About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Wednesday, July 02, 2008
Is there fundamental scientific disagreement about evolutionary theory?
The so-called “Woodstock of evolution” (not my term, and a pretty bad one for sure) will see a group of scientists, by now known as “the Altenberg 16” (because there are sixteen of us, and we’ll meet at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for theoretical biology in Altenberg, near Vienna) has been featured on blogs by a variety of nutcases, as well as the quintessential ID “think” tank, the Discovery Institute of Seattle. They have presented the workshop that I am organizing in collaboration with my colleague Gerd Müller, and the proceedings of which will be published next year by MIT Press, as an almost conspiratorial, quasi-secret cabala, brought to the light of day by the brave work of independent journalists and “scholars” bent on getting the truth out about evolution. Of course, nothing could be further from the (actual) truth.
The workshop is part of a regular series organized by the KLI (they do a couple of these a year), that has been going on for years now. Each workshop is limited to a small number of participants, both for logistical reasons (the Institute is small, and they have to budget the costs of paying for travel and lodging for all scientists involved) and because the idea is to get people to focus on discussing, rather than lecturing (hard to do with large groups). Articles and commentaries on the web have also made much of the fact that the meeting is “private,” meaning that the public and journalists are not invited. This is completely normal for small science workshops all over the world, and I was genuinely puzzled by the charge until I realized (it took me a while) that a sense of conspiracy increases the likelihood that people will read journalistic internet articles and ID sympathetic blogs. You’ve got to sell the product, even at the cost of, shall we say, bending, the reality.
So, what are the Altenberg 16 going to do in Altenberg next week? (We are so amused by the nickname that one of us has made buttons that say “I was one of the Altenberg 16. Look for merchandising links soon -- no, just kidding.) The agenda is to discuss the current status of evolutionary theory, with a particular emphasis on developments -- some of them under intense debate -- that have occurred since the last version of it has been in put in place back in the 1930s and ‘40s. See, current evolutionary theory is not “Darwinism,” pace creationists and IDers. Darwinism refers to the original ideas published by Chuck in The Origin of Species (look for many celebrations of it next year, its 150th anniversary), that organic diversity is due to a process of common descent largely influenced by natural selection. But scientific theories never stay the same for long, because scientists discover new facts about the natural world, and they consequently update their theories. No physicist today would refer to Newton’s Principia as the physical theory of motion and gravity.
In the 1930s and ‘40s it became clear that one had to integrate the original Darwinism with the new disciplines of Mendelian and statistical genetics. Such integration occurred through a series of meetings where scientists discussed the status of evolutionary theory, and through the publication of a number of books by people like Theodosius Dobzhansky, Ernst Mayr, George Gaylor Simpson, George Ledyard Stebbins and others. The result was an updated theoretical framework known as the Modern Synthesis (MS). But of course evolutionary biology has further progressed during the last eight decades (unlike, one cannot help but notice, creationism). So for a few years now several evolutionary biologists have suggested that it may be time for another update, call it evolutionary theory 3.0 or, as many of us have begun to refer to it, the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES).
A number of authors, including Stephen Gould, Mary Jane West-Eberhard, Eva Jablonka, Stuart Kauffman, Stuart Newman, the above mentioned Gerd Müller, and myself, have published papers and books recently attempting to articulate what an EES might look like, and which elements of the MS will need to be retained, modified or discarded (just like the MS had retained, modified or discarded individual components of the original Darwinism). The goal of the Altenberg workshop is to get some of these people around the same table for three days and trade ideas about these sorts of questions (while also enjoying some excellent Austrian Riesling, of course).
What exactly is it that the MS does not incorporate and may require an Extended Synthesis? Ah, this brings us back to why creationists, IDers and others who have been writing about this over the past few months are either misunderstanding the issue or (surely in the case of the Discovery Institute) are deliberately distorting it to serve their inane agenda.
The basic idea is that there have been some interesting empirical discoveries, as well as the articulation of some new concepts, subsequently to the Modern Synthesis, that one needs to explicitly integrate with the standard ideas about natural selection, common descent, population genetics and statistical genetics (nowadays known as evolutionary quantitative genetics). Some of these empirical discoveries include (but are not limited to) the existence of molecular buffering systems (like the so-called “heat shock response”) that may act as “capacitors” (i.e., facilitators) of bursts of phenotypic evolution, and the increasing evidence of the role of epigenetic (i.e., non-genetic) inheritance systems (this has nothing to do with Lamarckism, by the way). Some of the new concepts that have arisen since the MS include (but again are not limited to) the idea of “evolvability” (that different lineages have different propensities to evolve novel structures or functions), complexity theory (which opens the possibility of natural sources of organic complexity other than natural selection), and “accommodation” (a developmental process that may facilitate the coordinated appearance of complex traits in short evolutionary periods).
Now, did you see anything in the above that suggests that evolution is “a theory in crisis”? Did I say anything about intelligent designers, or the rejection of Darwinism, or any of the other nonsense that has filled the various uninformed and sometimes downright ridiculous commentaries that have appeared on the web about the Altenberg meeting? Didn’t think so. If next week’s workshop succeeds, what we will achieve is taking one more step in an ongoing discussion among scientists about how our theories account for biological phenomena, and how the discovery of new phenomena is to be matched by the elaboration of new theoretical constructs. This is how science works, folks, not a sign of “crisis.”
I’ll tell you what does constitute a crisis, though: the fact that creationists have been on the retreat ever since the Scopes trial, having to invent increasingly vacuous versions of their attacks on science education in order to keep pestering the Courts of this country with their demands that religious nonsense be taught side by side with solid science. You want serious disagreement? How about several orders of magnitude difference in the estimate of the age of the earth among creationists: some of them still cling to the primitive idea that our planet is only a few thousand years old, their only “evidence” a circular argument from authority -- that’s two logical fallacies at once! (The Bible says so; how do you know the Bible is right? Because it’s the word of God; how do you know it’s the word of God? The Bible says so...) Other creationists, particularly many in the ID movement, concede that the science of geology and physics is a bit too well established to throw it out of the window, so they accept the figure of about four billion years for the age of the earth. Now, if any scientific theory were to make statements that varied by six (I repeat: six!) orders of magnitude about a basic aspect of reality, that would really mean that the theory in question is in deep trouble. C’mon, guys, fix your own house first, then start knocking at our door if you must.
Oh, by the way, here is the complete list of the Altenberg 16, together with the topics about which they will be talking at the workshop (in alphabetical order): John Beatty (University of British Columbia) on neutral evolution; Werner Callebaut (University of Hasselt) on the non-centrality of genes as causal factors in evolution; Sergey Gavrilets (University of Tennessee) on the idea of adaptive landscapes; Eva Jablonka (Tel Aviv University) on epigenetic inheritance systems; David Jablonski (University of Chicago) on macroevolution; Marc Kirschner (Harvard University) on systems biology; Alan Love (University of Minnesota) on the philosophy of evolutionary theory; Gerd Müller (KLI) and phenotypic innovation; Stuart Newman (New York Medical College) on complexity theory; John Odling-Smee (Oxford University) on niche construction theory in ecology; Massimo Pigliucci (Stony Brook University) on the role of phenotypic plasticity in macroevolution; Michael Purugganan (New York University) on evolutionary genomics; Eors Szathmary (Collegium of Budapest) on major evolutionary transitions; Gunter Wagner (Yale University) on the concept of evolvability; David Sloan Wilson (Binghamton University) on the idea of group selection; and Greg Wray (Duke University) on gene regulation networks. It ought to be almost as much fun as the just-finished European soccer tournament (which also took place in Austria)...
See you in a couple of weeks!