Tuesday, October 25, 2016

New trends in evolutionary biology

The Royal Society, November 7-9

Don’t miss the upcoming “New 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.


  1. Darwin accepted that inheritance of acquired characteristics was a strong possibility. The new synthesis excluded this aspect of his theory. Are you suggesting that we should go back to strict Darwinism?

    The original concept of inheritance of acquired characteristics was along the lines of a person who performs heavy manual labour his entire life will pass along the strength that he acquired throughout his life. Nobody is suggesting this form of inheritance.

    Epigenetics has been known about for decades and evolutionary theory has been tweaked accordingly. But even epigenetic still relies on DNA and the information "coded" in it. Epigenetics is just the affect that environmental factors can influence the expression of various genes (this has been known for many decades) and the more recent discovery (just a few decades) that this influence can be inherited for a couple generations even with the removal of the environmental factor. But regardless, this type of inheritance does not typically proceed for more than a few generations.

  2. Cornelius
    "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."

    I agree with you. I was considering going but after looking at the papers there is no real new discovery that will push macro evolution over the hump of being more then an inference with some limited data supporting it and contrary data opposing it. Until evolution has a credible mechanism that generates new
    DNA functional sequences, resulting in life's diversity, it will continue to be the great collection of "just so" stories of our generation.

  3. The meeting is a sign of some/many thinking, in these small circles, there is indeed wrongness about present evolutionary concepts. Otherwise ordinary papers etc exchanges would be good enough.
    In something based on speculation and not hard science it always is that new ideas can be VOTED in by committees.
    Things could change with the right vote.

  4. "What is the extent of the extension?"

    Also of importance: what defines 'over-extension'? Are evolutionary theories in any ways or cases 'over-extended'?

    Day 3 alone should provide fireworks if watched closely.

  5. Why aren't any of the DI's brilliant scientific minds - Axe, Gauger, Meyer, Behe - attending this scientific conference? Wouldn't it be a perfect venue for them to refute evolutionary theory and demonstrate Intelligent Design Creationism once and for all? Maybe they realize it's better to keep quite and look like evidence-free cranks than present at a conference and remove all doubt. :)