Does Evolutionary Theory Need a Rethink?

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #1

Please read this interesting discussion from Nature.

(Jon) #2

This article has been around for almost two years, so I bet it has already been “quoted” by the Discovery Institute and other ID agitators here. I’m guessing it would be abused something like this.

  • “Does evolutionary theory need a rethink? Yes, urgently”

We IDers have been saying this for years!

  • " the theory neglects key processes"

Again, an argument ID has always asserted.

  • “Researchers are divided over what processes should be considered fundamental”

Darwinists can’t even agree on what processes evolution is supposed to consist of!

  • “Charles Darwin conceived of evolution by natural selection… Yet new data pouring out of adjacent fields are starting to undermine this narrow stance”

New data is pouring out of fields, undermining Darwinism!

  • “We believe that the EES will shed new light… We hold that organisms are constructed”

Doesn’t that sound like “created”?

  • “The number of biologists calling for change in how evolution is conceptualized is growing rapidly”

An increasing number of scientists are now calling for evolution to be abandoned!

  • “The data supporting our position gets stronger every day.”

The anti-Darwinist position is constantly gaining strength!

  • “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.”

When Darwinists are challenged on scientific grounds, they don’t respond with science; they respond with irrational emotional outbursts!

  • “Perhaps haunted by the spectre of intelligent design, evolutionary biologists wish to show a united front to those hostile to science”

Evolulinists try to give a false appearance of agreement among themselves, because they are afraid that people will realize they are so disunited and that this will lend strength to the ID case!

  • “This is no storm in an academic tearoom, it is a struggle for the very soul of the discipline”

This isn’t simply a matter of interpretation of evidence, this is a struggle for the life or death of Darwinism itself!

(Albert Leo) #3

Eureka!! Thanks for pointing me to this article in Nature, Roger. It might be ‘old news’ to Jonathan and others who stay close to the I.D. debates, but it was welcome news to me. I knew from your book and your posts on this Forum that I was in basic agreement with your view that Standard Evolutionary Theory (SET) was woefully incomplete and therefore misleading, but I was unaware of any reputable biologists working on an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (ESS). The discussion of “Inheritance beyond genes” makes me think that we will eventually find the mechanisms behind the “programming” that transformed Brain–>Mind and initiated the Great Leap Forward that produced Humankind from the most advanced primate, Homo sapiens.

It was gratifying to see statements in the Nature article that support the points I have been trying to make in previous posts:

  1. SET has long regarded inheritance mechanisms outside genes as special cases; human culture being the prime example.
  2. Extra-genetic inheritance includes the transmission of epigenetic marks (chemical changes that alter DNA expression but not the underlying sequence.
  3. This niche construction, like developmental bias, means that organisms co-direct their own evolution by systematically changing environments and thereby biasing selection.
  4. The above insights….show that variation is not random, that there is more to inheritance than genes…

It may not come about in my lifetime, but I am confident that soon an up-to-date evolutionary science will be seen more easily reconciled to Christian Faith than it does today.
Al Leo

(Larry Bunce) #4

The article was very interesting, but it seemed like a lot of nitpicking. We could just as easily say that since we have added new words to our language over the last 50 years, we need to call it something other than English.

Darwin’s idea said simply that the variations we see in all plants and animals, when acted upon by natural selection, yields new species. It does not say anything about how those changes come about. We have filled in a lot of the details since Darwin’s time, but his original idea still holds up.

I can see where Creationist types could view an article like this as confirming their belief that science is highly divided on the subject of evolution. In this case both sides are evolutionists, so that scientists are not abandoning the idea that life evolved, in favor of each species having been created by a special act of God.

(Albert Leo) #5

Larry, I wonder if you carefully read the 26 comments that appear after the Nature article? A few echo the same response you give: “So what?” But others were very thoughtful and insightful.

