October 13, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Darwin Debate Published by Nature

Two teams, both committed evolutionists, duked it out in Nature over whether Darwin’s mechanism is adequate to explain the diversity of life.

In a rare and unexpected article, two teams were given equal time in Nature (Oct 8, 2014) to debate the question, “Does evolutionary theory need a re-think?”  No creationists or intelligent design advocates were allowed to weigh in, of course, but this is a surprising development for a theory often described dogmatically as a fact, for which no further proof is needed.

At issue is whether the mutation+selection mechanism is adequate to explain the diversity of life on earth.  Does this need a re-think?  “Yes, urgently” was the response of Kevin Laland and his team.  “No; all is well” is the position taken by Gregory A. Wray, Hopi Hoekstra and their team.  After the debate, some lively comments ensued.

Affirmative:  Many of Laland’s team were members of the “Altenberg 16” who met a few years ago to question the core values of Darwinian theory, suggesting that an overhaul is needed.  In this short debate entry, they argued that selection cannot explain adaptation, and that biologists need to get past the “gene-centric” view of evolution.  Among alternatives, they put forward arguments for the “niche construction” view, which posits, “organisms co-direct their own evolution by systematically changing environments and thereby biasing selection.”  They also argued for more roles for evolution during development.

Overall, they call their view the EES or “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis” in contrast to SET (Standard Evolutionary Theory).  SET is a hindrance, they say, biasing the way research is conducted.  Biologists need to look beyond the old ways of studying evolution:

The above insights derive from different fields, but fit together with surprising coherence. They show that variation is not random, that there is more to inheritance than genes, and that there are multiple routes to the fit between organisms and environments. Importantly, they demonstrate that development is a direct cause of why and how adaptation and speciation occur, and of the rates and patterns of evolutionary change….

Researchers in fields from physiology and ecology to anthropology are running up against the limiting assumptions of the standard evolutionary framework without realizing that others are doing the same. We believe that a plurality of perspectives in science encourages development of alternative hypotheses, and stimulates empirical work. No longer a protest movement, the EES is now a credible framework inspiring useful work by bringing diverse researchers under one theoretical roof to effect conceptual change in evolutionary biology.

Negative:  The team that says “No, all is well” with Darwinian theory was surprisingly cordial in their response.  Standard neo-Darwinism already allows for selection at multiple levels, they say, so what’s the problem?  Neo-Darwinism is a big tent that can embrace the new perspectives of the other side.  Why, Charles Darwin himself wrote in his last book (1881: ) that earthworms satisfy Laland et al.’s concerns, “because they exemplify an interesting feedback process: earthworms are adapted to thrive in an environment that they modify through their own activities.”

And standard evolutionary theory is no straitjacket; “In the decades since, generations of evolutionary biologists have modified, corrected and extended the framework of the modern synthesis in countless ways,” Wray and Hoekstra assure their opponents.  There’s no dogmatism to prevent them from staying within the folds of holy mother Charlie church:

So, none of the phenomena championed by Laland and colleagues are neglected in evolutionary biology. Like all ideas, however, they need to prove their value in the marketplace of rigorous theory, empirical results and critical discussion. The prominence that these four phenomena command in the discourse of contemporary evolutionary theory reflects their proven explanatory power, not a lack of attention….

What Laland and colleagues term the standard evolutionary theory is a caricature that views the field as static and monolithic. They see today’s evolutionary biologists as unwilling to consider ideas that challenge convention.

We see a very different world. We consider ourselves fortunate to live and work in the most exciting, inclusive and progressive period of evolutionary research since the modern synthesis. Far from being stuck in the past, current evolutionary theory is vibrantly creative and rapidly growing in scope. Evolutionary biologists today draw inspiration from fields as diverse as genomics, medicine, ecology, artificial intelligence and robotics. We think Darwin would approve.

They do, however, want to hang on to the gene-centric view of selection.

Intelligent design did enter the debate briefly.  Laland’s team made this revealing comment about the reason Darwinians might be avoiding the appearance of controversy:

Yet the mere mention of the EES often evokes an emotional, even hostile, reaction among evolutionary biologists. Too often, vital discussions descend into acrimony, with accusations of muddle or misrepresentation. Perhaps haunted by the spectre of intelligent design, evolutionary biologists wish to show a united front to those hostile to science. Some might fear that they will receive less funding and recognition if outsiders — such as physiologists or developmental biologists — flood into their field.

However, another factor is more important: many conventional evolutionary biologists study the processes that we claim are neglected, but they comprehend them very differently (see ‘No, all is well’). This is no storm in an academic tearoom, it is a struggle for the very soul of the discipline.

Follow the money and don’t be afraid of ghosts?  Casey Luskin had some choice words about this discussion for Evolution News & Views.  He wasn’t alone, though; some other scientists weighed in on the controversy in the Comments.  Joan Roughgarden, for instance, used the occasion to repeat her allegations against sexual selection.  Then, she gave her observations about the self-satisfied, disrespectful dogmatism of the consensus:

The “No, All is Well” group speaks confidently of their field as “vibrantly creative and rapidly growing in scope”. Instead, I see progressive decline in the importance of evolutionary biology. In the 60’s evolution was a dominant discipline, with many of the new-synthesis leaders still alive. Ecology then was nothing, written off by some as “the misidentification of beetles on a field trip.” Today, evolution is an embattled subject whereas ecology along with its stepchild of conservation biology flourish. Why? Because ecologists never assumed the self-satisfied posture the “No” group implies. To regain its former standing, evolutionary biologists must engage respectfully with diverse points of view and open themselves to interdisciplinary perspectives.

This debate did not have a peaceful resolution with both sides shaking hands.

Well, it’s a start.  It’s still DODO, DIDO, DIGO, and GIDO (see Darwin Dictionary), with both sides throwing garbage at each other while outsiders chuckle from the sidelines.  Only when they leave Darwin and his garbage out of the equation can progress be made, but that would require both sides to “open themselves to interdisciplinary perspectives,” including intelligent design.

What’s most memorable about this article is that it gives the lie to Eugenie Scott’s constant NCSE refrain, “there is no controversy in evolution.”  All scientists agree, don’t they?  Let’s remember the take-home line from the article, but with a slight modification to the last word: “Perhaps haunted by the spectre of intelligent design, evolutionary biologists wish to show a united front to those hostile to” [not science, but] the dogmatic, DODO consensus.


  • Russell says:

    I’m not sure I understand all the terminology these guys are using, but it seems to me they are attributing what we would call micro-evolution to innate mechanisms that allow for adaptation, arguably “super intelligent design.” Makes one think of Lamarckism. If I am reading this right they realize this and that is why they protest they are not giving aid and comfort to the theistic enemy.

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