The Royal Society’s Evolution Meeting: James MacAllister / Why Neo-Darwinism was the Biggest Mistake in the History of Science

James MacAllister, curator of the Lynn Margulis archive at the University of Massachussetts Amherst. He wrote a thorough review of the London 2016 evolution conference at the Royal Society.

James MacAllister is the volunteer archivist for the Lynn Margulis archive at the University of Massachussetts-Amherst.

Jim runs, the Environmental Evolution website. Lynn Margulis was the champion of Symbiogenesis theory.

She fought tremendous opposition from Neo-Darwinists to get the theory accepted. Today she is widely regarded as one of the greatest evolutionary biologists of all time.

I met Jim at the Royal Society evolution meeting in London, and in a very brief conversation discovered much in common. Jim runs, the Environmental Evolution blog.

He wrote a fantastic synopsis of the Royal Society meeting. I encourage you to read his entire report. Meanwhile, some highlights:

“The Modern Synthesis, while undoubtedly productive for a time, is a misconception of reality that has reached the limits of its explanatory power. The problems are fundamental. No amount of cosmetic surgery is going correct them.”

“Most of these ‘new trends’ are not new nor are they trends. They have been known and studied quite apart from neo-Darwinism for a long time. Symbiosis and symbiogenesis, for example, have been investigated for over a century while being dismissed and discouraged by proponents of the Modern Synthesis.” 

“Awareness or mentions of these processes by neo-Darwinists fall far short of serious investigation. It is true that these processes have been bolstered or confirmed by evidence from molecular biology, but that evidence generally contradicted the view of the Modern Synthesis. The Modern Synthesis is no longer synonymous with evolutionary biology, molecular biology, or any of the multiple disciplines currently contributing to our understanding of evolution.”

“Martin Brasier, the late Oxford paleontologist, defined science not as the revelation of underlying simplicity, laws or ideals, but as “a unique system for the measurement of doubt.”  This is a helpful conception because it explains why science must be skeptical, but also measured in its skepticism. It avoids the temptation of certainty and leaves the mind open to surprise. Science measures. It compares tests to controls. Experiments and analyses are designed to minimize bias and expose logical fallacies. Results must be reproducible. Science questions unquestioned assumptions. Its theories must be predictive. It does not ignore anomalies, but acknowledges and investigates them.” 

[Jokingly] “Now, through the of magic of we-have-long-known-about-this, symbiogenesis is claimed to be part and parcel of the Modern Synthesis.” (Referring to the Neo-Darwinists who were at the conference saying ’Awww, we’ve known about this stuff for decades!” Well it was the exact same research they’d been downplaying, not funding, denigrating and sidelining for 50 years, which can no longer be ignored.)

 “There is also the current HBO series West World where the character of Dr. Robert Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins) explains to his assistant Bernard (played by Jeffrey Wright) that “evolution forged all of sentient life on this planet using only one tool, the mistake.””

“The Modern Synthesis toolbox holds only one tool: the mistake, the blind random mutation. The organism is acted upon by the environmental elimination process: natural selection. No mention of new trends.

“Let’s not forget that Darwin himself had a better selection of tools in his On the Origin of Species toolbox.  Now we are presented with a toolbox that holds many tools. Some vintage ones, such as symbiogenesis. And long recognized ones, such as horizontal gene transfer, that couldn’t be swept under the rug. But wait there’s more: interspecific hybridization, whole genome duplications, the movement of mobile genetic elements (natural genetic engineering), plasticity, and niche construction. Magically, we are told that all these fit in the The Selfish Gene toolbox. What ever happened to that little toolbox that only held one tool, the mistake?”

John Hands has reported on the meeting in the BBC online Science Focus. During the first Round Table audience discussion, Hands introduced himself as the author of Cosmosapiens: Human Evolution from the Origin of the Universe (outstanding book by the way) and made the following comments.

“It’s appropriate that this meeting is being held at the Royal Society, whose motto, we were reminded yesterday, is “Nullius in verba”: Accept nothing on authority.  The current paradigm in evolutionary biology, NeoDarwinism, also called the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis, has been the authority for some 65 years.  It is, of course, a mathematical model based on several unquestioned assumptions, whose proof was given by 1940s game theory borrowed from economics.

