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The Road to the Royal Society: The Problems That Matter, the Problems That Don’t

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Starting next Monday, November 7, the Royal Society (RS) will convene a three-day meeting at its London headquarters that has the potential to rival — for historical significance — the (in)famous 1980 Field Museum gathering on macroevolution, or the 1966 Wistar symposium on mathematical challenges to the neo-Darwinian interpretation of evolution. Structured to include open-ended roundtable discussions, the RS meeting is premised on the view that current textbook evolutionary theory falls far short of what it needs to explain, and that mechanisms and processes outside its customary purview require careful attention.

Like Sherlock Holmes’s dog that did not bark in the night, however, the RS meeting is noteworthy for those speakers who were not invited. We do not mean the obvious heretics or ID bad guys, such as Mike Behe, Doug Axe, or Steve Meyer. Their absence from the program is entirely predictable, if one understands that the paradigm actually controlling the boundaries of admissible scientific dissent is not neo-Darwinian evolution, or a scientific theory at all, but the underlying philosophy of materialism or naturalism.

No, the noteworthy uninvited scientists look on casual inspection to be completely respectable, even highly distinguished. Cambridge University paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, for instance, or University of Zurich evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner, both of whom have written extensively about how neo-Darwinian theory requires revision, are conspicuously absent from the program. Here is a speculation as to why.

Even One Part Per Billion of Teleology is One Part Too Much

Let’s start with Wagner. Over the past decade, Wagner has challenged the sufficiency of neo-Darwinian theory, mainly on the grounds that random or undirected changes to any complex functional system are far likelier to end up lost in enormous non-functional regions than they are to land on the very much smaller neighborhoods where novel function or structure occur. In 2011, Wagner wrote:

…we know few of the principles that explain the ability of living things to innovate through a combination of natural selection and random genetic change. Random change by itself is not sufficient, because it does not necessarily bring forth beneficial phenotypes. For example, random change might not be suitable to improve most man-made, technological systems. Similarly, natural selection alone is not sufficient: As the geneticist Hugo de Vries already noted in 1905, ‘natural selection may explain the survival of the fittest, but it cannot explain the arrival of the fittest.'”

This criticism of the neo-Darwinian premise of random change should be familiar: one finds the objection featured prominently, for example, in the arguments of the 1966 Wistar participants, not to mention the writings of ID theorists since the early 1980s. Functional complexity and randomness stand fundamentally at odds with each other. If you doubt this, ask yourself if you would like to fly on a passenger jet that had undergone, let’s say, one dozen unknown random changes to its flight control system. (“But hey, we’re going to take off anyway!” said the demented pilot over the intercom cheerfully, as everyone made for the exits.)

What is probably less familiar is Wagner’s solution to the problem of randomness. Probabilistically favored paths, he argues, must exist through sequence and function space, to enable evolutionary processes to move from one novel island to another within the time available — and those paths must have been built into the universe from the start. As Wagner writes at the conclusion of his 2014 book, The Arrival of the Fittest, “life’s creativity draws from a source that is older than life, and perhaps older than time.”

Bzzzzzzz! No Royal Society invitation for you, Andreas. Sounds like Platonism, right? And indeed it is, of a sort, anyway, as Wagner readily acknowledges. But if a universal library of Platonic forms enabled biological evolution to succeed, the materialist premise underlying neo-Darwinism must be wrong. ID skeptic and philosophical materialist Massimo Pigliucci can see where ideas of this coloring might be headed: danger, danger, Will Robinson. (He explains this week in “The Neo-Platonic Argument for Evolution Couldn’t Be More Wrong.”) Teleology is lurking behind those forms.

Teleology detectors also start buzzing loudly when the ideas of Simon Conway Morris come into view. Over the past 15 years, Conway Morris has contended that the “radical historical contingency” premise of neo-Darwinism — namely, that the existence of Homo sapiens is the unexpected, unpredictable, or strictly one-off outcome of inherently random events — is false. Rather, evolution was channeled from the start, and a species very much like Homo sapiens, if not H. sapiens itself, was destined to appear in the universe. You are not an accident of the cosmos.

Bzzzzzzz! Teleology jess don’t sit right with us folks. No RS invite for Simon.

Philosophical Materialism and Its Invitation List

All joking aside, no one — least of all, the troublemakers themselves — really expects ID troublemakers to be invited to speak at major evolution meetings. If that happened with any regularity, or even occasionally, no one would be reading this site, because the intelligent design debate would be (1) pretty much over, (2) never started in the first place, or (3) entirely different in its nature.

But neither Andreas Wagner nor Simon Conway Morris advocates ID; in fact, both are opposed to the idea. Yet even the subtle teleology of their theories is too strong a flavor for the Royal Society. (Let me say I would love to be wrong about this speculation: it would be delightful to learn that Wagner and Conway Morris were invited by the Royal Society to speak, and couldn’t make it, or declined the invitation.) Wagner’s and Conway Morris’s teleology would have been too strong a flavor for Darwin himself, in fact. “If I were convinced that I required such [teleological] additions to the theory of natural selection,” Darwin wrote to Lyell in 1859, “I would reject it as rubbish.”

But what if it’s true — namely, that teleology, or genuine purpose, is required to explain living things? Then materialism must give way to evidence. That is a problem that matters. Ultimately, the Royal Society, or anyone who wishes truly to understand the universe, must focus on the problems that matter. The ones that don’t will take care of themselves.

Photo: Royal Society, entrance, Carlton House Terrace, London, by Tom Morris (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.