The Royal Society, November 7-9New trends in evolutionary biology” Scientific meeting at The Royal Society, November 7-9. The organizers propose that evolutionary theory needs a bit of modification, collectively referred to as the EES (extended evolutionary synthesis). The “evolutionary synthesis” refers to the Modern Synthesis (or neoDarwinism)—the early twentieth century fusion of Darwin’s theory of evolution with classic genetics. A key question to be addressed at the meeting, either explicitly or implicitly, is: What is the extent of the extension?
Old school neoDarwinists hold that the Modern Synthesis has been practically undergoing constant modification ever since William Bateson coined the term “genetics” in 1905. The EES, they say, is merely another modification. We’ve seen all this before, they say, and there is no need for a major shakeup.
But for at least some of the meeting’s organizers the EES is more than just another tweak. The problem, they point out, is that the Modern Synthesis was flat out wrong about inheritance, and that flawed concept of inheritance was not an auxiliary sub hypothesis in the outer protective belt, to use Lakatos’ terms, but rather was part of the core theoretic. As Denis Noble put it:
I would say that it needs replacing. Yes. … The reasons I think we’re talking about replacement rather than extension are several. The first is that the exclusion of any form of acquired characteristics being inherited was a central feature of the modern synthesis. In other words, to exclude any form of inheritance that was non-Mendelian, that was Lamarckian-like, was an essential part of the modern synthesis. What we are now discovering is that there are mechanisms by which some acquired characteristics can be inherited, and inherited robustly. So it’s a bit odd to describe adding something like that to the synthesis ( i.e., extending the synthesis). A more honest statement is that the synthesis needs to be replaced. … By “replacement” I don’t mean to say that the mechanism of random change followed by selection does not exist as a possible mechanism. But it becomes one mechanism amongst many others, and those mechanisms must interact. So my argument for saying this is a matter of replacement rather than extension is simply that it was a direct intention of those who formulated the modern synthesis to exclude the inheritance of acquired characteristics. That would be my first and perhaps the main reason for saying we’re talking about replacement rather than extension.
This question of whether evolutionary theory needs to be replaced, or extended, or emended, or merely modified is significant for evolutionists. For the old school, tradition and legacy are potentially at risk. For the new school, they can be the founders of a major new shift in evolutionary thought.
Nonetheless, do not expect too much clarity to emerge from the meeting. Few people if any will change their mind. What will be important are the minor nuances and ever so subtle signs of momentum in one direction or another.
And if that level of progress seems slow, consider that this is only one particular problem with evolutionary theory among dozens. The November meeting in London is closer to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic than any serious reckoning with the science.
Religion drives science, so change is slow.