I am sure Roger took note of Joan Roughgarden’s comment that the EES perspective was to be welcomed, since the effect of ecology upon evolution has been written off by so many. She points out most biologists take the ‘short cut thought process’ that genes code for the phenotypic outcome, whilst in fact they code for the molecules that, as molecular machines operating in an environment governed by the laws of physics, execute the numerous processes that, acting together, lead to each aspect of the phenotype." Sometimes this ‘short cut’ is useful (valid enough); sometimes not.

Crocetti brought up the ‘microscopic elephants’ being ignored in the room of evolutionary theory. "How can we enhance our understanding and communication of evolution without discussing the ever-present role of microbes in deriving and shaping the macroscopic life-forms (and other ecosystems) they inhabit?’

NBeale & Adamson note that EES gives an enlarged perspective both to Dawkins ‘Selfish Gene’ and to Wilson’s Kin Selection and Origins of Eusociality. Van Duppen expands on this a great deal, noting that _"our species is at birth the most immature, most vulnerable most helpless and most dependent animal in the world. Therefore the human baby can only survive, grow and reproduce successfully when nature selects strong prosocial interaction instincts, not only of the mother and the child but also of allo-parents.

I heartily agree with Nicholas Maxwell who sees EES as an expansion of Darwinian theory that helps us "to understand how purposive beings have come to be in an ultimately purposeless universe–purposiveness, or goal-pursuing, being understood here in such a way that it is entirely compatible with physics."

This is the sort of support I am pleased to see for a Worldview I hold–a worldview that is somewhat at odds with the religion I profess (Roman Catholic) and that of the evangelical Christians that founded and operate BioLogos. I want to again express my thanks for the opportunity to participate in these discussions.
Al Leo

(Peaceful Science) #6

A couple important quotes from the article to keep in mind…

Alteration of the environment has already been part of the evolutionary mechanism…

The evolutionary phenomena championed by Laland and colleagues are already well integrated into evolutionary biology, where they have long provided useful insights. Indeed, all of these concepts date back to Darwin himself, as exemplified by his analysis of the feedback that occurred as earthworms became adapted to their life in soil.

Today we call such a process niche construction, but the new name does not alter the fact that evolutionary biologists have been studying feedback between organisms and the environment for well over a century13. Stunning adaptations such as termite mounds, beaver dams, and bowerbird displays have long been a staple of evolutionary studies. No less spectacular are cases that can only be appreciated at the microscopic or molecular scale, such as viruses that hijack host cells to reproduce and ‘quorum sensing’, a sort of group think by bacteria.

In fact all the mechanisms championed by EES are part of the “modern synthesis” of evolutionary theory…

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.

I think the key quote is this one here…

We, too, want an extended evolutionary synthesis, but for us, these words are lowercase because this is how our field has always advanced.

I’ll point out that essentially NONE of the science is disputed by the opposite sides of this debate. This is merely a debate about terminology. And, perhaps, didactic strategy. It is easy to make more of this than is ithere.

(Peaceful Science) #7

I would also point out my frequent refrain…

The only consistent definition of evolution is common descent. Notice, that no one in this debate is questioning common descent. Mechanisms are under constant examination and revision. But evolution is common descent, and that is constant over the last 150 years.

(George Brooks) #8

It’s always important to take due notice of ALL the contributors to something as complex as the evolution of complex gene pools. But does any of this change the basic argument?

The more things we find that are IN THE MIX … isn’t it even EASIER to imagine how quickly that populations can differentiate from each other … proving the ease of macro-evolution (to use a phrase I’m not particularly thrilled by).

I’ve already posted a thread on Ring Species … which is apparently an underappreciated process where a population starts to spread out around some natural barrier or obstacle… like a large body of water, or like single mountain, or even a range of mountains!

And as the population extends itself around this natural obstacle or barrier, strains or sub-groups begin to differentiate … but not to the extreme of speciation. Adjacent groups continue to mingle and breed with each other … typically forming a RING around the obstacle… or range of obstacles… until one end finally wraps around and encounters the branch of the species that had been expanding around the obstacle in the other direction!

