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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

New Scientist doesn't understand modern evolutionary theory

New Scientist has devoted much of their September 26th issue to evolution, but not in a good way. Their emphasis is on 13 ways that we must rethink evolution. Readers of this blog are familiar with this theme because New Scientist is talking about the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES)—a series of critiques of the Modern Synthesis in an attempt to overthrow or extend it [The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis - papers from the Royal Society meeting].

My main criticsm of EES is that its proponents demonstrate a remarkable lack of understanding of modern evolutionary theory and they direct most of their attacks against the old adaptationist version of the Modern Synthesis that was popular in the 1950s. For the most part, EES proponents missed the revolution in evolutionary theory that occrred in the late 1960s with the development of Neutral Theory, Nearly-Neutral Theory, and the importance of random genetic drift. EES proponents have shown time and time again that they have not bothered to read a modern textbook on population genetics.

The articles in New Scientist cover all the usual EES suspects: plasticity, epigenetics, Lamarckian evolution, niche construction, evolvability, and development. They also cover some new topics like cultural group selection and natural induction along with some genuine issues like genetic drift and horizontal gene transfer. I not going to address the classic EES topics because I've discussed them many times in the past and because Jerry Coyne is eviserating them one-by-one on his website/blog [see: The intellectual vacuity of New Scientist’s evolution issue: 3. The supposed importance of epigenetics in evolution].

The purpose of this post is to demonstrate that the editors and writers at New Scientist are conflating evolution with natural selection and "The Theory of Evolution" with Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection. In the next post I will try and explain why random genetic drift is an important part of modern evolutionary theory and why Jerry Coyne gets it wrong in his recent post: The intellectual vacuity of New Scientist’s evolution issue: 4. The supposed importance of genetic drift in evolution.

Here's how the editors of New Scientist describe The Theory of Evolution [The theory of evolution is a vibrant, living entity still in its prime] ...

The theory of evolution is one of the greatest accomplishments of the human intellect. Some might argue that it is the greatest, although quantum theory or relativity would have their supporters too. But in the biological sciences, it stands unrivalled. It is no less than the grand unified theory of life.

It is also a theory in the truest sense of the word: an interlocking and consistent system of empirical observations and testable hypotheses that has never failed scrutiny. Nothing has even been discovered that falsifies any part of it, despite strenuous efforts by detractors. It all stacks up.

Yet we should resist the temptation to think that evolution is carved in tablets of stone. The radical but irresistible ideas put forward by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in 1859 remain the core of the theory, yet it has constantly accommodated new knowledge. This happened most conspicuously about a century ago, when the new science of genetics was melded with natural selection to create what became known as the “modern synthesis”.

Today, we are arguably in the midst of another upgrade.

And here's how they describe evolution in the introduction to the main articles [Evolution is evolving: 13 ways we must rethink the theory of nature] ....

Our modern conception of evolution started with Charles Darwin and his idea of natural selection – “survival of the fittest” – to explain why certain individuals thrive while others fail to leave a legacy. Then came genetics to explain the underlying mechanism: changes in organisms caused by random mutations of genes.

Now this powerful picture is changing once more, as discoveries in genetics, epigenetics, developmental biology and other fields lend a new complexity and richness to our greatest theory of nature.

You know immediately when someone doesn't understand evolution as soon as they start talking about The Theory of Evolution as if there was only one theory that covers all of evolution [Don't call it "The Theory of Evolution"]. It's clear that the editors are talking about natural selection as the theory. It's clear that, to them, the Modern Synthesis represents simply the fusion of natural selection with genetics and that this represent the current view—the one that's under attack. They have no idea that the Modern Synthesis is effectively dead. It was killed fifty years ago [Debating philosophers: The Modern Synthesis] [Is the "Modern Synthesis" effectively dead?].


