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From a Confidential Informant, Notes on Day 2 of the Royal Society Meeting

Paul E. Griffiths.jpg

This week’s Royal Society meeting in London on “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology” has now concluded. An ID scientist in the audience offered his notes on Day 2. Note his succinct running commentary. Very helpful.

Following a brief introduction by Denis Noble, the first talk was by James Shapiro about natural genetic engineering (read-write genome innovations). Most interesting finding: Non-coding DNA elements correlate with organismal complexity (distinct cell types) and are not functionless junk.

Comment by Russell Lande: A large part of your list was well known since a long time and poses no threat to neo-Darwinism.

Shapiro mentions in response that he once asked Francisco Ayala at the centennial of Darwin’s death about transposable elements and Ayala considered them as unimportant.

My personal impression: None of the phenomena mentioned by Shapiro — such as symbiogenesis, endosymbiosis, hybridization, horizontal gene transfer, genome doubling, and mobile DNA elements — explains the origin of new complex information, but insead only represent reshuffling of pre-existing information.

The second talk was by Paul Griffiths about the paradox of biological information.

He suggests a simple and operational concept of biological information, but WITHOUT any analogy to communication or meaning or intentionality! Based on Crick’s sequence hypothesis (specificity), he considers biological information as the precise determination of sequence (like Morse Code). Information is a way to talk about fine-grained causal control. Transfer of information is moving of causal specificity (as properties of objects) between molecules or cells.

He explained the limits of genetic causes and concluded that epigenetic information cannot be reduced to genetic information.

He considers previous concepts of biological information as not operational, especially if they refer to the history of the system rather than its physical state.

My comment: This was a very fundamental talk and his concept of biological information that combines reduction of alternatives with causal efficacy could prove to be useful for ID-related research, even though we would of course dispute the exclusion of intentionality.

Third was a talk of Eva Jablonka about epigenetic inheritance. The Modern Synthesis downplayed plasticity, group selection, etc., and explicitly excluded “soft” inheritance.

Karl Popper already recognized this mistake in one of his last lectures and anticipated core elements of the Extended Synthesis. We now know that phenomena like epigenetic inheritance are ubiquitous.

Unfortunately, Jablonka’s talk suffered from the fact that she ran out of time. Only in the Q&A could she briefly address the crucial question of the relevance of epigenetic inheritance for macroevolution, which she defines as any evolution beyond the species level. It was not clear if this would help with major innovations.

The fourth talk was by Greg Hurst on holobionts (hosts with their microbial biome) as units of selection. The talk was interesting and had some funny points. (Hurst talked about apologizing for your microbiome when passing gas because we cannot produce methane ourselves, or talked right before lunch break about anal licking behavior for the transfer of microbes from mother to offspring.)

My comment: Completely irrelevant for the crucial problem of the origin of new complex and specific information.

The fifth talk was by Denis Noble about evolution from the viewpoint of other scientific disciplines.

He contrasted the reductive approach of the 20th century with the integrative approach of the 21st century. His main point was that organisms can harness stochasticity to generate functionality so that evolution can be directional. Noble emphasized that he has no quarrel with the Modern Synthesis, but that we simply know so much more now.

Comment by Russell Lande: This was long known since even before the Modern Synthesis, etc., etc., etc.

Response by Noble: No, it implies an integrative view. This is a CONCEPTUAL change caused by an accumulation of various new evidences.

Question by a computer scientist: Random changes cannot improve a suboptimal program, but will inevitably degrade it.

Response by Noble: This would be true if there were not three layers of error correction that reduce the error rate to one per copied genome.

My comment: This explains why random mutations do not quickly decay the genome, but it does not explain how they can create new information and function.

Sixth was a talk by Andy Gardner about anthropomorphism in evolutionary biology, finally mentioning intelligent design. He made the surprising statement that William Paley was one of the clearest writers on what adaptation is. It is not perfection or optimality, but contrivance for purpose, and relation of parts for the same purpose.

He claims that Darwin confronted the problem of apparent design and provided explanations while Paley did not. Gardner made the strange argument that from an ID perspective, gazelles should be designed to run towards cheetahs, and then presented a ridiculous slide in which he misrepresented ID as “God did it.”

Mainly based on works of Brian Charlesworth and Patrick Moran, Gardner claimed that population geneticists generally dislike the notion of adaptation in terms of fitness maximization (Russell Lande unsurprisingly disagreed strongly in the subsequent discussion).

The seventh talk was by Patrick Bateson about adaptability and evolution, mainly focusing on the related phenomena of the Baldwin effect (which Bateson prefers to call “adaptability driver”) and genetic assimilation. He quotes West-Eberhard’s dictum that “genes are followers, not leaders, in evolution.” In his conclusion he emphasized that we have to watch carefully our use of metaphors, as “natural selection is not an agent.” And he claimed that adaptability is important in generating evolutionary change, but he offered no explanation for the origin of complexity.

The talks were followed by a panel discussion with Cartwright, Futuyma, Uller, Feldman, and Gardner.

Cartwright gave a brief introduction and mentioned that she always thought that Darwinian evolution is a viable research program, and wondered, “Do we have a viable evolutionary research program here?”

Sonia Sultan remarked: There should be room for different ways of seeing without ditching one paradigm for the other, because this leads to asking different questions.

Eva Jablonka asked Futuyma: What would you consider a major extension and not just cosmetics, but NOT God?

Futuyma responded: There was a comfortable assimilation of new ideas (into the modern synthesis). Really new would be a mechanism for adaptation that is not based on selection. This would be really surprising.

My conclusion: All elements of the Extended Synthesis fail to offer adequate explanations for the crucial explanatory deficits of the Modern Synthesis (aka neo-Darwinism) that were explicitly highlighted in the first talk of the meeting by Gerd Müller: phenotypic complexity and phenotypic novelty.

As ever we feel the need to keep most identities secret due to concerns about career retaliation. More to come, including photos and final reflections on the event.

Photo: Professor Paul E. Griffiths; the slide behind him acknowledges funding by the Templeton Foundation, as was the case with other speakers.

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