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Nature Admits Scientists Suppress Criticisms of Neo-Darwinism to Avoid Lending Support to Intelligent Design

If you think that intelligent design isn’t making an impact on evolutionary science, think again. The latest issue of Nature has a point-counterpoint on the question “Does evolutionary theory need a rethink?” Answering “Yes, urgently” are Kevin Laland (professor of behavioral and evolutionary biology at the University of St. Andrews), Tobias Uller, Marc Feldman, Kim Sterelny, Gerd B. Müller, Armin Moczek, Eva Jablonka, and John Odling-Smee — some of whom were members of the infamous “Altenberg 16.” In that context, they began to conceive of what they call the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (“EES”). That is essentially a new evolutionary synthesis that rejects some of the core tenets of neo-Darwinism (like the views that natural selection is the dominant force guiding evolution, or that there is a “tree of life”). Their article contains a stunningly forthright admission: some scientists avoid making criticisms of neo-Darwinian evolution lest they give the appearance of supporting ID:

The number of biologists calling for change in how evolution is conceptualized is growing rapidly. Strong support comes from allied disciplines, particularly developmental biology, but also genomics, epigenetics, ecology and social science. We contend that evolutionary biology needs revision if it is to benefit fully from these other disciplines. The data supporting our position gets stronger every day.
Yet the mere mention of the EES often evokes an emotional, even hostile, reaction among evolutionary biologists. Too often, vital discussions descend into acrimony, with accusations of muddle or misrepresentation. Perhaps haunted by the spectre of intelligent design, evolutionary biologists wish to show a united front to those hostile to science. Some might fear that they will receive less funding and recognition if outsiders — such as physiologists or developmental biologists — flood into their field.

(Kevin Laland, Tobias Uller, Marc Feldman, Kim Sterelny, Gerd B. Müller, Armin Moczek, Eva Jablonka, and John Odling-Smee, “Does evolutionary theory need a rethink? Yes, urgently,” Nature, Vol. 514:161-164 (October 9, 2014) (emphasis added).)

We’ve seen these sorts of admissions before (see here for a short discussion). Should we be encouraged by these scientists’ words? Or disgusted?

On the one hand, it’s pretty disturbing to hear that biologists would self-censor their views simply because they don’t like the perceived alternative — which they label as being “hostile to science.” This shows that the field of evolutionary biology is in an incredibly unhealthy state. Dogmatism on evolution is hindering scientific advancement. If evolutionary biologists censor themselves, imagine what they do to other scientists who step out of line and refuse to join the “united front”? The answer is before your very eyes in this article: They marginalize dissenters by calling them “hostile to science.”

On the other hand, it’s encouraging to hear an admission that many biologists recognize the neo-Darwinian synthesis has failed to explain the data. While many of these biologists still seek alternative materialistic conceptions of evolution, and reject intelligent design, many of the criticisms they are making are similar to those made by ID proponents. For example, Laland et al. go on to write:

[S]tandard evolutionary theory (SET) largely retains the same assumptions as the original modern synthesis, which continues to channel how people think about evolution.

The story that SET tells is simple: new variation arises through random genetic mutation; inheritance occurs through DNA; and natural selection is the sole cause of adaptation, the process by which organisms become well-suited to their environments. In this view, the complexity of biological development — the changes that occur as an organism grows and ages — are of secondary, even minor, importance.

In our view, this ‘gene-centric’ focus fails to capture the full gamut of processes that direct evolution. Missing pieces include how physical development influences the generation of variation (developmental bias); how the environment directly shapes organisms’ traits (plasticity); how organisms modify environments (niche construction); and how organisms transmit more than genes across generations (extra-genetic inheritance). For SET, these phenomena are just outcomes of evolution. For the EES, they are also causes.

ID proponents have been saying many of the same things — that post-ENCODE, the notion of the gene has changed radically, and the math that underlies population genetics of SET may no longer hold.

ID proponents also point out that the finding of rampant convergent evolution in biology flies in the face of the predictions of neo-Darwinism, which claims that evolution is based upon random, unguided variation. Likewise, Laland et al. point out that “variation is not random.”

Now Laland et al. themselves hold back from acknowledging some of the more serious criticisms that many evolutionary biologists are also making — that evolutionary biology lacks a theory of the generative. But we’ve seen these kinds of admissions from other proponents of the EES. For example, when Nature covered the “Altenberg 16” conference in 2008, it quoted leading scientists saying things like:

  • “[T]he origin of wings and the invasion of the land . . . are things that evolutionary theory has told us little about.”
  • “You can’t deny the force of selection in genetic evolution . . . but in my view this is stabilizing and fine-tuning forms that originate due to other processes.”
  • “The modern synthesis is remarkably good at modeling the survival of the fittest, but not good at modeling the arrival of the fittest.”
    (Scott Gilbert, Stuart Newman, and Graham Budd quoted in John Whitfield, “Biological theory: Postmodern evolution?” Nature, 455: 281-284 (September 17, 2008).)

It would have been nice to read such serious admissions in Laland et al.’s article, but that might have lent credence to intelligent design. Better to self-censor, right?

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, 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.



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