An Evolutionary Signpost is Needed – Guest Post by James MacAllister

The joint meeting of the Royal Society and the British Academy of Science, New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives was a rematch of sorts.

The two sides had already exchanged views in a 2014 Nature Comment, “Does evolutionary theory need a rethink? Researchers are divided over what processes should be considered fundamental.”

The Nature Comment had been set up as point and counterpoint. Kevin Laland and colleagues, Tobias Uller, Marc Feldman, Kim Sterelny, Gerd B. Müller, Armin Moczek, Eva Jablonka argued the point, “Yes, urgently. Without an extended evolutionary framework, the theory neglects key processes.

Gregory A. Wray, Hopi E. Hoekstra, Douglas J. Futuyma, Richard E. Lenski, Trudy F. C. Mackay, Dolph Schluter, Joan E. Strassmann argued the counterpoint, “No, all is well. Theory [Modern Synthesis] accommodates evidence through relentless synthesis.

I had attended the joint meeting of the Royal Society and British Academy (RA-BA) before NASA researcher, Lynn Rothschild, brought the Nature Comment to my attention.

What struck me about both the meeting and the Comment was the fact that the proponents of a “constantly synthesizing” version of the Modern Synthesis had failed to present a statement of their theory. This was not a minor detail, but such a glaring omission. I wondered how the editors of Nature had allowed what was going to be debated to remain completely undefined.

Similarly, the organizers of the RA-BA meeting had tried unsuccessfully to pin down Douglas Futuyma and colleagues at the joint meeting to state their theory. Opponents of the Modern Synthesis had pointed out that research had disproved or provided only scant supporting evidence for most of its rules and assumptions.

But Futuyma and colleagues had remained mum, choosing not to defend (and thus define) a theory they claimed had long recognized and incorporated all of the processes described as “new trends”. So the theory being debated remained vague, all-encompassing and “constantly synthesizing”.

I wrote the following email to Gregory A. Wray and Hopi E. Hoekstra on February 25, 2017:

Dear Professors Wray and Hoekstra,
Lynn Rothschild from NASA just brought your 2014 Nature counterpoint to my attention.  I noted that Douglas Futuyma is acknowledged at the end of your counterpoint.  I was in attendance at the Royal Society meeting on New Trends in Evolution this past November and Prof. Futuyma made pretty much the same case at that meeting.

In both your counterpoint and in Douglas Futuyma’s presentation at the Royal Society there is the same glaring omission: there is no definition of the “theory” that you claim has been relentlessly synthesized for 60 years.  The statement of the Modern Synthesis as it was originally formulated and even definitions following the discovery of molecular structure of DNA are relatively easy to find and most of us would agree on definitions, but you and Douglas Futuyma are championing a theory that is far from those formulations, yet precisely how this new Modern Synthesis would be stated is missing.

Could you provide such a definition?

Sincerely,
James MacAllister

On March 27, 2017, I received this reply from Greg Wray:

Dear James,
Thanks for your note.

In the 2014 Nature piece, our use of the word “theory” was not intended to be specific but rather to refer to the body of theories, formalisms, models, and hypotheses that are in active discussion by the community of evolutionary biologists. It isn’t “a” theory, but rather an amalgam of ideas, some of which are tightly integrated and some of which are not, some of which are derivatives of the Modern Synthesis and some of which are not. As such, there is no way (or need) to define what that theory is.

I can’t speak directly for Doug or Hopi, but I’m not interested in championing any specific theory. The best way to support a theory is not to publish opinion pieces but to gather evidence that it provides predictive power. The point of the Nature piece was not to argue for a specific theory but rather to make the point that evolutionary biology as a discipline is (contrary to some claims) intellectually healthy and indeed, this is an exceptionally fertile, exciting, and fast-moving time for the field.

Best,
Greg

While Greg Wray was speaking only for himself, his admission that “our use of the word ‘theory’ was not intended to be specific” [emphasis added] is quite astounding given that one of the questions considered highly controversial surrounding the joint RS-BA meeting was whether or not a new paradigm under a new name should replace the Modern Synthesis.

The opposing views were represented by Laland and colleagues arguing for a new paradigm, a new name, and new theory (or theories), and Futuyma and colleagues were arguing that no new “evolutionary theory” is necessary.

But Wray’s email is an admission that the Modern Synthesis has been given up. Of course, there are a “body of theories, formalisms, models, and hypotheses that are in active discussion… some of which are tightly integrated and some of which are not, some of which are derivatives of the Modern Synthesis and some of which are not.”

But these are easily defined and described. They are not a theory—they are contemporary evolutionary biology, which is not synonymous with neo-Darwinism. And as the RS-BA meeting demonstrated, there is general agreement on the viable parts of our knowledge that are derived from parts of the Modern Synthesis and on the “new trends” discussed at the meeting.

The only thing being disputed is whether a new name and theory should replace the insufficient Modern Synthesis (aka neo-Darwinism).

Can an “amalgam” be considered a scientific theory when in Wray’s words, “there is no way (or need) to define”—science is definition, description and measurement. There is absolutely a need to define.

