“Evolution is too important to leave to evolutionary biologists.”
-Ray Noble MD
“I don’t consider my ideas controversial. I consider them right.”
In London from 7-9 November 2016 I witnessed a groundbreaking summit at the British Royal Society. 300 scientists from around the world gathered to evaluate a sea change in evolutionary theory.
When recalled at the end of the 21st century, this gathering may prove as pivotal as the US election that occurred at the same time.
No one can say for sure until December 31, 2099 whether this meeting was that influential. But in a few minutes I’ll explain why I predict it was.
I’ll also explain why Charles Darwin himself – a thoughtful, tentative, ever-questioning man who eschewed dogma – would likely be horrified at Neo-Darwinism, the mutant progeny of his own theory, that emerged in the 1940s and held sway for 70 years.
Mr. Darwin would surely be relieved that someone finally shouldered the task of restoring experimental science to its rightful place. Such is the aim of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis.
Can evolution’s woes be solved with stitches and Novocaine, or does it need full anesthesia and a heart transplant?
When James Shapiro released his landmark book Evolution: A View from the 21st Century, you couldn’t help but wonder if he would actually get away with it.
Could an active scientist publicly announce that the Neo-Darwinian emperor has no clothes, and not get fitted with a pair of cement shoes?
Would his career at the University of Chicago be over?
Shapiro did not bring a knife to a gunfight. He brought a machine gun – and a bulletproof vest packed with munitions.
Backed by 1100 references and a sterling track record, including close association with Nobel Prize winner Barbara McClintock and his own discovery that bacteria engineer their own DNA, his book made it clear:
It’s time to turn evolutionary theory upside down and inside out.
Shapiro was arguing neither for creationism nor for Intelligent Design. Rather, he was arguing that Natural Genetic Engineering, and indeed the cell itself, are the stars of the evolution show.
Not Natural Selection.
His book was praised by Nobel Prize winners Sidney Altman and Werner Arber. The legendary Carl Woese called it “the best book on basic modern biology I have ever seen.” In the press it got mixed reviews. It was ignored by several of the major science outlets; however it was not dismissed. It made waves in the evolution community.
But perhaps most telling of all was the review by Larry Moran for the National Center for Science Education, a.k.a. the “Darwin Lobby” of the United States.
Moran panned it. And – believe it or not – Moran actually admitted in print that he skipped reading major portions of the book.
This signaled both Moran’s shoddy scholarship and NCSE’s true commitment. Not to science, but to scientism, reductionism, and tired 70-year-old dogma.
Despite scorn from Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, there is no counter-argument. Experiments by Lynn Margulis, Eva Jablonka, David Prescott and Mae-Won Ho definitively prove: Not only do cells perform adaptations of astonishing sophistication in real time, these events are emphatically non-random.*
Evolution has goals. Organisms have goals. And they actively evolve to achieve them.
This demolishes creationist / ID arguments that macro-evolution is impossible. It’s not only possible, you can witness it in real time. Including complete speciation events in microbes and plants and animals. Building and re-building of entire systems.
Empirical data also demolishes the Neo-Darwinian doctrine that evolution is an aimless meander through random space.
Many times, radical innovations commence inside a single cell or organism, leaving Natural Selection little or no immediate role. Such was the case with Barbara McClintock’s surprise discovery of transposition: a single plant, faced with chromosome damage, repaired its DNA in real time and went on to reproduce.**
Discoveries of this type were the focus of the Royal Society’s “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology” conference. But as the old-school Neo-Darwinists hastened to point out, none of these are new. Much of this has been known for 10, 30, 50 years and more.
What was new at the world’s oldest scientific society was the fact that 1) A public quorum of 300 scientists acknowledged the centrality of these discoveries to evolution, and 2) there was no longer any room to downplay, discourage or demean these findings. All are legit.
This meeting had no mainstream precedent. Such a conference would NEVER have happened five years ago. It would have been too politically incorrect, too threatening to the Neo-Darwinian monopoly.
Eva Jablonka commented to me that findings flow from too many sources to deny. It isn’t just evolutionary biology. Nutrition, exercise, cancer treatments and gene therapies are all forcing this sea change.
Until November 7-9, though, Evolutionary theory was caught in the strangle hold of traditional evolutionary theorists. They have insisted for decades that chance and selection are the central driving forces of evolution.
Jerry Coyne has propounded for years that “natural selection is the only game in town” and that evolutionary mutations are “willy nilly.” As for Shapiro and McClintock’s work, he says, “Move along folks, nothing more to see here.”
