March 7, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Revolt in the Darwin Camp

With minor skirmishes, the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis (natural selection acting on random genetic mutations) has held sway in evolutionary theory since the 1930s.  Now, discontent with the pre-eminence of natural selection is leading to a major skirmish between evolutionists to be fought at a conference this summer.  Susan Mazur calls this the “Woodstock of Evolution” in The Scoop Independent News.

It’s not Yasgur’s Farm, but what happens at the Konrad Lorenz Institute in Altenberg, Austria this July promises to be far more transforming for the world than Woodstock.  What it amounts to is a gathering of 16 biologists and philosophers of rock star stature – let’s call them “the Altenberg 16” – who recognize that the theory of evolution which most practicing biologists accept and which is taught in classrooms today, is inadequate in explaining our existence.  It’s pre the discovery of DNA, lacks a theory for body form and does not accomodate [sic] “other” new phenomena.  So the theory Charles Darwin gave us, which was dusted off and repackaged 70 years ago [the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis], seems about to be reborn as the “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis”.

Mazur personally interviewed many of the combatants and posted their pictures in her article.  Some of them are determined to hang on to the old theory, convinced this is much ado about nothing.  Others, to varying degrees, have risked their careers to challenge the orthodoxy.  Few are willing to state their challenges publicly, and some fear excommunication.  Stanley Salthe, for instance, said he can’t get published in the mainstream media for his views, e.g.:

Oh sure natural selection’s been demonstrated… the interesting point, however, is that it has rarely if ever been demonstrated to have anything to do with evolution in the sense of long-term changes in populations…. Summing up we can see that the import of the Darwinian theory of evolution is just unexplainable caprice from top to bottom.  What evolves is just what happened to happen.

Jerry Fodor, another critic of natural selection (see 01/21/2008), argues “biologists increasingly see the central story of Darwin as wrong in a way that can’t be repaired.”  His article “Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings” in the London Review of Books, in which he laid out his criticisms of natural selection, caused such a stormy aftermath that he joked to Mazur that he has taken refuge in the Witness Protection Program.  He was apparently reluctant to talk to Mazur after being so besieged.  “You can’t put this stuff in the press because it’s an attack on the theory of natural selection,” he told Mazur, even though he is convinced “99.99% of the population have no idea what the theory of natural selection is.”  He’s not giving up on the grand evolutionary story – he is just convinced that whatever new mechanism emerges to explain evolution, it will not be selectionist.
    Statements like this make traditional Darwinian selectionists like Richard Lewontin and Kevin Padian furious.  Padian hung up on Mazur’s call, harrumphing that “On some things there is not a debate.”  Others, like Stuart Kauffman, see a need to expand and extend Darwin’s ideas.  He recognizes, for instance, that Darwinism begins with life already in place and does not explain the origin of life.
    What could possibly replace natural selection?  Stuart Pivar is toying with the idea that body form is an outgrowth of the egg cell membrane structure.  His critics deny that this is a complete or fruitful hypothesis; it is devoid of empirical evidence, they complain.  Pivar is another maverick having trouble getting his ideas published.
    Radicalism in the evolution camp is not new.  Mazur quoted Richard Milner describing the late Stephen Jay Gould, who along Niles Eldredge had criticized selectionism (or adaptationism) in the 1990s.  Milner described Gould as “a popular articulator of Darwinian evolution to a new generation, while privately, his creative and rebellious mind sought to move beyond it.”  Their hypothesis of “punctuated equilibria” never quite gained traction – the idea that most of evolutionary history involves stasis, with rapid evolutionary jumps in between.  Milner continued, “Gould took issue with those who used natural selection carelessly as a mantra, as in the evidence-free ‘just-so stories’ concocted out of thin air by mentally lazy adaptationists.”  Gould’s critics, on the other hand, viewed punctuated equilibria as deficient in mechanisms that could generate functional innovation.
    Traditionalists like Richard Lewontin think that no new extended synthesis is necessary, and that the mavericks are just trying to garner prestige for themselves.  To him, all that is necessary to prove natural selection is to ask yourself, “do you survive?”  Whether or not the mavericks will gain traction at Altenberg, it seems clear that there is war in the Darwin Camp.  About the only thing they agree on is that intelligent design and creationism are bad, bad, bad.  ID ideas are off the table.  Looking in from the outside at this skirmish, the pro-ID Discovery Institute blog Evolution News and Views had some fun.  This article gives the lie to the NCSE’s claim that there is “no controversy” about evolution, wrote Robert Crowther.  It also demonstrates the risk any critics of Darwinism have for getting Expelled.
    The papers for the July conference have already been submitted and will be published, ironically, for Darwin Day in 2009.  If Neo-Darwinism is in so much trouble, is an emerging new consensus in the offing?  It appears that all Mazur could find were a dirty-laundry list of problems, and a preliminary airing of ethereal suggestions.  Regardless of what transpires at the conference, Crowther observed, “a paradigm shift is on the way.”

This is called giving your opponents enough rope to hang themselves.  We didn’t have to say any of the following:

  • The central story of Darwin [is] wrong in a way that can’t be repaired. (Mazur summarizing Fodor)
  • 99.99% of the population have no idea what the theory of natural selection is. (Fodor)
  • The import of the Darwinian theory of evolution is just unexplainable caprice from top to bottom. (Salthe)
  • [There is] reluctance to scientists being discouraged about taking a chance on ideas originating outside their peer group plus their dependence on government grants – which are tied-in to support for natural selection. (Pivar)
  • Self-organization mingles with natural selection in barely understood ways to yield the magnificence of our teeming biosphere. (Kauffman)
  • Astrobiology doesn’t exist.  What are the laws? (Fodor)
  • Natural selection [is used] carelessly as a mantra, as in the evidence-free “just-so stories” concocted out of thin air by mentally lazy adaptationists. (Gould)

All we needed to do was hold up the microphone to them after announcing to the crowds, “Hear ye, hear ye!  Come on over and listen to the secrets of the universe!  Hear the world’s experts tell where you came from!  Find out why this theory must be taught in public schools to the exclusion of anything else!  Learn why Darwin Day should become an international holiday!”
Now can we say, “Teach the controversy”?

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