No one arguing against the Modern Synthesis is suggesting that every idea that could be characterized as being “derived from the Modern Synthesis”, should be thrown out like “the baby with the bath water”.

The only task now is deciding what new name and new explanation will replace what remains of the Modern Synthesis (neo-Darwinism) and the obviously more important “new trends” that reflect our current understanding of evolution. 

I use the word obvious because of the exceedingly long odds against random mutation being the explanation for something like the human genome. Denis Noble has done the calculation of the possible interactions between 2500 protein-encoding genes: 10^70,000. There are estimated to only be 10^80 atoms in the universe!

I have noticed that biology seems to collect anachronistic, misleading, or confusing terminology. Working biologists are quick to point out that to insiders like themselves, this arcanery is no problem. It’s the price of admission into the discipline, the metaphorical secret handshake.

The problem is that even veteran biologists and medical researchers trip over these traps. My mentor, Lynn Margulis, who was always teaching, and keenly aware of student confusion over such terms, wanted biology to make sense. She spent her career cleaning up biology, giving it a modern taxonomic order and arguing to correct errant ideas and terminology. Time has proven most of her points valid.

Being proven wrong, when you have set yourselves up as the authority is a tough pill to swallow, whether you’re the Vatican or the journals Science and Nature. It’s the whistleblower that is most often punished.

Biology, as a discipline, pays lip service to improved communication with its students and the public, but seldom practices what it preaches. Scientists who communicate with the public are viewed with both jealously and resentment.

Biology’s penchant for the abstruse provides some cover for what is a political decision to use the word “theory” — not as it is used in science — but without specificity.

The motivation for this subterfuge seems more likely to do with maintaining status, power and position, saving-face, or delaying the obsolescence of best-selling textbooks than any logical explanation.

A very strong argument can be made that neo-Darwinism and the Modern Synthesis have long been scientism, a quasi-religious belief system, exclusive in its ideas and married to its rules and “certainties”. Like the treatment meted out by most hardline dogmas, its heretics have been harshly treated.

One can look to Barbara McClintock and Lynn Margulis as examples, but there are plenty of others. There can be little doubt that evolutionary biology, dominated by neo-Darwinists for the past 70 years, has set evolutionary studies back by many decades with its ruthless authoritarianism.

It promoted wrong ideas, a cosmology based on blind chance with the sole purpose being the endowing polymer molecules with vitalism.

In truth, neo-Darwinism has encouraged doubt in science and provided ample reasons for serious scientists, Creationists, Intelligent Designer proponents to become uncomfortable bedfellows when it comes to those unmentionables: design and purpose.

The problem with the continued use of the term “neo-Darwinism” and the promotion of an admittedly outmoded and insufficient Modern Synthetic theory is that it misinforms scientists from other disciplines, students and the general public. How can anyone march in support of this kind of scientism?

The cynical view of Creationist and Intelligent Design advocates have for the neo-Darwinist view is not delusion, but clear-sighted observation of a scantily clad emperor still strutting the corridors of science.

Examples of misinformation about the exclusivity of “genes for” are easy to find in science reporting in the press, on the radio or on television.

I want to point out three examples from pop culture that have continued to misinform the public: the 2014 remake of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson; the 2016 HBO science fiction series Westworld; and the current PBS series Genius with Stephen Hawking, specifically the episode, What Are We? It is still the simplistic “survival of the fittest” view that is  our culture’s currency and at a fundamental level misinforms both our actions and our inaction for how to live on and in this world.

In the remake of the Cosmos series, Tyson, an astrophysicist, reads a script describing DNA and evolution that is the same in virtually every detail as the story Sagan presented in the 1980 series.

There is no mention of Wray and Hoekstra’s “constantly synthesizing” theory or any of the “new trends” presented at the joint Royal Society and British Academy meeting. The biggest difference between the two programs is that Sagan is still in the 16th-century with an animal/ plant taxonomy where bacteria are “plants”.

It isn’t until 2 years later that Lynn Margulis and Karlene V. Schwartz articulate the 20th-century five-kingdom system of classifying life on Earth—animals, plants, fungi, protoctists and bacteria (prokaryotes)—in their book, Five Kingdoms.

HBO’s 2016 miniseries Westworld series is a remake of Michael Crichton’s 1973 film by the same name reset with an entirely new story, but the same old Modern Synthetic description of evolution. The mad genius who builds the cyborgs for the Westworld amusement park is Dr. Robert Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins). He tells his assistant, Bernard (played by Jeffrey Wright) that he is the product of a trillion mistakes. “Evolution forged the entirety of sentient life on this planet using only one tool: the mistake.”

Again this is the Modern Synthesis with its singular tool: random mutation—the mistake. Okay, it’s only a couple of lines in a miniseries, but it’s the same old, and largely wrong story.

Lately, I have been watching the PBS series Genius starring Stephen Hawking. The promo states, ”Professor Stephen Hawking challenges a selection of volunteers to think like the greatest geniuses in history and solve some of humanity’s most enduring questions.”  

The thinking is actually a lot more spoon-fed than promised.  The series episode “What Are We?” asks some big questions, such as what is life and how did we get here. But what does it provide as answers?