Luminaries like Lynn Margulis were red-headed stepchildren for decades. Margulis proved evolution is far more cooperative than competitive. That high-speed merger-acquisitions are pivotal events in evolution history.
She received scant funding and dismissal by the male-dominated good ol’ boys club. Her seminal paper on symbiogenesis was rejected by 15 journals.
Upon her death, Jerry Coyne hurled scorn upon the woman who had declared his tribe of Neo-Darwinists to be “a minor twentieth-century religious sect within the sprawling religious persuasion of Anglo-Saxon Biology.”
“Neo-Darwinism has taken the life out of biology,” she lamented.
The Royal Society meeting commenced with nervous anticipation. In attendance, a number of highly regarded old-school Neo-Darwinists like Douglas Futuyma, author of a major undergrad evolution textbook, and Russell Lande.
Also present, Fellows of the Royal Society and the British Academy. Members of the Third Way of Evolution movement; along with representatives from a spectrum of fields from physics to zoology. As well as technologists, authors and journalists.
The audience was wonderfully interdisciplinary. I sat next to two economists who told me, “We were debating these exact same issues in economics 20 years ago.” In saying this, they were saying evolutionary biology had come to the party at least 20 years late.
Delegates arrived with one of two concerns:
1) Neo-Darwinism is going to get overturned, or
2) Neo-Darwinism is not going to get overturned.
Incumbents were anxious that the conference might pronounce that evolutionary theory is due for a complete overhaul. Rivals worried that the Society might smear new lipstick on the same old pig, continuing to plead “natural selection” as the be-all end-all of everything.
The tension in the room was palpable, sharpened by the history of this topic being fraught with politics, bitter feuds and bad blood.
There was considerable opposition to the meeting itself from the old guard. Rumor has it that influencers tried to either cancel the meeting altogether or strictly limit attendance. But the organizers prevailed.
The entire first day of the conference, the feeling was that of a funnel cloud trying to form but uncertain where to land. “Where is this thing going?”***
But like a band finding its groove on the second song, the rhythm snapped in place on day two with James Shapiro’s opening talk “Biological action in Read-Write genome evolution.” Paul Griffiths followed, exploring information cause-effect in biology.
Eva Jablonka reported learned trait inheritance via epigenetics; after lunch, Denis Noble, the luminary who figured out the cardiac rhythm 50 years ago making pacemakers possible, executed a line drive with “Evolution viewed from medicine and physiology.”
No definitive pronouncement was made as to whether the Modern Synthesis can still be extended, or must be rubbished entirely. But this question is firmly on the table. The cat, as they say, is out of the bag.
There were two particularly memorable exchanges.****
University of St. Andrews scientist David Shuker challenged Denis Noble, who had described an experiment where scientists deleted flagella genes from bacteria.
These cells had re-generated their flagella genes in just four days and grown new tails. A mind-bending example of real-time, high-speed evolution.
“Clearly natural selection can rapidly steer regulatory networks. This is a beautiful example of high speed Neo-Darwinian evolution,” Shuker argued.
Shuker, like Jerry Coyne, was towing the standard Neo-Darwinian line, which insists that in the end, all comes down to “selection, selection, selection.”
Shuker somehow imagined that “selection” is re-wiring those genes. I don’t know how selection re-wires genes in four days. Selection after all is just survival of the fittest; “selection” doesn’t provide us a single detail about how those genes got rewired.
But in the Neo-Darwinian view, for any cell to evolve purposefully is unthinkable. So of course “natural selection” always ends up being the answer.
Noble shot back. Shuker tried to interrupt but Noble held his ground:
“No, YOU need to listen. I used to think exactly like you. I embraced the reductionist mindset for years. When I got out of school I was a card-carrying reductionist. Reductionism is powerful and it’s useful. I am not dissing it. Many times we need it. But it is not the whole story.”
Noble described how bacterial regulatory networks rebuilt those genes in four days by hyper-mutating, actively searching for a solution that would give them tails and enable them to find food. “Natural selection did not achieve that. Natural genetic engineering did.”
Noble continued: “I did not arrive at this conclusion from any one piece of data. It took many years, papers and experiments for me to come around to this perspective. But slowly I came to a different view.
“It’s not a question of the data. Everybody agrees on the data. It’s about your point of view. I have a view that you do not. This enables me to see things that you cannot see.”
Noble did not waver. “Biology is not just bottom-up. It is also top-down. There is no privileged point of causation in biology. The gene doesn’t hold some special causal role. There are feedback loops from every system to every other system. It’s hierarchical. It’s systems all the way down.”
Five years ago, such “heresy” would not be tolerated in a mainstream science conference. Much of this research has been reported in journals outside of standard evolutionary biology, like physics and medicine, because the evolution journals wouldn’t hear of it.
