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Monday, April 19, 2021

The illusions of Denis Noble

Denis Noble was a Professor of Physiology at Oxford University in the United Kingdom until he retired. He had a distinguished career as a physiologist making significant contributions to our undestanding of the heart and its relationship to the whole organism.

In recent years, Noble has dabbled in philosophy and evolution. He has become a vocal opponent modern evolution (sensu Noble) and the way science is currently conducted. Some of his criticisms have made it onto two popular books: The Music of Life and Dance to the Tune of Life. He is one of the leading proponents of the "Extended Evolutionary Synthesis" (EES) and he is one of the founders of The Third Way of Evolution, a wishy-washy and scientifically inaccurate way of attacking a strawman version of evolution and providing a safe haven for religious scientists.

I have read Denis Noble's books and essays, I have been at one of his anti-evolution lectures and talked to him briefly, and I have blogged about him in the past [Denis Noble writes about junk DNA] [Extending evolutionary theory? - Denis Noble] [Physiologists fall for the Third Way] [A physiologist thinks about evolution].

You would think that if science is working properly then people like Denis Noble would be ignored and they would fade into the woodwork of the Senior Common Room at some college in Oxford. Instead, he seems to have a surprising following and has found a venue for publishing his nonsence in a journal called Biosmiotics. Here's the "Aims and Scope" of the journal. It will give you an idea of what you can expect below.

Biosemiotics is dedicated to building a bridge between biology, philosophy, linguistics, and the communication sciences. Biosemiotic research is concerned with the study of signs and meaning in living organisms and systems. Its main challenge is to naturalize biological meaning and information by building on the belief that signs are fundamental, constitutive components of the living world. The journal is affiliated with the International Society for Biosemiotic Studies (ISBS). Biosemiotics has triggered rethinking of fundamental assumptions in both biology and semiotics. In this view, biology should recognize the semiotic nature of life and reshape its theories and methodology accordingly while semiotics and the humanities should acknowledge the existence of signs beyond the human realm. Biosemiotics is at the cutting edge of research on the fundamentals of life, and particularly encourages methodology development and application of biosemiotic theory in empirical case studies. By challenging traditional assumptions on the nature of life and suggesting alternative perspectives, it opens up exciting new research paths.

Some beating of dead horses may be ethical, where here and there they display unexpected twitches that look like life.

Zuckerkandl and Pauling (1965)

Noble's latest attempt to discredit evolution was published last month. There's nothing new in that article but I think it's important to continue explaining why he is so wrong about everything. I realize that some may think I'm beating a dead horse but, in my opinion, we have to stand up for honesty and intergity in science or all is lost.

Noble, D. (2021) The illusions of the modern synthesis. Biosemiotics:1-20. [ doi: 10.1007/s12304-021-09405-3]

The Modern Synthesis has dominated biology for 80 years. It was formulated in 1942, a decade before the major achievements of molecular biology, including the Double Helix and the Central Dogma. When first formulated in the 1950s these discoveries and concepts seemed initially to completely justify the central genetic assumptions of the Modern Synthesis. The Double Helix provided the basis for highly accurate DNA replication, while the Central Dogma was viewed as supporting the Weismann Barrier, so excluding the inheritance of acquired characteristics. This article examines the language of the Modern Synthesis and reveals that it is based on four important misinterpretations of what molecular biology had shown, so forming the basis of the four Illusions: 1. Natural Selection; 2. The Weismann Barrier; 3. The Rejection of Darwin’s Gemmules; 4. The Central Dogma. A multi-level organisation view of biology avoids these illusions through the principle of biological relativity. Molecular biology does not therefore confirm the assumptions of the Modern Synthesis.

In order to understand Denis Noble you have to first understand his illusions. The most important one is his continuing confusion about modern evolutionary theory. Noble thinks that the "Modern Synthesis" of Julian Huxley and his friends represents the current thinking in evolution and he thinks that his colleague at Oxford, Richard Dawkins, embodies that view in The Selfish Gene. You can see that illusion in the first sentence of the abstract where he says, "The Modern Synthesis has dominated biology for 80 years."

Now, you could argue that there's a sense in which this could be true because most biologists still believe in some form of evolutionary theory that resembles the old-fashioned Modern Synthesis, but that's irrelevant. If you are going to oppose evolution then you should be directing your fire at the real target and not some strawman version that the experts have left behind.

Given that illusion, Denis Noble directs his attack at the evolutionary biologists of 70 years ago and develops four criticisms of that old-fashioned view. Ironically, he calls them "illusions." Let's look at each one.

