replication" narrative of the last century.
Wow! Who knew?

The lead organizer is Günther Witzany, a philosopher of science and a prominent member of The Third Way [The Third Way: Günther Witzany]. We've encountered him before on Sandwalk: Here's why you can ignore Günther Witzany. Just about anyone can misunderstand molecular biology but it takes a philosopher of science to really screw it up. Witzany says ...
The older concepts we have now for a half century cannot sufficiently explain the complex tendency of the genetic code. They can't explain the functions of mobile genetic elements and the endogenous retroviruses and non-coding RNAs. Also, the central dogma of molecular biology has been falsified -- that is, the way is always from DNA to RNA to proteins to anything else, or the other "dogmas," e.g., replication errors drive evolutionary genetic variation, that one gene codes for one protein and that non-coding DNA is junk. All these concepts that dominated science for half a century are falsified now. ...
Here's a summary of where my views differ ...
  1. The fundamental concepts in evolution and molecular biology were worked out in the middle of the last century and thery have been steadily improved and modified since then. They are fully capable of explaining mobile genetic elements, endogenous retroviruses, and non-coding RNAs. Read any textbook.
  2. The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology says that once information is transferred to protein it can't go back to nucleic acids [Central Dogma of Molecular Biology]. It's blatantly obvious that Günther Witzany doesn't understand the Central Dogma. It's obvious that he hasn't read Crick's papers.
  3. The idea that replication errors create genetic variation has not been falsified. It is by far the most important source of mutation.
  4. The idea that one gene codes for one protein is a false strawman version of our current understanding of a gene [What Is a Gene?]. No knowledgeable scientist ever thought that all genes produced proteins and no knowledgeable scientist since 1980 was unaware of genes encoding multiple proteins. Read a textbook.
  5. No knowledgeable scientist ever said that all non-coding DNA is junk. They do, however, say that most of the DNA in the human genome is junk. That's a concept that was formed in the middle of the last century and has become more and more true as evidence accumulates in the 21st century. It has not been falsified as Günther Witzany claims. He has not been keeping up with the scientific literature.
  6. Nobody is questioning the fact that transposons and viruses can cause mutations and genomic rearrangements. The only serious debate is over the frequency of such events. By looking at the amount of variation in individual humans, scientists have determined that 99.9% of all variation is in the form of single nucleotide changes (SNPs) or small (1-10 bp) insertions/deletions. Larger differences due to transposons and viral insertions/deletions account for only 0.1% of the total [Genetic variation in human populations]. All sorts of mutations will contribute to evolution in the long run but it's absurd to think there's any "paradigm shift" in the making. Instead, this is a classic example of a paradigm shaft (a term coined by Diogenes on an earlier Sandwalk post).


  1. The Third Way seems characterized largely by the high diversity and extent of its buzzword-ome. I wonder how much of it is functional.

    1. Haha! Yeah but John, some of them are lab-researchers from highly prestigious institutions. (insert technical-looking diagram).

  2. I can't see why variations caused by changes in regulatory networks, and changes due to viruses getting into the genome, cannot be due to these being random changes that are then selected for or against. Witzany's wording makes it sound as if he somehow knows that the changes are carefully planned by some grander regulatory mechanism. I do hope he will enlighten us as to how that works.

    Of course, he will definitely call for the replacement of the current understanding of evolutionary mechanisms by a New Paradigm. After all, everybody does, and their new paradigms seem to rapidly replace one another.

    1. Witzany is a big fan of Jim Shapiro, who is invited to the meeting. If you read Shapiro's writings you come away with the same problem you mention. It seems as though he's invoking some higher power that creates organisms designed to evolve by "natural genetic engineering."

      This is why the IDiots are such big fans of Shapiro and The Third Way. The thirders had to put a disclaimer on their website distancing themselves from creationists but methinks they doth protest too much.

    2. A capability for "natural genetic engineering", even if it existed, would rapidly be lost by mutation unless it created a great genetic advantage fairly often. If it was needed only once every 100,000 years it would be lost by mutation before next time.

      They need to explain why, even if it existed, it stayed around. Of course, they have to find it first.

    3. I think one should not expect the meeting to be a festival of Iconoclasts.

      Skimming through the list of speakers I discovered many (as far as I can tell) respected scientists accompanied by, as I suspect, a few outliers (including the organizer and Sharpiro).

      I for example very much doubt that Koonin agrees with most of Witzanys statements you cited. I never understood why he associates himself with this 'Third Way Club'
      In addition I would consider Eric Westhofs views (I worked in his department) very similar to the views of our host.
      Just to mention two....

  3. I agree that prophesying paradigm changes before they have happened is very poor form in trying to suggest new ideas. I see it a lot actually.

    YEt, i say yet, all this mutationism , random etc etc, as being the origin of new genetic information and so the origin for biological complexity and diversity.
    So much was never placed on so unlikely a mechanism.
    Yet its the finale gasp and grasp of evolutionism in its claims to legitimacy.

  4. I think when they say 'random mutation' they mean 'random point mutation'.
    They probably think 'random mutation' only involves single nucleotide events.