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Starting to Explain the Mysterious “Altenberg 16” (Updated)

Casey Luskin

Update: Since this article was first published in 2008, Susan Mazur’s articles, which are referenced below, have been removed from the internet. For ENV readers who would still like to see her writings, the best option is to pick up a copy of Mazur’s book The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry, available on Amazon. Mazur’s book contains most of the same information and material cited from her articles below.

Recently, Rob Crowther reported on the “Altenberg 16” conference that was planned for Altenberg, Austria. Sixteen leading leading evolutionary scientists — who do not support intelligent design but do have doubts about Darwinism — were to re-evaluate the core claims of neo-Darwinism.

The conference apparently did happen, as scheduled — last week. We still don’t have any report on what took place, but that the topic definitely will continue to prove interesting.

In advance of the conference, one participant, Massimo Pigliucci, tried to downplay the importance, asserting that there is “not a sign of ‘crisis'” at this conference over neo-Darwinian evolution:

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.”

Of course no one here has been claiming that any Altenberg attendees support intelligent design (ID). But while the conference participants may not have been talking about ID as an alternative to neo-Darwinism (many of them prefer models of evolution driven by “self-organization” — models that have their own problems), Pigliucci’s comment sure sounds like damage control. In fact, according to Suzan Mazur, a journalist experienced in covering evolution who was invited to report on the conference, there is patently politically-motivated damage control taking place. As Mazur shows, the National Center for Science and Education (NCSE) — the Darwinist education lobby — opposed this scientific conference for political reasons. Self-organizational models are rife with potent critiques of neo-Darwinian models of evolution, so they don’t like them:

I decided to ask [NCSE Executive Director Eugenie Scott] some questions since I’d interviewed her colleague [NCSE President] Kevin Padian about the “evolution debate”, and he’d hung up on me. …
…When I introduced myself to Eugenie Scott, who was unfamiliar with my stories on evolution, I asked her what she thought about self-organization and why self-organization was not represented in the books NCSE was promoting?

She responded that people confuse self-organization with Intelligent Design and that is why NCSE has not been supportive.

Pigliucci claims there’s “no crisis” here, but Kevin Padian is hanging up on people and Eugenie Scott claims people will confuse the arguments of conference-attendees with intelligent design.

But what is most interesting is not just Pigliucci’s failed attempt at damage control, but the NCSE’s knee-jerk reaction against anything that isn’t neo-Darwinian. It seems that the NCSE was indeed quite worried that this conference will do damage to neo-Darwinism. At the very least, this exchange exposes the NCSE’s intolerant attitude towards non-Darwinian thoughts, even when the doubters don’t support ID. Indeed, Mazur’s reports reveal that various scientists and academics she has interviewed during her reporting about the conference have fundamental doubts about neo-Darwinism, but they are eschewed by the scientific community.

According to Mazur, there are “hundreds of other evolutionary scientists (non-Creationists) who contend that natural selection is politics, not science, and that we are in a quagmire because of staggering commercial investment in a Darwinian industry built on an inadequate theory.” (emphasis added) One of those scientists is evolutionary biologist Stanley Salthe, who Mazur reports “can’t get published”:

Stanley Salthe, a natural philosopher at Binghamton University with a PhD in zoology — who says he can’t get published in the mainstream media with his views — largely agrees with Lewontin. But Salthe goes further. He told me the following: “Oh sure natural selection’s been demonstrated . . . the interesting point, however, is that it has rarely if ever been demonstrated to have anything to do with evolution in the sense of long-term changes in populations. . . . Summing up we can see that the import of the Darwinian theory of evolution is just unexplainable caprice from top to bottom. What evolves is just what happened to happen.”

Mazur goes on to recount how Salthe was ignored when he doubted one of the favorite ad hoc rationalizations of Darwinists for data that doesn’t fit with common descent–“convergent evolution”:

But Salthe says you can’t dismiss the censorship going on in the evo debate. He recently sent me his correspondence with the Neo-Darwinian journal TREE (Trends in Ecology and Evolution) in which he asked them to publish his letter arguing to “save the phenomenon of convergent evolution even if it seems inconvenient” to the Darwinian perspective on organic evolution. Salthe was responding to an article TREE published suggesting the concept of convergent evolution be eliminated based on a totally genetic analysis. TREE refused to publish Salthe’s letter.

Salthe has doubts about the “Darwinian theory of evolution,” especially its ad hoc and arbitrary appeals to “convergent evolution,” but he’s ignored. If there is no “crisis” over neo-Darwinism, it’s only because Darwinists are refusing to let well-qualified dissenters publish their views.

According to Mazur, the same thing happened to chemist and engineer Stuart Pivar: “Stuart Pivar has been investigating self-organization in living forms but thinks natural selection is irrelevant — and has paid the price for this on the blogosphere.” Once again, Mazur reveals that Darwinists are commonly intolerant towards people who doubt Darwin:

Pivar’s also a keen observer of some of the conflicts of interest tainting science. He accuses the National Academy of Sciences of excluding other approaches to evolution but natural selection in their recent book Science, Education and Creationism.

Mazur also reports that Rutgers philosopher Jerry Fodor, “essentially argues that biologists increasingly see the central story of Darwin as wrong in a way that can’t be repaired.” Mazur recounts that Michael Ruse condemned Fodor for even printing such thoughts in a mainstream publication — not because of the empirical data, but because of politics: In Ruse’s words, “to write a piece slagging off natural selection in that way, is to give a piece of candy to the creationists.” Apparently Ruse would suggest that scientists banish from their minds–and certainly from their pens–any real doubts about the sufficiency of natural selection, for purely political reasons.

Mazur further expounds upon the unwillingness of many Darwinian scientists to entertain these views that are critical of neo-Darwinism:

When I called Fodor to discuss the article, he joked that he was now in the Witness Protection Program because he’d been so besieged following the LRB piece. But we met for coffee anyway, on Darwin’s birthday, as frothy snowflakes floated to ground around Lincoln Center. After a cappuccino or two, Fodor summed things up saying we’ve got to build a new theory and “all I’m wanted to argue is that whatever the story turns out to be, it’s not going to be the selectionist story”. Fodor also told me that “you can’t put this stuff in the press because it’s an attack on the theory of natural selection” and besides “99.99% of the population have no idea what the theory of natural selection is”.

These all sound like familiar sorts of stories. Perhaps the fundamental premise of Expelled — that scientists and academics who doubt Darwin face discrimination, or outright dismissal — was right after all.

Revisiting Pigliucci’s Damage Control
So why would Pigliucci make the unbelievable claim that there is “not a sign of ‘crisis'” over neo-Darwinism expected at the Altenberg conference? Is it perhaps because he is inextricably wedded to a particular naturalistic view of origins? A few years ago he collaborated on a letter to the National Association of Biology Teachers proclaiming:

Science is based on a fundamental assumption: that the world can be explained by recurring only to natural, mechanistic forces. … this is a philosophical position. … The NABT leaves open the possibility that evolution is in fact supervised in a personal manner. This is a prospect that every evolutionary biologist should vigorously and positively deny.

Well, Pigliucci is certainly doing a good job of “vigorously and positively deny[ing]” any challenges to neo-Darwinianism. So at least he’s consistent. But in the end, one thing is clear: there are fundamental doubts about neo-Darwinism in the minds of many scientists and philosophers, and some leading Darwinists desperately wish that those doubts did not exist.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



Altenberg 16