Illusion 1. The Different Forms and Meanings of ‘Selection’

This section is nearly incomprehensible. Noble thinks that everthing in evolution is due to selection and he believes that biologists are attributing "agency" to selection when they say that natural selection drives evolution. He believes this is wrong because conscious organisms, like us, can drive evolution. Whatever. The truly modern view of evolution is that there are multiple mechanisms and much of the history of evolution involves contingency and much of current evolution is due to chance, not agency of any sort. Strike one.

Illusion 2. The Weismann Barrier

This section is a little more comprehensible than the first one but, ultimately, just as silly. Noble argues that the Weismann barrier is a foundational feature of the Modern Synthesis but it has been discredited by recent advances. The Weismann Barrier says that you can only inherit change through the germ line and not through changes in somatic cells. It's one of the arguments against Lamarckism and that's probably why Denis Noble is so upset about it.

It's true that the founders of the Modern Synthesis were opposed to Lamarckism but so are proponents of modern evolutionary theory. If Noble wants to incorporate Lamarckian inheritance into an extended view of evolution, as he does, then it's up to him and his allies to convince the rest of us that he has the evidence to to back up his claim. It's not an "illusion" to think that there's no evidence showing any significant effect of Lamarckian inheritance. It is, however, an "illusion" to believe in something without evidence. Strike two.

Illusion 3. The Debunking of Darwin’s Theory of Gemmules

Pay close attention everyone because I'm going to tell you something that's very shocking: Darwin's theory of gemmules hasn't panned out and noblody believes it! There, I've said it ... in print!

When you recover from the shock you'll realize that Noble's rambling on this point is really quite embarrassing. Strike three.

Illusion 4. The Illusion of the Central Dogma

I bet you know where this one is going and you would be correct. Here's what Noble thinks of the Cental Dogma.

The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology has a claim to be the greatest illusion ever created in biology. It is so important and, as its name suggests, central to neo-Darwinist thought, that we need to take great care in revealing what creates the illusion.

What's truly ironic about that opening line is that there's an element of truth in there. It's true that the vast majority of biologists misunderstand the Central Dogma so, in that sense, it IS a great delusion. But you know, don't you, that Denis Noble isn't talking about the real Central Dogma; he's talking about his delusionary view of the Central Dogma?

Surprisingly, Noble actually quotes the Central Dogma correctly when he refers to Crick's 1958 paper. He seems to undertand that what Crick is referring to is the fact that information can't flow from protein back to nucleic acid. But in the next paragraph Noble blows it by saying that Crick had to revise the Central Dogma in 1970 when reverse transcriptase was discovered. This is blatently false, as anyone who has read Crick's 1970 paper would know. Crick wrote that paper to emphasize that the discovery of reverse transcriptase has nothing to do with whether information can be transferred from proteins to nucleic acids [The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology].

Noble then publishes the figure on the right with the following caption.

Central Dogma after discovery of Reverse Transcription. DNA codes for RNA which then codes for proteins (blue arrows). RNA can be reverse transcribed into DNA (upward red arrow). This kind of diagram is often described as defining the information flows in biological systems. But it omits information flows that control gene expression, i.e. transcription factors, methylation and interactions with histones, the nuclear proteins around which DNA is wound. It also omits the use of the molecular mechanism of reverse transcription to reorganise the genome (natural genetic engineering). The circular arrows represent the fact that DNA can also be involved in cut-and-paste modifications of the genome without the involvement of RNA, and that a similar self-templating can occur in RNA.

Just about everyone who's still reading this post will be scratching their heads at this point wondering what the heck this has to do with whether information can flow from proteins back to nucleic acids. The answer is "nothing." What Denis Noble is arguing against is some imaginary view of the Central Dogma that forbids all other forms of information change in the genome, including transposon insertions. In that sense, he's allied with a large group of like-minded peole who think that the Central Dogma specified all possible examples of information flow by saying that it has to be DNA --> RNA --> protein and nothing else. Strike four. (This is a special rule of baseball where we allow an extra strike for beginners.)

We've been here before. Lot's and lots of real evolutionary biologists have criticized Denis Noble for his lack of knowledge and his unscientific stance on evolution. It hasn't made a difference so we need to keep doing it. It's difficult not to be very angry at people like Denis Noble. I am angry, and so is Jerry Coyne [Famous physiologist embarrasses himself by claiming that the modern theory of evolution is in tatters]. Here's what Jerry wrote eight years ago and it's just as true today as it was then, which shows us that kooks are not correctable.