But here’s the amazing thing… these two terminal ends of the same species don’t recognize each other as being part of the same group. They are not sexually attractive to each other … they rarely breed… and if and when they do, they are typically not as fertile as the offspring of the groups that have more in common.

Some might argue that this is NOT speceation. Really?

What if some new calamity arrives on the scene? An earthquake? A tidal wave coming in from the coast? A massive wildfire? Or maybe just some form of virulent plague. Whatever the cause, imagine the central portion of the ring being wiped out! Only the two terminal ends are left to produce new generations.

Without the middle sections of variation … can we really say this is still a single species? The two ends are not compatible … and they parts that WERE compatible with the terminal ends are gone.

That, my dear friends, is the proof of speciation!

(GJDS) #9

I am inclined to say (tongue in cheek) the only consistent aspect of ToE has been that it has constantly undergone changes in semantics, and ALWAYS its advocates would claim it has been “this consistent” theory - never have I come across something so plastic and changeable (both in its impact sociologically, and its scientific credibility).

My hope is (for the sake of biology, although ideological nonsense will continue unabated) that there is sufficient intellectual rigour in biology for some-one (or a group) that would be willing to let go of this anachronistic, semantically based theory and develop a sound and truly testable theory to replace it. :disappointed_relieved:

The fact that most of the support for this “consistently inconsistent” theory comes from self made experts in all manner of things is sufficient testament to its plasticity. :laughing:

Once a rigorous theory has appeared, I guess the US culture wars can shift from YEC and ID bashing to perhaps Trump ideologies. :sleeping:

(George Brooks) #10

As an academic discipline, Evolutionary science moves in this and that direction … but the underlying principle doesn’t really change:

Common Ancestry … Natural Selection… Ecological Pressures and Genetic Changes.

The point of the theory has always been about showing how populations can differentiate over time … and create different life forms.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #11


While this statement is true, this is not what then science of evolution is all about. Science is about processes, about how things happen and not theories about how they may have happened.


Common descent is not a process that explains how evolution happened. Common descent is a result of that process. Everyone is correct in saying that evolution is not in question, but the Science of evolution is in question.

One side SET puts the primary emphasis on genetics with ecology and other factors as secondary. The other side ESS puts the primary emphasis on ecological and other factors with genetics as secondary.

Can these two scientific views be reconciled? Yes, they can if we closely follow the scheme that Darwin set down in the Origin. which distinguishes between Variation and Natural Selection. Variation is random, while Selection is by definition determinate. You cannot mix the two together without destroying this basic nature of both.

Or to put it another way, when SET teaches that evolution is basically genetic Variation, it also teaches that evolution is purposeless and meaningless process, which is not true, because Natural Selection is determinate. BioLogos says that evolution is determinate, but does say how it is determinate. Natural Selection is why it is determinate.

(Peaceful Science) #12


Not exactly says that genetics, ecology and other factors are all important. EES says that you haven’t given ecology and other factors enough importance. Most scientists, at this point, yawn and about their business. Nothing to see here.

(George Brooks) #13

BioLogos is not about CHAMPIONING science… how is that even possible as long as we keep God in the loop.

BioLogos is about showing how science and God is compatible.

(Albert Leo) #14

Well integrated, perhaps, into evolutionary biology of all species of animals except humankind. Darwinian evolution (modern synthesis & including EES), is remarkably effective in explaining animal nature, present and past. At the outset of evolutionary theory, its co-discoverer, Wallace, thought it highly unlikely that it could produce human culture–in other words, humankind as we recognize them. Recent knowledge that we humans appeared as a Great Leap Forward would have been all the more convincing to Wallace that something else needed to be considered. In the 20th century the discovery that the DNA in genes provided the mechanism of inheritance, and it launched _neo-_Darwinian theory. So it was assumed that gene mutation would eventually be found to be the basis of the final step in humanization. I am no expert in this field, but those I have relied upon, Tattersall, Morriss, Diamond, & Dawkins, all doubt that gene mutation provided this final step; i.e., the GLF was epi-genetic. (Dawkins accepted GLF with great reluctance, since he always stated that evolution operated only in tiny steps and with no direction.)