I was a medical and science television writer and director for 30 years before going back to university and earning my graduate degree in geography. I am bothered when the power of television to educate does the opposite. Having been mentored in graduate school by Lynn Margulis in am keenly aware of the need for precision in communicating science.

I am particularly sensitive to the misuse of science terminology, to certainty, to science politics masquerading as science, or when arguments are based in authority, not facts. As someone that had to wrestle with tight budgets, I’m particularly annoyed when big budgets fail to deliver.

In the What Are We? episode of Genius, three “ordinary people” are given a series of “fun challenges”. This makes the program a bit too much like a reality game show, à la Survivor, where there are games, but little or no real survival skills on display. Genius is part of a series exploring big scientific ideas, so there is a need to translate unfamiliar or complex material into plain English and informative demonstrations. However, the material is not just simplified, but oversimplified with many details simply omitted.

Unfortunately, the devil (understanding) is in the details.

There is a clever demonstration representing the self-assembly of molecules, but a teachable moment on the role of Brownian motion escapes. Everything that cannot be seen with the naked eye is “microscopic” without any further explanation of the differing scales of eukaryotes, bacteria, subcellular, molecular, or subatomic particles.

Like the Modern Synthesis evolution is all about DNA and everything else just happens once the “code” is read. We go from the assembly of molecules to the Miller-Urey experiment producing amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, to a demonstration of the exponential growth of bioluminescent bacteria in a vat full of food.

I appreciate the engaging visuals and the demonstration of how life incorporates non-living resources to grow and reproduce, but jumping from amino acids to the bacterial cell is a leap too far without a bridge. A science story needs to be told without gaps.

The episode “What Are We?” does make the important point that life is a process and not a thing, but it doesn’t emphasize the point. Consequently, all of the 17th-century Cartesian description of processes as “machines” tends to return processes to the status of things.

The program makes other poor word choices. Organisms are “creatures” which is more than a bit inappropriate for a science program making the point that organisms self-organize and evolve, and are not creations of a Creator. The Earth is a “ball of rock” on which life simply rides through space, similar to Buckminster Fuller’s tortured metaphor, Spaceship Earth.

Only in a neo-Darwinist reductionist view of evolution are organisms separate from the evolution of the crust and oceans of Earth. Any Earth systems approach has Earth and life tightly coupled and reciprocal.

Molecules are little machines. Proteins are little machines. One participant offers, “I’m made up of little machines.” Really? Not really. Another states, “We have all these random processes going on inside us.”  It’s an astonishingly nonsensical statement for a science program because it simply cannot be true if life sustains itself. It cannot all be random.

Heaven forbid that there be any hint, much less mention, of design or purpose in the no-frills Modern Synthetic view that Stephen is selling. There is nothing about new trends, biological relativity, natural genetic engineering and no hint of Wray’s “body of theories, formalisms, models, and hypotheses”.

The program’s demonstration of life as a process is reduced to another machine, a Rube Goldberg contraption limited to singular track of linear cause and effect. It’s fun to watch. The three participants find it difficult to reset to keep it cycling, but there are no cybernetic controls, no feedback loops, no harnessing of stochasticity, no multiplicity of systems interacting, no discussion of scales or levels of organization, no discussion of life sensing and reacting to couple with the environment to maintain homeostasis and autopoesis, no hint of “new trends” or Wray’s amalgam of ideas.

We are told only that life can go on as long as “there is no disaster.”

To demonstrate the Modern Synthetic story of evolution as random mutation, two of the participants are isolated. They model random shapes into some quick setting plastic. The third participant launches the various shapes in a small catapult mounted on the top of a tower. He is trying to hit a large target down range.

Completely random shapes have differing performance. At the end of round one, the 4 objects that landed closest to the target are used as models for a new round of modeling objects. The new objects are based on the winning four shapes. The round ends with the isolated third participant launching all the new objects with the catapult. Again the four objects closest to the target are used as the models for the next round of launches. And so on.

In short, it’s somewhat random changes in phenotype subjected to a selection pressure (being one of the 4 closest to the center of the target) with iterations until you hit the bullseye—us.

What is the answer to the questions, What Are We? or what is life?

“Life is a process inside a wonderful machine.”

This is Stephen Hawking’s answer.

Really. Seriously.

Without a new name, a signpost if you will, that alerts those from other disciplines, students and the general public, there will continue to be this kind of dangerous misinformation being disseminated. I say dangerous because the old story is used as a justification for every thing from greed and “free markets” to libertarianism and racism.

There is a new alternative story in evolution. The knowledge derived using the old paradigm is kept and the new processes are incorporated, but the rest that has proven insufficient becomes science history.

Some of this 21st-century view of evolution may be Wray’s amalgam, some of it is epigenetics, symbiogenesis, hybridization, whole genome duplication, natural genetic engineering, plasticity, niche construction, community ecology, and some is various takes on culture, extinction and species radiation.

The debate goes to Laland and colleagues by default. Yes, a new paradigm and evolutionary theory is needed urgently. As I have shown, without an extended evolutionary framework, key processes will continue to be neglected and the insufficiency of the Modern Synthesis will continue to misinform.

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