None of the arguments that Noble makes are new: they’re virtual tropes among those people, like James Shapiro and Lynn Margulis, who embarked, at the end of their careers, on a misguided crusade to topple the modern theory of evolution.

However famous Noble may be in physiology, he’s a blundering tyro when it comes to evolutionary biology. He might try discussing his ideas with other evolutionists and listening to their responses. He obviously hasn’t done that, and yet travels the world trading on his expertise in physiology to show that the edifice of modern evolutionary biology is rotten. And he writes papers to that effect, including the dreadful piece referenced below.

But what’s really rotten is Noble’s knowledge of the field and his claim that virtually every assumption of neo-Darwinian evolution is wrong. In fact, his arguments are so rotten that they stink like old herring.

They’re not even wrong.

Noble's article spawned several others in the next issue of Biosemiotics

  • Louise Westling (2012) A Humanist’s Response to Denis Noble’s “The Illusions of the Modern Synthesis”
  • James A. Shapiro (2021) Response to Denis Noble’s Article “The Illusions of the Modern Synthesis,” Biosemiotics (I'll deal with this one in a separate post.)
  • M. Polo Camacho (2021) Could the Greatest Illusion of the Modern Synthesis Be Practical?
  • Lorenzo Magnani (2021) Semiotic Brains Build Cognitive Niches
  • Alexei A. Sharov (2021) Towards a Biosemiotic Theory of Evolution
  • Arran Gare (2021) Joining Forces Against Neo-Darwinism: Linking Organicism and Biosemiotics
  • Eva Jablonka (2012)Signs of Consciousness?

These articles have one thing in common. They believe everythiing that Denis Noble said about the Modern Synthesis. That's pretty remarkable since everything that Noble said was either wrong, misleading, or irrelvant (and sometimes all three). It's unbelieveable that seven other authors didn't bother to read up on evolutionary theory and the earlier critcisms levelled against Denis Noble and his ilk.

This is not science; this is a cult and these crazy ideas are the Kool-Aid.

Zuckerkandl, E. and Pauling, L. (1965) in EVOLVING GENES AND PROTEINS, V. Bryson and H.J. Vogel eds. Academic Press, New York NY USA


  1. yet Nobel is accomplished and famous in his subject. So he applies himself to other subjects. They all do.
    If a principle here is that only those who spent thier careers doing a certain science subject may opine on it then evolutionism ends up as a small field. Yet they always try to say its the SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY that supports evolution and so stop thinking.
    Anyways. Saying he has a lack of knowledge means nothing unless his knowledge is weighed. everyone can say that about everyone and be right. Saying he's not scientific because he draws different conclusions will, I PROMISE< lose credibility in critics credibility . If he is not accomplished in science or rather scientific methodology then nobody is UNLESS one agrees with the critics.
    other charges of misleading etc etc should have facts behind them. Boy. it sounds like he is a YEC creationist. Probably not being from Britain.
    I see these folks as, due to a good general intellect, smelling there is something wrong with old time evolutionism. its coming from many directions despite still a small world that pays serious attention. Nobel might be the hero in the future. taking creationists credit.

  2. "You would think that if science is working properly then people like Denis Noble would be ignored..."

    True, but isn't a good bit of this down to publishers and others who think "both sides" need to be given press? We still have people giving time to people from the anti-vaccination movement, anti-GMO activists, climate change deniers, and more. None of the people in those areas are pushing things with any science behind them, but thy continue to get press.

    There may be lapses in reliable biology publications or this crap to sneak in (there are in math/stat and I assume in other disciplines), too: I'm sure you know more about that than this non biologist.

    Still, as long as it happens it will give hope to the portion of the population who have no real clue about science (like Byers above: by the way RB, it's "Noble", not "Nobel". Are you really that lazy?), only their favorite misreading of scripture.

  3. he is one of the founders of The Third Way of Evolution, a wishy-washy and scientifically inaccurate way of attacking a strawman version of evolution and providing a safe haven for religious scientists. The Third Way is actually not a "way" at all -- it is a website listing about 50 people who disagree with modern evolutionary biology. They all have wildly different and incompatible views so that Gertrude Stein's remark applies: "when you get there, there's no there there".

  4. He was also involved with that ridiculous paper that claimed that octopuses were seeded from space:

    If I remember correctly, he was the editor who pulled rank and got it published. He is also cited frequently in the paper.

    1. Wait a minute ... you're saying that octopuses are NOT aliens?

    2. My understanding is that they're descended from some of the Elder Gods.

    3. The Watchmen TV series had a number of flaws but I guess they got close with cephalopods from space.