Don’t let anyone tell you the evolutionary paradigm isn’t in serious turmoil. Science Magazine announces an $8.7 million project by the Templeton Foundation seeking an “evolution rethink.” I’m trying to think of the last time I heard Science reporting on support for a “gravity rethink,” or a “heliocentrism rethink.” The gist of it:
For many evolutionary biologists, nothing gets their dander up faster than proposing that evolution is anything other than the process of natural selection, acting on random mutations. Suggestions that something is missing from that picture — for example, that evolution is somehow directed or that genetic changes can’t fully explain it — play into the hands of creationists, who leap on them as evidence against evolution itself.
Oh, those dreaded “creationists” and evolution deniers. They mean us.
No wonder some evolutionary biologists are uneasy with an $8.7 million grant to U.K., Swedish, and U.S. researchers for experimental and theoretical work intended to put a revisionist view of evolution, the so-called extended evolutionary synthesis, on a sounder footing. Using a variety of plants, animals, and microbes, the researchers will study the possibility that organisms can influence their own evolution and that inheritance can take place through routes other than the genetic material.
Whatever the outcome, the news has yanked Jerry Coyne’s chain. He complains in the article:
Evolutionary biologists shouldn’t accept its money, says Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, who has been a persistent critic of the foundation for linking science and religion. “It really slants the way science is done,” he told Science.
Some prominent evolutionary biologists have pushed back against this seeming rebellion. “It’s a mixture of old ideas that aren’t novel and reasonable ideas that haven’t been shown to be of any importance,” Coyne says. He and others insist that evolutionary bio- logy has already incorporated some of these ideas or is in the process of doing so — meaning no “extension” is necessary.
The scope is impressive — “49 researchers from different fields and … 22 interconnected projects across eight institutions.” Coyne’s dyspeptic reaction gives you an idea of what a huge deal this is.
Oh, so you want to dismiss Templeton because its perspective isn’t rigidly materialist enough? Fine, meanwhile this coming November, the Royal Society plans a conference on “New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives.” Despite the subdued title — reflecting British understatement, perhaps — this is more big news, a gathering of major mainstream voices from the world of biology and other fields to hash out the merits of the call for a Third Way for evolution — not classic Darwinism, not intelligent design, but something…else:
Scientific discussion meeting organised in partnership with the British Academy by Professor Denis Noble CBE FMedSci FRS, Professor Nancy Cartwright, Sir Patrick Bateson FRS, Professor John Dupré and Professor Kevin Laland.
Developments in evolutionary biology and adjacent fields have produced calls for revision of the standard theory of evolution, although the issues involved remain hotly contested. This meeting will present these developments and arguments in a form that will encourage cross-disciplinary discussion and, in particular, involve the humanities and social sciences in order to provide further analytical perspectives and explore the social and philosophical implications.
When it comes to “hotly contesting” the “standard theory of evolution,” the timing couldn’t be better. This coming Monday we’ll have the opportunity to celebrate two significant anniversaries — that of the description of the structure of the DNA molecule by Watson and Crick (they published on April 25, 1953) and the fiftieth anniversary of the Wistar Institute conference on “Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution.”
Note the conference’s title. It wasn’t about “rejecting” or “denying” evolution but searching for a justified interpretation of the agreed scientific evidence. The Philadelphia meeting, spurred on by MIT’s Murray Eden and planting a seed for what would become the modern ID movement, which offers its own positive interpretation, convened on April 25-26, 1966.
If you’ll forgive a morbid metaphor, Wistar was like the ominous spot first seen on the X-ray of a vital organ — the beginning of the end for unguided Darwinian processes as the sole, satisfactory explanation of how complex biological features evolve.
ID, obviously, is one source of the current challenge to Darwinism, but it’s only one source. You could erase ID advocates entirely from the battle map, and Darwinian theory would still be under siege. Evolution’s smug cultists are in denial about that, but it’s true.
Image: Siege of Lisbon, by Alfredo Roque Gameiro [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.