Where do you stand on this, Joshua? Is the evidence for the GLF compelling, or is it so much tommyrot? Fine-tuning the evidence for animal evolution has been a major topic on this Forum, and is of great scientific interest. But let us be honest. It is of little importance to the young folks who have been taught that evolution in all its forms is a lethal threat to the evangelical Faith they were brought up in. If it IS true that the final step in making us human is epigenetic and in some way can be passed on to later generations, then a sense of purpose can be returned to the scientific study of evolution.

Of course belief in the GLF may just be the result of wishful thinking. But should it not be carefully examined anyway?
Al Leo

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #15


God is compatible with GOOD science, which is the reason that BioLogos needs to promote good, that is, accurate science, which demonstrates t6hat evolution is determinate, not meaningless and without purpose.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #16


Fortunately the truth of science is not decided by popular opinion or even what most scientists think. It is determined by what best fits the facts.

Evolution is not random as SET holds, therefore it must be flawed…

(George Brooks) #17

I would think the BioLogos version of Evolution would be the EASIEST to prove as “determinate” and WITH purpose.

The semantic and linguistic issues for scientists who DONT believe God is involved in Evolution (which is 80%+ of scientists questioned) must be quite challenging - - without God, it seems clear that evolution would be without purpose . . . . while one might argue the semantics of evolution SHAPED BY natural selection being “determinate” or not.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #18


You really do not get it. Theology, Scie4nce, and Philosophy are not about playing word games. They are about finding the Truth about life and reality.

(George Brooks) #19

I think you missed MY point: without God’s participation, it’s easy to say that something lacks purpose.

But I’ve witnessed people on this list argue about the issue of DETERMINATE vs. NON-DETERMINATE when it comes to evolution driven by Natural Selection.

(sy_garte) #20

I disagree with the idea from @Jonathan_Burke and @Swamidass that the EES is about nothing particularly new or exciting. There is some confusion about what the significance of EES is. It is not an alternative to Darwinian or even neo Darwinian theory. And of course, all of its mechanisms can be fit into the current paradigm of variation and natural selection. What the EES does do, is open the door to a much broader view of how the variation of living creatures can develop. Contrary to @GJDS comment, the modern synthesis paradigm of evolutionary theory, centered on selfish genes that dominate all mechanisms of variation, lasted untouched (mostly) for many decades. What the Third Way proponents are saying is that biology is far more complicated than the simple gene centered view. Of course, we can say there is nothing new about niche selection and the two way interaction between genomes and the ecological environment, in fact I have been saying just that to Roger @Relates for a good many years. But it turns out he has been right.

Some of the EES ideas would have been considered (and some still are) to be biological heresy just a few years ago. (I know that I did consider them in that light). The role of epigenetics, the possible resurrection of some Lamarckian ideas, the experiments showing the reality of stress directed mutations, and the enormous insights gained from the role of gene regulation as opposed to structural gene changes, are not at all ho hum, boring add ons to the modern synthesis.

But again, @Swamidass is ultimately correct, this is a semantic, not a scientific argument. The only question being debated is "Does the new approach deserve its own name, or not?"
The field has already shifted scientifically. And thanks to a very large grant from the John Templeton Foundation, there are some well funded investigators who can now pursue these fascinating areas or research to see how far the science will take them.

There remain a few voices in opposition to the whole program. Some call it a branch of ID, which is absurd. Some (like Coyne, Dawkins, and to a lesser extent, Moran) think that any deviation from strict neo Darwinian gene centrism is an affront to Darwin. Also absurd. On the whole, I am quite certain that we will soon see some breathtaking results that will explain quite a bit of what remains still unexplained in evolutionary theory, including the mechanisms of saltation, convergence, and speciation. It is a very exciting time to be working in this field.