Few doctors or physiologists hold to traditional Neo-Darwinian theory anymore. And while no one can deny Shuker his right to frame the data from within his particular worldview, no longer can the active role of organisms in their own evolution be denied.
The other heated exchange was between Russell Lande and Sonia Sultan. The subject was real-time plasticity of plants.
Plants in low-light environments produce offspring with large, light-sensitive leaves, but identical plants in high-light environments birth offspring with small leaves. This is a learned trait that is directly passed to offspring. It transpires in a single generation. It’s so dramatic, the second generations appear to be different species.
Again, this bypasses selection altogether. The plants are empowering their offspring to anticipate natural selection.
“There is nothing new here! We have known this for years,” Lande complained, citing work from the 1950’s by Ledyard Stebbins. But Sonia Sultan graciously challenged him. She read aloud from one of Stebbins’ books, where he goes on to say that we should pay no attention to this, as it has no bearing on genetics or evolution.
“It pains me to read Stebbins,” she said, “because 70 years ago he observed the exact same things we’re discussing today. Yet not only did he consider them unimportant, he told the rest of us we should ignore them when thinking about evolution!”
This was the crux of the meeting: for most of a century evolutionary biology has ignored the profound sensitivity and responsiveness of organisms in real time. Lamarck was right 200 years ago… despite literally being laughed out of the academy for most of the 20th century.
Today he is vindicated: Learned characteristics are passed to offspring. Evolution proceeds very rapidly in some cases.
Darwin accepted Lamarck’s ideas. He acknowledged that other forces besides selection must surely be in play. One realizes that Charles Darwin’s Origin Of Species is more accurate in its initial version of evolution than the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis. An inferior model has ruled biology with an iron fist ever since.
This is all the more ironic because in contrast to the certitudes of those who transformed Neo-Darwinism into a kind of pop religion, Darwin acknowledged the soft spots in his theory. He was unafraid to question his own assumptions.
Noble’s point was that, because of Systems Biology, all medical and biological disciplines have vital things to say to evolution. Evolutionary biology can no longer afford to shield its turf from outsiders. Outsiders more than ever are called for, in the self-correcting enterprise of science.
In another exchange, Fellow of the Royal Society Patrick Bateson of Cambridge replied to a questioner in no uncertain terms: “Natural Selection is not an agent.”
(Translation: Blind Watchmaker must be stripped down to the engine blocks and rebuilt from the ground up.)
Neo-Darwinists permit no place for purposeful adaptations in their materialist view. But now reductionism for the first time has been formally challenged. The toothpaste is out of the tube and it is not going back. There will be many more meetings like this. This was only the first.
A less obvious triumph of this meeting was that it was civil. Yes, I heard stories of harsh exchanges backstage; there were occasional outbursts of partisan clapping from the audience. From time to time, the meeting took on dimensions of a pep rally.
However the organizers actively discouraged all divisive behavior, and in the end it was very British: polite, civil, diplomatic. A bloodless revolution.
Evolution going forward will not follow in the footsteps of its mannerless evangelists like Dawkins and Coyne. Conduct will be gentlemanly and respectful from now on.
It was a privilege to be present at this historic summit. Compared to the fury of the US election, this courteous British conference might seem a minor academic exercise, noted by only a few.
But seen from the wider view of the entire 21st century, it was a watershed event.
Why? Because the trajectory of science itself just tilted 15 degrees. Scientism and reductionism have been punched in the face. Empiricism is making a comeback.
Looking across the remaining years of the 21st century, the impact is difficult to estimate. But it will be great.
“An era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted”
*Margulis & Sagan, Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species, and Jablonka & Lamb, Evolution in Four Dimensions, are serious books providing detailed accounts of well-documented evolutionary processes (symbiogenesis, epigenetic inheritance and genetic assimiliation) that fall outside the neo-Darwinist conventional wisdom. I credit Denis Noble and Eva Jablonka for emphasizing the importance of Lamarck’s contribution. It was the very first extended description of evolution as the basis for biological diversity.
**A single maize plant, faced with irreparable cycles of chromosome breakage, was finally able to repair its DNA in real time and reproduce normally by a damage response process that involved activating previously silent agents of chromosome restructuring in its genome.
***On the first day, John Dupre introduced the important idea of evolution as “process” rather than a series of discrete accidents. This came up in the final panel when a “process ontology” was proposed as an intellectual basis for analyzing evolution.
****I have recounted these conversations from memory. They are not word for word but hopefully reflect the intended meaning. Corrections or suggestions are welcome. Amendments will be made as recordings become available.