  1. When a 'theory' needs upgrading every few years then probably its a hint it needs a true total overhaul. Anyways.
    The greatest theory in science should be able to withstand critics and they simply dismiss the famous historic religious opposition to DETRACTERS.
    I didn't read this article except whats here but they are behind the true revolution of iD/YEC effective intellectual rejection.
    They admit its all a concept dealing with untestable processes and actions even if they don't know it.
    So yes they get things wrong but ots more then other 'theories' of evolution. Quantum and relativity also have little claim to real life scientific accomplishment. Invention is more important then figuring out existing operations. thats another matter.
    Why don't they give time to DETRACTERS since the detraction is more the talk of the town then all these details in evolutionism.
    Its not accurate to leave a "theory' as if its not challenged. I think they have a dog in this fight.


  2. I am looking forward to reading the New Scientist piece. I'll probably hate it.

    Everyone seems to have their own conception of the "Synthesis" and the prevailing orthodoxy. To understand the basis of these debates, one must begin by setting aside one's own opinions and listening to what other people are saying. Larry's conception of "Modern Evolutionary Theory" is just Larry's conception of what he thinks the current mainstream belief system ought to be.

    Meanwhile, Douglas Futuyma has said as recently as a few years ago that no principle of the Modern Synthesis has been overturned or seriously questioned in 70-plus years. People like Jerry Coyne and Bill Nye write books that say Darwin discovered the mechanism of evolution. For better or worse (and by that, I mean "for worse -- definitely for worse") these are the people who speak for evolutionary biology.

    Futuyma does not take the position that the "Evolutionary Synthesis" is a moving target that just means "whatever we think today." Instead, his position is that all scientific findings in the past 70 years are just refinements of the original theory, and nothing falls outside of the theory, except that he allows neutral evolution as an extension.

    So, when you say "You know immediately when someone doesn't understand evolution as soon as they start talking about The Theory of Evolution" you need to take this argument to Futuyma instead of the EES people, because Futuyma clearly entertains the IMHO fantastical view that there is a single unified "synthesis" theory of evolution.

    Finally, the EES people are characterizing orthodoxy, not as a genuine theory, but as a research program in the manner of Imre Lakatos. They hold that the core belief of "standard evolutionary theory" or SET is that evolution is the movement of a Mendelian population pushed around in an allele-frequency-space (i.e., the system is defined by a set of allele frequencies) by the population-level forces of selection, drift, recombination, migration and mutation. This is what defines the focal areas of the EES -- they are all exceptions to this core.

    The EES people have accepted the concession of Futuyma et al that the "Synthesis" integrates neutral evolution, even though it was not part of the original theory from the 1950s. So, there is no basis to criticize the EES front for not citing neutral evolution as a contradiction of SET because it simply is not a contradiction of SET in the way that the EES front explicitly defines SET.

    1. My goal is to convince as many people as possible that there's a lot more to evolution than just adaptation and natural selection. The most important lessons are Nearly-Neutral Theory and random genetic drift.

      To the extent that EES proponents are ignoring neutral alleles and drift, they are perpetuating a false view of evolution. The main target of EES proponents is usually some version of the selfish gene and gene-centric evolution. I get that, but I still think it's important to point out that their target - usually described as the Modern Synthesis - is a strawman.

    2. I was at the Royal Society meeting in 2016 and I listened to the presentations of many EES proponents and talked to many of them informally. I didn't encounter very many who understood modern population genetics with its emphasis on drift and neutrality. All I got was blank stares whenever I mentioned things like the drift-barrier hypothesis or constructive neutral evolution. When I mentioned junk DNA I was dismissed as some kind of kook.

      The dominant theme was adaptation, adaptation, and adaptation along with better ways of improving, speeding up, and extending adaptation.

      The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis - papers from the Royal Society meeting

  3. Hello Moran
    What do you think about The Dialectical Biologist?

  4. Some of the EES group have at times taken Templeton's money which is not routinely disbursed in the dispassionate pursuit of reasonable truth.