“What we have heard over the last 2 days is empirical evidence that new species arise rapidly, from such mechanisms as symbiogenesis, horizontal DNA transfer, hybridisation, whole genome duplication, interactive systems producing novel emergent properties, and other mechanisms described in Part 2 of my book. These mechanisms contradict the fundamental tenets of neo-Darwinism, namely:

  1. Random gene mutations provide phenotypical characteristics enabling successful Darwinian competition;
  1. These random gene mutations spread through a population’s gene pool by sexual reproduction;
  1. Darwinian gradualism leads to the genetic transformation of populations of individual species members over tens of thousands of generations;
  1. Information flows one-way from a gene to a protein in a cell. Not one whit of empirical evidence shows that new species arise from the neo-Darwinian mechanism.
[Note that John Hands’ remarks above, issued during Q&A at the very end of the 3-day meeting, were the most complete definition of Neo-Darwinism ever offered at the London conference. The Neo-Darwinists avoided using any definition at all, as it would be damning to their cause.] Hands continues:

“To the contrary, Darwinian competition causes not the evolution of species but the destruction of species.  It is collaboration in its various forms that causes biological evolution. Hence I’m surprised by calls for extending the neo-Darwinian Evolutionary Synthesis. You can’t extend something that is broken. Surely what is needed now, after 65 years, is using the empirical evidence to develop a new paradigm for biological evolution.” 

Read Jim MacAllister’s entire report on the London evolution conference here.

To subscribe to Jim’s Environmental Evolution newsletter, send an email to jmacallister {at} with the word “subscribe” in the subject field and please include your name and email address in the body.

Environmental Evolution, the first Big Earth History and Earth systems science course, was taught by Lynn Margulis at UMass from 1986-2010. Margulis was also the principle collaborator with James Lovelock on the Gaia hypothesis, the proposal that the entire earth can be understood as a single macro-organism.

21 Responses

  1. Olavi Vaher says:

    There are two main theories of evolution. Darwinism claims that species evolved with thousands of years. Neo-Darwinism claims that species evolved with millions of years.

  2. John Graham says:

    Poor E. coli has been mutated by every agent know to man and has not ever producing a new species that is reproductively viable .

    • You should search this site for experiments successfully producing symbiogenesis events through cellular mergers.

      • Tom Mikkelson says:

        If by symbiogenesis you mean that a symbiotic relationship was made between two species that’s fine but still, no new viable species was produced. I believe that was John’s point.

        • Algae + eukaryotic cell = plant cell. Totally new species.

          • Scott Hatfield says:

            Perry, I don’t know how to break this to you, but horizontal gene transfer is neither terribly novel these days or incompatible with natural selection. McClintock and Margulis have been in high school bio texts for at least 15 years, and the mechanisms they propose merely introduce another source of variation for the action of natural selection. In the broadest sense, evolution is simply an interaction between the genome and the environment, and other genomes are part of that environment. Hint: what continually trips you up and prevents you from conceptualizing things properly isn’t evolutionary biology, but a set of assumptions about how information is created in the first place.

      • Tom Mikkelson says:

        Perry, I’ve started reading your book and you really seem to give cells the ability to think. You mentioned bacteria and horizontal transfer as if that is now the key to evolution and it’s ability to evolve to man. Yet with all this horizontal transfer bacteria remain bacteria. Seems you’ve just come up with a new can to kick down the road.

    • John Graham says:

      Look at the track record of mutation in fruit flies and tell me that these mistakes changed a mammal into a blue whale in 40 million yrs?

  3. Ralph says:

    Volunteer Archivist is the new PhD I am told

  4. Patrick Nobil says:

    Tell that to the capitalists who have successfully used social Darwinism to keep the working class enslaved. They ‘re not going to abandon a good thing. Especially now, when the republicans have abandoned science. Hell, we can’t even accept something as obvious as global warming, or free medical care. So what makes you this ‘revelation’ will make a difference to the body politic?

  5. Luke says:

    How do you respond to Dr John Sanford’s work on “Genetic Entropy?” Just curious.

  6. john macleod says:

    what you have is committed atheists stitching together another Theory/myth to keep the faith going.

  7. Allan says:

    Humans are addicted to committing to a belief system. We are hard wired to make sense of a world exhibiting both consensus and conflict. Darwinism is being revealed as mythology and an athiest religion. Not Darwins fault as much as the ‘scientists ‘ that followed. The same has happened to every religion, belief system and discipline. We have no recourse but to continue the race after truth. The god of science has been exposed in the case of Darwinism. The emporer needs some clothes.

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